Posts Tagged ‘music’


I did something last weekend that I’d never done before. I played music in a bar as part of a fundraising event. I’ve played music around campfires, I’ve played music in houses, I’ve performed solo at Bytown Ukulele Group meetings, I’ve jammed with people, I’ve participated in songwriters’ circles, even on an open-mic on a boat as part of a conference. But never in front of a crowd of strangers.

Thankfully, my performance went pretty well, I think. I was pleased. But one thing that I wasn’t prepared for, even though I’ve seen it a million times from the other side of the stage, was not being listened to.

I’ve done a lot of teaching. I’ve done lots of presentations. And I’ve had these musical performance experiences. The commonality among all of those things? I as the “performer” have the expectation of being listened to. When I stand in front of a classroom, or conduct a webinar, I assume that people are gong to be listening to me, watching the slides, etc.

So to have a bar full of people happily chatting while a PA system blared my voice and instrument out into the room was disconcerting. It was a painful reminder of what professional musicians face all the time — they’re being paid to perform, but there’s no obligation for the spectators to attend to them.

My set wasn’t long enough, and my courage (confidence? arrogance?) not strong enough for me to DEMAND their attention. So I played through my songs, took the applause, and left the stage. The good news was that no matter whether a person listened to me or not, they paid to come to the show, which meant the cause benefited from them. Further good news (for me, at least) was that I wasn’t so beset by stage fright caused by their inattention that I froze up (something that’s happened before, to my chagrin — but at least it gave Chris Brogan something to write about!)

But since Saturday, I’ve been thinking about it. My conclusions?

  1. There are circumstances and ways you can bring people back to you. But there are also circumstances when you can’t. I once saw Josh Ritter silence a noisy bar by playing his first song unplugged and wandering through the audience. People were intrigued enough by this unusual behaviour that they fell silent, and by the end of that song, the room was silent. I wasn’t going to try that one.
  2. There are times when you ought to accept the circumstances as they are. Sometimes people just aren’t interested in hearing from you, and it doesn’t matter how loudly you’re singing, or even if you’re singing (or teaching) incredibly well. I once taught a class where one of the students fell asleep every time she came to class. There would have been a time in my life where I focused on that as a sign I was failing the student. But I now believe that the process of “performing” requires both the performer and the audience to be present. Whatever the reason, sometimes your “audience” can’t be there for you.
  3. You still have to bring your best. Even if your audience is not listening, you owe it to yourself to deliver just as passionately and as well as if you had people in the palm of your hand. Yes, it’s harder (just as doing webinars is often harder than presenting to live audiences because you lack any feedback); but you still have to.

The final thing that I’ve thought in the wake of my experience? I want to try it again. I want to figure out some of those musician’s techniques of getting an audience’s attention for myself. Who knows: maybe becoming a more accomplished musical performer will make me a better communicator.

And if you want to see the performance? A quick trip to my Tumblr will let you get a sense of what the show was like.

Crowdfunding ≠ wishful thinking

Because a lot of my brain and my non-working life is focused on music, I see a lot of crowdfunding pitches. I mean, A LOT. When you become friends with a lot of musicians, sometimes it seems as if every week I get multiple requests to help make a CD, fund a tour, a theatre project, or some other worthwhile venture.

Crowdfunding is a crowded marketplace. A new infographic from CraigConnects and Rad Campaign tells us that more than FIVE BILLION DOLLARS was raised this way in 2013. But while the crowdfunding field is complicated and numbers vary widely (see this article from the Canadian Media Fund for an example of just how many ways you can define ‘success’), it’s fair to say that a large number of projects, if not a majority, do not end up meeting their financial goals.


So when I contributed to two recent campaigns that were very successful, I started to think about why they made it when so many others don’t. The first was “The Kneeraiser.” In a nutshell, some civic-minded folks decided to buy someone a knee. The someone in question was singer-songwriter Christa Couture. While I had met her several times, I was shocked to read on the Kneeraiser site that Christa was an amputee. Turns out that after a diagnosis of cancer at 11, she became an amputee at 13 and has been a monopod for the last 22 years. While Canada’s public health-care system covers basic prostheses, there are remarkable high-tech prosthetics out there which cost extra. While many employees would have part of those costs covered by benefit plans, a full-time musician doesn’t have benefits. And so, the knee-raiser was born, with a goal of $15,000 to get a basic microprocessor knee. That goal was reached in 3 days, and the campaign is now closing in on a $25,000 goal.


The second was a campaign launched by my friend Jill Zmud to help produce her second album, “Small matters of life and death.” The Ottawa singer-songwriter’s record was inspired by a family member she will only ever know second-hand. Jill’s uncle had been a touring musician, but was killed in a car crash before she was born. Decades later, Jill found a box of reel-to-reel tapes that became half of her uncle’s musical bequests to her. The other was his Fender Telecaster guitar, which is her main instrument. Jill’s fundraising goal was met, and then some, and she got media coverage including  The Globe and Mail, a major coup for any indie artist.


So why did these two campaigns succeed, and why do so many other campaigns struggle? I think there are two things that set Jill and Christa’s campaigns apart: the story, and the perks.


Both Jill and Christa had something beyond a “help me make a record” pitch. In one case, it was to support a musician to attain a necessary medical device that she simply would not afford otherwise. In the other, the story of Jill’s uncle’s untimely death and her discovery of his music made for compelling reading and captivated the listener / reader. That Jill was completing the CD and doing the crowdfunding and perparing for a CD-release show while also getting ready to give birth in April made her story even more interesting. Christa’s love for Fluevog shoes, and a well-placed picture, ended up in the company sharing her story with its 93,000 Facebook fans.


And both campaigns offered creative and quirky perks for contributions that were fun and engaging all on their own. Because Christa is a well-loved member of a supportive artistic community, she was able to offer donors music perks from seven different performers, as well as art, signed poetry chapbooks, tote bags, and all sorts of other things. Jill offered everything from a credit line in the CD to writing a song for the donor’s wedding to a painting by her artist brother to a one-act play written by her husband to a evening of game-playing with she and her husband. Both Jill and Christa’s campaigns also did  many of the basics right: they maintained momentum, they regularly posted updates via various social media channels, they included video as a part of the campaign, and they gave themselves enough time to meet their goal.


So if you’re thinking about trying crowdfunding as a way of completing a project, don’t go in blind. Do the background research necessary to do your project right, and spend time planning it so that you do what Jill and Christa have done:

  • tell a compelling story in multiple ways to engage your audience
  • establish and maintain momentum
  • offer perks that maximize creativity and attract attention on their own
  • use your networks and social media channels to keep the flame burning

And if you’ve read this far, please consider helping to get Christa’s Kneeraiser to its stretch goal of $25,000 and make her the first Canadian bionic folk singer.

All dichotomies are false dichotomies

I spent a week with my mom this month. It was the first anniversary of my dad’s death, and it had been a while since I’d seen her, and I thought it was a good time for me to be in Cape Breton. So there I was.

Spending time with an 88-year-old where my access to the Internet was distinctly limited changed my behaviour a little bit. Rather than sitting in my second-floor office typing, I spent a lot of time with her, talking. Or listening to her. I think she’s a bit lonely, and having another person in the house made her want to talk. So I let her.

A fountain pen on a computer keyboard

The pen is mightier than the ‘board?

And so, one day we ended up in Baddeck. Baddeck is a tourist town at one end of the Cabot Trail in Cape Breton. It’s probably best known for its association with Alexander Graham Bell, who lived there for a long time and built the Silver Dart, the first plane to fly in the British Commonwealth (in 1909) and the HD4 hydrofoil that held a speed record for boats for 20 years, and was a giant booster of Cape Breton as a place of pastoral beauty.

Today, it’s got lots of gift shops, ice cream, a museum or two, and a stunning bay full of pleasure boats. And an antique store. We went into the antique store, which had some interesting books (which I didn’t buy), some neat militaria (which I found interesting), and some china (my mom found a lovely cup and saucer). When she got to the counter with her purchase, I jokingly said “Thank God you don’t have any fountain pens, or I’d be in real trouble here.” At which point the proprietor brought out the fountain pens, and I walked away with a classic black and silver Parker 51 for twenty bucks.

It writes like a dream. I’ve used it in a notebook, on some paper, and in a handbound leather journal that I bought in Pisa at Legatoria Dante. Why am I telling you this long preamble? Because of a column I read in my morning paper. In the column, titled “The end of the printed word, revisited”, journalism professor Andrew Cohen argues


“Just when you thought that ink was over and paper was passé, along comes word that the world of books isn’t disappearing after all. In fact, its death has been greatly exaggerated.

Skeptics of the virtual life are scorned as Luddites or antiquarians. With the arrival of every new laptop, tablet and smart phone, we are to fall on our knees in wonder and gratitude.

In two particular but significant ways, though, we may be having second thoughts. One is how we are reading. The other is how we are writing.” 

Plainly put, this is a bollocks straw-man argument, which Cohen himself proves in the column. As Shel Holtz so frequently says, “New media does not push out old media.”  E-books don’t mean the end of paper books. TV didn’t end movies. The keyboard hasn’t ended the pen. About the only things that have almost entirely disappeared that I can think of are the typewriter, the floppy, and the 8-track. And even typewriters are still being sought out (by the nichiest of niche markets, mind you). The car and the motorcycle didn’t eliminate the bicycle or the train.

penbookI suspect that nobody’s ever made the kind of statements that Cohen uses as the basis of his argument. I love technology. I started using computers with my TI99/4A and haven’t stopped since. I have an e-reader (thanks to a contest run by blogger Andrea Tomkins); I have shelves and shelves of books. I have an iPod crammed with music, and I have hundreds of CDs. I have a computer I’m using to write this post. I have my pens and books to write thoughts and ideas and stories and yes, sometimes blog posts too.

Sometimes I read things digitally. Other times I want a printed version. Sometimes I grab my iPod. Others, I pop in a CD. Or I plug headphones into my computer. It’s not about either-ors. It’s about options. None of us are binary. When it comes to technologies, we’re all omnivores. Dichotomies in this world are all false ones.

If you read or hear something suggesting that A means the end of B, or that the writer or speaker is a member of a scorned minority by virtue of not liking this or that piece of technology, or social media, or whatever — do yourself and the person in question a favour. Politely tell them they’re wrong, and that reducing the remarkable complexities and subtleties of human behaviour to a binary choice is silly.

Why PAB is and was FAB.

I spent the weekend at a conference. No big deal there. We all do.

But this was the final PAB conference, and like most things related to this event, it turned out to be a big deal.

The back story:

Seven years ago, Mark Blevis and Bob Goyetche were fledgling podcasters, and with inspiration provided by Tod Maffin, among others, they created “Podcasters Across Borders“, a conference that took place in Kingston, ON. It was a great success. It eventually went from its original title to PAB, and moved from Kingston to Ottawa, where Mark (and I, for that matter) live.

I first attended in 2008, and I have been to four PABs. And this last weekend, they closed out their run with PAB 2012 at the wonderful National Arts Centre.

Why should you care about this? After all, you weren’t there. And the conference is gone. Who cares, right?

You should care because PAB was a wonderful case study of the power of community to form, grow, and thrive thanks to social media.

PABsters are a diverse lot. Paramedics, hardware guys, musicians, academics, entrepreneurs, public servants, car dealers, photographers, lawyers, editors, students, teachers… On the surface, there’s no commonality. So what’s to tie them together? How could the bonds formed there become so deep that copious tears are shed at each departure?

In a word, geekery. Everybody who attended a PAB was some kind of a geek. I’m a communications geek (and a guitar geek). Alexa is a food geek. Dude is a beatnik geek. I could go on through the list of people who have attended or presented, and point out the precise geekiness exhibited by everyone there. And for all of them, all of us, the geeking becamse the way of bonding — that I could talk to one person about vintage film cameras and another about the subtleties of Japanese culture and another about which hot restaurants were must-visits before they left Ottawa and another about the future of education as affected by social media turned me on. It indulged my terminal curiosity.

And PAB offers each and every one of its members a safe space to let their geek flag fly. The Saturday night open-mic allowed one branding consultant to let his Axl Rose-esque vocal style out to play. Anthony Marco brought the room to  a standstill with his version of Tom Waits’s “Jersey Girl.” And while the musicianship and vocals were far from world-class, the enthusiasm and love in the room were evident.

The shared understanding that brought the PAB community together also led to some tremendous presentations over the years, either full-length or the five-minute “Jolts” that Mark and Bob introduced a few years in. I presented this year, and found myself bedevilled by nerves that I rarely feel. Why? Because I knew just how high the standard was, and how much I wanted to meet it. Later, people like Sue Murphy shared that they felt the same way.

Mark Blevis

Mark Blevis

These social media tools we all use to either create or consume content are empty tools if they don’t facilitate some sort of human contact — either human contact online, or human contact face to face.

While Mark and Bob have chosen to fold up the PAB tent, I suspect that the strong, loving community they’ve created and that I’m so proud to be part of will refuse to let the event be forgotten. Remember, if you hear about a PAB 2013, I predicted it. ;-)

Bob Goyetche

Bob Goyetche (photos: Neil Gorman)

And to Mark and Bob: thanks, and congratulations. You have done a great thing.

PAB2012 on Flickr

Audio of the infamous 2012 open mic, courtesy Shane Birley.




Perceptions, power, and PAB

Hi there. It’s been a while. I’ve been busy, having a little cancer and trying to get a handle on a new job and stuff. But I’m good. That’s not what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about this:


Several years ago, I went to PAB in Kingston, an annual conference that brings together a community of people who create things like blogs, podcasts, videos, and all sorts of other new media content. What stuck with me from that trip was the power of perception on an experience. And I was reminded of that in spades this year.

Every year, PAB has had a boat cruise. And every year, there’s been an open mic on the cruise.

The first PAB I went to, in 2008, I thought I’d take a turn at the open mic. I was not, at that point, experienced at performing in public. Playing music, at that point, had been something that had an odd mix of eagerness and … well, shame.

So I got up. And sucked. I couldn’t remember lyrics. I couldn’t get everything together. It was embarrassing and humiliating. I tried not to sotp until I got through a song. Eventaully, I crubled and stumbled my way through something. I don’t remember what. I left the ship feeling like a fool.

But the next morning, Chris Brogan redeemed me. He had written a blog post about what I did, drawing positive lessons from my onstage struggle. People at the conference were supportive, and I felt as if I had been pulled out of a toilet bowl, rinsed clean, towel-dried, and sent off on my way.

Meanwhile, in Ottawa, someone I didn’t know was reading that post. And I ended up being very good friends with Susan Murphy.

As the 2011 PAB conference ends, I am thinking about that night. Because last night, there was another open mic. This time, it was in Ottawa. And I was … leading it? I didn’t realize this would be the outcome of that debut.

So with the help of my friend Tom, we had put together the open mic gear. And I figured I would start the show with one of my favorite songs, and the first song I had ever performed in public. Danny Michel’s “The Invisible Man.” That song starts, and then there’s a chorus…. “I’m the invisible maaaaa–” What the FUCK?! Somebody’s singing. And it’s not me.

It’s Valerie Hunter. Someone I met for 30 seconds during the conference. I had a backup singer. Jesus.

Valerie Hunter with Mark Blevis at PAB08

Valerie Hunter with Mark Blevis at PAB08

She told me this morning that that was the first time she’d ever sung in front of people. Wheels within wheels.

I sang a song a long time ago, that led me to a failure onstage that turned into a redemption and made me a friend and led me to lead the singing and made someone else sing for the first time and now I’m writing this. What’s next? Damned if I know. But isn’t it fun that the wheel is spinning.

Here’s what the song  REALLY sounds like: