Friday, February 15, 2008

Bluegrass is an Enterprise and the Work is Never Done

Sometimes I forget that part of what drives me is just not what drives everybody else.

I grew up in a family enterprise, and work for one now. Sometimes I forget that this is as much a part of where I come from and who I am as anything else. The arts is an extension of enterprise and entrepreneurship. Yesterday again, like so many times before, I heard a former university music professor turned orchestra exec say how he would add to the young musician-student's diet less organum, and more financial management. Because like the people who came before me and the people I work with now, and frankly myself, musicians are entrepreneurs. Bluegrass is often a family enterprise.

Bluegrass has never grown much past its roots. Perhaps that's because it' still a relatively young genre not too far behind Rock n Roll. But all bluegrass musicians are entrepreneurs. Most musicians of any kind are in fact entrepreneurs. The idea that still anchors me to "institutional" settings like colleges or performing arts centers or festivals is the belief that these larger organizations can help sustain and swell support for musicians and the music that we love.

Being in a small enterprise whether on your own or with a group is really hard work. Now, folks who work for big companies, manufacturers, hospitals, law firms, banks -- those people work hard and they do jobs that the rest of us need to be done. I'll never be like those folks, a footsoldier of the economy doing my 9 to 5 thing and coming home to my whatever. And I think there's some misguided perception that what I do is easier than that.

But when you're the one putting the bread on the table, you don't really stop. So it helps to love what you do. And when you are in service of arts and cultural organizations, they don't necessarily stop at 5 either; in fact, they almost never do, and finding people who like that sort of thing is part of my work. Moreover, the organizations we serve are the organizations my children and I support and enjoy on a regular basis. The contribution may seem small to some, or easy to others. But if you really knew what goes into it, you would scratch your head and wonder what's kept me out of the loony bin or running for the sweet cover of the Ivory Tower.

That's not to say I won't someday. But being the director of, say the cultural arts program of an institution still requires a sort of independent contributor who can line up artists, cut deals, negotiate with inside support. It's still quite entrepreneurial, if a little safer.

Musicians, like some of those I've met recently, set up their own gigs whether it's a night at the Happy Dog Cafe or a chamber recital. In Orchestras, you're not necessarily any safer. You are the commodity, whether it's a classics concert, a Podcast, a Video snippet on the Web--the latter two, the likes of which were unheard of in the George Szell era, catching everyone off guard. And so even in the orchestra world we have sometimes contentious labor negotiations. One of the more notorious situations was concluded a couple weeks ago. Yesterday, the CEO quit.

Art, music, dance, theatre -- these are experiences that are valued less and less in our society, in our American society. There is plenty of entrepreneurship in these, with smaller galleries, smaller theatre and dance groups and chamber ensembles popping up. How will they stay in business? It's harder for independent musicians, too, to get a leg up. That terrific Andy Carlson band I told you about? Has IBMA ever given them space on the showcase? Would you believe, no? I have listened to their terrific album now several times. I can't figure out why. I hesitate to suggest they might not be bluegrassy enough -- but that smacks of suggesting they're too sophisticated, which wouldn't be nice.

Still, they keep going. If you were born to play music you keep going because you don't know any other way. And all those people with the 9 to 5 jobs come to hear you because you make them smile and sing and tap their toes and forget about being owned by corporate warlords for a while. You don't know how to be any other way. It may not be lucrative and it may just be more work than anyone else is doing. But it works for you.

And mostly, although sometimes I miss the relatively copious vacation or cushier benefits that came with working in a larger organization, it works for me.

To all those bluegrass musicians famous and no so famous yet, thank you for doing what I know you love to do. Thanks for sustaining and growing a good old American brand of music, thanks for turning kids on to acoustic string instruments, thanks for providing an alternative to everything produced by the big radio and recording monopoly so that us freethinking music loving people have a choice. YOU are my valentines!

The Cox Family is one of bluegrass music's more traditional bands. Here's a Valentine sort of tune, a few days late. It's called "Everybody's Reaching Out For Someone" and it's a lovely sampling of their beautiful harmony singing. Enjoy -- I'm reaching out for my keys to go with friends to hear some live music and hope you'll do the same this weekend, too!


At February 19, 2008 5:00 PM, Blogger Blueberry said...

Very good points and lots of truth there. One of the sad things is that there are so many great players who will never be widely heard just because they are not so good at the "networking" part of it. It's an important part of it, making friends, making connections, being a fun or an extremely interesting person. They need an invite to the party, and the ability to self-promote without coming off as egotistical. It doesn't hurt to have a "hook" also -- something unique that stands out and distinguishes you (and sometimes it's as simple as what family you're from). Superficial trappings to be sure, but if music is your life then it's also your business.

At February 20, 2008 3:36 PM, Blogger Mando Mama said...

Hey Blueberry,
You know whereof you speak, having worked with so many artists. I imagine that some of the folks kind of find the whole networking thing a little distasteful, too. Working the room, even in a roomful of bluegrass people, is hard work.

One example of the high-end shake and howdy is Rhonda Vincent. At IBMA, her 25-minute set might be at, say, 6 p.m., but she's still standing around in the lobby at 10 p.m. talking to fans. And of course she has a huge following, a bluegrass cruise that fills up every year, the whole thing. Not everybody can do that or wants that. But to get that, you gotta self-promote.


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