Monday, February 28, 2011

Bluegrass and Social Networking

The following essay is a lightly edited version of a piece I wrote for the Welcome Page of the California Bluegrass Association's web page

The film “The Social Network” has been nominated for eight academy awards and has won forty-nine other awards including three Golden Globes. Estimates of the number of Facebook members range towards the 600 million level, and it's been estimated the 46 percent of Americans belong. In bluegrass we can communicate with each other and become friends on List Servs (Bluegrass-L, Flatpicker-L, and many more I've never heard of) and forums like the Hangout group (banjo, reso, fiddle, mando) as well as many other instrument specific groups exist. Many web sites provide the opportunity for members to blog, post, and become “friends.” The opportunities for social networking are nearly endless. Many readers of this blog are certainly also active in a variety of social networking venues. So, two questions arise? How does social networking affect us as individuals? How can we use social networking to promote bluegrass, the music we love?

A few weeks ago a beloved member of the bluegrass community died after a long battle against cancer. We only met Tina Aridas, a frequent contributor to Bluegrass-L and publicist for her partner's band, James Reams & the Barnstormers, one time, at the Podunk Bluegrass Festival in E. Hartford, CT. Tina was already quite ill, but had pulled herself together to be “Up” for the weekend. We (that is my wife Irene and I) spent a good deal of time chatting with her during the weekend. I had “known” Tina for several years, however, as a highly intelligent, thoughtful, and funny advocate for James' band specifically and for bluegrass more generally. She took consistently liberal positions and argued them forcefully without ever being annoying or overly confrontational. In her public and private interactions, she was thoughtful and generous. When she died, the outpouring of affection for her on the Bluegrass-L showed genuine grief at her loss and compassion for her family. Her obituary was carried on the Bluegrass Blog the day after she died. The speed with which the news traveled and the power of the response say a great deal about the power of the Internet and social networking to spread information and provide support for others.

On the other hand, the world of social networking has the capacity to inflict both pain and damage. Coincidentally, a small furor erupted on the “L” the same day Tina Aridas died. I prefer to deal with this issue more elliptically. Suffice it to say that on one of the List Servs, a fairly frequent contributor raised an issue about a very well-known and popular member of two high profile, influential bands. His comments were strongly enough expressed and thoughtlessly enough presented that the target felt it necessary to respond sarcastically and powerfully. There followed a number of posts, most of which supported the injured (insulted) person. Now this incident is more important because of what happened than who it happened to. The important element I want to emphasize is the power of words. Words have power! They can soothe and they can maim. They can console and hurt. They can be used to frame an argument or to provoke a quarrel. Words need to be used with concern and skill in order to achieve worthy goals. They can be used, as we've seen in so much of our discourse during the past several years, to hurt without benefiting...anyone. The biggest risk in social networking lies in the ability of people to use anonymity, or at least distance, to achieve goals that are at best non-productive, and at worst...dangerous.

Social networks have such potential for misuse because they can achieve so much good. Their greatest asset is their ability to reach thousands, or even millions, of people with relative ease and low cost, an essential for bluegrass, where money is scarce in good times. When a band, an organization, or a person takes the time to make connections between web sites, Facebook pages,Twitter, iTunes, Reverb Nation, and the range of other online outreach sources available today, it's quite amazing to see the impact these combinations can have. At present the Gold Standard is The Bluegrass Legacy, founded and run by Henri Deschamps out of Valle Crucis, NC. Begun only about two years ago, The Bluegrass Legacy has amassed something just under 28,000 “Like”s on its fan page. Henri tells me this number of people who've pressed the Like button yields about 2.3 million appearances on web pages each month. Let's assume that only ten percent of those people seeing The Bluegrass Legacy go past on their own Facebook pages clicks on it. That's about 230,000 actual page views a month, huge for bluegrass.

The two bands which have shown the greatest media penetration, and, by the way, success, in the past couple of years have been Daily & Vincent and The Grascals, I'd like to bypass them for a second, because in each case they've been able to put together impressive media teams to support them. (People who attended the case study session Daily & Vincent held at IBMA in September will know that the saving, planning, and risk taken on by the two principles to put their team together was huge, but, for now, I want to focus on another band.) The Wilson Family Band, located in Folkston, GA has widened its outreach and begun accumulating a national audience through the hard work of twenty year old Clint Wilson and his mother working to marshall their web presence in all the venues mentioned above. Put that together with a lovely family sound as a band, and the very fine song writing of young Clint, and you have a band making an impact which will be seen to grow over the next few months and years. Clint's song, “Second Best,” on the new Blue Moon Rising CD is getting significant air play on XM/Sirius.

A little over four years ago, I decided I had something to write about, and blogging represented a way to say it. I was pretty unformed about what the limits would be, but I started a blog. After about two years, my blog, as it focused more on bluegrass music was being read by, perhaps, fifteen hundred people a month. At present, I've posted 590 times and been viewed roughly 350,000 times. People I meet face-to-face or on line say they like what I do. As a direct result of writing my blog, we've been welcomed (and sought after) at increasing numbers of festivals (most of which we pay to attend), my articles are being published by Bluegrass Unlimited, CBA has honored me with a monthly column, and I'm sometimes asked to write for other outlets. A year or so ago I started a Facebook page, and last Fall, Henri Deschamps walked me through starting a Facebook Fan Page. At present the fan page has 2100 odd fans and is, according to Facebook Insights, seen on about 73,000 screens a month. That's pretty widespread impact for a bluegrass fan who takes pictures and writes. One of the strengths of the approach that's been developing has been that the blog, my Facebook page, and Ted and Irene's Most Excellent Bluegrass Adventure Facebook Fan Page are pretty highly integrated, each feeding the other. And it's fun!

Social Networks have enormous power to help people in bluegrass to increase our outreach, to find and develop people who want to listen and, perhaps, even pick. This power can help us, particularly if we see the music as being inclusive and look at it from a longer perspective. I've never been to a festival where every band appealed to me. Some we hear are not very good. Others are good at what they do, but don't raise a level of enthusiasm within us. Still others grab us by the throat, draw us to their merch table, and demand further hearing. Who knows which ones we listen to today will be heard by anyone in forty or fifty years. Only time will tell. Meanwhile, social media have expanded the bluegrass universe and will continue to delight, disappoint, challenge, and encourage us to find new limits and ways to express our love of music. Social media can only help in this effort.