Thursday, October 8, 2009

IBMA 2009 - The Business Conference

Renaissance Hotel - Nashville, TN

  On Monday morning, the first day of IBMA, a panel convened by Archie Warnock examined “The State of the Industry” with a clear, incisive panel committed to discussing the many issues confronting bluegrass music in this time of rapid change and a discouraging economy. Brandi Hart of The Dixie Bee Liners, John Lawless from the Bluegrass Blog, and Ronnie Reno who (unbeknownst to me) is deeply involved in Blue Highway TV and working to get television opportunities for our music.
 Archie Warnock

Ronnie Reno

The Audience

Their presentations examined ways to use technology more effectively at the band level for distributing music as well as gaining, building, and maintaining fan bases through use of today's emerging technologies, with a special emphasis on social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace, ReverbNation, and others. The well-attended panel met from eleven until one and set what, for me, became a major theme of the business conference: Using technology to grow bluegrass music. Panels and meetings held throughout the first four days of IBMA looked at this theme from many angles. A look at some of the topics dealt with in conference sessions suggests the breadth of the knowledge and discussion available:

New & Improved Web Sites
Teaching Bluegrass: An Alternative Revenue Stream
Internet Marketing & Social Networking 101
Web Video 101
Maximize Your Money: Understanding Financial Management in the Music Business
Finding, Managing, and Keeping Good Volunteers
Negotiating A Performance Contract: “You Want What?”
New Developments in Live Sound Technology

For a full listing of all the events on the schedule, click here.

Panel on Writing for the Internet

On Tuesday afternoon, I was privileged to sit on a panel entitled “Writing for the Internet: Blogging & Building an Audience” moderated by John Lawless of the Bluegrass Blog with Ashby Frank (mandolin player with Special Consensus), Craig Shelburne from, and me. Each of us blog for a different purpose in different styles and with differing orientations to what we do. About twenty or twenty-five people attended a session scheduled for and hour and stayed an hour beyond the scheduled ending asking good questions and stimulating a fascinating discussion about how to build a blog and use it to drive people toward you. Of particular interest to me was the emphasis in both the presentations I attended on keeping a web site, social network site, or blog very active in order to encourage readers to return. There was lots of general talk as well as specific technical details suggested to help people attending. It's not easy to make such sessions appear glamorous for an effort like my blog. While I'm using pictures, people won't perk up and take note, but those wanting to build their expertise, professionalism, and incomes will pay attention. A useful and worthwhile conference well designed by the staff and the volunteers will provide much for attendees to benefit from. IBMA did that every day, providing genuine value for those willing to spend the relatively small amount the registration costs as an investment in their careers. To make it “about the music,” musicians and others in the music business have to learn how to attract and maintain fans, and doing that requires more than just playing well.

Panel on Preparing for and Interview
Donna Ulisse, Barry Mazer, Bill Cody

Health Fair

On Wednesday, one of the featured activities was a Health Fair. IBMA has shown a significant concern for the mental and physical health of bluegrass musicians. There was a panel on weight management and diabetes at the conference, one on the new health care plan, and a mentor session on maintaining your singing voice. IBMA has found a health care provider to offer health insurance musicians can afford. I got involved in this element of IBMA's efforts a couple of years ago when I met a Tennessee attorney named Scott Madden at Merlefest, and we discussed his son's interest in focal distonia, a syndrome threatening the careers of many musicians. A year later we met again and talked some more. Scott's son Jared is a Dr. of Osteopathy who teaches at the newly formed DeBusk College of Osteopathic Medicine at Lincoln Memorial University. The school has developed an interest in research and treatment of musicians suffering from repetitive motion injuries, a serious problem that has ruined the careers of many pickers. I offered to make an overture to Dan Hays, and even though it was late in the planning season, space was made available for DeBusk to spend one day describing its services and treating people. All day long musicians and others were lined up to spend time having Dr. Jared Madden treat them, and reports I received were highly enthusiastic. My own experience of having Jared treat my neck was highly positive. I'll be writing a separate blog entry about this in a month or two, but people suffering from distonia or other repetitive motion injuries should give the school a call.

Scott Madden with David Mayfield of Cadillac Sky

Dr. Jared Madden, D.O. Giving Treatment

 Whether a person attended IBMA as a performer, a promoter, a record executive, a techie, a writer, an agent, an equipment manufacturer, a broadcaster, or a merchandiser, the program provided opportunities for people to learn, share, and develop. I counted about 35 different workshops and labs during the daytime hours. In addition, to the health fair, the exhibits, the gig fair, mentor sessions and much, much more. Included was a day-long seminar for teachers focused on teaching bluegrass in the classroom. Anyone wishing to develop and build their knowledge base or get more skills could have kept busy all day for each day of the business conference. I was surprised not to see more musicians participating as attendees at the seminar presentations I attended. I know they attended the gig fair, because this event provides a direct opportunity, especially for new bands, to get some contact with many potential gigs in one place and time, but I was told there were few enough participants that people were able to do quick walk-bys at festival tables they had not scheduled.
Gig Fair

Darin and Brooke Aldridge Interview with Boston Bluegrass Union

Ernie and Deb Evans Interview Darin and Brooke Aldridge

I've read a good many criticisms in the forums and mailing lists about the expense of IBMA and its loss of connection to the musicians. For a person seeking to increase income, visibility, and skills at the business end of being a bluegrass musician or associated with bluegrass in almost any other capacity, IBMA represents an unparalleled opportunity to learn and develop. We live in a changing world in which the recording industry has been turned upside down, the computer has entered into almost every aspect of our lives, the economy has been in a decline, and the life of a touring bluegrass musician or members of a local or regional band has become increasingly challenged. The conference itself seems to be expensive, but one price provides access to all aspects of the event. I checked the cost of attendance at the National Council of Teachers of English, an event I attended from time to time in an earlier incarnation, and found that full attendance at the conference, a couple of seminars, and a banquet or two could easily add up to more than $500.00, a significant sum for a working teacher. This year's early bird registration for IBMA cost $340.00 including three banquet/meals and all associated events except the awards ceremony. The program offered a multitude of opportunities for musicians and others to learn to be more professional and to increase their income significantly through taking advantage of and understanding the changes we all face. No person associated with bluegrass could fail to learn new and valuable information and skills if they attended conference sessions or used the assembled people to increase their visibility and knowledge through careful and focused networking. And it's all deductible.
Making Facebook Friends Real
Mike Ramsey - Red, White & Bluegrass

Henri Deschamps - Mast Farm Inn

Gabrielle Gray - Executive Director
International Bluegrass Music Museum

Irene has pointed out to me that there are significant ways to reduce, or nearly eliminate the costs of attending IBMA. One way is to volunteer. Volunteers, who work about four hours a day during the convention, receive free admission to all elements of IBMA except the meals. Staying in accommodations other than the headquarters hotel can help achieve significant savings. One woman she talked to paid $40.00 a night to stay in a hotel by using PriceLine to get a discounted rate. Parking in the lot only three blocks away cost just $10.00 per day. In other words, you can make the event more affordable. In the end, however, not attending IBMA and using it to improve your visibility and skills costs more than being there. And you miss the fun, too!

The only problem for me was that there were too many interesting sessions which conflicted with other events and activities I wanted to involve myself in. One involved meeting and chatting with people I've known for years as voices on the forums and mailing lists or performers from the stage who I haven't had a chance to interact with. What a rich interpersonal soup the business conference presents.
Networking is a crucial activity at IBMA. Performers are looking for festivals to perform at, record labels to release their work, agents to help them book, and broadcasters to help disseminate their sounds. All these people mill around the halls of the convention center, the hotel, and the exhibition hall, chatting, meeting-and-greeting, and moving on to the next person or group. I was particularly interested in putting faces and voices to the people who have become my readers and friends through Facebook. People who see this as a useless activity, who maintain that it's all about making the music and letting that stand for itself are just fooling themselves. The gig fair, held on Wednesday afternoon, gives bands a chance to contact individual promoters for a quick presentation. Many other opportunities to do careful self-promoting exist every day.

Meeting and Greeting
Donna Ulisse Meets Dale Ann Bradley for the First Time

Sierra Hull and Tina Steffey

During the entire week, however, large festivals and smaller promoters are constantly meeting, talking to, and listening to bands they've never heard before. At official showcases and after hours showcases, many bands that have not been very high profile get a chance to display their skills and showmanship, while promoters try to take it all in and to make choices that will enliven and strengthen their events. During the first four days, at three meal events and an evening showcase, official showcases presented eighteen bands in the banquet hall to large audience. Each day, except Thursday, when the Awards Show took place, there were after hours showcases. There were 51 separate showcases with each presenting between one and ten bands during the period 11:15 PM – 2:00 AM. Some presented high profile bands (IIIrd Tyme Out, Lonesome River Band, Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper) while others presented bands just turning out (Jerry Butler & the Blu-J's, Darin and Brooke Aldridge, The Quebe Sisters Band, Tina Adair Band) for twenty or twenty-five minutes each. Some bands performed at several different showcases. There were also private, invitation only events and private showings in hotel suites and small meeting rooms. In other words, the music was put to the front and bands got a chance to be seen by the people who count in terms of booking and promotion. Getting booked at these events requires hard work during the year. Bands can't just sit and wait to be invited. Dave Burley also promoted a series of alternative showcases at Layla's Bluegrass Inn, just a couple of blocks from the convention hall, where a dozen or more bands were seen over four days. At the one we attended, several promoters were in evidence.

After Hours Showcases
Heather Berry

Darin and Brooke Aldridge

Jr. Sisk and Rambler's Choice

The Gibson Brothers

  Audience for Jackson, Cordle, and Salley

In the next couple of weeks, I'll touch in greater detail on other elements of the week just past, but as a business conference alone, IBMA is well worth your attention, time, and money. People who insist on jamming until daylight, while having a great time, may find they're wasting the valuable opportunities to grow as professionals within the bluegrass music community. Meanwhile, carping about IBMA not being about music or helping bluegrass musicians to prosper is just so much hot air.

Seen at Jams and in the Exhibition Hall
The Cherryholmes Play Cornhole with their Fans

Spring Creek Performs in their Booth

Jamming in the Hallways

  I particularly want to thank Irene for taking up the camera and substantially expanding our ability to cover an event.  Many of the pictures in this entry and in ones to come are hers. 


  1. "Expensive" is in the eye of the beholder. We parked each day except Sunday, for $4, just four blocks from the convention center. It hurt me to pay more on Sunday for the convenience of being near the hotel, but some choices are necessary.

    We have attended this event in whole or in part for several years, and managed to decrease our total cost each year. Not sure we can do that again, but necessity is the mother of invention, so it may be possible.

  2. Only been to IBMA once and it was loads of phun. We go to Spgbma now cuz it's alot less costly and still lots of phun. My profile is nearly the same as yours. The dobro player in our band (River City Ramblers)is from New Hampshire, also. Your blog and comments are REALLY appreciated!

  3. Ted, did you catch Spring Creek? Great young group on Rebel Records, we really need to keep young groups like Spring Creek on the front burner to keep Bluegrass going strong in the future, Thanks and God Bless.