IBMA Keynote

The IBMA has asked me to give a keynote address at the annual business conference this fall in Nashville (Tuesday, Sept 27th, 10:30 AM). Thanks IBMA, for such an amazing opportunity! There’s been much talk this year about the current state of Bluegrass affairs–a rekindling of an old, and important discussion. I hope to add something meaningful, and to move the discussion along in a positive way.

Above all else, my hope is for IBMA to be whatever it wants to be–a true reflection of its membership and leaders.

For some that means changes, new blood, and an updated idea of what part the organization can play in the acoustic music world. For others the concept of change is not so welcome, for fear that musical integrity will suffer and the intimate bluegrass community will get watered down with bigger, less informed crowds. The conversation is taking place between members, non-members, musicians and fans alike. And in some cases they seem to agree. Last week I posted an article about the IBMA awards and the response (from inside and out) seemed unanimous: the structure and process need to be changed. Thanks to everyone for the thoughtful responses–several viable solutions were discussed. Amidst this discussion, Dan Hays (IBMA’s executive director) raised the larger of issue of how such changes are effected in this type of organization, which we need to understand if anything substantive will ever happen here. If everyone agrees that the Awards Show needs change, why haven’t we seen it yet?

The IBMA is a democracy made up of voting members and an elected board that tries to distill the information. Though the board seems to have a forward-thinking view of the big picture, the voting body is conflicted, and the conversation can be dominated by a few loud voices of opposition. This part of the democracy is natural, but it can really slow down the process of change. When talk of change lingers, the opposition digs in and little gets done.

Sure, the Awards Show has its flaws, but do we really need bigger change now? I don’t have the answer, but several key observations seem to say yes. The World of Bluegrass (the IBMA’s one huge event and main source of revenue) has seen decline on several fronts. Last year’s World of BG had about as many people as 2003 in Louisville. Needless to say the economy is a factor, but compared to 10 years ago (the Stringdusters were regulars–several of us met at the Galt House), the WOB just dosen’t feel as vital. On the one hand there is the actual business conference, a resource that we were never very connected to, which seems less populated (booths and fans) every year. The networking, jamming, socializing element was our thing–that’s where we met each other and various others industry folks who have been involved with our career as a band. But this has suffered as well, to the point that ‘no jamming’ rules actually shut down the action at the Renaissance in Nashville. It was the organization’s honest attempt to make the event more productive, less of a free-for-all, but as board member Jon Weisberger stated, they “overshot the mark.” But the biggest and most obvious reason for change is quite simple: the organization is losing money, which will clearly preclude it from making a sustained contribution to our music world. Though there is opposition to change, it seems at this point in time that some change is necessary for the IBMA.

So what would those changes be, and do they need to involve the integration of a bigger musical world? Right now it’s completely up to us, the voting members. If you care about the direction of this organization, then say something, because it has to reflect what YOU want. Try to be respectful to the people you disagree with, respectful of the fact that they care too, and that we are all very different. Prior versions of this conversation seem so heated, so serious, to the point of being counterproductive. It’s not even music we are talking about, it’s a music organization, trying to make a positive impact on the world. It’s clear that we’ll never agree on exactly what ‘bluegrass’ is, but we can at least agree that IBMA could be more than it is now. We can voice our ideas and work toward improving the organization. If we aim to make the conversation constructive, good ideas will emerge and positive changes that reflect the group could ensue.

Why do I care about any of this? It’s NOT because i want to ‘attack’ or ‘destroy’ bluegrass (not my words)! Bluegrass is amazing–I love it. We formed at IBMA, won three awards in 2007 and have received multiple nominations since. We will always be so grateful for this support. Since then we have moved into a bigger musical world on the fringes, sometimes distinctly outside of the scene represented at IBMA. But to us it’s a world that is clearly related, and one that has great fans and copious opportunities for a young string band. We played Red Rocks last Saturday with Yonder and Railroad, and there were 10,000 people. It was truly unreal! We could be part of building a bridge to that world, and other eclectic musical worlds that are on the fringe, without creating any significant changes in the existing traditional scene. But only if that’s what we (IBMA) want to do as a group. Though I believe that these worlds can coexist, I’m only pushing for discussion, and hopefully some consensus . I’m a member, and IBMA has asked me to help, so I’m reaching out to musicians, fans, board members, promoters, DJ’s, supporters, opposition, etc, trying to understand what’s going on.

Please discuss. See you in Nashville in a few weeks…

  11 comments for “IBMA Keynote

  1. August 24, 2011 at 1:46 pm

    Congratulations, Chris, this is really exciting! I look forward to the outcome!

  2. David Lewis
    August 24, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    Chris, very glad to have you as a spokesman for – well, anything! Good on ya.

  3. August 24, 2011 at 3:38 pm

    Panda, this is awesome. I’m pumped that you’ll be making this address. In the spring, I spoke up on the IBMA listserv about some of these ideas and found way more encouragement than disagreement. I know there are nay-sayers and those who don’t want to change, but I think that bands like yours and mine make a strong statement to the members of IBMA about our love of the organization by staying involved even though we may be playing an adventurous type of ‘bluegrass’ that takes us into broader musical worlds. The Dusters (and to a lesser extent, my band) are drawing attention to bluegrass music outside the community and hopefully enhancing its reputation and creating more fans of this type of music. It’s been said before, and I believe it’s true – a rising tide raises all ships.

    So, obviously I am all about the integration of a larger musical world. I’m not exactly sure what that means in terms of an actionable plan, but this I do know: our (yours and mine) involvement in IBMA is a step toward the integration of a larger musical world. We are so pleased to have an official showcase this year, the year in which we feel like we have finally gelled artistically as a band. We are such a different band than we were in 2009 the last time we were at IBMA, and I wondered if it would be worth it to apply for a showcase this year. And then I thought, “hey I love bluegrass and yes, what we are doing is quite different, but all our fans say that we are better than ever, so let’s go for it.”

    We’ve got step one out of the way – getting involved. Now we just have to figure out if there really is a consensus around our point of view, or some conclusion to be reached about the direction the members of IBMA want this thing to go. And then, we need to find out how to take it there. It’s a huge undertaking, but I look forward to it!

  4. Joel Stein
    August 24, 2011 at 10:46 pm

    It always amazes me that people want to keep bluegrass–or other forms–in a jar. People forget that Bill Monroe was into changing what he heard, and adding the new sounds he felt and heard. Bluegrass was a created form. Like any art it needs to evolve. That doesn’t negate the past, it celebrates and embraces it. Chris your comments are both thoughtful and respectful. I’m sure you’ll be right in the pocket.

  5. August 25, 2011 at 8:03 am

    Rather than take a lot of space here, I’ve posted a response to Chris’s last two excellent and thought provoking posts on my own blog. Thanks so much for forcing so many of us to think seriously and for maintaining a tone of reasoned and reasonable dialogue. – Ted

  6. Taylor Armerding
    August 25, 2011 at 11:16 am

    Chris –
    A lot of good thoughts, well expressed. Good of you to take the time and effort to put things on the table. And congrats on being a keynote speaker – excellent to have somebody with both youth and experience doing it.
    I’m not connected much to IBMA any more, but with that disclaimer and as somebody who has loved and played the music for decades, here are a few responses.
    1. During the few years I went to the convention, mostly in the distant past when it was in Owensboro, Ky., I saw it evolve in what I felt was an inevitable, direction. For the first year or so, it seemed like a bit of a free-for-all, in a good way, where relatively unknown artists and bands actually had a shot at winning awards or getting a career boost from playing showcases. Very quickly, however, it became much more insular, controlled by established artists and/or promoters, particularly those who excelled at business and marketing as well as musicianship. Obviously that now makes it more difficult for new people to gain entry to the “club,” but one could argue that it is good to for it to be challenging – theoretically only the very best are going to make it if there are high barriers to entry. Just because you love the music doesn’t make you worthy of an award, or a successful career. And, why shouldn’t those who do it full-time, for a living, get the most benefit from it? But, whatever one’s opinion of it, I think this is inevitably the way organizations evolve. Whoever said it is a bit like politics is right: Once you’re an incumbent, you’re going to work hard, and use what leverage you have, to remain an incumbent. And even if there is a revolution of sorts, the revolutionaries quickly become the new incumbents, and things quickly return to the way they were.
    2. You’re right about the Emerging Artist category. It’s absurd for a group of established “stars” who happen to form a new collaboration to be called emerging. That ought to be relatively easy to fix. Maybe emerging artists should have to be people who have been part of only one recording project in the past, even if it was with another group.
    3. The awards thing in general is a bit more tricky. Perhaps some of the icons should be granted something like Master status if they’ve won some number of times – maybe five or ten. I also think sometimes it’s tough to tell if somebody won because they were really the best that year, or just because they were the most famous and had the biggest e-mail list. I have no idea how to fix that. But I think you also need to be careful that it doesn’t become too much like youth soccer, where “everybody plays” no matter how lousy they are, or school awards where every kid in the class gets to be student of the month. I don’t think awards should be “inclusive.” I think they should only go to the best, even if that’s the same person or band for a number of years running.
    4. Yes, the bluegrass community needs to adapt and be more inclusive. If it doesn’t, it will atrophy, which apparently seem to be happening, at least when it comes to WOB. But that’s been a tension for generations. I went to a show back in the ‘70s with Ralph Stanley and New Grass Revival. About a third of the people got up and left when NGR started playing. So, this ain’t new. But I’m not terribly worried about it when I see amazing bands like yours (great to see the Stringdusters play this summer) continuing to push the bluegrass boundaries. I think the recognition you’ve got, and the audience you’ve built, is evidence that a lot of people think the way you do. I’ve always been convinced that if Monroe was 30 today, he’d be doing the same thing, only more so. He was a revolutionary. And I think there are thousands, maybe millions, of people who never would have discovered Monroe and the other first-generation artists if they hadn’t had NGR or some other progressive or fusion group as their entry point to it.
    Anyway, I’m glad to hear your call for new blood and new ideas. Hope you get in there and make some of it happen. Just be sure, 20 or 30 years from now, to keep calling for new blood.
    Good luck with your speech – make sure it gets posted online somewhere.

  7. August 25, 2011 at 4:20 pm

    Where’s the “Like” button?


  8. Chip Haynes
    August 25, 2011 at 7:18 pm

    Very insightful, complete with passion for the collective goals and overall proud of you and your dedication.

  9. Kathy Anderson
    August 26, 2011 at 7:56 pm

    Chris,I have read both of your posts on this topic and salute you for bringing up some things that deserve our thought and conversation. Having been a member of several other music industry organizations, it has been my experience that IBMA does more to help its’ members, no matter what level of success they are currently experiencing than other organizations I have belonged to. Of course, it took me being proactive and asking for free advice, mailing lists, applying for showcases and attending events and the conference and networking but the opportunities have been there and the educational opportunities very impressive. In 2010 I felt I got my registration’s worth for WOB in the first day of panels I sat in on when I thought about the time I would have had to spend researching the information that was generously shared with me by the panel members. I recognize the organization it not perfect and change is slow, but not impossible.

    Last year I attended my first town hall meeting at IBMA WOB and a large part of that meeting was how to grow the organization and bring the next generation into the organization. As we all looked around the room we realized the people who needed to tell us how to do that were sadly not in the room….most of us were 50+ years old. I was impressed though in the surveys that were sent out to the membership about how we would like to re-vamp WOB conference this year and that the Board seems to have taken many of the suggestions. We’ll see how the changes work. So, I hope that everyone who has been posting here will attend the Town Hall Meeting this year at IBMA WOB and voice your concerns about the direction of IBMA or the awards specifically to the board…I think there have been some really great suggestions already but we need to get them heard in that meeting. I also hope that people who are not already members but seem to have strong feelings in this area of the awards process will join and have your voices heard on ballots and through surveys.

    Thanks again for this dialogue you have begun.

  10. RonL
    August 31, 2011 at 6:12 am

    I see no traditionlist post here. Why does the “big tent” alienate
    traditionlist? Could it be to redefining Bluegrass with inclusive
    newer styles and folk rock oriented stringbands or acoustic “hotlick”
    ensembles to draw younger audiences?
    You maybe totally surprised
    at the number of people whom hold traditional Bluegrass near to heart
    whom actually like and appreciate the talents of these artist but do not
    appreciate them being incluede as or claiming to be Bluegrass .
    Their material is not of Bluegrass tradition,vocal styles are not of
    Bluegrass tradition,the feel of their music is not of Bluegrass tradition.
    Even the progressive bands of the last decade kept the traditional roots
    of Bluegrass in their format,such as “stacked harmony singing” the most
    defining aspect of Bluegrass music. Not true today.

    There is certainly room for all types of music that springs from roots
    of several genres but to label and market it as a specfic genre and
    expecting long held perceptions of the style one expects to hear to
    be welcomed with open arms maybe the driving force for the IBMA’s problems
    and the alienation of many “Bluegrass fans ,and yes, performers too.

    From a traditionalist to progressive Bluegrasser ,instead of putting
    Bluegrass thru another idenity crisis, maybe it would be better to
    call a spade a spade and market it as such. The venues open to alt-music
    seem to be doing very well by doing that.

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