Looking Back at the Americana Conference
The Americana Conference and Music Festival got kicked off on Wednesday, as I found myself stuffed—asparagus like—into the can of the Basement, one of Nashville’s most unlikely popular venues. It was all over by Sunday, when I myself sang a few songs at the Bluebird with my friend, Audrey Auld. I was exhausted from a sleepless week and TOTALLY muffed my song, “My People Come From The Dirt.” Right there on the hallowed stage of the Bluebird. Yee-haa.
It was the marvously less affected Hayes Carll performing in The Basement that Wednesday, though. He had a fine band assembled from the litter of top shelf players that more-or-less survive in the city. I would have preferred, however, to see Hayes with just a guitar. This was a personal sentiment that would recur throughout the week, as I saw gifted singer/songwriters slamming noisy rooms with sonic boom rather than the lyrical and compositional gifts that I find more compelling.
But Hayes was good. As was Ray Wiley Hubbard and David Olney and Tony Joe White, all of whom I saw as the week wore on. Shelby Lynn was…hot. Susan Cowsill was a pleasant surprise. Sarah Jarosz was several years older than she was last year. Dread Clampitt did a stellar job during a midnight show at the Station Inn. All the acts in the cavernous Cannery were disappointing because of the horrid acoustics. My “new find” was a guy named Kevin Gordon who—to me, hands down—had the best songs of the week. Perhaps the best performance was from Rosanne Cash, who sang “Ode To Billy Joe” at the Ryman, with just her husband accompanying on guitar. I gained an entirely new understanding of that amazing tune.
There were panels and workshops and seminars during the day at the Marriot (In the morning, when we drove up, it was difficult to distinguish the homeless people from the conference attendees there on the sidewalk in front of the hotel. ) The panels had names like, “Entrepreneurship In The Music Industry,” and “Digital Delivery To Radio,” and “New Concepts For Promoters.” There was a lot more talk about marketing and the ever elusive ‘new business model’ than there was about the music, the same music that the model, theoretically at least, is built upon. It was like Detroit getting together to discuss how to sell more cars, but without a word being mentioned about how to make better cars.
I’m just saying.
There were no panels entitled “How To Write A Better Song” or “Anatomy Of A Great Song” or “How Are Today’s Songs Measuring Up To Yesterday’s?”. I’m thinking the ‘industry’ might be counting on pure artistic inspiration from the strumming herd to Save-the-Day here. Though you would think a visit to any open mic in the country—the industry does go to these things, don’t they?—would countermand this as an optimistic, if not Pollyanna, notion.
If I had to summarize the conventional wisdom regarding this new model, it would be that to make money in the music business you now have to paradoxically give the music away. That said, you can imagine just how much Ambien it takes for a Sony record executive to get a good night’s sleep these days.
The music establishment seems pathologically wistful about the demise of the record label, the dried-up revenue stream on radio, the dismal tanking of CD sales and the mongrel digital invasions of all the former analog fiefdoms. The fat cats have run out of lives. High rollers are coming up snake-eyes. Big shots have shot their wads. Heavy hitters have wasted away into irrefutable lightweights. It might seem to some that the smartest guy in the room ain’t in the room. In any case, it was obvious to this conference attendee that the reigning founts of wisdom in the ‘industry,” are now these sleepy-eyed, mono-syllabic nerds, (I am not using the “N” word pejoratively here) dressed in flip-flops, and T-shirts with stretched collars. These were, of course, the fellas. All females at the Americana Conference including nerds, I have surmised, are required to wear knee-length skirts and cowboy boots.
Is THAT Americana?