Is That You, ASSSes (Acoustic Solo Singer Songwriters)? It’s Me, Uncle Sol.

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 AdviceYou’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.

@[100000295729172:2048:Christine DeLeon] performing her Great Folk Scare at a packed songwriter's workshop at The Folk The Folk @[33773051951:274:The Folk Project (New Jersey)] festival. Musicians everywhere.

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?



May 27, 2013 · 3:04 pm

48 responses to “Is That You, ASSSes (Acoustic Solo Singer Songwriters)? It’s Me, Uncle Sol.

  1. Woah! That’s a lotta hard straight talk. I gotta tell you though Solly, you didn’t have it quite right in one area: That bit about “Talent will out”. There is some correlation between talent and success. But it’s no way a sure thing. I’ve seen some incredibly talented people (Like the aforementioned Jack Williams) who are still hanging on by their fingernails, putting in 200 gigs and 200,000 miles a year, and just barely making the mortgage payments. And some real crap on arena stages. (Well that last bit is not exactly true. I haven’t been to any arena concerts in a long, long time. But you know what I mean.) Talent MIGHT out. The factors of connections and luck can outweigh talent.

    • I’m not sure if we disagree or not. Talent will not ALWAYS out, of course. But, with a combination of talent, smarts, hard work, and good use of social networking, talent is now able consistently to find its level. John Fullbright won a Grammy. Danny Schmidt, Seth Glier and The Milk Carton Kids got immediate attention. Lumineers, Avetts, Civil Wars, The Weepies…none of them had record deals or big radio play. They made great music and it found its audience. The outliers don’t really prove much either way, although I will forever wonder why We’re About 9 are not playing large theaters…and on the other end, what would possibly explain “crap on arena stages” other than you have different musical taste than tens of thousands of other people? As they used to say about Elvis, ten million [insert arena act name here] fans can’t all be wrong. As for putting in 200 gigs and 200,000 miles per year, well, that’s I think the sort of modest career in acoustic music that I was describing. It works for the Jack Williamses and Slaid Cleaveses and Mary Gauthiers of our world, and it’s more and more possible for thems that chooses it. S.

    • I have managed to make a living as a musician for a couple decades, most of it by directing, some by teaching and performing. I have a degree in music. I’d like to weigh in about the profound lack of creative diversity when it comes to music. Radio was a casualty of cookie cutter song-craft years ago. These days the internet is more diverse, but not much. I agree that there’s a ton of junk to be weeded out, but I’m afraid the gatekeepers tend to have an ear for the formulaic. Is there time for any of us to allow a song to grow on us, or must it grab us by the collar and demand our attention? Have we as music consumers become addicted to musical fast food? What becomes of the musician who labors at everything except the slick — the fancy mixing and mastering, the carefully crafted image, the pop and sparkle, the easily digested hook? These days a talent for imitation will out, but a unique talent will be overlooked.

      • Paul- to whom is your question really directed? Ask yourself WHY radio is a “casualty of cookie cutter song craft.” Could it be because the companies who produce records on a large scale are playing to their audience in order to maximize profits? It’s how free enterprise works. Create something that appeals to the masses, and radio will shuffle off the cookie cast and beat on your door. Chances are pretty good, though, that your ear is more sophisticated than the general public, and their preferred consumption will be different than your quality offering. Just sayin. It’s a market thing, don’t let it bring ya down.

        And thank you, Uncle Solly, for a great article!

  2. Dear Gruntled Mudgeon, I am a fifty-year performer who actually plays folk songs. I don’t make a good living, but I get by, and I can pick my patoot off. I teach during the summers at different camps, and give workshops whenever I can while I’m on the road, which is about half the time. I never had illusions about making it big, and never wanted to. All I’ve ever wanted out of this life is steady work that gets me by. Longevity is better than a high spike any day. Would you be so kind as to somehow let me know where your venue is, so I can hit you up for a gig?

  3. Bob Weiser

    Mike Ag has a point or two, though Uncle Solly is pretty much right on target. Talent doesn’t always will out, and lack of talent doesn’t always die on the vine. But lack of talent/skill/hard work/positive and appreciative attitude will generally leave you frustrated and unsuccessful. Be honest with yourself. Sometimes it’s better to moderate your goals based on a realistic ASSSessment of what you bring to the stage. MUSIC MATTERS…it makes your life, my life, and the lives of countless others more enjoyable. Being an ASSS isn’t the only way to contribute to the good that music is in the world. Teach, organize and manage a community performance space with other volunteers, find a way to bring music into the schools, farmers markets, food coops, Occupy rallies etc…there’s lots of good ways to still make music and make it matter for yourself and others without burning 4000 gallons of gas a year (that’s 100,000 miles at 25 miles per gallon for those who aren’t good at arithmetic, another skill that’s useful if you’re going to succeed….) or yourself and your lover out totally….

  4. Solly, huh? Are you channeling Sol Hurok, whose name was synonymous with impressario during my formative years?

  5. themanbeyond

    Some acoustic singer-songwriters actually form bands. And just what has Ani DeFranco done?

  6. Interesting stuff. I can testify to a lot of this Sol.
    Jay Aymar (one of those hard to remember names likely)

  7. Folkin’ great post and I’m not just saying that ’cause you mention me. I’ve also got a blog post with advice for singer-songwriters:

  8. PS Does this mean you’ll book me now?

  9. Mike Miller

    I write a CD review column for a major Folk Song organization so I receive countless submissions from ASSS hopefuls. Your take on the business side is spot on.
    In a genre with more applicants than audience, it’s tough to separate the coal from the slag. It’s tough to even find the coal. I have been in the business for fifty years so I know it can be done but it used to be a lot easier with the prejurying of record labels. Back in the day, a recording meant that the artist was sufficiently talented to receive financial backing from discerning professionals. Nowadays, a recording means an artist kicked in a few thousand clams, most of which was spent on the packaging.
    I am reminded of the story of the unemployed actor who decides to jump off a bridge. There, he meets an aging prostitute with similar intent. “Here we are”, he says, “the two greatest professions, destroyed by amatuers.”

    • Mike, I’m a CD reviewer, too. There were bad LPs back in the day, also, there were just fewer of them. I wish more of today’s musicians — not just singer-songwriters — would get feedback on their work before committing to disc.

      • Mike Miller

        In my opinion, nobody should be his own producer. There are limits to limited objectivity.

  10. Thank you so much for posting this. There needs to be more hard-won, serious advice like this out there, the internet flooded as it is with endless suggestions that if you somehow play the social media game just right, you will suddenly become famous.

  11. Utah Phillips once said that music was best when “practiced as an activity rather than a commodity.” I spent a few years making a living at music and have presented many other artists over the years. I agree with you Solly, there are way too many folks competing for gigs these days and only a small percentage of them have that undefine-able ability to capture an audience. Everybody and their mother is a “singer/songwriter’ and too many of them are willing to play for nothing! That makes it much harder for others to scratch out a living at it this, what Greg Brown has called, “the poet game.”

    Even if you have talent, songwriting remains a craft that requires years of PERSONAL EXPERIENCE, study and practice to become good at. Are there those neophytes that write something beautiful early on? Yes, but those are the exception, not the rule. The wealthy upper middle class kid with the five thousand dollar Martin guitar singing about the homeless, will always go over like a fart in church!

    The “work” is in the writing too. I have performed on many stages, in front of ten and ten thousand. This has always been an avocation for me rather than an occupation. The social media available today is making it easier to sell songs. The business is changing. The traditional “album” is becoming a thing of the past. It is not just club owners taking advantage of musicians anymore, its downloaders and all manner of “art pirates” on the internet. I think Utah was right. Another thing that I have always been amazed at was that at these music conferences etc. the people who are in the position of deciding “who has talent”…..usually have NONE….go figure?

    My advice to any young STAR (Songwriter Traveling And Recording) [I take exception to the condescending acronym you used and the fact that you have not identified yourself] to follow your dream. Give it 100%. Strive for the perfect song and you may just write some excellent ones. Play as much as you can BUT NOT FOR FREE….love what you are doing while you are doing it, because this is a very fickle business and, remember that in the end, it’s an activity, not a commodity, a vocation, not an occupation.

    One last thing to paraphrase my dear friend Jack Hardy, if your explanation for the song is as long or longer than the song itself…THE SONG SUCKS AND YOU NEED TO REWRITE IT! So just “shut up and sing the song!”

    All the best

  12. Laura

    I host a small house concert series and have immersed myself in the world of singer-songwriters over the past four years. Looking in from the outside on this World I have noticed that it is both a blessing and a curse that singer-songwriters have such a great support system of friends and fellow musicians in the early stages of their careers. A blessing, of course, in that it enables one to get a confident start to a hopefully-promising career. But a curse, in that, it enables many musicians who are not-so-talented to believe that they don’t need to evolve. I have heard many ‘almost-there’ songs that the artists refuse to refine in the belief that any changes will spoil the spirit of the song. I’ve seen many performers who, in front of an audience of friends and family, are led to believe that they are ‘there’, when in reality they have a lot to learn about interacting with and engaging an audience. They have no clue as to the importance of physical appearance in performance, because no one will tell them they need to lose 20 pounds or how to move onstage. The friendships they have with audience members and with other musicians can actually hinder them this way. What is lacking is the opportunity at an early stage to have honest, independent, evaluation of the music and its presentation. Without that, they lack a necessary resource in the quest for success.

    • Laura

      OK, Laura here again……..I just read my hastily-composed post, and I need to clarify that the community of musicians that supports each other is a wonderful resource for an aspiring musician. It is essential and inspirational, and I don’t mean at all to criticize that. What I intended to highlight in my post is that this must be balanced by objective input from somewhere, in order to help a musician to hone his/her skills and to know whether he/she is on the right track. It is a difficult burden for family and friends to separate their personal feelings in order to provide honest criticism. And I think perhaps a bit unfair to expect them to do so. Musicians should step back and ask themselves: who is buying my CD? Who is coming to my shows? If, after two or three years of performing, it’s primarily friends and family, then I believe a bit of soul-searching is in order. And clearly, if one’s goal in music is to play for the joy of it, nothing should stop that. But if the intent is to make a career of it, to expect to sell it to the world, then it’s a different story.

      • Very well said, Laura (both the original and the addendum). Many organizations, adult songwriting and music camps etc. adopt the “everybody gets a goodie bag” approach, which doesn’t really help people learn where they need to grow professionally – or worse, it blurs the lines.

  13. There are many reasons that songwriters write songs and perform them. Creating a “career” is only one. If attempting to turn your original tunes into an occupation is your goal (and “occupation” can mean everything from being fully self-sustaining money-wise to being a part-time money-making venture to being a full-time activity supported, realistically, by a spouse or other funds), it is true that few acoustic solo singer-songwriter have the talent, spark and passion necessary to truly shine and stand out with just a guitar or a piano and a microphone. That is why those that do are so exciting and inspiring in ways that bands aren’t (seeing Suzanne Vega perform solo acoustic in 1986 at George Washington University was life-changing for me). And even for those that do, few may have the luck, long-term connections and support of a partner to keep them going in their efforts year-in and year-out.

    But IF performing and touring is the goal (and not, say, selling songs to other artists a la Nashville, or sharing your songs through social media a la YouTube, Facebook, etc.), there are many other ways for a songwriter to stand out in a crowd of ASSS’s, whether it’s teaming up in a duo, trio or band; taking up an interesting instrument or tool such as a uke, banjo, dobro, keyboards, or looping; becoming an interpreter of songs written by other talented songwriters; or using other comedy-acting-spoken word-storytelling talents to add entertainment and become a true entertainment “act.”

    However, there are, of course, many, many other reasons songwriters write songs, do open mics, play gigs, enter songwriting contests, go to feedback groups, have house concerts, do song swaps, go to festivals, go to songwriting camps, record on Garageband and play in their garage. Those reasons are far too many to list here, but many of them have to do with fulfillment and joy, and those reasons may go far afield of the relatively small, insular folk-music-songwriting scene that most of us commenting are a part of and participate in and believe in and support and appreciate (although those reasons may include the beautiful power of community that smaller songwriting “scenes” can create).

    Supply and demand plays itself out as much in the world of songwriting as any other creative and artistic field, from acting and painting to poetry. As long as there are places to play, songwriters will come together and play there. As long as there are lovely acoustic concert series that pay, performing songwriters will compete for a chance to play there. Either the songwriting talent, the sheer power of the “act,” or the publicity/marketing machine will rise to the top — or at least the top of whatever size stage we’re speaking of here. Maybe there will be a drop-off in the # of performers willing to make a go of it if fewer and fewer listeners are willing to pay for physical CDs or digital files. But there will always be a bell curve of talent, temerity and toughness, and it is lucky for those who love to listen to songwriters as well as those who love to write and perform songs that there will always be a place to listen and a place to play — in one form or another. And there is always a place to write and sing. Anywhere, anytime.

    Sharon Goldman

  14. Mark Rust

    I think this whole conversation misses a huge point, and reveals while so many are unsuccessful. It’s the music BUSINESS. And it’s that second half of the phrase that is the real problem for most musicians. I’ve made a good & consistent living for the past 35 years as an independent unknown acoustic singer/songwriter. But it’s not because I’m that much better than others. In fact, I consider my talent about average among competent counterparts. But I have always focused on the business end. And I’m not talking about entering song competitions, or attending so-called conferences where no actual booking takes place. I’m talking about phone calls & emails, market research, creating & updating databases, sending out endless direct mail & email promotions, etc. These are the things that make any business survive. And you have to treat your self as a business. You don’t see store owners getting together at conferences and displaying their stuff to other store owners. They focus on creative ways to sell what they have to the public. And it’s not easy, and it’s definitely not sexy. People imagine this wonderful lifestyle I must have. I always tell them that the days I’m not on the road for a show (and that’s most days), I’m at my desk doing the exact same boring but necessary things anyone who’s really in business does. All day, every day. That’s why I work. In my area there are lots of others who hear that I work, and want some advice. I tell them all the same thing – “Come to my office, and I’ll tell you everything I know. But be prepared, there’s no secret, it’s all about the hard work of day to day, year round business work”. You know how many have come? Not one. They can’t even show up for a meeting. I have little sympathy frankly. It’s as tough a business environment for us as any business these days. The lesser talent will not survive. And even the talented will have a difficult time. But it is possible. But it’s business.

  15. I hope Scott doesn’t mind that several of us shared this on Facebook today. It’s a lot to chew in, and I’d imagine that perhaps even with all that sharing only a small fraction of folks who might really need to read and consider it will actually see it. I had posted this on my FB page just a couple weeks ago addressing the “supply and demand” realities of wanting to play songs you wrote in front of a group of people who are listening:)
    I was talking with a young performing songwriting student the other day, and while I wasn’t planning to have this particular conversation, afterwards I thought that distilling this musing might be worth sharing.

    “You can’t make people like what you do, and you can’t make them listen to what you do. What you can do is be likable, so that if they are willing to let themselves experience you for a moment, at least they can sense that.
    Because the laws of supply and demand in the music business tell us these things – among the “independent” world below “The Voice” and “Idol”, there are way too many artists wanting to do this for the amount of people who are willing to pay to consume it, live or recorded. Which means that what gatekeepers there are – people who host shows, DJ, or in other ways choose to promote some artists – really have no need to put up with obnoxious artists.

    You have to not only create great music and perform it well, but you have to handle your business just as well – and Job One is to take nothing for granted, including what kind of day, week, or life the person on the other end of that conversation or email might be having. Be your friendly, charming, compassionate, Golden Rule self, and good things will always follow. Always remember to enjoy what you have been given this gift to do. Take it seriously, work hard, but remember that none of it is owed to you.

    You may never get an opportunity to show that festival promoter or house concert host that there is more to you than the stereotypical self-focused, strum 3 chords all night singer/songwriter, but you can always put your best face forward.

    And you never know who’s watching, or what might come back to surprise you years later. Do your best to make sure those surprises are pleasant ones instead of regrets.”

    Words I try to live by every day in the booking office, every night on stage, and every mile outside of my own house where I am dependent upon the kindness of friends and strangers alike.”

    Reprinted from my FB page at, and thanks if you’re reading this!

  16. Steven Butler

    Talent is a given after reaching a certain level in the music business, I would say about the coffee house level. There a huge number of very talented people playing at that level and higher. That coffeehouse musician is just as valid as the acts that are filling a stadium.
    There are plenty of talented people that either can’t or won’t make the commitment necessary to make their music careers their career.
    The reason Jack Williams, Slaid Cleaves and others like Rod Picott, Ken Gaines, Karen Mal, Butch Morgan, Kate Gaffney and others are able to make a living with music bringing in some if not all of their income is commitment. Commitment to themselves and commitment to their music. They are all talented because they all have put in hours and hours, years and years of practice and hard work. Not because they woke up with the voice of an angel and intuitively knew the fret board.
    They worked at it, most just about everyday. Everyday they work at adding fans to their fan base, sometimes it is a fan at a time. Everyday they worked on their voice, their guitar, their writing, their show.
    They believed in themselves. We are in a world where one is taught not to believe in yourself, we are taught to not be risk takers. They do not have a fall back if “this does not work out”. They left the guaranteed world for the world of–“I don’t know what will happen in my future; but, it will have music in it”.
    So even if you are not the most talented; but, you believe in yourself, are willing to work hard, are willing to do without some things that really are not necessary, then you can pursue a life in music. Then some day someone will be telling the story of this really talented person they saw.
    That coffeehouse musician is just as valid as the acts that are filling a stadium.
    In music the only one that can put you into the game is yourself. The only one that can take you out of the game is yourself. No one will call you an artist unless you give yourself permission first to create art. Van Gogh was a painter; because, he painted.
    So if you want to be a performing singer/songwriter. Then sing, write and perform. Let the chips fall where they may. Life is simple that way sometimes.

  17. I think this is a fine piece of writing, not beating around the bush. It IS tough to make it outthere, and there’s no need to deny that. Informative and cool.
    I’ve published a little piece of writing myself, more on the process of co-writing, if anybody are interested. You can find it here:

    “Tales Of The Inexperienced”
    (Some thoughts on songwriting)

  18. It’s alleged the Buddha said “expectation is the mother of disappointment” or something along those lines. I think the key to being ‘successful’ is to be realistic in defining success for oneself.. I have used the ‘college basketball to NBA’ metaphor many times in the past (what a weird coincidence) when describing the music business in general and ASSS-ness in particular. But this is just as true for rappers, rock bands, and all manner of musicians-cum-dreamers out here – there’s 10,000 doing it for every one that ‘makes it big’. As the producer on my first CD said to me: “If you’re making this CD for anyone other than yourself, don’t bother. It’s a bonus if other people like it”. He was right then, and still is now, as I prepare to launch my third CD into the void. Do good work for love of the work. Everything that follows is a bonus, and was meant to happen.

    • I’m going to push back gently on the notion that musicians (or actors, freelance writers, visual artists, and other creative sorts) should be content to put their creative work out into the void and, as Steven Butler puts it, let the chips fall where they may. With that kind of approach, that chip is most likely going to fall right where “cow chips” fall. Of course, you can record songs for the love of singing, or paint a pretty landscape for the love of painting. It happens every day, and it’s a great hobby. But if you want to make a living at it, hurling your work into the void like a message in a bottle is not an ideal business plan.

      • Steven Butler

        I guess you think Van Gogh wasted his life painting then? You and I do not know what the true value of an artistic endeavor or what it will yield. Or how it will impact the world. Most of the people I know that make a living in music have not had significant radio play, the ones who have it has been more public and student radio (which they recieve no royalties for). The ones I mentioned that make a living at it do it because that is what they do. Most do not make a lot of money, most play to small audiences. They all have had people that have told them they were not quite good enough or people are of the opinion they are not a sucess. You did not read the part where I said they work hard everyday to build their audience/fan base, to work hard at writing, work hard at their singing and performing, that is not exactly throwing it out into the void. Letting the chips fall where they may is not throwing it into the void, it is accepting what the product of your hard work is in the short term and moving on. They should not back away from doing it because of others percieved value of their art. Your college basketball and NBA analogy is bad one. A full scholarship to Harvard, Yale, Texas A & M, Baylor, Stanford may yield substantial financial gain for the individuals if they apply themselves in school. Sometimes eclipsing what most NBA players end up with at the end of their careers, because many end up broke. Many college athletes careers are very fruitful, just not by yours and others short sighted standards. If you do not get a sneaker contract they were not sucessful as a basketball player??????? Do you think Jack Williams waste his time looking for string endorsements? I will bet you he does not put much time or effort into that. I know Jack and he probably spends more time pondering what he can do with a single note than he does chasing other peoples ideas of sucess. He looks to improve himself daily as a writer, singer and musician. Minimizing one persons art does not elevate another. Saying that writers should not write becuase they have not earned it or payed their dues is dumb, they should write. If they are critical of themselves they will improve, they may write something brilliant in the meantime. Some peoples best songs they did not recognize themselves as being the ones people would hold onto. I know a songwriter here in Northwest Arkansas who has gotten royalty checks from Europe (he has never been there) and Australia (he has never been there). His name is Effron White. He has broken most of the rules you stated; but, guess what, He is a success, maybe not by your standards; but, many others would say he is. He is a Newfolk winner (Slaid Cleaves was one of the judges), he has won a number of songwriting competitions, he has had members of Trout Fishing In America, The Lost Gonzo Band and other accomplished musicians perform on his cd’s. John Inmon produced Effron’s last cd, “Long Haul”, which has gotten some positive reviews on. John Inmon himself expressed very positive thoughts about how good the cd was. If somebody is going to write and/or perform they do not need to listen to you or me, they need to listen to themselves.

      • Mike Miller

        The people who “…listen to themselves” and endure the harshness of lives lived for their spiritual purity and artistic integrity to find recognition and acceptance late in life, or after their passing, are both admirable and damned few.
        One was so obsessive and demented, he cut off his ear in despair. I suppose there are, and will always be, a host of lesser talents who feel that they are his equals because nobody is buying their creations either.
        Unfortunately, failure alone is not an indication of genius. Like it or not, talent is not ruled by fairness and genius is a fickle mistress. Frankly, the biggest obstacle for the budding songsmith is the notion that anybody can write a great song (a notion supported by an ocean of wannabes and a mere trickle of really gifted souls). Fortunately, the real cream usually rises in the densest of skim..

  19. Got it, thanks. I think I’ve misunderstood your “chips fall where they may” comment and you’ve misunderstood me as saying that no one should make music unless she is going to be financially successful at it. Far’s I can tell, we actually don’t disagree much. S

    • I think we all agree. ‘Making a living’ at ‘making music’ are not incompatible but they are separate things. Most of my musician pals who are ‘making a living’ at it write, perform, teach, tour, build instruments, work in recording studios, and all manner of other things so they can pay the rent while continuing to create. Some have a business plan, some just know how to make it work for themselves but in the end they have defined success on their own terms, and that’s what I was driving at.

      • Mike Miller

        Mr. Curley is correct but, although I augmented my performance income with a day of guitar and mandolin lessons, I could have performed more often if I wasn’t so damned lazy. Between schools, day care centers, religion based clubs and senior facilities (not to mention seasonal jobs like camps and swim clubs), there are enough venues to work every day for a few years without repeating. I did about 150 dates every year.
        I admit it was easier for me because I had a well connected manager and a half dozen agents but I have seen others who booked themselves with similar success.

  20. Sol, you really tell it like it is. I don’t know if I’d stand up for you in a bar fight, but I’d at least sit in the same bar. But I gotta ask ya, do you really think a complicated name is an asset? Really?

    I’m getting kind of feeble-minded from all those hours at the keyboard, and I need to think about my own mental health. I can remember Diana Jones and John Flynn long enough to introduce them to my audience with out bursting into red-faced flames of embarrassment, but Bradley Skistimas has me stuttering somewhere around the fourth syllable.

    Come to think of it, Brad, who is more marketing-savvy than most people on the shiny end of a microphone, originally branded himself as Five Times August, only to later rebrand as Bradley James. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think that Brad knows the value of a name that is easy on the ears and easy on the tongue. I’ll bet that Bob Zimmerman guy could have gone someplace if he had just left things alone and stuck with his original name.

    So, before I cause any trouble. Let me leave with this. Songwriters, give me a simple, catchy name. They roll of the fingers more easily when I’m writing those promotional emails and social media posts. In fact, Keep your name to 10 letters or less, and you’ll have a 10% better chance of getting a booking date at one place I am intimately familiar with. 😉

  21. Hi Sol … living in the live music capitol of the world I so agree with most of this …..I would just like to point out that the Civil Wars although technically independent actually spent about $450,000 to achieve the success they had… there was a panel at the AMA conference and they had their whole team up there with them… their “Record company,” Two lawyers (their lawyer and the “record company’s lawyer”), booking agent, radio promotions person and themselves…. one of the artists had income coming in I think from Oscar-Meyer for an ad campaign … how do I know this… I asked at that panel and they answered truthfully….

  22. Interesting article and responses…I’m not planning on ever quitting my “day job”, and as such I’ll probably never have the time to fully develop whatever minute amount of talent I could have, but at the same time, I love music. I love playing, writing, singing, performing, jamming, listening, and supporting those who do make the decision to make the “music business” their life. I’ve also realized I’m not going to ever stop playing or learning more just because I’m not “a star”. I also love the magic that comes from playing with others, co-writing, and harmonizing. Creating bands is hard work (all those personalities) but creates its own rewards. I guess some would say it’s “just a hobby” for me, but it’s a passion that enriches my life most every single day, and I’m thankful that I’m doing it. I love my music community!

    Now…off to work.

  23. I remember her easily because she is THE BOMB, Sol!

  24. Spot on! Great advice.
    (Of Wild Ponies… formerly known as Doug & Telisha Williams)

  25. Hey, thanks! This is definitely the first time anyone has ever implied that my name is an advantage. That’s certainly a shift of perspective from my experience being Brian Gundersdorf in, say, middle school. But I don’t disagree. As for the large theaters, well…success certainly is complicated, In the early years of We’re About 9, I set a lot of aggressive goals. Most, of course, failed. But by sheer volume and diversity of effort, we managed to land gigs opening for my very favorite artists, and playing at my favorite festivals. We won over other artists, and the presenters. And I think that’s largely because we were the short straw (we stood out). And we made sure our straw was always in the bunch come picking time.

    In the world of independent music, other artists and presenters are one market–the general public is a very different one. The general public is a long con. Or, one that requires funding, or a break or connection, or a successful guess on the combination lock, or a specific kind of talent. All of the above, and plenty more. And, apparently, a distinctive name :).

    In a couple weeks I’ll be playing my first ASSS gig in a decade (WA9 is not going anywhere, just stretching my legs a bit). So this article is a well timed reminder for me. Thanks Uncle Sol.

  26. Uncle Solly,

    I teach improvisation, arrangement and composition. I ask people to name any simple song, in any key, in any style, and I proceed to play it, without hunting for notes or making mistakes. I then transpose it, use minor inventions and counterpoint, and then ask for another tune and follow the same routine.

    I tell people beforehand that I am able to do this, and I am sometimes met with the accusation that I am an egotist, or a braggart, though I have not claimed an incredible amount of artistry, technique or melodic genius.

    The fact is, this ability was once labeled as simple, basic musicality. It was a prerequisite for jobbing out. If you were a musician on a job and someone asked you to play “Happy Birthday” in Eb, so they could sing along, it was expected that you were able to do it. You were not considered a savant if you did so. It was expected of you. If a musician doesn’t have this basic level of ability, I am not going to use them on a gig.

    Today, songwriters are limited to a small palette and the composition is laborious, due to the amount of effort expended, due to their complete lack of regard for exercises in basic musicality.

    Apologists might site folk heroes of the past as examples of people that overcame ignorance of musicality by the sheer force of genius, but just about anyone of them could perform a simple chord solo of Down in the Valley in several familiar keys. Just because they didn’t understand theoretical nomenclature doesn’t mean they couldn’t play a simple tune by ear.

    Your article, dead on as it is, will be sadly ignored. It is nice to see someone get to the meat of the problem though.

    Rob Bourassa


  27. Is ‘minor-diminished’ an actual chord? I know the diminished 7th, the minor 7 flat 5, and other ways of saying the same things. Ohnowait! Perhaps that’s part of Uncle Sol’s point! Style is substance, right! Dress for the job you want not the job you have — because appearances are everything. Perception is reality. It doesn’t matter if you write great songs, what matters is knowing the hip lingo so you can sell whatever to whoever has the juice to get you where-ever you want to go. Pay the dues. Kiss the right ASSSes and you’ll be on your way. Only it’s the ASSSes who have the kissing to do, ahbvyously.

    • Mike Miller

      I love Paul Fosters post because it sums up what the ASSS’s problem is. They just don’t get that Show Biz, like any other biz, is built on recommendation, not unqualified bum bussing or faulty fawning.
      A few years ago, I was invited to a NERFA convention to lead singing at night. Having no responsibilities during the daytime, I wandered into a workshop about press kits. The audience was composed of performers looking for business tips. The workshop hosts were a festival booker, a club owner and a “folk” DJ. They were saying how important a well made press kit was. The performers paid rapt attention until I raised my hand, asked a question and pretty well ended the workshop. I said. “You’ve got two performers looking for a gig. One has the best damn press kit you ever saw and the other is recommended by someone you trust. Which one do you hire?”
      Here’s the skinny. Performing is like every other field, Sincere recommendation is the coin of the realm and you don’t get it by ass kissing.
      Obviously, referral only gets you in the door. The rest is up to your talent and skill as an entertainer.

      • It seems to me that this string of comments (Rob, Mike, Paul) point to a different challenge to singer/songwriters: the thousand different and often unknowable ways to get the attention of a presenter. Some might wait for a personal recommendation (though, I rarely get these); some, like Mike Agranoff, must see the performer live; some rely on CDs, music conferences, press kits, Web sites, or an unhealthy fondness for pale young singers with nautical tattoos. Must a singer/songwriter play all these angles at once to succeed?

        For what it’s worth, here’s how I come at it when booking “emerging” performers. I watch all of the other venues like ours to see who they’re booking. I poll our audience constantly (by written questionnaires and by an on-line forum) to find out who they are discovering. I go to the music conferences and act as a showcase judge at NERFA. And, when it seems that a performer is taking her career seriously and is being taken seriously by other presenters, then I dig in to YouTube, etc. I do not have to love that performers’ music if I think our audience will.

        NOW, I have the pleasure of naming some names who I’ve fallen in love with by that process: Rebecca Loebe. Kevin Briody. We’re About 9. Sloan Wainwright. Alastair Moock. Eric Schwartz. Suzanne Buirgy. Deb Pasternak. The Wiyos. Joe Crookston. Anne Weiss. Danny Schmidt. Tena Moyer. Lindsay Mac. Anthony Da Costa. Miche Fambro. Craig Bickhardt. Amy Speace. The Two Man Gentleman Band. Seth Glier. Carsie Blanton. Nora Jane Struthers. Barnaby Bright. Caleb Hawley. Suzie Vinnick. Treasa Levasseur. Trina Hamlin. Joanna Cotten. Shannon Wurst. The Milk Carton Kids. None of them had to be referred, none of them had to kiss ass, none of them even knew how I found out about them. But, of course, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be constantly marketing to venues in every way they know how.

        OH, by the way…a minor diminished chord (the way I’ve always referred to it) has a minor third and a diminished fifth. But, all my friends refer to a suspended chord (which to me always means a suspended second) as “ninth” chord, so this ain’t what you’d call science in our “folk” world.

  28. Amanda Williams

    Nice piece. Shared.

  29. Turning my ‘jerk’ knob from 8 down to about 0.50 now. The truth is I have found the original post and many of the subsequent comments very helpful. It is a business and I want to learn what I can and delegate when I need to.

    So, this is in large part a discussion about standards and I’m very much in favor of standards. But I think our standards have been negatively impacted by our capitalist culture. I don’t like that I spend so much time, money, energy doing things peripheral to my actual craft. Having a great press kit doesn’t make me a better writer or performer and that’s my business.

    Also, in part because of capitalist-influenced-standards, we live in a culture that is always funneling toward uniformity. Our standards only allow us to register music of certain styles which we understand, can judge, and has an existing structure of dissemination and support (radio stations or blogs or conferences or contests et cetera). In this cultural climate the business of an artist quickly become the business of checking these cultural boxes. This is TERRIBLE. The business of an artist is to find their unique voice! If you’re a mango you should be the best mango you can be and not try to pass yourself off as an apple. Sadly, if you’re a mango, less people will want to eat you 🙂

    I need to find people who understand the mango that is me and help me find the venues that sell mangoes. I think capitalism is bad for culture. Some things should not be monitized — art, education and health care are among them. We like to think we’re living in a meritocracy and that talent will out, but this is too often not the case.

    Anyway, sorry for the tone of my previous post and thanks for addressing the topic.

    • Mike Miller

      Whether Paul is right on or off the mark is irrelevant. Capitalism may be “…bad for culture”, but it is the current climate of the market and, if he wants to survive in this market, he has to, to some extent, compromise his “art” and understand that he is not the home team in this game.
      There are ways around this apparent surrender. I have a friend, one of the more successful ASSSes, who used an inherited income to make himself independent, and able to play where and when he pleased. I don’t think he has played at a bar ever. If Paul is independent of financial cares, he can be as selective as my friend. Of course, he had better be as dynamic an entertainer and as accessable a song writer, too. Cream rises to the art, as it does in life.
      I have never heard, or seen, Paul’s performance (he may be another Jaques Brel) but I saw the young Joni Mitchel and everyone who saw her knew she was special. I could say the same for Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, Susan Werner and John Sebastian. (OK, I was wrong about Bob Dylan).
      Of course, it was easier back then. There was a market which “hired” on the basis of talent. That market was the record labels and, if you were “hired” by a label, you were easily bookable. Once Dylan recorded for Columbia, he was nationally known. Now, having a CD doesn’t mean that a string of jobs is on the way.

  30. Pingback: From Behind the Cigar: Five Things Uncle Sol Knows About Running A Concert Series | The Gruntled Mudgeon

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s