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.

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33 thoughts on “Why There Are Too Many Touring Bluegrass Bands

  1. I responded to your old post on what IBMA should be…very relevant to today….and what is happening. You need to repost it. “too many bluegrass bands” is kinda like “too many bluegrass festivals”…They will be self-limiting. ..fesitivals on $money. But, “too many bluegrass bands that are trying to be full-time professional” may be true. But bluegrass being participatory, hopefully has no limit.

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    • Except that is too long for a title. Participatory bands formed for the love of playing together can never be too plentiful. The problem is too many bands wanted to be professional as you suggest.

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      • Another problem is too many bands “claiming” to be professional when they don’t even have a business plan – nor want one. But – that’s a whole other topic. :-/

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  2. I see no reason to put any limits on the arts. So, if we have 50 bluegrass festivals across the nation on a peak summer 3-day weekend, these 15-20 bands will be enough? I don’t think so. What we would have is the IBMA syndrome. The same fans (professional members) voting for the same bands (those voter’s friends) year after years resulting in the same people receiving the same old awards year after year. Nothing new. Nothing exciting. Keep it all sounding just the same as today’s pop country has done. I can’t think of a faster way to destroy a genre. Remember that every one of these top artists started at the local level. I remember a young girl playing regionally and then she released her first CD. I guess she wouldn’t matter because she wasn’t at the top when she did that. Thank God, Alison Krauss didn’t read this!!! I’m sorry but I find nothing in this article to agree with.

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    • You start with a false assumption that 50 festivals hiring touring acts occur on a weekend, which is not the case. Then ignore that the touring acts play multiple events – sometimes 4 – per weekend.
      The biggest thing you miss, however, is that I am talking about too many acts trying to tour nationally relative to what a rational business model requires. This, in fact, destroys the ecosystem for local and regional bands, like Silver Creek, later Union Station. The current system – radically different from 30 years ago before IBMA – creates a pyramid without a base.
      None of this has anything to do with meaningless IBMA Awards. Alison’s first LP came out on Rounder.

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      • I still see no reason to put any limits on the arts. While I was in Southern California, the various California associations put on multiple festivals on a weekend of various sizes. I would often attend three different festivals on a three day weekend. That was just one of 50 states. On a popular weekend, I often carried more than 50 festivals on our event calendar for the USA. So, yes, on a given weekend there may be 50 plus festivals running concurrently within the country. The various sized events carried local, regional and national touring acts. Festivals evolve and create their own personalities. Acts that attend regularly (like Sam Bush at RockyGrass), tend to feed this and the fans love it. I have never witnessed the ecosystem you describe being under duress or strained because of the number of quality acts out there. Sure, some acts may play multiple events on a weekend but that probably isn’t the majority of the local and regional acts that account for most of the performances. Anyway, thanks for your comments and perspective.

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      • I’m writing about an oversupply of touring acts – not the local and regional who are being squeezed. Nor about small festers that are not hiring touring acts. We all know you can’t multiply California by 50 to get a national total anyway. Too many touring acts cuts their own income while leaving local and regional bands with few outlets.

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      • There are a lot of fans that all have different tastes and many may not enjoy the 15-20 that are allowed to perform. Then, who gets to decide who those few acts will be? What happens if the majority of consumers don’t like the chosen few? Who determines who can move into the major leagues and by doing so, who has to move out? Who are the Bluegrass Police? There are certainly a bunch of the top national touring acts that I personally don’t care for at all and certainly have never cataloged any of their music onto my media server. Never had too much Bluegrass. We can agree to disagree 🙂

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      • The free market should make those rational choices same as with any other product. Something is preventing market rationality. That cannot continue indefinitely without a market collapse.

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      • One thing I’ve learned in 50 years of trading stocks and commodities, designing products for a global markets, selling art, Internet marketing, etc. is that the market is always right. If the market has a need for 100 national touring acts, then that is how many it will have. If the market has a need for only 5 then, that too is what the market will have. In almost every instance where people have attempted to change or influence the market, the impact has been short lived and most of the time, of insignificant impact. The market will do what it wants.

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      • And what I am contending is that this is not happening in bluegrass since the money is not generated in the market adequately to compensate the number of touring bands. In bluegrass the market is not functioning as you describe.

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      • Money in Bluegrass is generated the same way as in other styles… On the road performing concerts, festivals and other events; Music sales (declining in all areas); Royalties (also in decline due to streaming, etc.). The biggest money maker for the touring acts is in touring. Top acts get billed at top festivals and the artist’s management should always try and get the band the highest paying gig. That’s their job. Five artists or five hundred, should not have any bearing on compensation. Award winners and fan favorites like the Grascals, Lonesome River Band, Dailey & Vincent and others can pretty much set their rate and there is a talent buyer out there that will pay it. More artists available should not impact that at all. The more popular, the higher the rate the artist can charge. The scale is a sliding scale from the best on down and the rates an artist gets should reflect that. That’s free market in action. That’s what I see from this perspective. No limits. I don’t like limits on the arts. They can only harm.

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      • The notion that top acts can name their price has no basis in reality. Any presenter that operates that way is out of business in one year or less. Even members of well known acts have a very hard time making a passable middle class income. Same for many presenters and agents. And we are talking about business, not the arts.

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  3. This is about as stupid an article as I have ever read. Is this a plea for more money? A request for more listeners? The music business for all our so called “professional assessments” is simple. If you put out a product people want to hear, they will listen. If anyone wants to give up and go home, feel free. I guess the rest of us who may one day create something that makes a career should just go home and start turnip farming.

    I never remembered once that someone told me that I would ever make a dollar playing and singing Bluegrass or Bluegrass Gospel. In fact, it was completely the opposite. I chose to do it anyway. I did it because it is what I love to do above all else. I guess according to this logic I should have become a nuclear physicist instead. Then again, I haven’t met a nuclear physicist who could tune a B-string worth a flip.

    I am sick and tired of “experts” who know “what’s best” for the music that raised me, and helped raise every generation of my family since my Grandfather’s day. Another view that “professionals” should be left to their devices. Reminds me of the old adage that “Professionals built the Titanic, amateurs built the Ark”

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  4. I have been around bluegrass music for over 40 years the reason I quit going to bluegrass festival’s is 1 you see the same band’s over and over . 2 not all but most musician’s walk around like they are god and to good to speak to regular people. 3 when I spend 3 or 4 hundred dollars to get ready for a festival food gas and tickets and then pay for electric hookups and time off work I know it cost money to run a festival I can tell you from experience they say the same thing on stage and play the same ol song’s at every festival. that is why we need different. bands.bluegrass is nothing more than a social click.

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  5. art I know you played with the bass mt boys you have already done what a lot of people want to do and also I quit listening to the pinecone bluegrass show is because all you was to here is the grass cats and third tyme out and a few others. our band sent a cd one time to be played after spending all that money to have one made and the the dj said he did not have time to play our’s but he could play his band’s cd because he is the dj what a joke and you go to bass mountain and willow oak and some more festivals the line ups are not worth spending my hard earned money for.

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  6. Art, could you say some more about “audience development tools largely workshopped in theatre and classical music?” Is there a commonly accepted set of practices in those other genres that people like us could be emulating?

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    • 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.

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  7. Art, while the economics rings true, I’d say that forming a restrictive guild wouldn’t help things.
    Yes, a large number of bands will keep down the pay for the middle and bottom end of the scale, but they’re also the pool from which the top draws its talent.
    Many musicians of ALL genres bemoan the low pay of bar gigs and just about any gig that ain’t a big show. But the fact is, a LOT of folks who are good at making music also have day jobs, who play because they love it and want to do it.
    Let’s go back to 1971. There were a mess of bands at the top, possibly diluting things, and limiting potential. In Bethesda, Md., a cartographer (my dad, of course), an instrument repairman, an Army doctor, a computer geek and a guy who illustrated the adverts for the Evening Star were picking in the basement for shots and giggles. Should they have stayed off the scene and never become The Scene?
    Yes, there’s a business component to it (that instrument repairman and his wife were pretty good at that), but its primary draw is the art and expression. And it thrives the most artistically when its practitioners are doing it out of love for what they’re doing. Telling folks at the bottom to stay out because they’re hurting the income of the folks above them isn’t gonna help in the long run.
    Hell, does a bluegrass band in northeast Kansas need a Dobro player? I just wanna pick. I drive truck to support my music habit.

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  8. The problem is that any five good bluegrass musicians….can form a band…. And play good music…..but if they book 100 shows in a years time for 500 dollars a day….they have hurt the business by providing good music for not enough money…. It’s not about breaking even for the fun of pickin

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      • Are you sure ? Maybe there were only 6 bands that made records and got air-time, but their musicians must have come from somewhere ? I suspect they came from smaller bands that toured around, perhaps making a small income…

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  9. Whether one agrees with the detail, it’s a good point to raise. We are in the area of supply and demand and as Bob Cherry quite rightly states, the market is in a very strong position in deciding what will sell and what will not. I offer a few points but I don’t assume I can answer all these issues in a few lines.
    The problem with IBMA, BBMA, and other similar organisations is that they fail to teach the basics of business to musicians, promoters, festival organisers, etc. I do know they try. There are far too many people who embark on a project and don’t look at the business side of things – see earlier note about bands having a business plan. Doing “Bluegrass for love” is a fine principle, but it doesn’t cut with people who are in business to make a profit like your suppliers, venue managers, production companies and the like. And forget art and promotional funding unless you done your business homework.
    So next time you plan a gig, do a simple business plan and make sure you include all your costs including a descent fee for the band. And aim to make it an occasion, not just four guys around a single mic in the corner of the bar. Get lights, a stage, look for a descent venue. Then, when you find out it isn’t a viable proposition, use your creative business skills to make it work. If the quality is right in the first place, your business case will rise upwards.
    But, we’ll never move forward until we present the music in a way which will attract a wider audience who are not going to put up with low standards because they “love” the music. I think the worst example I have seen were the showcases at IBMA in Nashville. Just not the way to present the music to anyone, dingy rooms in a concrete jungle. IBMA got away with it because all the delegates just “love” the music don’t they. If I had been a potential arts industry investor, I would have walked away.
    It’s also worth noting – well over here in Great Britain at least – most art doesn’t make money without outside and creative funding.
    But, to comment on the limitation of professional bands, perhaps the promoters need to be a little more discerning when they book. I never use awards to make a decision on booking a band, I want to know how professional they are at entertaining the audience. That way, only the best bands survive and you get what you might call natural selection.
    Anyway, just a few thoughts, I’m afraid I don’t have all the answers….

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  10. Art, thanks for the reference to Neil Rosenberg’s concept of the “named-system” although I think the work out of which that reference comes is not really adequate to discuss the professionalized “business eco-system” of the bluegrass marketplace you are trying to articulate in this article. I look forward to perusing the articles where that term originated. But with reference to your position piece here, I think the reason for the wide disparity in reactions you are getting is that the actual intent of your piece is only obliquely expressed. I think you are talking about the mission of the IBMA vis-a-vis the bluegrass community, since obviously you are not suggesting becoming some kind of autocrat dispensing “licenses to be a nationally touring bluegrass band” – though to be fair you could argue that licensing professional organizations like the AMA function on exactly such a model.

    I applaud one aspect of your piece which is attempting to squarely confront the issue of market saturation. Let me cite a local version of the phenomenon. In the Boston area there is a local promoter who enthusiastically books a number of concerts for roots musicians. When he began my feeling was that he was simply booking too many concerts too close together. He seemed to have little concept of “what the market could bear.” The question is: who benefits and who suffers from this market irrationality, and what are the market signals that would lead to its self-correction? The obvious answer is that the musicians suffer. While on the one hand there are more gigs, on the other hand a half-filled venue means less money per gig. But the audience also suffers, because after being inundated by countless emails for local gigs, you get saturated and actually start turning off. It turns out to be very hard to give corrective messages in such a system, though, for a few reasons. If the venue promoter is doing it out of love and enthusiasm, rather than pure profit (which is unfortunately where your implicit “market” analogy breaks down) losing money on gigs won’t necessarily lead to a correction. When you have a market with constant new entries – young musicians hungry to play, even for a small amount – then the artists will be there.

    Now – I teach at Berklee, which has certainly played its part in “encouraging” new talent to enter that marketplace. Are we ill-serving the marketplace in so doing? I’d argue, by the way, that if you are looking for a culprit for “over-supply” of musicians then IBMA is the last place to look. By the time a young musician is in a position to be “encouraged” by IBMA’s over-promotion of opportunities for artists in proportion to audience development, the damage has been done. Blame festivals with their youth programs, blame the incursion of roots music programs into college-level institutions if you like. But of course, this whole discussion is sort of tongue-in-cheek, since I don’t think anybody is really blaming here.

    In fact, I’d argue that Rosenberg’s model of “named-system” micro-genres was never adequate to discuss a genre that has led to a professional trade organization, especially one participating in a complex network of other such organizations. And the kind of developments that lead to re-framing a localized music to a more global phenomenon – like, say, the internationalization of reggae, or hip-hop, or Latin music, or bluegrass for that matter, has rarely been something accomplished by a professional organization – or at best, such organizations come after the fact and help professionalize a cultural phenomenon that is already underway.

    Now – off to the gym!

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  11. Some art, the Sistine Chapel for instance, is forever loved and appreciated by the masses. But a lot of art, especially music, is ephemeral and trendy. Music genres seem to appeal to a broad audience for about a generation, then it becomes relegated to being called Mom and Dad’s music. Every young person wants to seek his or her own own voice through art, to express the times they live in. Some musicians and listeners do realize that most art is derivative to a large degree and that today’s musicians are standing on the shoulders of the musicians who preceded them. After the popularity fades for a new type of music, e.g., bluegrass, blues, jazz, r&b, heavy metal, it is usually left to a niche audience made of the generation who grew up with it and some newbies who appreciate it for what it is, a different expression of the same universal life themes, and they don’t care whether it is loved by the masses (I was about to say “whether it was cool” but that, too, is the language of my generation.) So try as you might, most bands playing older established genres of music are not going to be playing for huge audiences. There will still be room in the air for their music, there will be revivals and new mashups with other artists, but the glory days will generally be over. It’s good to be loved by the masses, but to be appreciated by a handful from a distant generation is nice too. The other distinction with bluegrass is that it is a participatory music genre. That’s the way it began in the hills of Appalachia and that is the way it is today. Most bluegrass lovers would rather play with others than watch others. Any way, good luck with growing the genre. I am not against it, I just think you’re fighting gravity.

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