1984 Bluegrass Music Industry Study by Art Menius

Links below. Please read this introduction below before perusing either report.

I wrote this at age 29 in only my second year working in and around bluegrass and related roots music. Then an inexperienced kid, I apologize for my many mistakes, misjudgments, sarcastic quips, and mischaracterizations.

In completely remodeling my home office during the first month of COVID-19, I found this manuscript among the 13 boxes of filed papers forced into my former filing cabinets that I had moved to our barn on the way to the Southern Folklife Collection at UNC-CH. It is the last substantive thing I wrote on a typewriter, an IBM Selectrict typewriter. I had been so thrilled to get it three years earlier, and now it had become extinct.

In 1983-1984, the Linear Group, which produced “Fire on the Mountain” TV on The Nashville Network, engaged me to embark on an extensive study of the bluegrass music industry as it was and how it might be. Below the 120 page report appears publicly for the first time after 36 years, to my knowledge the first written analysis of bluegrass as a business.

The producers sought data to bolster advertising sales and affiliate signups for our live on  LP syndicated radio series featuring Hartford and Gamble Rogers, “The Liberty Flyer.” During June and July 1984, I set off to administer the paper surveys at four different festivals – Denton, Peaceful Valley, and on one epic 15-day, 4400 mile road trip, Bean Blossom and Telluride. You can read that report here. I drew on those data, research in print publications (unfortunately, I did not know about Simmons market data, and the NEA’s Public Participation in the Arts report was brand new.), and interviews and conversations with many of the most important figures in the music and the business.

They gave me a long list of specific questions which leads to the structure of the report and explains why certain odd queries exist. The Warren Paint Company query, for example, derives from the producer being named Warren and his curiosity about his namesake that briefly advertised on “The Grand Ole Opry.”

In this document, I can see my knowledge – based on one year intensely studying bluegrass – growing, but a lot of mistakes, erroneous opinions, and misconceptions too. It demonstrates my inexperience just as much as my strong research and analytical ability. I had only been involved in bluegrass since March 1983 beyond having records by a few first generation artists, attending few concerts (Earl and Hartford around 1975 being one I can remember) and folk festivals, hearing the Bluegrass Experience at the Cat’s Cradle on Thursdays, and seeing folks on TV.

One can also see – perhaps unfortunately – the hallmarks of my style, especially when writing not for publication. Snide asides appear, insults to whole groups (techno pop, for example), sweeping statements, and logical jumps, albeit more correct than not, with no explanation to the reader of the intervening steps.

I also find simple typos, misspellings (I don’t mean of names either, but regular ole words), and straight up mistakes like assigning JD Crowe to Sugar Hill Records in one place and correctly to Rounder everywhere else.

Most interesting is my concluding chapter, excerpted here rather than requiring one to hunt through whole paper. It’s optimism contrasted greatly to the misguided “bluegrass is dying” fad three years later. The final pair of paragraphs demonstrate my need and vision statements for what would become IBMA after Lance Leroy started that process in June 1985. In a very substantive sense, this is the ur-document for IBMA.

That’s the key: the coordination and direction of bluegrass related activities. It’s something the industry has never had, and the lack helped the boom of the early 70s to flounder. A national organization involving fans, promotors [sic], record distributors and mnufacturers [sic], artists, and agents needs to be created to make the music available in a positive light to all Americans, so they can hear and choose for themselves . The group can provide media exposure and promotion, weed out bands that hurt the music, take charge of distribution and advertising, and keep stressing that positive image of sincere, hard to play music stressing American values and dealing with the problems of life today.

A window of unprecedented opportunity exists in 1984 for American acoustic music. Bluegrass and new acoustic msuic [sic] are right both artisticly [sic] and demographically for today, but time won’t stand still: an agressive [sic], optimistic organization has to throw the ajar door wide open.

Links to the report

Art Menius 1984 report “Acoustic Music Today An Overview” chapter

Art Menius 1984 report on bluegrass for the Linear Group – complete