Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Mutual Responsibilities in this New Media World - Essay

Below is a lightly edited version of my Welcome Page column in last Tuesday's California Bluegrass Association. As always, my thanks go out to the CBA for providing me with this platform.

We've been resting, a luxury those of us who are supposedly retired can enjoy, in Shelby, NC and now for a week in Myrtle Beach after the five hectic, inspiring, demanding, and action-filled days of IBMA's World of Bluegrass and Wide Open Bluegrass in Raleigh. We find attending IBMA gives us a chance to touch bases with people we often see out along the bluegrass trail, and also allows us to make a personal connection to those we only know through their recordings or on line. It's like a big, fast-paced family reunion. IBMA also gives us a chance to acknowledge the many kindnesses and thoughtful remarks people have made about us and our work. For both of us, often in very different ways, this annual feast of music and friendship remains a special gift. But it also reminds me of a debt I owe to so many people who have opened doors for us, created opportunities, and allowed us behind the scenes and into their lives to understand and appreciate the rigors of the road and the demands of performing. One of the things I hear from others, who like me are involved in sharing this world with an ever-growing public, is that too many performers and others take too little time to acknowledge the effort, time, and care that goes into greasing some of the skids of this demanding life making and sharing music.

I remember being a guest on The Mark, that luxurious bus carrying Dailey & Vincent along their demanding way. After a performance one day, we were ushered back to the owners' cabin at the rear of the forty-five foot long Prevost they ride in. The door closed and somehow some of the size and energy leaked out of Jamie Dailey as he sat in his seat and opened his laptop computer. As we chatted, he responded to dozens of remarks and observations coming from fans, let his publicist and others working to help keep their enterprise running know about the day, and checked in with others. He wrote some of what my mother used to call “bread and butter” notes, thank you notes to those whose kindnesses or mentions had helped pave the way for the phenomenal success across genre lines that has become Dailey & Vincent.

In the dozen years that we've been involved with this bluegrass world, we've seen the opportunities for growth and spreading awareness become ever greater. Bob Cherry, who runs Cybergrass, the oldest online resource for bluegrass, recognized the potential for growth represented by the Internet almost at its birth, but bluegrass grows from the roots of rural America and is often reluctant to take on new ways of communicating and publicizing itself. When we came into bluegrass, there were few band sites, no Social Media, and restricted opportunities for publicizing a band and getting recognized. Cheaply printed fliers and word-of-mouth seemed to be the major ways to spread news of festival. Cybergrass, the world's seventh oldest web site, was founded in September of 1992, and has persisted as a great aggregator of bluegrass information from other sources and originator of new material. John Lawless and Brance Gillihan began The Bluegrass Blog in 2006. It has since morphed into the bluegrass world's first media giant, a true online newspaper that functions as a Social Media site, too. As Bluegrass Today has grown, it's influence is ever more widely felt. With a full-time staff and numerous bluegrass stringers, Bluegrass Today is literally everywhere in the bluegrass world.

It's the rare band that no longer has a web presence with a web site (often professionally developed and managed), personal and business Facebook pages, and other outlets on the Net. A new world of media awareness has emerged, and it affects bluegrass in mighty ways. World Wide Bluegrass is now streaming bluegrass twenty-four hours a day around the world using numerous broadcasters in several countries. FM radio is a powerful force supporting bluegrass music, particularly in the realm of public radio and college low power stations. With all these opportunities to spread the word, what responsibilities do individual performers have?

I hear rumblings out there in the communications world that many artists neglect recognizing that publicity is a reciprocal phenomenon. How many artists put a note on their Facebook Page or Twitter feed saying “I'm going to be on the air today with this DJ. Why don't ya'll listen in at......”? Those radio DJ's, many of them volunteers, are working hard to publicize your efforts. Don't you have a responsibility to let your world know about them? I once heard Rush Limbaugh (back in the days when I listened to him) say that his only function on the air was to keep you (the listener) tuned in between the commercials. Likewise with you, the performer. Your taking time to publicize your upcoming appearances on the air, and to thank the person who put you there afterwords, is part of this game of effectively using the vast media world available to you. Recently I wrote a couple of useful paragraphs that bands put on the front page of their web sites, at least for a day or two. I was pleased about this, and complimented. I like it a lot when people who use my photographs on their web sites or Facebook pages at least acknowledge that they are my photos. Many people do just that. Similarly, I try to acknowledge song writers in the description section of my You Tube channel. It's your responsibility to acknowledge and recognize the efforts made on your behalf by the media world working to put your name before the public. It's not at all unlike the (often reflexive) thanks performers give from the stage to the promoter and the sound man. Even when the sound is bad, smart bands acknowledge the sound man, knowing the damage that can be caused a performance on the sound board. How often does the emcee, who brings a band on stage with enthusiasm and encourages the audience to call for often undeserved encores, get thanks from a band? How often does a band put its upcoming radio appearances on its tour schedule? Isn't a radio show or TV appearance another form of performane?

It's worthwhile for band members to remember that we live in a world that rewards reciprocity. That's one of the reasons why links are so important and effective on the World Wide Web. Remember that you, as a performer, live in a literal interconnected web of reciprocity benefiting all the participants. I remember calling a bluegrass performer a few years ago to urge him to build a Facebook presence. He exploded at me, saying “I already have too much to do!” A day or so later I noticed a FB page and this performer has since become a master of letting people into his life (in the places he chooses), telling where his band will be performing, and sending pointed thanks to those who help him along. The newly developed skill has been important to the progress of this particular band. Too often I hear performers say, “It's all about the music,” pointing to the few hours of performing pleasure a week that make it all worthwhile. But it's clear that it isn't “all about the music.” Much of a performers life must be devoted to burnishing the business of music to make it work. Spend some time looking at your web of support, and make sure you thank those people next time they take time to recognize your efforts.