Monday, August 30, 2010

Giving Back - The Importance of IBMA

The following essay is an edited version of a column I wrote for the Welcoming Page of the California Bluegrass Association.

The Annual World of Bluegrass Conference and Fan Fest of the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) will be rolling around within a few short weeks and the voting for IBMA awards is nearly complete as you read this. The opportunity to vote to the IBMA awards is enjoyable, but not terribly important in the larger scheme of things. But membership and taking an active role in your professional organization, if you’re a bluegrass person, is. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about giving back to bluegrass and the importance of developing a sense of professionalism. Here are some of my thoughts.

When we became involved in bluegrass music, only about eight years ago, we were amazed at the welcome we received and the warmth of that reception. An example would be the reaction of bands to Irene’s offer to cover their merch tables while they were performing. The first time she offered, Mike Andes of Nothin’ Fancy thanked her, told her the prices and handed her the cash box. These days, bands blithely leave her with several hundred dollars in cash and all their merchandise while they perform, or even go rest. Where else? Meanwhile, my photography and writing have gained readership and, I hope, respect. While we both pick a little, we’re a long way from being bluegrass musicians, but we find ourselves a part of a community we value, cherish, and want to continue contributing to in some fashion. I don’t think we’re much different from many people who discover the genre.

As a profession, bluegrass music is somewhat different from others. The biggest difference lies in the fact there are no standards for entrance. Entering other professions (teaching, law, medicine, plumbing, hair cutting and styling, electrical work, and many other skilled trades) requires applicants to complete certain educational goals, pursue an apprenticeship, and/or take a test in order to get a license to practice. No such standards apply in bluegrass. Go to some festivals, form a band, play at open mics, enter a few contests, play a few gigs at the local old folks home, get booked for a gig at the local live music joint, open for a touring headliner and, lo and behold, you’re a professional bluegrass musician; part of a flourishing and exciting sub-genre of country music.

Bands that are good enough may gain local and then regional recognition, sometimes even being asked to travel to events. At some point, the ones who begin to stand out have to decide whether to “go for it” by becoming full time touring musicians or remain within more limited parameters. Some achieve remarkable success and become icons of our music; others manage to make a living, while many more continue to provide genuine pleasure to many people, especially including themselves in jams around fires or in their living rooms, in local or regional settings. All that being true, there are no standards. Almost all professional bluegrass musicians began as field pickers at fiddler’s conventions and festivals. It may be one of the truest meritocracies in America.

This lack of entry requirements also may lead to a split between the touring bands and local or regional bands, which also perform. Think for a moment about a similar, though certainly not exact, difference between the PGA and the PGA tour. Teaching golf professionals and people who compete in local and regional tournaments are usually far removed from the skills and problems of touring golf professionals, yet each group considers themselves to be pro’s. There are certainly shared concerns among bluegrassers like health care, coordination of festival dates, ability to plan pensions, creating reasonable fee structures, and many others. But there are also elements of competition, distrust, jealousy and secrecy keeping such cooperation from even beginning to occur in many places. The various elements in the bluegrass community including musicians, promoters, publishers, broadcasters, luthiers, and most certainly fans all have an interest, and, in bluegrass, a voice. Imagine giving fans a vote in the American Medical Association! Yet avid fans must only join IBMA in order to become active, voting members with a voice in this large, but scattered and often conflicted community.

This brings us back to IBMA. I’ll start with this: not everyone is going to be happy with every decision IBMA makes. They may wish the event were still held in Owensboro or Louisville. Many people may think the festival is too expensive, or too Nashville oriented, or encourages music that is not really bluegrass, or that the awards ceremony doesn’t select the right people, or jamming is discouraged, or, or, or. But in the end, the International Bluegrass Music Association is your professional organization if you’re involved in bluegrass music. It seeks to make health care more easily and affordably available to you. It raises and invests funds to help distressed elderly musicians. It holds meetings and conducts seminars designed to help members of the bluegrass community become more effective at doing their jobs, particularly in marketing their music in these fast changing times. It encourages and develops new leadership from within its ranks. And it holds an annual convention which is a musical and social feast for professionals and fans at every level from within the community. And you can be a part of it all by determining to be a part of the profession rather than apart from it.

You can become a part of all this by deciding to pay annual dues of $75 for a professional membership or $40 for a grass roots membership and starting to give back to the music which has given you so much pleasure in so many ways. A person who has been with NPR for many years once told me fans come up and say, “I’ve been listening to you for years, but I’ve never given NPR a cent.” They say it with a note of pride, as if they were getting away with something. Most of us benefit in some way by the work and efforts of IBMA. The benefits increase in proportion with our willingness to become a part of this worthwhile and lively organization. As with any sort of organization or relationship, the seeds of growth and development need to be cultivated and nurtured to come to full fruition. It’s time for all of us to help cultivate this growing, vibrant, and living organization.