As a performing songwriter in the 2000s, I shared the stage with the Juno Award winner Amelia Curran. Since turning to journalism, I have wanted to explore some of the advice I missed while inside my music brain. I spoke with music industry professionals Kris McCann, chairman of the Halifax Pop Explosion (HPX), Colin Mills, coordinator of the Algonquin music industry arts program and Alan Neal, host of All in a Day on CBC Ottawa to get a feel for what to portray to aspiring songwriters or band leaders who are thinking about getting into (or back into) a songwriting life.
Kris McCann chairs the Halifax Pop Explosion, a week-long festival celebrating its 20th year in 2013. He also promotes shows in Halifax through his event management company 8pi and is a supportive member of that city’s music scene.
Colin Mills is the coordinator and founder of the Music Industry Arts program at Algonquin College and a musician who toured extensively with his wife Tammy Raybould.
Alan Neal is a CBC radio host whose program All in a Day features artists both locally and nationally in a variety of formats.
#1 Write great songs
We’re all straight on this one? Good. Off we go.
#2 Become active in the scene
“Engrain yourself in the community,” says Kris McCann indicating networking is an ugly word. Mills agrees. “In anything you do, the more people you can meet doing the same thing as you, the better,” he says. It’s not about finding the people who can help you, though. It’s about finding a group of people where you fit. “I think face to face is still the best,” says Neal of how to find the curators in the city.
#3 Accept free help
There are many national associations whose mandate it is to guide the careers of aspiring musicians. Through events and services offered they can help you earn money from your songs, find showcasing opportunities and receive professional advice for little to no money. “I tell my students to join SOCAN,” said Mills. “The earlier the better.” The Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada is a non-profit organization that collects and distributes money for performance royalties in Canada.
#4 Don’t do it for the money
If you’re serious about making music, you realize that there isn’t a pot of gold out there for everyone. The people McCann sees around him wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s who they are, it’s what they do,” he said of those most welcomed in the scene. McCann himself says his months of work bringing a highly successful act in earned him somewhere between $10 and $15 an hour for a sold out show.
#5 Radio, radio
Community radio stations are volunteer organizations whose programmers volunteer their time. These are invested people with a keen ear for new music. “College radio is great because it gives new bands access to their audience,” said McCann.
#6 Got Merch?
“The CD has outstayed its welcome,” said McCann. The proliferation of digital audio means making any music product something special. For example, limited edition coloured vinyl.
#7 Blogs are the new A&R
If you’re doing something worth knowing about it’s likely a local blogger will already know before you need to contact them suggests McCann.
#8 Don’t believe the hype
Beware of overdoing it with social and digital media. All three professionals agree that social media is an important tool, particularly for the musician taking control of their own career. “Always hyping is a pitfall,” suggests Mills who also questioned how many times you can have your biggest gig ever.
#9 One thing leads to another
Neal says that an audio link in an email is the best correspondence for getting airtime on All in a Day. “It’s a chiken and the egg thing,” says Neal. The likelihood of getting played can be enhanced if you’re promoting an upcoming show at your chosen niche venue. The potential of booking that show can be increased by getting played on local radio promoting the show.
#10 Don’t call us, we’ll call you
I made a number of mistakes that were illustrated as the wrong way in this article. Playing shows with people who didn’t match with my style thus undermining my music curating abilities hurt my ability to book my own shows. Ultimately, you need to get into music for the right reasons. If you’re interested in being part of a scene and making yourself known to others by supporting those like you then the game, one of waiting, is for you. Start writing, and never stop. And when the people around you start saying it’s time. Well, let them let you know.