Reflections on a long weekend in Nashville
I swore last year that I wouldn’t go back, that I was done. And then discovered how cheaply I could be bought: Two friends promised — promised — that I would be gifted with a bottle or three of the most difficult to find New Glaurus raspberry and/or cherry beers, and so I succumbed to temptation and once again for one more last time wrote the script [sic] for the Americana Music Association Awards & Honors, which long name is occasioned by Dick Clark’s attorneys.
The beer, of course, didn’t materialize. Nobody’s fault. One friend found that she could not come, another found that TSA now confiscated beer even in checked luggage. I hope they enjoyed it, and am now wiser for the burden of this additional knowledge.
So…here’s what I know.
(1) Sam Baker’s latest album, his third, which is called Cotton, offers up some astonishing songs, particularly on the first half. It’s the first time Baker has really been “produced,” past spartan accompaniment to his almost beatnik singsong stories. Fleshed out…simply fleshed out, but still fleshed out…the work can be spectacular, and gutty. It can also wear thin. He lost a good bit of hearing when the Shining Path blew up his train in Cuzco years ago, and so his capacity for melody is somewhat limited. But, man, what a record.
(2) Ashley Cleveland can sure sing. I’m not at all able to understand why she was playing at the Basement at noon when she’s got three Grammys, but maybe you can’t eat statuary or maybe she just really wants people to hear the southern gospel album she’s made. Which is well worth hearing. As is she, no matter one’s religious convictions.
(3) J.D. Souther can be forgiven all those Eagles hits. First place, they sound like actual songs when he sings them. Second place, the bits of his newest album he played during a short, seven-song set at the Mercy Lounge — just Souther, three backing singers huddled around one microphone, and a singularly carnal bass player — were considerably better. I’m fairly sure I don’t have the album, though I will go spelunking for it at some point. Or, perhaps, succumb and actually buy music. Which I don’t mind doing, except it’s hard to explain to the wife. (And never mind the Mavis Staples twofer I picked up at the Great Escape will killing time before lunch.)
(4) I think I understand why Mandy Barnett has never quite made it, despite her considerable vocal skill. If you close your eyes, it sounds like she means it. But if you open them, it’s clear that she doesn’t. Oddly, I’d not seen her before that early afternoon at the Basement, but she was always one of those perplexing voices — somewhat like Joy Lynn White — who clearly deserved more of an audience than the record labels ever found for her. And she does deserve that, no matter my reservations. But her emotion is all technique, and she doesn’t hide that fact very well. At least to me, or from me.
(5) Elizabeth Cook. I am not impartial on this subject. (So what?) She has a stunning voice, filled with joy and pain and every other human emotion, none of it held back. And she has Tim Carroll in her band.
And then there were the two panels I attended, opposite ends of each other. One was to teach musicians how to leverage the internet to market their product. Much of which I didn’t understand, to the point that I was tempted to stand up and say, “Damn it, I have a life, I’m not going to follow some musician’s Tweets. I’m not even going to Twitter. I’ve got enough to do. And if that’s how you’re going to market to me, I’m never going to hear your music.” I didn’t say that in public, at least not then, because even I knew it would reveal me to be a doddering fool well past his prime in the music industry. And, later, somebody added this thought: “Yeah, uh, how WOULD somebody market to you.” Oh, yeah. That.
But I do wonder…internet marketing seems so focused on identifying committed fans and maximizing their commitment that I wonder how it proposes to attract casual fans who don’t want to participate vicariously in the making of a new album, but who might be receptive to hearing and buying music. I dunno. I’m an old codger.
Which was further made clear by the panel on which I spoke, and too often. Something about the death of criticism or the death of print journalism or something. It was as close as I’ve come to a 12-step meeting, the whole room filled with freelance music critics confessing that they still did it even though it paid doodly and they didn’t really have jobs anymore.
In one of those two panels somebody said something that I wish to ponder, and toss out here as fresh meat of a kind. What was said was, “The internet has taken away the authority of the critic. It doesn’t value who you are. It apportions status based on how many other users follow/agree with your recommendations.” (Obviously I’m paraphrasing.)
As I’ve thought about that, yes, it’s fair to say that I can work up a fair bit of pissed-off-ness about losing my “authority” as a music critic. Decades spent not simply listening to and reading history (and liner notes), but learning to write…it’s hard to toss that to the amateurs and accept that their verdicts are somehow better. I understand that they’re better for the artists, I understand that all this chat can be leveraged into a marketing campaign. I’m not sure that it’s better for the music, nor for the consumers of the music. (But, then, the negative review is mostly a thing of the past anyhow.)
One other thing. I don’t understand how the new paradigm works. But I’m pretty sure that whatever the new paradigm is, it’s going to change faster than most of us can notice, nor attend to.
Almost nobody said anything about radio, except at the radio panels. Well, Americana radio isn’t the strongest tool in the marketing box, but… And nobody said anything about video, which once upon a time (see: MTV, YouTube) was going to save us from anonymity. Or something.
What I really think is this: It’s always about the music, has always BEEN about the music. The internet ensures that one’s work is somehow available. It doesn’t ensure that the music is interesting or important or commercially viable, and it probably makes much of that more difficult simply because there has been such exponential growth in the number of releases available on the internet. Not to mention all those cool old TV shows and such available on YouTube.
But there aren’t secrets out there, no more than there have been since the telephone was invented.
The secret is how to find the audience. All the data mining and all the rest of it? It just means it’s gotten harder, more complicated, and more expensive…unless that happens to be your skillset.
That’s it. I’ve got laundry to fold, coffee to pour, and a cabinet to refinish. Y’all have fun.