Monday, June 30, 2008

On Freight Train

"Freight Train" is one of those songs that every acoustic guitar player learns at some point. I learned it as a kid when I was taking guitar lessons, but I don't think I truly appreciated it until I became a guitar teacher myself. Now, it's one of the first tunes I will teach to a student who wants to learn how to fingerpick a melody. The beauty of "Freight Train" is that it's deceptively simple. You can play it completely straight -- with no syncopation or fancy licks, which is what makes it so perfect for teaching fingerstyle guitar. And it's great for learning how to syncopate and interpret a melody in different ways. Somehow even though I hear it almost every week, I never get tired of it.

I once saw Libba Cotton, the author of "Freight Train," perform a concert at Harbourfront Centre in Toronto. She must have been at least 92. She had recently fallen and broken her ankle, so she performed the entire concert with her foot in a cast, propped up on a chair in front of her. She was one of the most down-to-earth, personable performers I have ever seen. I feel lucky to have seen that concert.

Today I learned "Freight Train" has been inducted into the Library of Congress as one of the most important recordings ever.

Congratulations to Libba Cotton, and here's to one of the seminal folk songs of our time, "Freight Train."

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Let the Blogging Begin

Since I decided to start blogging, I've had lots of ideas about what to write about. Now that I'm truly beginning, I'm not sure where to start! All my ideas have left my head.

So I will start with something I posted to Maplepost, an email listserv I belong to for people involved in folk music in Canada.

In the past few days, we've been discussing how hard it is for folk musicians to find a booking agent, and the difficulties involved with being your own booking agent. So of course I had to get my two cents in there. Here's what I wrote:

Being Your Own Booking Agent

Being a musician and performer involves a very different set of skills from being a booking agent, publicist, manager, or independent business owner. A lucky few seem to have an amazing combination of all those skills, and must never sleep, because they somehow manage to do all those things for themselves excellently. But the rest of us mere humans generally bumble along, doing better at some parts than others, and sometimes cursing the gods for the lack of (fill in the blank here: an agent, a manager, a bookkeeper, a secretary, etc.).

One thing that has helped me cope with this is that I do other music work that complements performing-- I teach lessons out of my house. Not only does it bring in other income, so that I'm not completely dependent on the money that comes in from gigs and CD sales, but it gives me a lot of flexibility. I work from home and I can set my own hours. If I need to be away for a week, I can easily move my schedule around. And it's made me a better musician.

Having that other income that is still music related has really changed my life-- since I'm not 100% dependent on the gigs, I'm not approaching booking with the sole goal of keeping the wolves from the door. I'm able to think about where I want to go with my performing career and how to get there, and I'm able to view things in the long term. If I have a stretch with fewer gigs, I know I will still have some money coming in.

The other thing that has really helped me is to try, as much as possible, not to take it personally.

When I started booking myself, I found it really difficult to talk to presenters. I realize now that I was thinking about it all wrong. I was thinking of myself as the lowly artist, begging for crumbs from an all-powerful presenter, who had the ability to make or break my career. It's extremely difficult not to feel personally rejected or crushed when you don't get the gig -- you've put your heart and soul into your music, and the presenter isn't interested. It must mean they don't like you or your music, right?

First of all, as we all know, there's all kinds of reasons for not getting booked -- too few spots, timing doesn't work, they can't add another concert in May, they don't present songwriters, etc. etc.

But more importantly, I've tried to develop a new approach to the process of booking. For me now, booking is all about building community, making relationships, and getting to know the people that are out there helping make the music happen. They might be running a teeny house concert or booking a huge concert hall, but I want to know more about what they do and how they do it. The more I know about the whole spectrum of venues, and how they work, the better I'm going to be able to work with them. And as soon as I started looking at it that way, things began to shift.

Thinking about booking this way helped me "de-personalize" things a lot, and it's made me a better booking agent for myself. Now when I contact a presenter, I think about it as relationship building. I present myself honestly and directly, and I look for the same from them. I try to remember that they've usually only got a few slots to fill, and that there's a lot of fantastic music out there. I think about the fact that I'm in this for the long haul, and if they don't hire me now, they might want to next year, or the year after that. I'm on the slow burn, and I can wait.

So even if I don't get the gig, if I succeeded in having a good conversation where we exchanged some information and got to know each other a little bit, I consider myself successful. Because that's going to be a person that I can go back to at some later point and talk to again. Maybe I'll run into them at a festival or a conference. Maybe I'll be able to help them with something -- locating a good sound person, or helping them find the perfect Irish group for St. Patrick's Day, or whatever. Maybe, even if they don't hire me, they can tell me about some of the other venues in their area, or maybe they know something about artist management. Maybe they'll never hire me -- so be it.

It doesn't mean they think I suck, it doesn't mean they suck. It just means they're not going to hire me. Sometimes that's really hard to take. But the more I'm able to let that go, the better for me, and the better for my career. And, as I said before, not having to depend 100% on gigs can really help keep things in perspective.

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