Bluegrass: a spreadable music

Ted Lehmann, a retired English professor and bluegrass enthusiast, explores how our spreadable media culture benefits bluegrass music. You can read more of Ted’s writing on his blog.

We live in a rapidly changing media environment that has nothing but good in it for bluegrass music, in all its forms, while at the same time standing as a harbinger for change that many of us will find difficult to integrate into our way of consuming media. As the CD seems to be dying as a means of disseminating music, after a run of more than a generation at a price that has never been sustainable, and bluegrass festivals, while highly enjoyable for those who attend for various reasons, are not expensive enough to pay performers anything approaching a living wage, we see change in delivery and presentation in every direction. In Spreadable Media, a new book to be published next month, and on an interactive web site of the same name, Henry Jackson, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green lay out a picture of this new media world, based on the Internet and YouTube, that has huge importance for both creators, producers, and consumers of bluegrass music. While the book is written by and for “media professionals,” its importance for bluegrass is so large that it deserves wide and thoughtful consideration in our community.

Bluegrass Music is a form of music which has been maintained, treasured, and spread by its fans. The music is unusual in that a large proportion of those who love the music also play it regularly and, and some level, for pay. The lines between full scale professional, talented semi-professional, able amatuer, and fan are undefined at best and unclear in many cases. People gather to play, sing, and listen to bluegrass wherever it is played: at festivals, in local bluegrass associations, at pickin’ parties, before concerts, at conventions, and in many other formal and informal settings. In effect, this range of places where bluegrass is played and enjoyed serves to keep the songs of the Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers and other early practitioners of bluegrass alive and in the standard repertory. It also places the stamp of approval on new songs and performances as they migrate from the stage and the recording studio to the jam circle at varying levels of accomplishment. The arrival of a fairly recent songs first performed by The Lonesome River Band, IIIrd Tyme Out, Balsam Range, or the Gibson Brothers, by their mere inclusion in regular jams, identifies the song as now a part of the classic repertoire. This movement is facilitated by the existence of YouTube, where thousands of performances by the first generation greats are available either in studio recordings, television kinescopes, or amateur videos, made available for study and slavish copying by devoted adherents. These can also be adapted and changed to meet contemporary standards, alter the original, or add new wrinkles to it. Thus YouTube serves to both uphold tradition and encourage innovation. How The Infamous Stringdusters interpret Jimmy Martin upholds the Stringdusters’ reputation as a bluegrass band and alters our understanding of the relevance of The King of Bluegrass.

Copyright has been hurt by the availability and transportability provided by the new media. While I must confess to not being as knowledgeable as I’d like to be (or planning to become in the next few months) about this important issue, I’m certainly aware that copyright and its enforcement affects performers, corporations, and performance videos as so-called Performance Rights Organizations scramble to help collect royalties and residuals for song writers, performers, and recording companies from all the people who perform the music in all its various forms and venues. Brought up in academic settings, I’m well aware of the requirements to give credit to those who originated material and stand to benefit from its use. I seek, on my own YouTube channel to identify the writer of each song I post as well as the names of all the performers. When requested by a copyright holder (rare) I immediately remove the video from my site, although I have no control over those who have shared it in the interim. It strikes me that living in the spreadable media world we have created thrusts an arrow in the heart of copyright holders, making it increasingly difficult to collect and distribute royalties and residuals to performers and writers. The current environment empowers fans, adapters, and alternative communities to spread material across the world without even acknowleging, let alone paying, the original creator. How to make rational providing recompense to those who create the performance is a matter of continuing concern.

Many performers are finding it effective to bypass the traditional publishing and recording methods for self-publishing content and merchandise through web sites or at merchandise tables at concerts and festivals. The example of rock band RadioHead’s self publishing of a digital album which netted several million dollars is alive for all performers. Where this is headed is still very much up in the air, but it is clear that there’s going to be change as well as winners and losers. One can only hope that the winners will not be solely those with deep pockets and access to expemsive legal advice. It’s also worth noting that the existance of copyright goes to making production more expensive and does nothing to guarantee excellence. Neither, however, does a completely open and unfettered market of ideas, which by definition will include more bad product along with the inevitable jewels which never would have seen light of day had they been required to copyright their material and gain the notice of a label.

The line between fan and audience or producer has inevitably become blurred as fans can combine into motivated interest groups to affect the decisions of producers. Fans are, therefore, the key to both the maintanence of tradition and the support and spread of change. By seeking to narrow the definition of bluegrass they can keep the genre from growing and encouraging artistic experiement. By rewarding the best of the new and different, they encourage people to innovate. By subjecting the music to continuing re-evaluation and re-hearing based upon the increasingly large availability of choices, they make the world, whether it be the world of art, film, or music both more difficult to navigate and more suscpetible to change. Finally, only the test of time will determine what remains, what changes, and what enters the awareness of the audience. Now is perhaps the most challenging and exciting time to be in bluegrass since Flatt & Scruggs stepped on the Stage of the Grand Old Opry in 1945. Have a good time.