Friday, February 14, 2014

Demographics and Bluegrass Festivals - Essay

The following is a highly edited version of my monthly column on the Welcome Page of the California Bluegrass Association. It includes a fine paragraph written by Don Denison, a CBA member, in response, which I thought deserved attention. I look forward to seeing your thoughts and responses to these comments.

It seems to me, and this may be based on the kinds of events we choose to attend, that the audiences at many bluegrass festivals are growing older, much older, while the events fail to attract new younger, more affluent audiences, particularly those with children. Many events are being canceled, and some have responded by reducing the quality of their lineup, pulling their horns in still further. We can count on traditional bluegrass continuing to be played, even after those who attended Fincastle, the first bluegrass festival, are gone. Bill Monroe, The Stanley Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs and the rest will be remembered and will continue to be played. Their work, and that of the folk singers, collectors, and old-time players who preceded them as well as the folkies and rockers who came along afterward will still thrill and influence younger players and their best work will continue being played as part of the bluegrass repertoire. Nevertheless, time is taking its toll. The Beatles debuted in New York fifty years ago and changed the music game forever, just the way minstral shows, rag time, big bands and jazz had in generations before. Many musicians I talk to give credit to the founders of bluegrass, but when I ask them what they listen to, they talk about today's people on the edge, many of whom I've never heard of. How can these modern innovators fail to influence the music played by bluegrass derived acoustic string bands today?

After this essay first appeared as my column on the California Bluegrass Association's Welcome Page, Don Denison made a comment I find particularly relevant to this discussion. In this paragraph I quote liberally from him. “All of us, if we are lucky, will become curmudgeons qrowling about the Non-Bluegrass music being represented as Bluegrass. Much of this music is excellent, well played and sung, but is it Bluegrass? Some of the younger (now themselves old) can remember the social milieu that gave birth to bands like The Bluegrass Boys, The Stanleys, Don and Red, but plowing with a mule or churning your own butter or witnessing Baptism in the nearby creek or river and millions of oyher things that were part of the experience of early Bluegrass performers are available only as stories told by our elders save for very few exceptions. There are "museum" farms, model T and Model A Fords around, but the culture that Bluegrass Music came out of is only in memory now. Who now has the memories that can create a song like Tennessee 1949, The Model Church, The Love of the Mountains? Songs expressing the feelings contained in these and many other songs have no basis in experience any more. The way of life that produced these and other like songs rooted in experience of the 30's, 40's, 50's and a limited few events in the 60's is gone and cannot be retrieved. So where does the material, and most especially the experience, of these times and their events [including] the feelings derived from these experiences come from? Obviously it must come from current life and in a small part from nostalgic thoughts focused on the past. Does this life experience produce Bluegrass Music? Well the answer for me is sometimes and rarely. Be that as it may be, the younger writers and performers are going to be using their lives and their own milieu to produce their music, sometimes it is Bluegrass and sometimes it is not, the point [is that] life experience is different now. There are few sharecropper sons and daughters out there making music. I don't know if we want to try to duplicate the experiences that Bill, Lester and Earl, the Stanleys, and Don and Red lived through, those were for the most part pretty tough times. So how do we keep it Bluegrass? I don't know, do YOU?”

What will we have to do to continue growing this music while keeping the audience, both young and old engaged in what's happening in music today. I believe the first step promoters, radio stations, and fans must take is to give up on purity. Already the lines between traditional bluegrass and classic country have been blurred almost to non-existence. The influences of all forms of rock, soul, punk, hip-hop, jazz, and more are already raising their heads in bluegrass, smoothed over, toned down, and made more acceptable, but they're there. An event that advertises a mixture of music will attract a broader demographic. In order to attract this kind of audience, promoters must raise prices. The days of a four day fifty dollar festival are long gone. Good bands need to be paid and they deserve to be paid, too. Furthermore, it's not unusual for these bands to featur Jimmy Martin and the Osborne Brothers as well as Tom Petty and the Allman Brothers in their repertoire. Many bands, including the likes of Yonder Mountain String Band, Old Crow Medicine Show, Railroad Earth, The Infamous Stringdusters, the Avett Brothers, the Punch Brothers and more freely acknowledge bluegrass as the central sound from which their music is derived. They think of themselves as bluegrass derived, if not directly as bluegrass bands. They play to large, engaged audiences througout the country and around the world. By booking the more contemporary and more varied bands that increased price and attendance can generate, promoters can increase the assurance of continued successful events.

Four things that can increase the attendance by a younger and more diverse demographic in events are youth programs, supervised activities of children, extensive jamming, band contests, and provisions made for dancing. Each of these elements encourages young families to attend, get their children involved, and become more involved themselves. As many festivals have reduced the percentage of local and regional bands that are booked to their festivals to encourage people to buy tickets to see more “name” bands, the opportunities for young bands have decreased. One incentive of band contests can be an appearance at the festival for the winner or a guaranteed booking in next year's event and/or a cash prize. This provision costs little and can attract five to ten bands and all their friends and families to a festival. HoustonFest, one of our favorite small festivals, held in Galax, VA in May, is filled with young bands playing the music they love. It's all acoustic, but beyond that the range of influences is almost endless, yet all of them trace their roots back to old time and the founders of bluegrass music. It's a wonderful and interesting event attracting a wide range of young musicians.

Another audience builder is a structured play area or tent supervised by volunteers makes it possible for younger families to attend and enjoy bluegrass festivals while knowing that, for at least part of the time,their kids are enjoying themselves while they a free. Still another provision that would be attractive to a younger demographic would be a dance friendly area near the stage but not blocking view of those who want to sit and listen. Many younger people want to express their appreciation of music in movement, so make sure the opportunity is there. Older fans want to have an unobstructed view of the stage and to enjoy their bluegrass while seated. Tapping their toes and swaying a little in their seats is about the most movement many of them wish to manage. It really isn't too difficult to make provision for both urges to move and participate to be met.

I believe the three or four day outdoor bluegrass music festival still has a great future, despite the attractiveness of other delivery formats and the difficulty of uncertain weather. But in order to retain the current audience, as long as its members can continue to attend, and add a younger, more vigorous new fan base consisting of a more diverse population, it's necessary to rethink the constitution and structure of events and the nature bands performing at them. Doing so can only support and encourage the continued influence of and love for traditional bluegrass music, satisfy larger, more diverse audiences while keeping promoters in business and thriving.