Roots Music Looks For Upside In The Gloom, Hoping For Long-Term Change

Apr 21, 2020

The trade associations that support roots music are putting a hopeful, constructive face on the year ahead, even as they grasp for information that could help them foresee a return of the concert and festival business. Reassurance is in short supply though. In a livestreamed panel discussion last Friday, the heads of the major folk, blues, bluegrass and Americana non-profits said they’re working together to identify new business models that could make the industry better for all involved on the other side of the Covid-19 crisis.

“Things change in the midst of challenges like this, and I think we’ll see new paradigms created,” said Paul Schiminger, executive director of the International Bluegrass Music Association. “There can be opportunities in this, and I’m hoping we can help our community take advantage of this so that they can use this time to build that community so that when things get more normalized they will be in a stronger place to build their career and advance their music creatively.”

Hopes and visions aside, IBMA has to decide in the coming months whether and how to hold its annual fall convention, The World of Bluegrass, in Raleigh, NC as scheduled in September. The Americana Music Association is in the same situation, and its executive director Jed Hilly said on the Zoom conference that they’re planning their awards and business conference as usual, but from a watchful waiting posture.  “We’re looking for good news,” he said. “But we’ll be risk averse. June, July and August is usually when people purchase tickets and make their plans to come to AmericanaFest. So we’ll probably be making our plans by then. Now we’re looking at all the different options, from a full-on coming-out party in September to an abbreviated version that’s respectful of social distancing to having to face the realities of (cancellation).”

The Blues Foundation was forced to scrub its big annual convention and festival in May in Memphis, but President/CEO Barbara Newman announced on the call that the association has, on the fly, re-imagined its Blues Music Awards as a virtual event. “We’re collecting content right now from our nominees and from presenters,” she said. They’ll present a full show on May 3 over Facebook and YouTube. “So while having to close down that event from a live perspective is very sad for us, we’re sort of looking at this as an opportunity to convert from having 1,500 people at an awards ceremony to having tens or hundreds of thousands of people be able to come together as a community to watch these awards given out.”

For now, the web is the only viable outlet for performing artists. The panel included songwriter Noah Wall, who said her band The Barefoot Movement has leaned into streaming events and fan engagement, with some heartening success. They’ve added thousands of followers by doing cover tunes on request (for a fee), and they’ve punched up their weekly streaming performance into a variety show with guests and sketches. “Our fans have been so kind,” Wall said. “And we’ve heard a lot that it is something they’re genuinely looking forward to every week. And I look forward to it too, because I’m here all week, and it’s like this one time on Saturday when I get to communicate with people.”

Amy Reitnouer Jacobs, co-founder of The Bluegrass Situation, spoke as a show promoter and an editorial director of one of the most prominent web magazines covering roots music. BGS concerts in LA, Nashville and other markets are all cancelled, so she’s hoping the industry-wide pause will allow for major re-thinking of what isn’t working in general about the independent music business. “It’s not going to be a very clear other side," she said. "Every single aspect of our industry, every single genre, everyone will have to pivot in some way in the way that this business works. And there’s a lot of stuff that wasn’t very sustainable in our past model. Artists shouldn’t have to tour all the time in order to make a living. They shouldn’t have to push their bodies and mental health to the extreme in order to get by. I think this is an opportunity for us to re-evaluate how business gets done. What is sustainable? What is fair?”

Mayors and governors around the country are confronting difficult questions and loud critics as they decide on timetables for the phased re-opening of businesses, from shops to restaurants to clubs. Folk Alliance International Executive Director Aengus Finnan told the group that even with openings, public wariness will probably prolong the performance recession. “Even when it’s fine and safe and we’re able to hold events legally, at a community level there is still going to be a lag time before people feel confident and comfortable to gather,” he said. “I don’t think the norm will be the old norm, and it’s going to take some time for people to be shoulder to shoulder at bars again.”

The call was organized and facilitated by booking agent and artist manager Steve Johnson, who runs the new company SJ21 out of Asheville, NC and it can be streamed here: