Friends, they may think it's a Movement, and that's what it is”
For a number of months last year and occasionally this past year, I had the pleasure and privilege off performing at The Marker Hotel at Union Square in San Francisco during their evening wine service. The hotel provided the sound equipment and the crowd, who came down to the family room for the ostensibly free wine that was made available between 5 and 6 PM.
This experience was invaluable to myself as a songwriter, performer and entertainer and I’m saddened to learn that management at the Marker has decided to discontinue this amenity. The whole thing was started by Theo McKinney, who works at the concierge desk of the Marker’s sister location and fellow Joie de Vivre property, the Hotel Carlton, in part to further his own ambition to perform in front of live audiences and develop as a musician. Theo managed to convince the staff at the Carlton to indulge this passion and subsequently bought in many other local artists to perform there as well as beginning a campaign to get more hotels to take part.
From the hotel’s perspective, this program offers a chance to provide guests with a unique experience that has distinctly local flavor. Guests have the opportunity to make a connection with an artist that is memorable and emotionally rewarding, contributing positively to their overall impression of the hotel and their experience there. The experience was something they could share on social media and when writing up a review on TripAdvisor or some such similar site that could help set the hotel apart from their competitors. And I've always been willing to provide suggestions for other ideas as to what to do in the city to guests (even if it was shameless self-promotion for an upcoming show) to help make them feel like their stay in San Francisco hadn’t been some cookie-cutter, run-of-mill, hop-on-hop-off, check-off-all-the-items-in-the-guidebook sort of affair. It's even a chance to give back to the community as Ken Newman has been using the opportunity to play there to advocate for his Blanket the Homeless charity.
As I said, for myself, this opportunity was invaluable. Being a songwriter is often a solitary craft and having an opportunity to perform your originals can be rare when you first start out playing out. Open mics, are of course, an option, but you are usually only afforded 1 or 2 songs and your audience is mostly other songwriters, not the general public, so it can start feel like a very limited sphere in which you’re getting exposure. As wonderful as the sense of community is, it feels a little insular at times. The illustration below is my take on audience/performer dynamic — one Wittgenstein duck/rabbit performing for a crowd of other Wittgenstein duck/rabbits. Getting a crowd to listen your music as an unknown is a tremendous amount of work and often quite dejecting, so if there is another draw (“free” wine), all the better.
Similarly, along those lines, the Marker was a wonderful bootcamp for learning how to be a performer. Once, again, not being responsible for the crowd is a huge gift. It can be hit or miss, of course, depending on who’s staying the hotel and a whole host of factors, but getting past your inhibitions when it comes being in front of a crowd whatever its size is tremendously important. While open mics are a good starting point for developing in this regards as well, once again, you are limited by the duration available to you. Rarely do you get the chance to perform a whole set — and certainly not on a consistent basis. Becoming adept at managing one’s time on stage and simply being comfortable in front of an audience of complete strangers, is like all things, a matter of practice and routine.
I specified entertainer as a third aspect as to what I think my stint at the Marker helped develop and I think it’s good to draw the distinction between that and performance, although the choice of words may feel somewhat arbitrary. While I think it’s relatively clear what the difference in skillsets might be between a songwriter and a performer, I think it's helpful to tease out the distinction between merely performing and entertaining — and I think this is where the most important aspect of what the Marker provided can be explained. It’s one thing to get to the point where you feel competent and confident on stage — it’s another thing to let go a bit and become more selfless as to what you’re doing and be there for your audience. As a songwriter, this can be an important hurdle to overcome because there’s a lot of self-consciousness about one’s own work as well as a lot of pride.
A fundamental aspect of music, alas is that people enjoy its familiarity, so original material often suffers from some “consumer resistance.” This is why even when performing original material, throwing in a familiar tune can help build a rapport with an audience. I will admit to still being reluctant to play this game myself, but it’s value can’t be denied. As an entertainer, you are catering more to the tastes and needs of your audience — the nice thing about Local Vocals is I’ve never felt any hint of pressure to do that as you’re not responsible for draw or selling more drinks. Nonetheless, the environment is conducive to honing one’s instincts in this regards — and it's helpful to gain a sense what your priorities are in that regards.
Along those lines is developing a feel as to what your role in a setting is. In a crowded hotel lobby where the majority of guests are co-workers in town for a convention and therefore want to socialize, the fact that you are merely “wallpaper” while everyone else converses indifferently to your presence can feel alienating. However, being comfortable in those circumstances is important. Learning to engage with the few individuals who are interested in that sort of engagement can be quite rewarding. On the other hand, knowing what you’re doing isn’t being scrutinized allows you some freedom to experiment and improvise, especially with banter between songs or moments you’re trying to create within them. Sometimes you’ll strike on something new and different that gets a reaction or you just like it and you’ll continue to develop it from its spontaneous origins. If nothing else, becoming inured to indifference is healthy — allowing yourself to ride the waves of an audience attentiveness and not be thrown off (or worse, become hostile/dejected) is a skill and an exercise in temperament.
Honing one's skills as a performer and entertainer ultimately have an impact on the songwriting and I think it's important to be in that position to get a sense of how what you're doing during that solitary act of writing plays out in front of an audience. Whether it's how audience reacts to a line, or how dynamics impact the performance and perception of the piece, or just how difficult something is to say, there's a lot to inform the writing process. And all of these aspects — the writing, the performing, the entertaining — inform each other.
A lot of this honing can be achieved through busking on the street or playing in bars, but the environment of a boutique hotel is unlike those in some fundamental ways. First, there was a wonderful “plug and play” aspect to the set up — one was simply responsible for showing up with one’s instrument — even the sound system needs were taken care of. This sort of ease just in terms of moving equipment around and setting it up is positively indulgent from an indie artist’s perspective. Second, there’s just the aspect of one’s own personal comfort and safety — one would say one is forever spoiled when you’re nice and warm surrounded by comfy chairs and a fireplace and not having to worry about the weather and basics like electricity for amplification. Moreover, the people listening to you are comfortable and overall more amenable in taking in a performance — the libations are certainly helpful in this regards as well. It’s also just plain a lot easier to be heard, being indoors (crowd noise not withstanding). And while it doesn’t help so much to build a local audience, it is nice to know that travelers from around the world (who are sometimes actually more appreciative of live music) are hearing your words, your songs and hopefully taking a little bit of those with them. It’s a remarkable thing.
In the end, I’m very grateful for the opportunity the Marker provided me while it did and I think I can take a some credit for the choice of decor in the newly renovated family room. It was extremely important to me personally to have this as a place to go. Developing these skills doesn’t come from no where, and the staff there were exceedingly generous in helping incubate and foster local talent in San Francisco. I’m glad that the Carlton continues to be a location where local, independent music can thrive and the tradition of Local Vocals carries on (give Theo a shout should you ever swing by). There are so few places that truly nurture local art in this way — The Lost Church and Bazaar Cafe being vital venues in my book.
If, dear reader, you feel like you want to help in some way, first, support those venues and others like them. Second, if you would drop a note to the management at the Marker perhaps they will reconsider — a posting on a hotel review site could work wonders — but please, be positive.
If enough of us do it, they may even think it’s a movement.
The extended musings of a songwriter.