Memories from the beginning of the S.A.C.

by:  Terry McManus

One of the more interesting and important parts of any profession is the representation of that profession to the public and to those who work with those professionals. From the middle ages when “guilds” became the representatives of those who worked on the churches and castles to present day society, such groupings have played an important part in the progress of such groupings. It was with this thought in mind that I approached Stephen Stohn in 1987 and asked him about the ability to copyright a song in Canada and if there was a professional organization representing songwriters in Canada. I knew that there were songwriters participating on many of the boards of related associations, but I was not aware of one that served only songwriters.

Stephen told me of one, the Canadian Songwriters Association, that had been started in the early 80’s but had never really gotten off the ground. (Like many new enterprises, professional associations have a high failure rate because of the time and money commitment to make them work.) He referred me to Donna Murphy who was an executive at CIMA (then CIRPA), who had some knowledge of and had helped the fledgling group of songwriters some years before. Donna and I spoke on the phone several times and then we decided to meet with Greg Marshall, one of the principals for the original organization. Stephen arranged for us to use one of the smaller boardrooms of McCarthy Tetrault in the TD Centre and we had our first meeting with the four of us present. Although Greg was enthusiastic about re-energizing the original idea, his time was limited and so he agreed to lend his name but he could not participate. Stephen also generously lent his name to the enterprise and he was happy to attend board meetings and to counsel us but his own very busy practice precluded any “hands on” work in building up the association.

So Donna Murphy and I embarked on a several month mission to present the idea to the rest of the music industry through a series of informal lunches that not only helped us define some of the more pressing issues for songwriters but also gave us great insight into the need to bring in some of the “name” writers who were interested and who were earning. Enter Eddie Schwartz and Rich Dodson. Eddie’s very positive and literary influence was immediately felt by his reasoning for renaming the group and the Songwriter’s Association of Canada instead of the Canadian Songwriter’s Association. “With all due respect to Canada, we are songwriters working in Canada not Canadians who happen to be songwriters!” And of course, he was right.  I came up to Toronto from London weekly and we held board meetings monthly.

With Eddie and Rich and Stephen’s blessing and encouragement, Donna and I continued to “lobby” the industry and Donna was able to help generate some income for the organization through some grants for research on songwriters for the Ontario government.( In the days of typewriters and regular mail, Donna put in many many hours digging up facts and numbers while I wrote more broad generalized papers about what was needed by our profession.) Both Donna and I wrote many papers during those first couple of years to keep the money flowing so that we could get the word out. Everything was new and everything was possible!

I think the turning point for the organization came with the plans for PROCAN and CAPAC to merge. (Up until that time Canada followed the US model of two performing rights societies, one which favored ASCAP and one which favored BMI.) When Nancy Gyokeres of SOCAN told us about the plan I was immediately on board because I had seen the east / west divide in songwriters and I knew that in order to have a national organization, we had to have songwriters from across the country. I saw the opportunity to not only bring the performing rights organizations together, but to grow our association. We were able to get  a financial commitment from SOCAN  to hold a national meeting and so the phone calls began.

I had lived in Vancouver for a couple of years where PROCAN ruled the roost and the West Coast writers were fiercely loyal to that performing rights society. I got on the phone and I started to call some of the top writers and ask them to join SAC and to get behind the amalgamation of the two societies. I talked for hours to many of them but it was Bill Henderson who really cracked the ice out there. We had a spirited conversation about the fact that the west coast already had a songwriters association and why was there a need for another. I offered to make him a vice-president of SAC in order to assure him that the west would be represented and I still remember him laughing and saying “You want to make me a vice-president of a society that I am not even a member of?” But thanks to his open mind and ultimately his brilliant leadership, not only did he join with us, he went on to lead the association to bigger and better things and even serving on the SOCAN board.

Eddie Schwartz, Bill Henderson and Donna Murphy were all critical to the establishment and success of the SAC. As we brought on more board members besides Rich Dodson such as  Ron Hynes, Roy Forbes, Shari Ulrich, Ron Irving Joan Bessen and others,and as we reached out to our Quebec counterparts the organization took hold and we found a place at the table.

As to my question to Stephen about the ability for songwriters in Canada to protect their own works in this country, that is now the Song Vault. Along with the Song Vault are a myriad number of services to help, guide and promote the young songwriters career and all of those are ideas born in those days.

It is very gratifying to look back today at the establishment of SAC and all of those services to its members and to remember that first conversation over 25 years ago that has brought all of this to fruition. You, as songwriters who live and work in Canada, are so fortunate to have such a strong and vibrant society to help you climb the ladder and to make sure that your place is recognized culturally and financially.  Many thanks to those people who were so important in making this happen!

Great memories!

The Legacy of Bluebird North

The Songwriters Association of Canada is proud to be the founder of the Bluebird North Showcase that happens across the country – celebrating the songs and stories of great Canadian songwriters.  During these informal acoustic evenings, each songwriter performs their own songs and shares each composition’s back story and inspiration. We’re hosting one in Port Perry on November 3rd and one in Vancouver November 6th.  Originally, published in last year’s annual reference edition of Songwriters Magazine, Bluebird pioneer Shari Ulrich looks back at BBN’s success- ful 18-year legacy, the thrill of discovering an expected gem and experi- encing the alchemy of songwriters connecting on stage.
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With Bluebird North, the S.A.C. has created one of the most important benefits to Canadian songwriters possible – providing them with a stage, and helping them foster an audience. That’s the kind of tangible, hands-on advocacy that makes me proud to be associated with the S.A.C.

I was one of the participants of the very first Bluebird North, produced in Toronto for the S.A.C. by Marc Jordan and Amy Sky in 1993. Other than Folk Festival workshop stages, it was my first “song circle” – and I was hooked.

In 1995, Ron Irving launched Bluebird North at the Railway Club in Vancouver, and a year later he handed off the producing duties to me. Aside from a few shows produced by Ron and Roy Forbes, I’ve remained the producer (and, more recently, the host) of the Vancouver event since.

In those early years, our format featured eight songwriters in every show. The most daunting task was booking so many writers, while ensuring at least a few of them would draw a sizeable audience. The downside of having so many songwriters in the lineup was having to restrict each to just three songs apiece. Consequently, over time, the event morphed into a four-songwriter evening.

It took several years, of course, but we’ve finally reached that sweet spot where the draw for audiences is no long a particular songwriter but Bluebird North itself. Our audiences have learned that even if they don’t recognize all the names, they can always expect a spirited and highly entertaining evening, and will likely discover an unexpected gem.

I can never predict how a show is going to unfold but precious few of those 75 shows have fallen flat. If a show did fall flat, it was usually because the host was unable to put people at ease. The song-circle format, after all, can be unnerving for even the most seasoned of performers; it’s just the nature of the beast. A host who can charm those on and off the stage plays a critical role in the success of any show.

We’ve had many homes over the years, and I was determined to take the event out of a bar and into a theatre – more befitting the spirit of Nashville’s original Bluebird Café. It’s all about honouring the song, which is counter to a bar atmosphere. So when Margaret Watts eagerly invited us to the Roundhouse Community Centre six years ago, we knew we’d found our home in their comfy black box theatre (with its spectacular sound).

Bluebird North in Vancouver has become a coveted gig for both emerging writers and seasoned veterans, and not just those based in Vancouver! Being able to provide writers from across Canada a wonder- ful stage with great sound and an enthusiastic audience is a thrill. On the flipside, it means that hundreds of writers are now vying for a relatively small number of spots on stage, which puts me in a position of being the gatekeeper I never wanted to be. But my guiding principle is to keep the quality of the shows as high as possible so that audiences will remain faithful and continue to grow.

It’s been a tremendously rewarding 15 years. The alchemy between writers – their unique combination, the juxtaposition of their work, how they interact between songs and con- nect musically – creates an unparalleled concert experience.