Articles About The Durango Songwriters Expo

Greg Dorschel

Durango Songwriters Expo, 1999
By Greg Dorschel*

It is a crisp fall afternoon and I am heading uphill about 15 miles outside of Durango, Colorado. On my near left, a gray wall of granite rises perhaps a thousand feet. To my right and behind, lies the Animas River Valley. A multitude of aspen waves an autumn greeting and serves as a glorious golden welcome mat to the surrounding San Juan Mountains. The view is fantastic! The air is a little thin, but clear and cool, and I am just minutes away from arriving at the annual Durango Songwriters Expo.

The Expo is held each October at the Sheraton Tamarron Resort. The 2-day event is a combination of educational seminars, song critiques and live performances. It is intended to educate songwriters and aspiring artists about some of the realities of today’s music business climate and provide a chance to mingle with several dozen music business professionals. The event is limited to a small number of songwriters. It boasts an impressive array of music business folks as panelists and performers, and is well planned and produced. With the beautiful geography of southwest Colorado as a backdrop, this informal congress is a unique and most pleasant event. The alluring charm of this gathering of songwriters, artists, and music industry reps is quickly becoming widespread knowledge; and it is no wonder that it is also rapidly becoming one of the premier songwriter expos in the country.

Tamarron Resort serves as the Expo headquarters and reliably provides all the amenities any conference member could desire. The resort is accustomed to providing first-rate services while maintaining a laid back but professional setting. There are plenty of meeting facilities, a fine 400 seat performance hall, several dining options, and many other amenities expected at a top-notch hotel, including a spa, pool, a tortuous 18 hole golf course and a couple of well-stocked bars willing to stay open late. Additionally, there is amazing geographic scenery and a positive vibe that is nearly indescribable.

Tamarron exists as a self-contained village for all practical purposes but those interested in checking out what lies beyond its boundaries have many options. Riders on the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad can sit in covered open-air railcars through the 45 miles of incredible mountain terrain between the two cities. A short drive away is Mesa Verde National Monument with its many mysterious Anasazi cliff dwellings. The actual town of Durango is a lively burg with a wide assortment of dining and entertainment options. The old streets of downtown Durango are lined with a myriad of interesting shops, taverns and restaurants. Durango is rich in history and folklore of the ancient, old and present West.

Just around sunset on Thursday night, after registering and checking into their rooms, folks start drifting down to the lounge at Tamarron. They are introducing themselves to each other, collecting a beverage, and getting seats for the first Songwriters Showcase, which is just about to begin. On both Thursday and Friday nights, music starts about 8:15 and is provided by a juried roster of the attending songwriters. Attendees who are interested in performing submit material in advance to be considered for one of the performance spots. Prior to their arrival in Colorado, panel members review these submissions and collectively choose the artists/writers felt to have the greatest appeal. Styles performed run from blues, to country, to comedy and pop. It is an informal venue, but the crowd is attentive and involved. The music publishers do not want to miss a great writer. The managers and label reps are looking for potential artists and everybody is checking out the songs. About a dozen people will take the stage during the next few hours. Each performer is given 10 minutes so he or she can run through two or three songs. During the frequent set changes, the crowd shifts around the club, the performers offer each other encouragement, glasses are being refilled, and small groups discuss their impressions of the show¹s material thus far. This short crescendo of activity and noise quickly subsides to a low murmur when the next performer is poised to present another tune.

In the early nineties, attempts were made in Durango to organize a similar-type event; but despite some success, those efforts were shortly abandoned. That is, until 1996, when local songwriter Jim Attebery decided to take a crack at putting an expo together. This October will mark his fourth such effort. He declares his mission as an endeavor "to create a meaningful opportunity (for songwriters and artists) to interact with music industry professionals" and "create real possibilities to further advance the music careers of those who attend." He is rightfully pleased with the results so far. Attebery is glad to tell of the writer/publisher relationships that have evolved out of the expos. He is aware of several writers who have established affiliations with significant publishers in both Los Angeles and Nashville. Several artists have been signed to recording contracts, and others have made solid connections with producers and managers. Attebery further notes " the Expo has (also) resulted in a lot of inter-industry connections, especially between panelists." The efforts of Attebery and the Expo¹s other organizational committee members, Mary Ann Wisnewski, Laurie Bush and Bruce Mandel, are having a real and positive effect on the careers of both the registrants and the panelists.

The Expo is run as a non-profit venture. The show organizers are volunteers who donate a considerable amount of time and talent to the successful execution of the event. Despite the efforts of this unpaid staff and the discounted services provided by Tamarron, funding remains a concern. Registration fees are not high ($135.00 for the 1999 gathering.) To avoid diluting the unique atmosphere of this event, only 100 songwriters are allowed to register. Attebery believes the Expo must maintain its high ratio of attendees to panel members if it is keep its identity as the "little conference with big opportunities." So to acquire the funding needed, organizers must solicit sponsors from the local community and the music business community across America. They have successfully enlisted the assistance of about a dozen local businesses and have additionally received contributions or discounted services from a handful of music- related business from out of the area. Philanthropists with musical interests are encouraged to get involved!

Panelists attending the Expo come from a variety of backgrounds in the music business and are among the most respected and experienced professionals working in the industry today. Some of these industry professionals work in music publishing both in Nashville and Los Angeles. Record executives from major labels and significant independent labels are in attendance. The staff is rounded out with managers, producers, representatives of performing rights organizations, and, of course, successful songwriters, and artists. Rarely is such a high concentration of industry folks gathered together and willing to interact with such a small group of songwriters. Even normally conference-shy music biz cats are anxious to attend this event. Panel members this year will include producer Pete Anderson, TAXI president Michael Laskow and MCA Records A&R VP Michael Rosenblatt, all from Los Angeles. Some of the Nashville representatives include ASCAP¹s Ralph Murphy, A&R Directors Mike Sistad (Arista Records) and Danny Kee (Warner Brothers Records). Also attending from Nashville will be music publishing guru John VanMeter (Sony/ATV) and Shanachie Records A&R VP, John Condin.

Panels begin Friday morning. They are about two hours long and typically feature guests with similar backgrounds addressing topics within their areas of expertise. Usually these panelists will give a little background information on themselves and describe their normal circles of business. The floor is then opened for questions and answers so that attendees may get feedback regarding specific issues. The panel topics usually include the following: A & R issues, a producers and managers¹ discussion, publishing panels (with perspectives from publishers with companies from Los Angeles and Nashville), and a performing rights organizations session with representatives from BMI, ASCAP and SESAC. This year the Expo offers a songwriting workshop to be lead by writer/author Harriet Schock. All these sessions offer a rare opportunity to pick up valuable insight directly from the big shots who make up the panel guest list.

In addition to the educational panels, song critiques take place each day. These two-hour sessions are comprised of a panel member or two and about 15 writers who each submit one song for review. Responses will typically consist of the opinions of the panel members regarding the potential commercial appeal, structure, and overall "feel" of the individual songs. The songwriters may participate in as many as three of the four song critique sessions and they have the option of submitting the same song to each session or may opt to garner opinions on a different song in each session. Song critique categories are Country, Pop/Rock/Alternative, and Folk/Roots.

Everyone involved in the Expo is invited to attend a group dinner Friday night just before the music begins. This recent addition to the weekend¹s agenda is another informal opportunity to mingle with peers, approach the industry cats, or just enjoy the generous bounty provided by the dinner sponsor. (Thanks to June McHugh and Tom Gould at Ash Street/25 North Publishing in Denver for picking up the tab (again) for this tasty meal!)

The Expo formally concludes with a showcase Saturday evening by some of the noteworthy artists who have attended the conference. Performers in past years include Jimmy Webb, Bill Miller, Walt Aldridge, Gretchen Peters, and Allan Rich. The hall has 400 seats so a good bit of energy can be generated with rowdy performances, yet still evoke an intimate atmosphere when the material is a little more tender. The artists sit "in the round", and take turns rendering tunes. Concertgoers can expect to hear stripped-down versions of famous songs, as well as newly written material. It is guaranteed that there will be anecdotes about how some of these tunes came to be written. In addition, other alluring tidbits that are not gleaned at larger, less intimate surroundings can be expected. The show usually provides laughter in abundance, but has also been known to evoke a tear or two when those heart-wrenching sad songs are performed. Of course, all conference members are admitted free and tickets for the remaining seats are sold to anyone interested in coming. This special gig is always a bountiful helping of creative stew that puts a great finishing touch on a superb outing. It is the audible nightcap to a splendid day.

The writers I have met at the Expo have varying levels of ability and commitment to writing songs and performing. There are full-time working writers and artists who might be interested in the finer points of management contracts, or seeking details regarding payment schedules from the performing rights organizations. There are also the occasional writers who are content to pursue music as a hobby. They are glad to surround themselves, if only for a short time, with like-minded people who share their common interest in creating and performing music. I have been impressed with the amazing talent of the former and both moved and spiritually recharged by the pure passion and vulnerability of the latter.

A saying I have heard about music business states that the best deal is the one where everyone comes away happy. That is perhaps an obvious point; however, we all know that those mutually beneficial deals are all too infrequent and elusive. The Durango Songwriters Expo is an exception to that because it seems to be one of those rare deals where everyone does come away happy. This is simply an enriching event. This musical weekend in the mountains cannot help but improve your professional awareness and connections, as well as rejuvenate your spirit and love of all the positive aspects of songwriting and performing. I will see you there.

*Greg Dorschel has been involved in music publishing for 14 years in Nashville and is a freelance journalist. Read Greg's Songwriter's Chain of Failure.