Why There Are Too Many Touring Bluegrass Bands

By Art Menius, March 14, 2015

Any “named-system,” as Neil Rosenberg called the minority genre, is going to have certain limitations, such as narrow emotional range or a dependence on technical virtuosity. Whether blues, Celtic, folk, or bluegrass, these limitations prevent these genre from sustained mass popularity relative to any of the pop forms nor the level of gravitas that must be respected like European classical or jazz.
History, even in this century, shows, however, that these genre can achieve short term popularity that delivers a long term residual benefit in audience development. This has happened for bluegrass several times when the music has been able to ride on the shoulders of a mainstream TV or film product.  I also assert that these genre can use audience development tools largely workshopped in theatre and classical music. I do not believe the bluegrass industry has ever seriously tried to do that with the obvious exception of amazingly successful Wide Open Bluegrass in Raleigh the past two years.
Bluegrass in the Schools is admirable, but we need to develop a lot of funding to pay top bluegrass bands to play in elementary schools. We need to direct a lot more promotion of bluegrass events to general audiences, not just to the existing bluegrass audience and partner more effectively with tourism development authorities and convention and visitors bureaus to reach new folks. Bluegrass can never be too visible nor too easy to find.
On the less obvious parts of audience development, theatre groups have been experimenting with pay what you want days and a limited number of free tickets to those who reserve in advance who have never attended before, as well as traditional couponing.
In bluegrass we need to communicate what festivals are like to prepare new audiences to attend, which can be done on websites, rather than assume any fool knows what a bluegrass festival is about.
The lack of bluegrass industry and IBMA self-criticism serves us very badly here for at least two reasons. 1) Expectations have to be realistic as I attempted to frame them at the top of my second paragraph. Expecting  bluegrass to become a pop music, even through changing the music is not realistic. Concomitantly, fears by “traditionalists” that bluegrass will become pop are not based in reality, any more than were 1950s Antioch students’ fears that Lonnie Donegan was “stealing folk music.” 2) We have to cut through the BS to criticize and ultimately change the non-musical shortcomings of the bluegrass industry that prevent bluegrass from maximizing its income potential.
A prime example of the latter – and a third rail that JD Crowe famously touched in 1982 in a Bluegrass Unlimited article – is that far too many bands are performing bluegrass professionally and touring than the market can bear. This has been the case for the last 45 years. The analogy is the American academy since WWII. Universities have for decades churned out more PH.D.’s than they can employ. This has created a surplus labor pool with the universities have exploited brutally through the misuse of the adjunct status.
What I am saying – to be clear – is 1) that for some reason the market is not functioning rationally to limit the number of headline acts that can earn a solid living in bluegrass without day jobs. 2) Especially before the move to Raleigh, IBMA has put too much energy into developing an ever greatly supply of emerging acts when the audience is what is needed. 3) This scenario forces great musicians to work day jobs to support their families, which restricts how much they can tour, depriving fans, limiting how great a band can  become, and contributing the market imbalance.
Bluegrass music can comfortably support perhaps 15 to 25 full time touring bands, which would be more than enough to fill the labor needs of the festivals which hire them. The true interests of bluegrass musicians – as JD told the late Marty Godbey – would be for the rational market place to restrict the number of bands to what it can support. Yet IBMA, the section 501(c)6 organization serving the industry, has developed since 1990 a business model that depends on exploiting the hopes and needs of wannabie acts and thus feeding the labor oversupply.
Most dangerously, the oversupply destroys the ecosytem which creates future generations of bluegrass artists. On the one hand, it eliminates the need for local and regional bands in which talent develops. On the other, it discourages great musicians from performing bluegrass as a lifetime career choice. This ultimately builds a pyramid with no base.
Part of what I am implying is that those who play for the love of it are being taken advantage of financially, depriving them of the income they deserve for doing what they love. This produces the market irrationality that is even a greater issue now that income from selling recordings and from writing and publishing has been devastated by technology.