Who and Where Is Your Audience?
by Scott Sheldon
Michael Jackson sold 655,000 copies of his CD in its first two days of release. By contrast, that same weekend, some of the 160 available seats were empty at a concert by folk legend Oscar Brand. I missed that concert because I was at the New England Regional Folk Alliance (NERFA) listening to some of the hundreds of very talented singer/songwriters who came there to try to find an audience. It all made me think that, as performers and presenters, we might do well to consider what the audience is for "folk" music, and how to reach that audience. Here are my personal thoughts. I'd love to hear yours.
First, a point about "Folk" Music. Although, since the Great Folk Scare of the 1960's, "folk" has become a general term for acoustic music, very few of us are "folk" performers, in the sense that we carry on the songs and stories of a musical tradition that predated us. Almost all of us are contemporary singer/songwriters who express our own vision and emotion through acoustic music. I say this because what follows is really about the market for singer songwriters, not about the market for folksingers. So, some quick thoughts on the market for singer/songwriter music.
1. It's a relatively small market. Consider that most movie houses, clubs, and certainly sporting events and live theater would consider an audience of 150 to be a bad night; for a singer/songwriter venue, it's a full house.
2. First Possible Reason: Singer/songwriter music is often not easy listening. We singer/songwriters tell stories and convey emotions, usually with nothing more than our words and a single instrument. (Annie Wenz described NERFA to me on the telephone as "an anthill where all the ants have guitars strapped to their backs." Great line!) To appreciate singer/songwriter music, an audience member has to be willing to "single-task": Concentrate single-mindedly on the lyrics and follow the message. Not an easy demand to make on folks who are used to being deluged with multi-track information and entertainment.
3. Second Possible Reason: Singer/songwriter music is perceived, often correctly, as a genre filled with intensely personal and poetic songwriting, in which the songs are intended more to give an outlet for the writer's emotions than to entertain, move, or educate the listener. This is not necessarily a bad thing...many of the great innovators of blues, jazz, and folk wrote in part as an emotional outlet rather than to be audience-friendly. But, when a singer songwriter's emotional expression is particularly personal or abstractly poetic, and an audience finds no "hook" to tie the lyrics to their own lives and feelings, they get no payoff for investing their attention, and will tune out.
4. One NERFA Observation: The greatest audience response at NERFA was for performers who were not of the "folk" genre at all. The three standing ovations (and all well-deserved) went to GrooveLily, a jazz/pop group; Da Vinci's Notebook, an a capella comedy troupe; and Sharon Katz and the Peace Train, a 'Graceland'-style South African band.
5. Second NERFA Observation: Most of the hundreds of singer/songwriters at NERFA were very talented and made beautiful music, but at least one presenter walked away from NERFA commenting, "I couldn't tell one from the other." Now, that's not entirely true. Everybody remembered the wonderful Eric Schwartz for his wit and his energy. Everyone remembered Darryl Purpose for his charisma. Everyone remembered Suzanne Buirgy for her incredible open-hearted performance of "Lullaby." Which is exactly what I'm getting at.
6. An Historical Note: The idea of a singer/songwriter/performer is very new. Until the Elvis/Beatles days, the songwriter did the writing, and the singer did the singing. And, although in the heyday of rock and "folk," most popular performers wrote their own material, that pendulum is swinging away again in popular music, in the direction of divas, "boy bands," and a nostalgia for the old crooners like Tony Bennett. We can't close our eyes to that.
7. So, What's It All Mean To Us Singer/Songwriters?: Singer/songwriter music is not audience-friendly. It makes special demands of an audience that pop music does not. To reward an audience's attention, a singer/songwriter needs to offer something more than an invitation to share his or her experiences and feelings, set to music.
8. Like What?: A clever turn of phrase, meant to tickle the audience. An outright funny song or two. An outright tear-jerker or two. An entertaining story that "sells" the song in advance, so the audience is primed to listen to it. Some showmanship: That's why Christine Lavin brings a baton to twirl, and Cliff Eberhardt will do a polka number. Eye contact. Passion. I'm still a newbie presenter, and certainly not a household name as a performer, so I apologize if all of this is well-known in the folk community. But, from my short experience booking performers for a singer/songwriter house, I think it's worth saying again. Hope it's useful.
Scott Sheldon is a New Jersey based singer/songwriter.