Tuesday, October 9, 2012

IBMA 2012: From Today to Tomorrow - Essay

IBMA week was, in some ways, as much about the coming move to Raleigh as it was about the present. At the same time, it was a week filled with a number of noteworthy musical and learning experiences including perhaps the best designed program since we began attending five years ago.  The event ran smoothly, the seminars, workshops, and other sessions were well run and interesting, and the musical events, from showcases to the end of Fan Fest were filled with new bands and stirring music. The awards shows were both well designed and, for us, most satisfactory, especially with the Gibson Brothers' win as Entertainer of the Year, perhaps signalling a shift in how the membership perceives what constitutes entertaining.

The biggest problem we encountered during this year's World of Bluegrass was the propensity of commercial presenters (agents, record companies, manufacturers) to take their events off site and hold them down on Broadway or around town. When we started attending IBMA five years ago, these stellar events were held in the evening in meeting rooms at the hotel or the convention center. By taking them off campus and offering performances by high profile artists, they managed to suck the air out of the early evening, including the showcases, which bands had paid to perform in, and which deserved greater attention. It's difficult, however,  to fault these organizations, because the charges added by the Hotel/Convention Center for any and all amenities coupled with the drab surroundings within the building made making such events festive nearly impossible and prohibitively expensive.  We understand that with the cooperation of the Raleigh Convention folks and the Chamber of Commerce, the design of such events and their relationship to IBMA is being re-imagined with an eye to integrating them into the official program while strenthening attendance at showcases.

An interesting change in program, begun last year and continued this year, was the extension of "Professional Development Sessions" from the business conference into Fan Fest. By holding a series of sessions during the morning at Fan Fest, two goals were accomplished. Professional members were encouraged to extend their participation into the weekend, while attendees at Fan Fest were given the opportunity to extend their skills and get a taste of the activities which are integral to the business conference.  Meanwhile, the range of activities at the business conference devoted to extending times set aside for networking were increased and sharpened.  SESAC, the artists professional rights organization, hosted a very well attended early afternoon reception. Gig fair was, as usual, well-attended, as new and established bands sought to make face-to-face contact with the variety of talent buyers who use gig fair. Making informal contact through the networking process remains the strongest approach to creating a sense of familiarity with people who can help your carrer, and making sure that such contacts are assiduously followed up is extremely important. Meet and greet opportunities abounded, including a daily happy hour preceding the evening showcases.

Official showcases were heavy in string band and old time kinds of music. The absence of banjos, particularly during the first two days of showcases was especially notable. Official showcases by more recognizable bands were held on Wednesday evening. By not mixing well-known bands in with the relatively unheard of ones in the early part of the week, the selection committee did nothing to lessen the tendancy of people, who wish to see something familiar, to choose other alternatives than official showcases. The emphasis in showcasing continues to be on a healthy combination of traditional and ground breaking sounds.  The strength of the Kids on Bluegrass band appearing on Saturday morning at Fan Fest and the quality of the jamming in the hallways, demonstrated yet again that evolutionary change within bluegrass continues while traditional bluegrass music has nothing to fear from what's coming down the pike. Over time, quality and integrity will continue to rise to the top despite the inclusions of mediocre quality and limited instrumental mastery among some popular purveyors.

IBMA's respect for and love of the pioneers of bluegrass music continued to show itself throughout the entire week. Two particular events were highlights. A morning session devoted to the work of Doc Watson celebrated the late guitarist in song and story. Bryon Sutton, Ricky Skaggs, Jack Lawrence, Buddy Green, Chris Jones, and Missy Raines remembered Doc for his genius, humor, and humanity, bringing tears to the eyes of many who attended. His recognition as guitar player of the year at Thursday night's awards acted as a sort of punctuation. An  early evening tribute to Hazel Dickens in the Convention Hall attracted a large and enthusiastic audience. Produced by Trisha Tubbs with the cooperation of Dudley Connell,  Laurie Lewis and others, the program featured Kathy Mattea, Alison Kraus, James King  Peter Rowan, Della Mae and a couple of dozen others.  Hazel Dickens' huge influence and commited character were recognized and applauded. Story telling and tribute events were also dedicated to the memory of Earl Scruggs, Doug Dillard, and Everett Lilly.  

Along with adding a new Special Award, selected by a committee, for Songwriter of the Year, this year won by Jon Weisberger, the role of song writers in IBMA was celebrated in other ways throughout the event. There were song-writing circles and a singer/songwriter workshop on the workshop stage. Song writers were all over the meetings. It's hard to imagine a better venue for song writers to be able to showcase and pitch their creative efforts.

New IBMA Executive Director Nancy Cardwell was seen everywhere around the Convention. Usually listening more than talking, she showed herself to be open to new ideas, helpful in keeping focused on the positive, friendly and thoughtful.  After years as the top staff associate, she has stepped into a leadership position almost seamlessly, helping to make the last World of Bluegrass in Nashville successful while looking forward to the new model still being developed by the board. 

So the question I'm often asked by artists, promoters, and other participants in the bluegrass music industry remains: "What's in it for me?" The answer is that IBMA opens the door and provides many of the means to further a professional career in bluegrass. It remains for the individual to become active, to step through the door and take advantage of the opportunities the organization provides. I'm often reminded that most bluegrass musicians are truly semi-professionals. They began their life in bluegrass as fans or children taken to festivals and other events where they learned to jam and picked up the deep traditions of the music. Along the way they formed bands and many began to perform at local events and in local venues mostly in their area. Many report a passion for the music that dominated their adolescent and young adult years.

 Today, the availability of advanced technology has made it easier to make and distribute the product of their efforts. If one imagines bluegrass bands as a pyramid topped by perhaps a dozen or so major touring bands, the vast middle of bands are truly regional or local groups who not only perform but teach, own music shops, do repairs, and dozens of other tasks as well as maintaining full time straight jobs. The large base is composed of both fans and semi-professional professional members who attend events, often to jam more than to see performances. There's also a vast listening audience who experience their bluegrass through radio and, more frequently these days, television. Professional membership in IBMA is available to almost all of these people at the most reasonable price of any professional organization I've ever belonged to. Joining IBMA, participating in its activities. Registering with and contributing to Bluegrass Nation, IBMA's new interactive web site, provides an insight into the breadth of these activities. Your membership and voice in IBMA indicates you are part of a large and active community around the world who make a part of their livelihood from the music they love. It also gives an organization that works on your behalf to spread the word about bluegrass music - its traditions, beauty, roots, and people. Its a glorious world which, like any other family, grows and spreads because of, not in spite of, its strengths and differences. The move to Raleigh can only be seen as a sign of its independence, growth, and importance in meeting the varying needs of its members.