Cultivating a local stage for songwriters is a great way to build an audience, not just for your own music, but fellow artists in your neighbourhood. It can make live music accessible to people who might not otherwise seek it out, create networking and collaboration opportunities for local songwriters and boost the business of a local coffee shop or bar. We interviewed longstanding S.A.C. Member and talented acoustic soul-folk artist John Pippus about building a thriving community and audience in Vancouver at Trees Organic Coffee & Roasting House. May his answers inspire you to consider building your own stage for local artists to shine.
1. How long have you been hosting Friday nights at Trees (Organic Coffee House) in Vancouver?
I took over managing the music nights from – are you ready – Carly Rae Jepsen back in the spring of 2006. Her other job was working the esspresso machine! Eight and a half years later I’m still there pretty much every Friday night. I book and host the evenings and sometimes I play too. I was booking Dan Mangan, Hannah Georgas, and Wanting Q long before they were on anyone’s radar.
2. What do you look for when booking talent on these evenings? What kind of show do you hope to bring to people?
I look for people I want to listen to, it’s that simple. Usually it’s solo singer/songwriters, but sometimes I have duos, trios and various genres from folk to jazz and beyond. The largest act I’ve booked was a six-piece band with a horn section. That was a little loud, you can’t blow a trumpet softly I’ve learned. Keep in mind, the “stage” is a few square feet in front of the coffee roaster and next to the cheesecake display fridge.
I look for acts that take their talent seriously. That means, at a minimum, they have a web presence. Even if they’ve never performed before or don’t have an album under their belt, they’ve got something recorded and online. Preferably they also have at least one or two live performances posted on Youtube. I can tell within thirty seconds of listening to what they send me if I want to book them.
3. How is performing in a coffee house different from regular bars or larger venues?
Bars, as we all know, tend to be noisy, alcohol-fueled joints where most of the clientele is not there to appreciate the subtleties of the songwriter’s art. Which is fine if you’ve got a foot stomping reel you’re pounding out in the corner and the crowd is singing along. It’s rare to get a hushed room in the larger venues, unless you’re well up the pecking order.
Trees is a listening room, I remind the audience of that at the start of every show. And you can see the whites of their eyes when you’re performing and vice versa. So it’s intimate and on a good night it can be very magical.
4. How has this show become a part of the Vancouver music community?
By being consistently ‘there’ every Friday night. Pay is by donation, split by three acts and the venue holds only 45 or so, so it’s not a large payout. But performers get a listening audience and I don’t make a big deal about getting the acts to bring out their own crowd. I know how hard that can be, especially when you’re performing in your home town ‘yet again’. We treat the performers with respect, we book new acts along with the touring acts, and since Trees is unlicensed, younger performers can come and bring their friends.
5. Are there sound limitations or challenges for a coffee house?
You’ll hear the blast of steam from the espresso machine or the beans being ground from time to time. But I’ve gotten used to it, and I think the audience has too. The smoothie orders can be a bit loud though. The occasional noisy table is told nicely to keep it down, and if that doesn’t work, I’ve been known to get a little testy.
6. How have the owners at Trees played a role in building this community?
Doron Levy is the owner and he was very patient, at the outset, in letting the scene build slowly. They also maintain the calendar listings on their website (treescoffee.com) and this past year they’ve started doing a monthly blog feature on one of our performers. The whole staff is supportive; working the Friday night shift is always in demand with the employees.
7. Why are these Friday evenings and events like this important in supporting the songwriting community?
Listening venues are rare. And at Trees we maintain that vibe We’re also small and casual enough that performers just getting launched as performers are made to feel welcome. The sets are only about 35 minutes in length so it’s not like you’ve got to carry an entire evening. Oh, and one more thing, we expect the performers to play original material, with only one or two covers, so that’s the opposite of what some of the bars want. We also have an Open Mic Night on Thursdays that have become very popular. Local singer/songwriter Marq DeSouza hosts those evenings.
8. What suggestions do you have for any singer/songwriters looking to cultivate a similar on-going show in their community?
If you have the right personality for hosting a regular music night then it’s a fantastic way to establish yourself on your local scene. I’ve made many contacts by doing this job. The right personality, I would suggest, includes being reliable, having a sense of humour, and being more or less organized. It really helps that I can play, so when there are last minute cancellations I can fill in. Buy a small P.A. and go talk to a coffee house owner about hosting a weekly music night. I told the owner that I would take on managing the music nights as long as it was fun, and all these years later I can still say that’s what it is.