8 Reasons Why Singer Songwriter Shows Are Boring

Me, a Singer Songwriter
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Most singer songwriter shows are completely boring.  Here’s why.

I just played a new songwriter series billed as #songwritersundays at The Fox and Hounds in Studio City, CA. They have built up quite a supportive crowd of musicians and music lovers for this Sunday series. Without fail, every Sunday the place is packed with an audience silently listening to the performing artists.

This isn’t a glamorous event.  There’s no stage.  The artists setup in front of the front window, and for all intents and purposes it’s a bar.  But what makes these shows special, is the crowd.

Run and booked by musicians and music lovers, these nights have become somewhat of a hidden gem of the Valley.  Most people in the house are other singer songwriters checking out the talent.  And unlike the pay-to-play clubs on Sunset Strip, the singer songwriters are paid a guarantee for their performance.  And the show is free for attendees.

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Before the show, a woman came up to me and mentioned that she was going to review my show for a publication she writes for. We got to chatting and she asked me a curious question, “why are most singer songwriter shows unmemorable?”  Taken aback (being a singer songwriter) I asked her to expound.  She said that most singer songwriter shows she walks away from she can’t remember a single song they played and nothing sticks out to her about the show.

As someone who has probably seen (and played with) hundreds of other singer songwriters, she had a point.

Most singer songwriter shows ARE boring.  But that doesn’t mean that the singer songwriter genre is boring.

So, dear singer songwriters, here are 8 reasons why your shows CAN BE boring as hell:

1) Your Banter Is Bland Or Non-existent

Stage banter is a time honored singer songwriter tradition. Most pros have mastered this art and let loose in between songs.

When you’re starting off, you aren’t going to have great stage banter.  It doesn’t come naturally.  Just like your instrument, you have to practice it.  Work at it.  Stand up comics don’t come out of the womb funny.  They work at it for years and years.  As do singer songwriters.

Practice stories and jokes at home.  If you freeze up on stage, make notes on your setlist to remind yourself the story or joke you’re going to tell.  Make mental notes about what works and what doesn’t.  You want to get to a point where you have nothing planned and can play off of the room and make every show unique and special, but this takes time.  This takes a level of confidence that is gained after years of performing and hundreds of shows.  I know my stage banter didn’t settle into place until my 200th show or so. It takes time!

“If you’re an introvert, you can be an introvert, but be a confident one.”

And there’s no one way to customize your stage banter.  Be an enhanced version of your best self.  You have to do what makes sense for your personality.  If you have an extremely dry sense of humor don’t try to be bubbly, be dry!  But be hilariously dry.  If you’re goofy, be goofy.  If you’re an introvert, you can be an introvert, but be a confident one.  And if you aren’t going to tell hilariously extravagant stories, then the few words you speak softly into the mic should set the crowd at ease.

No matter what your stage persona is, you never want the audience to feel uncomfortable.

Fans come up to me all the time and reminisce about shows they’ve seen of mine in years past.  They retell me a story I told that night.  Most of the time the story was a spontaneous moment of inspiration I had on stage and I don’t remember what they’re talking about.  But they do.  People will remember the stories and jokes you told much longer than they’ll remember the songs you played that night.

You play the same songs every night in every city and every venue. What makes your show special for those in the house are the things you do differently for them.  Playing off the crowd, the city, the restaurant you ate at this morning, the people talking in the back, the cowboy hat in the front row, the girl on her cell phone.  These are things that the crowd will remember if you point them out from the stage and joke about it.  These are how to make your banter special and funny as hell.

2) The Musicianship Is Weak

There’s nothing more annoying to me than a singer songwriter who only plays one instrument and plays it poorly.  You don’t have to be Bonnie Raitt or John Mayer on your instrument, but you should at least be capable.  You should master your style of playing.

“Whatever you do with your instrument, do it well!”

Looking down at your fingers on the guitar changing from a G chord to a D chord while slipping in and out of place is completely unacceptable.  You should not be performing in public until you have mastered your instrument in the style you are playing in. Sure, there’s always room for improvement and you can always alter your playing style.  If you can’t solo, don’t take solos. Whatever you do with your instrument, do it well!

The professional singer songwriters who suck at guitar (but just use it as a songwriting instrument) will hire a guitar player for their shows and just sing.  That’s fine!  Just don’t sit up on stage and suck at your instrument.  That detracts from whatever brilliance you have within your songs.

7 Reasons Why No One’s Coming To Your Shows

But word to the wise, you will drastically decrease your costs if you can become capable at your instrument and don’t need to hire out every time you play a show.

3) The Songs Just Plain Suck

I’m tired of the singer songwriters who throw in a bunch of “cool chords,” but can’t write a good song to save their life.  It’s the equivalent of a metal shredder non-stop soloing over a mediocre instrumental foundation with no singing.  It’s self indulgent!  And boring.

You’re a singer SONGWRITER.  It’s in your title.  Your songs have to be great.  Spend time writing and rewriting and rewriting.

 + Want to be a Great Songwriter? Here Are 10 Songwriting Tips from the Pros

Most great songwriters write 5 songs for every 1 they actually use.  Not everything any songwriter writes is gold.  Dylan threw out a TON of songs that we never heard.  So why do you think every song you write is good enough for the show?  I’ll give you a tip, they’re not.

“And never settle.”

Make sure your songs have hooks, memorable refrains or choruses and have lyrics that aren’t generic.  Pop can get away with cliches and blandness because it has BUMPING production beneath it.  Singer songwriters cannot.  Your songs should be creative, intriguing, enticing, stimulating, thought provoking, and life changing.  If your lyrics don’t evoke SOME kind of emotion, rework them until they do.  And never settle.

Don’t just surround yourself with friends and family who tell you everything you write is gold (they don’t know).  Test out some songs on Audiokite or Fluence to get unbiased opinions from both average listeners and industry experts

How To Objectively Pick Your Best Songs (Or Find Out If You Suck)

4) You Look Plain

This is the least cool thing to talk about, but it’s important.  And for some reason ladies understand this concept way more than dudes.  You’re standing on stage inviting people to look at you for 45 minutes.  Give them something interesting (and memorable) to look at!  You don’t have to go all Gene Simmons, but wear something that is patently you.

You’re an artist. Be artistic!  Embrace your quirks.  Like your banter, your outfit should showcase the best version of yourself.  Dress UP!  Be different.  If you look plain, people will think your music is plain.  Wear what feels right for you.  Something that sets you apart.

Have a style. Look good for god’s sake. Cargo shorts are for dads at a barbecue, not singer songwriters on stage.

5) The Songs Contain No Tattoo Lines

Whenever I write a song I try to make sure it contains at least one “tattoo line.”  Anyone who has written with me has heard me explain this concept.  It’s a line so brilliant that fans would tattoo it on themselves.

As someone who has had fans tattoo my lyrics on them, I can say I’ve passed this test.  These are the lines that people walk away from your show remembering.  They stand on their own.  They give people pause.

What are your tattoo lines?

6) You Only Play One Instrument

This is a tough one because I’ve seen brilliant singer songwriters who only play one instrument command a theater.  But they are pros.

Trey Anastasio (guitarist/singer/songwriter of Phish) embarked on a solo tour years ago.  He mentioned in an interview that someone once told him that people will get bored of just hearing the same sonic palate for two hours.  You need to give them some variance.

Trey learned a few songs on piano so he could trade off (even though there are few living guitar players better than him).  He wasn’t very good at piano, but capable, and made his show that much more interesting.

First, master your main instrument.  Then experiment with bringing another instrument into the mix.  YOU don’t have to play multiple instruments, but either play with a band or another musician who can alter the sound of your show enough to treat the audience’s ears.

7) You Aren’t Playing Covers

If you’re playing in front of a crowd with mostly people who have never heard you before, it’s nice to throw in a cover as a reward for sitting through a bunch of songs they’ve never heard before.

No matter how brilliant your songs are, it is overwhelming for someone to hear 10 of them back to back for the first time.  So break it up with a cover.  And make sure it’s a cover your audience will know.  There’s no sense in playing an obscure cover from the 80s by a band only 327 people in Australia know.  Play a song, in your style, that everyone in your crowd will enjoy.

Like this.

8) You Don’t Perform

This seems like a no brainer, but you’re PERFORMING on stage, so PERFORM!  Don’t stand there like you hate life, hate performing, hate the audience and are completely dead inside.  If you truly do hate all these things then why are you performing?

Go record somewhere and never play out.  Or go write a novel.  Put on a damn show!  Yes, even though you’re opening up parts of your soul to the audience, it’s not enough!  I know that’s tough to hear.  So, work on your banter, work on how you perform the songs.  You don’t have to bounce around the stage, but give them something memorable.

Glen Hansard rips his guitar to shreds while belting (sometimes not very pretty) at the top of his lungs.  He puts so much passion into his performance that the audience can’t help but fall into his energy.

Ben Folds throws things at his piano and pounds on the keys frequently popping strings mid show.

Ed Sheeran and Andrew Bird loop.

Ingrid Michaelson’s banter is better than most, switches off between piano and ukulele and can transform the Hollywood Bowl into a living room and make everyone in the house feel like her best friend.

Ben Harper is equally strong playing a solo acoustic show as a full band rock experience.

Ani DiFranco tears up her guitar and leaves a pint of blood on stage for her solo shows.

Sara Bareilles and Jason Mraz are two of the strongest singers in the scene and both have equally entertaining stage personas.

Jamie Cullum stands on top of his grand piano before jumping down and flying up and down the keys leaving everyone’s collective jaw on the floor.

Matt Nathanson has some of the most consistently hilarious banter out there.

The Tallest Man On Earth is a rapid finger picking phenom, has a voice like no other and connects to every word he sings every time.

11 Reasons Why You’re Failing At Open Mics


As a singer songwriter, I don’t want people generalizing the entire genre as “boring” because I know it doesn’t have to be.  So, please, help out the scene and bring the excitement back into the category.

Photo is by Rebecca Crab from Flickr.

68 Responses

  1. Me

    These are true for all genres/artists. Not just singer/songwriters.

  2. tcookemusik

    Im practicing to perform live djing 41 originals and I am nervous, but i can dance. . I still look like a daydream (eyes roll). Thanks Ari. U tell it straight.

  3. Henir Galvao

    Wow, I’ve been guilty of at least half of this, number 8 being probably the one I need to work on the most. As for #5, although I think it’s cool to have tattoo lines (or facebook posts), there’s a risk, as I see in some lyricsts, to overdo it. I think if you persist in writing (and rewriting, as you observed), memorable lines will pop up without you having to be obsessed about them.

  4. Pawel Izdebski

    I need this so much, before few weeks i was in tour with my bestie songwriter. Her songs are melancholy and hard-melodic but after few words she was buying all the audience. It was confused for me when little, 20 years old girl quiet 3 drank guys at bar. Thank You for this one.

    • Chris

      My sincerest apologies for the errors in my previous post. I was so pissed at this horseshit article that I didn’t check it as well as I should have. 🙂

  5. Chris

    1. “People will remember the stories and jokes you told much longer than they’ll remember the songs you played that night.” If this is the case you aren’t playing to a crowd that’s interested in music. If it’s about your jokes and witty retort, it’s not about the music at all.

    2. “The Musicianship Is Weak” Congratulations! So is everyones in the beginning…and for a long time. We are always perfecting our craft, we are all in a stage of suck at one time or another. Just be honest, play with integrity and the musicianship will come. There are a lot of great artists and bands who never moved past basic chords.
    3. The Songs Just Plain Suck – “Your songs have to be great.” No, they don’t have to be great. The Beatles were terrible at this part too. The songs have to be honest and they need legitimacy. You need conviction! Usually it’s something you lived through, convey that. Have the audience live through it.

    4. “You Look Plain” The day that your fashion has ANYTHING to do with your music is the day that music has lost. There have always been musicians with terrible fashion sense. Those who didn’t conform or care to trends… It didn’t stop their success. Because we’re talking about MUSIC and not fashion.

    5. “The Songs Contain No Tattoo Lines” Whoever came up with this term should be shot in the head. A memorable song has a rememberable chorus. A line? That’s all we expect from our fans is to remember one line? Please! Expect more and you will get it. Demand more and you will have it.

    6. “You Only Play One Instrument” Can you play more than one at the same time? You’re fine with your one intstrument if you play it well and if you write well. I play more than 8 instruments well. Yet when I played my live shows, I only ever played one. It never hurts to expand your music knowledge and learn another. It never hurts to play it live or write for it either. But to assume it’s a necessity is asinine.

    7. “You Aren’t Playing Covers” FANTASTIC! I came to see a singer/songWRITER not a singer/songcopier. Now don’t get me wrong, a single cover every now and again has never harmed anyone. Some of the most fun songs I ever played were covers (Mostly because it wasn’t my ass on the line). But if you want to get into it. Legally you owe that artist some money for using their talent for your own gain. Also, unless you have an album filled with covers and enjoy paying royalties you aren’t helping yourself finanically either.

    8. You don’t perform “Don’t stand there like you hate life, hate performing, hate the audience and are completely dead inside.” Really? Seemed to work well for Nirvana and countless other bands.”

    What this article is shooting for is uninspired cookie-cutter musicians with gimmicks. That’s great for those who intend to make money off of those artists. However, it’s not so great for the artists. It’s not so great for people who actually love music. It will never contribute to those who will be remembered for providing something truly unique.

    • Fan-man

      Chris, I’m sorry but I can’t agree with anything you wrote. I’ve been a performer, roadie, stagehand, radio guy and reviewer, and this essay is dead-on. Nirvana was interesting because their audience were equally angsty teens, but that wears out pretty fast after a few months — and Dave Grohl has certainly moved beyond all that as proved by his great shows. Singer-songwriters are often the dullest performers — trust me, I’ve shared many a bill with them, they’re often “nice” people but not enough of them really work on being great — so you have to work on your show. Christine Lavin is probably the best, Jeremy Loops does a perfect show and there are many others. And sorry, fashion has been a part of music from the beginning. Yes, you have to have good songs and no nice shirt can make up for that, but if you look like yet another weed-smoking hipster, play the same confessional blah blah I’ve heard a million times, you’re just going to wind up playing coffeehouses to people who think Hillary Clinton is cutting edge while they sip lattes and check their cellphones, politely applauding when your song ends and thinking about the 80s dance night at the bar next door.

      • Name2

        I know!!

        Live Nirvana bootlegs without video? Boooooor-ing!!

      • Donna B. Pacini-Chrtistensen

        Fan-man, I agree with you.

      • Jason

        As both a performer, and one of those very people in the audience, I couldn’t agree more with what this guy said…he said it dead on and perfectly. In fact, I don’t even go to a non full band “thing” anymore for this very reason. And there are way too many people (since recording became readily available in 2005 to anyone) thinking they have talent when they should just go back to doing some other non musical hobby.

    • Versus

      Concerts are visual performances as well as audio performances.
      Visual presentation matters.

    • Lord Septus

      Chris, your points are incorrect. This is the business of ENTERTAINMENT. Great songs are integral to the equation but in a world where there’s hundreds of activities a night to capture the entertainment dollars of the public; you better offer something to keep them from going to see Magic Mike II for the 3rd time.

      • Hmmmm

        To me it’s the business of therapy. Entertainment is one form of therapy. Don’t get caught up in lingo.

    • Thomas

      Nirvana was a BAND. This isn’t “8 Reasons Why BANDS Are Boring” it’s meant for singer/songwriters.

    • Mister Kennedy

      I’ve done every one of these mistakes. This is a good lesson in reality. It’s about time someone insisted the bar be raised. Here are my responses to each of these 8 points.

      1. When Bob Dylan started out in NYC, he was known for his funny stage banter and witty, Chaplin-like persona far more than his songs. Indeed, his singing was often tolerated because when he was NOT singing he was just plain funny. Of course, now he rarely says anything to the audience on stage, however he doesn’t have to. He’s Bob Dylan – the ultimate singer-songwriter of the past 50 + years. You may think you don’t need to entertain because Dylan doesn’t “entertain” but then again, like I said, he’s Bob Dylan. You’re not. It’s like the character Crash Davis says in the movie, “Bull Durham” when talking to a young arrogant baseball pitcher. “Your shower shoes have fungus on them. You’ll never make it to the majors with fungus on your shoes. Now if you win twenty games in the majors, you can grow the fungus back on your shoes and the press will think you’re colorful. Until then, it means your a slob.” Like it or not, you’ve got to do more than sing your amazing songs.

      2. Watching someone fumble with their chords is embarrassing to watch. Watching someone forget the words loses my interest at once. Watching someone stop in the middle of the song and start over, or decide to do a different song, is a waste of everyone’s time. Watching someone’s music slide off the stand and then seeing the performer freeze in fear is pathetic. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.

      3. Most songs in these shows really suck. Let’s not kid ourselves. They’re filled with tired lines, pretentious lines, inarticulate lines, and bad melodies. Most of the singers are awful. Sorry, but that’s the way it goes. It’s really too bad people can’t be more straightforward with their comments to singer-songwriters. There is no challenge in hearing, “that was really nice.” However, a lot of singers set themselves up for these delusions. The talk about how personal the song is to them, how it really happened to them, how they grew from the experience and so on. Sorry, but to be blunt, nobody really cares how it affects you. They want to know how it has an impact on them. But they’re not going to tell you it was dull to your face since it seems to be such a personal story. In my experience, most audiences are far too passive-aggressive to offer genuine criticism. Your family and friends will lie to you because they love and perhaps even like you. It’s true if someone you don’t know comes up and says something favorable. If you can, find two or three honest critics and actually listen to them. 90% of what I write never goes on stage, or goes on stage once and I can tell it’s crap after the first verse. Also, I never write from personal experience. I prefer the honesty and freedom of fiction.

      4. Looks ARE important. Going up in a t-shirt and shorts, or a sloppy shirt with dirty jeans makes you look like nobody. Dress up. Sell it. Frank Zappa – a true showman – once said, “Everyone is wearing a costume. Don’t kid yourself.” Well, wear something that says who you are. Do you want to be one of the crowd? Then just wear shore and a t-shirt. We’ll forget you within seconds of when you leave the stage. Do you want to be remembered? Then dress the role.

      5. Tattoo lines – yep. They’re important. “Crazy”, “Blowin in the Wind” “Like A Rolling Stone” “Heart of Gold” “Let It Be”. The list goes on for ages. Don’t be pretentious. Sell it.

      6. The instrument idea is good for longer shows, however in a singer-songwiter evening, when you only get one to three songs, I think one instrument is fine.

      7 Covers – Do them, but this is the one thing I think the writer may have suggested in the wrong article. In singer-songwriter evenings that is a bit of a problem because of ASCAP. I think singer-songwriter evenings should be originals only. If you are doing a longer show, where you get more than one to three songs, then covers can be great. I saw Dylan do “Whole Lot Of Shaking Going On” with the Grateful Dead and it was great.

      8.Perform. PLEASE perform! Now, I’m very guilty of not doing this. I had a regular gig where I thought I could just sit back and do my songs with no banter, no costume, lyrics on a stand, and that would be fine. Nope. My magic songs did not entice the audience to put down their drinks and listen to my wisdom. I was told I was no longer needed. Well, they were right. This article is a breath of fresh air, and even though it makes me wince here and there, it’s so dead on correct. Get up there and perform those songs, put yourself on the line, and don’t sit back and assume your amazing songs will rule the day. Sell it!

      • Donna B. Pacini-Christensen

        Mister Kennedy—I agree with you.

    • Ash

      Narcissism just bleeds from this article. He even used a picture of himself in the lede. Yes, we should all conform to your way of performing because it’s so successful.

    • Ana

      There are singers who are brilliant , and covering a great song keeps a talented writer’s music alive, and most writers are Most grateful

      • Paddy

        I caught Trey’s solo show in Madison in 1999. He went from guitar to piano to play “Billy Breathes” and completely botched it up. He stopped early in the song, apologized to the audience, and explained he was trying to follow through on advice Neil Young had given him to switch up the instruments to keep people interested.

        He fumbled through with help from the audience. The moment was memorable, as a Neil Young fan, as was the audience participation – which made up for his mistakes in the song. It may actually be the most memorable moment of the show – 16 years ago it is one of the few moments I remember.

        John Hartford is one of the best examples of a solo artist switching up instruments during a show I can think of. He would go from banjo to guitar to fiddle, often dancing and tapping out the rhythm on a mic’d sheet of plywood. I remember him explaining that he wanted to do a solo bluegrass show, so he thought he should feature instruments typically heard in a full bluegrass band throughout the show.

        The difference between Hartford and Anastasio’s performances – Hartford was phenomenal at each instrument, while Trey needed to practice his piano a bit more before performing it live.

  6. Joe

    Not sure how it is in Cali, but you NEVER play a cover at a songwriter’s night here in Nashville unless you wrote it!! If I want to hear a cover I will turn radio on or plug in m ipod…

    • Thomas

      Singer/songwriter shows are different than songwriter nights. This was titled “8 Reasons Why Singer/Songwriter Shows Are Boring” not “What To Do On Songwriter Nights.” Just because somebody writes songs doesn’t mean they can’t play covers.

  7. david ackles

    I glad this piece ran, it reminded me that I dont need to be reading digital music news.

  8. Donna B. Pacini-Christensen

    This is an excellent article. Off and on for three decades I have hosted music showcases. In Woodbridge, CA my husband and I have hosted one per month for several years now. Many of the points made in this article are verbalized to me at showcases, concerts, festivals, etc.

    My favorite memories of performances I have seen/heard are of performers who have mastered the skill of stage banter. Most audience folks want to be entertained, and they want to hear some interesting antidotes about the music and/or about the performers.

    A good example of a performer who has mastered his stage banter skills (that many people in my community of creative artists know) is Joe Craven. Joe’s zany clothing, oddball shoes, personable smile, and everything he says on stage encapsulate his “entertainment” package, and it is a fantastic package. Joe connects with his audience; he is happy/excited about the bond, about the songs, and about the overall “performer/audience” shared experience. Joe should give “Banter” workshops. They would benefit many performers.

    I cannot say this often enough, too many performers underestimate the value of a beaming smile when they are onstage. Even for a performer who relies on sheet music on stage—looking at the audience a lot, smiling a lot, and giving a little banter will be gold.

    Original songs should be excellent songs. Original songs should not be shared (in a performance) until they are excellent. I know this is “subjective” to each person’s tastes—but at most concerts I have attended if you gave the audience a checklist to rate the songs I think some songs would be rated poorly because they are not particularly good. If the majority of the audience can catch this after listening to a song once—the majority of performers should be able catch it too.

    I am a photographer and I mostly photograph creative artists. I don’t mean to be whiny or bitchy—but some performers attire looks like the performer gave no thought to what he/she would be wearing for their performance. Those who do look like that have given some thought to their attire are NOTICED and appreciated. It isn’t something that a person in the audience will usually tell a performer—but believe me—the audience does pay attention to what you are wearing.

    Hats: I should give a workshop about hats to performers. Oversized hats can make a performer’s body look small under an oversized bobble head. It is not an attractive look.

    Baseball Caps: The #1 worse culprit is the baseball cap. When a musician looks down at his/her instrument, a baseball cap frequently covers the person’s entire face. This can be comical looking, if the man has a beard it looks like the baseball cap suddenly has a beard. The lighting shadows that baseball caps can cast upon a face will often ruin a photograph, even photographers with excellent photoshop skills discard photographs because of baseball caps. When a musician wearing a baseball cap is looking down at his/her instrument a photographer often cannot get a good photograph.

    Variance of material, especially with original material: You gotta have variance. People notice if you fail to have it. I have heard some songwriters perform and then folks in the audience would whisper that the person’s original songs are well written and well played—but that they all sound the same. That is boring. If you cannot rectify this problem on your own—collaborate with other musicians/songwriters. Make sure your original songs have variance.

    Cover songs—come on, please do a few. Even if your original songs are absolutely brilliant, if the audience has not heard your original songs they wanna to hear a few songs they recognize, songs that causes their feet to tap a familiar beat.

    Performing: If you are on a stage to perform, please give a performance. I repeat: If you are on a stage to perform, please give a performance.

    In my opinion the advice that Ari Herstand provides with this article can be for most creative artists—not only for musicians/vocalists. I think his article should be required reading for creative artists.

  9. matt kavan

    It depends on your perspective. Most of the people playing are doing it for nothing more than getting comfortable with playing a new song in front of a live audience, a hobby. For the audience, they’re seeing 20-80 people rotate through as fast as possible, trying to keep track of or follow anyone specific is difficult.

    For musicians that are doing it for more than just a hobby, the environment is tough no matter if you’re great or horrible. Leading to thinking that perhaps a format change might be needed to go forward, i.e. you could have a place with shows on a daily basis, with open mic’s for ~3 hours, and various feature performers from past open mic’s to fill in the rest of the time slots, before and after. But that’s an extreme where the reality is you’re lucky to have a place that has one evening a week, usually on a Mon-Thu, with no real option to play for a larger audience, unless of course you’re playing with a band.

    Either way, I think they’re great for both the performer and audience, if you’re looking for true, raw, original music and nothing more, but it’s not for everyone.

  10. Brian Franke

    I’m guessing you’re getting some criticism for some things you said. I get you’re trying to write a helpful piece but here’s my opinion being a singer/songwriter myself–a title too many of us throw around honestly.

    Here’s a valid point to start this off. If someones finds singer/songwriters boring, why go to a show? Why listen to them or support them? I personally would not someone who considers themselves as a fan to say, “you’re boring”–it doesn’t make any sense, please don’t be my fan wasting your time and money on me! (btw, I’m curious why this reviewer at your show is even reviewing something for a living she finds a snoozer, maybe we can find an article for her journalism career to find what she really wants to write about.)

    As to some of the 8 points, in general yes, I agree we all can get better at these aspects. Some things that bothered me which you wrote.

    “You should not be performing in public until you have mastered your instrument in the style you are playing in.”

    Were you a master of your instrument(s) before you were out in public? I don’t know, (not many personal stories in here to back your arguments sorry dude). I was not, but performing publicly got me better with my sound, with my playing, and even improvising. I’m also a host of open mics and honestly you’re putting people who want to get a start down saying this. Bad musician, bad!

    “So why do you think every song you write is good enough for the show? I’ll give you a tip, they’re not.”

    No one sees music the same way. My favorite singer/songwriter may be your least favorite and vice versa. Sorry, you’re not the overall judge on songs man.

    “It’s a line so brilliant that fans would tattoo it on themselves.”

    Cool concept. What if the song sucks except for the tattoo line? Is someone going to think, “oh I’ll remember this for that one line.” Seems kinda desperate at times but can work. I hope no one regrets getting any of our tattoo lines on them.

    “Yes, even though you’re opening up parts of your soul to the audience, it’s not enough!”

    Makes sense, be sure you’re into what you’re doing. Sometimes these things like jumping off equipment or any of those examples takes away from the song unfortunately. For a band, they make more sense, but we’re SINGER/songwriters. The song comes first.

    If you can make a point #9 it’s this. STOP OVERUSING A LOOPER. 3-4 minute intros and 10 minute solos during your songs make me cringe no matter how great a song it is. Be quick with a looper and use them sparingly. People today have ADD and want the song to start and end and be great. If you want a full band sound, hire some folks to play with you.

    Last thing I’ll say is this. I and anyone could do these things you suggest to a “T” and guess what–someone will say we’re still boring. In my experience, people easily criticize musicians without batting an eyelash. They’ll find something wrong with you, let you know and leave it at that.

    Be well, everyone has a different experience in with this art format, but it alive and well. Thanks for sharing your perspective Ari.

    Brian Franke

  11. Roshambo

    Don’t get me wrong, this article raises some good points. Perform on stage, look good on stage, develop a persona that people will remember – yup, that’s great. My main problem with it is, much of the focus seems to be on style over substance – mask your shitty songs with one tattoo line, or a standout costume or schtick. Which is exactly what Ari’s music is to me, shitty music dressed up nicely and played well. Also, neither unique nor original (using a looper has grown predictable, and he stole his wardrobe and hair from Tim Buckley). Why should I take songwriting advice from someone who couldn’t write a decent lyric to save his best friend’s life?

    • Thomas

      Why should I take songwriting advice from someone who couldn’t write a decent lyric to save his best friend’s life?

      Troll much? Lyrics are subjective. I’ve never heard Ari’s music, but if people have tattooed his lyrics, some clearly love them. Get off your pedestal dude.

      • Roshambo

        Ha! A troll? Hardly. Just a fellow Minneapolis musician who knew Ari back when he was living here and getting next to no traction. I respect him because he’s carved a living out for himself, but make no mistake – he’s a terrible songwriter. You yourself said you’ve never listened to his lyrics. You should. He wrote a song called “Do Ask Do Tell,” what does that say about his skills as a lyricist (or rather, an opportunistic shill)? Honestly, ask yourself. If Ari was worth his weight in salt, why would he be writing for a digital music website? You know any other wildly successful artists who constantly blog about how to be an artist? And while we’re at it, if you could tell me even one person who tattooed any Ari Herstand lyrics on their arm, I’ll quit. Right now. (Actually I won’t because I love making music too much, and still think Ari’s fucking terrible at it. Great at giving advice, but holy shit terrible at writing songs.)

        As another Minneapolis musician once said, Ari doling out advice on how to be a successful songwriter is like a man in a clown wig telling someone how to have a sensible, professional haircut.

        • Anon

          “I’ll quit”

          Does that apply if he tatooed any of his lyrics on himself?

        • Ari fan

          You clearly have some issues to work out on your own. Why so much hate and animosity to your fellow musician? I have been an Ari fan for 7 years ever since I saw him open for Ben Folds. I also live in Minneapolis. I ADORE his music AND lyrics (and he’s a really nice person). Call me all the names you want, but his music has gotten me through very hard times. I’m ashamed Roshambo is from the same city as I am. Haven’t you ever heard the saying “Minnesota Nice?” I guess it doesn’t apply to you. I don’t know what you mean by “next to no traction” because I used to see him all over town and most shows were full. I just saw him at First Avenue this past December and it was sold out. So….

          • Roshambo

            Hey. Be honest – he sold out the Entry, not First Ave. There’s a huge difference between a 2,000 capacity crowd and the small club attached to it. It’s not that hard to sell out the Entry, three of my bands have done it in the past 10 years.

            Anyway, I’m glad you really like Ari. I really don’t, obviously.

  12. Anon

    First of all not really a fan of the singer songwriter genre, it’s just stale as shit, and the fact that you feel like you need to banter on stage to bring the audience’s attention is proof of that.

    Having said that though, I for one will listen to you if you are doing your own songs- if you’re doing covers, unless you have some really unique take on them, I’ll just fucking leave.

  13. TokyoJimu

    I bet all the people saying this article is crap are singer/songwriters. I’m not. I’m a singer-songwriter fan who attends many many shows, and this article is spot on.

    Go ahead and believe it’s all about your brilliant songs and that style and patter means nothing, and then blame the audience when no one but your family and close friends attend your shows. It’s called a “show” for a reason. If I just want to hear you sing your songs, I’ll stay home and stream them and you’ll get your well-deserved two-tenths of a cent. When I go out, I’m expecting to be entertained, and many factors contribute to whether I feel I got my money’s worth.

    A song sticks with me so much longer if I’ve heard a good story that accompanies it. And yes, even how you dress does matter. Given equal songs between songwriters, you think I’d rather go see someone who’s smiling and seems to be having a good time, or another who looks like she’d rather be someplace else. It’s not about masking your “shitty songs” with style; rather, it’s that the best song with no style is not a great song performance.

    And to the commenter who said you shouldn’t “obsess” over your lyics: oh, yes you should! Every single word. This is what makes your song. Replacing a cliché phrase with something stronger can make all the difference. Obsess. Obsess. Obsess.

    • Austin

      PHAHAHAHA. Oh the king wants the court jester to entertain him! Do as I say!

      You must be such a bore. Cleary lost your soul somewhere along the way.

  14. h8t

    Some very good points. I know for a fact that it doesn’t matter how good your song is if you can’t sell it. You can almost see their eyes glaze over. I have listened (kind of) to songwriters who have no presence and not remembered a thing about their performance. You might hear a good line and go “that was nice”, “I kind of wish I had listened to the rest”; but you hadn’t because they didn’t engage you.

    Let’s face it, playing solo, for most of us, is just plain scary. You have to know your material forwards and backwards. I am a pretty good guitar player, but I have found myself making silly mistakes, forgetting the next chord, hitting the wrong strings, etc., purely from nerves. And lyrics, easily forgotten.

    So, what I’m trying to say is: it is all about confidence. Like most things if you don’t believe it, neither will anyone else. That’s why these songwriter things are so great. they give you a supportive venue to hone your skills. What Ari said is mostly spot on. Take his advice and work at it.

  15. Gary

    Hi Ari, I read your article and took from it what I wanted or found helpful as I do when reading articles giving advice. Thanks for taking the time to write it. That being said, I’ve learned that advice that can be helpful doesn’t always come from people whose craft I find to be of quality work. Of course, in all fairness, opinions may vary from person to person. I listened to some of your songs posted on youtube. While your songs are not bad, they’re not very unique, rather pedestrian, actually. But, again, that’s just my opinian. Good advice doesn’t have to come from good artists in order to be helpful. Here’s my situation. I am 60 years old and I’ve heard a lot of singer song writers through the years and after a while there’s only so much one can do to be truly original, leave their mark. One of your tunes posted on tube has you using a looping device and honestly, you used it well. The attraction with using a looper at live gigs is the audience watching you build songs. It has a quality of juggling to it and is still impressive. But like everything else, it too will become “old hat” , just like wah wah peals did for years. For a listener who is currently in their 20s to 30’s , I suppose old ideas and melodies from my past sound fresh to them. It’s no wonder many senior musicians turn to alternative areas like jazz to get a new buzz. OK, Ari, The old guy is done ranting. 🙂 All The Best To You

  16. Rory

    Try running your instrument through effects pedals especially if you play guitar. Don’t over do it however. And speaking of guitar players another thing you can try is the You Rock Guitar. It’s a Midi guitar that, yes looks like you can play Guitar Hero on (and you can do that as well with this). It may seem hooky but it has a ton of sounds. Not a piano player? You won’t need to be with this. I am a bass player and use it for piano parts going through my pedals (delay) for one of my band’s songs. Sounds great!

  17. Kris

    Mostly no-brainer types of points here… though I disagree with the tone of the article. I think yes, most singer-songwriters are trash, and here and there someone is good. It’s a matter of interesting music and words which convey meaning to enhance the music, possibly. The trick is that if you’re playing just a guitar, you need to write chords and melodies which are “tantalizing” and have them go back to back, with no “filler.” Best course of action is to emulate tried and true “styles” to the point where you master a variety of style and then weave that experience into your own musical voice and expression. I can agree that most songs you will write aren’t good enough. Another trick is to take a ton of time writing one. Or write 5 and take only the best chords out and do patchwork to weave them in and out. If people approach you after your set and compliment you, or you receive compliments from complete strangers about your music and how it affected them, over and over, you’re doing something right. If everyone ignores you and you receive negative feedback, you may need to re-assess. Even the best musicians have moments of self-doubt and need to take breaks from writing and playing out. Set a goal and accomplish it through dedication and hard work. It’s similar to athletics, laziness and lack of focus won’t get you anywhere.

  18. Kris

    It’s really a skill that takes a ton of time to develop, unless you are a prodigy of sorts. I disagree with the “tone” of the article, because it’s too general and restrictive as to certain “rules” but the art of music and performance is one where convention and rules are meant to be broken. Take for instance, Beck, who used to wear a large leaf-blower while playing solo, to stir up some noise and excitement. There are gimmicks but also certain ways of presenting yourself. The optimal way is to have it all in the music and require “no frills.” Set your own rules. Stage banter is not necessary at all. Some of the best musicians barely speak between songs. Another tip that’s left out is to keep it brief. Don’t play all your songs, just play a few and let someone else have their turn. The best sets are 15-20 minutes, tops. And lastly, when it comes to vocal delivery, just use your speaking voice, with some slight musical intonation for the melodic parts (or learn how to sing properly). The common crappy singer-songwriter learns a few chords up the neck and belts out in some affected voice, their songs. It’s not always bad, here and there you’ll see some talented people playing this simple formula style also. It’s a lot to consider and a lot of pressure though, that’s for sure. There’s never really a “perfect” outing.

  19. steve crowell

    Article has many important points, none are rocket science. Actual purpose, I think, was to send some business to those song listening for a fee sites. As someone else mentioned, it is important whether you are playing as a hobby or trying to be Professional. I don’t think you get to choose, it is chosen for you, like it or not. But most important is to enjoy what you are doing. If people like it, all the better for you. Most singer songwriters do not make a big impact, I mainly think its great to be able to create and practice an artistic discipline, its not about being the best song and dance man. If it was fun and you learned something or met some cool people, good enough, because no matter how much you try, even if it comes natural, its probably not going to make you any money.

  20. Dan

    I really like the article and the responses – I’m 54 and have been singer-songwriting for 35 years…but it’s not my primary gig and in some ways I kinda suck. I go on tour every summer and play shows throughout the year. I’m a good strummer and I write the occasional really good song…but if I went to see me I’d be bored. I do it for…me. It’s a way for me to travel, meet cool people, feel self-important and not invisible. All that said, I hear what Ari and others are saying and I’m thinking about how to be a bit less boring…I’m a high school teacher so my banter-self is well-tuned. Anyway, good read this morning.

  21. Lorrie

    The other side of the singer-songwriter title is ‘ singer’. You talk about playing well, writing well, but if you can’t sing, it doesn’t seem to be an issue these days. When did a good voice become unnecessary?

  22. Ari's a dickbag

    ” Fans come up to me all the time and reminisce about shows they’ve seen of mine in years past,” said Nobody Whom That Is True About

  23. Clare Cooper

    Good points, I agree with all except the “reward your audience with a cover” one. I play covers for a living; it’s rare to have an opportunity to play original songs, and people who come to those gigs know that’s what it’s about. Why feed into the mentality that’s been making it impossible for songwriters to get anywhere? Other than that, you’re right – know your instrument, talk to the audience, dress like you knew you were going onstage and give people a reason to be glad they came to see you.

  24. Darian

    I read this a month ago, and tried to apply everything you said to my next show. And…it went better than ever, despite the mistakes I made (my weakest spot is #2). Thanks so much for the advice, it really helped.

  25. 3

    Great advice. However, you forgot 2 important things.
    Be unique and different from everyone else.

  26. craig

    “If you’re an introvert, you can be an introvert, but be a confident one.”

    Now this is a stupid comment. You cannot choose to be confident. You either are or you’re not. Telling someone without confidence to be confident is not only an exercise in futility, but also insulting and cruel.

  27. Austin

    Hahaha. Imagine telling bob Dylan all of this BS. He didn’t give a damn about you or anyone judging petty stuff like what someone’s wearing. This is a joke and mostly terrible advice , what’s your expertise? People like the person who wrote this article is why Americana-rooted music culture has gone down the drain. This article is all noise. I JUST WANT TO SEE SOMEONES SOUL LAID OUT ON THE STAGE THATS ALL I ASK.

  28. Maanonthemoon

    Solo artists they sing like they’re in pain all the time, that’s what makes it boring. We got the message you think you’re special by holding that note 20 times in the same song, by breaking it down half way the song after an epic high pitch note. Solo artists are overrated.

  29. Blobbo

    1. Your mom is not a real judge of how good you are.

    2. Picking up a guitar doesn’t make you a genius, but it is a step in the right direction away from samplers. The songs matter more than your voice. Bob Dylan’s voice is horrific when not connected to a great song. His recent career proves this. You better have great lyrics, melody, and STORIES in your lyrics that are CREDIBLE, as in, you had some personal reference point. The writing matters more than the voice, but a distinctive voice certainly helps. This is the worst genre to try selling with your looks. You will be laughed at. Taylor Swift can actually write folk, country, and acoustic pop songs.

    3. Listen to and know the greats of the past like Dylan, Neil Young, Kurt Cobain, John Lennon, Bob Marley, Tom Petty, Johnny Cash. You’re not going to equal or beat them, but you better at least be aware of how they great they were, so you don’t imagine you can’t be better.

    4. If you don’t have to do this, then doing it for any other reasons isn’t going to cut it. That said, don’t think commitment and wanting it means you shouldn’t listen to all the honest input you can find, preferably from professional musicians, not the public at large, who will either obviously like you (good, but not always to be trusted) or tell you your music is ‘interesting’ (you suck).

    5. If you do suck, taking lessons at how to sing, and how to play guitar won’t hurt. Songwriting lessons are a bit trickier. Calculation COULD work, but internal passion and a natural flow of music out of you is optimal. If you don’t have that, you can keep playing for a while, but hopefully you get there. That said, the Rolling Stones were bum kids who never thought they could write music, and then they became great writers, but they did it by their early 20s. My songwriting showed up at 15. If songs aren’t coming out of you easily by 20, you may have to reconsider your future.

    • Blobbo

      By better, I meant better than you are at any time, not better than them. THAT isn’t happening…

  30. Anonymous

    I’m fortunate in that I enthrall the audience wherever I play through my songs, which are all magnificent, and the charisma that oozes out of me. Having said that this could be helpful for others that are not so fortunate ?

    • Anonymous

      Anonymous aka Damon Coles, yes the DAMON COLES who nobody’s ever heard of……YET ?