by Janis Ian
Performing Songwriter, May 1996
It's a sunny Sunday afternoon as I round the corner into the Bluebird Cafe parking lot, here in Nashville, Tennessee. There are approximately 100 people standing in line outside the 110-seat club, most of them clutching guitar cases and application forms. In another few minutes I'll make my way past their hopeful eyes to the back wall, grab a tall stool next to the soundboard, and be handed a scoring sheet by the Bluebird's owner/manager, Amy Kurland. The sheet will have spaces laid out where I'll fill in each auditioner's name and my personal score for their efforts as (seperately) a writer and performer, along with any other comments I may care to make. I'll be joined by a variety of different "judges", anyone from club personnel to other professional musicians who are familiar with Bluebird policies and standards, and who don't mind spending an entire weekend day in a dark, crowded club with the only payment being a free glass of water. Our presence will be dictated by our availability, and we'll all take the responsibility very seriously. I'm hoping I won't regret spending this pretty day sitting in the rear of The Bluebird, hoping to be astounded.
Some of the people we'll see today have travelled from as far as Canada to be here. Many of them have only been in Nashville overnight, stealing time from their day jobs in the hope of being scheduled for the Bluebird Sunday Night Writer's Showcase. We're so backed up with applicants at this point that the soonest they'll take the stage here is six months from now. I've been helping to judge the auditions for about four years now, whenever my schedule and Amy's coincide. It's one of the things I enjoy most about being part of this community, albeit in a masochistic sort of way.
Auditions are hard. I'm sure they're harder on the applicants than the judges, though I believe the main reason for that is that the applicants have bigger dreams, and more to lose. The judges, on the other hand, have to sit through their performances. All of them. Good and bad, boring and worse. I'm sure that for a first-time applicant hitting the Bluebird stage, seeing us lined up against the back wall resolutely trying to keep our opinions out of our faces, we are crushingly intimidating. We try not to be; we try to be innocuous and encouraging. The longer we sit, the harder it is to be either.
The longest I've ever spent on Bluebird auditions at one sitting is nine hours; the most people I've ever judged in one day is 143. The most tedious song lasted three verses, three choruses, two bridges, one instrumental, and one repeat chorus at the end. When we first began doing it this way, everyone got to sing an entire song, but after the nine hour marathon Amy changed the rules. Now everyone, without exception, gets to state name, place of origin, and song title; then they're allowed to sing one verse and one chorus. It probably seems unfair to the folks doing the singing, but look at it this way - that scan button on your radio is what A&R people live and die by nowadays. It lasts from 6 to 15 seconds. If you can't get someone's interest in that time period, no one is going to record your song. When was the last time you heard a 60-second musical introduction on the radio? Given all that, a verse and chorus are generous. And face it, any good song is good from the very first line.
Why are they here? I ask myself. Surely there are plenty of other clubs in the country. Truth be told, although there are more than there used to be, there still aren't enough. And the Bluebird is, sadly, one-of-a-kind right now. It's a songwriter's club, the only one I know about. Don't get me wrong, there are other great clubs around - I know, I play most of them. The Birchmere, Turning Point, Ram's Head, Ark are all great rooms, for the performer and for the audience. But the Bluebird is singular in its dedication to the songwriting community. Here, waitresses have the authority to eject someone who insists on talking through a performance. Here, people like me can go over to a table full of drunks and warn them to shut up, knowing the staff will stand behind us. It's the only club I'm aware of where a bartender can get into real trouble for making too much noise during the show. And it's the only club I'm aware of that actively prefers songwriters to famous singers. By presenting those writers over and over again, it makes them local heroes in this small community. They don't call it Music City USA for nothing!
There are a few trade-offs here; no dressing room, a just-adequate sound system, no frills. The Bluebird's so small that you can't make any kind of serious money playing it. But all that pales next to the joy of an educated audience. Most people go to clubs to see performers; most clubs try to book famous performers in the hope of increasing their audience. The Bluebird audience goes to hear songs, and that's why these people are lined up in the 85 degree weather watching their guitars wilt.
We use a 5 point scale for judging, 5 being the highest rating. After it's all over Amy collects everyone's sheets and (I suppose) averages out the scores. We all tend to judge according to our own agendas. Some people give high marks for friendliness and enthusiasm, qualities that make a performer "audience-friendly" (and probably help to move drinks). Amy's a lot more patient than I am, taking into consideration their mileage and fatigue level. I judge as a professional writer and performer; in my world fatigue is not allowed, audiences don't care about my sore throat, and someone who's driven 300 miles and paid $25 to see me doesn't want to spend half the show watching me tune.
I often have the uneasy feeling that I'm the harshest judge. On the flip side, I'm also the one who gets most excited; I am thrilled at an original thought, a moving line, a well-chosen word, and I'll write in my "comments" column Amy please let me know when this one is playing. I'm bored when there's nothing to steal.
I rate my 5 allowable points like this:
5 = I would go out of my way and pay good money to see this writer again.
4 = I would go if it was free and I had nothing better to do.
3 = I would stay for the set if I was already there, or I see a potentialthat's worth watching, but they're not-ready-for-public yet.
2 = I would discreetly try to leave when they came on.
1 = I want to kill them, think they should be hung, don't understand why they're taking up the air I need to breath, and honestly believe they have no business in this business. I take the whole thing very, very seriously. Yesterday, when I suggested one of the applicants would probably make a better dishwasher, Amy accused me of being mean. No, I spat, I've had a belly full of this. For two years now I've toured constantly, using local opening acts because I honestly believe there aren't enough places or situations for us to learn our craft any more, and for two years I've been treated to exactly what I saw here! I'm sick of giving incompetent people room on the stage.
What had I seen that irritated me so much? What will automatically cost you points?
1. Follow the rules
They're there for a reason. Honest. If, as one girl said, she didn't have time to read the entire page of rules, get someone else to read it for you. After all, if you can't read one page of instructions, how are you going to get through an entire publishing contract? And although they may seem tedious and unnecessary to you, they are a large part of what keeps us judges from getting tired and cranky. The more tired we get, the less we make allowances for you. Look on it as part of paying your dues.
2. Buy a tuner
Gee, doesn't that seem simple? Yet out of 81 performers yesterday, not a single one used a tuner... and it showed. You're going to be monumentally nervous when you audition, and you'll need all the help you can get. This is no time to practice perfect pitch. I don't know a single person who makes their living as a songwriter, and doesn't use a tuner. Don't bother pleading poverty, either; Sabine makes a lovely stick-on job for all of $64. Take that money you were saving to buy those nice stage boots and get a tuner. There's nothing that ruins a performance quicker than an out of tune instrument. At the Bluebird auditions it will cost you at least a point, before you've even opened your mouth.
See, we assume you want to be a professional. Professionals take care of their equipment. Professionals present themselves in a professional manner. Part of that is tuning. "But there's no dressing room to tune in, and someone's onstage all the time, and I don't want to lose points by making noise while another performer's working." Stop whining and figure out a way around the problem! Learn harmonics. (Place your fingertip lightly on a string on the 5th, 7th, or 12th fret, not attempting to press down into the fretboard. The tone you hear is called a harmonic; it's also pretty quiet). Use them. Or practice tuning until you can do it quickly. If your guitar's in decent shape, it shouldn't take more than 30 seconds to fine-tune, and you really can squeeze that in between songs.
3. Know your material, and your audience
Stella Adler, the world-famous acting teacher, used to tell her classes that "Your talent lies in your choices". This is probably the first place everyone falls down. You have around sixty seconds to impress and move us, to make us want you as a peer. I really mean it; we want you to do well. We don't get paid for doing this, not even a free meal. We're here watching you in large part because this is a lonely profession, and we want company. There are never enough good writers out there. But why would we want to welcome someone whose idea of a smart opening is "The bitch got gang-banged"? I am not joking here; I heard that line during a Bluebird audition. Conversely, a young woman got up one day and sang about how difficult the Bluebird auditions are & how tough Amy can be. I passed her with flying colors - not just because of the content (a very smart choice), but because the song itself was funny. So choose well. We always tell the applicants, "This is a songwriter's club; pick your best song today. Not the most commercial, but the best." We mean it. Speaking of choices, Beware Of Ballads. There are so many good ones out there that it's difficult for a new writer to compete with our memories of great songs. Remember that part of this audition is whether you're ready to hold an audience. Even in my own shows (and I'm known for depressing ballads, it's part of why people come), I never do more than one heavy ballad per set. Beware also of love songs that use phrases like "I love you so much", "I love you and you love me", "We love one another". One of our regular songwriter judges maintains that anyone who can't write a decent love song without using the "L" word deserves to flunk.
4. Authenticity counts
Amy automatically flunks anyone who goes onstage in $300 boots, holding a $2,000 guitar, then proceeds to sing about being homeless and hungry in the first person. The problem is not that you must experience something in order to write about it - if that were true, half the great songs in this world would never have been written. The problem is that, particularly for a beginning writer who's really just discovering tools like imagination and building constructs, "big" topics are often too big. As I've noted in other articles here, it's very difficult to make people care about things they see in the headlines every day. We're over-stimulated with organizations that insist we contribute money, time, and tears to various social problems. When was the last time a song made you want to go out and change the world? It's too hard to say it in a new and moving way. Furthermore, without active imagination exercises, that songwriter has no framework to talk about being homeless. It's one thing to speak as an observer, but quite another to insist that we believe your well-fed face has ever missed a meal. Someone once said to me "Never underestimate an audience; they always smell a lie". Audiences know when something rings true. One of my favorite Bluebird moments was years ago, when a young woman (who unknown to any of us was truly from a tiny holler in the backwoods of Kentucky) stood up and sang a song so filled with cliches that if I'd tried to use them, it would have been nauseating. But because she'd never heard them before, and was discovering each truth for the first time, they worked. It was a truly enviable song, just magic. She moved us so much that we gave her a standing ovation when she fiinished.
5. Don't be cute
Cute is cheap, cute is dime a dozen, cute costs you points. Cute is particularly irritating in women performers who seem to think that batting their eyelashes, giggling, squirming, amd telling us in a little girl voice that they haven't really learned these chords yet because "that big bad co-writer of mine didn't have time to teach me" (honest, she said that) will ingratiate them with the judges. Well, Amy and I both own our own businesses, which we built from scratch. And we both run them all by ourselves. And neither of us has spit worth of patience with the concept that cute is any kind of substitute for competent. Audiences don't generally like it either. So don't try it, and if it's natural to you, get rid of it.
(Just as an aside, this persona may work for a while when you're new in town, since there's always that underbelly of men who'll write with you so they can stare at your legs and hope for a piece of the action -- but they won't write with you for long, unless you're a good writer, and that attitude just gets in the way when you're trying to work. I've seen too many women get shot down too fast that way. Real talent uses every part of itself, including its sexuality, but it stays integrated as a whole.) In men, cute seems to take the "Aw shucks" form, as when an otherwise intelligent-looking male shows up in a brand-new Stetson he doesn't know how to wear, hunches his shoulders while staring at the sky, and mumbles "Aw shucks, ah din't know yawl rilly meant just one li'l ol' verse", then proceeds to do a 16 bar intro and double first verse.
Which brings us to accents. Don't. Make. One. Up. I've been living in Tennessee almost ten years now, and I hear the drawl in my voice occasionally, but I don't amplify it for effect. Southern accents are really difficult to acquire, and unnecessary. No one will hold it against you that you're from Michigan; a great song is a great song, regardless of geography.
Really. Everyone I know practices. We may not sit down every day at a set time and spend X hours playing chords, but we all rehearse new material before trying it out in public. There's a famous story about Laurence Olivier when he was starring in a play about an old vaudeville hoofer. The play was called The Entertainer. The head critic for the London Times went to see it in previews and couldn't get over Olivier's spontaneity - every dance step appeared improvised, every body motion grew out of the line and the moment. He raved to his friends that he'd never thought Olivier capable of that kind of ad-libbing. He went back two weeks later and couldn't believe his eyes - every movement, every gesture, down to the twitch of an eyebrow, was exactly the same as when he'd seen it before, yet everything seemed brand new. That's what real practice does. Rather than making your performance stale, it allows you to forget what your body is doing and concentrate on the actual performance. I once asked Bruce Springsteen if rehearsing his band eight hours a day, five days a week, four weeks a month didn't take away from the spontaneity of his shows. No, he replied, it just guaranteed that they'd all get past "the wall" in rehearsals, rather than during the real show. Rehearsing 'til you drop also guarantees that fatigue, nervousness, stage fright, dropping bottles, drunken audiences, screaming sirens will not affect your performance. Every single audition, someone starts their song and forgets the words. We've all had it happen, we've all frozen on stage - but if you over-rehearse enough, your body should go straight into automatic and carry you through.
7. Sing into the mike
Oh, no one's that dumb, you say. Yes they are. How can we decide whether the song's any good if we can't hear the words?
8. Get some experience
None of us can ever figure out why someone who's only played in front of their bedroom mirror and their best friend would make their first audition at a nationally-known club. You should play anywhere and everywhere that will tolerate you, in order to prepare yourself for the day when a venue will actually want you. I played nurse's dorms, old age homes, subway stops, private parties, and anywhere else I could get in. I learned to read an audience's body language that way. It's horrible to watch a good writer who's never "played out" get penalized for their lack of experience. Get some, it's not that hard!
9. Don't use the "E" words
No excuses. No explanations of ineptitude. Audiences aren't interested; neither are we.
10. Form a community
One of the biggest "perks" in our business is our community. Particularly in Nashville, particularly at the Bluebird. Communities are formed when like-minded people interact with each other, before and after business is done. They must have new blood constantly in order to be effective, not to mention enjoyable. The best way to learn about songwriting in Nashville is to spend time with other songwriters in Nashville. Say hello to the people in line with you. Sit next to someone you don't know. Trade names, numbers, knowledge - not just who's looking for songs or what open mike night gives you a free drink, but who's up and coming and worth seeing that week, where the best buy on strings is, what bass player will trade off demo time with you. Think community rather than competition. If there's a fundamental Nashville survival technique, it's this. Remember also - we don't have a cut-off point. In other words, we'd be thrilled to pass all 81 auditioners. Someone else's success will not impinge on yours, so use the time and circumstance to network.
"Garbage in, garbage out" is an acronym computer programmers use. Essentially, it means that if all you feed into the computer is garbage, that's all you'll be able to retrieve. The Bluebird standard is high; your work is being compared to the best writers in the country, if not the world. If all you listen to is garbage, that's what you'll end up writing. Then you'll bring it to our stage, and we'll dock you points for it. Look at the best song you've ever heard; is your audition song that good? If it's not, write some more before coming in. We're looking for the best, and hoping to find it.
Auditions are hard; we've all done them, we've all blown them, we've all been picked and we've all been picked over. As performers and writers, we often feel we shouldn't have to go through the process, particularly when it's accompanied by a set of rules like "Bring your own stamped, self-addressed envelope already filled out". Remember what Tolstoy said -- "Life is daily life". That's a profound statement, four small words that sum up the entire philosophy of a gigantic literary figure. We go through all these steps in the hope of being allowed to earn our livings doing something we love, getting on stage or pitching our songs "with the big boys", playing for people who will cherish our work.
The talent, the creativity, is in those moments. But the getting there is in the mundane details. When was the last time changing guitar strings satisfied your creative urge? Still, it has to be done. Without new strings, the guitar is out of tune, the tone is non-existent, and the playing's never quite as good. Auditions are the same. And trust me -- we want you to do well, more than anyone except you wants you to do well! The bottom line is that if you behave like a pro, you'll be treated like one. Good luck!
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