How Do You Define…. and why does it matter?

…singer-songwriter

puzzled emotoconYou 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.

folk singerAccording 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.

 

#coloradorocks #coloradovideos #colordaosingersongwriters #leaderofthepack #localmusicmatters

 

6 Comments

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6 responses to “How Do You Define…. and why does it matter?

  1. “According to the pop definition, to be a ‘folk singer’ you have to be a (white) person on stage with an acoustic guitar singing a song in English. A song you just made up. That’s a folk song. That is a silly misuse of the term ‘folk music.’ I use the phrase as little as possible now. Call me a River Singer!” Pete Seeger

  2. To elaborate on Pete’s great quote, what you’re presenting here basically translates into a lack of vision and true musical understanding from the festival bookers and venue booking reps. Where does the multi-genre artist fit within this equation? Or better yet, the multi-genre singer/songwriter? I can’t think of how many times I myself have been pigeon holed. ” Can I book my Blues, Funk, Rock, Reggae band at your venue?” Response: ” But aren’t you an acoustic singer/songwriter? I heard you sing a serious acoustic song at an open mic once.” No, I’m a PROFESSIONAL with a varied musical taste. I’ll play whatever you’re hiring me for. This of course happens with record labels and radio as well. They all feel the need to put you in a box so they could “define” you. How do you define a “singer/songwriter” like Tom Waits, Neil Young or Joni Mitchell that will switch genre’s from album to album or even feature multiple styles within one recording?

    • It is neither a lack of vision nor of a true understanding on the part of those who book shows. It’s a lack of understanding by many of us who play solo acoustic music to understand the terms and meanings in the same way as those on the other side of the table. If you say to someone who is NOT a musician that you are a singer-songwriter, it conjures an image of “Bob Dylan without a band.” What the buyer wants is a band that is entertaining.

  3. Unfortunately, as Pete was hinting at, many terms have become bastardized. The same way “folk music” has become a, “White guy singing his own songs in English,” the term, “singer/songwriter,” also conjures up a similarly limited vision. Folk music could be as broad as someone playing a Kora and singing in an African village, a Native American playing a Cedar Flute, or even rappers, “spitting words,” on a N.Y.C street corner. You were correct in defining a, “singer/songwriter,” as simply one who sings and performs songs that they wrote. Was Bob Marley a “singer-songwriter?” By proper definition you would have to say, yes. So essentially, you’re right. To protect ourselves and to, “get the gig,” we should call ourselves something else. But I disagree with you that some of these folks on the other end of the table don’t lack vision. If you play a song by yourself to another musician and say envision this with a funk groove with electric guitar, organ and horns they could hear it. But if you say this to someone who is not a musician, who happens to be in the position that determines who will work and who doesn’t work, they won’t hear it. Even after you play them the final produced version they’ll still see you as that guy with the acoustic guitar.

  4. P.S- Essentially what you’re hinting at here, is musical stereotyping. I like to call myself a singer/songwriter, and I may even play a stereotypical, “Bob Dylan song, “with my acoustic guitar and harmonica brace,” if the spirit moves me,” but the next week I could be similarly moved to play something completely different. A perfect example of this lack of vision that I was talking about was 9 times out of 10 if you see a band perform here locally the opening band will be in the same genre and sound very similar to the headliner. Why is this? If the headliner is a Reggae band then why must the opener be a reggae band as well? Why not have a “singer/songwriter,” solo acoustic or a Jazz trio open for the reggae band? Or have a Reggae band open for a Rock band or a Jam band? This to me is symptomatic of a lack of vision. By contrast, take someone like the late Bill Graham. He was a visionary while also being a successful business man. When he was booking the Fillmore he would pair acts such as Miles Davis and the Grateful Dead or he’d have Ravi Shankar and a tabla player open for a Rock band like Santana or the Jefferson Airplane. This provides for, in my opinion, a richer overall experience. Something like this helps to break the stereotypes caused by generic industry terminology. Where is today’s Bill Graham? Instead we have venue’s playing it safe and adhering to a cookie cutter mentality. Where are the visionaries of today? The music scene will flourish again when the business men on the “other side of the fence,” match the creativity of the artists. The talent buyer is a potential “artist,” but often times is not because of lack of vision and creativity.

    • I apologize for painting an overly broad generalization of the industry I’ve made my living in for the past 15 years. 😦

      It was not my intention to do so.

      goat

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