If you want to consistently hear amazing “Made in Nashville” songs, The Listening Room Cafe is your spot. I was able to sit down with Chris Blair (Listening Rooms' Owner/General Manager) and Chase Armstrong (Listening Rooms’ Music & Booking Manager) and talk to them about their experiences at the venue that plays host to some of the best songwriters in Nashville. You can read more about why the venue was started here.
I love their emphasis on authenticity and story telling in both performing and songwriting—this is so necessary in the country music industry, where it’s easy to fall into writing songs that fit into the stereotype. I wanted to share with you their insight on the music industry and songwriting (and note that I paraphrased their answers into my own words).
Best Things You Can Do When Performing at a Writer’s Round
Be real (starting to see a theme here?). They said people love when writers tell the backstory of what inspired the song (this is especially great if the song’s a little more out there). The connection people feel with a song is why they are so drawn to writers' nights, and they especially love to see the person who experienced these stories play. They said you can really tell the difference between someone who is writing a song because they want it to fit with other songs on the radio and the songs that songwriters write out of life experience.
When you are on stage, confidence and being comfortable with the audience (or at least pretending you are!) is crucial. One way you can show your confidence is in your reaction to forgetting the words to your song. The Listening Room has a lot of songwriters who forget the words to freshly written songs all the time, as they will use the venue almost as a practice for trying out new songs. Owning it, laughing it off, and starting over is definitely the best way to go about forgetting your words. Just don’t make it weird and try to pretend it never happened. And definitely don’t start trying to make up your own words (but props to you if you can do that).
Chris jokingly mentioned you should also try to bring a crowd that can buy drinks to your show- this is super important though! When you as a songwriter think about who is fueling your career, it’s places like the Listening Room. They can’t pay you unless people are coming to their venue and buying food or drinks. I once heard money is the fuel that makes your car go—though this isn’t the why behind songwriters or venues, both need to make money to keep doing what they are passionate about (that’s some of my personal input anyway)!
If you could give advice to someone trying to be a professional songwriter right now, what would it be?
Though they said it’s not IMPOSSIBLE right now, it’s no longer a realistic career goal for about the first 10 years of trying to be a songwriter. The royalties (the money the songwriter and publisher make when their song is bought or played) a writer gets are just so small since Spotify and other streaming services have become popular. Even if you write a hit song on the radio, you won’t necessarily get a lot of money. They said the top 10% songwriters in Nashville are the only ones who are making a full time living off of writing, and you will probably see their names on a lot of the songs on the radio. If you want to be one of these people you need to:
1) Be writing constantly with anyone and everyone.
Don’t be selective and don’t stick to writing in a clique (this has proven to be successful for only a handful of writers in Nashville). Also don’t write alone— this is the worst thing you can do for your career!
2) Be gritty.
You need to keep hanging in there and writing what you want to write about. Don’t take the seemingly easy path of writing what you think fits with current radio hits. Not only will the radio trends probably change before your song could have a chance of being on it, but people won’t connect as much to your song if it’s written just to be popular. Also like I said earlier, it takes a lot of time.
3) Think about being an artist
Being an artist there are more revenue streams available in which you can make a living. Obviously, this is not easier, but through touring, merch, royalties, etc. it makes doing music full time a bit more feasible.
A lot of people move to Nashville and start playing writers' rounds to “get discovered.” Do you see this happening a lot after performances/ what are your thoughts on this?
Neither Chase or Chris have ever seen someone “get discovered” or play one great writers’ night and have their song become a hit. Though that’s the stereotype of Nashville, times have changed a lot with the music industry and the dream of being scouted at a bar on Broadway isn’t really realistic anymore (this doesn't mean you shouldn't still pursue this career if it's your dream!). If you do get discovered on Broadway it will more likely be for your talents riding a mechanical bull.
What is your passion behind partnering with the Song Suffragettes? Are there any challenges in particular you see women having to work harder to overcome?
The Listening Room partners with Song Suffragettes, hosting a Monday night series of only women songwriters called “Let the Girls Play.” Not only have these Monday Nights sold out every week, but they are also helping to beat some of the stereotypes of women in country music. Chris and Chase commented that they see it can be a little more difficult for women in the country music industry because of the constant challenge to not be put into the “good girl” or “the bad girl” categories, or be compared to other female artists. Being your own person can be difficult, but is also completely achievable by writing songs true to who you are and sticking with writing for a LONG TIME.
However, if you are a woman writing songs that are different and real, it ends up being so worthwhile as it is these writers who draw the crowd in, and get people to relate and engage with the content in their songs. The Listening Room hopes that hosting “Let the Girls Play” serves as a platform to help women do this.
What’s the funniest/ most unexpected thing you have seen happen on stage at the listening room?
You are Guaranteed a great show when you see JT Harding (left) and Phil Barton (right) at the listening room
They’ve weirdly seen quite a few proposals happen… so if you want to get hitched, the Listening Room may be a good place for you to start hanging out.
The Listening Room gets about 100 submissions to play EACH WEEK! Because of this, they have to put a lot of thought into choosing songwriters who they feel are consistently writing amazing songs and who will help their venue be the spot that you can always hear extremely well crafted songs, no matter the night. Playing the wrong venues in Nashville (usually the venues that have no selection process but rather operate on a first come first serve basis for writers' rounds) can actually hurt you as a songwriter!
After hearing the attention to creativity and songwriter performances Chris and Chase prioritize in the Listening Room, it’s no wonder this venue is unique and attracts so much talent. It’s inspiring seeing people in the music industry who so clearly care about preserving the craft of songwriting. I hope you all are able to swing by if you’re in Nashville to have a few beers and listen to some of the best songwriters in town!