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A Guide for Filk Czars

By Gary McGath, Copyright 1999

Having run filk programming for Boskone for four years and assisted at Arisia on one occasion, I've decided to set down some of my accumulated experience for others who might try to run a filk program at a con. This isn't a definitive cookbook -- cons and people vary too much for any cookbook to be possible -- but it covers points which are basic to any filk program at a fan-run con, including some options.

General guidelines

Some cons have a reputation for being friendly to filk, and others are seen as hostile. Attitudes can change, though. If the people in charge see that filk can be a beneficial part of the program, they may give up old hostilities. On the other hand, a badly run filk program will annoy even the friendliest concomm. Whatever current attitudes are, aim at making the filk program add to the overall experience of the con, and you'll have a good shot at success. If some people on the committee are just unreasonable, try to work with the ones who are more helpful.

You'll usually be working closely with the head of programming. A good relationship with this person will make everything much easier. Aside from the usual issues of personal interaction, one of the best ways to achieve this is to look for ways that the filk program can reinforce the rest of the program, rather than being out on the fringe.

Nearly all filkers are interested in other aspects of science fiction, and some of the people available to you may be qualified to appear on panels. Let the program head know about their strengths. Conversely, some of the "mainstream" guests of the convention may be musically inclined, and it may be possible to work with them on special items.

Keep in mind the level of filk activity which your convention has had in the past. If last year's con had nothing more than a filk room at night, you may have a hard time convincing them to fly in a filk GoH and schedule three hours of concerts. If it regularly has filk items on the program, you have more opportunities to try new things and to give different people a chance to perform.

If the con is willing to pay the expenses of a filk guest, provide them with information well in advance about good candidates. Supplying recordings by the guests is helpful. Providing several choices increases the chance that the concomm will like one of them. It's easier to get one person than a group, simply because of cost issues; but a popular group can be a real attraction, and may not cost too much more if all the members are willing to room together.

Guests tend to run in cycles; when a person is a guest at one con, he's more likely to be picked up by other cons. Thus, some people are featured at a remarkable number of cons in a short period, while others who are equally worthy get neglected. Someone who hasn't been seen all over the country in recent years may be a fresher attraction.

Filk program items

Certain types of items regularly appear on filk programs. These make a good starting point, though you should also try to think of more unusual items.

Concerts. These are, naturally, the most popular filk items. They fall into several categories. If your con has a filk GoH, this person (or group) will almost invariably be expected to do a concert. This should be in one of the larger rooms available to the convention, and may fall under "Events" rather than program. If the room is big enough to seat more than about eighty people, it will probably need sound amplification.

Besides this, there can be concert sets by other performers. These may be done as a single concert with multiple performers, or as program items scattered around during the convention. I prefer the latter, since it lets people pick the performers they want to hear without sitting for too long in one place.

Three concert sets in an hour should be the maximum. With the time necessary for setup, this gives each performer about fifteen minutes.

In addition, there is the type of concert which lets as many people as possible perform. This lets people take an easy step up from performing in the filk circle toward concert performances. The most common form is the "one-shot," in which people sign up to do one song apiece. A slight variant on this is the "twofer," in which each performer does two songs; this is advantageous if you think there won't be enough people to fill up a one-shot block. My own preference is for a "theme concert," in which a theme is announced in advance of the con and people are invited to prepare songs relating to the theme. This can look more interesting in the program book than a one-shot concert, and it can stir the performers' imaginations. If the theme fits in with the larger context of the convention, it also fulfills the goal which I mentioned earlier of having filk be a positive part of the overall program. The Challenger 10th anniversary memorial concert at the 1996 Boskone was one of the high points of the convention for me.

For one-shots, people normally perform in the order of signing up. In a theme concert, you should think about the order of performance. Have reasonably strong opening and closing numbers, don't cluster the weak ones, and avoid following a really strong performer with a really weak one.

Panels. These should be used sparingly; yet another panel on "What Is Filk?" may produce a good discussion, but often will draw a small audience. Filkers seem more interested in hearing music than in discussing it. Crossover panels in which filkers can talk about topics of broad interest may work better, particularly if non-filk program participants join in as well. Examples could include "Musical Instruments of the Future" and "Songs in Science Fiction."

Workshops. A workshop by a respected performer or songwriter can be a valuable addition to a program. I try to have a voice workshop in the program whenever possible; people can keep coming to these at every con and learn something new each time. (Consider it a free voice lesson!) Guitar and songwriting workshops are also good.

A musical play. This will require a huge amount of work, but can be very rewarding. Don't try it unless you have a good supply of committed, competent people to write, direct, and perform.

Contests. A songwriting contest can be a lot of fun; in recent Massachusetts cons, though, the number of entries has been disappointingly small. If you think you can get enough entries, give it a try. Be sure to publicize the relevant information (topic if any, eligibility requirements, deadline) well in advance of the con. The entries should be performed at the con, but entrants should be allowed to designate a performer. Judging can be by a board of judges or by popular vote. Remind the judges or audience that it's the song, not the performance, that they're voting on.

Group singing events. Arisia and Boskone generally have a session of group singing, with everyone being lent a copy of a songbook. These events are often popular, and can help to introduce people to filk. Choral singing has been done at some cons; it requires a good leader and rehearsal time, but it's a great experience for performers and audience.

Evening filking. This is an absolute requirement for any filk program. If at all possible, get a room which can be kept going till dawn. Two small rooms are better than one big one, given equal total areas.

Preparation for the con

I'm assuming you've achieved the status -- or should I say had the burden thrust upon you -- of filk czar for your local con. You're on speaking terms with the concomm, and have a good number of contacts in the filk community. I'm also assuming that you have at least four months to plan.

The first step is to find out who's coming to the con and can be talked into participating in the filk program. Find out if the con will comp program participants with free memberships, and what level of participation is necessary to qualify them; the carrot of a free membership can help to recruit people.

Ask them what kind of program items they'd like to do. They may give you ideas you hadn't even thought about. Also consider their suitability for non-filk items, which will increase their value to the con.

Let the program head know well in advance what program items you want to schedule, and be prepared to negotiate. Go to meetings so that you know what else is going on with the con. Think about ways that filk program participants might be able to help with other things being planned. Don't promise anything, either to the concomm or to the participants, that you can't guarantee.

As the con approaches, think about logistical issues. These are some of the items to consider:

  • Amplification for concerts. Give the tech people plenty of lead time.
  • Water at the concerts, and for the filk rooms at night. If you can get hot tea as well, that's even better.
  • Songbooks for group singing events.
  • Avoidance of schedule conflicts. Avoid having two filk items simultaneously, and try to keep filk items from being opposite other items of special interest to filkers (e.g., concerts). Also, any filk items scheduled before noon should be regarded as conflicting with sleep requirements. They won't be attended well.
  • Prevention of overload on participants. Performers shouldn't be scheduled for anything else immediately before their concerts.

Double-check with participants to make sure they know what events they'll be in, and what they're being asked to do. Make sure that the appropriate committee and staff people know what you're expecting of them.

The layout and accessibility of the filk rooms is important. Check the schedule as it develops to make sure that the filk room is not adjacent to the bagpipe concert, or directly below a bar with loud music. Ask that any piped-in music be turned off for the duration of the con. If there are two filk rooms, make sure they won't interfere with each other acoustically. They also shouldn't be adjacent, horizontally or vertically, to sleeping rooms of non-convention members (or, better yet, to any sleeping rooms at all); this can lead to the room being shut down if the occupants complain.

Accessibility by wheels is important for all rooms at a con, but especially so for filk rooms, since people may be rolling in sound equipment or heavy instruments.

It's traditional for filking to start late in the evening, around 11 PM; but as the average age of filkers increases, and some of us lose the stamina for all-night singing, an earlier start is often appreciated.

At the con

As soon as you arrive, check over the program grid for completeness and accuracy; if there are any mistakes, follow the con's procedures for posting corrections. If you've done everything right, and if you aren't wearing several other hats, you'll actually have time to enjoy yourself at the con. Just keep an eye on things to make sure they're going as planned, and make yourself available to program participants so you can take corrective action if necessary.

Depending on your personal style and the participants' preferences, you can introduce the concerts or let the performers introduce themselves. Most people enjoy being introduced to the audience. Some items, such as contests and one-shot concerts, require a moderator. You can do this yourself or put someone else in charge.

The evening filking should have a designated person in charge. It's unlikely (impossible, if there's more than one filk room) that you'll be present all the time, so you should have several people who are willing to serve as Filkmeister. Whether the chosen mode is bardic, chaos, poker chip, or yet something else, it's necessary to have someone to keep the singing going and to encourage as many people as possible to participate.

Some people are "filkhogs," often without realizing it, and can dominate a chaos sing. The Filkmeister should encourage the quieter people by periodically asking "Would anyone like to sing who hasn't sung yet?" Sometimes there are long periods of conversation between songs. If everyone seems to be enjoying the discussions, it's OK to let them go on for a while; but if you see someone readying a song and being too polite to start, ask that person, "Do you have something you'd like to sing?"

In bardic and poker-chip singing, it's particularly important to keep things moving. The special flaw of bardic (and all styles have their own flaws) is that each person in turn limits the flow, and some people may be very undecided. It's often necessary to keep the circle moving when it threatens to bog down. Remember that the rule in bardic is "Pick, pass, or play"; if people just want to listen, let them pass their turn.


After the con, you should send thank you notes to people who did program items. People like to be acknowledged, and that gesture helps to assure that they'll want to come back next year. E-mail is coming to be an acceptable way of doing this.

Follow up on comped memberships, to make sure participants get what they were promised.

Ask people how the filk program went, and what might be changed the next time around. Then catch up on your work or rest, so you'll be able to do it again the next year!

Appendix: Filk styles

Bardic: A group singing style in which the turn passes from one person to the next in clockwise or counterclockwise order. Each person may, in turn, Pick, Pass, or Play; i.e., either perform something, ask that something be performed, or simply pass. Requests may be for a specific song, a song on a certain subject, or any song by a particular performer. People are free to decline requests, of course.

Chaos: A group singing style in which people jump in when they want to sing something. People are expected not to grab turns so often that they crowd out other people. In "Moderated Chaos," the Filkmeister helps to insure that those who are less assertive can get a turn.

Poker Chip Bardic, aka Non-Topological Bardic: A group singing style in which a token is given to each of the people in the room. Each person may at any point use his token to pick, pass, or play; but no one gets another token until the round has finished.

Last updated March 14, 1999

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