You Book Me, I’ll Book You
Bluegrass music and its derivatives are spreading the genre to a wider audience as fans become less genre specific. They seek out “good” music regardless of its origins and traditions. More than any other form I’m familiar with, bluegrass encourages a traveling community to not only hear, but make the music, as jams appear at festivals everywhere we go. Many bluegrass fans carry acoustic instruments in their camping rigs as they head out to attend festivals across the country. Local bluegrass associations hold periodic meetings where there’s an evening show and lots of jamming ahead of time.
Our introduction to this movable community came at one such association that meets monthly in Conway, SC, but there are similar jams at association meetings, in bars, restaurants, country stores, music shops, and homes all across the country. These events nurture the music’s traditions and serve as a springboard for new bands, as pickers develop their skills and begin to perform professionally. Festivals provide opportunities for bands to perform, but the step from advanced hobbyist to professional musician requires a usually arduous apprenticeship, is difficult and demanding, and, ordinarily, brutally eliminates those whose performances are subpar. They become limited to local or regional gigs, where their friends can appreciate the qualities that keep them going. It’s truly rare to see an unworthy band ascend to the heights of bluegrass recognition and quality. This is what makes manipulating the system with “you book me, I’ll book you” an egregious offense.
Let me explain. There are a number of bluegrass performers who also sponsor bluegrass festivals. Some have taken on complete responsibility for running the festival, which, of course, includes booking other bands. But there’s where the practice becomes more than a little dicey. It looks to me as if a number of these bands play at each others’ festivals. This raises ethical and artistic questions which can compromise the economics of festivals, the income of bands, and distort the perception of those bands’ popularity. In particular: what are the limits of legitimate self-promotion as opposed to underground cooperation that can wind up distorting the market?
Yes, in many cases, these events are usually promoted by an independent promoter who has partnered with the “naming” band to produce and promote a festival. In such cases, it’s pretty clear that while the named band may be consulted about the lineup, the promoter and perhaps a booker work together to provide an event in which cost and benefit are carefully balanced to provide a positive experience for the audience. This leads to festivals becoming either more traditional or diverse in their bookings. Some promoters understand that the audience for their festival is quite genre-specific, while other audiences are more receptive to innovation and change. This perception will lead, for instance, to a promoter refusing to allow drums on the stage, or limiting amplification of acoustic instruments to those that play through microphones. Other festivals, meanwhile, will encourage certain bands to plug in. Some will allow electric guitars for acts specifically characterized as “classic country” rather than bluegrass. They make a sincere effort to balance the more expensive national touring bands with popular regional or local bands, to keep ticket costs within the perceived budget of the audience. Such festivals provide a legitimate and appropriate lineup, and they are not the subject of this week’s column.
On the other hand, there are several bands of limited quality who own festivals separated by geography, but not by self-interest, who, while booking just enough strong national bands to attract an audience, continue to fill out the middle positions in their lineup with other bands who will agree to book them in their events. By doing this, they guarantee that their own event will be sufficiently full, and they’ll appear popular enough as performers to be booked at many other events. I can’t help but wonder if the bands included in this collusion book each other at a deep discount from their advertised prices in order to maintain an appearance of frequent dates while not competing honestly for good bookings.
The loser here is the audience. After all, when I see the name of a band booked on a number of event fliers or web sites, I come to assume the band has an increasing breadth of audience acceptance, based on all their high-quality bookings. Meanwhile, the bands themselves continue to perform as mediocrities and often with a level of taste that many find, on exposure, is neither entertaining nor enjoyable. The general effect is a lowering of quality across the bluegrass scene, which is the ultimate disappointment for discriminating fans who know and recognize good playing and singing – not to mention quality performance – when they see it.
Exploitative use of veterans, tasteless humor, manipulative preaching or proselytizing from the stage, and plain bad performance values all contribute to reducing bluegrass to a hollow shadow of the great music it can be. Honoring performance and traditions is a legitimate and valued element of a musical form that grows from the roots of American music. Exploiting and twisting those roots and branches, however, can easily move into insult and degradation of the genre. The practice of mediocre bands engaging in “you book me, I’ll book you” practices, accomplishes just this.