Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Risk, Work and the Issue of Professional vs. Talented Amateur - Essay

The essay below is an edited version of my Welcome Page column on the web site of the California Bluegrass Association. I appreciate the opportunity to have this monthly opportunity to speak my mind and the discipline it places on me.

Recently, a well-respected regional musician from New England, posted something of a rant on Facebook. He asked (maybe challenged would be a better word) major label artists whether, before they won a contract, they had other jobs and played covers before they made it big by obtaining a major label contract and broadcast recognition. He also challenged the legitimacy of the PRO's (professional rights organizations like ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC) to charge venues a fee for playing copyrighted and otherwise protected songs. Asserting that playing covers in minor venues (coffee and alcohol related bars, churches, vineyards, etc) provided these artists with the experience and publicity that made it possible for them to achieve their current prominence and have honor of being awarded a recording contract and/or significant national recognition.

Let's start with the PRO's. Who would deny the opportunity for the music creator, the writer, to obtain the royalties due him or her from being performed. Why should local venues be able, essentially, to steal content by not paying for the music they offer? Despite the rapidly changing media and online environment, there are still ways to assure that artists get paid for their creativity. If a venue is gaining business from presenting “free” music, thus exploiting both the performers and the creators of the music, it's behaving in a less than ethical fashion, even if it doesn't get caught. But it's encouraging to note that NOW is the heyday of the singer/songwriter and the independent artist. A musician with a message and style to share can do so today in ways that were inconceivable less than a decade ago. A few microphones and a mixing board in the basement and an inexpensive HD video recorder on a tripod is all it takes to produce a relatively high quality video. Making titles and posting it to You Tube costs nothing. An inventive self-promoter can use a variety of social media, including focused music sources, to get the word out and publicize the work. Performances that can generate interest can attract significant audiences, make real money, and get an excellent shot at a tour and a career. It's an increasingly open system every day.

Now to the more important matter, at least for some, of moving from local or regional band into national status. I probably could make it into some sort of a formula like: Talent +Hard Work+Some Luck = Success. But everyone knows that's not exactly the whole story. The formula does at least suggest a process, rather than a formula. There's no guarantee it will work out for any particular band, because what we've taken to calling the “it” factor always comes into play. Not every band, not even every well recognized band has the “it” factor, and almost none have “it” with everyone who encounters their music. Irene and I have spent hours seeking to define “it”, but no go.

Most bands form at some point from a group of people who come together to have fun making music. For the vast majority of bluegrassers, that activity, the jam, is as far as becoming a band ever gets. Some, however, will say, “Let's form a band” and start performing, perhaps at their local bluegrass society, at homes and hospitals, for a friend's wedding, or at the local farmer's market. They meet together on Tuesday evening and rehearse, but many of these “rehearsals” are just a good opportunity to continue a weekly jam. The hard work of moving into regular paying gigs across an increasingly wide geographical range is only about to begin.

Perhaps the most difficult task a band faces is to find and develop a distinctive sound that can become recognized within the first few notes of being heard. If you listen to satellite radio or your mp3 player, you know that you hear a few bands that leap out at you, while tons of others require you to look at the screen to realize who's playing. What knowledgeable bluegrass fan won't immediately recognize Del McCoury, Ralph Stanley, or, today, the Gibson Brothers when they come on the air? But it's fiendishly hard work to achieve this goal, it often takes years, and many bands never do succeed at it. Along with the sound, a band must move towards developing a stage show and learning to make direct connections with their audience. These connection opportunities (requirements?) have become increasingly important, largely due to technology. A band must have a personality that reaches out not only from the stage, but through the ozone. A band's ability to make connections through social media and their web site have become increasingly important. To neglect that aspect is to court doom. Recently, as I was preparing a festival preview, I came across a band calendar that was completely blank. Since I knew they were booked at the festival I was previewing, this sort of neglect sends a clear message about the band's priorities. No, it ain't just about the music! All this work takes commitment and teamwork. Every member of the band has to be involved and active in some aspect of forwarding the band's prospects.

While every band begins life as a cover band, exceptionally few bands create a national reputation through their covers. At present, the very high impact “tribute” band The Earls of Leicester are making quite a stir channeling the vibe of Flatt & Scruggs. On hearing them live, one is immediately struck by the thought that this is what it must have felt like to hear Flatt & Scruggs for the first time. But this doesn't happen often. This anomaly should never be expected. Not to say that a band shouldn't play covers. It's crucial in bluegrass to honor the shoulders on which each band stands. Covers are a way to do that. A band must find itself and then either write or select original material adequately representing the unique musical experience they wish to establish. This is an extremely difficult task, may take years, and requires time and energy. One element helping to make all this possible is staying together and working together with very few personnel changes over time. Look at long lived successful bands. The successful ones not having considerable continuity are notable as exceptions.

Finally, it comes down to being willing to take the risk. Most successful bluegrass musicians, it must be said, have a spouse with a full-time job including benefits. This aid can't be overestimated. The further personal support it suggests is beyond overemphasis. However, it's a trying commitment and means that many music marriages don't last, or else the careers don't. The rewards can be great, but the personal costs horrific. The simple four letter word “risk” carries a terrible, often unbearable, burden. Most people who have achieved top recognition have learned both the reward and the risk. In the end, nothing guarantees success, but the work, commitment, and, yes, suffering are all apart of what it takes to gain the reward.