Thursday, October 6, 2011

IBMA - World of Bluegrass - The Business Conference

Renaissance Hotel & Nashville Convention Center

5th & Commerce - Center of the Action
This year's IBMA World of Bluegrass Business Conference, running from Monday morning through Thursday afternoon was re-energized by several factors.  The arc of the three keynote addresses struck a tone of positive change and respect for tradition that dominated the event.  I'll have more to say about these three remarkable presentations, as different in form as the music the three presenters represented, next week when I've had more time to digest and examine their implications. Suffice it to say just now that Ronnie Reno's discussion of the earliest days, combined with some remarkable new, to me, film of Bill Monroe in performance and a filmed interview, Chris Pandolfi's encouraging and reassuring speech about the past, present and future of both IBMA and bluegrass music, and Craig Havighurst's interview of Yonder Mountain String Band's Ben Kaufmann and Dave Johnston encompassed the entire world of bluegrass, as well as bluegrass derived and related music.  All the presenters spoke with hope and confidence for the future of both traditional and exploratory forms of bluegrass, assuring their audiences, and by extension the entire bluegrass community, that traditional bluegrass has nothing to fear from the jam band scene currently exploding with energy and creativity. The general message: bluegrass music has such quality and staying power it will take care of itself without need for bitterness of divisiveness.

Dan Hays, IBMA Executive Director - Oreientation Session 
The new pricing structure showed its vigor, especially on Wednesday, when they Exhibition Hall was open to all at no charge and traffic significantly increased there.  Along with the new music pass, attendees were able to choose those parts of World of Bluegrass in which they wished to participate and purchase entry for those events and activities. Furthermore, events spread out of the Convention Center to venues around the city. Del McCoury and friends gave a rousing free, outdoor concert in front of the the Ryman Auditorium to which attendees flocked as well as tourists and people from the surrounding office buildings out on their lunch break. For many, it must have been an introduction to our music from the best we have to offer. An unofficial but prominent series was held all week at the Hard Rock Cafe, a few blocks away from the Convention Center, culminating in a sold out event after the Awards Show. Martin Guitars held its annual reception down on Broadway. The song writers group did a presentation at the famed Bluebird Cafe, and at least two bands performed to sold out shows at the Station Inn.  Attendees had many choices to make, and people in Nashville for other reasons would have had a difficult time escaping bluegrass music during IBMA's World of Bluegrass Week.  Such choices may, at times, have made WOB seem to be sparsely attended, but the crowds in the hallways, the smaller but intensely involved attendance at workshops and seminars, and the strength of the offerings at these events suggest each person there could shape their WOB to their own professional and personal needs and interests.

Official Showcase - The Hillbenders
 WAMU's Bluegrass
Live Broadcast - Gibson Brothers

Audience for Gibson Brothers Broadcast
For many people, showcases are the most important aspect of the World of Bluegrass.  They also work out to be the element that makes this the most exhausting week in our bluegrass year. Official showcases are presented by IBMA in a concert stage setting with tables and a cash bar in the background.  After Hours Showcases run, mostly, from 10:00 PM until around 2:00 AM in a rapid round of 20 - 30 minute performances with people running from one room to another to see bands they need to hear for booking purposes, new bands they want to hear and assess, and old favorites who often shine particularly brightly in this informal setting. This year, WAMU's Bluegrass broadcast live each afternoon from a small, and usually packed room, showcasing old favorites and new, emerging bands live, on-the-air for their listeners in the D.C. metropolitan area and streamed on-line around the world. IBMA 2011 Broadcaster of the Year Katy Daley, along with Lee Michael Dempsey, Bob Webster and other members of their on-air staff hosted these delightful live radio sessions. Once again, the Mast Farm Inn presented five days of after hours showcases with a strong emphasis on young, emerging bands chosen to reflect both excellence and innovation.

After Hours Showcase - Larry Cordle
for Jody King Showcase
Audience for King Showcase
This year the Official Showcases actually kept the focus on mostly young emerging bands. Some were better known (Frank Sollivan & Dirty Kitchen, Danny Paisley & Southern Grass, and Blue Moon Rising) while others were genuinely being introduced (Jett's Creek, Foghorn Stringband, No One You Know).  The lighting crew in the Center Hall made great strides in creating a lighting environment that focused a soft, white light on performers, saving the more dramatic colors for the background, increasing visibility and making llife much easier for the dozens of people (professional, amateur, and in-between) seeking to keep memories and record the event.  Sound, particularly at the showcases, was another matter. Sound for the fully plugged in Rockin' Acoustic Circus reached an excruciatingly loud volume, driving some from the hall and removing much of the charm that had heretofore characterized this otherwise engaging group.  Attendance at Wednesday evening's Official Showcases appeared small, perhaps affected by the number of competing events or by sheer exhaustion. Later in the evening, the halls and rooms were packed for the after hours events.

What Makes a Great Show?
Seminar Presentation
Mike Armistead, Little Roy Lewis, Jeff Weaver

Crowd Sourcing Event
Betty Wheeler Reporting
 Seminars & Educational Events (what an awful name) were focused on the needs of a variety of constituencies within IBMA, presented in a lively and interesting fashion, and attended, depending on the topic, by those who wanted to learn or to gain further knowledge and information about topics of interest to them. Educational Events this year continued into Friday and Saturday of Fan Fest.  Many of these events were very well attended, thoughtfully designed to appeal to fans as well as bluegrass professionals.  While I couldn't possibly get to all the sessions that interested me or stay through their entirety if I wanted to get wide coverage, I do want to highlight several.  Luthier and writer Roger Siminoff presented a fascinating talk and slide show on Thursday afternoon, a pretty dead period in years past, on Lloyd Loar.  He talked about Loar's instruments, his practices, and something about his personal life.  Who could not see possible benefit in a presentation called "What Makes a Great Show?" featuring Eddie & Martha Adcock, Little Roy Lewis, Mike Armistead, and Jeff Weaver, of the Rarely Herd.  Bringing together personalities from the history and present of bluegrass humor to talk about keeping a show lively was inspired programming that should have been of interest to many musicians who are caught in lining up and relying on their music alone to build and hold their audiences.  A notable seminar held Monday afternoon and awkwardly called "Crowd Sourcing Event" presented a way for attendees to identify and suggest solutions to a range of problems and opportunities facing bluegrass in a decision making design new to many, thus serving as a model for increasing the productivity of future sessions.  Other sessions focused on getting endorsements, using smart phone apps, using social media, pitching songs successfully, improving marketing, the new Bluegrass Nation project, licensing, setting up instruments, and much more.  The person attending WOB who couldn't find seminars containing information and skills to use to enhance effectiveness and build careers lacked only the imagination to look and the time to take it all in.

Chris Pandolfi - Keynote

Pandolfi Audience

Gig Fair

Each year, World of Bluegrass offers a Gig Fair and a series of DJ Taping Sessions. The Gig Fair, likened to bluegrass speed dating, offered bands an opportunity to spend seven minutes with representatives from many of the largest and most prestigious festivals in the country as well as with smaller events.  The room was filled and every event had a full dance card.  As I circulated around the room, I saw band members with small laptops on the table to show promoters what they looked and sounded like. Others had fully realized promo packages to present to a promoter in order to display their range and sound.  Some had obviously invested some money to have their promo package professionally created, while others had invested time and effort to develop an engaging presentation.  The Gig Fair may not necessarily result in immediate bookings for bands, but it establishes a presence, a visual impression, that would permit effective follow-up to close the deal.  While containing some elements of a de-humanizing meat market, the Gig Fair, nevertheless, can be an exceptionally valuable way for a band to build business and begin development of relationships.  Combined with showcasing and networking in the hallways of the Convention Center and suites of the hotel, it's hard to imagine that the hard working band wouldn't be able to develop new business.

D.J. Taping Sessions
Prescription Bluegrass with Wayne Taylor & Emory Lester
DJ Taping Sessions provide broadcasters and artists a chance to get together around a table in order to tape brief interview and prepare promos.  I saw newcomers and IBMA award winners circulating around the room taping interviews with bluegrass DJ's from all over the country and around the world.  Once again, the importance of face-to-face contact with the people capable of spreading the word about new and old bands, new projects, and interesting people was obvious.  There was a swirl of emerging and established artists eagerly seeking opportunities to get face-time and on-air attention.

Exhibit Hall & Convention Center Hallway
Bluegrass Today Rollout

Eddie Stubbs Live WSM Interview
Darin & Brooke Aldridge

Dreama & Larry Stephenson Merch Table

I can't speak to whether the Exhibition Hall was well attended or not or to what extent the exhibitors were able to promote their own businesses effectively.  It seemed to me, without my ever stopping to make an actual count, that there were fewer exhibitors inhabiting more space with less enthusiasm.  Opening the Exhibit Hall to all free of charge on Wednesday seemed to enhance traffic.  Since I was pretty constantly on the run, it's difficult to gauge, however.  The Bluegrass Today booth was strikingly attractive and well-designed. Their new ball cap was much in evidence at other venues, so I'd guess they were a success, too.  Moving the IBMA gear shop to the center of the room made good sense.  Booths that were well-staffed seemed to do more business than those that were empty.  I'm certain the current state of the economy reduced participation by exhibitors as well as interest and spending by attendees.  All we can do is hope and trust that conditions will continue to improve.

Del McCoury Outside the Ryman

Jesse McReynolds & Del McCoury
Dierks Benley & Sam Bush - Backstage
Overall, this year's IBMA World of Bluegrass Business Conference was the best one I've attended. It stands as a unique opportunity for people engaged in all elements of the business of bluegrass to come together to interact in every kind of fashion.  New, emerging, and established people from every segment of the business can benefit from their thoughtful and intense participation in this portion of the week. Bluegrass musicians don't like to think of bluegrass as an "industry," but a business it is, and an intensely competitive one.  At local, regional, and national levels, there's intense competition for gigs and for dates to hold events.  Bluegrass bands are in demand for everything from opening Mom & Pop stores to appearing on David Letterman's Tonight program.  Opportunities to perform, broadcast, record, attend, listen, and experience bluegrass music are everywhere.  Our system emphasizes a perhaps unique combination of competition and cooperation. It's at IBMA's World of Bluegrass that all this comes together to consider how best to develop the music and the careers of those within it.  I'd like to see more artists more intensely involved in attending and presenting at the seminars, labs, and workshops of the Business Conference. I believe they could both contribute and benefit, but for everyone involved in bluegrass music, there's no place to learn more or meet and engage with a wider variety of people than the annual World of Business, held last week in Nashville,