In certain clubs and cafés, the writers rule. Most of these are “originals only” venues where a cover tune can get you laughed off the stage. When you move to a hub, writer's nights may be the center of your world for the first few years. A writer's night is the best place to make friends, network, test-market songs, and learn how things work. You don't get paid for this gig, unless opportunities are worth something to you.
What if I just can't sing?If you absolutely can't carry a two-ounce tune in a five-gallon bucket, you have two options for the writer's nights: Either hire a singer or rely on your co-writers to do the singing. You might even book a round of your co-writers somewhere.
The host, usually a well-respected songwriter, decides who plays and when, and you'll probably have to audition. If you pass, the host will book you for a round in which you take turns playing songs with two to four other songwriters. Eventually, you may get to pick the other people for your round or even get to do a solo feature of several songs by yourself.
You might see anybody at a writer's night, from the other newbies to hit writers, publishers, A&R reps, and even the occasional celebrity. This means these people will see you as well. No matter what night of the week or what time it is, there could be someone important in the room or about to walk in at any moment, so be at your best, both onstage and off. Before you get tipsy and dance on the tables, tell a tasteless joke, or insult someone in public, think carefully; if you're lucky, these are the people you'll be dealing with for the rest of your life.
Each host may have slightly different rules; learn them. There is a code of etiquette for writer's nights. The faster you learn it, the more quickly you'll be accepted into the songwriting community. The following writer's night rules are adapted from the July 22, 2001 edition of the Nashville Rant e-zine. Nashville writer's night hosts Camille Schmidt, Barbara Cloyd, CJ Watson, Debbie Champion, Jack Scott, and Lee Rascone provided source material for the article.
How to Play Writer's Nights Without Getting Shot or, Worse, Ignored
When you arrive (early!), check in with the host. Ask where to tune and store your instrument. Tune with an electronic tuner before your round. Be ready and set up quickly: If you waste three minutes getting ready, someone loses a song.
Spend money, bring friends, come early, and stay late. Hosts usually work on a percentage. Promoting the gig means you are market minded and motivated, which are as important as talent in this business. If you stay to hear other people, they are more likely to come hear you. (Remember the part about bringing friends?)
Talk as much as you like … as much as you like others to talk during your songs.
You were a star back home? Winning the Ox Booger, South Dakota Talent Show, and Potato Auction three years in a row doesn't count for much now. Get over it and start making a name here. Nobody will ever compliment you on the vastness of your ego.
A seven-minute song is not going to win you many friends. You just burned up three-and-a-half minutes of someone else's time on an uncuttable song. Ax that intro where you soulfully strum 32 bars of “E.” Most of us know “E” too. It doesn't impress us; get to the hook. Don't talk about the song for half an hour. If they can't tell what it's about by listening to the song, there's a problem.
Be nice to the host/sound person. This is like the rule that says not to annoy anyone who's going to touch your food. Be polite and quick during soundcheck. Don't ask for reverb in the monitor; it causes problems. If you don't like your voice, practice. Get a guitar with a pickup. If you can play, play. If you don't play, bring someone to play for you; backup tracks are for karaoke singers.
Be nice to the waitstaff. Most of the people working at a writer's club are songwriters and/or friends with some big writers. If they like you, they'll say nice things about you. If they don't, you will not only die of thirst, but you may die in obscurity as well. Also, you may soon be a waitress or bartender, so be nice, tip what you can, and remember that it takes as long to bring you a glass of water as it does to bring a quadruple shot of Wild Turkey with a flaming pink umbrella.
Skill with harmony or a lead instrument can be valuable assets, but ask before jumping in. Practice with friends and learn parts for each other's songs. Four drunks doing the same exact thing on acoustic guitars is not “ensemble” playing.
Laws in hub cities and among clubs vary. Ask before bringing minors to a gig. Sneaking a drink into a writer's club, even bottled water, could get it shut down. In Tennessee, a club can get busted for unlicensed dancing, and you really don't want to be known as the person who got the writer's club closed down.