My blog is a place where I can tell you a bit more about me, the venues I have played and other things I have found or done in my life’s travels!
You can read in more detail about how a gig went, how great (or bad) the venue was and if anything new or exciting happened as a result of my playing somewhere!
I will also tell you about any new updates and releases I may be making or thinking about, things I have done, and quite possibly just the odd rant about things now and then.
Let me admit, right here at the beginning, that I have a certain amount of ambivalence where artistic competitions are concerned, so we can get that out of the way. Nevertheless, there they are, and here I am, so I’m going to try and be as open-minded as I can.
Also, I’m going to limit myself to the songwriting competitions I have encountered or know by reputation, as opposed to all the contests out there. That should eliminate the ones that are simply scams for someone to use songwriters’ dreams against them. It may eliminate some perfectly honorable ones as well. If so, I apologize for the inconvenience.
We can start with the ones that are part of a music festival, just another activity on the weekend’s agenda. Kerrville Folk Festival, here in Kerrville, TX, looms large among these, Founded by Rod Kennedy and currently presided over by Dalis Allen, NewFolk is one of the oldest continuous contests. Also in Texas, in Richardson, is the Wildflower Festival which includes another song competition. Though not as old, it is much respected in its own right. Telluride Troubador is another venerable competition, which along with the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival occur in Lyons, CO during the summer months. Tucson Folk Festival takes place in Tucson, AZ in May, Dave Carter Memorial Songwriting Contest at the Sisters Folk Festival occurs each summer in Oregon, Woody Guthrie, Calgary Folk Festival, Great River Folk Festival, CT Folk Grassy Hill Songwriting Competition, South Florida folk Festival, Susanne Milsaps Memorial Songwriter Showcase at the Inter-Mountain Acoustic Music Association Festival, Falcon Ridge Emerging Artist Showcase, which is not technically a competition, but they do poll the audience to see whom they would like to return.
Of the competitions that are not connected to a festival, but are still songwriting competitions, as opposed to Battles of the Bands, there are several. The BW Stevenson Contest at Poor David’s Pub in Dallas, The Rose Garden Cafe songwriting contest in Massachusetts, Susquehanna Folk Music Society in Maryland, and Songwriters Serenade in central Texas to name a few.
And then there are the giant national and even international competitions. John Lennon Song Contest, which is now so big it is run in stages, International Songwriting Competition, Billboard Song Contest, Great American Songwriting Contest, NSAI Competition, USA Songwriting Competition, Unisong International Songwriting Competition, Eurovision Song Contest and the UK Songwriting Contest.
Most of these contests cost between $25 – $35 to enter per song, or sometimes per 2 songs. Kerrville costs $25 for a two-song entry, John Lennon is $30 per song. A few of the contests are free to enter, but a caveat goes with the free-entry ones: Read the fine print before you sign. Most festivals require a performance component (which means the writers have to get themselves to the festival — though they usually get in free) in order to choose winners, but Songwriters groups usually don’t.
Winning a song contest where you are performing can be life-changing, or have no effect whatever on your career. Exposure at a folk festival is no small thing. It can make booking gigs a lot easier, if you do a good job onstage. The opposite is also true. If you are not up to the occasion, it can harm your standing in the community. I even went so far as to hire an acting coach before one competition, and it really did help. And , of course, practicing can never hurt you. If you are “In it to win it”, then of course, you want to bring your “A” game. just like you would to any gig (Right?). Dress and behave professionally, don’t drink and drive, and be friendly to your audience. Be careful with introductions, ie. not too long. For one thing, there is someone running things with a schedule in mind.
On the other hand, just being part of the contest can do the same, even if you don’t win the contest. You would have displayed your great songs in the best possible light, and there are so many people in the audience — and onstage with you doing the same — that will be interested in your music. I’ve lost count of the number of times when someone walked up afterwards to tell me how much they appreciated my songs, even when I didn’t win the contest. Be friendly when that happens. Fans are important, even if you’re disappointed in the outcome of the competition. And I have witnessed a group of songwriters who all participated in a song competition one year who are now friends for life.
For those contests where the writer doesn’t have to perform, the important thing is to give the judges a good recording of the song. Notice I didn’t say fully-produced or anything like it. The simpler, the better is what I’ve heard from many judges. But clear sound, and a short simple (instrumental) introduction, if any, are essential. So is leaving out the lengthy guitar solo. Again, put your best professional foot forward. This is also true for the big, national or international contests.
As for the TV contests, they have been, for the most part. about singing ability and “star quality” rather than about songwriting. Grammy winner, Sam Smith has stated that he thinks they are actually bad for songwriters, though he himself has performed his own song on one of them. He says he wants to be judged on the basis of the song, not just on his voice. I myself have never been tempted by them, though I know two people who have. One described her experience as “demeaning”, and the other, I believe, was somewhat successful. She is, however, an excellent singer, and the show was The Voice.
There is a new show being promoted that would feature songs and songwriters. It would be titled “Songland”. Adam Levine, of Maroon5 and The Voice, and Dave Stewart, Grammy-winning songwriter, are involved, and here’s what the blog, Saving Country Music has to say about it:
The show wants to feature “everyday people” and their compelling back stories as they try to pitch songs that eventually could become huge hits. Also involved in the show would be big-time producers and artists as a song goes through the pitch process.
So perhaps this would be a better TV vehicle for songwriters interested in TV exposure.
Speaking of exposure, it’s time for a word about winning and losing. I’ve won a few prizes and I have also been totally ignored, so I know that they both carry an emotional impact. Winning can be a wonderful shot in the arm for a performer’s ability to book gigs in prestigious venues — though that does wear off. Losing can be a discouraging disappointment, no matter how many friends and fans you make in the process. A good thing to remember is that winning a contest is not the reason you wrote the song. Also, judging songs, or any other art form, is a very subjective thing, affected by all sorts of extraneous factors. Don’t take it personally, and you’ll survive to write another day.
You’ve waited for months for this night!
It’s your CD release party, Master’s recital, debut performance, big-deal conference showcase, month-long tour or something equally important. You definitely want to be at your best, and your vocal performance to be as flawless as you can make it. And on the morning of the “day of”, you wake up, and — uh oh……
You sound like this:
What do you do?
I live in Austin, Texas, the Allergy Capital of the Universe! (No, really!) Here, it’s always allergy season. Allergies are a way of life. But I sing and talk for a living. I’ve had friends who were forced to cancel their CD release parties because of allergies, and could thereafter never get that all-important momentum going again. I myself have been known to skip shows in the middle of a tour, because I had no voice. In fact, part of that tour was a competition of performing songwriters, and I watched the judges write me off as soon as I opened my mouth. Sucks.
So in December 2014, I became part of a Christmas caroling group which has been in operation in Austin for 20 years. They now had more work than they could handle, and were starting a second group, which included me, to take the overflow. Before too long, we had a dozen shows all through December. We learned 30 or so of the nearly 50 songs that the original group had in their repertoire. We rehearsed once a month starting in May, and then once, or even twice a week in October and November to get ready. And during that last push, I suddenly remembered CEDAR SEASON!!!! (Put a lot of fear in your voice when you read those words).
It’s not real cedar. It’s called mountain cedar. No actual mountains, but it doesn’t really matter, because it’s actually a form of juniper — or at least that’s what I’ve been told. Whatever it is, in December the trees “get busy”, resulting in yellow pollen in the air, on your clothes, on your car, everywhere. If you want oxygen at all, you’re going to breathe it. And lots of immune systems don’t like it.
Cedar season is accompanied by mold season, and other unidentified allergens, so if you escape one, another is bound to get you.
I’m pleased to report that, after my initial panic, I did make it through December, never canceling for even one of the gigs. And did a few others besides the caroling ones. I was not entirely unscathed, so I’ll be looking in the comments for other ideas, but after all that work, both on my part and on the part of the woman who heads up this endeavor, I was damned if I was going to waste it.
Here’s what I did:
Far and away, the most effective thing I did was this: I started warming up the minute I was out of bed, and I kept it up all day. I used to be afraid to do that, because I thought I would blow out my voice before the show, but I tried it this time and it totally worked! By the time I had warmed up a little at a time, I was able to sing. It wasn’t my very best voice, but it was the best I could do at that moment, and it worked.
I got a steroid shot that did help clear it up faster, when I was being assaulted by allergens. But you can only do that once a year. It didn’t keep it from happening at all. Good theory, but, no.
I cancelled all unnecessary talking on the day of a performance if my voice was fragile. For me, it feels like talking is harder on my voice than singing, so I tried really hard not to do any talking all day. (For me, that’s REALLY hard. I deserve an award!)
See? Much better. (Oh wait. That isn’t me….)
These ideas came from Mady Kaye, Art Kidd, Clare McLeod, Brenda Freed, and my mother (the “stop talking” one).
It was the announcement from CNN that first got my attention really. I was listening to them talk about it on the CDBaby DIY Musicians Podcast (and if you are an Indie musician, you should be listening to this too! Find it on iTunes or go subscribe at http://cdbabypodcast.com/) while I was running one morning Here’s a quote from the actual story:
“Interviews with college-age music fans suggest that more and more are choosing to stream music instead of downloading it. After all, why pay for music when you can summon almost any song you want, at any time, for free?”
The CNN article points out that music streaming sites such as Pandora and Spotify are becoming increasingly popular — mainly because of the price-tag, but each service offers its own particular advantage over outright ownership of music. In fact, the whole idea of what “ownership” means is changing.
My reaction to all that was, basically, “uh-oh”. Because not that long ago, I was listening to these same people discussing the fact that David Lowry, of the band Cracker, had posted his statement of royalties from Pandora, and it was pretty shockingly small, given the number of plays. He also posted his statements from satellite (Sirius) and terrestrial radio stations.
The Pandora payout lost the comparison by a huge margin. Here’s a look at the statements he posted:
So , if these streaming services are becoming popular to the point where they are displacing buying the CDs, or even the single songs, the average independent songwriter is about to experience a significant drop in income (I say it that way, because one of the things I learned while researching this post was that independent songwriters are paid at a different rate than corporate entities by the streaming services.)
Up until recently, while it wasn’t easy to make one’s living from music, it was possible, for some more than others, I’ll admit. The best way to monetize your music, as it ever was, and maybe ever will be, is by live appearances. And selling ones own music at those live appearances. Despite the fact that there are hundreds, if not thousands of marketing strategies out there that claim to have “the answer” to how to market music, the truth is, few have been able to do it without at least playing live locally.
To put it in the words of a recent post on the streaming situation by one of the more successful songwriters in Austin, TX, Raina Rose:
“The 20th century was the only time in the history of music where some musicians got very well paid for their work.”
She follows that with: “Those days are over”
Ms. Rose’s post was prompted by the commotion caused by Taylor Swift’s announcement a week or so ago about how she was pulling all her music, including her newly-released album, “1989”from Spotify, one of the lowest paying of the bunch. Taylor Swift had this to say about her decision:
“All I can say is that music is changing so quickly, and the landscape of the music industry itself is changing so quickly, that everything new, like Spotify, all feels to me a bit like a grand experiment,” Swift told Yahoo.“I’m not willing to contribute my life’s work to an experiment that I don’t feel fairly compensates the writers, producers, artists, and creators of this music.”
And she added, “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for.”
I couldn’t agree more.
In this decision, she was joined by Nigel Godrich, of Cracker (and some others). Said Mr. Godrich:
“We’re off of Spotify. Can’t do that no more, man. Small, meaningless rebellion. The reason is that new artists get paid f**k-all with this model. It’s an equation that just doesn’t work. Plus, people are scared to speak up or not take part, as they are told they will lose invaluable exposure if they don’t play ball. Meanwhile, millions of streams gets them a few thousand dollars. Not like radio at all. If you have a massive catalogue—a major label, for example—then you’re quids in. It’s money for old rope. But making new recorded music needs funding. Some records can be made in a laptop, but some need musicians and skilled technicians. These things cost money. Pink Floyd’s catalogue has already generated billions of dollars for someone (not necessarily the band), so putting it on a streaming site makes total sense. But if people had been listening to Spotify instead of buying records in 1973, I doubt very much if “Dark Side” would have been made. It would just be too expensive.
“However, Spotify needs the new artists to be on the system to guarantee new subscribers and lock down the “new landscape.” This is how they figure they’ll make money in the future. But the model pays pittance to the new artist right now, an inconvenient fact which will keep surfacing.”
British pop singer, Ed Sheeran, has said that he sees the services more as a discovery mechanism, which would certainly be true of Pandora, which doesn’t let the user choose which music they will listen to.
Russ Mitchell of the LA Times agrees, saying:
“His argument falls in line with recent data from audience measurement service Nielsen that showed that those who pay for streaming services are about twice as likely to buy a CD or download an album than those who freeload on advertising-supported outlets.”
However, on Spotify, the user can create their own playlists, excluding any music that user is not familiar with. Discovery falls by the wayside. And also, on Spotify, there are two tiers, a premium tier with certain advantages having to do with quantity and, I believe, quality of streaming, and a free tier. Which is what the CNN article was talking about when they asked “Why pay, if you can get it for free?”
I try not to be cynical. I’ve been trying all my life. But I couldn’t help but notice how many “column inches” were being devoted to Taylor Swift and her decision. Part of me wanted to agree with her. But part of me was also thinking “Wow! She certainly generated a LOT of public attention!” (I know. Shame on me.)
But then I saw this yesterday from Billy Bragg:
“What a shame that Taylor Swift’s principled stand against those who would give her music away for free has turned out to be nothing more than a corporate power play. On pulling her music from Spotify recently, she made a big issue of the fact that the majority of the streaming service’s users listen to her tracks for nothing rather than signing up to the subscription service.
“These worthy sentiments have been somewhat undermined by Swift making her new album and back catalogue available on Google’s new Music Key streaming service…..which also offers listeners a free service alongside a premium subscription tier.
“If Ms Swift was truly concerned about perpetuating the perception that music has no value and should be free, she should be removing her material from You Tube, not cozying up to it. The de facto biggest streaming service in the world, with all the content available free, You Tube is the greatest threat to any commercially based streaming service.
Google is going after Spotify and Taylor Swift has just chosen sides. That’s her prerogative as a savvy businesswoman – but please don’t try to sell this corporate power play to us as some sort of altruistic gesture in solidarity with struggling music makers.”
And I thought that I was being cynical! In fairness, I must mention the following, from a different article:
“However, a statement released by Swift’s spokesperson to NME reveals that Swift has not joined forces with the new initiative. It reads: “Taylor Swift has had absolutely no discussion or agreement of any kind with Google’s new music streaming service.”
Tune in tomorrow for the next episode of our continuing saga …..
All of which brings me back to that disturbing conversation on the CDBaby podcast about how more people were streaming than buying music. To my (sort of) relief the CNN article ended with this:
“The music fan never ceases to surprise me. If you told me five years ago there would be a boom in the sale of vinyl records I would have laughed. But people are buying them, and I think there are some people that will continue to buy music [and not just stream it].”
And thank goodness, people have still been buying my own CDs – though, for the most part, I have to be there to sell them … at live shows.
Ask any musician what is the most challenging part of traveling by air, and they will all say the same thing.
At its worst, it results in situations like this one:
And breakage is not the only thing that can happen. I have talked with many people who checked their instrument and never saw it again. I think the normal response to that (according to me, so FWIW) would be to want to be able to see your instrument at all times.
But … help is on its way. Sort of.
According to a document from the Transportation Safety Administration (the people who x-ray your baggage and you when you are flying) dated 9/28/12, you may carry on your guitar. Here is a copy of the document. I carry it with me when I fly, in the same envelop with my boarding pass and ID. You can get it at: http://local1000.org/2013/01/download-forms-and-contracts/#.VD1b1CldWiQ
This document mainly has to do with carrying instruments through the security checkpoint, but in fact, Congress passed a law to allow you to bring your instrument aboard as carry-on baggage. According to John Thomas at Fretboard Journal:
“Section 403 of the legislation, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, provides:
“An air carrier providing air transportation shall permit a passenger to carry a violin, guitar, or other musical instrument in the aircraft cabin, without charging the passenger a fee in addition to any standard fee that carrier may require for comparable carry-on baggage ….”
“Alas, we’ve fallen into a black hole in American jurisprudence. Recall that the law was to go into effect when the FAA promulgated the corresponding regulations. Recall also that Congress commanded the FAA to promulgate those regulations by February 6, 2014. Well, that date has come and gone and the FAA has not even begun the process of drafting the regulations. And, that black hole? There is no legal mechanism by which Congress can force an agency to do its job. As a result, members of Congress have been reduced to pleading, threatening, stamping their feet, and holding their breath until the FAA acts. So far, the FAA has not been impressed.”
In other words, we cannot rely on the law-makers to fix this problem.
American Federations of Musicians (of which I am a proud member, Local 1000), has been working with TSA to try to adjust the situation so that at the very least, every airline has the same rules. According to Ray Hair, AFM International president, there is progress being made in this, their second meeting with TSA and the Department of Transportation. All interested parties were represented at these talks, and in his message this month, there was this:
“The major takeaway from our July meeting was a general acknowledgement from DOT and the airline industry that most major and regional airlines have adopted company policies concerning the air transportation of musical instruments, most of which closely mirror the requirements contained in the 2012 law. The DOT is now bringing both sides together to help clarify and negotiate protocol differences, while ensuring that the airlines’ published policies are clear and will be adhered to, so that musicians can rely on them while flying with their instruments.
“We gained tremendous insight and engaged in productive discussions during our July meeting about the obligations of the US airlines toward musical instrument air travel. The need for the dissemination of information about existing policies, protections, commitments, and remedies avilable for musicians from government and industry, prior to the issuance of final administrative rules, was well recognized by every stakeholder.
“As a result, our September meeting would concentrate on the following agreed-upon items, including but not limited to:
Despite all this progress, there are a number of people who have come up with solutions for the problems that remain formidable — the flight attendant or the gate agent who has the final word, a concept designed to strike fear into the heart of every traveling guitarist.
At this point, I’d like to insert that I fly Southwest Airlines whenever I can. This is not because I’m affiliated with Southwest in any way. I’m not. But of all the airlines I’ve flown, I can count on Southwest not to give me a hard time about my guitar. I once got aboard a flight with a 9-piece band, all carrying instruments, and me with my guitar. No one batted a single eyelash, nor was there a single murmur. (BTW, if Southwest is not an option for you, the next best choice, running a distant second, is American Airlines. They usually don’t have a problem, but you can’t count on everyone who works for them to follow through. Not affiliated with them either, in case you wondered.)
Lots of people have lots of advice, but the best I found online was from CDBaby’s DIY blog. Their 5 tips included
And my personal favorite:
Far and away, the best advice I found was, ABOVE ALL, BE POLITE. Ask with a smile. All the airline personnel are people with families, issues, feelings, worries, etc. just like yours. Play nice, kids. Bon voyage.
From Wikipedia: “Americana is an amalgam of roots music formed by the confluence of the shared and varied traditions that make up the American musical ethos; specifically those sounds that are merged from folk, country, blues, rhythm and blues, rock and roll and other external influences.”
Says it all, right? Well … no, actually.
How about this from the Americana Music Association?
“Americana is contemporary music that incorporates elements of various American roots music styles, including country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B and blues, resulting in a distinctive roots-oriented sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres upon which it may draw.”
Not much better.
The word “Americana” already existed in the lexicon, before its introduction into popular music styles. According to The Atlantic,
“Before it became a term for a musical genre, “Americana” was slang for the comforting, middle-class ephemera at your average antique store — things like needle-pointed pillows, Civil War daguerreotypes, and engraved silverware sets. In the 1990s, radio programmers coined a new, related usage: “Americana” became a nickname for the weather-beaten, rural-sounding music that bands like Whiskeytown and Uncle Tupelo were making. It was warm, twangy stuff, full of finger-plucked guitars and gnarled voices like tires on a dirt road. If you can imagine an Americana song as a bottle of beer (easy enough), you’ll probably taste a hint of salt from the lead singer’s tears mixed in.
But the genre defines itself by its progenitors more than its present. Any Americana artist working today ought to know his Woody Guthrie, his Carter Family, his Willie Nelson, his Blind Willie McTell.”
While this is all true, the assumption here is that there is a limit to what may be termed Americana. Despite the fact that there are many genres that were generated first in America, besides blues, country, rocknroll, and Indie-everything. I’ll grant that European-style art music is not Americana. Likewise, what is now termed World Music is not Americana (though some has been adapted into the Americana music of late.) But let’s consider jazz, a unique American form, or even the Great American Songbook.
A lot of the songs in the Great American Songbook were born at the same time as those needle-point pillows and engraved silverware sets. If you google the term, you find out “The Great American Songbook is a term used to denote the canon of the most important and most influential American popular songs of the 20th century – principally from Broadway theatre, musical theatre, and Hollywood musical film.” It includes songs like Stardust, Over the Rainbow and Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.
Frankly, I think the major difference between “Americana” and other popular American music styles is mentioned in the article above. It is based on rural-sounding music.
That lets out anything done by Tin Pan Alley. I remember noticing the rural connection when I was living in Greenwich Village in the late 60s, so I was always delighted to find anyone amongst those musicians that loved “city music” the way I did. Unfortunately, it also lets out anything that doesn’t fit the White Male Southeastern (born in or admiring of) idea of the way things should be. And The Great American Songbook is but one example of what is left out of a supposedly all-encompassing American music, as implied by the name.
The other operative idea behind Americana is that it is Male (capital M not an accident).
I know that there are some female performers who designate themselves as Americana. Lucinda Williams, Terri Hendrix, Susan Gibson and, very likely, Emmylou are on that list. However, they are few and far between. This is not their fault, but I’m beginning to think maybe women should just group themselves in a style that is all their own. Just for awhile. Until the guys catch up.
There is a new form stirring in country music, as exemplified by Miranda Lambert, Gretchen Wilson, Kacey Musgrave and Ashley Munroe. More properly, this is Alt. Country, as it has a distinct rock flavor, but it could also be termed country-rock music by uppity women (color doesn’t seem to be an issue, although so far, all the stars of this genre are white. Uppity women come in all shapes, sizes and colors. A generation ago, Tracy Chapman and Joan Armatrading would have been good candidates for this genre).
According to the New York Times’ Jon Caramanica:
[The music] “couched tough-talk rural feminism in music that paid deep respect to country music tradition. [They] understood that making changes is easier when you slip in the door unnoticed.”
And the country stage has been far more accepting of these women than the Americana stage. And if you check the showcase listings for the 2014 Americana Conference just passed, the overwhelming majority of performers are Male, with a sprinkling of female acts here and there. None of them were any of the women listed above.
This same rural, male segment of the musical scene has been separated out many before in our cultural history. I’m thinking that the problem I’m having here is the name. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around “Americana” that does not include so much of American music. Do you think it’s too late for them to call it something else?
From (of all places) the Wall Street Journal:
“And it can hurt the Americana movement: If it permits itself to be defined primarily by retro-minded country and twangy folk, Americana runs the risk of appearing as a subset of country. Given that contemporary country album sales are flagging, one can imagine executives on Music Row swooping in and signing some Americana artists in an attempt to rebrand modern country as music of integrity.”
“Here, at this year’s awards event, there was ample evidence that members of the Americana community are aware that minimizing the natural diversity within American roots music is a sorry way to go. The show opened with a version of Willie Dixon’s “You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover,” popularized by Bo Diddley; later in the program, during a tribute to the music of Mississippi, Ms. Wilson sang Dixon’s “I Want to Be Loved.” Flaco Jiménez, the Mexican-American accordionist, was presented a Lifetime Achievement award by occasional collaborator Ry Cooder, who performed with the house band. Taj Mahal, who embodies all that Americana can be, revived “Statesboro Blues,” a Blind Willie McTell tune he released in 1968. “Now that’s Americana!” shouted Mr. Lauderdale, the affable master of ceremonies, as Taj Mahal was greeted with a standing ovation.”