You ever stop and think about how you perceive and personally define styles or genres of music? What does AAA mean? Americana? Rock? Pop? Can you articulate the difference between Rhythm & Blues and contemporary R&B? Neither can most people – even those we’d think might or should know …such as event talent buyers.
So, I’m on the phone this week – doing what I do – consulting on matters related to music in Colorado, and I get asked “how do you define singer-songwriter?” My immediate off the cuff answer was “everyone in music is a singer songwriter if they sing songs they write.” That’s true. If you sing songs you write you are in fact a singer-songwriter. But the definition goes well beyond that.
The question came about because the person I was consulting had gotten push back from event buyers for being a singer-songwriter. For many people in the scene – event buyers especially – the term brings a less than likable meaning – that of solo (or duo) act that sings soft wimpy ballady acoustic “folk” type songs – the type you hear in coffee shops and many brew pubs regionally today.
According to Allmusic.com, “…the term Singer/Songwriter refers to the legions of performers that followed Bob Dylan in the late 60s and early 70s. Most of the original singer/songwriters performed alone with an acoustic guitar or a piano but some had small groups for backing. Their lyrics were personal, although they were often veiled by layers of metaphors and obscure imagery. Singer/songwriters drew primarily from folk and country, although certain writers like Randy Newman and Carole King incorporated the song-craft of Tin Pan Alley pop. The main concern for any singer/songwriter was the song itself, not necessarily the performance.”
Examples of singer songwriters also include: Simon & Garfunkle, Billy Joel, Elton John, John Lennon, Van Morrison, and James Taylor from the 70’s and from the more contemporary listings, Elvis Costello, Norah Jones, Sheryl Crow, and Sara Bareilles to name a few.
This point is worth repeating; “The main concern for any singer/songwriter was the song itself, not necessarily the performance.”
So why does it matter? It is the performance issue that drives many buyers away from so called singer-songwriters. Many buyers don’t see the singer-songwriter as a performer – as an ENTERTAINER (despite the Billy Joels and Elton Johns, who few think of as singer-songwriters, but rather pop and/or rock acts).
I made a few calls to verify that my thinking was in line with realities on the ground. I wondered why “singer-songwriters” need not apply in most cases. The answer was “energy.” What I took from that was not “energy” but FAMILIARITY. Bring an Elton John or Bob Dylan tribute band to the party and you’re in. Bring in Bob Dylan performing solo songs on an acoustic guitar that no one has yet become familiar with and he’s out. Why? FAMILIARITY = ENERGY and ENERGY = FAMILIARITY.
It’s not that folks expect to hire cover bands …and tribute bands fall into a different role in the scene – accepted as something more than a cover band. It’s that folks who put on events desire music that the average attendee can “move along to” (read: “sing along to”) even if they’ve never heard the song before.
If you avoid using the term singer-songwriter, as an artist what do you say you do musically? Americana? What’s that? What’s different between pop and rock? Is country “country” if it doesn’t sound like what’s on commercial country radio – or is that even country to begin with and when is it “too country?” How bout the differences between Rhythm & Blues (R&B) in the classic context, and R&B in the contemporary context?
One event buyer/planner this week asked me to find them “Colorado sounding” acts. When pressed, I came away with an answer that what was meant was acts in the bluegrass, jam-grass, jamband, reggae. jamband oriented funk and hip-hop, and “Americana” (read: non Nashville sounding country) styles of music. At no time was I asked for singer-songwriter, folk, rock, pop, blues, soul, jazz, or country.
My best advice? Leave the genres to those who care (uh … hello?) and define based on comparatives, on “if you like so and so you’ll like _____________” … choose “__________ compliments so and so in a mix,” NOT “_________ sounds like so and so.”
And even if you are, don’t call yourself a singer-songwriter … most singer songwriters I know can do solo, duo, trio, quartet, or even orchestra shows – and are not simply a gal or guy with a guitar …or Bob Dylan without a band …a “folk” singer.
When we think of great Colorado singer-songwriters, here are a few I think are definitely worth mentioning …we do love singer-songwriters in Colorado. Turns out they’re among our most revered treasures.
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