Speculations on the future of bluegrass and IBMA December 2011

By Art Menius, December 10, 2011
original publication on artmenius.com

Present and Future of the Bluegrass Field

Today, bluegrass music enjoys extraordinary musical excitement and repeated mainstream exposure. Bluegrass music is easier to find than at any time, while the banjo enjoys popularity unknown for a century. The opportunities are tremendous. Simultaneously, the industry confronts the impact of fundamental changes in the larger economy and the recording business. Bluegrass events struggle for audience, recording labels and touring artists can’t replace fully income from CD sales, and the revenue gap increases between the most successful bluegrass performers and the rank and file.

Bluegrass can follow an inside/outside approach to audience development that leverages the music’s ability to embrace both the past and the future, to be both traditional and progressive. The bluegrass music industry will need to continue to produce for the core community while also pushing bluegrass into venues outside of the field’s traditional limits. The big winners will be those that appeal inside and out.

Successful outreach means selling bluegrass music to those who are not even aware what it is called using means with which those consumers are most comfortable. This shift reflects fundamental changes in the consumption of music from album to single, from radio to Spotify, driven by younger listeners who don’t think in genre terms. People consume acts, not styles. Doors are open to individual creative artists, not genres. This shifts our focus from “converting” people into joining the core bluegrass fan base (some will do so), but to selling bluegrass artists in as many different venues as possible to as many different audiences as possible.

Larry Sparks (c) Becky Johnson

The touring and presenting business will no doubt recover when the economy stabilizes. Recording sales are far more problematic as we appear to be moving into a consumption-without-ownership era. Think Spotify and Netflix. The cloud is replacing personal libraries of purchased media. Licensing income becomes more important than ever, but it cannot replace the margin on selling CDs at a show.

IBMA – the Road Ahead

IBMA’s efforts must be grounded in institutional values. I propose that IBMA values:

  • that bluegrass is uniquely commercial, folk, traditional, progressive music positioned for a big tent approach stressing inclusivity and diversity
  • openness and transparency in an organization that belongs to the members
  • high standards of ethics and professionalism
  • using the vast talent and energy of the membership
  • collaboration and cooperation
  • related musical genres serving as gateways to bluegrass
  • research about bluegrass music
  • promoting bluegrass music with emerging media and technology
  • internationalism

From these values, we can derive refreshed organizational goals and mission:

IBMA is the worldwide organization of professionals, semi-professionals, and serious volunteers in the bluegrass music industry that is the trade association for that field and the “chamber of commerce” within the bluegrass community. The goals of IBMA are to:

  • expand the bluegrass marketplace
  • foster and facilitate cooperation, sharing, and learning externally and internally
  • compile and conduct market research relevant to the field
  • educate the general public about bluegrass music
  • facilitate the development of a vision for future
  • honor those who have contributed
  • coordinate the activities of volunteers worldwide
  • expand the appreciation for bluegrass among underserved audiences worldwide
  • be active and visible year round

To achieve these goals, IBMA needs to move in several directions.

Adapt to a Changing Environment

To succeed going forward, IBMA will encode the big tent into its institutional DNA. This means not just being inclusive and supportive of traditional, contemporary, cutting edge, and closely related music forms, but reaching outward substantially, being an externally focused organization.

IBMA will revamp its business model. First, we shall pursue supporters (previously known as Patrons and Grassroots Club) that receive no voting or membership rights, but give to IBMA because of the work we do for the music. The goal will be 10,000 supporters at a minimum of $25 per year within five years. Second, Fan Fest will be unequivocally focused on making money for IBMA and the Trust Fund. Third, the Awards Show will be developed as an income producing TV property. Fourth, all the assumptions in the business strategy for the Trade Show will be challenged and changed as needed with two goals: the most effective event for the industry and the most profitable event for IBMA.


IBMA will represent the bluegrass music industry to the outside world and to the bluegrass community using engaged board members, an ED who spends 40% of the time on the road, and enthusiastic members, including street teams or ambassadors.

IBMA will use multi-format communications from snail mail to Twitter to suit the styles of a diverse constituency and rebuild awareness of IBMA.

IBMA will cooperate with Folk Alliance, Americana Music Association, and other entities to foster “Water the Roots” – a month long, local site-based celebration of roots music across North America.

IBMA will engage in advocacy on behalf of the field and engage its members to support same.

Revitalize Activities

IBMA has a two or three person full-time staff that functions to coordinate the efforts of hundreds of volunteers serving on committees and task forces who conduct most of the work of the organization. IBMA augments these assets with outsourcing of certain functions.

  • a three day business and booking conference
  • Leadership Bluegrass
  • Fan Fest
  • televised awards show
  • one-day regional conferences produced by volunteers
  • webinars and white papers
  • Bluegrass in the Schools
  • ethical standards program for the field
  • research and marketing
  • Certified Bluegrass Music Professional program
  • multiple communications platforms for members

Reactivate Membership

We need to flip the organizational-individual paradigm so that people join because of what IBMA does year-round for the industry, not because of what IBMA can do for them or to obtain event discounts. This process will require positioning IBMA as doing real, permanent, and ongoing good, not just WOB and services, and embracing those who do not attend WOB.

It will also demand aggressive one on one solicitation of new members and lapsed members using both staff and volunteer resources.

These brief strokes posit a highly visible, outward directed, dynamic IBMA based in enduring values.


2 thoughts on “Speculations on the future of bluegrass and IBMA December 2011

    • Thanks, Larry. My Kentucky friend Don Rogers, who is a great picker, made the cogent observation that back when he started playing you formed a band for the fun of it and hoped to play some of the many local gigs, not the few big festivals. Now there are lots of festivals and few local gigs, so expectations have been changed to forming a band in order to play the big stage.


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