Author: Lehmann, Ted

Demographics and Bluegrass Festivals

It seems to me, and this may be based on the kinds of events we choose to attend, that the audiences at many bluegrass festivals are growing older, much older, while the events fail to attract new younger, more affluent audiences, particularly those with children. Many events are being canceled, and some have responded by reducing the quality of their lineup, pulling their horns in still further. We can count on traditional bluegrass continuing to be played, even after those who attended Fincastle, the first bluegrass festival, are gone. Bill Monroe, The Stanley Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs and the rest will be remembered and will continue to be played. Their work, and that of the folk singers, collectors, and old-time players who preceded them as well as the folkies and rockers who came along afterward will still thrill and influence younger players and their best work will continue being played as part of the bluegrass repertoire. Nevertheless, time is taking its toll. The Beatles debuted in New York fifty years ago and changed the music game forever, just the way the big bands and jazz players had in generations before. Many musicians I talk to give credit to the founders of bluegrass, but when I ask them what they listen to, the talk about today's people on the edge, many of whom I've never heard of. How can these modern innovators fail to influence the music played by bluegrass derived acoustic string bands today? What will we have to do to continue growing this music while keeping the audience, both young and old engaged in what's happening in music today.

I believe the first step promoters and radio stations must do is give up on purity. Already the lines between traditional bluegrass and classic country have been blurred almost to non-existence. The influences of all forms of rock, soul, rap, jazz, and more are already raising their heads in bluegrass, smoothed over, toned down, and made more acceptable, but they're there. An event that advertises a mixture of music will attract a broader demographic. In order to attract this kind of audience, promoters must raise prices. The days of a four day fifty dollar festival are long gone. Good bands need to be paid and they deserve to be paid, too. Furthermore, it's not unusual for these bands to feature Jimmy Martin and the Osborne Brothers as well as Tom Petty and the Allman Brothers in their repertoire. By booking the better and more varied bands that increased price and attendance can generate, promoters can increase the assurance of continued successful events.

Three things that can increase the attendance by a younger and more diverse demographic in events are youth programs, supervised activities of children, extensive jamming, and band contests. Each of these elements encourages young families to attend, get their children involved, and become involved themselves. As many festivals have reduced the percentage of local and regional bands that are booked to their festivals as a way to encourage people to buy tickets to see more “name” bands, the opportunities for young bands have decreased. One incentive of band contests can be an appearance at the festival for the winner or a guaranteed booking in next year's event. This provision costs little and can attract five to ten bands and all their friends to a festival. HoustonFest, one of our favorite small festivals, held in Galax, VA in May is filled with young bands playing the music they love. It's all acoustic, but beyond that the range of influences is almost endless, yet all of them trace their roots back to old time and the founders of music. It's a wonderful and interesting event attracting a wide range of young musicians. Another provision that would be attractive to a younger demographic would be a dance friendly area near the stage but not blocking view of those who want to sit and listen. Many younger people want to express their appreciation of music in movement, make sure the opportunity is there.

I believe the bluegrass music festival still has a great future, despite the attractiveness of other delivery formats and the difficulty of uncertain weather. But in order to retain the current audience, as long as its members can continue to attend, and add a younger, more vigorous new fan base consisting of a more diverse population, it's necessary to rethink the constitution of the structure of events and the bands performing there.
Ted Lehmann

Posted:  2/11/2014

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