A Note to Rising Stars

Many aspiring performing songwriters write me for consideration as a performer at our concert series. The honest truth is that we rarely host someone who is new to the business. If you have been touring and performing for less than 5 years, you will be scrutinized more carefully than someone who has been touring for 10 or 20 years.

Sometimes, I ignore requests from artists who aren’t right for us. I’m sorry about that, but if you haven’t done the research and self-identified as someone who does not fit our criteria (rock band, rap artist, faith-based) then I don’t feel I need to spend the time sending a rejection note. I try to respond to those who are polite and have inquired appropriately, but sometimes I am busy and something slips through the cracks. It’s okay to contact me a second time in a few weeks if I haven’t responded.

The main reason I will reject an artist is simply because I don’t think they fit the criteria that we’ve established–we primarily look for nationally touring performing songwriters who are passing through the midwest and have a free Saturday night in their schedule. You’d think that is an impossible criteria for a 25 seat living room in a log cabin, but trust us, we don’t have a problem filling dates.

For those “up and comers” who want to know more specifically why you were rejected, I want to offer the following insights, as I shared with one performer who kindly asked for my advice.

The main things I look at for an artist are 1) number of commercially released CDs in their catalog, 2) number of years as a professional performing songwriter, 3) the geographical area that their past gigs have covered, 4) the names of music festivals and key venues they have played – (Passim, Godfrey Daniels, Ironhorse, Bluebird, Falcon Ridge, Kerrville). Certain venues are a “free pass”. You played at McCabe’s in Santa Monica? Winner at Kerrville? Featured artist at SXSW? You’ve got my attention.  5) The style of music, whether or not it fits my audience, 6) maturity of the songwriting, since we draw an older demographic to our shows, will the work resonate with the hearts and minds of my audience?

Questions I always ask myself is: Does this performer connect with the audience? I need YouTube videos to judge this. Is there a sufficient body of work that the show will be less than 10% covers of other people’s work? Does the artist have enough merchandise that they can take home over $500 between the door and merch sales? Does the artist have an online presence that I can market to my audience?

I imagine that every venue operator does something like this, but everybody has a different approach. I ended up setting the bar pretty high for our house concert series, and since we do just a handful concerts each year, I really pick my people carefully. Venues that produce 50 shows per year are much more willing to mix things up or have a wider latitude in whom they will host.

Making it as a performing songwriter isn’t easy. I have been involved with the folk music community for a long time, since the mid-1980’s, and witnessed the rise of stars like Tracy Chapman and Shawn Colvin from sidewalks and coffeehouses to international success. There are countless artists who played the same clubs and coffeehouses, are equally talented, and are still relatively unknown. Luck plays a role, but you have to meet it half way.

Join Folk Alliance. Go to the conferences. When you are there, don’t think about promoting yourself, just pay attention to what everybody is doing and what works, and make as many friends as you can. Next year you can promote. Right now, you want to make connections. Print up special cards that you can distribute widely with an address where people can visit your website and download your music. Give your music away, because at this stage in your career, it’s more important to be heard than it is to get paid. Spend as much time as you can with more mature songwriters. Keep taking guitar lessons because you’ll advance faster than if you teach yourself, and someday you might decide to support yourself 100% on music and you will need to have multiple income streams. About half of your income can come from teaching guitar, filling the gaps between weeks on the road.

Start building your mailing list now. Separate lists for Fans and Venues, separate lists for geographic areas. Never add a venue to a list without their express permission. The last thing you want to do is piss off a venue operator by spamming them, they will remember and they will never book you. Always, always, always be polite and never get defensive with anyone. Also, never beg. If someone says “no”, let it go, and suggest you may contact them in another year or so.

Your ability to share music is a great gift to yourself and to others. Don’t let the business of music keep you from honoring the gift because regardless of whether you become an international star or just the nearest star around the campfire, music will enrich your life, as it has for so many of us who share your passion.

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