On evenings throughout February and March, dozens of fans will flood the pub, just as they do every year. They will erupt into raucous applause when their favorite player does well, and grumble and drink another beer when the score isn’t in their favor. Over the course of several weeks, they will witness wins, losses, and wild upsets. They will watch the pool of competitors narrow from damn near 100 down to 24, and then 16. And then the elite eight, the finalists who will battle it out for the win, the title…
Pump fake! This is Santa Cruz, where “March Madness” is just what your college roommate named the strain of weed he was growing in the dorm basement. But those looking for a lively, entertaining competition throughout the next several weeks can call off the hounds: the annual Songwriter Showcase at Britannia Arms has arrived once again.
In its eighth consecutive year, the showcase invites local songwriters of every experience levels to put it all on the line with two original songs. A panel of judges will score the performances—up to 12 people can play in a night, so the event often doesn’t wrap up until late, close to 11pm—and determine who moves on to the semifinal and final rounds in April.
The event’s founder, Ken Capitanich, is also the owner of M.A.R.S. Studios, so first and second-place winners receive coveted recording time to lay down tracks. Other finalists can win gift certificates, music equipment and more.
While professional folk and Americana musicians frequently enter the showcase, Capitanich has seen his fair share of unknown performers steal the show.
“A lot of the people who enter are closet musicians—people that played music in school then went off to their careers,” Capitanich says. “They come in they say, ‘I’ve got this great song I wrote in college and I kinda perfected it till now.’ And they’ll actually beat out a lot of the professional people that come in.”
All styles of music are represented at the showcase, from folk and bluegrass to hip-hop and jazz. All levels of talent have also had their time in the spotlight over the years. Jay Lingo, a country and western performer originally from Pennsylvania, entered the contest a few years back. Now he is well known around town and tours regularly. Becki DiGregorio is another recent winner; her song “Break the World” left contest judge Paul Wagner speechless.
“It was just one of the most breathtaking things I’ve ever heard,” says Wagner, a journalist and songwriter who regularly judges the contest.
The contest is no American Idol knockoff, as performers ironically don’t get scored on their performance (“X Factors” and “smizes” matter not, either). It’s lyrics, music and composition that determine who’s tops, with judges awarding a score between zero and 10 for each of those categories.
The audience, which usually fills up the Britannia Arms every night of the showcase, is known to erupt in “raucous, football kind of applause,” says Wagner. He says it’s not uncommon for music producers and studio owners to attend the event in search of talent.
A largely casual affair—walk-ins can be signed up on the spot—audiences are generally receptive to all performers, even those who may be better suited for a shower stall lined with sound-proof foam.
“One year, this lady popped in, very bubbily and friendly, and asked to sign up. She gets up there and sings, and she was lousy. I mean, she sucked really bad. It happens sometimes. But everybody clapped and was supportive, mostly for her braveness. Of course, she didn’t win. But then she flipped out. She started screaming and threatened to sue us,” says Captanich, who fortunately avoided a lawsuit by having all performers sign a simple contract before entering.
Most entrants, though, have something special to share. The nature of the event attracts true talent.
“This is not an open mic,” says Capitanich. “This is what we call a songwriting showcase.”
The Songwriter Showcase will be held every Tuesday night from Feb. 19 to April 30 at Britannia Arms, 110 Monterey Ave., Capitola. Slots are still available for those who’ve got what it takes.