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Musicians and Tech Developers Are in the Same Boat!

Some musicians are at-odds with streaming services. They feel that the lost revenue is irreplaceable, that Spotify and the rest are an existential threat. Others have chosen to embrace streaming as a tool to reach new fans, to use it as the best distribution service ever. They view the lost revenue as a cost of doing business and, rather than lamenting it’s loss, find ways to maximize the benefits to themselves.

Since the cat of music-streaming is already out of the bag, this is certainly the way to go for  the foreseeable future.

But let’s look one step further down the road. Many musicians have given up making money from streaming. They are willing to give their music away in order to make money in other ways. Tech developers and their business partners, on the other hand, are still planning to make money on this somehow. But they’re not. Oft-villainized Spotify has yet to turn a profit, and while it’s heading in the right direction it still needs more users to sign-up for its paid service, versus the free service that 75% of its users seem to be happy with. If you ask me, $10 a month is a great deal for their service, but what do I know? I still like to buy physical copies of records in record stores.

So, fans of music want it for free. Musicians, whether they like it or not, are going along with it. The tech/business people have also complied, but they’ve offered a sweet deal for just a little money, hoping users will get on board and support their business model. Spotify CEO Daniel Ek has equated the monthly fee to “…less than two beers.”, it is a bargain, but casual music consumers are pretty clearly saying “No thanks, we just want it for free.”.

Likewise, musicians are hoping that fans will choose to support their business models in other ways, like attending shows, buying merchandise or through subscription services and streamed concerts. Many bands are able to make this work. Meanwhile, the streaming services don’t have much else to sell. Who wants to buy a Spotify T-shirt or pay to hear Daniel Ek speak? Tidal might be able to sell T-shirts and hats because Jay-Z , but is the streaming service going to be a loss-leader for a new line of clothing? Probably not. (But maybe it will, Jay-Z is really smart.) Google has the upper hand here, since YouTube is a vastly more popular streaming service and the big G has monetized the heck out of every user by scanning our emails for marketing data (something Spotify will probably never be able to do). 

Where does this leave us? Spotify, Tidal, etc. may become profitable some day, but maybe not. YouTube seems to have it in the bag. If Google chooses to charge for YTs new streaming service it might help the case for paying for music streaming, but maybe not. It’s all up in the air right now. Musicians, who are hard at work finding ways to get the most out of having their music available for free are actually in a good position. The tech/business world is scrambling to find the best way to deliver our music, which is OUR ADVERTISING, to fans for free. Or, at least almost free. Whether or not there is actual money to be made for them in delivering ‘free’ music for a small fee remains to be seen.

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To Kickstart or Not to Kickstart?

Some time ago, I backed the Kickstarter campaign of an acquaintance who was about to make his first record. It was the first crowd-funded project that I had supported. I pledged $10 and looked forward to getting  a few updates and, eventually, a digital copy of the project when it was finished. About a week later I received an short update about the records’ progress. After that, nothing. As far as I know, the project was never completed. Since then, my acquaintance moved away from Nashville, leaving a few angry friends behind. So… you be the judge.

Needless to say, I was not chomping at the bit to back another project.

Recently, though, many of my very talented friends have launched crowd-funding efforts for new records. These are projects that I really would like to see completed, and music that I would really like to hear. So, I’m back in the business of pledging support through Kickstarter, PledgeMusic, etc..

In general, I think that crowd-funding is great tool for artist and for fans. The money that labels usually provide isn’t available to independent artists, unlike other label services which can be provided by freelancing pros or other companies. Crowd-funding allows fans to get in on the capitol end of things and help bring music to market. Even established artists who are no longer working with labels are using crowd-finds to pay for projects.

It’s terrific, you should get involved and support your favorite artists!

On the artist end of things, though, there is more at play than just getting the money and then chipping away at the project. First, it’s imperative to think of crowd-funds not as a gift but as a contract advance against future work. Any time you ask for money, whether a home-loan or an advance, you must be certain that you will use the money only for what you have said it’s for (including money raised over your goal) that your plans for the money you’re raising are realistic (Think you’re going to make a record and promote it for $2,500? Think again.) and that you will deliver what you promise on time, whether a monthly payment or a completed project. Honesty, transparency and diligence are all keys. If you don’t deliver, or if you under-deliver, you can kiss future funding efforts goodbye.

You can probably also say goodbye to those fans, along with any of their friends.

Maybe most importantly, you can hurt other artists by making it harder for them to raise money. It was a long time before I was willing to get involved again after my first pledge experience. For many potential supporters, it could never happen. Don’t hurt the collective reputation of bands and artists by falling down on the job.

Finally, don’t abuse the system. Carefully consider whether or not you’re asking for help with appropriate things. Does your business model include going to your fans every time you need to record? Tour? Place a CD order? If so, you need to examine your model. You must expect to have some skin in the game and you can’t always rely on the confidence and generosity of your fans to close budget gaps. If you can’t make some things happen on your own your fans will stop helping you make them happen. They might even stop helping anyone at all.

 

JD

 

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Maintaining a Professional Demeanor. Or, Stop It You Knuckleheads!

Moments ago, I read a short rant on social media, written by one well-known Bluegrass professional, about another. This little gem was based on something yet another well known Bluegrass person had mentioned earlier, also on social media.

Whatever your feelings may be about the recent turbulence on the IBMA board, IBMA itself, WOB, the Dobro in Bluegrass, etc., you are delusional if you think professional Bluegrass will be painted by the rest of the world with anything other than a single brush.

More simply, the rest of the music/cultural/arts community does not care about the factions that have formed. They do not care about the ins and outs of recent infighting or old arguments. They will only see a group of people, hotly bickering with one-another over nothing that they understand.

Then they will be on their way.

Bluegrass musicians, writers, journalists, etc. need to be able to work as much as possible. We need to be seen as a professional, agreeable and reasonable group. We must be folks that other folks want to work with. Bickering on the internet makes it harder to accomplish this. If you have a disagreement that cannot remain civil, have it privately. Online flame wars are the territory of adolescents.

So knock it off!

All of you!

Some of us have kids to feed!

JD

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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.”.

 

 

JD

 

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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.

JD

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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.

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Textures!

Acoustic instruments are amazing things. They give the player the opportunity to actually put their hands, feet, mouths and voices to work shaping sound. Taking a sound that exists in their minds and (hopefully) bringing it forth through an instrument that is part inanimate object, part temperamental living thing.

Over the past few months, I’ve heard new music that demonstrates something really exciting. These acoustic instruments that are so special (and hard to play) are being used to create new, beautiful and detailed textures. This isn’t new for Bluegrass instruments, like banjos and acoustic guitars, but it is reaching new levels of artistry and requiring ever higher levels of technique. Traditionally, each instrument in a so-called “Bluegrass Band” has had a prescribed set of patterns from which to choose during the performance of a song. The mandolin usually plays on the upbeats (as a snare drum would do), the banjo player would use the distinctive rolls invented and pioneered by the great Earl Scruggs, the guitar strums, etc.. These are all distinct textures that were developed over time, and that eventually came together in a combination that we recognize as Traditional Bluegrass. It has been highly refined and is performed by many at a very high level. Recently, though, there’s been a great deal of really terrific music made in which these instruments are foregoing those traditional moves and using their unique timbres to build new patterns and sounds that support the music in new ways. Players are taking the foundation that Bluegrass, among other styles, provides and jumping off from there. These sounds are then woven together to create sonic landscapes that have previously been the territory of Classical Music, progressive styles of Rock, even Electronic Music. It seems to me to be a natural step, maybe even one that is overdue.

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Wheatland!

It’s time to settle into Fall here in Nashville. That means (hopefully) more work in-town as the tour season closes and time spent in the woodshed, rather than in airports or vehicles hurtling down the highway. It’s also a nice time to reflect on some of Summer’s highlights as the sky turns grey.

My wife is from Michigan, so between visits with her family and my work with Detour, I find myself in Michigan a lot. I have come to really love it, especially in the Summer and early Fall. It’s a beautiful place, tons of lakes big and small and lots of trees. Not to mention that some of the best small breweries in the country are in, or near, Michigan. With long cold Winters and so much great beer around, it’s not a surprise that Michiganders tend to play a lot of music and throw fantastic parties. They wrap up the Summer (or some of them do, anyway) by throwing a huge one just as the first hints of Fall are in the air.

Truly great festivals go beyond hosting great music. Even the combination of excellent music and amenities, like food vendors, crafters, etc., can’t elevate a festival. The great ones are knit into their landscape somehow and have a sense of really being OF the place where they are held. Not only that, these events have a way of making everyone feel that they are there to be a part of something big. From the organizers to the performers, the volunteers, the vendors and, most importantly the fans, everyone is there to be a participant. The Wheatland Music Festival, hosted by the Wheatland Music Organization,  is definitely one of those events.

It takes about 30 seconds while walking around the grove behind the main stage for you to be totally captured by the place. Rock sculptures ranging from micro to waist-high appear in spaces between the trees, and are built and re-built over and over again throughout the weekend. Stumps and benches dot the area and give pickers places to jam, you can hear them playing if you warm-up behind the stage as I did one morning. On the other end of the concert area, you can look up the hill at the main stage, which is relatively new, but its huge timbers and copper details make it seem like it has been there forever. Just looking at it makes you tingle, eager to play your best. I know the volunteers, tech crew and staff feel the same way. Even the fans are there to make their contribution, the positive energy that they bring is probably the most important factor. They KNOW it’s going to be great and they want to help it happen. You can feel it talking to fellow performers too. Everyone is engaged and ready to play great music. When you step onto the stage, the performer’s view of the crowd and the forested hills behind them is honestly inspiring. It makes you want to play things you haven’t played before, to give that crowd something that’s really of yourself. Performers always want to do a good job, but the right kind of place pulls your best work from you effortlessly. Wheatland is one of those, I can’t wait to get back.

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Whew!

Well, this Summer has flown by. I’ve been able to play a lot at some terrific places with Detour, and I’ve been able to play as a sub with some of my favorite bands. I’ll spare all the gory details, suffice to say that it has been a lot of fun! To cap off what has been a great few months, a few weeks ago Detour was nominated for IBMA’s Emerging Artist of the Year award. It feels unbelievably satisfying to receive that kind of recognition as part of a band that I really enjoy playing hanging out with. Fall and Winter usually mean time in the woodshed, and I hope that turns out to be the case. I’ve been chipping away at on online lesson series for Bluegrass bass, tour season has stalled taping and editing but more videos are on the way. You can check out the series so far here.

That’s all for now, stay tuned for a detailed account of some of my favorite festivals of the Summer.

JD

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Variety…

…is the spice of life. So the saying goes anyway. For me, it is essential to play a wide variety of music. Music is far to big and exciting to not explore, there is an endless variety of music, and musicians, to experience. You can pursue this exploration for your entire life and barely scratch the surface. I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to play a lot of music with a lot of really great people. It really is a special gift to feel connected to Music, and I think that’s a feeling that binds all musicians together. I know Hip-Hop artists, Country singers, orchestra pros and even a few Rock stars. As musicians, we’re all basically the same. That’s pretty awesome.