Me, Randy C Moore, Bobby Keel, Jim Parker in the round at Huntsville Civic Center
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A songwriter round can be a yawning spectacle for an audience who is just there to support a family member or friend and can't wait to exit the venue. Or it can be a magical night the audience will never forget and that can significantly benefit your career. I've done a ton of both types, and here are some things I've learned. Even if you're a round veteran, I hope you catch a new thing or two!
What is a 'songwriter round'?
For the as-yet uninitiated, this term is short for 'songwriters in the round'. This kind of event originated in Nashville, where it has become a hallmark tradition. The classic version is 4 songwriters in a circle, taking turns to sing their songs, with the audience seated all around outside the circle. Sometimes the songwriter performers are in a row if the stage is not conducive to the circular arrangement, like the round I did in the photo above. The songwriters typically accompany themselves on keyboard or guitar, but sometimes are accompanied by another musician. And often, the songwriters chime in with instruments and/or background vocals on each other's songs. When done well, these are really great shows.
Know what you want to accomplish.
Before hosting or performing in a songwriter round, it's important to be clear about your goals for the show. Typical goals for these shows include...
- Number one: Demonstrate your songs to get your songs cut by a recording artist, or to move your career forward as a recording artist who writes. For these goals, choose a venue where industry people like to go, and a time they'll probably be available. Invite specific people to your show who you think might be looking for songs, including publishers, managers, A&R people, producers, label people, and the artists themselves.
- Feed and express your performing and creative spirit. Singers and songwriters deeply need to sing and have their songs heard. It's fuel for our music-making hearts, and it's important.
- Practice performing! There's nothing like a songwriter round to get you doing your vocal exercises and raising your vocal stamina. It's also a great way to get used to playing in front of an audience, or get back to it if it's been a while.
- Get some audience reaction to your songs. Listeners' feedback is an awesome way to know what is working and what isn't. A songwriter round audience is an intimate one, so it's pretty easy to read their interest - or the lack thereof - in your songs. You might be moved to re-write something, drop a song entirely, or to record the especially favored ones on your next album.
- Make a little money. (And I mean a little!) Cover charges and tips won't make your house payment. But your music should be good enough to be worth paying for.
- My three goals for my current songwriter rounds are: to express my own voice again, to showcase some great singer/songwriter artists I'm working with to increase everyone's visibility, and to create magic... true value... for our audience. My goal is a triple win!
Tips for hosting a great round:
- Choose the right songwriters!
- Try to choose performers whose audiences are compatible... so anyone who loves listening to one would also enjoy the songs of the others you book for that show.
- Songwriter round chaos is almost always totally preventable stress if you clearly communicate the show agenda to all involved. Make sure your venue will be available and the soundperson will be present for soundcheck. Give performers plenty of notice about the venue location, times for soundcheck, when doors open, and when the show should start, the length of the show (number of songs they'll do), and where they can find ticket purchasing information they can share. Ask for any photos, videos, and/or bios you need for promotion prior to show. From my experience, add a deadline to that request!
- Promote the show!
- It's hard to draw an audience that doesn't know you're having this songwriter round! There are lots of free and paid ways to advertise, including online social networking, email blasts and local flyers.
- Make eye-catching banners with photos and info on the gig. I personally use Canva to create my graphics. You can customize and size the banners for social networking as well as posters and email news blasts.
- Promote multiple times. Announce the show a couple of weeks out, then again and again as you get closer to the date. Share reminders on social media the morning of the gig.
- Get others to help promote! Ask your songwriters to promote the show, and share your show banner graphics with them. Don't forget your family, friends, and fans you can enlist to help spread the word.
- Either have a cover charge or a tip jar.
- Find out what your venue usually suggests as a cover charge, and who collects it.
- Consider using 'Square' or 'Paypal Here' for credit cards.
- Designate someone to be in charge of passing the tip jar during the show.
- They can also sell any merch or recordings that performers have.
Tips for performing songwriters...
- Choose the right songs.
- Avoid most depressing, sad, cry in your beer songs... at least don't do a whole show of them. If you have them, include a funny and lighthearted song. A lot of round veterans write special songs just for these shows.
- Create your intended set list, but prepare more songs than you'll need, in case you feel the sudden need to change one to better follow a song someone else just did. On the show, read your audience... what do you think they'd like to hear next?
- By definition, songwriter rounds are for original music; not cover songs. But every rule can be broken. For instance, I often sing a song that was a hit for me as an artist but written by someone else. Just be sure you are clear about what is expected of you by the person who books you.
- You might be bored with them, but do sing hit songs if you have written them; audiences love hearing songs they know. Add brand new ones... A really good mix is hits and new songs that might be next hits!
- In all ways, be prepared!
- Bring water or diluted pineapple juice to sip between songs. Eat a simple meal with protein before your show. You'll need not only physical but also mental energy.
- Make sure your instrument is prepared - check batteries, cords, strings, capos, picks, stools & stands if not provided - anything else you use when you play.
- Make sure your voice is prepared - A songwriter round can be as important a career mover as any gig. If you haven't been singing much lately, get your vocal stamina up by singing full voice for days before the round. Definitely warm your voice up like you're about to do a live Grammy performance. A rule for you that I learned from the late Sarah Cannon (Minnie Pearl): make every gig special, no matter who is there.
- (Dear round playing veterans... pay attention to this one...) Know how to sing well sitting down. Slumping over your guitar or keyboard into a mic will cause a lack of vocal control and thin sound. (Can you feel me poke you in the middle of your shoulder blades?) My point is that if you will be sitting, as in most rounds, then practice that way.
- Know your songs! Memorize lyrics, chords, and arrangements! Yes, it is common and acceptable to bring lyric sheets to songwriter rounds, but only use them as prompts if you need to.
- Know how to enter and draw the audience into the scene of each song; how to differentiate what you do between songs and what you do as you begin them. Take a lesson so I can show you how a bit of acting technique can raise the bar on your performance.
- Either bring your own microphone (if they'll let you use it) or bring alcohol wipes! In most songwriter round venues, the mics are not in pristine sanitary condition. Use an alcohol wipe on mic and anywhere you'll touch the mic stand. If there's a show after you, wipe it down again. For these pandemic times, it matters more than ever.
- Be considerate!
- Show up early for the gig. If there's a soundcheck, (even online) make sure you're there for it.
- Make sure your participation adds to the magic instead of subtracts or distracts from it! Don't chime in on another songwriter's performance unless 1. you know they will appreciate your contribution and 2. you're confident you can play or sing well on that song. If these two boxes are checked, please DO add your voice and/or instrument - everyone will be grateful!
- Support your fellow performers... interact with them as friends would in a casual jam session. When they are performing, actively listen as you'd like them to listen to you. The more fun, friendship and comradery the performers have, the more magic the audience experiences.
- Interact with the audience. Include them naturally in the conversations. Make them laugh. Get them wrapt in attention as you tell the stories behind your songs. Ask them things, find out where they are from; let them know that you see them. It's the least you can do for their support! Creating this sense of relationship - this instant 'village' is a vital component for truly magical songwriter rounds, and a good way to expand your fanbase!
- Watch your language. Be courteous, common sense, and read your audience for cues. A great round often includes some mature song material, but dropping a curse word in the wrong crowd is a great way to ruin a moment, and decrease your fanbase.
- Complimenting and thanking your venue, audience, and host, reminding people to tip waiters, and maybe even tipping the soundperson are great ways to get invited back!
Three songwriter round fails to avoid...
I have witnessed all these mistakes, and they really steal the magic out of a songwriter show.
- Performing internally
- Talking too long
Tips for creating virtual shows...
Please note: I am not a tech guru. I can only share info on the limited things I've experimented with. If you do a virtual show, I highly recommend you do your own research and scope out the increasing options available for live streaming... and I'd like to know what you find out! That said, here are some thoughts.
- Why do a show online? As I write, we are in the summer of 2020, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, it is dangerous to fill a small room with people like the songwriter rounds we've known before. However, there are creative ways to bring people together through the internet. The tricky issues include...
- the technical difficulty of having multiple people simultaneously connected online,
- and the latency effect if they try to play together while truly live.
- To have a true 'songwriter in the round' experience,
- Performers need to be able to interact with each other and...
- the watching audience needs to be able to interact with performers, as well.
- The performances should not be full band, but more 'unplugged' or stripped-down versions, with acoustic instruments, electronic keyboards, and even simple percussion instruments as appropriate accompaniment.
- Choose your software:
- Be.Live Broadcasting. This is the option I chose for my show I've named 'Cloud Rounds'. You can use this software to stream live to Facebook or Youtube. I went live on Facebook and was able to engage live audience comments, and respond to them as the show progressed.
- OBS - Open Broadcaster Software. This is a free and open-source application for video recording as well as live streaming. It works on Windows, Mac, and Linux operating systems.
- XSplit Broadcaster - another live streaming option.
- Restream which enables streaming to 30+ social networks at once.
- Zoom - a limited option as to participants and viewers. I don't recommend it for songwriter rounds.
- Please let me know if YOU have used any streaming service, and whether or not you think it would work for songwriter rounds.
- Try to ensure the best quality audio and streaming video possible
- Streaming video can be glitchy. Be sure that all performers know to turn off any other internet-using device anywhere near them during the show. Exception: Someone in the house could use their phone to watch the show in another room, as long as the phone is using cellular data instead of your WIFI.
- Audio can really be a problem when streaming live. It's best for performers to wear earbuds or headphones to limit excessive, echo-ey room sound.
- For my virtual show I called Cloud Rounds, I had all songwriters pre-tape our performances to prevent the typical live instrument digital glitches. Then with Be.Live software, I inserted the videos into our live show. I was transparent about it, and the audience didn't seem to mind at all. We chatted live between the pre-recorded videos and it really gave the audience a much better audio experience.
- Setup and promote a virtual tip jar
- My choice for Cloud Rounds... an app called 'Buy Me A Coffee'. I like this because it takes anyone's credit cards, which go directly to my PayPal account. Also, people can leave comments which I can respond to there.
- Other options... Venmo or your direct Paypal link. These might be simpler, but with Venmo your tipper would need to have a Venmo account. I also use Square to take credit cards.
- Remember to tell people you have a tip jar several times during the show.
- Make sure to mention your website, merch and music store you have online!
- Take advantage of 2 things virtual rounds have over physical venue rounds: bigger audience potential, and the replay factor.
- Consider paying for a small 'boost' promotion for the show replay on Facebook. Between the organic reach and $20 boosted replay, my first Cloud Round has so far landed over 6 thousand views, about 1 thousand of them full thru plays of the 1.5-hour show! Tons of likes, comments, and connections, too. This is a much bigger reach than a physical songwriter round venue like Nashville's iconic Bluebird Cafe.
- Consider editing the show (I use Cyberlink Power Director for this) to remove any really distracting speedbumps such as long silences while getting the tech right, freezing or out of sync video performances, and such. Then multipurpose the video to Youtube and other video platforms. It will live there for virtually ever:) Speaking of which...
Hit play and check out our "Cloud Rounds" show -
my first experience creating/hosting a virtual songwriter round!
Look for future Cloud Rounds hosted by me and my co-sponsor for this event series, Mark Thress, with whom I brainstormed this virtual songwriter event concept.