The Songwriter’s Hope

Durango Songwriting Expo Brings Emerging Talents to the Fore

by Brett Leigh Dicks

If the trials and tribulations of embracing your muse and refining your craft aren’t challenging enough for the emerging songwriter, then dealing with the hurdles constantly thrown at you by the music business surely is. Publishing deals, record contracts, promotion, publicity — for the uninitiated, the music biz often seems too much to bear, and thus many a talented artist falls by the wayside.

Thank the benevolent music gods, then, for the Durango Songwriter’s Expo, which for the third year in a row is bringing a collection of musical heavyweights to the Santa Ynez Valley for a retreat. Part performance, part education, and part networking, the expo allows up-and-coming songwriters to connect with established songsmiths and gather valuable insight. As well, the expo covers all aspects of both the creative aspect and business side of songwriting and allows these budding songsmiths to expose their talents to some of the industry’s major players.

“One of the best things that happens at Durango is the connections that are forged,” explained expo co-founder Jim Attebery. “We have people from our event who now have publishing and recording deals that they would have never had if it wasn’t for Durango. … But the proudest thing for me is just the amount of people who have benefited from the experience and have matured as artists.”

After starting 12 years ago in Durango, Colorado, the expo began venturing west into Santa Barbara’s wine country in 2004. Headquartered at the Santa Ynez Valley Marriott in Buellton, the location offers both the tranquility of the countryside and the proximity to the urban hubs of Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. But, more importantly, the retreat-like setting ensures an intimate atmosphere.

“I understand the importance of not letting this event get too big,” said Attebery, noting that registration is limited to 200. “You just have to look at [the music festival] South by Southwest, which now is nothing more than a chance for a big party and for the various labels to show off their latest signings. It’s no longer a place for unsigned talent to get heard. Here we have a bunch of industry people and songwriters and no more than 200 attendees all hanging out together. There’s no separation.”

During the course of three days, the Durango Songwriter’s Expo presents a selection of workshops, critique sessions, showcases, and even wine tasting and open mike opportunities. This year’s panel discussions cover topics such as A&R, film and television, publishing, and promotion, while Thursday and Friday evenings will host dedicated Songwriter Showcases. Saturday night will see an expo concert open to the public featuring the likes of Michelle Branch, Tony Scalzo, Dan Wilson, and Al Anderson, all playing in the round.

“The nice thing about the expo is that it operates on several different levels,” said Attebery. “It’s a great learning and workshop experience for people just starting out as songwriters. And then we also have the showcase on Thursday and Friday night for people who are more established. … Here they will have a captive audience of 30 or 40 industry people all in the same room, listening solely to them.”

When it comes to industry people, the Durango Songwriter’s Expo is never short of interesting guests. Along with the renowned songwriters and producers who are part of the workshops, this year’s industry panels have attracted representatives from Columbia Records, A&M/Interscope, and Chrysalis Music. Other guests include S.B.’s Barry DeVorzon, Nashville songwriter Kim Williams, Virgin Records’ Steven Melrose, ASCAP’s Ralph Murphy, and BMI’s Hanna Pantle. And for Marshall Altman, an A&R representative with Columbia Records, it’s not only an intimate chance to spot rising talent, but also to watch the evolution of people who have previously caught his attention.

“Most of all, it is a manageable way to see a lot of new talent,” explained Altman, who is also a songwriter. “But a lot of people also come back year after year, so it’s nice to see how they progressed as well — which isn’t something I usually get to see. One year I can sit and talk with people about their craft and about what they are doing as artists and then come back the following years and see if they have moved forward in their writing or their craft. And that’s a very rewarding experience.”

And in a move to branch out to the Santa Barbara community, a selection of songwriters played at SOhO last night, Wednesday, May 31, offering the city folk a peek at who’ll be gathering this weekend at the Santa Ynez Valley Marriott. It was yet another chance for these emerging artists to showcase their craft — and if the Durango Songwriter’s Expo has anything to do with it, the SOhO show was just one of many to come.

4•1•1 The Durango Songwriter’s Expo takes place Thursday, June 1, through Saturday, June 3, at the Santa Ynez Valley Marriott in Buellton. There’s still room for songwriters interested in participating, so sign up at or call (970) 259-9747. The public concert — with Michelle Branch, Tony Scalzo, Dan Wilson, and others — is Saturday night, June 3, at 7:30 p.m. in the Marriott.

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