Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The State of the Bluegrass Nation - Essay

Below is an Essay published yesterday on the Welcome Page of CBA on the Web, the website of the California Bluegrass Association. I'm grateful to them for their willingness to provide me a forum for trying out ideas before I post them on my blog. As always, I look forward to your comments in the comment section here, on FB, at IBMA's Bluegrass Nation, and on other forums. We need to continue a lively and civil discussion of the issues facing bluegrass music.

Recently I sat down with the leader of a rising band that's struggling to break out into the light of headliner and A-list band. He complained in a bewildered, and perhaps embittered, voice that there were too few festivals and too many bands crowding a field that's difficult to break into or to reach the top of. This conversation opened a line of thinking about the current state of affairs of bluegrass music within a changing media environment that's confusing at best and disastrous for some. I want to begin an exploration with this column that I hope will generate some thought and perhaps even some creativity as promoters, bands, broadcasters, publishers, recording companies, and others engaged in the larger music business scramble, plan, scheme, and struggle to maintain their existance and expand their audience.

The first multi-day bluegrass festival was held over Labor Day weekend on Cantrell's Horse Farm in Fincastle, VA on September 5, 1965. John Lawless wrote a fine remembrance of this ground breaking event on its fortieth anniversary in 2005. These days, a format with a shelf life of nearly fifty years should be celebrated. During this same period we've seen the end of the long playing record, the rise and fall of cassette tapes, the increasingly rapid demise of the audio compact disk, the rise of internet streaming, the invention and spread of YouTube, satellite radio, the rise of social media, and many, many more technolgical innovations. Meanwhile, I imagine the streaming of a live concert by favorite bands before a live audience through my computer onto my 70 inch high definition video screen through my first rate audio system for a $10.00 fee. Could this raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for the performers in a one show concert? Why not? People pay $29.95 or more to watch a cage fighting contest or a “world championship” wrestling bout.

We've been attending bluegrass festivals for about ten years, beginning with Merlefest in 2003 and extending our reach to smaller and more focused traditional outdoor bluegrass events as well as concerts, indoor festivals, house concerts, jams, a bluegrass cruise, and more. All this suggests a constant effort to seek out ways to create new revenue streams and to nurture, extend, and preserve a musical genre as well as an urge to present bluegrass in a fashion that will encourage its spread. Within the festival format we see Dailey & Vincent insisting on presenting one ninety minute set in the evening rather than the traditional two fifty minute sets in a day of bluegrass. I see this as a festival buster since the typical bluegrass fan is pretty sated after a full day of music and may not have the energy or attention span for a full ninety minutes by one band in the evening. We've even seen more than a few chair slappers pack up and leave during performances by this successful and entertaining band. Meanwhile, the Grammy winning Steep Canyon Rangers have toured for several years with Steve Martin, whose body of work consists of an entertainment empire on its own, with great success, performing at both festivals and concerts. Furthermore, people attending festivals eagerly accept the liklihood of encountering rain, chilly evenings, wind, and bad sound in exchange for hearing between four and six bands a day (there are exceptions to these numbers at larger festivals) and having unusual personal access to performers; more than any other genre I'm familiar with.

Concurrently, we face an environment in which music consumers (as well as knowledge consumers) have come to see performance and information as being free commodities. The ubiquity of WikiPedia and You Tube insure that this idea will continue, even spread. A forthcoming book called The Democracy of Sound explores this phenomenon. Look for my review in late April. Bands seek to create demand behind a pay wall by bypassing traditional distribution methods. They sell individual tracks or entire CD's for download with only 30 second samples provided for free. Using a strategy first created by The Grateful Dead and religiously followed by Yonder Mountain String Band (neither acknowledged as a bluegrass band despite both having close relationships to it) of allowing amateur recordings of their concerts while jealously guarding high fidelity recordings from the sound board and brand related sales of t-shirts, hats, key chains, and other memorabilia, keeping their brand name carefully guarded. As time passes, the Dead's archive continues to mine their universe of recordings, releasing several concerts a year to fans and collectors.

Furthermore, we see the kinds and number of performance venues increasing. Many bands are attending Folk Alliance and Arts Presenters (highly agent centric) as well as regional arts presenters conferences to find new outlets for their music. Of course, IBMA remains the primary venue for making connections that will result in increased bookings if managed well. By performing at arts centers, a band will perform before pre-sold audiences seeking to hear performances of a variety of kinds of music. Friends of ours tell us that when they work such a venue and ask how many people are hearing them or the first time, they see perhaps ninety percent of the hands raised and have huge CD sales at the end of the show. In addition, they expose new audiences to bluegrass music. Presumably, some of these people will seek out more opportunities to hear bluegrass in other settings. These are often undercut on the festival circuit by bands' willingness to reduce their prices to capture bookings from, perhaps, more successful bands and garner increased bookings based on their price rather than their quality, thus distorting the market. Underlying all of this there remains for bands the difficulty of establishing a unique or distinctive sound which distinguishes one band from another within bluegrass. This tendency is exacerbated by a vocal minority of fans' refusal to accept as “real” bluegrass innovations that spread beyond a narrow definition of the genre and to insist on holding ticket prices to a bare minimum, allowing devotees to attend festivals in order to jam almost exclusively rather than consume music.

We live in a period of rapid change and bruising competition for scarce dollars. Such a period can be seen as one of great danger or great opportunity. Fringe genres, like ours, must treat this competition as the latter or risk dying. We cannot let our audience age out without reaching out for audiences nurtured on different accents and empheses in their music. Already, I hear cheering and strong approval for music played by “traditional” bands with a rock and roll sensibility to it. This trend will continue as the baby boomers find bluegrass of increasing interest to their damaged ears and weakened dancing legs. By seeking new ways to use new media and realizing that we function in a highly competitive entertainment environment, bluegrass can not only continue to draw audiences, but thrive.