From hundreds to just a few: listening to performer submissions.

PFF Performer SubmissionsI just got a call from the post office – they would like me to come pick up my mail, because our festival post box is overflowing.  Again.  The nice post lady is patient with me, but I can hear the resignation at the back of her voice; this isn’t the first time we’ve had this problem.  I’m a repeat offender, especially in late February.

We’re a day or so away from my performer submissions deadline, and I’m staring at a huge pile of CDs, and an even larger e-pile of submissions.  At this point in the process, I have to admit, my heart is heavy.  For every Old Man Leudecke or Shad K there are a hundred people who are trying to sound like Tom Waits, Jewel, Neil YoungCeline Dion – trying, essentially, to sound like anyone but themselves.  After hours of listening to derivative and oft-untuneful caterwauls over the next month, am I going to snap?  Will I still recognize good music when I hear it?  Will I start sending sarcastic and snarky feedback?  And how long will it take before I start enjoying listening to music again?

I know most people think Artistic Directors get all the fun – who wouldn’t want to run a festival with their own personal playlist?  And I’m sorry if I’m bursting anyone’s bubble, but it ain’t necessarily so.  If I were to book the festival just to my personal taste, it’d be all banjos and hip-hop, which would make for a lopsided and self-serving presentation.  I have to consider my audience, my sponsors and funders, what I can afford, and what the community needs to hear.  It’s a job thats more like a sieve than anything else – straining out all the acts that don’t meet with your criteria until you’ve got it down to a list of performers that you could conceivably see at your festival.

Sometimes it’s very rewarding – the people in their 40s, 50s, 60s who approached me after Shad’s performance, blown away that they enjoyed a hip-hop act, are a highlight of my whole career as a talent buyer and AD.  The way the crowd roared after every song by the RAW Taiko drummers, and the glow on their faces when they came off stage.    Sometimes I have to fight to be polite and open as people complain (as they have every year of our 20-year history) that there aren’t enough local acts or enough “real” folk  (let’s not have that discussion, okay?), or whatever their beef is with my choices.  Sometimes the criticism is valid, sometimes a lot less so.  Keeping the music accessible to an audience that consists of 5-year-olds and 75-year-olds, skate punks and old folkies, is a balancing act, and sometimes I make the wrong call.

PFF 2009 Sunset - This is what I'm dreaming ofI generally get about 900 submissions, and last year I whittled that list down to a cool 75 acts that I could see at the festival.  That part is pretty easy, though sometimes really tiresome – if you’ve never tried listening to hundreds of new acts (and a few familiar faces) over the course of a month, it’s hard to explain how monotonous it can be.  Most people listen to music all day, but I bet 80% of it is stuff you’ve heard again and again, and the experience is a passive one – if you don’t like what’s come up on the radio, you just wait for the next song.  For the AD, you’re evaluating and weighing every track as it comes up, reading bios and looking at websites.

Once I get a short list, then the real heartbreak begins.  Because that’s 75 acts I like, whom I’d like to see at the festival.  Cutting acts from that list is like mowing down a flower garden. And at this stage in the process, it doesn’t really bear thinking about.

So right now, as I’m just about to really dig into the process, I feel trepidation.  I’m putting it off, day after day, though I promised myself I’d aim to listen to 25 packages  per day.  There’s always lots of other stuff to do at this time of year – grants to write, sponsors to contact, troops to marshal, and sweet daydreams of green grass and sunshine and incredible music and people I love pulling together to heave this unwieldy project into being.  I can fritter away the hours on other important work.

But it’s time – to start the slog, to start really dreaming with intent about three days of the perfect music and community, and finding the artists who will shape that mood with their stories and song and character, who will open our eyes to something we’ve never considered before, who will make feet and hearts dance, who will bring together our community in fellowship and song.  Sometimes I complain and procrastinate, yes, and sometimes the work is hard or dull; but the result?  Heaven on Earth.  If I get it right.

Candace Shaw is the Artistic Director of the Peterborough Folk Festival, a member of the Board of the Shelter Valley Folk Festival, and a longtime booker and supporter of folk and roots acts. Candace’s candid advice for musicians will be a regular feature on this blog.

Got a question you’d like to ask Candace?  Contact her at candace@rootsmusic.ca

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  1. avatar
    Sheldon Speedie 23 February, 2010 at 17:02

    Well I like the Banjo’s comment !

    I’m kind of partial to banjo music myself, not so sure about Hip Hop but it’s different strokes for different folks and I can feel your frustration… My day job can get that way all to often.

    So here’s a link to some music with a real fine banjo player (one of Canada’s best) check out the video’s sit back and relax…. be warned it ain’t no hip hop !


  2. avatar
    moxywoman 23 February, 2010 at 17:23

    “If I were to book the festival just to my personal taste, it’d be all banjos and hip-hop, which would make for a lopsided and self-serving presentation.”

    Girlfriend, have I got an artist for you:

    Mr. B the Gentleman Rhymer


    Sure, he actually plays the banjolele, but that actually makes him cooler! Saw him at the London Ukulele Festival last summer and LOVED him!

  3. avatar
    Candace Shaw 23 February, 2010 at 17:33

    Hey, thanks for the link, Sheldon! You guys sound great!
    Ah, I think most people just need to give hip-hop a try… it’s not all the stuff you hear on the radio, and it actually has a lot more in common with Folk music than most people realize at first.

    Hey Rachel! I’ve totally seen some of Mr. B’s videos before – it’s actually as if he were purposefully setting out to please me. Banjolele is pretty much the best thing of all time! I need to get one of those…

  4. avatar
    Richard Flohil 28 February, 2010 at 09:34

    I feel Candace’s pain, but I disagree with her basic approach, if indeed she is programming a fetival based on unsolicited submissions through the mail. Obviously, any artistic director/programmer has to choose artists that cover an incredibly wide range of genres within the folk roots idiom (and outside that, too, from time to time). When I did the job, about 10,000 years ago, I went into the process knowing up front who I wanted to present if they were available (and affordable) – because I’d heard their music, seen them perform, collected their records, knew many of them well enough to talk to, etc. Sometimes, shock horror, they were friends.

    Of the submissions that came in, and – I’ll get flak for this! – I mostly ignored them, unless I had heard about them from other people whose taste I trusted. One year, I determined that I WOULD listen to all those “submissions” that came, unsolicited, through the mail. I chose two out of some 420. One was a 19-year-old songwriter from Buffalo, the other was an acoustic blues player with an interesting publicity hook. One stole the festival and went on to become a superstar, the other was, in reality, a merely adequate player with little stage presence, and a demanding pain in the butt into the bargain. Ani diFranco has gone on to be a star, the other has returned to oblivion; in other words, for all an artistic director’s vision, knowledge, understanding, willingness to take risks, etc – it’s still a crap shoot.

    My advice to people submitting; don’t waste the postage, UNLESS you have established trust with ADs, and they know who you are. Don’t promise more than you can deliver, and make sure you have built relationships among other performers. Most ADs will listen to recommendations – but if they come from other artists, they have greater weight.

    And Candace is right – the role of local perfomers at festivals is a discussion aiting to be had!

  5. avatar
    rosemary 1 March, 2010 at 13:43

    dear candace,
    thanks for a very illuminating piece of writing.

    serving as an AD is obviously a burdensome task at this time of year, but the integrity and thoughtfulness you bring to it almost makes me want to apply to some festivals (many of which i love and support wholeheartedly). it’s overwhelming from the applicant’s angle, too… especially if you’re relatively new to the scene.

    thanks for filling us all in. best of luck with this year’s task, and many thanks for all you do to support canadian music. xo rosemary

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