To Sell Out or To Sell Out – The AcoustiCana Journal
(This article was originally posted on The AcoustiCana Journal)
“I hate to say it, but I don’t know if I’m digging the new AKUS album “Paper Airplane” this stinks for me, because it’s been like 7 yrs since they released a Union Station album… I guess bluegrass truly doesn’t sell, that’s the only way I can see them justifying not putting it on their album. I hate that for them. Oh well, I still have the old stuff to listen to.”
I don’t intend to take him to task for his opinion of the album, nor will I argue about AKUS‘ intentions in terms of the overall sound of their project, but I do think that there’s an aspect of this quote that requires a more in-depth look.
“I guess bluegrass truly doesn’t sell.”
The gravity of that phrase is deeply troubling to me. I don’t like to resort to blaming business failures on the current economy or bemoaning the challenges the economy places on business ventures – I find it to be a lame excuse, a cop out. Having said that, I don’t think any of us can deny that the current economy has taken a toll on roots music. Established bands have felt a crunch, and up-and-coming bands have certainly expressed that the economy stifles their ability to grow a business and make their musical endeavor a financially viable one. Coupling that economic crunch with the reality that roots musics have not historically been the highest-grossing genres, a band/artist’s ability to market themselves creatively and flexibly while still being true to the brand they’ve made for themselves is absolutely crucial. To be perfectly honest: many of those aspiring musicians don’t have enough (if any) practical ‘business world’ experience to guide their decisions, and their businesses are not yet at the level where they can afford management.
Does this mean that everyone from the AcoustiCana band playing in your local tavern to the large acts like Alison Krauss and Union Station should roll over and stop making the music they WANT to make, in favor of making the music they know will be an ‘easy sell’? In my opinion, that is the worst decision a roots band can make. Instead, artists need to find a way to balance their musical talents with business savvy. But how? Beyond a degree from a four year institution, what resources do they have past the school of hard knocks?
In the past few years, we’ve watched social networking revolutionize the fan/artist relationship in roots music. While roots music has always had a component of artist accessibility in the form of a ‘shake and howdy’, the social network allows that accessibility to be extended indefinitely, without regard to geography or schedule. A fan can log in to a social networking site at their leisure and find themselves connected with the artists as people, not just as the sound coming out of their stereo. In that same vein, social networking has also affected the relationships of fellow roots musicians. Instead of being ships in the night at festivals, they can interact with each other daily online. A lot of the conversations that we see among artists and industry professionals on Facebook walls and pages look like mere social interaction, but I’d like to offer the assertion that this jocular banter leads to much more. Within the bluegrass community (the music community I’m most in tune with), the connections made on social networking sites have brought musicians and industry professionals closer together as peers, creating an environment that’s led to more open sharing of information and resources, and offered more opportunities for artists to collaborate.
In addition to social networking platforms, there are trade associations whose missions are to foster a greater appreciation of the music and musicians they represent, to promote professionalism and encourage a new generation of musicians and industry professionals, and to contribute to the success of that music on a national/international level. My interpretation is that the final goal of that list directly relates to the success of the individual businesses that comprise/fall under the umbrella of the genre. In general, these organizations’ mission statements also include a goal to create and sponsor events that will further their mission.
Since bluegrass is the genre I’m most familiar with, I’ll once again use it as the example. Bluegrass’ main trade organization is the International Bluegrass Music Association, the IBMA. Each spring, IBMA hosts Leadership Bluegrass, a three day, hands-on course that focuses on the challenges facing the industry, as well as the opportunities the industry has to grow. The class is carefully selected to include a cross-section of all aspects of the industry, from artists and promoters to talent buyers and label representatives. The class is limited to 25 participants – a class size that allows for depth and breadth of discussion, but is small enough that each member is accountable for doing their fair share of participating and generating ideas and solutions. Each spring, the alumni leave invigorated and ready to take on the bluegrass universe. But there are only 25 of them. Further, where do they take these new found relationships and networks and put them into practical use? While most of the alumni continue to be successful in their careers, there’s rarely (if ever) a defined event or moment that the industry can highlight and say, “THIS. This is Leadership Bluegrass at work.”
Recently, IBMA has announced their plans for a new brainchild, of sorts. Bluegrass Nation. Bluegrass Nation will be a social network for bluegrass fans and professionals alike. It seeks to become an online resource and community that will be a platform for sharing news and information, with an emphasis on a forum component that will not only allow the industry to connect with its consumers, but also give industry professionals a place to ask questions and find business-related resources. Bluegrass Nation isn’t live yet, but the IBMA plans to roll it out this summer. From the information that’s been released thus far, it seems to me to be an exciting endeavor, and if the bluegrass community (both sides – the industry and the fans) become active and engaged, it could truly shape the future of the bluegrass industry.
From all of this, I’ve filtered a bit of a hypothesis: If social networking can truly create an open and dynamic community, and hands-on experiences such as a leadership course can inspire action, then what would happen if we created more opportunities for those two experiences to converge? Further, would it help to create a pool of artists who are more business savvy, and ready to tackle the roadblocks that are presented by the state of the music business, and the economy?
Music is a business, but its sound shouldn’t be controlled by what will sell. Authenticity sells. Sure, fake sells, too. But it doesn’t last. At the end of the day, wouldn’t we all rather see Bluegrass, Roots, AcoustiCana acts sell out their shows because their business skills are up to par, instead of selling out on their music because their business skills can’t sell the real thing? Make no mistake: if you seek to derive any income from music, you are in the music business. Getting down to business beats following a trail of lamentations every day of the week.
April 27, 2011
The AcoustiCana Journal
The Bluegrass Legacy
The Bluegrass Legacy Professional Edition
The Emerging Artists Support Group FaceBook
The Emerging Artists Support Group Forum
The International Bluegrass Music Association
The Foundation for Bluegrass Music
About the Author
Co-Founder of The AcoustiCana Journal, Echo Propp grew up in Montana, and loves coffee, running and bluegrass (although not necessarily in that order). She graduated from American University, studied abroad in South Africa, dabbled in logistics management and human resources.. Read More
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