Friday, August 14, 2009

Where Might Bluegrass Be Heading?

Let’s take a look at the current state of bluegrass music and try to point to some possible futures.. Last week I reviewed a book called “Appetite for Self-Destruction” by Steve Knopper, which describes, in sometimes excruciating detail, the propensities of the recording industry to resist innovation until forced to embrace the newest technology. While I may be missing a few links, this means that, beginning with the wax cylinder, the progression of recording media looks something like this: cylinder > shellac 78 rpm record > long playing record > reel-to-reel tape > cassette tape > 8 track tape (really a side track) > compact disk > MP3 and MP4 electronic download, and I’ve probably missed something. Now a combine of four top recording companies (Universal, EMI, Sony, and Warner) have announced a new format they have tentatively called CMX designed to allow the downloading of entire albums including songs, lyrics, cover art, and liner notes as a package. The Times (London) notes that the companies approached Steve Jobs at Apple Computer with an eye to making these downloads available through iTunes, but that Jobs declined, preferring to continue with the sale of singles. According to the article, “The 2009 Entertainment Retailers Association handbook shows that only 10.3 million of the 139.8 million albums sold last year were downloads.” The CMX format is an effort to encourage consumers to return to albums. The question remains whether, without the cooperation and involvement of Apple to encourage digital downloads of entire albums with art and liner notes, the new effort has a chance of succeeding. Only the market will tell whether the recording industry can convince us to change formats once again and repurchase all our recordings in a new one. The battle against illegal downloading was recently upheld in the courts when a Boston University student named Joel Tenenbaum was fined $675,000 for downloading 30 songs.

Meanwhile, an article about concert tickets in the New Yorker (registration required) introduced me to a company called Live Nation. The article, by John Seabrook, called “The Price of a Ticket” examines the growth of Live Nation and its affiliation with Ticketmaster using a recent Bruce Springsteen concert in New Jersey as a case study. While the article examines the effect of Ticketmaster sales and aftermarket sales through their subsidiary TicketsNow on the price of tickets and their availability, it also suggests significant changes in the way the music business has and will operate. Live Nation, in the “About Us” section of its web site says, “Live Nation is the largest producer of live concerts in the world, annually producing over 16,000 concerts for 1,500 artists in 57 countries. The company sells over 45 million concert tickets a year and expects to drive over 60 million unique visitors to LiveNation.com in 2008.” The article in the New Yorker points out that the entire business model in music has changed as a result of digital downloads. Seabrook’s article quotes Irving Azoff, Chairman and CEO of Ticketmaster as saying, “The way the industry is monetized has totally changed. The order used to be: first, records; second, live; third, merchandise. Now it’s: first, live; second, third party sponsorship; third, merchandise, fourth, publishing; fifth, records. So that’s a big difference.”

While the numbers in the two foregoing paragraphs bear no resemblance to what we see happening in bluegrass music, perhaps the trends speak to the problems and opportunities we face. I hear musicians talk about sales being down and the discussions on-line support this supposition. Extensive discussions have taken place on Bluegrass-L (an IBMA list serv) about how artists and record companies receive reimbursement for air play on radio and for CD sales. It seems most artists are not happy with the current arrangements, but are frustrated about trying to figure out how to make a living making music. Early bluegrass bands traveled to small southern radio stations around the south where they performed on live programs, trying to sell a few records and get the word out that they would be performing live in the area. Flatt & Scruggs epic Carnegie Hall concert in 1962 brought bluegrass to a northeastern, urban audience. The delivery system changed when Carlton Haney promoted the first bluegrass festival in 1965 in Fincastle, VA. Still, bluegrass remained a relatively small niche genre within the wider umbrella of country music and, now, what has become known as Americana. The importance of radio in this development cannot be overestimated.

The largest promoter and packager of bluegrass music seems to be Adams & Anderson, who operate eight bluegrass festivals in the eastern states ranging from Florida to West Virginia. These festivals draw very good crowds for generally traditional bluegrass music laced with a strong component of southern gospel music. These events mostly present well known national acts over a three day period, foregoing the now traditional mixture of local, regional, and national acts with workshops that provide opportunities for musicians to share information and skills with interested fans. Adams & Anderson appear to be able to offer the high number of high profile bands they do by booking them for several shows a year and negotiating better prices from the bands because of his frequent use of them. Certain very high profile events are reputed to be able to strike hard bargains with performers because of the prestige of appearing at them. Nevertheless, the sophistication of bluegrass promotion has not advanced very far from the basic rural roots of the genre.

In order to make a living doing what they love, many bluegrass musicians have been forced to subject themselves to punishing travel schedules. In one weekend last winter, the top touring band in bluegrass appeared at Palatka, FL, Asheville, NC, and Boston, MA in the same weekend with a follow-up performance in a club in New York City on Tuesday. Many bands appear at two or three events, each several hundred miles apart, on a weekend during the summer season in order to be able to subsist. Because they need to travel such large distances, much of the intimacy between performers and audience that has characterized the bluegrass experience may be sacrificed. The vast majority of bluegrass performers cannot make a living full time in music. Those who do, in addition to performing, must teach, record as session musicians, write and publish their own music, and scratch to make a fairly meager living. Very few are able to support themselves in anything approaching the lavish lifestyle that successful country or rock musicians achieve. Such hardship is often characterized as part of what keeps bluegrass “authentic.”

In recent years, festival performances augmented by CD sales have provided the major support for bluegrass bands. With CD sales faltering and the festival audience apparently aging, bands have sought out newer venues in which to perform, and younger bands have moved towards sounds that might serve to attract a broader audience. Both these moves are derided by traditionalists as selling out, under the rubric of “going Nashville” or some such thing. Years ago, Neil V. Rosenberg pointed out in his classic Bluegrass Music: A History that bluegrass musicians are often more creatively expansive and experimental than their audiences are willing to accept. The moves of certain bands to appear in non-traditional venues like arts centers, college campuses, or mixed music events along with following their musical instincts to include the music in the air in today’s world (rock, folk, jazz, rap, and more) are met with strong resistance by the traditional audience, placing musicians in a difficult position.

During the current difficult economic times, a number of smaller festivals seem to have folded their tents or changed management. Promoters are either reducing the number of national bands they book or doubling down by hiring more and hoping to attract larger audiences. Although my evidence is only anecdotal, it seems that many festivals this summer have been doing quite well. Perhaps it is because a bluegrass festival, even with tickets having risen near or above the $100 mark, is still a great investment of the entertainment dollar. Bluegrass fans can travel a relatively short distance, hear great music, camp together and jam for much less than a more expensive vacation would cost. Several festivals we attended this summer had their best year ever, or nearly matched their best year, in attendance. Nevertheless, rain on Saturday can still turn an event from a triumph into a disaster by driving away the day crowd.

It’s impossible to say how new approaches to marketing and to the music itself will affect the future of bluegrass music. The recent experiment by Radiohead, the indie rock band, in which they released an album for free download on line, asking fans to pay what they thought the album was worth, is highly instructive. Eventually, the album sold over three million copies of digital downloads and CD sales. Maintaining control of their product and managing sales from a band’s web site may be part of the answer. Another approach is that used by Live Nation, in which all elements (performances, music sales, memorabilia, air play, and so-on) are packaged and managed by a single entity. Bands are becoming much more aggressive in learning to market themselves on line. Web sites, social network sites like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter are being used to draw fans (“friends”) to bands. Many festivals are improving their web presence by including more pictures, adding forums and chats to their web sites, and promoting themselves more widely than in their immediate geographic area. Bands are traveling more frequently to Europe, where there is a lively interest in traditional and progressive American bluegrass music. Nevertheless, it’s a confusing and challenging world in which bluegrass music and musicians are operating. One thing we can probably count on: the infectious, essentially positive lilt of the music will continue to appeal and new fans will find their way to this great American genre.