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City Showcase / PPL Masterclass blog by Natalie Reiss
Category : Music
Article Post Date: Monday 25.06.2012

Being a new-ish member of London’s musical community, I have been searching for like-minded people and was subsequently thrilled when I heard about a series of songwriting masterclasses arranged by City Showcase, a non-profit organisation responsible for breaking big names and nurturing new ones. I signed up without hesitation and entered the spacious but intimidating PPL building not knowing what to expect.

Looking around the large boardroom, I recognised the expression of excitement mixed with uncertainty on the faces of approximately twenty singer/songwriters, all scanning the surrounds and more specifically, fixated on the three industry heads seated at one end of the table.

Following a round robin, school-camp style announcement of our names and musical styles, City Showcase’s Nanette Rigg then introduced the evening’s industry panel, which comprised of Julian Hinton (piano player/arranger/producer), Paul Tipler (producer) Sean Devine (Vice President, ASCAP) and Tim Fraser (songwriter).
The first hour focused on the mechanics of songwriting and the elements that work together to make a hit song, such as structure, movement of the melody and vocal performance. Informative discussion was fused with fiery debate as is understandable when tackling something as subjective as the emotion of a song verses its commercial appeal. Differing opinions were listened to and respected however, the industry panel shared similar views and agreed on basic “rules” such as having a short intro and ensuring the production quality is as high as possible.

The second hour of the evening was every songwriter’s dream and nightmare blended into one semi-public opportunity - a listening session and critique of your song. The atmosphere was that of support and encouragement, with each song receiving a round of applause before the panel offered their thoughts. Some songs were still seeds of ideas and were constructively judged on that basis, whereas other songs were complete demos and advice was offered in the way of vocal, production and lyrical tweaking.  Fraser discussed the use of “inverting” lyrics, while Hinton demonstrated the power of arrangement by suggesting the softening and slowing down of a vocal during one participant’s live performance of his song.

The two-hour class ran slightly over time thanks to the generous nature of the panel, all of whom stayed well past the 8:30pm finish time to chat further with the attendees.

The second masterclass session was led by Chris Porter (Craker Music), Jonnie Blackburn (A&R consultancy and music management), David Stark (Songlink) and two-time Ivor Novello award winner, Lynsey de Paul - while the eager songwriters were ready to swallow up salient tips, the conversation from industry experts was more subjective this time around. Chris Porter recalled an early Ed Sheeran gig and described him as having a quality that was “undeniable” – Porter used this word throughout the evening as the ever-intangible must-have for a successful song.
Prolific songwriter, Lynsey de Paul spoke of common ground in regards to taste, explaining that if you write a song you love, there will be other people that feel the same way and it’s important to stick to your belief. When the mechanics of crafting a song were raised, de Paul was quick to disagree with a comment about piano-playing hands falling into the same shapes and instead described her writing sessions as exciting and always changing.

The third and final session of the masterclass series was altered in format due to time constraints and so we dived straight into the listening sessions interspersed with commentary and critique. The industry panel consisted of Ross Gautreau (A&R Polydor Records), David Ryan Jordan (ASCAP) and returning panel member, David Stark (Songlink).  

The focus was on collaboration and commercial songwriting with all songs being listened to through that filter – this meant that a bedroom demo of guitar and vocal recorded on an iPhone was receiving a similar critique to completely produced master recordings.

There were a couple of impressive tracks, which received only minor criticisms from the expert panel and prompted the familiar enquiries relating to gigs, image, online presence and breadth of material.

Given that an A&R man was in the building, it was only natural for the emerging songwriters to ask about recent signings and present acts in development.

Gautreau talked about one act he is currently nurturing and explained that they hadn’t done gigs and didn’t have thousands of Facebook likes when started working with them – While Gautreau didn’t expand with further details, this situation seemed most unusual given the current weight of YouTube-driven successes.

The songwriting masterclasses, which were free to City Showcase members, provided some much needed support and information, which is priceless in an industry that often requires several layers of demystification.

About the blogger:
Following the City Showcase Masterclass series, Natalie Reiss has had several meetings and songwriting sessions with a selection of the key panellists and songwriters in attendance – she is currently working towards her debut EP and you can contact her at www.Facebook.com/nataliereissmusic 

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