Before its launch this month, the minds behind The Billy Kelly Songwriting Award explain what distinguishes the initiative from your average battle of the bands
Climbing the ladder to success is an ambition that all songwriters seek to achieve in some relative form. But despite years of trying, many don’t even succeed in getting past the first rung. All fledgling artists need a helping hand to get their careers off the ground. Calum MacDonald, of Glasgow seven-piece Sunshine Social, was lucky enough to be given a leg-up by winning the Billy Kelly Songwriting Award in 2011.
The 23-year-old is now set to unveil his band’s debut EP at Glasgow’s Oràn Mór on 22 March to help promote the launch of this year’s event. And once that’s taken care of, MacDonald will be returning to the studio with his band to record a full-length album, after being offered a deal with indie label Instinctive Records;.a process of events unlikely to have transpired if he hadn’t first received the Billy Kelly award, which sees one lucky artist given a package worth £5000 to help get their music careers moving.
“It was the kick up the arse that I needed,” MacDonald says. “It helped me form a band, get a record out and get touring. When I first went down to the competition heats at the Oràn Mór, it was just me and a couple of friends. We didn’t have a name or anything. At that point I didn’t even want to be in a band. I don’t know how we managed to get through, as the calibre was so high – and I was completely knackered after working a long shift that same day. But by the time the final came around, we’d evolved into The Sunshine Social. Winning the award has been a fantastic way to let people hear us. The help it gives you with promotion, touring and recording is amazing.”
The event first took place in 2009 and was founded by Colin Beattie, owner of the Oràn Mór venue in Glasgow’s West End. It is dedicated to the memory of music promoter and all-round good-guy Billy Kelly, who died of cancer in 2007 at the age of 58. A passionate music fan, Billy launched Glasgow’s Mayfest arts festival and was one of the main creative driving forces involved in establishing the hugely successful Celtic Connections festival. He also acted as musical programmer at the Fruitmarket venue, and latterly the Oràn Mór, where he worked alongside Beattie, an old school friend and fellow Yoker native.
The award is now organised and overseen by Jamie Webster, bookings manager at the venue, and Creon Brock, music and theatre programmer at the venue. “The basic idea of the process is we help the act get it together and help them get a record out, then get them on tour and get them in the press,” says Webster. “We give them a good start – it’s not like a five year process. They get a year of our time to help them shape their careers and get them in the right places. But after the course of that record, it’s back over to them to use that help in a positive way.
“It’s important to stress that this is less a competition and more an award. It’s not about who’s sold the most tickets or who has the biggest buzz going. It’s simply breaking the song down. We look at the lyrics and the song’s arrangement and often give credit just for ideas and the musicianship.”
Brock agrees, confident that the competition has a completely different ethos to other musical awards. “I think with a battle of the bands, a lot of the time it’s just who brings down the most people and whoever’s fans are cheering the loudest, they get the prize,” he adds. “Whereas with us, we’ve got industry judges, who are judging it on the actual songwriting ability. Plus it's free to take part in the heats, it’s not a question of which bands make us the most money going through.”
All unsigned songwriters, regardless of whether they are solo performers or in bands, are invited to take part.
The 2012 event will be officially launched at the regular Oràn Mór open-mic night on Tuesday, 20 March, where registration forms will be available and there will also be a chance to have a chat with the organisers.
The four heats will take place in July and August. Each act will be required to perform a set of three original songs. Then, the panel of judges will select one winner from each heat, who will be guaranteed a place in November's final. Each heat runner-up will still have a chance to make it through. They will be invited to take part in a semi-final, along with two 'wild cards' chosen by the judges.
“We try to get as big a variety of acts as we can. We do get a lot of acoustic singer-songwriters, so we try our best to encourage people from other genres. No one should be put off by it,” says Webster. “Billy was very keen on world music, which is what he was best known for. Colin wanted to establish a songwriting award that covered all genres, not just acoustic singer-songwriters.”
Webster adds that taking part in the awards process is a valuable experience for all participants, not just the eventual winners. “I think for a lot of people that enter, it can be an experience just coming and performing at a venue like the Oràn Mór. It’s great for them to come and work with our sound engineer – you're not just stuck in the corner of a bar, like in other places.
“It also encourages them to think about the development of the song and its arrangement. Even thinking about the lyrics more – sometimes with pop songs, people can just write down the first thing that comes into their mind – they worry more about the melody than the lyrics. So we try to encourage them to think about songwriting in a different way.
All acts that take part are also given encouragement and advice on how to develop their music. There’s no X Factor style humiliation involved. “The judges don’t go up on stage and act like Simon Cowell,” Brock stresses. “ A lot of the judges in the past have been very good in offering feedback.
“A lot of acts that come through the heats process, we use them in support slots and give them encouragement to get into the right sort of venues, and in many cases to play less, and instead concentrate on picking the right shows.”
• Budding songwriters can download and print off an application form here, enclose your demo and post to Billy Kelly Songwriting Award, Oràn Mór, Byres Road, Glasgow, G128QX. Alternatively you can apply electronically by e-mailing three tracks to firstname.lastname@example.org. The closing date for entries is 31 June.
Keep your eyes on our website as this year's contest develops.