It’s been one year since I started my solo music project.
I feel a little funny calling it a “project” since I’m not sure I had a clear vision for exactly what I was doing when I began a little over a year ago. I guess that’s sometimes how projects start. Some of us jump into demolition before we know how we’re going to rebuild. I don’t think this tactic is necessarily impulsive. I think there are times a person just knows what they need to start doing before knowing the end. So…you start.
Several years ago I invested a number of months into collaborative music. I had always considered myself more of a writer than a vocalist, guitar player, or performer. It was comfortable for me to be surrounded by other talented musicians because I felt like they could dominate in areas where I was lacking. From many vantage points I’m the least suspecting solo performer. I’ve gotten a late start compared to most and I wasn’t often built up or encouraged musically throughout my life. It was not common for anyone to rave about my abilities and in fact, I more often received disparaging remarks rather than supportive. It was also important for me to consider that sometimes other people are right. There always seems to be that guy who’s completely tone deaf but will go his whole life disbelieving the truth that everyone is telling him. However, I wanted to write so therefore I was willing to begin performing on my own to support that goal.
I have no idea what I’m doing.
I recently had a conversation with a fellow performer who happened to be with her family enjoying dinner at a restaurant while I was playing. I finished my set and went over to thank her and her friends for both listening and interacting with me while I played. As our conversation flowed she felt she could ask some pretty candid questions about how I do what I do. She wondered how often I play and what my rates are. It’s my heart to want to help and include others in my journey. I reassured her that I don’t think any one of us has it all figured out despite appearances. It’s pretty cool to be able to drop my own insecurities at the door, share what I know and have learned with others, and admit that sometimes I have no idea what I’m doing but that I keep working and making adjustments along the way.
Confidence building happens one step at a time.
Confidence plays such a critical role in performance that if you don’t have it, you’re almost doomed to failure. As I’ve slowly gained confidence I envy the people who seem to have an advantage because they’ve heard their whole lives how amazing they are or that they were born with a gift. However, great things aren’t always built because a person has an advantage or upper hand. For those of us who have assumed disadvantages, we often work harder and in more unconventional ways thereby layering our approach to music. You aren’t always going to be successful simply because you have an amazing voice or you’re a highly skilled and trained musician. Sometimes people like a person’s music because they like them as a person having nothing to do with being the best at any one thing.
Your methods should always be open for consideration.
Many purists might argue that it’s not true to their art or their music to take a multifaceted approach. Maybe people should just like what you do and if they don’t they can take a hike. I could give a lot of examples here but one is, I played at a local winery and was asked to turn down my sound system. I have such a light and gentle approach in my music style that I was caught off guard being asked to turn it down. The lesson here is that if you’re hired to play in a venue, you should be aware of your surroundings. Watch the people who are in the room and how they are acting and reacting to your music. If it’s too loud then be willing to adjust. At times musicians are unwilling to change because they feel it’s a compromise of their art and core values. That may be true, but your methods should always be open for consideration. It will bring you more opportunity.
The music business is a relationship business.
It’d be nice if we could shoot out a few emails with our EPK attached, keep our fingers crossed, and book a bunch of shows in advance of spring and summer when venues will be full of happy people sipping on drinks, eating good food, and throwing money in the tip jar because they’re so inspired by our music. Starting small and collecting every bit of content you can along the way will definitely work in your favor. Venues want to book successful talent so it’s important to collect and display what you can along the way to put yourself in the best light. As your experience and resources grow, you can begin showing more discretion in what and where you book to play. Not every chance to play is a good one. Create rules for yourself but again, be flexible.
I booked to play a few places in Spokane and Couer D’ Alene, Idaho last summer. One of those venues was a small, locally owned pizzeria. When I first contacted them they seemed interested but after we discussed my rates I never heard back. I ended up booking a few other paying gigs in the area and felt that I should reconnect with the pizzeria and offer to play regardless of payment. In my mind, I had already met my objective by booking some other paying shows, and being willing to make the connection with them seemed like it could be important for the future. I played that night to a very light “crowd” but the relaxed atmosphere gave me a chance to get to know the owners better. As it turned out, one of them worked for a local TV station and referred me to be featured as a northwest singer-songwriter on the FOX affiliate morning show which was broadcast in several states throughout the northwest. I learned that even though I have a criteria checklist and that it’s important to protect my time, it’s still okay to make exceptions.
Playing to a nearly empty room can be small but mighty.
If you’ve had even a few chances to play in front of people you’ll find that the dynamics of a room vary greatly from one performance to the next. If you play in a room full of people it gets loud. There’s all kinds of energy but you’re not necessarily the highlight. Prior to having an experience like that you may have thought that having a full room was your best case scenario. However, full space can mean that people are less engaged on a personal level, and less likely to respond…clapping yes, tipping no. On the flip side, it’s always disheartening to walk into a venue 30 minutes before you go on, realize it’s pretty empty and that waiting a few more minutes to go on probably isn’t going to bring in the sheaves but you keep your commitment, plug in, and play anyway.
I once played in a beautiful restaurant and lounge space on a Sunday night. Even though there were some guys at the bar, it was a gigantic room and people were really spread out. I felt very small and…alone. As I was setting up I watched one family enjoying dinner at a big table and was overly aware that they’d be done eating and gone before I got started. In essence I’d be playing to no one, or at least that’s how I felt. I was having a, “Why am I doing this whole music thing?” moment. I texted a friend as a lifeline, looking for a good word. I was reminded to press on. So, I did. It ended up being a good night. Never full but always someone listening. Never loud applause but always at least one person who appreciated every song. I even had a couple who came in right as I was ending my set and paid me a very decent wage to play for another 30-40 minutes. The lesson, an empty room can be deceiving. Don’t write off an experience before you even sing your first note. Even though there are venues that meet a sweet spot of being well attended, having good energy, and lots of receptive people, it’s important to be prepared and stay encouraged for every single thing in between. Something good always happens.
To be continued…
Dawna Stafford is a Portland, Oregon musician and athlete. This mom of 3 is a former “fatty turned fit” who works daily to share her healthy journey and perform music to inspire others. Described as sensitive and lyric driven, Dawna’s acoustic arrangements and vocals are soulful and raw. Her style is an upbeat fusion of modern folk and light rock, delivering live performances that are fun, diverse and relatable. Audiences love the dynamic range from upbeat and tempo driven to melodic and thoughtful. Dawna is a versatile artist who knows how to engage and entertain people.
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