The first music was social music. Scientists have found musical instruments dating back 40,000 years or more, but anthropologists feel music is much older, maybe as much as half a million years, predating any recorded history, perhaps even language itself. There is something very elemental about making and sharing music.
My earliest musical experiences were my grandmother singing me to sleep. Soon, I was singing with her, it was a cornerstone of our bond. Not long afterward, I was singing in the congregation and later the choir at church. I got up in front of my 3rd grade class and sang a Beatle Song (If I Fell) acapella. I sang in the school bus on my way to day camp. (0n top of Spaghetti, Great Green Gobs, and other classics). Chorus in school, pep rallies, and much more. By the time I was in 8th grade, I was in my first rock band.
i became a professional musician, but most kids don’t. Pretty much everybody loves to sing, or try to. Social music remains a great way to excite and engage human beings in group activities. Whether you are singing protest songs at a political rally, singing your grandchildren to sleep, or singing “You’ve Got a Friend” with James Taylor on the lawn of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, making music in a group brings us closer together. Everyone can sing, not always well, but the important thing is the act of singing itself.
My rock bands sometimes took great pains to break the fourth wall. We would set up a performance that drew them in as spectators, but someplace in the course if the evening, we would break down the invisible barrier between audience and performer sometimes it was a simple as jumping into the audience or trolling across the bar with a wireless guitar rig. Other times we might thrust the vocal mic into the face of a fan who had clearly been singing along. In my prime, I spontaneously kissed a number of women in the audience. (Long before #MeToo was a worry) That moment of realization when the audience understood they were now a part of the performance could be very powerful
In my continuing work in music, I use social music in many ways, from encouraging audiences sing alongs to hosting open circles. Under the Big Orange Tarp, I used to bring a box of percussion instruments to festivals. Egg shakers, tambourines, bongo drums, claves, maracas, you name it. I drifted away from that because untrained musicians can be such poor time keepers. I like to attend drum circles with my pal Chadd Ferron. They are so fun, but they can be obtrusive late nights at your music festival or in urban settings. They may or may not be right for your constituency.
Singing songs together can be fantastic. From folk songs, protest songs, inspirational hymns to Late night Beatles jams in Gene Shay’s room at NERFA. These always generate smiles and cameraderie. At Falcon Ridge this summer, Dan Navarro kicked off our loving tribute to David Glaser, Maggie Marshall, and Jimmy LaFave with a New Orleans style, second line processional from one side of the camp ground to the other, ending up at the Big Orange Tarp to kick off the tribute. The crowd was “All in” before our formal feature even began. Audience engagement and participation was fantastic.
Some venues have group sings after their shows these can be particularly powerful in small house concert situations. Ireland is all about the pub sings, where people haul their chairs over into a corner and play together. Orchestrated jam sessions provide a place where wannabe professionals can noodle around quietly, testing their musical ideas to see what works and what doesn’t. When I was starting out, I always played along with records, but I can tell you first hand, that’s not as exciting as playing along with people.
Many Americans are shy, socially inhibited, uncomfortable in their own skins it has been reported that many Of them fear public speaking more than they fear death. To stand in front of a group and speak extemporaneously is unthinkable for some, but to sing some Simon and Garfunkel or Phil Ochs, sharing that eloquence is far easier. So many people feel isolated and alone, unseen and unheard. They may not even realize it, but most people light up when they realize they are a part of something. It is natural to yearn for connection In a purely practical sense, you want customers coming back to consume your music, but trust me, that’s feels great when you discover your events are serving people in a deeper and more meaningful way.
in my opinion, Folk Dance is making music with your body. our dance stage at Falcon Ridge has one of the most engaged and enthusiastic audiences that I know of. As a long time music listener, I can get mesmerized by a fantastic performance that I view only as a spectator, but the physical act of dancing is a full body, aerobic experience with a much broader emotional payload.
If you really want to see some fireworks, try workshopping some of the theatre games from Viola Spolin’s classic book “Improvisation for the theater”. Considered the Bible of Improvisational Comedy groups like the Second City or the Groundlings. It has been used with great success by musicians as well as actors and comics. It gets people laughing and thinking outside of the box.
Improvisation for the Theater: A Handbook of Teaching and Directing Techniques (Drama and Performance Studies) https://www.amazon.com/dp/081014008X/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_tai_b9W4BbP2NG785
However you decide to incorporate social music into your programming, the big win is in audience engagement and customer loyalty. Just as volunteerism brings people back in the doors, so does getting them to be music makers, not simply spectators.
Fiske Room (Big Orange Tarp showcase)
I will update this with artist links before the conference.
2-2:45 Zoe Mulford, Emily White, Marc Douglas Berardo
2:45-3:30 Black Feathers, Emerald Rae, Jude Roberts
3:30-4:15 Alyssa Dan, Quentin Callewaert, Fiora Laina
4:15-5:00 Ronny Cox and the Heather Pierson Trio
11:45-12:30 Neale Eckstein and friends
12:30-1:00 Matt Nakoa, Lisa Bastoni, Cassandra House
1-1:30 Kenny White, Grace Morrison, Alice Hasen
1:30-2 Greg Greenway & Reggie Harris, Emerald Rae, Rod Abernethy
2-2:30 Robinson Treacher, Brad Cole, Caroline Cotter
2:30-3 B (Oliver Esposito), JR Garcia, Fiora Laina
3 Open Circle
Sat 11:30am-12:15 “Live Streaming: Techniques, Tips, & Tricks” Open group mentoring
2-3 Alice Howe, Freebo, Grace Morrison, Jonathan Byrd
3-4 Miles & Mafale, Carolann Solebello and Joe Iadanza , Wabi Sabi (Pelletier & Wurzbach), Markley and Balmer
4-5 Kenny White, Louise Mosrie, Scott Cook, Rachael Kilgour
11:45-12:15 Scott Cook, Kirsten Maxwell, Sophie Buskin
12:15-12:45 Annie Sumi, Jeffrey Siler, Josh Harty
12:45-1:15 Jaeger and Reid, Alice Hasen, Jim Bizer & Jan Krist
1:15-1:45 ilyAIMY, Susan Cattaneo, Rob Lytle
1:45-2:15 Eric Lee, Sandie Reilly, Andrew Dunn
2:15-3 Wabi Sabi (special guests Kipyn Martin, Fiora Laina)
3 am Open Circle
Sunday several one on one mentorings available. Sign up at mentoring desk.
I will be doing a group mentoring at NERFA on Saturday Morning in the Fiske Room. 11:30-12:15 (no signup required)
“Live Streaming – Techniques, Tips, and Tricks”
Discussing the plethora of streaming options and platforms coming online for musicians, ways to monetize those streams, the hardware and software necessary to look and sound good. Be there or be square. Also Join my facebook group Live Music Streamers.
It’s been nearly 20 years since I attended Folk Alliance Regional Midwest (FARM). It was pretty anemic in those early days. (No juried showcases, no presenter presence…) it fell off of my annual calendar. But when I won conference admission in a raffle last year, I knew it was time to give it another try.
I’m not presenting a workshop this time thru, but I volunteered to do 5-6 hours of mentoring and I would be happy to discuss absolutely anything with you if you sign up. I believe the signup sheets will be available at Registration.
I’m also pleased to be presenting a Big Orange Tarp showcase round each night at the conference from 11:30-12 in the Access Film Music Room 124. Come give us a listen. Click the artist name to check out their website.
For nearly 30 years, technology and greed made possible the model which fueled the explosive growth of the independent music industry. Prior to around 1985, making records was an expensive and complicated process. You needed to rent expensive studio time to record, mix and master your recordings. Records were manufactured in factories called pressing plants and required expensive mothers and stampers to create the finished recordings. 12” jackets, sleeves, and liner notes were expensive to design and print.
But in the mid ‘80’s the CD came out. They sounded better and lasted longer than vinyl albums, so the record companies decided to charge a premium for the format, but they cost less than half as much to manufacture. Meanwhile quality home recording studios were becoming affordable and desktop publishing put quality graphics design within reach of anyone who had the eye to create it.
And so the independent record labels and artists sprung into being. Radio and retail were still controlled by the Big 6 record distributors who hawked all the major labels, but the genie was out of the bottle and soon as many as 30% of record sales emanated from independents. Then the digital distribution sites like MP3.com and Napster were circumventing old school distribution entirely. It was an perfect storm of opportunity for the unsigned musician and they rushed in to take advantage of the windfall. Hundreds of musicians who had never seriously considered an original music career jumped at the chance to make their creative dreams come true. A model emerged that held for nearly 30 years where the average Jimi or Janis could write a dozen good songs (still the most important part of the equation), record them inexpensively, design and press their own CDs and derive about half of their annual income from the sale of these CDs at shows, over the internet, and (if they were lucky) maybe even thru conventional record stores.
But progress giveth and progress taketh away. The same digital revolution that gave us home recording and cheap CD production has now supplanted the medium with real time music streaming. Services like Spotify, Amazon Prime, Apple Music, and Pandora now pluck thousands of songs out of the ether on demand. The record stores are mostly gone, terrestrial radio is on its last legs, and even Satellite radio seems ill equipped to do battle with the consumers ability to create their own playlists. CD player sales have diminished sharply and so has the demand for those shiny silver disks. The drop in sales revenue has been devastating for the artists who came to depend on it just a few years ago. Some have left the business, others are struggling. It’s clear that, if we hope to remain a robust community, we need to find a way to replace that lost income. Here are a few suggestions
With cheap, seemingly limitless bandwidth available, video is now the preferred medium for engaging your audience. And arguably the best delivery platform for your videos is YouTube.
1. YouTube’s internal advertising platform is called AdSense. In 2016, AdSense paid out 13.7 Billion (with a B) dollars to content creators. That’s a lot of cheese. Unfortunately, it is harder and harder to break into the most lucrative YouTube ranks. YouTube adds 300 hours of video to the service every minute. A decade ago, the median number of views per video was 10,262, last year it was 89. Your video is a needle in a hayfield full of needles, so it’s not enough to just put the videos online, but you need some way to garner attention for them. It is daunting, but not impossible. A 26 year old British gamer named DanTDM earned 16.5 Million dollars last year on YouTube. But it takes continued engagement. The top 3.5% of YouTube channels (averaging a million views or more per month) still only generate $12,000-$16,000 a year in revenue. That’s less than your average greeter at Walmart. (But it’s more than many of my friends used to make per year in CD sales. We are talking about augmenting your income here, not replacing your performing career entirely)
It used to be a lot easier to make money with AdSense and many creators who used to have 5 figure incomes based on channels where they just did stupid or shocking stuff have found themselves frozen out of a platform continually in search of higher quality content. It’s going to be extremely difficult to replace all your lost merch income strictly with YouTube ads. But I think a YouTube channel should definitely be a part of your strategy. Ads aren’t the only way to make money with YouTube
2. Brand deals, Sponsorships, and product placement can also generate income for your YouTube channel. Advertisers and other entities who strongly resonate with your message may want a firmer relationship with you than pseudorandom occasional ad placements. These agreements are negotiated directly and there is no standard contract or pay scale, but they can be very lucrative. Read more here. Here’s another article on Sponsorships. I think these have more income potential than AdSense, but if people are watching your content, there is no reason not to get the AdSense dollars too. And more tips on Sponsored content.
Your fans may no longer buy CDs, but they still wear clothing and jewelry. Sell them something they will use. You can sell custom printed or embroidered t-shirts, sweatshirts, hats, bandannas, and other clothing and jewelry items that make them a walking billboard for your music. You can sell your original paintings, woodcarvings, salves, potions, and other handmade items. You may be able to crossmarket and sell on commission the items made by your other artistic friends. Fullfillment can be done thru eBay, Etsy, or your own website.
4. Live Music Streaming is an ideal way to reach out to audiences old and new. The low opportunity cost of streaming makes it ideal for even the most cash strapped musicians. The 4 biggest enemies of the traveling musician are gas, food, lodging, and time. They are the negatives in every calculation of whether or not to take a gig. Some live-streaming sites charge admission. Many have built in tipping capabilities. Even the totally free streaming platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram can direct listeners to your other revenue generators. If you have a smartphone and an internet connection, the cost of live streaming is almost zero. All it takes is time. You can amortize that time by streaming your live gigs, rehearsal sessions or other musical chores. You can reach people who might never be willing or able to attend your gigs and turn them into fans. It’s a great way to publicize your website, YouTube channel, merchandise, and crowdfunding campaigns. Learn more about live streaming here. Now is the time. Just like with YouTube, the early bird catches the worm. If you wait until everyone is live streaming, that marketplace is eventually going to be just as crowded as YouTube. Stake out your claim now in the electronic frontier.
5. Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and GoFundMe are popular crowdfunding sites. They help you leverage your fan base and others to finance projects you might not otherwise have the resources to even begin. Beyond giving your fans a way to participate in your next project, they also hold great potential for building public awareness for your work and your brand. Mounting a crowdfunding campaign can be tricky, here are some tips. Here are more. And more.
6. Premium Content appeals to your SuperFans. There are various ways to accomplish this. People like access to exclusive content. This can be anything from rough song demos and informal videos, Private members-only live streams on Periscope, Access to hidden videos on YouTube. Personal photos. Even members only email newsletters or exclusive merchandise. Don’t lock away the Crown Jewels, but cater to the completist with a trove of materials that let them feel like the superfans that they are.
7. Patronage may be the ultimate way to recoup that lost income. America’s income inequality continues to grow. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Some people have a LOT more disposable income than others. The simplest way to accomplish this may be with an honest discussion of the financial impediments standing in the way of the furtherance of your musical career and a simple PayPal.me link on your website or monthly newsletter. This could happen once in a blue moon or could be a perpetual link on your website. I have one on BigOrangeTarp.org that I never promote, but every once in a while, somebody sends me a little cash. It is never expected, but always appreciated.
Patreon is the industry leader in openended patronage sites. You can structure a Patreon account in many different ways. Your patrons might send you a certain amount each month, or each time you release a song or an album or a painting. If your fans are willing to commit to an ongoing relationship, it’s much less embarrassing than going back to the well time after time after time with discreet crowdfunding campaigns. If they can afford it, and they want to help, why not let them. Here are some Patreon tips. More recently a few other players have entered that space. You may want to check out drip, Flattr, memberful, and Podia
Bonus: On Demand audio streaming thru subscription services like Spotify, Apple Music, and Pandora is one of the primary ways mainstream artists are monetizing their music. In a perfect world, the lost CD revenues would have just magically reappeared in this column as the CD sales dwindled. But the music industry’s long tradition of fleecing artists was hard at work when these services came into being. There are executives with 6 figure incomes running these services who have never written a song in their lives, while prolific songwriters reap minuscule rewards. Like YouTube, a few creators make 5 figure incomes, the vast majority get paid very little. a hit on Spotify may pay the writer $3-5000, but few writers can support themselves with streaming income.
But there may be hope on the horizon. There is a bill before Congress right now that aims to bring streaming revenues up to a reasonable rate and end the excessive exploitation of the industry. It is called the Music Modernization Act. This is very good news. I don’t know how soon it will take effect or exactly how dramatic a difference it will make, but consensus is that this should help a lot. All it needs now is the Presidents signature. He doesn’t like to read, but it is assumed the bill will be signed into law without delay.
I am super psyched to be returning once again to the Southwest Regional Folk Alliance in Austin TX this coming weekend. I will be doing one on one mentoring in the Elm Room on Friday 1:30-3pm. And a workshop on Saturday morning 10:00-11:30am (also in the Elm Room) “7 Ways to Monetize the Internet”.
And I’m proud to be showcasing these outstanding artists in my Big Orange Tarp showcase in the Access Film Music showcase room 721.
We are thrilled to be returning once again to the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, this time to celebrate their 30th Anniversary. We play music under the BOT Wednesday-Sunday evenings and often well into the night. Wednesday and Sunday are Open Circles, starting around dusk. Thu, Fri, and Saturday we start with feature rounds and go Open Circle sometime later that night. On Friday and Saturday evening our features will be primarily made up of this years Grassy Hill Emerging Artists (featured on the main stage on Friday afternoon) and the Most Wanted Artists from last year’s showcase: The End of America, Ryanhood, and Heather Aubrey Lloyd. The Emerging Artists this year include (in order of their appearance on Friday):
1 – Jude Roberts – Woodstock NY
2 – Ari & Mia – Jamaica Plain MA
3 – Orly Bendavid – Brooklyn NY
4 – Mike Laureanno – Providence RI
5 – Katherine Rondeau – Burlington Twp NJ
6 – Rupert Wates – NYC
7 – Eliza Novella – Milton NY
8 – Andrew Delaney – Arlington TX
9 – Burns and Kristy – Ithaca NY
10 – Kyle Donovan – Hygiene CO
11 – 5j Barrow – Asheville NC
12 – Carolann Solebello – Brooklyn NY
13 – Quarter Horse – Selden NY
14 – Sam Luke Chase – Braintree MA
15 – Oliver the Crow – Nashville TN
16 – Ian Flanigan – Saugerties NY
17 – EFRAT – Woodbridge NJ
18 – Kyle Hancharick – Warwick NY
19 – Nicolas Emden – Brookline MA
20 – Justin Farren – Sacramento CA
21 – Amy Kucharik – Somerville MA
22 – Dan Santos – Glendale MA
23 – Emerald Rae – Ashburnham MA
24 – Devan Tracy – Washington DC
I hope you can be here for their Friday afternoon main stage set, but if you can’t, Sally and I will attempt to give you a second chance to see each of them on one of the weekend nights at the BOT. Friday and Saturday Feature start when the main stage ends. In addition to Emerging Artists and Most Wanted, we always have a few additional tricks up our sleeve.
On Thursday night we are kicking off with a very special memorial called “Gone But Not Forgotten” celebrating the lives and music of David Glaser, Maggie Marshall, and Jimmy LaFave. This will start directly after the lounge stage finishes. I’m sure it will be unforgettable, so please plan on joining us if you can. We will follow this with several award winners from the Philadephia Songwriters Project and a few other special guests. That, of course, will finally lead into Thursday’s Open Circle.
I’m very pleased with the entire program and we look forward to sharing it with you.
I’m thrilled to be returning to SERFA once again this week. If you want to catch up with me for some one on one time at the conference, let me know and we’ll schedule something. I’ve been learning more and more about the live streaming opportunities that are out there and I’ll have my MEVO event camera with me if anyone wants a demo.
Folk Alliance International Conference attendees gathered in Kansas City in February.
This is a conversation I have had innumerable times with my musician friends, but I don’t think I have ever blogged it. i commented on a Facebook post today by my friend Neale Eckstein and got a resonant response to it, so I decided maybe I should flesh it out a little.
I get it, contests, conferences, and music festivals are expensive. They don’t usually pay for themselves instantaneously. It’s an investment. Some contests offer cash prizes, festival placements, gear, studio time or other incentives, but many primarily yield bragging rights and newsworthiness. I don’t have to tell you that there are a glut of performers competing for a far too small pool of gigs and committed audience members. Taken one by one, they may not always look like much, but in 2018, this is how we build audiences and mailing lists. One listener at a time.
There are any number of conferences out there. I’m particularly partial to the Folk Alliance conferences. This year, my calendar includes all of the regionals as well as the International Conference. I find them very worthwhile. They give you access to people in all sides of the live music business from venue operators and Deejays to Agents, Managers, and Radio Promoters. We haven’t been properly courting the mainstream news media, but occasionally one of those will wander curiously into our domain as well. I dream of the day when NPR and PBS always have a reporter covering the events. There’s South by Southwest, the Americana Music Conference. NACA, APAP, and others. There are tangential conferences like VIdcon, Playlist Live, and E3 aimed more squarely at content creators, but still very interested in Music. Film Festivals, like Sundance, Cannes, and others. Our insatiable need for more, new, different content only seems to grow and grow and grow. We are constantly finding new ways to exploit music. You might also find a way to infiltrate your music into gatherings of a nonmusical focus. Arts and Crafts fairs, cooking events, goat yoga weekends, domestic abuse survivors, 12 step gatherings, or parents of twins and triplets (Yeah, that’s a thing. I just met some in Pittsburgh) Whenever you have a group of people cut off from their normal day to day lives, you have a better chance of making connections with them.
And then there are the music festivals, many of which have showcases or even contests that offer exposure at the festival level to an audience that had no intention of coming out to see you this weekend. Most of the festival goers are listeners, there for fun, but you will also find other musicians and industry people mixed into that group as well.
The common thread here is Networking, getting to know a bunch of people who didn’t know you existed and making a favorable impression (sometimes even lifelong friendships.) It’s not enough just to be good any more. That might have cut it back in the day when the Big 6 record distributors controlled radio and retail, but those days have long since passed. There is an absurd amount of music being created every single week, both in audio and video form. Finding your audience (or them finding you) is more difficult than ever. Even worse, with the disappearance of the physical media for music, the product is no longer your recording, but YOU. You are the thing that has to be exposed and branded. You are the vehicle that can give your art wings.
This is as good a time as any to say that there is no substitute for quality.If you are hoping to make your mark in the business, You need skills, You need to play well and (if you sing) sing well.Your recordings have to sound good and your videos have to look good AND sound good. Most of all, you should be performing and recording great songs. Whether written by you or somebody else, the songs have to measure up. Without these elements in place, no amount of PR and Marketing is going to make you the next big thing.
The curse of the WhiGWAG.
If you are part of my immediate community, You may suffer from another handicap. I call it the curse of the WhiGWAG. (White Guy/Gal With A Guitar) The cheapest, easiest, most practical way to function as a solo singer/songwriter is to play the guitar. it’s a fantastic instrument, with a broad range. It plays a bunch of notes all at once, unlike your oboe, clarinet, or saxophone.The learning curve starts out really really easy. Learn to strum 4 chords and you can play 40.000 songs. Many artists focus on their songs to the exclusion of their performance skills and they can still swim thru a whole night on stage.
Unfortunately, this has lulled thousands of them into a false sense of security. At your local corner bar, you might miss it, but at a festival or music conference, if the program features an endless stream of WhiGWAGs, there is little way to differentiate yourself from the performers before and after you. You and your music get lost. As a programmer, I do my best to alleviate this by sequencing performers who each bring something a little different to the sonic salad, Still it’s a good idea to be really great at something at the very least.You may find that the thing your audiences like best about you is not the thing you think is the best. Hear what they have to say. Great singers can make an impression. Especially if they have a “Signature Voice” like Joe Cocker, Michael McDonald, or Joni Mitchell. If you are blessed with that, use it, don’t suppress it. Brilliant instrumentalists like Jack Williams, David Glaser, Molly Tuttle, Pat Donohue. Jerry Douglas, and others may find that’s enough to lift them above the pack, but don’t kid yourself, all of these artists have thousands of hours invested in their instrument. If you have that kind of self discipline, god bless you.
For the rest of us, you just have to find the thing about you that touches the hearts of your audience. It might be your folksy charm or your Minnesota accent. It could be your tattoos, your quirky hairstyle, or even your hippy dippy wardrobe style. You are looking for the hook, the thing that makes you different. I believe it’s better for musicians to have a sonic hook. but that may not be an option for you. Find out what works for you. Listen to your audience. Respect them and see what you have to offer that brings them back over and over again. Once you establish that personal connection with your listeners, it will be much easier for them to lock into your musical message.
A Little Science
Something often overlooked in career development is the most basic of human traits. Pattern Matching. We all do it, dozens of times each minute. Everything that we taste, touch, hear, smell, or see is constantly evaluated and compared with the sum total of your life experience. Most people don’t even realize they are doing it, but its this very thing that gives context to everything in our lives.This can be a very powerful tool, but our experiences can also trick us into faulty assumptions. Parents do that a lot. Thinking that this kid is going to be just like the last one. (fat chance…)
We are all basically apes with cell phones, careening thru life trying to make sense of it all. Our inner ape is a slave to recognition. The moment you template new data against your old knowledge and determine you have a match, a bunch of things happen. You get excited. Generally you get happier (not always, some input evokes feeling of fear or uneasiness, sadness, even disgust, depending on the life events you associate, but the recognition usually starts you on a journey.)
I’m initially attracted to every woman I meet who has the Polish nose of my first great love. It’s probably not the BEST nose in the world, but you couldn’t prove that by me. I similarly have noted an instant attraction and intrigue around any woman I see reading a book in a public place. That gets my attention like almost nothing else.
This pattern matching is basic human nature. Everyone you have even met does it. This is why branding works, why songs have choruses, why McDonalds has sold Billions of crappy hamburgers, and it’s why you make the same mistakes over and over and over again. We just can’t stop, even if we aren’t paying attention to doing it.
This can be a powerful tool for the singer songwriter. The individuals who jury the Showcases, song contests, and other performance opportunities are generally drawn from a relatively small pool of arbiters of the community taste. These same people are called upon again and again to make these selections for these events. DJs, Presenters, Agents and Managers, others who have demonstrated leadership or a Midas Touch in picking artists for these events. People who hear lots of good music and have a strong frame of reference as to the state of the art in their arts community. These are smart, discerning listeners. And if they are very, very good, they can escape their preconceptions, listen critically, and give a truly unbiased read of the field of applicants. And (hopefully) actually single out the best of the best.
But not entirely, because they are, in fact, only human. And human beings are wired for pattern matching and recognition. If they recognize your voice, or your playing, or a clever turn of phrase, even just subliminally, it’s going to subtly tilt the deck in your favor. The judge may not have any idea. I know because it happened to me.
The simple fact is that you want these opinion makers to see and hear you as often as possible. You want them to learn your voice and appreciate your ironic sensibility
I used to dislike flamenco music. I didn’t understand it. It had the avalanche of notes that bluegrass has but made even less musical sense to me. So I went out and bought a dozen flamenco CDS off the dollar rack and listened to them for a year. Now I love flamenco music, but I had to power thru it in the beginning. Now that it makes sense to me, it’s much easier to enjoy. Even if you “Never Win these things”, there is a subtle, cumulative effect to showing up and participating. If your music actually sucks, this strategy is unlikely to be helpful to you, but if you are firmly in the mainstream of averageness with your musical skill set. This knowledge could make all the difference for you.
But what’s in it for me?
What every contest or showcase entrant hopes for is the brass ring of course, To have your song selected as the best of 20,000 entries, Cash prizes, to win the shiny set of matching Taylor Guitars, to be offered a MainStage set next year at Madison Square Garden. (Hey, it COULD happen…) But most of the participants are going to reap less obvious benefits. Most music presenters are up to their ears in acts that they already want to present. For you to claw your way to the top of that squirming pile, they are almost certainly going to have to see you perform. But these people LOVE to surprise and delight their listeners, so even if they don’t think they are looking for another act to book, they actually can’t help it. Maybe an agent or a manager will see in you an act they can sell to their customers. Record deals are largely an artifact of the last century, but some people still get signed (albeit usually to mediocre deals.) Maybe you’ll catch a sponsorship from a sportswear company or specialty food brand.
Perhaps surprisingly, often the best business connections to come out of these events is collaboration with other musicians. and you never know just when or where it will strike. Last year at the end of the Falcon Ridge festival, one of the headliners had come back over to the Big Orange Tarp to share some songs in our circle. The majority of the festival goers had packed up and headed home, but we had a healthy group of people who weren’t quite ready for the fun to end and it was a spirited get together. Rod MacDonald was playing a bunch of songs from his soon to be recorded new album (he had released a dozen albums or so already, dating back as far as 1983.) Sitting next to him in the circle was one of the bright new stars of folkdom, Kirsten Maxwell, who was not yet born when Rod started selling records. With her beautiful voice and unerring sense of harmony, Kirsten was chiming in on Rod’s songs as fast as he could pull them out. And they sounded amazing together. Fast forward 9 months and Rod’s latest album “Beginning Again” was released on May 1. Kirsten is singing all over that record.
Our cellist from the Big Orange Tarp house band Dirje Childs has been recording cello parts for some of the people working with our bass player, renown record producer and session musician Mark Dann. She records the parts down at Blue Rock Studios in Texas and sends them up to Mark in New York who mixes them onto the albums. A number of people I have put together on stage are now writing or touring together.
Maybe the single most common and beneficial result of attending these things is audience sharing. Simply splitting gigs with other performers that you meet and make a connection with. You play for their audience. They play for yours. And new fans are found on both sides.
It’s a complex calculus deciding whether a weekend at Falcon Ridge trumps a 3 night engagement at the Dinosaur Barbecue . But if the Dinosaur already wants to book you, chances are that they could do it on a different weekend. Are you ready to take the next step? Are your repertoire and skills honed enough to make the most of this opportunity? Only you can say. But think about it. At the very least, you’ll hear a bunch of songs and meet some cool people.