So You Want to Be a Performing Singer-Songwriter: Part 1
Okay, so you can sing, and you've written a few songs. You think they're pretty good--your friends and family agree. You love singing and playing, but have only played for friends or family or your immediate community. You're thinking you might like to take your babies out into the world and let other people hear them. An Open Mic is a great place to start.
Take a look in your local papers for Open Mics, usually listed in the local music calendar section. If you don't find many listed, consider calling around to local coffeehouses and other acoustic venues, as well, which may not advertise but might offer Open Mics. Choose two or three and go check them out--without performing. Just be an audience member the first time so you can concentrate on feeling out the space and people, without being distracted by fear and nerves.
Did one of the Open Mics feel right to you? Friendly, supportive, anyone actually listening in the audience? Were there beginners performing, many first-timers? Some Open Mics are anything-goes anyone-can-sign-up and others you'll find are frequented by more seasoned musicians. Whatever feels right to you is what's important.
Most of the time at Open Mics the audience will consist of other people signed up to perform at the Open Mic, and their friends. If it's not a competitive crowd, it can be a lot of fun to network and support each other. And the people who actually run the open mics are often the coolest, nicest, most supportive people you'll ever meet. They're often doing it for free and really love music and helping independent artists. On the other hand, they could be frustrated performers with little patience or really an interest in anyone else but themselves, and in that case, find another Open Mic.
Keep in mind that the first time you perform your own material in front of strangers you'll probably be incredibly nervous and you'll probably be harder on yourself than anyone else in the room. Remember that! Just be sure that when you do perform, you try to have as much fun as possible--the audience will have fun with you!
So you've checked out the Open Mics that interest you and decided on at least one you'd like to try. You go home and think about it, feel nervous about it, decide yes you will, no you won't, yes I can, no I can't--she loves me! Okay, you'll do it.
Next step: Choose what you think are your two very best songs. Often you're allowed time for two songs, but sometimes only one. Have at least two prepared; three in case you think if you get really nervous you won't be able to hit the high notes on that one song that's really just a little out of your range, but you absolutely love it and have to play it. And practice, practice, practice, 'til you're performing them like a pro in your dreams.
When the night arrives, you pack up your guitar. Before you walk out the door for your first Open Mic experience, here are a few things you might want to bring, as well:
- Your GUITAR (well, duh, but I know people who have grabbed their case, only to arrive and find it empty, having forgotten to check and make sure the guitar was actually IN it--some guitar cases are heavy by themselves, so it's an easier mistake than you think);
- Your TUNER (if you have perfect pitch, nevermind, but if you're like most of us and you don't, have no shame about using these handy digital lifesavers--practice tuning by ear though, so you're not completely dependent on them if the batteries die or other unforseen problems arise) I'll write a bit about tuners in a future hub, so stayed tuned....;
- Your CHEAT SHEET of your lyrics and/or music if you think you just can't perform without it in front of you, or if you know when you get nervous, everything you've ever known drops out of your brain like an avalanche;
- Your CAPO and PICKS, if you use either (more on capos in a future hub);
- A pack of EXTRA STRINGS, just in case that horrifying thing happens the first time you play: a broken string! Practice changing your strings so it's not a catastrophe if it does happen. Take every opportunity to build up your confidence any way you can--even feeling confident about changing your strings will help. I can almost guarantee you WILL need to change your strings in front of an audience at some point in time if you follow the performing songwriter path;
- Your CAMERA. Have someone take a picture of you playing your first song in public. It's great for your confidence and your photo album, and heck-a-fun to look at later. Start your photo album now, especially if you're planning on seriously pursuing your music. There's a crazy, wonderful, frustrating, challenging, joyful, exhausting, exhilarating journey in front of you. (Get plenty of rest NOW while you can!)
Wear clothes you're completely comfortable in, that reflect your personality. Don't add to your stress level by wearing those fabulous 2 inch spiked-heel pumps you've never walked in before tonight, or those awesome leather pants that are just a little too tight. Yes, you may have a lovely package, but you want the audience to listen to your SONG not stare at your crotch. Well, then again, whatever it takes to get someone to pay attention, aye? My point: be comfortable in your clothes and appearance so you can concentrate on your performance--and the audience can too.
AFTER THE OPEN MICS
I sang my first original tune out in public with my first guitar when I was 17 years old, using a fake ID to get into the bar. That was quite a few years back, and two CDs and hundreds or performances later, I can tell you it's a great learning experience, is filled with amazing moments, and is one of the most challenging journeys you could possibly choose. It's such a thrill like no other to perform your original material, sing it out strong to a room full of receptive listeners. When I'm performing, I feel like there's nowhere else I'd rather be than right there doing just that. My mind is connected to my heart and the audience and the rhythm and pulse and soul of life. There's nothing like it when it all comes together. That's what's kept me performing all my life (certainly not the money--we'll get to that later). There's really nothing like it.
If that's how you feel, too, after performing at open mics and writing what you believe are the best songs you can write, it's time to branch out. I found two or three paths that eventually led to more gigs, and were great ways to step into a bigger spotlight--without having to beg and/or pay people to come see you! (Well, you might have to do that on occasion, too, but better not to start out that way.)
First, networking is key. Meeting other musicians who are more established than you (meaning, not just starting out) and performing somewhat regularly to their own group of fans can lead to an opening spot at their next gig, if they like your material and you. An opening act might be asked to play two or three songs, or a full 20-30 minute set. Learn some interesting cover tunes that fit your musical style if you need to fill out your playlist (add to your original tunes, if you haven't yet written enough that are up to par). I'm not talking opening up for some major national act, here, just a more established singer-songwriter, or a trio or group that has a similar sound to your music and a local fanbase of some kind.
Another good way to join the scene is to network with local venues and musicians who play or produce Songwriters-in-the-Round type nights. These gigs usually spotlight three or four singer-songwriters who take turns playing songs. You may get to play as few as three songs, or as many as five or six, depending on the number of performers and how long the night goes. They'll want to hear your music first, so you'll need to consider recording three or four of your songs at some point. Doesn't have to be anything fancy, just a basic recording studio, recording you playing live, is fine. You want a clear and clean recording that showcases your best performing effort, not something with a million overdubs and a full rock band or orchestra (unless you're bringing them with you). Again, network with other musicians--one or more of them may have a simple home recording set-up with Pro Tools or a more basic software. A decent mike, a decent computer, a burned CD and you're on your way. Make sure the CD plays in all types of CD players (not just computers) before you begin handing them out.
Today there's also a burgeoning House Concert circuit with branches across the United States. Look into local House Concerts and attend some. Sometimes they're advertised in local newspapers, but more often they're word-of-mouth or found online (such as: http://www.concertsinyourhome.com/ or http://www.houseconcerts.com/venue.php or http://www.house-concerts.org/index2.asp in CO--I've no connections to any of them, but they feature some wonderful artists--google for more leads). Introduce yourself to the host/s and let them know you're a performing singer-songwriter, too. Ask how you can help out, as well. House Concerts are a big production to host, and most often, there is no pay involved (for the hosts, though sometimes money is collected at the door and split among that night's performers--be sure and find out how they work it). People who sponsor house concerts are often huge music fans and performers themselves, with passion and heart, who wish to create a supportive community for performing songwriters to play their material, and try out new songs. They may be especially receptive to new artists. Share your passion and let the best of you shine when networking. Always attend as an audience member first to see if it's a place you feel comfortable.
Listen closely to what each venue or host requires each artist to submit for consideration: A headshot photo? A demo CD? Can you submit your songs and information digitally online via email or provide a link to your MySpace (or similar) page (if you have one--a must these days)? Do you need to mail these items via post? Do they require a video? (Lordy, you hope not--those are a little more involved than simple demo tapes and can cost a lot more if you want a decent product. Not the way you want to go for your first few appearances when you're still getting your feet wet, especially if you're on a tight budget. Though again, networking can bring some unexpected opportunities your way, such as someone who has a little video recording setup who would be willing to help you out.) Start simple if you can. Know what's required and go with the easiest gigs first.
MONEY? WHAT MONEY?
And here we come to the blinding truth: singer-songwriters often make no money at all playing gigs, especially at first. Just like bands, venues often approach performers with the idea that you should be grateful for the opportunity to play, and that should be enough. Some even will require that you bring in X number of people in order to perform. It's up to you which gigs you're willing to take. Just know that for quite awhile, you may not make a penny, or might actually spend much more than you make. It's important that you're not in denial about this. It takes time to develop your material, create a buzz about yourself and your music, and develop a fanbase. There is some money to be made, often through playing house concerts or private parties, but it's usually playing for tips, so keep that in mind. You really must love the process, love your music and love performing more than anything else. It's what will keep you out there and keep it fun.
I'll end Part 1 here, with you having played your first Open Mics and maybe moved on to repeat performances and new venues. In Part 2 I'll share my gear experiences: what's worked well for me on the road and in the studio, and recommendations for the solo or duo/trio performer. Until then, write, practice, perform!