Sunday, November 11, 2007

A Rant, A Long Post, A Hillbilly Prostitute

Having finally slept, eaten breakfast and put on pants, I can now try to explain why yesterday was so trippy. I will try to write without ranting, even though I have witnesses that can attest to my impassioned preaching at various points during day.

Also, it's confusing, so I'm sorry if I make no sense.

Weeks ago I signed up to go to a conference put on by the Songwriter's Association of Canada, taking place on Saturday, in downtown Ottawa. Then I forgot. When I was cleaning out my inbox on Thursday, I noticed the receipt and schedule sitting there, unopened. Oops.

I had already made plans Saturday to meet my friend Jessica for breakfast, who was visiting from out of town, and who I was excited to see. We arranged to meet right downtown so I could run off to the forgotten conference after our visit.

I get to the Scone Witch, and there is no Jessica. I order tea, and there is no Jessica. I have breakfast, and still no Jessica. I assume I have fucked up our plans horribly and leave, worried that she had come early and left. Since I don't know which hotel she's staying at, I have no way to reach her.

I go to the forgotten conference, hoping to spend my day attending interesting workshops about songwriting and the music industry in general. That would make sense, right? At a songwriting conference?

I can safely say that the conference was not what I expected. I missed the first workshop because I was having breakfast, but in retrospect, this was probably a good thing. The workshop was all about writing a hit song, and frankly, I can't think of something less appealing. I attended one of those workshops when I was fourteen, and actually laughed my way out of the room. Even then I had the sense to see that following a lyric and structure formula to make yourself rich and famous was stupid. But if you want to write a song with the same amount of passion as a piece of cardboard, please, follow the damn formula.

The second workshop was about "song plugging," which sounded to me like a musical joke about anal play. As you can imagine, I was intrigued, and went. I spent the next hour and a half hearing a publisher from Nashville explain how to sell songs to country stars in Nashville. He was well spoken and interesting, but I don't give two shits about selling my songs to a country singer. I write songs so that I can sing them myself. For people. In an audience. I was puzzled as to why this was relevant for a bunch of independent Canadian folk and pop songwriters, but who am I to judge if they want to sell their goods South? The best part of his talk was when he suggested writing about safe subjects so that more songwriters will be able to relate. He followed this by saying his big song for next year will be about child abduction.

Um. You lost me there, friend.

I was starting to lose hope by the third workshop. It was run by the music director for The Bear, explaining how to get your music on commercial radio. She was funny, smart, and seemed like a nice lady. But I ask again: How is this relevant? Most of the songwriters at the conference don't write commercial rock music. I'm not about to call up The Bear and beg them to play my banjo songs, right?

I take a pee break, leave the room, and walk straight into my friend Jessica. Somehow we found each other in a random hallway at a random hotel where she happened to be staying. She has had a shitty night and a shittier day, and felt terribly for missing breakfast. No problem, we'll have dinner, I say.

Last workshop. This is a demo evaluation, where everyone submits a song, and then the panelists critique it in front of everybody at the conference. Daunting, but what the hell. I submitted Real Fine Friend, which I think is a solid song. Unfortunately I submitted it before I had attended any of the workshops, and suddenly realize that I have offered up the least mainstream, least structured song I've got. It occurs to me that it's about to be ripped apart by Mr. Hit Song, Mrs. Bear, and Mr. Nashville.


They are pretty harsh about everyone's songs, both the good and the terrible ones. They come to mine. We all listen. Mr. Nashville looks puzzled, Mrs. Bear is concentrating, and Mr. Hit Song is unreadable. Mr. Nashville begins the critique.

Him (in a southern drawl): So, are you looking to sell this?

Me: Oh God no.

Him: I see. Well, I guess it would help if you said the name of the song in the chorus.

(I nod politely, because I can't think of what else to do. I'm glad he didn't have more to say, frankly)

Mrs. Bear begins her critique.

Her: I really like this. I like the mood and I like your voice. It would be great on a soundtrack.

Me: Thank you.

Her: There's just one thing. I'm reading the lyrics here. Is seems.... Well.... It seems like this song is about a hillbilly prostitute.

Me: (nearly spit out my water laughing) Um, no. It's not. And on that note, it's not autobiographical.

Mr. Hit Song begins his critique.

Him: I also really like this. The only thing I would say is that you might want to try working with a co-writer. It might help you stick to a more structured song.

(I nod politely, even though I just finished telling a group of songwriters how much I can't stand co-writing. My songs are emotional little bubbles. They are my stories to tell. They aren't like carpooling. I can't share them and split them into bits and take turns writing about my bleeding heart. That's not how I write, and that's not what I like. End of story.)

My critique is done! I throw my stuff into my backpack and start shuffling out of the room. I want to leave before I hear another sentence about how to sell out to the United States. Of course, on my way out the door, I am accosted by several male songwriters looking to be my new co-writing partner. You know, because Mr. Hit Song said so, now it must be. I try to explain that I would sooner eat a hamburger than try to write a song with a strange man, but I'm not sure I get the message across. I pretty much run out of the hotel.

The rest of my evening involved a pleasant and drunk dinner with my darlings Jessica and Rachel, so I have no complaints there.

But I'm still boggled by that conference. And I'm conflicted, because I respect the SAC immensely. I think they have a really important role to play in helping Canadian songwriters navigate an increasingly difficult industry. But please, SAC. I don't want to sell my songs. I don't want to court commercial radio. I would like to know more about self-management, contracts, and grant applications. I would like to know how to empower myself as a songwriter, not how to make other people rich. I think a lot of new songwriters would leave those workshops with the wrong idea about their talent. You don't need to prostitute your songs (hillbilly or not) to be a real songwriter. You don't even need to follow a mathematical formula. Encouraging new songwriters to focus on mainstream music is not a good way to keep talent in Canada. And to be honest, commercial music is taking a colossal beating these days.

Take Sufjan Stevens, for example. Not mainstream, not commercial. Pretty unusual, actually. Calls his songs "Oh God, where are you now? In Pickeral Lake? Pigeon? Marquette? Mackinaw?" or "All good naysayers, speak up! Or forever hold your peace!". But he is immensely successful, prolific, original, and is in my opinion, a songwriting God. Does he sell his songs or follow a formula? I think fucking not. Sometimes he doesn't include a chorus. Sometimes his songs are mostly a bridge. Some of his songs start after three minutes of throbbing organ sounds. Some of his songs are random noises.

But fuck he's good, and he's hugely popular. Canadian songwriters? They should be encouraged to break down songwriting boundaries. They shouldn't help build the wall.

PS, My song Real Fine Friend is available as a free download off my website, and off my Myspace site. The lyrics are up on Myspace too. Feel free to have a listen and a read. And tell me.... Did I unknowingly write a song about a hillbilly prostitute? Should I take a hint from Sufjan and re-name it "Oh hillbilly prostitute, how I desire the warmth your soft lady flesh on this long walk I'm taking in the cold of Canada's capital city"? I thought the lyrics told a nice story. Now I'm wondering what I've created.


Laura said...

The conference seems like a huge waste of time - I feel your pain, anguish and total confusion over how these topics could be of interest to the audience originally targeted by the event...mind boggling! But at least you had a wonderful dinner with wonderful company and wonderful beverages!

And for the record, I love your style, topics and technique for song writing...but if you by chance switch to hillbilly-lady-of-the-night-like topics, I would still listen - your voice is amazing and your banjo playing very cool! Mainstream or not, wanna be or not - you rock my friend...stay true to your vision and dream.

Anonymous said...

Ahahaha... Do not fret. I went to a SAC song critique at CMW a couple of years ago. It was two hours of painful, painful songs and mostly the panel critiquing the quality of the recordings and telling people their lyrics were cliche. It was definitely about selling songs though.

Mine got chosen right before the end of the panel. I got such enlightening comments as "where is the chorus" and "You look pretty young...maybe your voice will sound better with more training". But they admitted I could play the guitar. Gee thanks.

How was your show at Rasputin's on Friday???


Evey said...

The whole reason I listen to Canadian indie (which I use as a pretty broad term) is because it isn't like the mass produced American crap. Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

It does tell a nice story; a real, luvly, gentle story. I so enjoy it for the sound alone and I quoted lines from it (and sent the link) to a fella to say what I didn't know how to express on my own. So perhaps that makes me a hillbilly prostitute?


Andrea SK said...

Hahahaha, you guys are great.

You know, even if I accidentally wrote about a hillbilly prostitute, I'm not concerned. I'm just glad it won't be tempting for mainstream radio. :)

stegan said...

What I always find amusing is that what these "experts" find saleable, the general public often responds to with a resounding "meh."

Artists like Sufjan and Ani DiFranco have built huge careers through nothing but relentless self-promotion. You've got a great, unique sound- just keep putting yourself out there and good things will happen!

And I second what evey said- I seek out Canadian music because it's smarter and more interesting than a lot of the commercial stuff in the US, not because the BPM are calculated to please my ears.

Andrea SK said...

Thanks for the vote of confidence Stegan... I've been enjoying your blog immensely, by the way!