A cover of a Michael Nesmith song that he recorded with the First National Band.
Sunday, November 25, 2018
For the longest time in my life, opportunities to play all original were rare. The room owners would fight us on this topic. They wanted commercial songs. They did not believe local songwriters could compete with Nashville or Muscle Shoals writers. There is still some of that going on. Ours is a STEM-city. White collar. Music is blue collar work.
There was no vision and not much support. Some writers would make the trek between Huntsville and those Real Music Cities because there were more live gigs here. But even then, they played a mix of covers and originals with emphasis on the covers. We became clones of famous acts which is what the audience wanted.
Then when the web took the money out of songs, the performance rights organizations (PROs) such as ASCAP/BMI/SESAC went on a head hunting rampage across the smaller rooms that support small acts such as soloists and duos. The fees to pay them were/are harder on the small rooms and as a result, the owners of rooms where budding songwriters performed stopped having live music or closed their doors. It was a tactical nuke on the innocents. No one deserved that particularly the kids just starting out as performers.
OR... the room owner made a rule that acts could only play all original. As long as the songs are not registered with the PROs, the muscle men cannot force the rooms to pay fees. They try but the room owner can tell them to go fuck themselves. Some PRO writers cannot play these rooms or if they do, they are asked to send a list of what they played to the PRO with which they are affiliated. Then the muscle men bugger the room. The room pays the fees or gets sued. It's an ugly business but that is a different topic. It is all legal. On the other hand....
For a short time, there was freedom. Gigs that even if not well paid were accessible. Now we have boutique real estate interests and fly by night talent and artist development types sucking up the oxygen. Oh well. The kids are starting to see the hustle and where it all goes from here, one can't say. The politics of greed are the politics of the music business. Sad but so.
Before moving on, watch this video. You need to know the reality of making a living in the music business. It is not the royal road to riches it once was. Sad but so.
Those are the facts. Being able to work live as a singer songwriter is more important than ever. So this is to say there are now more rooms for all original. Your time has come. :)
If you can. And that is not that easy.
That's the physical challenge and you have to meet that no matter what you play. I say this simply because too many people think it is easy. It is not. You leave zoinked and a little empty most nights.
Then there are the songs. Do you have 45 original songs? Or are you a Grateful Dead act doing one song for forty five minutes? Good songs? Songs that are cohesive, can hold your attention? Can hold an audience's attention? Can you play them every night and still do that? Without boring your audience or yourself? And some songs are not appropriate for some rooms and some audiences. A family room is not necessarily the best place to sing about your long night out drinking and banging your sig other. Randy may not be handy.
So be honest: most don't and those that can won't because they aren't confident about their songs. The singer-songwriter night is usually as I said, a night done with other performers, perhaps together, perhaps as separate acts swapping out. That is a good deal. You get to see what others are doing, swap some licks and share an audience, perhaps some social media cred, so networking or schwoozing as the old timers would say. You may be the host and emcee. You may be on the bill.
Or you may be the fool on the hill. You want to play an evening of your songs. You do this because you can, you want to and you like the view. And the challenge. Good. Too many claim to be songwriters but don't understand that singing and performing songs well are part of the craft.
Most of us who do play an evening as a soloist and carry the entire evening do it with a mix of covers and originals. This is a good deal. By the time we get to being a mainline act, we've played a lot of songs and have enough songs in the songbook to carry it. In some ways this is the best deal because:
To play with only this and that old hat is such a bore
But I sadly fear the love of the ear is to hear what it heard before - Songwriter's Lament
It is easier to learn songs than to write and arrange them. You may discover as many do writing is not in your wheelhouse. That's good. Know your talents; they are not limits. If it is in your wheelhouse, stretch out and reach out. Those that don't write but do perform may use your songs. That's great. Note though, that because of the way money is made in the business these days, many/most bigger acts want a piece of the publishing and co-write with established songwriters. A different topic but remember, if you are out there performing your songs well, you have a better chance at that opportunity. Acts notice. Publishers notice.
Sisyphus was not cursed. The struggle is the reward. There is no top of the hill; just the rock, the slope and your determination and stamina. Stay at that rock and roll it, kid.
The contrary motion is people vary in their desire to hear new things. They say they do like to hear originals and they are being honest, but really, they are there to eat, drink, dance and well, socialize. Unless it is a big time event, the singer-songwriter is a fire in the corner, a decoration meant to keep people in the room lest they wander away to follow the small animals. Given too many obscurities, they move along. So we resort to lights, videos, effects, stories and the other bric-a-brac of stage craft.
Note that all of that gear is more work for you, the room has to be right to use it, and these are thrills that may not keep their appeal. You may or may not be in a room where that is possible or desirable. Say coffee house or small bar. You may also be booked into a room too large and inappropriate. Then that gear might look dinky. This will be the case all original or not. Most of the time, simple is better but if you have the crew and the yearning, go for it.
Another advantage of all original is live streaming. You won't trip the wire that some live stream services have about streaming copyright material when you don't own the copyright. They can remove your access to the service and you might get sued. Caveat vendor.
So let's talk about some aspects of performing a live all original night.
You can warm up an otherwise cold room with the right story. Or you can turn them off like an auto engine and then they get coooooold. The best stories are funny. The more serious you are, the faster the average audience will hit the exit. Again, most of the time they are there to socialize. If you must preach, go to church. A captive audience is a good audience for the stoic. For the rest, as the man said in the musical, make'em laugh.
They do give you much more flexibility in the styles you can manage solo. Others loop in real time and that is an art all to itself. When filling time, I often make up a progression then solo over it.
Acts such as Sheeran use complex loopers to build whole arrangements as part of their act. Your mileage varies here depending on your instrumental skills, composition skills and practice with the looper. Otherwise the difference between tracks and a keyboard player using stored sequences is none.
Using pre-recorded tracks, in my opinion, is fine as long as you produced those tracks. They are part of your art, part of your act, and this is your chance for people to hear the songs as you hear them in your head and heart. Go for it.
Using tracks is a serious investment of time and you do need skills to make them. You could use Band-in-A-Box. I don't. I enjoy arranging and consider it part of the craft. This is a wrestle with your own soul decision but given I have a pretty good home studio, not a-list but all I need, arranging and recording are both fun and a dimension of the craft.
You do have a home recording setup, right? If as a songwriter, you don't, you are a stone cold idiot. I won't be nice about that. There is no excuse for it these days. Learn. To. Record. At. Home. Ok?
So, is your latest marvelous studio produced song setting expectations that you cannot meet? Did you actually play those tracks? Can you sing well without a pitch correction application? Is the song more production than song? Can you play an instrument well and sing at the same time? Too often what we hear on the recording and what is delivered live are so different as to make one wonder why they bought tickets. You have to decide what you need to give your songs their best presentation, then stick to the goals you set for yourself and them. Persist.
A night in an open mic session outs that fact. Given ten acts, the first three should not be there. The next three need more work but have promise. The next two have promise and have earned their place on the stage. The next one has the act together and is a good opener for the tenth who is a pro. It's a bell curve not simply of talent but of the study, discipline, practice and sacrifice required to be at the top. Genius is rare and should be prized but it will not earn you that top slot unless it's minions are knowledge and hard won skill. Watch the pros and take the time to listen. Ignorance and attitude are the handmaidens of mediocrity and too often they rule the scene when the music is less important than other factors such as networking politics, greed and jealousy. Persist in the face of mediocrity.
The harsh truth is mediocrity is common. The popular song lasts approximately 5 years. That is a hit. Some songs, say The Beatles, last a great deal longer. Lennon and McCartney were geniuses. There is a lot of talent out there and as Schopenhauer points out, talent rises to the demands of the time but not beyond it. In short, talent can make you popular. Only genius will make you immortal.
"Talent is like the marksman who hits a target which others cannot reach; genius is like the marksman who hits a target … which others cannot even see." - Arthur SchopenhauerYou don't have to be a genius to do good work. Do your best.
Technology has a place. There is no rule that says you have to do something or not do something because your hero did it. Harpsichord players fought the piano forte. Union session musicians outlawed the Mellotron and synthesizers until the funk musicians kicked their honky asses with them. Technology for it's own sake is gaudy. Used smartly, it opens up opportunities creatively and economically. So let's look at the one innovation that finds more and more places on the stage with the singer-songwriter: the looper.
It also pre-amps the acoustic nylon guitar so the signal is strong and I don't have to rely on a live mic and risk feedback given a nylon and even most steel string acoustics produce a weak signal. Just know that many or most rooms use a single monophonic line to the board for the guitar. If you are not in charge of the board, ask the engineer to provide you two lines so you can use the stereo outputs of the looper. There is a mono output but don't do that if you are using stereo tracks. You won't like it.
The RC-30 also has some pre-stored drum parts that are pretty good. It has two separate tracks that you can use to add extra parts such as intermittent background vocals. The trick of looping is you have to be precise with your foot starting and stopping the loop live. Like everything else in music, practice is required.
Unless you are really looping, that is playing over a segment over and over, be sure to add a soft count in click at the beginning and some silence at the start and stop of the track, say about five seconds. This gives you breathing time when you position your foot to start and stop the track. Otherwise you may not be ready to start and will have to restart; or at the end the loop will restart automatically. These are not disasters but they do break the fourth wall (see theatre craft if you don't understand that).
The RC-30 is really a songwriting tool not a live looper but for the price and functionality, good enough and very useful when writing songs. Trade-offs. Shop around.
Do use a looper that has 44khz stereo wav files and a USB port that lets you move them between your home recording system and the looper. Stereo is best and the tracks should be mixed to give you space in the mix for your live contribution. Again, a bit of an art form so experiment and remember when you don't control the mix at the board, some strange things can happen such as too much reverb or none in the house mix that can separate your voice and instrument from the loop track in audio space. There are risks.
It helps to keep them organized in a directory on your computer and if you keep a lyric book in front of you, order the lyrics in the order of tracks on the looper and list them by title and loop number on a sheet in the book. You can move between songs as you feel it.
Note: Yes, I know about iPads, screens etc. Fab. I don't use them at gigs. Paper in plastic doesn't crash, doesn't need batteries, doesn't break, etc. Simple things are robust. Keep track of your book. People steal them. In the days when we had to drop needles on records or beg a radio DJ to play a song so we could learn them, the book had high value. Today when most lyrics are on the web, it's stupid. On the other hand, as a songwriter, your lyrics are in that book A little paranoia is healthy.
Be consistent in the volumes and the mix effects, something you do on your recording work station so you don't have to continually adjust it on stage. Be careful of compression. It can work in final mixes of a song, but on live tracks, it sounds canny and unbalanced. Experiment and simplify.
Some acts use very complex systems for tracks and have the crew and other resources to support them. Que bueno. The approaches I describe here are for the singer-songwriter act playing mostly solo. Do what works best. Keep in mind that performing is challenging. Complex setups that you have to control in real time are failure prone and from time to time will. You have to laugh it off and get back to the song. Whenever you can, simplify and focus on the voice and the instrument,.
Staying in Sync: Remember you have to perform AND listen to the track. If you don't have a foldback system, use headphones. I know, it looks wonky but if you are behind the mains, the odds that you will drift out of sync are high. Treat it like working in the studio where you are overdubbing parts. Relax. If you can use wireless earbuds, even better. Most high end acts do. A good solid and simple drum part is a big plus. You can hear that even in a noisy room.
Another trick is to put the speakers behind you and set the master volume low so you won't get nasty feedback. While this violates most common sense about good sound mixing, in a small room where a small PA is optimal, this can work very well. Keep your body between you, the speakers and your live microphones. For more than a solo or duo act, this likely will not work.
If you can't hear or stay in sync and have to turn everything up, your instrument volume may be too loud or you are working with someone who only listens to their own parts and thus, cannot stay in sync. Regardless, if you use tracks or loops, you must practice with them. They are not the best tool for jam bands.
Instrumentals and Public Domain Songs: if they fit your song styles, a positive. You can show off your chops a bit and let your voice rest. This is where all that time in the practice room at college learning Fernando Sor or Bach or playing blues pays off. You can also sneak in some old public domain folk songs as long as you are sure they really are in the public domain. These are not original but neither do they open the door to the muscle men. You might even have a sing a long. Try to do something original with them. Have fun.
A really good songwriting band is really rare. Ninety out of every hundred bands are cover bands. There is nothing wrong with it and it is good experience but it is a ceiling limited ensemble. There can only be one James Taylor and one Lynard Skynard, While most of us are derivative in some way, original means original. This was more common in the Sixties and Seventies when everyone from The Beatles to the Eagles to Steely Dan ruled the airwaves. I am not quite sure what happened but good songwriting bands seem to be more rare these days. It IS a metric ton of work.
Despite having made good all original albums, the room owners forced us to play covers and despite our efforts, that slowed down the song writing and recording because of the time it consumed to learn and practice covers. If I did it again, I'd say no to the room owners but we needed the money. It is an ugly business. That aside, the fellows in that band took a garage effort and turned it into a powerhouse of writing and recording. They were at their best when together even though they all went on to do very good work solo. But as I describe below, there is a life cycle to all creative collaborations and you have to be sensitive to what your goals are in relation to the group. Things change, people change and at some point, you are no longer creative together. Then you have some hard but necessary decisions to make.
It is very very very important in a recording band, but several more orders of very in an all original act for the members to be going in the same direction if not spiritually at least in the business. A band has to evolve to a sound and the more different sounds they have to play, the more difficult it is to establish "a brand". In music speak, this means the gigs they can book, the fan base they build, and how well they can work onstage and in the studio.
A good blues jam does not an all original band make even if it feels right. You have to make firm decisions early about songs to record, who is singing lead, who gets the solo, and who gets the songwriter credits versus who simply played on the track. A songwriting band is a different organization and the relationships are different, more intense. You are much more tightly tied together financially when you share a song catalog and recordings that require original members to play as heard by the fans. Yet, they also have a time and a season and there will come a time when that old magic just ain't there.
Relationships are hard in any situation and when you toss in egos, substances, "women", managers, fans and the really enjoyable but hard work of writing, recording, performing, meeting commitments, making decisions everyone has to live with, in other words, creating a thriving business enterprise and not a weekend warrior band, relationships can melt overnight.
Arguments are part of successful collaborations. You won't agree on everything and you must hash your disagreements out. I had a rule about shutting the studio off to outsiders when we were working. No one should see the sausage being made particularly when the sausage makers turn into children when working together and yes, like it that way. It's fun. It isn't a show. The studio is your sandbox and there will be sand tossed around. It's not good for outsiders to be involved in that anymore than you want your neighbors commenting and participating in a family squabble.
If you see the workspace filling up with non-band non-recording staff, say fans, family, girl friends, the candy man, whoever, that is not a happy sight. People show off, listen to the wrong people and begin to loosen the cohesion absolutely necessary for creative work. Worse, the members get bored, distracted, uninterested in the work and... the songs. At this point unless you can confront these problems, you are screwed. Done. Call the lawyers.
So one event you will have to accept is that at some point personal evolution and growth take over and people go in different directions. Let it go, amicably if you can. This is when those original agreements hopefully on paper are your sanity. A band is a rolling dysfunctional marriage and if you don't think a divorce is painful you have a painful lesson to learn. If you are co-writing you have children you have to care about for the rest of your lives: the songs.
Some of this is inevitable but some can be managed if you avoid certain toxic personalities who infest the world of entertainment and any creative project. Here are a few of the most common ones.
The Show-off: Also known as a diva, this is a member of your group that like any other narcissist insists that they are always the center of attention. This person will play very long solos, get into volume battles with other members, step on jokes, make inappropriate remarks, work the room manager to their own advantage, hustle the wait staff, and say things about the act that really hurt your image. They are to put it bluntly, a jerk. Fire them. Fast. Too often they are also substance addicts. Fire them faster.
My elder brother was a successful local band leader, guitarist, singer and stage performer. He told me once that he would much rather work with a basic player who did their job without complaint than the hottest jazz musician who was also a snot. As time went on, I found out he was right. Cohesion matters.
This is a problem for any act but for the songwriter doing all original, they are hurting your songs. Take care of business.
The Covert Narcissist: This one is the most destructive because it is actually a person with psychotic disorders. You can look the term up but essentially, this is the quintessential snake. They are a passive aggressive and extraordinarily manipulative. While all smiles and mystery on the outside, inside this person is a shell, empty, hollow, devoid of empathy and only lightly creative because the emotions aren't real. They are a fake. Everything you see on the outside was acquired from others that they mirror.
Because of the mystery they project, they can be quite alluring and often they become the band front. Over time their habit of pushing people away who pierce that front can destroy band cohesion. They are character assassins.
Everything is about them. Unlike the diva, they possess little real originality. They are puffers of their own image, Unlike the overt narcissist that is easy to spot, the covert can take some time to figure out and by that time, they have you or whomever they have targeted figured perfectly, know which buttons to push to get what they want and do not care who gets hurt.
These types are very dangerous creatively and personally. They will take credit where none was earned, create jealousies because they actively exploit personality differences, and make you feel as if you are inept, worthless, stupid and creatively impotent. As a songwriter in an all original act, this personality type is not your friend, or anyone else's really.
If you think you are dealing with a covert narcissist, get away, carefully, calmly and with as little conflict as you can manage, but get away. Enough said.
Some rooms will not let you use tracks. Purist songwriter rooms like the Bluebird usually don't although that might have changed since I was there. I understand it given some performers don't produce their own tracks or even play on them. In the case of The Bluebird, it really is about the song . This is not a gig; it is a short demonstration.
Scope it out and be prepared.
As to other musicians who criticize your choices, I Know Betters, usually competitors, may snark about the tracks to deflate your shoes. Ignore them as you should other assholes. There is always at least one. I had a partner who would lean over the bandstand and whisper into their ear, "And where are you playing tonight?"
Another kind of purist is the style Nazi. They may be a player or a fan with a deep collection of vinyl in a style. If you play covers, they tell you how you are different from the original artist. If you play original in a style, they tell you why your originals are inferior to another artist playing in that style. Order them a drink and leave them to their opinions. If they are a band member, take them to the woodshed privately. People who work to rob you of concentration or confidence are not your allies.
On the other hand, someone with a friendly attitude hoping to show you an easier way to play a part, or can tell you where to go hear a good act, is a positive person. Buy them a drink too and thank them.
Duke Ellington would say, there are only two kinds of music: good music and bad music. If it sounds good, it is good. This leads to the best advice I can give you for the long haul because there are always politics of rooms and fans and the churn of popularity of styles;
Win the old fashioned way: PLAY BETTER MUSIC.
It's better to write songs about them but if the act and the audience have a common set of issues, go for it. Keep the language... restrained. There is no place for threats and profanity onstage. Ever.
This can go toxic. First, in the rooms one is playing as a singer-songwriter starting out, it is unlikely the audience and the room are squarely on the side of these causes and depending on the mix, people get bored, people get angry, and people get tired of being yakked at as my wife puts it. Second, in a band situation other band members may not be on board with these issues and do not want to share a stage with them, they will leave usually after a screaming match. Sometimes on stage. Ugly. I knew one fellow who booked a free gig for a political rally and his drummer promptly resigned.
Again, this is where your mileage may vary. Politics are mercurial. Values are not. Mixing band brands and politics can be a bad brew particularly if the act is a recording act doing originals. Sometimes the best idea is to take these politics out as a solo act and book the rooms accordingly. Just remember that there are people who get offended by Christmas songs and not everyone thinks a Confederate flag is part of their shared heritage. And they get .... irate. One night while sitting in an IHOP after a gig, a member of our band got a note on a napkin telling him he would be killed for the things he said that night. Unpleasant.
They can be very useful to a professional songwriter because when the time comes to make an album or EP, they have no original songs. Most of their time onstage was spent performing covers and often they have a favorite artist that they clone relentlessly. A songwriter who can spot that and create songs that mimic that artist can pick up the job as their favorite songwriter. Often the Meat Puppet has an accompanist who also acts as their musical arranger and is sometimes the songwriter as well. If not the latter, the songwriter will want to be familiar with this person and the producer of the recording. Work closely with them to ensure your song gets the best production possible. This is an opportunity because the Meat Puppet has a following and does sell product.
The caution is often the Meat Puppet is insecure about their deficit of musical skills and may have that fiery temper of the diva. They will walk into a room, make demands and can walk right over to a skilled musician and berate them for anything that will let the meat puppet dominate the room and the conversation. Their following is as slavish and witless as the Meat Puppet is self-obsessed so character assassination is a real danger. You may want the project but not the gig or their social circle.
Submit the song, endure the scene, then walk away and wait for the check.
Then there are The Puffers. The job of the puffer is to write fake news, fake reviews, fake histories and otherwise fool the public into believing an act deserves attention. A puffer may be an industry publicist or a journalist of sorts and in these days of social media and the disappearance of print media, puffers are more and more the sources of entertainment news.
The puffer has been around longer than fluffers on the set of a porn movie. They are like the Meat Puppet in whose company they are often found, unavoidable. The problem is if taken too seriously they can destroy the career of good artists and make the career of a mediocre one. They may attempt to be the curator of the local scene and as such, not being a very good critic, they can poison it just like the puffer fish itself.
From time to time you may want to punch out a puffer. Don't. It might feel good but don't. Do keep up with them because they are like the dye you put in a septic system to find leaks. They give you information about the politics of who is being financed for a project and who may be doing that. When trying to get a songwriting project, they offer clues. Otherwise, they can give you herpes.
Sometimes they are part of the social network of artist development types or producers on the hunt for targets of exploitation. They run the sound or lights but consider themselves like The Puffer as curators of the creative scene. They offer opinions, listen to your conversations and gossip incessantly. Often they are wanna-be musicians who simply do not have the dedication and chops to be good ones but they live on the fringes of the scene and perform services. Sometimes they are also the band candy man.
You can't eliminate them and you can't kill them. You may want to but you can't. The best approach is to stay polite and keep them away from your business dealings.
The problem is an Evil Tech on the sound board or lighting panel can seriously hurt your performance and will do it intentionally. That is the point: they are not incompetent; they are evil. If you have the clout and you know this, refuse to work with them. The risk is real and the consequences are real.
The I Play Too
This is a personality you should accept as part of the levels of musicianship. If you can help them along, do so. If not, be polite while steering them away from the stage and back to their seat. They mean no harm and mostly just want to be part of The Tribe. The trouble is they don't want to pay their dues working their way through the experiences and study that enable a real musician to develop. Try not to burst the bubble. It's cruel and that never works out well for you.
Take some care here. They aren't wrong about their tastes. They are being pushy like a child. Also, they may have insights into a sound you aren't yet familiar with but should be to expand your own tastes. This is a matter of being honest about your own wheelhouse and what is appropriate for your skills, the act and the room. Don't argue. Politely ask a few questions and make no promises. Keep your cool.
Most of the time the I Play Too and the Aficionado are no hassle unless they combine that with jealousy which will cause them to morph into the next character, The Bad Mouth.
The Bad Mouth
The Bad Mouth is not as bad as it is infuriating. There are other acts, their managers and fans who don't accept playing better and satisfying your fans and friends is the royal road to success. They talk down your act, say things to rob you of confidence, dig up dirt, in short, work hard to sabotage your act. Some are fans who have picked someone in the band who is their favorite and as far as they are concerned should be The Star. Some are just people who cannot accept their own lack of success and take pleasure in sabotaging others. Whatever, they are always out there.
From one perspective, you cannot control this and they can do real damage in the short term. In the longer term, if you sing well, write well, play well, and yes, stay humble and treat people with respect, people come to understand the bad mouth is exactly that. They are self-eliminating. Hang in there and let them eliminate themselves. Put on your game face and play.
And don't be that person. It's tempting to be hyper critical but it never pays.
No one should do this without one. It is as necessary as strings. A well developed ego that can assess situations and people is necessary for any healthy adult life, but entertainment is particularly affected because one has to shine individually while watching for snakes and avoiding being one. The goal IS to stand out. The question often asked is does that make one a narcisisst and if so is that a disorder?
There is a difference in that and being a predator. The NPD becomes abusive. The hallmark of NPD is lack of empathy. One is seldom a very good songwriter without empathy. As an entertainer, it is possible but not a good predictor of a long career. So yes, there are those entertainers who are also narcissists. More often I find clinical depression and substance abuse (alcoholism being most prominent) among entertainers.
To be a success, sacrifice is required and confidence and patience do look like arrogance when viewed by people who are insecure or needy. And that is the other side of the coin. Anyone who has even a scintilla of success at it learns about the challenges of sorting the well-meaning fan, friend or family member from the covert wackos and the overly ambitious z-lister. And that process can also look like arrogance.
One must get comfortable with the fact that not everyone likes oneself, or the act or song and that of those who do, not all like it or oneself for healthy reasons. That is a survival skill. It is not predation. One will have enemies and they can be rather cowardly in the way they express it. So the security is a real need.
Best advice: Don't be a jerk. Suffer fools lightly but con artists not at all. Be direct. Be kind.
One other bit: teach children if approached. It may be one chord, a lyric, a name, but always help a child. The payoff is incalculable.
The Room: most of the time you will be in a smaller room. Rooms are better than busking on the sidewalk in winter so be grateful. A room is defined by the product it sells and the crowd regulars. These make a difference in your experience and what you can do successfully.
Rule of Nature: big rooms for good bands. Small rooms for soloists or duos.
The reasons are economic and while not always the case, a singer-songwriter playing solo or say with one other player presents better in intimate settings. Thus, The Bluebird in Nashville, a room dedicated to songwriters, is a converted sewing shop in a strip mall next to other offices. It is small and the audience is right there in your face. It is the scariest gig there is for the songwriter. It is absolutely worth it. Why? Because you did it. Looks good on your ads and does make you better.
Learn to like terror. That is your limbic system telling you what you are doing is hard. Rise on it. There was a musician on a jetliner that crashed in a ball of flame in Sioux City. He got out of the wreckage and played his gig anyway. Hopefully you will never endure such a challenge but you can bet there will be some from the double booked evening to the broken van to the band member who gets so wasted they fall off the stage. At some point, your patience and perseverance will be tested. Persevere. The show must go on.
Although there are many kinds of rooms from private listening rooms to stadiums, let's look at the most common rooms for small acts, the coffee house, the restaurant and the bar.
The Coffee House: A coffee house is not a bar. They are usually brighter, better lit and well, more sober. Pluses and minuses. A coffee house clientele is often stopping by for a caffeine fix, so they walk in, get their coffee, talk to the barista and leave. They may nod at you. Worse, they may sit down, pull out a book, put on their earbuds and bliss out ignoring you. Try to be nice. It is irritating but it is their space. You are a service, not a divinity.
Others may sit right in your face and talk to you. Here you have to learn to stay focused while they regale you with their tales. Then it becomes a semi-private event or appears that way to the rest of the patrons. Be nice but get on with the music.
Another problem of a coffee house gig is most people consume most coffee early in the day. So your walk-in crowd tends to be elsewhere in the evening when you perform.
When you are building a fan base and need exposure, you may want to pursue restaurants and bars.
Restaurants are great. I played at an Ireland's in the early daze. It remains my favorite even though that was a long long time ago. Restaurants are that healthy combination of food and booze and families. So things tend to be sweeter. They can be noisier what with the clanking of utensils on plates, chairs scraping the floor, wait servers busily coming and going, conversations, and so forth. But unless they are very posh therefore only the best jewel wearing and often rude people are there, you get to play for a bit of everyone.
Respect the help who are hustling on the floor and remember if they don't like you, you will be moving on shortly so if they say you are too loud, you probably are. Keep it quiet at least until after the dinner hour. The best options are usually local Mom and Pop shops as franchises often package muzak with the franchise. There are exceptions and in this part of the world, those are often Mexican restaurants. Write some mariachi. Now that looper really is your friend.
Be very conscientious about your volume. These are your songs so try not to blow their socks off. It is easy to be too loud when you are behind the mains. Watch for the signs such as people cowering against the walls, babies screaming out in pain, or melting coffee cups and wilting flowers.
Don't drink too much product. It will make you jittery and you will lose focus. A bit goes a long way. Keep a bottle of water handy.
Bars are usually harder rooms in which to play all originals. Having room appropriate material is even more important. You can play more out on the edge but keep the mushy minimal. The more wasted the audience, the more out front you need to be to get their attention. Again, stage bric a brac has a place and a use. When playing solo in bars, play louder and do more uptempo. Stay sober. It is hard work and drunks don't do it well. No one plays better wasted. Really.
Usually a bar gig starts later in the day but sometimes you will be a front act to a band. You will possibly be using the house PA or the band's PA. Be respectful of equipment you do not own. Don't touch their axes and don't change their PA settings particularly if they are a house band. For a house band, this is a regula job so they show up ten minutes before they go on, tune up, plug in and turn on. They don't like surprises. If you can, have a chat with their board engineer to minimize hassles.
During warm up, try not to jostle them. If your drummer insists on tuning drums at the gig and spends two hours getting his or her sound "just right" with repeated hits on the snare, the drummer will likely cost you the gig. There is a reason for the low slow mellow of old school country music. They are that reason.
Personally, I prefer coffee houses and restaurants. Fewer side businesses. Fewer drunks. Families can come with small children and I like playing to that crowd.
Be Aware: not all crowds can mix in all rooms. Know your following. If you are a jazzy cat or pure folkie whose fans get high in the parking lot then nurse a glass of wine all night, they do not buy enough room product. No matter how much they like you, at the cash register, you are a failure. You have to pick the room that suits your songs and your fans. Best pay attention to who has been playing there before you.At a certain point I began to dislike the dark energy of the night crawlers. It's a personal preference. Other people I respect are exactly the opposite: they like the bars where people are rowdy. Most aren't playing all original though. In my experience, the coffee drinkers and restaurant patrons are better listeners to unfamiliar material. You do have to like and enjoy your audience. If you don't, move on because it shows and it hurts the songs.
Are You Too Old for the Crowd? Ageism like racism is real. Like it or not the younger you are the more forgiving are the listeners and the more attractive you are physically to any age. This is a fact of life and for a career entertainer, a heartbreaker. As Anne Murray, a singer of enormous talent and endurance said of the music business, "When you are over forty, they don't have much use for you." Some genre listeners are more tolerant than others and an act that has made it big can keep going, but the rules change with age. Just be prepared to accept it with grace.
Even though a veteran performer can usually clean the clock of the younger performer musically, the name of the game is entertainment. Younger audiences don't prefer performers who look like their parents. This is also true of the wait staff, the baristas and so forth. If it seems unfair, it is but again, you need to be a profitable investment for the room owner. The game is butts in seats and a healthy cash register. If you can ensure those, you can be walking dead.
If you are an elder, do your best music and don't be creepy. Otherwise this is life among the mammals. All you can do is be the best you can be and take some pleasure in knowing you can do things that scare the hell out of that kid starting out. If they are open to it, mentor them. If they are not, politely ignore them.
I once played a room where I was well liked but when the big game came on, a local gambler paid me handsomely to sit in the booth with his girlfriend while they watched the game. It was not an insult. It was priorities and he made sure I understood that with the natch.
If you can avoid the night of The Big Game, do it. Playing the night of the Iron Bowl here in Alabama was never a great evening. No matter how well you do, at least half the room loses on the field and at the betting table. Things get.... interesting.
This is a nasty aspect of entertainment in any format. As a creative, the tendency is to believe people accept what you create on its own merits. It isn't true after a few exposures. People want to tinker, they want to mess, they want to put in their two cents. There has even been talk that acts should be open to fan collaboration.
A very famous successful producer and act in his own right told me the very last thing on this planet he would accept would be that kind of collaboration. I agree with him. There are reasons but if you have read this far and not come to understand that the last thing an original needs is a million voices buzzing in their head telling them how to change original into their vision of what they want, you probably have been looking at pictures and not reading. I raise the flying fickle finger of fate to those who believe they have a right to that kind of access to what I do.
You must manage your act in a way that keeps you productive and to avoid that all too frequent urge to roll up in a ball and become a hermit crab. How you do that differs person by person, but there is a difference in being a diva fussing over the meaningless bits like the color of a carpet and being a gentle but unyielding protector and champion of your songs and performance. You must know what your sound is, your strengths, your weaknesses and what works for you. Without that knowledge, you will become Forrest Gump's feather on the wind, at the right place but totally helpless to affect or control the events that can irremediably alter your art.
The artist may not know what the public will like, but if the artist does not know what is good, they do not create. There is a palpable satisfaction as if one has tasted the sweetest peach, the ripe strawberry, or turned to see a child smile at you. It is better than applause or praise. It is ascendance. It cannot be shared and for that reason, some who see that but cannot experience that will do all they can to turn your face to the crowd and say, "There is your master." Don't let them. Heed the muse. Give it time and the good will find it's audience.
"A career has an agenda. A creative life has a veranda." - Mason Williams
This part is painful. It is better to lose a room, a fan or even a colleague than to give up control of your art. "And that is all I have to say about that."
You are booked for the job and play the job, then out of the closets come multiple owners, investors, and their partners to "assess your act". This means different tastes, different wants, different agenda. It shouldn't be this hard but it happens and when it does you have to decide who to listen to.
Good managers book acts that they already have heard and know, or they are relying on a trusted agent. On occasion they will take a chance on an unknown, and, great. If not, it is a challenge for an act starting out to get booked in the room, but solving that really is your challenge to meet. Welcome to the business.
In the situation where you find yourself caught in the chaos of multiple authorities, and there are no written contracts, go to the person who booked you and tell them you want one and only one point of contact. Otherwise you are going to be ensnared in the politics of room managers that are likely insecure and may be managing themselves out of business. Life among the mammals.
By the way, be the point of contact. Unless you have a manager or agent, if you are the one holding up the sky don't let others represent you. This can be a problem with opportunists who charm their way to the front. That sort of thing in any business is a firing offense. Be clear with the room manager who the contact is and with whom they will conduct business.
The very qualities of empathy that make you creative, a good songwriter, the need for approval that makes you endure the bad nights, the need to see the world or your own emotions realistically and express them in a song, these make you vulnerable to depression, to heart break, to cynical bitterness. Some are gentle souls, kind, giving, accessible, and sweet. Others are hard as oak and can have a patina a little scary to encounter. Many are good eggs but do not care or people to shine them on preferring to be treated as the human beings they are and not the character of Margot Channing in All About Eve. Some like their star status and want the polish laid on thick.
While not always true, my experience is the best are of the first type and mostly want to preserve their humanity and privacy. They are nice folks unless you violate those by being too aggressive, rude or whining.
Respect people. Following them into church, bathrooms, public places and otherwise not allowing them to have a life is bad form and bad manners. There is a protocol for submitting songs to artists and while they may have a Facebook presence and even chat, there is a rule: Thou Shalt Not Take Demos to the Boss. If you must, ask for permission.Some of us deal differently. Too many become substance addicts. Some become raging ego maniacs. Some commit suicide in an hour or over a life time. The business is tough on you and tough on those you love. The darkness is real. So are the people who do everything in their power to humble you, to rob you, to push you out of the spotlight so they can take your place.
It is up to you to find a way to endure that doesn't kill you or destroy your gifts. Some who do are people who are sports types, have a physical education background and know how to handle the physical and mental stress. Some are people blessed with a healthy family life and know when they go home, they are part of the tribe and loved. Some have a deep spiritual life. Their church and their practices give them an outlook on life that enables them to regain balance when knocked off center. All of these know how to be creative and secure even though the very career they have chosen, the act that enables them to be the breadwinner, also exacts enormous sacrifices.
Some have none of these and the tragic endings are so numerous as to be assumed. I've buried friends. It sucks. Better to be a healthy human than a "good hang".
Learn to meditate. It is not spooky weird. It is a way to calm the mind, quiet the emotions, and center. It works and over time you will find it is very much the same practice as performing, a means to let your body do the work while you watch from a stable space. Just like music, it takes practice. Let it come naturally. Otherwise you become the farmer who pulls up plants and looks at the roots to see if they are growing.
If chemical comfort is your thing, a bit of weed helps. Not on stage but when you need to relax, it is far far better than alcohol. Truth. Avoid opiates, cocaine, etc., like the poison they really are. Don't do 'em and don't work with people who do. They bring not only problems with performers but the whole criminal element that goes with them. Keep away from dealing and stealing.
Whatever works for you and keeps you happy and healthy, do that. To keep the talent alive, to continue to grow and improve, you must take care of your emotional and physical health. Otherwise, the rocket ride will kill you because you have no parachute and the rocket engines do burn out. Hang tough.
By The Way And Seriously: You have the best view in the room. You will see things that are none of your business. Be a good guy and say nothing as long as no one is getting hurt. Take Care of Business. Yours. This is particularly true of private parties. They are private. Be smart. Do not try to be 'a playa' in a game you do not understand. Be wise. Shut your frikkin' mouth.
From the room where they lock the doors, the cards come out and big money is on the table to the unannounced but voracious swing party where clothes come off and you get to watch activities you've only seen in online porn, the variety of crowds and rooms are awesome and dumbfounding. They really are mammals. Deal with it. Sing on. Get into your sound and make it count.
I have a few like that, such as Daddy's Guitar, that are so personal I can barely play them live. That song got me into The Bluebird and the challenge for me was I would start to cry. I had to tone it down to get through that audition.
You do have to "sell it" and being able to project honest emotions in your voice, your face and your playing is how you do that
Over time you find a balance and then you have a power no one else has: your songs,. John Lennon said to really hear a song you have to hear the songwriter sing it. There is some truth in that and it is your super power. You know what the song is really about and everyone else who says they do are imagining. That's good. You want them to do that. A good song is evocative. Make it count. Don't be too timid and don't gush. Find the balance and surf, baby. Cowabunga! It is a deep deep pleasure that lights up your brain like a holiday on main street. Get it while you can. If you can't, it may be time to move on from that song. Trust your instincts.
There are originals I will not perform not because of the room or audience, but because the topic upsets me in a shockingly emotional way. I wrote them for a reason but their content is disturbing.
When I wrote My Son's Time To Go, it was the beginning of the War in Afghanistan that was quickly followed by the Second Gulf War. I could see America doing the same thing we had done in Vietnam: starting wars we could not win and would not quit until our military industrial complex and the politicians who feed them were sated. Worthless. Death and blood money.
But the terror that gripped me was they would restart the draft and come for my son as they had come for my brothers. It is a terror I cannot shake. As a parent, my kids are everything.
I wrote the song, did not record it until eight years later, then after I did, discovered I did not want to perform it. I made and posted the video and purposefully made it as grim as I felt about the subject. It has a haunting beautiful melody, tells a true story but is as vicious a work as I know how to make. It is meant to disgust. That is the point. There is no good war, just a cycle of violence and inhumanity that spans generations, that we accept and cheer for until our own children have to go fight. Then we see the inhumanity. Then the fear takes us prisoner.
You may write one: completely honest good work, but it terrifies you. Accept that and move on.
They may not be crowd favorites. This is where you should stay with the song and wait for the crowd to catch up because what you enjoy playing you will play with zest and a smile and over time that joy becomes infectious for your fans. The longer you write songs for your own act, the better you will come to know what you like and what works for you.
This sounds self-serving and it is. And there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, it becomes what brands you, your sound, your songs. Remember: singer-songwriter, not just songwriter. You are a performer. You love it. And... you earned it. Joy to the world.
Money is good because money is respect. But you need that room. If you have to play for free, do that. There are many ways to pay it forward and trust me on this, it always pays you back. Have a heart.
The End: I was chatting with a mate about things music and the passing of friends. We are at the time when we dread going on stage until it begins, then a tune or so later, it's all good. I hear this from other players. There is an inner drive, a voice that says, "I don't want to suck."
I read that from even very famous players. One lady who had an enormously successful career and could still be out there raking it in said, "I did not want to be less, to have people say, oh well, she's not as good." So she retired and refuses to work. She can do that. Others who need the income can't. And that is the game.
There comes a time when the audience is not the thing, and the applause or lack of it, the attention and the politics are irritating. What matters and we still crave are the respect and company of other musicians. At the end, it is about the tribe and the music. Giving the songs their proper due is the right thing to do.
And In The End the love you take is equal to the love you make - The Beatles