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.


8 responses to “The Bluegrass Brand in the Marketplace.”

  1. Well said. We must be more inclusive in order to be included!

  2. I couldn’t agree more with this article. As a 62 yr old that has been around bluegrass since a kid, I have seen the music change, which is good. As a bluegrass musician I have taken our band into the eclectic/progressive type of music because of just what this article says. We always have someone that comes up after a show to tell me they didn’t like bluegrass until they heard ours…not saying this to brag but to simply say that when you mix traditional with popular or country music done with a bluegrass flavor those folks come into the fold. With that being said, how many times can we listen to songs like “The Old Home Place” over and over and over done the same way over and over and over at the same bluegrass festival??? If we tire of it, what about folks that “don’t like” bluegrass music? I love chocolate but when you eat 10 lbs a day everyday even that gets old quickly. Thanks for the article.

  3. Exactly. Brief, clear, intelligent. Thank you.

  4. It seems like your organization is trying to monetize Roots Music. That’s great, I’m all for it. Find yourself an original name like Americana, Ameropoltan etc. The Pop music folks in Nashville hijacked the name Country. You guys now want to hijack the name Bluegrass. Tomorrow someone might take a genre of Techno-Rap and name it the Delta Blues. It’s not OK!!!!!

    1. I hear what you’re saying, but I think you’re mistaken on one point. I don’t represent any organization. When I use the word “we”, I’m referring to the community of Bluegrass musicians (Of which I most certainly a member, listen to Sirius/XM or open a recent issue of Bluegrass Unlimited and you’ll hear my playing or see my picture.) which has a history of being very protective of the term. My very point is that when fans choose to use that term to describe a band, we should let them do it. Lest we alienate them and loose a fan that we need.

      1. Jeremy, I would like to apologize. My comment was directed at the group The Bluegrass Situation, which I actually enjoy for all the good tweets about Roots Music artists they send. I enjoy Bluegrass music but my current obsession is Bakersfield and Honky Tonk and the Bakersfield sound. I’m just seeing a trend of hijacking of legendary genre names for the purpose of branding and it disturbs me. Keep playing the real stuff!

      2. I see. Again, I understand your feelings, but consider for a moment just how much (so-called) ACTUAL Bluegrass gets presented to people though the Bluegrass Situation. TBGS has a broader audience than any pure Bluegrass outlet, and they’re not shy about promoting traditional, ‘grass or the culture that goes with it at all. In fact, the ‘Situation is doing just what Im talking about, allowing the audience to use the term however they choose, as long as they pay attention. Their name is actually poking fun at this very….situation (couldn’t resist).

  5. I guess any way that works to get this music out there is important. I am happy that roots music is out there now for anybody looking, thru vehicles like twitter, Pandora and other internet sources. When I was growing up you really had to make quite an effort to find genres and artists if you were interested in something other than pop music. Some recent results like Old Crow Medicine Show winning a Grammy for best Folk(??) album and the new Ameripolitan Awards do make me optimistic.

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