Live Updates From Thriving Roots, Day 2
Day two of Thriving Roots, Americana’s online 2020 conference will feature a discussion clarifying the rollout of the Music Modernization Act, a case study in artist development featuring the Black Pumas, a conversation about the organizations founded this year to save live music venues, and the health of record stores. Musical performances will include Kathleen Edwards, Shakey Graves, Charley Crockett and a late of artists from North Carolina.
Record stores are finding ways to survive and even thrive the year of Covid. In one of the more heartening panels of Thursday, owners from four independent stores from across the country shared stories about how they pivoted when the virus shut down their physical space in March. All four are back open to some degree, whether with limited customers or by appointment. All have pursued online sales, some for the first time. But the Spring was like nothing anybody ever experienced. “It looked pretty bleak, honestly,” said Doyle Davis, co-owner of Grimey’s in Nashville. But he told the story of how Taylor Swift came through with a grant covering his employees' health care and Jason Isbell offered up a large number of signed LPs when his album Reunions came out, fueling a huge number of sales. Davis said sales are down 33% for the year but in recent months only 10% compared with summertime last year.
Andy Nelson from Easy Street Records in Seattle recounted how they leveraged to-go and delivery sales at their companion café into record delivery by van. “The customers were just spectacular. People were so excited,” he said. “It was a scary time for everybody.” “You’re looking at supporting something you love monetarily. They could have gone to Amazon, but having that delivery was special.” Terry Currier owner of Music Millennium in Portland, OR, saw similar surges of support from his community. “One thing we found out is that people vote with their money,” he said. Panel moderator Carrie Colliton, co-founder of Record Store Day, said physical recordings are well tuned to the times, with folks largely stuck at home and emotionally stressed. And they’re shopping for music. “The good news,” she said, “is these guys are still here and to everyone’s surprise and joy, most people are doing all right.”
Moderator Shane Ramer opened his panel on addiction and recovery with a moment of silence for those who’ve succumbed to substance abuse, setting a respectful tone for a conversation about a topic that does feel increasingly relevant to a format with dozens of artists who are out and public with their recovery stories. One who participated on Thursday was country songwriter Jaime Wyatt who said bluntly “I’ll tell you I shouldn’t be alive” but for the services of MusiCares. Asked what catalyzed her calls to support services, she had a two pronged answer. First, she wound up in jail in Los Angeles and ended up after nine months making a deal that involved a trip from incarceration to a recovery center. Her sobriety lasted seven years before life stresses caused a relapse. As she got her career in Americana rolling, her addictions crested and she was subject to an intervention. “What really helped me get to even the place of going to a treatment center was that my mother called my manager and was like, ‘we’ve got to take her off the road.’ My excuse was I know but it’s not the right time. I’ve got shows. I’ve got momentum. But little did I realize I’m performing at 50% of my potential if that.” Her story can be heard in detail in a recent episode of The String.
Ramer, who hosts the podcast That Sober Guy, noted that in the fields he specializes in, music and comedy, “there’s a lot of waiting around” and that time, before shows or in the studio, can be full of stasis and temptation. Musician Phil Bogard said to grapple with that he made a personal network of fellow addicts he could call in every city where he toured. Or he’d get on the phone with other men who were in the early days of sobriety. His own challenge, he said, “all gets shrunk down into different perspective when I’m on the phone with a suffering man who’s going through something much bigger.”
Chris Cobb, owner of Nashville’s legendary Exit/In, said music venues around the nation are facing a “mass extinction event” as the Covid crisis grinds into its second half year with no end in sight. This was the grim prognosis driving a panel about two advocacy organizations that sprang up in March and April to lobby for federal aid, the National Independent Talent Organization (NITO) and the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA). NIVA’s Dayna Frank spoke about loan and grant packages pending in Congress that have bipartisan support, but which have been sidelined by political rancor on Capitol Hill. “We’ve had a lot of success, but we don’t have any aid. We’re still slogging at it,” Frank said. “The first step was getting out there and telling out story. No one knew we were an industry. Our industry has never had to go sell ourselves.” She noted that members from across the political spectrum were receptive to the education, in large part because it’s an industry that’s never asked for a handout in history. “This wasn’t our making. We are the unfortunate victims of a disease,” she said. “We’re still out there working 18 hours a day trying to get (help).” But time, the panel agreed, is fast running out and clubs nationwide are getting eviction notices. “None of us will survive without all of us surviving,” said Frank Riley of High Road Touring, speaking on behalf of agents. “We need all the independents across America. The new ideas and careers, the evolution of sound and voices, the ways artists present themselves – these skills are all learned at the independent level.” He concluded, “It’s a really dangerous and difficult time for all of us.”
Everybody in the music business has a stake in the Music Modernization Act, which was signed in 2018 and is on track to be fully implemented in 2021. Six experts and artist advocates offered an overview of the complex law and a progress report, especially on the Mechanical Licensing Collective, a brand new royalty collector that will centralize who own what shares of songs and recordings and simplify the process of obtaining licenses for all music in a more competitive streaming environment. The MLC’s head of third-party partnerships Dae Bogan said it’s been challenging, but on dealine. “We’re standing up what I call a 21st century music rights organization during a pandemic. That’s unprecedented,” Bogan said. Moderator Erin McAnally of the Artist Rights Alliance said that artists have to proactively get involved with making sure their works are accurately registered in the MLC and that “we have a massive job to reach creators.” Producer and songwriter Ivan Barias agreed. “I wish we could figure out a way to bring on ambassadors who could speak to certain communities,” he said, specifying grassroots independent musicians who lack access to legal advice. “Creators do not like to be encumbered by things that take away from creating records,” he said.
In a session called Folk The Vote, Deana McCloud, the executive director of the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, OK, gave a video tour of artifacts form the center that came out of efforts to rally voting and progressive campaigns through music. She shared songbooks from the campaign of Progressive Party presidential candidate Henry Wallace and items from the stories of Pete Seeger, Josh White and Phil Ochs. McCloud said, “It’s always interesting to us whenever we hear artists being told you’re not supposed to be talking about politics. You’re here to entertain us. And we couldn’t disagree more. Even Woody said ‘I’m not an entertainer. I’m an educator.’”
Then McCloud interviewed folk singer Ani DiFranco, amplifying the connections between Woody Guthrie’s prototypical music activism and her long career. “I’ve been out there trying to engage, and that has been evolving over the years,” DiFranco said. She and McCloud got to talking about the imperative of participating in elections. “As voters, yes, there’s compromise,” DiFranco said. “The alternative is resignation and acceptance, often of the worst possible outcomes. And it’s important to remind each other that the ‘lesser of two evils’ is usually life or death for somebody a lot closer to the edge than yourself.”