IBMA Keynote

Words By Chris Pandolfi (The Infamous Stringdusters)

The IBMA has asked me to give a keynote address at the annual business conference this fall in Nashville (Tuesday, Sept 27th, 10:30 AM). Thanks IBMA, for such an amazing opportunity! There’s been much talk this year about the current state of Bluegrass affairs–a rekindling of an old, and important discussion. I hope to add something meaningful, and to move the discussion along in a positive way.

Above all else, my hope is for IBMA to be whatever it wants to be–a true reflection of its membership and leaders.

For some that means changes, new blood, and an updated idea of what part the organization can play in the acoustic music world. For others the concept of change is not so welcome, for fear that musical integrity will suffer and the intimate bluegrass community will get watered down with bigger, less informed crowds. The conversation is taking place between members, non-members, musicians and fans alike. And in some cases they seem to agree. Last week I posted an article about the IBMA awards and the response (from inside and out) seemed unanimous: the structure and process need to be changed. Thanks to everyone for the thoughtful responses–several viable solutions were discussed. Amidst this discussion, Dan Hays (IBMA’s executive director) raised the larger of issue of how such changes are effected in this type of organization, which we need to understand if anything substantive will ever happen here. If everyone agrees that the Awards Show needs change, why haven’t we seen it yet?

The IBMA is a democracy made up of voting members and an elected board that tries to distill the information. Though the board seems to have a forward-thinking view of the big picture, the voting body is conflicted, and the conversation can be dominated by a few loud voices of opposition. This part of the democracy is natural, but it can really slow down the process of change. When talk of change lingers, the opposition digs in and little gets done.

Sure, the Awards Show has its flaws, but do we really need bigger change now? I don’t have the answer, but several key observations seem to say yes. The World of Bluegrass (the IBMA’s one huge event and main source of revenue) has seen decline on several fronts. Last year’s World of BG had about as many people as 2003 in Louisville. Needless to say the economy is a factor, but compared to 10 years ago (the Stringdusters were regulars–several of us met at the Galt House), the WOB just dosen’t feel as vital. On the one hand there is the actual business conference, a resource that we were never very connected to, which seems less populated (booths and fans) every year. The networking, jamming, socializing element was our thing–that’s where we met each other and various others industry folks who have been involved with our career as a band. But this has suffered as well, to the point that ‘no jamming’ rules actually shut down the action at the Renaissance in Nashville. It was the organization’s honest attempt to make the event more productive, less of a free-for-all, but as board member Jon Weisberger stated, they “overshot the mark.” But the biggest and most obvious reason for change is quite simple: the organization is losing money, which will clearly preclude it from making a sustained contribution to our music world. Though there is opposition to change, it seems at this point in time that some change is necessary for the IBMA.

So what would those changes be, and do they need to involve the integration of a bigger musical world? Right now it’s completely up to us, the voting members. If you care about the direction of this organization, then say something, because it has to reflect what YOU want. Try to be respectful to the people you disagree with, respectful of the fact that they care too, and that we are all very different. Prior versions of this conversation seem so heated, so serious, to the point of being counterproductive. It’s not even music we are talking about, it’s a music organization, trying to make a positive impact on the world. It’s clear that we’ll never agree on exactly what ‘bluegrass’ is, but we can at least agree that IBMA could be more than it is now. We can voice our ideas and work toward improving the organization. If we aim to make the conversation constructive, good ideas will emerge and positive changes that reflect the group could ensue.

Why do I care about any of this? It’s NOT because i want to ‘attack’ or ‘destroy’ bluegrass (not my words)! Bluegrass is amazing–I love it. We formed at IBMA, won three awards in 2007 and have received multiple nominations since. We will always be so grateful for this support. Since then we have moved into a bigger musical world on the fringes, sometimes distinctly outside of the scene represented at IBMA. But to us it’s a world that is clearly related, and one that has great fans and copious opportunities for a young string band. We played Red Rocks last Saturday with Yonder and Railroad, and there were 10,000 people. It was truly unreal! We could be part of building a bridge to that world, and other eclectic musical worlds that are on the fringe, without creating any significant changes in the existing traditional scene. But only if that’s what we (IBMA) want to do as a group. Though I believe that these worlds can coexist, I’m only pushing for discussion, and hopefully some consensus . I’m a member, and IBMA has asked me to help, so I’m reaching out to musicians, fans, board members, promoters, DJ’s, supporters, opposition, etc, trying to understand what’s going on.

Please discuss. See you in Nashville in a few weeks…


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