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Songwriters Tour Guide: Touring Part 3 of 6
Plus Song Contests
By Erik Balkey, Performing Songwriter
(more articles from this author)
2005-11-15
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In this issue...

· Tales from out there: Song Contests
· "What Would You Do"
· March Itinerary
· Touring, Part 3 of 6: Research - Finding the places to perform

Tales from out there: Song Contests

Sitting in a living room listening to song after song, shuffling CDs, one after another into my mini boom box. Hanging out with a half dozen other songwriters in a basement. Cups of coffee, empty pizza boxes, hours of music listening on a Tuesday night. This is the scene as I administer a listening session of a songwriting competition that I organize.

I've got volunteer judges to help me judge entries from over a hundred songwriters covering over twenty states. I love it -- I don't judge, maybe that's why. I observe, I listen, I learn. The judges are here after work, after fighting traffic, at the end of a long day. My job is to try and keep them listening and interested through the first chorus at a minimum.

Some songs get over two minutes listen, if they are good. Others don't get much attention because they don't make a strong first impression. But, I try to insist on giving everything a fair listen. We go through 10-15 entries in an hour, and I feed the judges pizza, soda, and coffee to try and keep them alert and interested for up to three hours.

Through this experience, I get to listen to some of the best songs written by the best writers in the country. Since I travel and meet many of these songwriters throughout the year, I often know many of the songwriters that I hear in the listening sessions. It's very interesting to hear them in this setting, and to see if my initial feeling about their songwriting is the same as the reaction the material gets for this panel of 'judges.' I learn a lot about what keeps people's attention. And, I see just what grabs people under this kind of scrutiny.

You can bet that the setting I describe above is typical for contests: volunteers squeezing out a few extra hours in their schedule between job, relationship, parenting, and general daily obligations. Think about it and consider the judges. You've got a short amount of time to impress them, and you've got to stand out from hours’ worth of listening to songs.

Some thoughts on what you enter into a song contest:

· Enter a good recording. This does NOT mean produced. A simple clean recording that has audible and clear lyrics is all that the best songs need. Don't make the judges put in effort to overcome a poor recording to hear your lyrics.

· Be lyrically tight. Remember, in contests that they will be listening closely to lyrics. So, besides making sure the lyrics are audible, be sure they are 'tight.' All good craft practices apply. Cut away any of the 'fat' and write concise and with essential details. The more you say with fewer words, the better. Easier said than done, to be sure, as that might just be the most important and elusive skill. Stick to the images, the facts, the proper nouns, the important adjectives. Be consistently compelling. One 'filler' (i.e. non essential) line and you lose your audience, it's just that simple.

· Get to the chorus/hook fast. I'm sure you've all heard this. Hooks, choruses, or at the very least the part B of our song should come soon after the song starts. Often, this occurs somewhere between 20 seconds and 40 seconds. The 1-minute mark of your song is too late to introduce your second musical part of the song.

· Consider a song with a conventional structure. Consider a song with an A (verse), B (chorus) AND C (bridge, pre-chorus, etc.). Clean, familiar structure works. At the very least have identifiable and discernable A and B parts that the listener can map out in their minds on the first listen. The key here is to be musically dynamic and have changes within a familiar structure.

Also, when speaking of competitions, I must express two thoughts. Consider the true validity of the results, and understand your personal goals with entering contests.

On the first point, the validity of results: Never put too much stock in the decision of judges, win or lose. It's my opinion that the hard working, actively writing, song craftsperson is much closer to an 'expert' than most judges at song contests. And, very often the "talent" is submitting to lesser-qualified evaluators to process. Keep that in mind.

Next, on the point of knowing your motivation for entering contest. It is important to know exactly 'why' you are entering contests. Is it for "fame?" To advance your career? For fun? To gain recognition? To validate your art? Personally, it is my goal to advance my career.

My career aim is to be a respected, entertaining, engaging performing songwriter with name recognition to support a touring schedule. Performing sells CDs, so I'd like to get the best performance opportunities possible. My experience as a once-in-a-while contest finalist is that I found a crack in some doors, enough that if I'm willing to travel and play for free, I can get an opening slot at some respected venues in front of an educated (aware of folk singer-songwriter music) audience. What is your goal?

Whatever you do, I'll add two simple suggestions for creating the best art you can, which is my ultimate goal. (1) Write a lot, and (2) 'field test' your material.

Write a lot. Improvement comes from persistence and being productive. Don't rest on that one good song you wrote. Write write write! Never settle for where you are. Ask yourself how you can be better. Consider your absolute favorite writers (John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell) and ask yourself if you are THAT good. Or ask yourself, are you as good as the headliners at festivals, or the best writer in your town, at your local open mic, or the feature at the fancy club? Set the bar high, and go for it.

And, finally, field test your work. Play your songs for peers, or in a critique workshop. Get editing help. And, perform your songs live and gauge the reaction. Warning: any feedback should be taken considering the source. But, when you get enough feedback, you can start to realize which songs really catch a listener. When you're done a show, what song are people asking questions like, "Is that one on your CD?"

What Would You Do

I wouldn't take a leap / I wouldn't jump right in
If the water was too cold you know / I wouldn't take a swim
I won't take off my clothes / not even on a dare
I've heard that, "When in Rome," but you know that we're not there
And, I could fall in love at the drop of a hat
But, I'll bet you twenty dollars I'd fall out just like that
What would you do? What could I say?
These chances few will go away

My eyes play tricks on me / move target from the goal
Of all these years of swing and miss / I'd know love's in the soul
But I could fall into a dream inside a strangers eyes
Five or fifteen times a day and never realize
The power of the words that I'm thinking of
If I could speak the way I feel to the people that I love
What would you do? What could I say?
These chances few will go away

I didn't act out on the street / to lend a caring hand
I'd do anything if I / could get another chance
What I'd see with open eyes, with these hands I could mend
What would I say with my voice, who do I think I am
The world won't stop / it's too damn big / one soul could never fix
With this heart big as it can be, I'll hold onto my wish
What would you do? What could I say?
These chances few will go away.

I heard a stranger on the road / careless mouth that I could not believe
I hear it everywhere I go / ugly words like litter on the street
Too many times I turn away / thinking about the things I should've said
With all the fences built today / from now I should speak what's in my head, instead

What would you do? What could I say?
These chances few will go away.

March Itinerary...

· Mon., Mar. 1: Mermaid Inn, Phila. PA - friendly open mic, Irish Pub, www.themermaidinn.net

· Tue., Mar. 2: the Point, Bryn Mawr PA - the hip open mic in town, www.atthepoint.com

· Thurs, Mar. 4: the Point, Bryn Mawr PA - opening for John Flynn

· Fri., Mar. 5: Vanilla Bean, Pomfret CT - open mic feature, well-attended, nice pay, www.vanillabeancafe.com.

· Sat., Mar. 6: Nameless C'house, Cambridge MA - host songwriter's night in the UU Church, www.namlesscoffeehouse.org

· Sun., Mar. 7: Cabin Concerts, Wayne NJ - opener for Pierce Pettis in a house concert, cancelled due to illness, www.cabinconcerts.com

...a nice week with a couple promotional open mic appearances and opener in Philly then making tracks to Boston.

· Mon., Mar. 9: the Space, Hamden CT - open mic feature, hip venue, great performance space, www.thespace.tk

· Fri., Mar. 12: Pine Needles, Marlborough CT - playing for tips in a coffeeshop, sold a couple CDs.

· Sat., Mar. 13: Spiritmouth Cafe, Succasunna NJ - church coffeehouse, 30 or so in audience, fair pay, http://redeemeronline.net/spiritmouth/

...hanging out in Connecticut, a week of co-writing, open mics and trip to NJ. · Wed., Mar. 17: Evening Muse, Charlotte NC - open for Girlyman, tough night midweek in a cafe on St. Patty's day

· Fri., Mar. 19: Evening Muse, Charlotte NC - open for the Kennedys, nice performance space, www.theeveningmuse.com.

· Sat., Mar. 20: House Concert, Raleigh NC - with Jonathan Byrd in a fan's living room.

· Sun., Mar. 21: Church performance, Raleigh NC - original songs of spirit, nice pay.

...a good weekend of work on a regular route I've created for myself in North Carolina.

· Tue., Mar. 23: Club Passim, Cambridge MA - well run open mic, legendary venue, www.clubpassim.com

· Wed., Mar. 24: Emack & Bolio's, Roslindale MA - open mic in a coffee/ice cream shop

· Sat., Mar. 27: Plowshares Coffeehouse, Phoenixville PA - hosting a songwriters competition finals, www.plowsharesmusic.org

· Sun., Mar. 28: Music Garden, Cherry Hill NJ - organizing a show and opening for Buddy Mondlock, www.themusicgarden.com

...hopping around Boston's crowded open mic scene, then back to NJ for a songwriter's gathering and a show that I produced for one of my writing heroes, Buddy Mondlock.

· Wed., Mar. 31: WDVR 89.7 FM, Sergeantville NJ - interview w/ Jen Ellsworth, www.wdvrfm.org

· Thu., Apr. 1: Anderson Fair, Houston TX - hosted by Ken Gaines, songwriters in the round, nice pay, nice venue, www.andersonfair.com

· Fri., Apr. 2: Uncle Calvin's, Dallas TX - opening for Tracy Grammer, great church venue, over 100 audience, www.unclecalvins.org

· Sun., Apr. 4: McHenry's, Fort Worth TX - shared show with Traci Merchant.

...my first weekend of performances in Texas! Love the Texas vibe, and wonderful people.

Touring, Part 3 of 6: Research - Finding the places to perform.

Here we talk about finding places to perform. We'll talk about how to start locally; strategies to start branching out; how to do your research; if and when it's time to seek a booker; and generally the work it takes. I got some generous input from Brian Gundersdorf of the trio We're About Nine from Baltimore (www.wa9.org) and Genevieve Barber who is the manager for the trio Girlyman from Brooklyn (www.girlyman.com). Both of these acts are great examples of the hard work and talent required of independent artists. These guys are good not only at the art of music, but at treading the uncharted paths of career performing artists.

So, you got the tunes and you're ready to spring 'em on the world. You start at the beginning, at the local coffeeshop in your town. Be creative to get your first place to perform. Try to get a regular gig. Brian Gundersdorf tells of how he started performing:

"Our first shows all happened at a tiny coffee shop called Jahva House, in Ellicott City, MD. (It started when) I booked a little gig in town, and put up flyers everywhere and absolutely nobody came. So I got strategic. I knew that what I needed wasn't just fans. I needed people who liked me as a person, who had similar artistic tastes to me, and I needed to put them in front of my songs often enough to get them hooked. Also, I need to have fun. Since that was the point. So I sought out a good place to run an open mic."

The first open mics at Jahva House were organized by Brian and that's where he met likeminded musicians, including Katie Graybeal and Pat Klink, who eventually joined Brian for the trio "We're About Nine."

It's this kind of creativity in finding a venue when you start that is important. It's this skill and knack for proactively making things happen that are part of successful performing careers. In particular, if the right venue for you doesn't exist in your town, and the top venues aren't willing to give you a gig, find and create a show.

Start an open mic in the local coffeeshop; get a friend to host a "house concert;" ask to perform at the local library or church; rent a room in the local arts community center; generally, ask around and keep an eye open for opportunities. And, in the process of 'creating' a space, you'd be well served to involve other people in making your initial projects happen. It's that 'help' you seek, and the involvement of others that can start a scene. Artists are an essential part of creating a scene. That's part of the job.

Brian talks about finding places to play, and mentions that immersion within your scene is a great way to find opportunities.

"There are a billion (venue) resources, but every act is different, and every resource has too much information. The right 'resources' will find you if you are out there on the scene. Definitely start with your town. Find the hot spots for your genre within an hour radius and go to all of them. Sit in the front row and be the most appreciative audience member there."

This 'showing your face' and being present in the scene makes invaluable contacts, but Brian also mentions a few magazines and on-line resources, too, including SingOut! Magazine, Singer Magazine, and Acoustic Live! in NY, which can provide information about specific venues, and also make a good and informative read.

The idea of using venue resources as a secondary strategy to actually getting out and being 'seen' is reiterated by Gen Barber (manager/booker for the trio Girlyman from Brooklyn), who cites the Musician's Atlas, Jambase, folk listservs, and simply using Google and punching in town name and folk music. Gen says, "Just being around the scene, too, tipped them off to many places. They went to various conferences (Folk Alliance). At times this was helpful."

If you perform songs, and find others doing the same, you will inevitably get the itch to perform more. You'll likely find a desire to 'take it on the road.' That's what happened with Girlyman. Gen says, "This was the only way (Girlyman) saw to help the band grow and make a living. They couldn't have done it on local gigs alone." But taking on the road isn't easy. "(Girlyman) had to accept playing for tips, poor sound systems, indifferent or nonexistent crowds. Once in a while they'd find a magic spot, a small club with a built-in audience. The booker would hear the band and support them. These are rare gems, but they are around the country."

Brian says, "(We're About Nine) took it 'on the road' as soon as someone offered us an out of town gig. It was a live radio appearance in Massachusetts. We drove a silly long distance from Baltimore to play there. But it was totally invigorating. When we went on our first real 'tour' (meaning we were gone for a week or so) I decided that I absolutely needed to do this with my life."

Both We're About Nine and Girlyman proved to have 'the goods,' but it took time and faith to make things start to happen on the road. For both trios, the Falcon Ridge Emerging Artist showcase proved a validation of their work as well as some good publicity specifically within the folk/songwriter world. They were voted 'Most Wanted' from that prestigious showcase in 2002. It should be noted that 'name' recognition and developing audience is the way in the door to the best venues. And, publicity and accolades from well-regarded festivals and contests is a good aid to making that happen.

Some thoughts on how to be proactive and venture to new territory:

Gen: "Sometimes (Girlyman) sought opening slots. This was most successful when they'd met an artist, for instance, at a folk festival. They formed relationships through the music first, then they'd seek out the agent or manager and try to hook something up. The alliances the band has formed with other musicians have been invaluable. They swap gigs, put each other up, share success stories and cautionary tales. This endeavor works best when there is a community."

Brian: "Mostly (We're About Nine) bopped around on the web and looked at where other similar artists were playing. I sent a lot of kits and phone calls and emails and occasionally something came through. The trick with this is to ask for a lot of gigs that are within your reach (starting with coffee shops and with opening spots for acts that do draw well), and then really push for one or two things a month that are just out of your league (maybe try and open for a national act who plays a similar style to you at a 75 seat venue). Then ease your way up. Shoot for one rung up. Then the next rung. Baby steps, with an occasional lucky leap."

Brian cautions: "It doesn't do any good to drive twenty hours to play a new town unless you think you'll be up for playing there again within a year. You're likely to lose money on that first trip. You'll plant seeds, but you won't water them. Everything dies and you wear yourself out."

When you find that venue on a peer's schedule. make a checklist of research you want to do before putting this venue on your target list. First, ask performers who played there before about their experience. And, develop a list of questions you want answered:

· Does the gig pay?

· Do they have a sound system?

· Does the venue host shows nightly, weekly, monthly?

· Is it a "performance" space?

· Does the venue have a "house" audience?

· Am I required to "draw?"

Find out who else has played there and ask them the questions. Or call the venue and ask. But, be sure you do your research. First, it can save you lots of time. Second, it makes you look more professional when you are educated before you approach a venue.

Now, you look at the booking duties and would love to hire a booking agent to do the work, wouldn't you? Of course, it'd be great to get someone with the expertise to do this work, But you have to remember that a booker takes a percentage of gig pay, typically (sometimes they ask for a flat fee). So, your ability to attract a booker to your act is based upon your 'bookability' and the demand for your act and, consequently, the prospect of negotiating some reasonable pay for your performance.

We're About Nine attracted the attention of Richard (formerly of DaVinci's notebook), who started booking acts recently. Finding the right relationship, and an interested booker, is the key. But, why was it time to look for a booker? Besides the headway that the band was making into getting better gigs, building an audience, and getting a foot in the door with more prominent venues, Brian says,

"All three of us work real hard, but for a long time I was doing almost all of the booking, all of the accounting, all of the graphic design, a lot of the songwriting and the more things I added to that list the more I was feeling like I wasn't getting better at any of them. I wanted to focus on other things, and the booking job was the biggest time-sucker. Also, it was exciting to move to the next level. The feeling of progress is part of what keeps people moving in this big pond. The more you move, the more likely you are to float, or at least keep your head above the water."

It is hard work to tour. Gen from Girlyman agrees: "Some trips were not profitable. They had to stay with friends, eat cheaply, scrounge wherever they could -- and still they lost money. For years the band members had day jobs. They've only recently quit to do music full time. It's hard to spread the music.

“For a long time the band did its own radio and press publicity. They'd contact local stations, send out press releases to papers, and hope for coverage. Sometimes they'd get lucky, maybe land a phone interview or studio appearance. In general, this has not been an easy road! Many things continue to be very hard.

“Ty, Nate and Doris have been doing music professionally for more than eight years. It's been a labor of love, sometimes more labor than love. I haven't been around for long, but most of the success stories I see in folk music are more like success novels -- things don't happen quickly. The musicians endure long hours on the road, building the mailing list one signature at a time, applying to festivals and showcases year after year, doing difficult open mics, living with very little money, having twenty people talk loudly throughout the gig and one person come up at the end to say they loved the music. It's kind of nuts sometimes. But, for right now, it's the only thing they want to do."

For more information and to contact the author, click on the author’s name at the top of the page.


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