Author: Lehmann, Ted

Giving Back

IBMA will be rolling around within a couple of months and the nomination process is well along, with the final nominations having been announced as you may be reading this. Iíve been thinking a lot recently about giving back to bluegrass and the importance of developing a sense of professionalism.

When we became involved in bluegrass music, only about eight years ago, we were amazed at the welcome we received and the warmth of that reception. An example would be the reaction of bands to Ireneís offer to cover their merch tables while they were performing. The first time she offered, Mike Andes of Nothiní Fancy thanked her, told her the prices and handed her the cash box. These days, bands blithely leave her with several hundred dollars in cash and all their merchandise while they perform, or even go rest. Where else? Meanwhile, my photography and writing have gained readership and, I hope, respect. While we both pick a little, weíre a long way from being bluegrass musicians, but we find ourselves a part of a community we value, cherish, and want to continue contributing to in some fashion. I donít think weíre much different from many people who discover the genre.

As a profession, bluegrass music is somewhat different from others. The biggest difference lies in the fact there are no standards for entrance. Entering other professions (teaching, law, medicine, plumbing, hair cutting and styling, electrical work, and many other skilled trades) requires applicants to complete certain educational goals, pursue an apprenticeship, and/or take a test in order to get a license to practice. No such standards apply in bluegrass. Go to some festivals, form a band, play at open mics, enter a few contests, play a few gigs at the local Home, get booked for a gig at the local live music joint, open for a touring headliner and, lo and behold, youíre a professional bluegrass musician; part of a flourishing and exciting sub-genre of country music. Bands that are good enough may gain local and then regional recognition, sometimes even being asked to travel to events. At some point, the ones who begin to stand out have to decide whether to ďgo for itĒ by becoming full time touring musicians or remain within more limited parameters. Some achieve remarkable success and become icons of our music; others manage to make a living, while many more continue to provide genuine pleasure to many people in local or regional settings. All that being true, there are no standards. Almost all professional bluegrass musicians began as field pickers at fiddlerís conventions and festivals. It may be one of the truest meritocracies in America.

This lack of entry requirements also may lead to a split between the touring bands and local or regional bands, which also perform. Think for a moment about a similar, though certainly not exact, difference between the PGA and the PGA tour. Teaching golf professionals and people who compete in local and regional tournaments are usually far removed from the skills and problems of touring golf professionals, yet each group considers themselves to be proís. There are certainly shared concerns among bluegrassers like health care, coordination of festival dates, ability to plan pensions, creating reasonable fee structures, and many others. But there are also elements of competition, distrust, jealousy and secrecy keeping such cooperation from even beginning to occur in many places. The various elements in the bluegrass community including musicians, promoters, publishers, broadcasters, luthiers, and most certainly fans all have an interest, and, in bluegrass, a voice. Imagine giving fans a vote in the American Medical Association! Yet avid fans must only join IBMA in order to become active, voting members with a voice in this large, but scattered and often conflicted community.

This brings us back to IBMA. Iíll start with this: not everyone is going to be happy with every decision IBMA makes. They may wish the event were still held in Owensboro or Louisville. Many people may think the festival is too expensive, or too Nashville oriented, or encourages music that is not really bluegrass, or the awards ceremony doesnít select the right people, or jamming is discouraged, or, or, or. But in the end, the International Bluegrass Music Association is your professional organization if youíre involved in bluegrass music. It seeks to make health care more easily and affordably available to you. It raises and invests funds to help distressed elderly musicians. It holds meetings and conducts seminars designed to help members of the bluegrass community become more effective at doing their jobs. It encourages and develops new leadership from within its ranks. And it holds an annual convention which is a musical and social feast for professionals and fans at every level from within the community. And you can be a part of it all by determining to be a part of the profession rather than apart from it.

You can become a part of all this by deciding to pay annual dues of $75 and starting to give back to the music which has given you so much pleasure in so many ways. A person who has been with NPR for many years once told me fans come up and say, ďIíve been listening to you for years, but Iíve never given NPR a cent.Ē They say it with a note of pride, as if they were getting away with something. Most of us benefit in some way by the work and efforts of IBMA. The benefits increase in proportion with our willingness to become a part of this worthwhile and lively organization. As with any sort of organization or relationship, the seeds of growth and development need to be cultivated and nurtured to come to full fruition. Itís time for all of us to help cultivate this seedling.

Posted:  8/20/2010

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