The Music Business isn’t Dying, it Just Doesn’t Favor the Business People Quite as Much.

Last night, I read this article, shared via Facebook by my friend Craig Havighurst. In this interview, Sony Music Nashville Chairman and CEO, Gary Overton, proclaims his undying love for country radio. The first line of the article basically says it all; “If you’re not on country radio you don’t exist.”.

Obviously, once you step out of the major label bubble, this is utter nonsense.

Amidst the many cries that the Music Industry is going away, Overton’s feelings are certainly sincere. He and his peers desperately need country radio and all the other organs of the major label side of the industry. But claiming that music is going to go away because major labels can’t figure out how to make money is like McDonalds saying the country will run out of food because they aren’t selling cheeseburgers the way they used to. These are the sentiments of business people, not music people. If a business person can’t sell enough widgets, they stop making widgets.  Music people, on the other hand, will continue to make music in the face of great risk and find ways to get it out. And, they can realistically earn enough fans of their work, who are willing to pay for it in some way, that they are able to continue making music of quality. Which they call “being successful”.

What would be more appropriate would be for the big guns to say that the business model that has allowed them to become rich is going away. That might actually be true. The numbers that major label executives need to keep themselves in the manner to which they have grown accustom are getting harder to come by. That doesn’t have anything at all to do with music, or even with what is becoming the new music industry. While the big players are trying to find ways to keep making boat-payments, independent artists and their partners are chugging along, maybe even gathering momentum. This is not to say that success is easy or certain in any corner of the music industry, only that there are more tools and outlets available to folks at all pay levels.

For small artists who make good music, who have a plan and a voracious work-ethic, there are more paths to success than ever before. We’re in the middle of an explosion of very creative bands who are making great music and inventing their own business models. They may not all be getting fabulously rich, but many are able to keep the lights on while making music of great quality. These groups have defined their own version of success and are pursuing it. But because they aren’t making numbers that will pay for the renovation to Overton’s vacation home, they “…don’t exist.”.






The Bluegrass Brand in the Marketplace.

Much electronic ink has been spilt among ‘grassers over just what the term “Bluegrass Music” ought to mean. Should it be reserved for music made by Monroe himself? Are former Bluegrass Boys also allowed? Is it enough to feature a banjo, what if the banjo player doesn’t roll? Or, maybe you just have one person in the band wear overalls and call it a day?

This is a fine discussion to have over coffee, or something stronger, between friends and colleagues. It’s probably even fine to have it with strangers on the internet; as long as the discussion remains friendly and open. Free of musical litmus tests and sweeping declarations.

In short, talk about it like it’s Art, not politics. Because that’s what it is, Art. And while you can describe art in great detail, you can’t pin it down. Attempts to do so almost always fail. Audience members will always see a lot of themselves in any good work, so debates over any kind of art will naturally be more about the debaters that about about the work. All this is for another day, though.

We’re talking business today.

Artists must not only be obsessed with their work. If they want to be successful they must also obsess over their business, because it’s the success of the business that keeps the art happening. As Bluegrass artists, we need to cultivate an ever-growing audience for the music so that we can all keep working. We must think of those audience members as our customers. We must realize that we produce a niche’ product that has a core audience of die-hard fans, but that won’t necessarily appeal to everyone all the time. We need to become comfortable with casual fans whose definition of what is and isn’t “Bluegrass” might be very different from those of the core audience. These are people who might attend a festival to see the Old Crow set Saturday night and Doyle Lawson’s gospel set Sunday morning, calling all of it Bluegrass.

We REALLY need these people, as many of them as we can get.

I’ll illustrate with a clunky metaphor.

Let’s say we’re all in the business of selling chocolate. Specifically, we make a variety of strawberry-rhubarb-cayanne pepper chocolates.

Delicious, right?

We sell these chocolates directly from a small shop. There’s a steady business selling to connoisseurs, but walk-in traffic struggles because not everyone wants strawberry-rhubarb-cayanne pepper chocolates, even though we have dark and milk chocolate varieties, and there’s nothing else there to keep them in the store. It doesn’t help that our counter staff are all die-hard fans of SRCP chocolates and prone to delivering lectures on the superiority of the dark chocolate varieties over all others, before chasing the customer out of the store for not being a true-believer. Before long, the store closes and we all go home with trunks full of unsold chocolate.

My point is that we must see every music fan as a potential customer and be okay with it if they decide not to be. We must meet them on their terms and allow them to call whatever music they like whatever they want. We can’t afford to turn those people off today because they could be new fans tomorrow. We should embrace the fact that some people will call anything with a banjo bluegrass. because the more they say that word, the better. And, the more likely they are to buy music, to attend concerts and find their way to more styles of Bluegrass.

It’s not about maintaining the purity of a music or the meaning of a word, neither thing is possible. It’s about making friends and making fans who can help to keep the lights on so that we can keep making the music that we want to.



Bluegrass and the Tired Narrative of the Old vs. the New

Bluegrass is a music that has always been vigorous with innovation. From Monroe’s early experiments and Scruggs’ rocketship development of the five-string banjo to the fusions of Dawg Music and the ear-opening playing and compositions of Strength in Numbers, Bluegrass musicians have raced forward every step of the away. Despite all of these models of progression it seems there has always, or at least frequently, been friction between players of so-called traditional styles and progressive styles.

This friction has taken various forms and I’m sure that many people within the Bluegrass community have different perspectives on it. Many players, promoters, DJs, etc., are fans of all the Bluegrass flavors. Perhaps even most of them embrace everything from the Stanley Brothers to the Punch Brothers, old-fashioned mailers and Twitter feeds.

But it’s not everyone.

I thought that this was behind us, that we have moved past it. But In the last couple of years I have been confronted with a narrative in opposition to progressive ‘Grass that goes ( a bit hyperbolically) something like this:

“Progressive Bluegrassers don’t have respect for the traditional styles or its’ players. They haven’t bothered to understand it and they don’t care about the way things have always been done. Until they come around and give Traditional Bluegrass and all that goes with its’ due respect, they shouldn’t expect any from the old-schoolers.”

Obviously I’m exaggerating to make a point here. And while it’s not pervasive, this point of view is just common enough to be a problem.

The thing about this line of reason is that it’s almost totally wrong.

There are heroes and villains on both sides of the old/new divide, but almost to a person, progressive players hold traditional players in high esteem. We fell in love with Bluegrass at their concerts and listening to their records. We played along with those records to learn their licks, their breaks and we struggled to imitate their distinct tones and feels. We played their songs at jams and on our first gigs. And we still do all of it! The traditional players are the ones from whom we learned our vocabulary. They literally taught us to speak the language, we know that we owe them a great debt.

You’ll see young players in the front row whenever a Bluegrass legend plays. You’ll find them spending hours watching YouTube concert videos of those same players, and you’ll see them ask those heroes to join them on stage and on their own records. In short, there is little but admiration and respect for tradition flowing from the musicians, promoters, journalists and DJs who are pushing the boundaries of what people think of as Bluegrass.

There is so much conspicuous respect and admiration among contemporary players for our forebears that it’s time to put this tired narrative to bed. We must celebrate the connections between the old and the new and we must learn lessons from each other. Whether it’s music, or how we do business and promote ourselves, the news kids also have a lot to share.