Tuning Up for Success

The Durango Songwriters Expo brings together artists and music industry professionals in Ventura

By Tracy Hudak

Photo by T Christian Gapen

LOOKING TO CONNECT: Emily Gargus is one of several local songwriters attending the Durango Songwriters Expo in the hopes of building relationships with scouts, publishers, music directors and other industry professionals.


ven beyond the headphones and concert halls, we are surrounded by song. It colors the feel of virtually every place we do business, and it punctuates all forms of media — from ringtones to movies and everything in between. At the heart of every song that’s made you bounce in your car, hum while shopping or tear up during a commercial, is a songwriter.

That songwriter must not only master the art of composition, but also navigate the vast and dynamic industry that supports the trade. One of the most beloved and influential career opportunities for these artists, the Durango Songwriters Expo (DSE), takes place in Ventura this February. The expo joins pop and country songwriting talent and industry professionals from music meccas like Los Angeles, Nashville and New York, as well as from the far corners of the United States and other countries. It is a weekend packed with music, professional insights and relationship-building, featuring industry panel discussions, feedback sessions, open mics and a Saturday night concert open to the public. But what sets the Durango Songwriters Expo apart from other industry conventions is its intimacy, and its impact.

The expo first began in 1996, after longtime songwriter/producer Jim Attebery moved his life and Malibu music studio to Durango, Colorado. He and co-founder Bruce Mandel invited industry folks to gather in Durango, as much to stay connected to them as to create a space for “aspiring talent to have the opportunity to be legitimately heard, as opposed to the large, impersonal music conventions I’d attended in LA,” Attebery explains. The DSE is purposefully inclusive, open to 12-year-old beginners and 70-year-old hitmakers alike. And the expo treats them all as equals, with plenty of opportunities to share their work. Attendance is capped at 200 people, as opposed to similar expos that try to service thousands of attendees.

This intimacy pays off for artists, both personally and professionally. The DSE is a weekend of listening and being listened to, learning from others and receiving feedback. For emerging talent, this can be akin to walking around with your skin peeled off, but in the supportive setting of the expo, artists recognize themselves as part of a whole. Criticism becomes a challenge to overcome, and writers leave inspired. For Attebery, this is the most valuable part of the expo, creating a “unique community” where songwriters are validated and grow. “It really is like an ongoing reunion. And most importantly, everyone from the hit writers on down are there to get better — and they do,” he says. “It’s very inspiring for everyone, including me.”

Connections go deeper than just networking. Singer/songwriter Renee Wilson tells of how she came to her first expo with just some songs and no intention of singing. Others insisted she perform, so another musician took 20 minutes to learn her song and played backup for her in an open-mic session. “My whole world has changed,” she says. She booked her first job with an industry professional she met at DSE, which, within a year, led to producing an album and touring. The expo is renowned for its kismet — breakfasts with industry heroes, or partnerships and friendships that are sparked through spontaneous group-songwriting in the hotel lobby, or the guitar circles that go into the wee hours of the night.

It’s these connections that help attendees build careers in a multifaceted and mercurial market. Songwriters may self-publish or contract with a music publishing house, working solo or on teams to get cuts made by performing artists or to get tracks placed in movies, trailers, video games, television shows or commercials. Or a troubadour may put a band together to produce a record and/or tour with the hopes of selling tracks or getting a contract with a record label. While countless songs and careers have been touched by DSE, Meghan Trainor is one of the most visible. She attended the expo in 2009 at age 15. By her second year, she was signed to Big Yellow Dog publishing to write songs. A few years later, a demo she created with co-writer and producer Kevin Kadish got the attention of Epic Records, and they signed her. That song, “All About That Bass,” earned her accolades and awards, including a Grammy. At last year’s DSE, she reminded attendees that “every handshake here is crucial, very important, even if you don’t think it is,” because “now I get to do what I love to do every day because of a handshake.”

While the reputation of the expo draws interest from folks industrywide, Attebery purposefully invites only the “cream of the crop” of music industry professionals to participate. Hit songwriters, A&R scouts from record labels, music publishers, managers, producers, music supervisors for film, television and advertising — only those that are in a position to be “potentially beneficial” to the writers are asked to attend. Having only 200 attendees creates “unparalleled ratios” of contact for the writers, according to Attebery, but it also keeps the pros from feeling “bombarded” as they are in other settings. The DSE offers a low-key, intimate environment to seek out emerging and established talent, to offer advice, and to connect with peers and colleagues from all over the country, all in a lovely setting — this time at the Crowne Plaza Resort on the beach in Ventura.

This combination of creative industry getaway in a beautiful place has proven to be a durable model. The Expo is held two times a year, in the fall near Boulder and in the spring for the past 11 years in Santa Ynez wine country. Attebery has roots in Ventura and is excited about it now becoming the expo’s second home. Its proximity to Los Angeles and the airports make it a much more convenient location. And its beauty and charm offer the perfect container for creating connections and inspiration. 

Durango Songwriters Expo
February 16-18, 2017

Expo founder Jim Attebery works with Gargus on her latest composition. A longtime songwriter and music producer, he understands inherently the need for artists to be seen, as well as heard, by those looking to hire talent.

Meghan Trainor is the expo’s poster child for success: Connections she made at the 2011 event led to her first publishing deal and eventual pop stardom.


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