Later this week I’m headed to Austin for the 30th edition of Old Settler’s Music Festival. In addition to the normal, stellar list of established and up-and-coming acts, there will be a hidden gem late morning on Saturday, the Youth Talent Competition. Most major Americana festivals these days have a talent competition, so why do I make note of this one? A couple of reasons, really.
First, this is limited to musicians 18 and under. Many of the competitions are open to anyone that’s not a commercial act. That certainly ups the level of competition, witness some of the incredible acts that have won at Telluride or Rockygrass or Merlefest. On the other hand, it can put the benefits associated with the contests out of the reach of mortal teenagers. Second, this is Austin. The kid down the street can probably outshred musicians making a living out of it elsewhere.
I got to thinking about what it must take for someone to get up in front of a crowd of thousands of people when previously their largest audience may have been a few dozen at an open mic night. I asked that of several competitors from previous year’s Old Settler’s contests and Christina Cavazos, who placed last year, maybe put it best, “the music industry is all about making connections and, most importantly, being heard”. Emily Elbert, 2007 OSMF winner, related that she’s developed several long friendships with other contestants and they’ve become roommates and collaborators over the years.
The net of all the feedback I got is that this is how you can break into “the business”. In particular as a young performer you get to meet and talk with older, more established acts. They can act as mentors and references that aren’t available any other way–after winning a different contest Emily has opened for G. Love & Special Sauce several times.
If you’re a young musician, find the right contest for you and enter it. No one I talked to had anything but good things to say about their experiences. And for the rest of us, these musicians just want to be heard, so go out and do your part. I’ll report again on this year’s winner, where Christina is again one of the 10 finalists.
About the author: Support new music. Listen to a band or singer you've never heard of this week. I've been doing that for over 30 years.