Friday, January 3, 2014

What to Look for in 2014 – Part 2 – Changes and Stages

Look at this post as pure speculation based on what I think I see as possible trends. These predictions are NOT necessarily what I wish to see, and should be treated as possibilities in the near or not-so-near future. It might be interesting to look back on this post with an analytical eye a year from now, or even five, to see whether there's any further movement in these directions.

Continued Consolidation and splintering in Bands will continue. Some top and near the top bands will pick up highly skilled players to fill in spots that open up, because they can provide steady work and some small amount of security for sidemen. Meanwhile, talented young gunslingers will always believe that they're ready to break off and give it a try on their own.

Most of the new bands will fail, largely because their front men continue to believe “it's all about the music,” thus neglecting the all-important business side of the bluegrass effort. Poor business planning and execution kills more bands than poor or indifferent musicianship, partly because more opportunity exists now than ever before for finding innovative ways to grow. This is particularly true of taking the time to develop and maintain an online presence, especially in social media. This is not a job a recording company, booking agent, publicity agent, or manager can accomplish for bands successfully.

More underfunded festivals to emerge, and fail. Just as a high proportion of new restaurants fail shortly after opening, so do most new bluegrass festivals. This appears to be due largely to weak planning and underfunding. Promoting a bluegrass festival is an extraordinarily complex effort for a nascent promoter to undertake just because they love the music and wish to share it with their communities. While the new electronic opportunities open the way further than ever before to finding and delivering an audience, they also make the effort that much more complex. Also, audiences are increasingly eager to be provided with comfort while spending a lesser amount due to the decreasing value of the dollar.

Fewer name bands will be asked to carry more festivals. At present there are too few marquee bands being asked to headline events in order to draw crowds. Almost all festival goers can name all these bands and is likely to see them several times a year, if they travel. Fortunately, most festival goers do not travel very far. Take a look at the license plates in any festival parking area, and count the number of out of state license plates. Nevertheless, there aren't enough bands with high enough name recognition to attract sufficient audiences to many bluegrass festivals.

Higher prices and more attendance will be the rule in 2014. As the economy continues to improve, increasing numbers of people looking for reasonably priced entertainment will discover bluegrass in both festival and arts centers. Furthermore, as the boomer audience and younger continue to age, their appetite for extremely loud music will diminish. This makes bluegrass and string band music increasingly attractive to a gigantic audience. This audience looks a good deal different from the more traditional bluegrass audience, particularly at the younger end. More young, health conscious parents will become less willing to have their children's hearing assaulted by loud music, and they have more dispossable income than all but the retired seniors. This will be seen particularly in attendance at outdoor festivals during the summer months.

More All-Star Bluegrass Festivals → Fewer Opportunities for Newer Bands might seem to be a contradiction, but seems to me to be likely. During the now ending recession, people had to pull back on their entertainment expenditures. Bluegrass festivals had to upgrade the quality of the top of their lineups to attract audiences, and people became used to a heavy preponderance of bands they either knew and liked or had heard extensively on the air and on recording. This led to a number of events that emphasized high name recognition from top to bottom of the lineup and reduced the opportunity for lesser known and new bands to gain exposure. As all-star festivals proliferate, local and aspiring national bluegrass bands will have decreased opportunities to gain real performing experience, gain confidence, and develop a local and regional following at festivals. Festivals will continue to take less risk.

The Bluegrass market will continue to grow and move indoors. Part of the bluegrass audience continues to age while wishing to remain active fans of bluegrass. Younger people, with busy lives and active families, really can't afford the time to attend festivals. Fewer people seek the possible discomfort of rain and cold or searing heat, sometimes on the same day. While a three or four day bluegrass festival remains one of the great bargains in entertainment, fewer people can commit the amount of time required to attend one. Younger people are eager to hear their music delivered with good, reliable sound. All these factors suggest the growth of indoor bluegrass. The indoor bluegrass festival offers more comfort, flexible facilities for large and small performance, workshop, and jamming areas, as well as convenient hotel facilities at a discount. Such events open the bluegrass experience to people who don't seek to invest in RV's and don't wish the discomfort (for some) of tenting. Such events also make bluegrass more easily available for urban and suburban audiences, while lengthening the bluegrass season. As the population of rural America continues to shrink, the indoor event looks increasingly attractive.

Arts Centers Continue to Proliferate in nearly every small and medium sized town where there is an empty movie theater. Many of them are dilapidated art deco vaudeville and movie palaces from the early to mid-twentieth century, while others are even older opera houses or disused schools with large auditoriums. Such facilities can be purchased by the the local arts council and rehabilitated for subscription performance series in addition to arts and craft classes, community meeting rooms, and much more. Many of the arts centers program one or two bluegrass bands as part of an eight or ten concert series which often includes a symphony orchestra, a dance troupe, a Broadway musical, a pop or rock singer, and a bluegrass band. These series are pre-sold with a portion of the seats withheld for each special performance and provide a bounty for bluegrass bands which once depended upon fine weather. A corollary to this movement is that specialized bluegrass promoters will become less necessary, but arts centers do need bluegrass advisers.

Moderate to severe genre bending will continue and many will continue to call what they hear bluegrass, if it sounds like Bill Monroe or not. Whether it's plugged in string band music that sounds more like rock and roll than what we generally think of as bluegrass, or contemporary music calling on the sounds and songs that predate the bluegrass era, it can mix well with bluegrass in a variety of settings, continuing to attract older and more conservative listeners while introducing younger, rock-oriented fans to classic bluegrass and country. There also seems to be a longing for quieter, but equally up-tempo and emotionally pleasing music among maturing baby boomers and millenials which can be satisfied by this mixing of related musical styles.

Healthier Bluegrass Musicians Due to the ACA (Obamacare) (thanks to James Moss). During the past several years, we've seen many benefit concerts and fund raising efforts held for sick and dieing bluegrass musicians. Unless they have a spouse with a full-time job that includes family benefits, an increasing rarity during the past generation, few bluegrass musicians have health care. They're constantly in fear of the disaster that a serious illness or injury presages. The emergency ward truly isn't a real substitute for good supportive and preventive care, nor does life on the road encourage good habits. Even early reports suggest that musicians may be leading the charge in a turnaround of attitudes toward Obamacare, even with its flaws and difficulties, which can be resolved if we work together to solve them.

Streaming concerts and even festivals will become more common. Changes in the way that television works and how a television can be connected to a computer make bluegrass concerts in your living room an increasingly common event. You can already watch some bluegrass events on television at a relatively small price. Imagine an evening with four or five different bands playing while you enjoy them from the comfort of your living room at a reasonable price made possible because of the economics of scale.

There is an emerging audience for bluegrass, if we can identify and nurture it. There's no knowing how many potential bluegrass fans there are out there. We meet many people along the road who tell us, “This is the first bluegrass event I've ever been to. I'm having a wonderful time.” Many of them have preconceptions about hillbilly music garnered from bad television and visions of hay bales. They never knew, until they came to the event that they were going to see some of the best musicians playing some of the most sophisticated music there is. Each of us can help grow the music by bringing a new person to a concert or to a day at your local festival, by being a good ambassador for the music, and by spreading the word. As time and technology move along, there will be new venues and new delivery systems for new fans. It's never like it was yesterday, let alone nearly seventy years ago, when Lester Flatt and Earle Scruggs stepped on the stage at the Grand Old Opry with Bill Monroe, and bluegrass music was born.