What is a SongStudio?
You could compare SongStudio to the many different sports and music fantasy camps out there. You pay money to be in the same room with the pros you admire, breathing the same air, getting tips, insider information and maybe even having a connection with someone from the bigs that you admire. The differences between SongStudio and these kinds of fantasy camps outpace any similarities.
SongStudio is also not your typical work-like conference either, with seminars, powerpoint and endless coffee breath.
Comparing SongStudio to a Tony Robbins or Oprah Winfrey workshop is of course, ridiculous, yet SongStudio participants call the experience “absolute bliss” “life-changing”, “the one week I look forward to all year”.
Best comparison? The movie and TV show Fame. Not kidding! Ok maybe “Fame - The Adult Contemporary version.”
SongStudio is a weeklong immersive experience for emerging songwriters, held at the Royal Conservatory of Music in downtown Toronto, where experienced songwriting professionals and eager amateurs come together to work on the work of writing songs. Pros set aside time every year to contribute, and registrants save up their vacation time to attend.
Programmed and hosted each year by co-founder and Program Director Blair Packham, this year’s seminar attracted registrants who stretched in age from 17 to 87 (Althea is 87 and has attended SongStudio at least five times), and they have travelled to Toronto from as far away as California and the UK.
“Most of our songwriters come from somewhere in Ontario, then from across Canada, and each year there are always a few international students,” says Packham who talks about the year there were over 70 people, with regret. “It’s great to have your program be that popular, but this is an event where lots of one-on-one contact with pros and registrants is paramount, so around 40 or so seems perfect,” Packham believes that 10% or less have found funding to attend, and the rest handle the time and expense personally (approx. $1,000.00 for registration).
Newcomers, and even the 40% repeat attendees usually bunk for the week in the residences at Ryerson University, adding to the overall communal and immersive vibe of the SongStudio experience. Instead of sloshy games of beer caps after midnight, you’ll find song circles and newly minted co-writers clogging up the hallways until the wee hours.
The week kicked off with a screening of a terrific documentary “It All Begins with a Song: The Story of the Nashville Songwriter” (view below). Bill McKetrick, SongStudio’s Operations Director, is also a consultant on the film (which is still a work in progress).
The film illuminates with first-person commentary the long and dusty road songwriters walk, giving equal measure to both the legend of the starving artist and the busy workman songwriter. Songwriting is portrayed as a calling and a life journey, and the stories are heartbreaking and inspiring to this room of kindred spirits.
During the panel discussion after the film, Marghie Evans (Managing Partner of Do Write Music) a Canadian who has lived and worked in Nashville for the last 16 years, remarked on the depiction of the songwriting community in Nashville. “It is real. The songwriters are a solid, close-knit community. All you have to say is that you’re a songwriter and you are welcomed to the Nashville tribe of songwriters. There used to be songwriting contracts, but there are very few of those positions left so you must network, build real relationships. The ironic thing is that in this community everyone that is your friend is also your competition”.
SongStudio has, by design, that same “we’re in this together” community feel. It’s important to the organizers that they foster an environment that lives on beyond just the week-long event.
Every day registrants sign up for a 3-hour workshop with a pro of their choice. I sat in on four different workshops over four days, one each run by Ron Sexsmith, Blair Packham, Tomi Swick and Marghie Evans. Roughly 10 students per room, always four different rooms on the go. You perform your song (any song that you are working on, or have completed) with guitar, with piano, acapella or backing tracks for feedback from the room. Often participants work at home all year on songs they hope to take across the finish line at SongStudio. It’s a safe and constructive environment, where everyone gets both positive and negative feedback, and respect is paramount.
Tania Joy of Uxbridge finishes singing her song “The Drug”. There is applause from the other 8 workshop participants. Then, a long pause.
Ron Sexsmith: That was amazing, I didn’t want it to end.
Tania: Oh. My. God.
Another building block in the program is giving the students as many opportunities as possible to perform their songs in progress and new songs for the faculty and one another.
They structure the content of the week-long program so that songwriting is discussed two different ways. The first is without context, focusing on just the song and how it can make the most significant impact on a listener. Secondly, the focus turns to the song in today's music context and what the world of songwriting is like in 2018.
Program Director Blair Packham believes this year’s SongStudio was perhaps the best yet. He would know. Blair is not just a pro; he’s a seasoned teacher who is currently leading a songwriting course at Seneca College in Toronto and has prof’d at Humber College as well.
I reached the President of Slaight Music Derrick Ross who said “We’ve been sponsoring SongStudio for many years because it provides an opportunity for seasoned songwriters to pass on their knowledge and writing techniques to new emerging songwriters. Slaight Music’s priority is providing opportunities for Canadian musicians to enhance their careers and skills and SongStudio does that brilliantly when it comes to songwriting. It’s one-of-a-kind, and we’re proud to contribute and be a part of it.”
The biggest challenge during the week might be the co-writing assignment. Students are paired on the first day with a random partner. It’s their job to write together and by week’s end present a brand-new song written entirely during SongStudio.
There are lots of other topics covered such as co-writing, toplining, charting music, plugging your songs and more. There are lots of discussions about words, bridges, pre-choruses and imagery. Given that maybe musicians and songwriters are not the best at keeping records etc. Jae and Michelle Gold (Entertainment Accountants) do a session on Rock N Roll Accounting. Recording artist Dayna Manning, Andrea Ramolo (one half of Scarlett Jane), Ron Sexsmith, Tomi Swick and Ron Lopata (VP of A/R at Warner Music Canada) all helmed sessions separate from their workshops where they shared stories of their experiences in the business and dispensed advice.
SongStudio closes each year with an incredible live show at Hughs Room. Earlier in the day all registrants have voted for which songwriters they believe should perform at the show, as well as voting for which co-written songs should also be showcased on stage. With “winners” announced later in the afternoon, students then literally only have a few hours to write music charts to their music for the band that will be backing them on stage that night.
Back in 2005, Rik Emmett co-founded SongStudio with Blair Packham. Most years he still participates. Tonight, it’s by playing guitar in the band behind each of the students at Hughs Room.
All week it’s been about stripping everything down to the truth and three chords. Its been about sitting on stools in circles terrified to not only sing in front of these people but receive their opinions about your song. It’s about reaching deep down inside and pulling out something you’ve never done before. All week long, lyrics agonized over, some songs scrapped entirely, and subtle but significant changes made to others. Songwriters test their work, then re-test it and refine it in front of mentors and other students during the day. At night, by special arrangement with C’est What?, The Cadillac Lounge and The 120 Diner they test their material live on stage. Even all of this, this combination of stress sweat, adrenalin, anxiety, laughter and tears does not prepare you for the final big show. The excitement builds all week to an almost painful level by showtime.
Last Thursday night participants stepped on stage at Hughs Room for the big gala show. In front of them was a raucous audience and behind them a full band. I can’t describe what the release of all that pent-up energy felt like. Wait! “Fame, I’m gonna live forever, I’m gonna learn how to fly”. If you know that song, you know the feeling. And that is the power of songwriting.
A tip of the tip jar to the participants and faculty, SongStudio has left the building for 2018. Registration opens in September for 2019, with early bird deals. Check for details at songstudio.ca or contact the author.
It All Begins with a Song: The Story of the Nashville Songwriter
Sharon Taylor has spent the best years of her life slaving away in Canadian media, specifically radio. She is quite confident that songwriting is not in her toolkit of skills. She can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org