Newcomers' Survival Guide


From the October/November 2011 issue of SVSA's "Music News" newsletter

SVSA Newcomers' Meeting Survival Guide

By Mike Franke

In the five years that I've been an SVSA member, we've seen regular attendance at our monthly meetings grow from about 8-9 people to 20 or so – which is about half of the active membership. However, we've also seen a handful of people come and go, with no explanation in most cases. Being the sensitive songwriter types, some of us have started to wonder why some people leave (sniff), and what we can or should do about it, if anything.

A recent conversation on the subject spawned the idea for this article, in which I will introduce the reader to the SVSA meeting and propose a set of tips for newcomers to get past some rough spots during the first few sessions, in the hopes of increasing a newcomer's chances of sticking around in the long term, or at least minimizing the chance that anyone leaves for the wrong reasons.

The first three steps to surviving an SVSA meeting:
Step 1: Come to Open Mic.

Third Street Coffeehouse, in the basement of Trinity United Methodist Church on the corner of Third Street and Mountain Avenue in Roanoke, hosts an open mic followed by a featured performer, every Friday night roughly from 7 to 10. Check it out. It's a very granola environment with a very supportive, appreciative audience. You will meet a number of SVSA members, as they regularly attend. This is where the monthly meetings are held, so you'll get a feel for the place. Have a piece of cheesecake. Oh, and if you're a performer, do sign up!

Step 2: Read the brochure.

SVSA is in the process of publishing a brochure that will give you all the basics (it might already be out by the time you're reading this). It should be available at the Open Mic. Like the Owner's Manual for your car, it will tell you about locations, events, membership dues and other logistics, and all the other standard stuff. It will not tell you what to really expect during your first meeting, but it's a start.

Step 3: Just show up.

Woody Allen said that "Eighty percent of success is showing up." That in mind, the main step in "surviving" an SVSA night is to come to one. They're the fourth Wednesday of every month (except November), at Third Street Coffeehouse. Meetings usually have three main components: informal chat about news and events, some kind of workshop or presentation, and song critique.

You are under no obligation to do anything, say anything, or pay anything. We don't usually perform on meeting night, so you certainly don't need to bring an instrument anyway (assuming you even play one – which is not a requirement). You can't lose. You'll get to see what goes on, at no cost to you. You'll meet some of the members, and they'll meet you.

Some facts about who you'll meet …

SVSA is made up mostly of men over 40 – especially at the meetings. A majority of the members are performing songwriters and guitarists, mostly in folk, country, or jazz styles. But there are also some very prominent members who don't perform at all, who play a wider range of instruments, who work in video as well as audio, and quite a few who stray from the more common songwriting styles. The experience of our membership includes folks who are pure hobbyists, professional publicists, various flavors of working performers, and everything in between. There's a lot of experience to draw upon, and some diverse styles within the general genre. Will you "fit in?" Look, if you're a hard-core heavy metal head-banger or way into hip-hop, then maybe not. If you're looking for a meeting where you can drink beer, you're out of luck. If you're outside our usual demographic, we welcome you! There's a place for most people, and there's a desire to expand.

The next step is to bring a song to have critiqued. What follows is a series of tips to surviving that.

Tips to surviving song critique

Song Critique works like this: You bring a recording of your song and lyric sheets. You set up the song; everyone listens to it and gives you feedback. Members can write their feedback, tell you in person, or both (usually some of both). When that's done, we return the commented lyric sheets for you to take home. It's that simple.

Tip #1: Guidelines for your recording

I'm told that the SVSA has experimented with a lot of formats over the years for song critique sessions, and has settled for pre-recorded demo tracks rather than live performances (Editor's Note: Since this article was written, the policy has changed to allow songwriters to perform their songs live for critique). Reasons for this include more efficient logistics, avoiding critique of the performance itself, and inclusion of those members who aren't performers. Your recording can be on audio CD, some form of digital MP3 player, or cassette (yes, that's right).

Please note that your recording does not have to be professionally done. It does not have to be well produced at all. All anyone cares about is that they can get the feel of the melody and the song itself. If you do have more instrumentation or production, then you can make that part of your critique, or not (see Tip #3).

For the purposes of the song critique, don't clutter the song with long intros or instrumentals. This is in keeping with the way songs are demoed in Nashville. Use your judgment, though. If the non-lyrical part of the song is critical (we don't critique many instrumentals, incidentally), then leave it in. But everyone understands that the song you're critiquing can be dressed up in a lot of ways. We're not judging the clothing – we're focused the song underneath (how's that for imagery?).

Tip #2: Lyric sheet guidelines

Lyric sheets are informal. But, in the interest of learning the craft of songwriting, as with our recordings, we practice putting together lyric sheets that would pass muster in Nashville amongst the pros.

So, keep these simple guidelines in mind:

  • Try really hard to keep your song on one side of one page.
  • Do not include chords or music notation of any kind.
  • Arrange the words on the page in a structured way, depending on your song.
  • Include a copyright notice (on every page).
  • Bring about 15 copies.

Tip #3: It's OK to have an agenda.

Know what kind of critique you want – or don't want. Some examples I've heard in the past:

  • "I'd like to submit this recording to a songwriter's contest."
  • "I think a commercial might pick this up."
  • "I'd like to pitch this to a publisher and try to find someone to record it."
  • "I'd like this to get radio airplay."
  • "I'm going into the studio to record it next week, and I think it's too long."
  • (sigh) "Umm, I think it needs a bridge or something."
  • "I would like to hear if the story comes across the way I intended it to."
  • "I want to perform the song at my gigs, and I just want to make it better."
  • "I'm just doing this to upset David." (inside joke)

Tip #4: Do not have a song critiqued if all you want is approval.

I used to debut every song I wrote for my wife, who is a musician herself, and anyway I value her opinion. About a year ago, I stopped doing this for every song. In fact, when my CD was released, there were several songs on it that she'd never heard. Why the change? I realized that I didn't always want her input – only her approval.

SVSA members are kind, supportive, and almost always have something positive to say. However, there are a lot of years of songwriting experience sitting around that table, and people will speak their minds, even to newcomers. You need to be ready for that, and accept the feedback without getting defensive (I can feel my own "junk" bubbling up just writing this); in fact, often the more comments you hear, the more they like your stuff, or the more potential they think it has.

Tip #5: Resist the urge to bring your best stuff the first time

It's very tempting to bring what you consider your best stuff the first time or two, because you want to impress the other songwriters. Resist that urge. Bring a song to which you have few, if any, attachments. You'll be less likely to resist feedback on a song that you didn't think much of in the first place, and you'll build the skill of accepting critique. Besides – you'll be surprised – sometimes you have a diamond in the rough.

Tip #6: Assume your song is unfinished.

No matter how many times you've been through song critique, if you offer what you consider a "finished" song (is any song ever really finished?), you are in danger of violating Tip numbers 4 and 5. Try to treat the song as a work in progress, at least for the 10-15 minutes of the critique.

Tip #7: Reserve the right to ignore all feedback

After all the talk about accepting critique, keep in mind that there's no requirement to change anything you do based on any comments anybody made, or didn't make. Of course, even in deciding to pass on any and all feedback, you've still had to make a decision, and that itself is a learning process. Plus, you can always allow the possibility for that feedback to find its way back into your work in the future.

Tip #8: Participate in evaluating other people's songs

You learn as much when you act as a critique-er as when you're the critique-ee. Your input is valued – no matter what your level of experience. Keep your comments constructive, and try to offer "try this instead" advice instead of "this sucks" advice. Then hold your own songs up to the light you're shedding on the other guy's song, and see if you're consistent.

Tip #9: It's work

Possibly most important of all, be aware that song critique is work. SVSA night is enjoyable, satisfying, rewarding, and enlightening. But it can also be challenging, frustrating, and uncomfortable. It's not necessarily "fun."

Participating in an event where a song that you care about, and in which you may have invested a chunk of your soul, might be dismantled right in front of your eyes is not for the faint of heart. Approach it as part of the woodshedding you have to do to improve yourself as a songwriter.

Tip #10: One man's opinion

The opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of the author only, and do not necessarily express the opinions of the SVSA, its members, or its affiliates. Any re-broadcast or unauthorized use of said opinions is flattering, but then they become your responsibility.

As a final note, I will offer that every time I've brought a song to SVSA night, I've come away with a better song, period. Hopefully I've come away a better songwriter as well. And that's what it's all about, isn't it?