Please, call me Sol. I book the talent for a large and busy acoustic-music concert series, have a gig writing music reviews for a major folk-music magazine, attend the big music conferences, and sit like a freakin’ pasha judging hundreds of artists for music-conference showcase competitions. In other words, in our very small world of acoustic music, I’ve heard a B-minor-diminished chord or two. If you are an Acoustic Solo Singer Songwriter (or as one of my talent-booking colleagues puts it, an ASSS), I’d like you to sit back and listen to your Uncle Solly. I’ve got some things to say.
Solly’s First Advice: You’re A Damned Hard Sell
Look. ASSSes are a hard sell to audiences. This is not your fault. Do you remember the scene from “Animal House,” where Stephen Bishop gets his acoustic guitar smashed by John Belushi after he starts to sing a folk song? No one ever asked, “why is that funny”?
Why is it hell to try to make it as an acoustic singer/songwriter? For one thing, EVERYONE YOU KNOW, AND HIS BROTHER, HIS SISTER, AND HIS COCKER SPANIEL IS ALSO AN ACOUSTIC SINGER/SONGWRITER. They jam the open mics in local coffee shops. They break out their Yamaha acoustics at family gatherings. A few years ago, an organization called Just Plain Folks held a songwriting competition. 560,000 songwriters submitted songs. Five. Hundred. Sixty. Freaking. Thousand.
As Kris Kristofferson would say, Blame It On The Stones (and on the Beatles). Nearly everyone who was old enough to form an “E” chord picked up a guitar Back In The Day and found out how easy is it to strum some chords and sing along. From there, the urge to write songs was irresistible. Comes the era of home-made CDs, and we’ve got trouble, right here in ASSS City. Because that means that hundreds of thousands of our fellow ‘boomers and gen-x-ers are making mountains of music, often without any particular aptitude or having honed their chops on song structure, narrative, harmony, or style.
I remember once being at a workshop for guitarists, given by the great Jack Williams. He turned to the thirty or so singer/songwriters in the group and asked for anyone to play by ear the first notes of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. Not only did no one do it; no one was willing even to try. Brother, if acoustic songwriters don’t know intervals and scales, you can bet the songs they write won’t have harmonic tension, dissonances, meaningful structure, or melodic interest. Just sayin’.
Here’s another reason why an ASSS is a hard sell. The Public has come to fear and loathe any acoustic singer/songwriter they don’t know. Partly, this is because there’s so much mediocre acoustic music out there, and folks are deathly afraid they’ll be stuck in their seats, applauding meekly while being bored silly. Partly, this is because it’s really damned hard to command an audience with nothing but a voice, an acoustic guitar, and some folksy patter. Not that there aren’t geniuses who can capture an audience with a few vibrating strings, like Jake Shimobokuro or Dave Matthews or Chris Smither. Or maybe you. But, trust Solly on this…the public will not take the chance that Joe No-Name at the Hungry Bean Café will hold their interest, because the odds are stacked so heavily against it.
Speaking of Joe No-Name, one more reason you’re a hard sell is that name that Mama gave you. A million singer/songwriters, each going by her own hard-to-remember first and last names. Good for you if you were born Peyton Tochterman or Brian Gundersdorf; but how’s the public supposed to remember they heard a catchy ditty from Diana Jones or John Flynn? Look: Just consider how journeyman songwriters have suddenly become bookable by calling themselves The Tallest Man On Earth or The Sea The Sea or The Copper Ponies or such. Okay? Just humor me on this.
Solly’s Second Advice: This Is A Hell Of A “Business”
Picture an aging folkie, dragging his weary ass from his demanding day job to a dim church basement, where he’s failed to draw even a double-digit crowd to his coffeehouse to hear an acoustic singer/songwriter. As he packs up the last uneaten slice of Sara Lee pound cake, you ask when he’s going to call it quits. And, of course, he says, “What? And give up show business?”
Acoustic-music presenters are unfailingly generous-hearted big spirits, and their (usually unpaid) labors of love keep the music going. But, we’re talking honestly here, right? Most of them don’t know from business. That’s a problem for you.
Take it from Solly. When it comes to creating a concert series, you can never put in enough time. Researching and booking the right artists, going to the music conferences, drafting press releases and online calendar listings, doing community outreach, creating posters, patron hand-holding, ticketing, special events, problem-solving, special requests, volunteer-wrangling, tech advancing, green room snack-buying, hospitality advancing, bookkeeping, mail list grooming, radio and newspaper schmoozing, insurance, PROs, taking out the garbage and turning off the lights…lemme sit down, your Uncle Solly’s getting tired just thinking about it.
Unfortunately, for most presenters, something’s gotta give. And that affects you. Chances are, it’ll take a year and dozens of unanswered emails for you to get booked, and after all that effort the gig is barely promoted and the joint is an unappealing church basement and you wind up with a small audience and a smaller fee. Yet, in our biz this is considered to be a primo “listening room” booking.
Solly’s Third Advice: Talent Will Out
Okay, enough bad news, bubbaleh. You may be asking, “So how can I ever build a career when the decks are stacked against unknown singer/songwriters?” To this, there is an answer: In these days of the long tail, talent will out.
You know this “long tail” idea, right? Back when we were burning incense in our dorm rooms, a musician got known either by getting a record contract and radio play or by doing nonstop live shows in small rooms. Mostly, everyone bought the same popular albums. You were either The Who, or you were just, who? Then came the Internet, home-made CDs, iTunes, YouTube, and social media. Now, instead of Dylan selling 100,000 albums, a hundred artists sell 1000 albums each. That’s the long tail.
With this long tail, I can guarantee you, talent will out. If you are making good music and putting it where it can be heard, your music will get discovered, people will become fans, fans will feel invested in your music and tell their friends, your songs will get downloaded, and presenters will take notice. Anyone who says, “I can’t get work until I’m known, and I can’t get known unless I work” is either living in the past or hasn’t paid her WiFi bill.
Of course, there’s success and then there’s Success. When I think of singer/songwriters, I think of college basketball players. OK, just go with me here. When I watch a college game, I’m amazed at how talented the players are. And yet, I know that only a very few of them will make it into the NBA. Something incredible and undefinable separates the true stars from merely very talented. The players that don’t make the pros can continue to play great ball, but on another level, like the semi-pro clubs.
Et tu, singer/songwriters. There is always the chance that you are the next Mumfords, John Mayer, or Josh Ritter. If so, don’t forget your Uncle Solly on your way up. If not, though, there is a clear and well-worn path to solid, though modest, long-tail success as an acoustic performer.
I’m thinking of the incredibly talented Slaid Cleaves. Do you ever look at the annual Parade Magazine issue called “What People Earn”? I won’t ask. I know you do, just like I do. A few years back, I was surprised to see Slaid as one of the folks on the magazine cover, with the text “Slaid Cleaves. Singer/Songwriter. $30,000/year.” I’m sure Slaid does much better now, but the point is, he’s one of the many hundreds of working singer/songwriters who are making an okay living by being astoundingly talented, hardworking, and smart about their careers. (Check out Slaid’s “Advice To A Young Musician,” and while you’re there, show him some love and preorder his new CD). Jamie Anderson has make a living as a touring musician for 20 years by supplementing her music income with private music lessons and freelance writing. Kim and Reggie Harris play concerts in the evening and do workshops and school programs in the afternoons. Nick Annis tours with his tools and does handyman work.
Point is: A talented singer/songwriter will get recognition. A hard-working, smart, AND talented singer/songwriter can make a living at music, and maybe even a great living. But I’m being honest with you here: if you’ve given it all you’ve got, and your career is not getting off the ground, chances are it’s not gonna happen.
Solly’s Last Advice: Isn’t That A Party?
If you’re still awake, you’ve got my drift: This is a gol-darned hard business, and fame and fortune aren’t likely. But, there’s every opportunity for a talented ASSS to be a working musician. My last piece of advice is that there’s more to the working musician’s life than just driving thousands of miles for hundreds of dollars.
Of course, there’s the time on stage. I’m guessing that you love that part. Back when I was a performing songwriter, I loved writing songs but I hated being on stage…to me, performing was always like taking a final exam: It might go well, it might go badly, but all in all I’d rather not be taking the exam at all. You, though, love this stuff.
Second, working musicians are part of a rich and warm-hearted community. In every music hot spot from Nashville to Northampton, performers know each other, make music together, and do what they can to support each other. Try saying the same about your local bar association.
I don’t think it’s ever easy. Because I run a large concert venue (by folk standards….Madison Square Garden it ain’t), a lot of the artists I present are household names, with top-ten hits and big awards. Almost all of them are still working their butts off to make a living at music. But, they’re doing it. And, mostly, they’re loving it. Chances are, you can, too. Trust your Uncle Solly on that. Okay?