Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Bluegrass and the Internet

The new and complex world opened to us through the Internet and the means of communication it has spawned has direct and important relevance for bluegrass at every level. With our economy in a frightening downturn and deteriorating towards what increasingly looks like our most serious challenge since the Great Depression, all the possibilities and perils of this new world have become even more important. I want to explore some of the dimensions of this new and challenging era. While I know that the future of the recording industry as it is affected by the explosion of file sharing, electronic downloads, and new ways of selling and buying music is an important part of this discussion, I must confess to not being well enough informed about this component of the electronic world. Therefore, I won’t try to treat it here, but will leave it to the greater insight of others for the time being. Meanwhile, even with this reservation, there’s plenty left to write about.

Social Networking – A few days ago, I decided that I had been overlooking a good opportunity to communicate with others in the several worlds I inhabit: bluegrass, books, friends from various schools I’ve attended and taught at, places we’ve lived, and so-on. So I joined Facebook. Within less than a week I’ve accumulated 93 “friends,” all of whom can communicate not only with me, but with each other and, by requesting addition as a friend, every other person on each friends list. I prowled around in this very large interconnected world asking people to become my “friend.” Most accepted and then I trolled their friends lists to find still others. I also discovered that people were discovering me in the same fashion, thus connecting one of my worlds with several others. While relatively few bluegrassers have entered this world so far, it looks like a powerful way for us to get in touch with each other and communicate about our world. At the same time, it seems a pretty vacuous kind of communication medium, not particularly well-suited to thoughtful discussion or deep insight. Nevertheless, Facebook is intriguing in its potential to broaden my world in directions I didn’t anticipate. For instance, a young artist who attended the same high school I did asked me to join her friends. I suspect she’s merely marketing her art work, but I did go to her Facebook page and look at some of her paintings. Similarly, being added by Grace Muldoon drew me to her Worldwide Bluegrass on-line radio site and encouraged me to consider listening to it. Facebook claims 50,000,000 members. So far, Facebook looks like a mixed bag to me, but it is, at least, an interesting communications tool.

I started my MySpace page over a year ago. Despite its very cludgy search features and rather slow user interface, I’ve found it to be a good way to communicate with, mostly, other people involved in bluegrass. Although older than Facebook, it seems to have been surpassed in popularity by the upstart network. Nevertheless, MySpace claims to have well over 250,000,000 members in its worldwide network, but these numbers may be out of date or suspect. Many bluegrass bands and music festivals have chosen MySpace as a convenient and inexpensive way to spread the word about themselves. It offers a huge and flexible range of formats and many providers offer a range of ways the basic look can be changed. Users can include videos and audio clips as well as photo albums, making it fairly easy for them to present their music, schedules, and other information. Increasingly, it has become easier to find members’ MySpace pages with a simple Google search, but it is well to remember that sites only rise on the Google search as they receive more clicks. MySpace is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp while Facebook has been actively courted by a number of high rollers with offering prices in the billion dollar range. These high prices reflect investors’ belief in the power of social networking as marketing tools.

Forums and Mailing Lists – While not having many of the trendy attractions of Social Networking sites, Internet forums and mailing lists are very useful ways to communicate. Forums are actually websites where conversations about any topic you might be interested in can take place; they were once called bulletin boards but have matured beyond that early concept. For bluegrass fans and participants examples are Bluegrass Rules, Mandolin Café, the California Bluegrass Association, and several more. These forums are characterized by having several areas, perhaps subdivided, where members can post a question, issue, or piece of information after which others can engage in an on-line conversation about it. Some of these forums also feature live chat rooms. They also carry plenty of advertising. The CBA, which is devoted to information about bluegrass activities in California, also has a Welcome page that changes daily by publishing essays from members and guests. (Disclosure – I write a monthly column for CBA.) As the technology improves and increasing numbers of those on line have access to high speed, there’re more video, live chat, and other band-width hungry features in the forums.

Eric Schlange is the owner of several music sites of particular interest to bluegrassers. He started with Banjo Hangout, which currently boasts over 31,000 active members. He has now extended his reach into hangouts for fiddle, resonator guitar, and flatpicked guitar. The Hangout formula offers opportunities for members to participate in a wide variety of forums that deal with issues, concerns, and activities surrounding owning, using, buying, learning, sharing, and developing understandings of their instrument. There are also features allowing members to become friends, share information privately, blog about their activities, buy and sell instruments and related materials, and so-on. Professional big name musicians occasionally drop into these forums causing excitement among their members. One very attractive feature of some of these sites is that they reach a large enough number of motivated consumers that instrument makers offer high quality products for raffles. Like the other social networking sites, the Hangouts are free and contain plenty of advertising. For bluegrass people seeking to join a like-minded community, these sites offer an attractive combination of forum information and social networking. Schlange’s work offers a good opportunity for bluegrassers wishing to narrow the scope of their involvement to a single instrument as does Mandolin Café.

Who knows how many bluegrass oriented mailing lists there may be. Yahoo Groups alone lists 998 separate e-mail groups, many devoted to a specific festival, instrument, or enthusiasm. There are two mailing lists oriented towards members of the International Bluegrass Music Association run through the list serve of the University of Kentucky, and many more in the U.S. and abroad. Mail lists are a good way to conduct discussions, but may pose several problems. Perhaps the greatest is they generate sometimes huge amounts of e-mail. On a busy day on Bluegrass-L, a mailing list dominated by IBMA members but not exclusively for them, there might be nearly 100 e-mails. There may be several threads going on simultaneously covering a range of subjects. Also, members are likely to be announcing events, promoting special interests, or mourning the loss of another departed grasser. Most lists provide some sort of monitoring, but as with so much on the Internet, there’s always the possibility of unpleasantness developing.

Web Sites and Blogs – Web sites probably communicate the most information and give their designers the greatest flexibility. I prefer them for digging out the sort of information I need to write, to make decisions about festivals to attend, or to help in making purchasing decisions about CDs. They allow bands and individual musicians to present themselves exactly as they want to be perceived, and their address format makes them easy to find. Their strengths are also their weaknesses. Web sites can be expensive and take a little more skill to build than do social networking sites. At the same time, they present themselves much more vividly. Because of their difficulty, many bands appear to prefer a MySpace page, because these can be managed more easily by a band member. This strikes me as a false economy. There’s no substitute for a sense of design and good taste. Many MySpace pages are marred by being too busy or being difficult to read because they exhibit poor color choices, are too busy, or not laid out well. Of course, web sites can suffer from the same issues. The layering of web sites into multiple pages makes them much more useful as information dispensing tools than are the social networking sites.

Blogs are, in many ways, the most personal and idiosyncratic communications tool there is. Blog is short for Web Log, but the name doesn’t do the phenomenon justice. Some blogs are deeply personal, others examine specific areas of interest, some contain unacceptable or offensive materials. Blogs are maintained by some people just to send pictures of their children to the grandparents. There’s no limit to their variety or subject matter. The Bluegrass Blog is the gold standard for us in bluegrass, presenting up-to-date news of events, following the changes in bands, and keeping the industry up to date with itself. John Lawless and Brance Gillahan have established a level of journalistic excellence that stands as a model for all such efforts, and they’ve been rewarded with around three million hits as well as an IBMA award. Dr. Tom Bibey’s web log is a completely different sort of effort. A fiction blog, Bibey explores the places where playing a bluegrass mandolin and being a country doctor intersect. Bibey says that fiction is the place where events may not actually have happened, but truth can be found. It’s fun to read his blog and anticipate his forthcoming novel. Since you’re reading this, you already know about my blog.

It’s important to remember, if you’re considering reaching out on the Internet, that privacy has a very different meaning here. In truth, not much is private any longer. You can endeavor to maintain your anonymity, but it’s difficult. Screen names and e-mail access through Gmail or Yahoo Mail make it easier to preserve privacy, but there’s no sure thing on the Internet. Bands, who are seeking publicity, need to provide contact access that doesn’t compromise home and family, so it all can get a little tricky. In the end however, the Internet is the most powerful tool yet found for bands, promoters, and fans to find each other. Crucial, however, is the necessity of offering constantly changing material in on-line presence that functions to keep people coming back to a site. This is, of course, the glory and problem of maintaining an Internet presence.

In the end, the Internet has the power to assist bluegrass in promoting and growing itself while also opening up a world in which reform and change are welcome additions. Through having an active and lively involvement in the areas mentioned above, all aspects of the bluegrass world can accomplish a number of objectives. They can create connections, share ideas, build constituencies, explore ideas new and old, and further the conversations needing to be continued. These opportunities far outweigh the risk as well as the time, energy, and money involved in creating and maintaining an Internet presence.