By Guest Columnist James Reams
It’s hard to watch the Country Music Awards and not wonder why the IBMA Awards are largely ignored by the music industry. What has country got that we haven’t? Our songs feature longing, lost love, hard work, history, and yes, even crying in your beer. Our musicians are just as talented, perhaps more so as I think of the lightning speed associated with fiddle, mandolin and banjo picking. I dare any country band to keep up with us! Our voices pitch into that high lonesome sound made popular by Bill Monroe, but that’s not all we can do. Bluegrass music is just as well rounded as country. So why aren’t we as popular?
I bet I can count on two hands the number of bluegrass bands that are full-time. Even with a record deal, our artists are struggling as the recording industry isn’t funding artist development and promotion for bluegrassers. Most of us have to have a “real” job to pay the bills or at least a retirement income that helps plug the gaps between music gigs, festivals and album sales. While the top names in bluegrass travel around in beat up station wagons, converted school buses, and fly coach class; top artists in rock, country and rap are traveling in style in private jets and Provost buses.
There’s just such a small slice of the bluegrass pie available, that it’s not enough to feed more than a few bands on a full-time basis. Those of us scratching and clawing to get bookings can sometimes contribute to the perception that bluegrass music is cheap and inexpensive as we agree to perform for next to nothing, even showcase events, just so we can play this music we love. My friend and colleague Walter Hensley used to say, “The less meat on the bone, the harder the dogs fight.” By undercutting each other, we’re undermining the entire bluegrass music industry.
Today’s economic crisis doesn’t help either but folks still mob Country Thunder and other predominantly country music outdoor concerts. With 80,000 to 100,000 fans from all over the US in attendance, Country Thunder makes the top bluegrass festivals look withered in comparison. I recently had a promoter in Texas tell me that he had to drop his bluegrass festival because people were complaining about the cost of tickets. Without ticket sales to encourage sponsorships, he was unable to bring in the bigger names in bluegrass and it was just a slippery slide downhill from there. Now he promotes a country swing festival that folks flock to in droves and he hasn’t had a single complaint about the ticket prices. What’s up with that?!?
I believe bluegrass music is at a crossroads. We can continue on as we have since we got started and ride off into the sunset or we can deviate just a bit and take directions from other successful music genres. Change doesn’t mean that we forget where we came from, our bluegrass roots will continue to be the foundation that gives our music its’ identity. But, it’s my contention that we need to change the misconception that bluegrass is just for old-timers on pensions and bring our music into the 21st century. So how do we do that without losing our “bluegrassiness”?
A major factor is embracing technology. If you look at the music styles that are hugely successful these days, it’s easy to see what sets them apart — the MEDIA. Radio channels are clogged 24/7 with stations devoted to rock, rap/hip hop, country, Christian and even classical music. Yet live bluegrass radio programs are largely relegated to Sundays. Except for DC-based WAMU 105.5FM, I can’t turn my radio dial and find one single station devoted solely to bluegrass music. But I can listen to bluegrass music online or even create my own digital bluegrass station using apps like Pandora. And adding your own music is simple enough that even I could figure it out. Yeah, it’s not the same as radio plays and I miss all the depth and news that DJs provide, but it does reach those listeners that have earbuds permanently embedded in their heads.
I don’t think anyone will argue with me when I say that the current generation is on visual overload. Let’s face it, MTV and CMTV are here to stay. You just can’t deny that this is the age of the music video. So where are all the bluegrass videos? I firmly believe that TV/Internet speaks to the masses, bluegrass radio preaches to the choir. We’ve got to get more professional looking bluegrass videos in front of folks.
“Quality” is the keyword when it comes to videos. YouTube is clogged with unedited videos of dubious sound quality featuring bands at bluegrass festivals shot using Uncle Billy’s iPhone (I’ve certainly contributed my fair share!). But a static shot of your favorite band performing on a festival stage is not the kind of music video that’s going to grab the attention of the music world. As performers there’s a limit to the emotion we can incorporate into a song while we’re on stage. Most bluegrass songs tell a story, creating a video takes it a step further by providing images that convey the feeling behind the words and actually complement the singing. If we’re going to claw our way out of the poverty class of music, we have to find a way to emotionally connect viewers of all ages to our music. I think feeding the visual addiction of today’s music lovers is critical.
I can just hear you saying, “Hold on there, James! Where are we going to get the money to make these videos? We’re barely making ends meet now!” And you’re right, making a video can drain a bank account faster than an ex-wife. But thanks to the Internet, there are numerous crowd funding sources available. I used Kickstarter to help fund the final production push for my film documentary, “Making History with Pioneers of Bluegrass.” Other popular options for funding creative projects include Indiegogo and RocketHub. And don’t forget that making music videos is how many well-known film directors got their start. Collaborate with a talented film student at a local university or purchase film editing software for your computer whiz kid for Christmas. Who knows, you may discover a future Stephen Spielberg!
What I’m saying is, there are options out there to fit most budgets. Once you have a couple of videos going viral, you can start approaching sponsors to help fund the next one. Country music moved into the spotlight, literally, when they embraced music videos. Bluegrass can do the same. It’s a sleeping giant just waiting to be awakened. BGTV anyone?
I’d like to hear what you have to say. Send your email to firstname.lastname@example.org and let your voice be heard!
James Reams is an international bluegrass touring and recording artist coming from a family of traditional singers in southeastern Kentucky, James has played both old-time and bluegrass music since he was just a little sprout. James is known as an “Ambassador of Bluegrass” for his dedication to and deep involvement in the thriving bluegrass and Americana music community. To date, he has released 8 CDs including a special DVD documentary of his band: James Reams & The Barnstormers. Celebrating 20 years as a bandleader in 2013, he released the DVD documentary Making History with Pioneers of Bluegrass, the culmination of over 10 years of filming and interviews. James is also the organizer of the Park Slope Bluegrass Oldtime Music Jamboree, an annual music festival he started in 1998 that attracts musicians and fans of traditional music to its workshops, jamming and concerts — the only event of its kind in or around New York City. Read More About James!