Thriving Roots: Live Updates
Thriving Roots, this year’s take on AmericanaFest is underway, with panels scheduled today on streaming strategies, instrumentalists, and Black equity in the format among other issues. Big name interviews include Jackson Browne speaking with Mavis Staples and Judd Apatow interviewing the Avett Brothers. It’s not too late to register, as all panels are archived for review. We’ll be adding reports and updates as they fit from now until Friday afternoon.
Washington, DC-based journalist Marcus K. Dowling moderated a follow-up panel with three of the four artists and industry change agents who participated in an August panel on Black Equity In Americana, which he said today has drawn about 50,000 views since it was archived. Today’s panel took the conversation deeper into the format’s debt to Black music and its missing pieces in building a truly inclusive and equitable community at the level of ownership and executive influence. Lilli Lewis, an artist and the GM of Louisiana Red Hot Records in New Orleans observed that another Wednesday Thriving Roots panel of all white male indie label executives had deflected when asked directly about how they’re diversifying their label’s workforce. She said mostly they spoke to diversity in their artist rosters, not the same thing, and in one case a president spoke to diversity in the label’s internship program. “Unpaid labor is so very much what got us here,” she said. Durham, NC-based artist Kamara Thomas spoke of pressure on Black voices to conform to tropes manifested by the hackneyed term “soulful.” Later, she cautioned that Americana must strive harder to truly let artists be themselves, lest the field wind up like classical music – “No young people – a bunch of traditionalists who are closed off and play the same tunes over and over. That’s not what this music is capable of.”
The impact of Covid-19 on independent record labels has varied rather widely, according to executives from five different companies who sat on a "Surviving or Thriving" panel. For older, larger companies, like Rounder Records celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, streaming of a large historic catalog has been key to keeping revenue from collapsing. Younger labels with smaller rosters like Signature Sounds from Northampton, MA have taken a deeper hit without as much material in the pipeline, its president Jim Olsen said. One Nashville based label, Dualtone, noted that synch licensing, selling songs for use in TV shows or commercials, has been robust in 2020, while another, New West, reported a dramatic fall-off in the same revenue column. Some labels have postponed scheduled releases for lack of a touring schedule to promote and sell them, while others have added titles the year’s new album plan, because their artists are off the road and suddenly creating in the studio works they hadn’t anticipated. What seemed to unite the five label heads was a feeling that this aberrant year will add capabilities and hone new approaches to reaching fans. Rounder’s president John Strom said, “I’m very confident when we come out of this period, we’re going to have much sharper skills in terms of visual branding and digital marketing because we’ve had to get very sophisticated and come up with creative solutions.”
“Streaming” in 2020 is a vast, multi-platform and multi-media free-for-all, encompassing Spotify playlists, YouTube channels, genre-based webcasts, live online events, both paid and unpaid, and digital outlets like Soundcloud and Bandcamp. “The landscape is enormous,” said Mike Fabio, VP of digital strategy for New West Music, moderator for a panel on Building a Streaming Strategy in 2020. “Every day there seems like there’s something new.”
Panelists from YouTube and Spotify spoke on artist-focused tools that allow labels, managers and indie musicians to monitor their audience, customize their bio and photos, post events and more within those ecosystems. Many more micro tools allowing teams to build email lists and reach fans by text were talked about as well.
But a general point of agreement was on making streaming serve a comprehensive artist development strategy that includes brand, story and fan outreach, rather than discrete hits like landing on a coveted playlist. “One thing I think about looking at analytics to help labels is, I don’t want to see a spike from one playlist or campaign,” said Margaret Hart, manager of label relations for YouTube. “I want to see a stairstep up. And that takes time. It’s going to be six months, twelve months.”
A pre-taped presentation by the Recording Industry Association of America offered a broad overview of the music business, often with mega-hit examples that were far removed from the independent and grassroots approach of Americana. But still, CEO Mitch Glazier presented an important reality check about the shifting dynamics of how people access music, in particular during the Covid era.
“We’re all looking for a bright spot, and that bright spot has been streaming,” Glazier said. “Streaming now accounts for 85% of the revenue in the industry.” That was just 33% five years ago, when digital downloads made the plurality of revenue. Downloads are down to 6% today. “It’s a remarkable transformation,” Glazier said. In June of 2020, there were 72 million paid US subscribers to streaming services, with those fees accounting for two thirds of the entire record industry’s gross profits.
The audience for Americana radio is generally over 50 years old and more male than female. History shows it’s an almost entirely white audience as well. And this has been common knowledge for years. A variety of program directors from around the country speaking on Wednesday morning didn’t mention any specific initiatives or outreach efforts to grow or diversify that audience, beyond routine use of social media or participating in local cultural events. The talk was nearly entirely about what leads them to program or not program certain records, with a general consensus that songs and songwriting drive that process.
Panelists did talk about gender balance, with Benji McPhail of KJAC remarking that at his Colorado station and Americana show, “we go out of our way to play female artists,” yet the music coming in tilts about 70/30 male, which makes parity more challenging. WMOT’s Jessie Scott said gender diversity can also be accounted for when considering others besides the lead vocal. “Anne McCue may have produced it,” she said, or there may be female band members. “We play as many other voices as we can – African American, Native American. I’m so happy to have the new Mavericks record because it’s en Espanol. It’s bigger than just females.”
The group also noted that the background demographics of a station’s reach does influence decisions about playing political or protest songs. Veteran Americana programmer Mattson Rainer of KNBT in the conservative area of New Braunfels, TX says he’s wary of progressive songs with very direct messaging. “It’s a fine line between wanting to make a statement and wanting to be around for the next 25 years,” he said. “Right now everything is so polarized that it’s tough.”