A lot has been said about The Americana Music Association UK’s recent awards ceremony, and rightly so (review and photos here). In the days leading up to the glamorous night, those who love and make Americana music got together at a conference to focus on the genre in detail. Managers, performers, songwriters, bookers, schedulers, presenters and retailers all contributed to a lively look at where Americana has come from and where it’s going.
Jed Hilly (Americana Music Association)
Jed Hilly, Executive Director of The Americana Music Association, kicked off proceedings with an overview of the roots of Americana. From the musical influences of European settlers, particularly the Scots and Irish, Jed then explained why Nashville has become so important to American music as a whole, and country-leaning artists in particular. Simply put, it’s where the industry is centred; “it’s about geography and proximity…they run four day tours, they can actually have a life.”
Speaking of country, Jed stated “country in America today is a commercial art form.” He argued that Americana is a catch-all definition that has stuck, in the wake of other labels like alt-country, to describe a cross-over genre that embraces much more than country, including folk, rock and – importantly – punk. Authenticity is both a key ethos and a selling point. Americana is about “pushing the envelope, and there are a lot of passionate people behind it.”
The challenge as the genre gains momentum in the UK, following initiatives such as the recently launched Americana albums chart and the inaugural awards show, is to preserve the passion, art and authenticity whilst seeking commercial success. That shouldn’t be a problem if Jed’s presentation is anything to go by – the organisation is clearly run by people with a genuine interest in the music at grass roots level. It would have been easy to forget his position until he casually asked a fellow board member “Were you at that crazy dinner with Destiny’s Child?” I don’t know about her, but I certainly wasn’t!
From British folk to Americana and back again
Moderator: Ralph McLean (BBC)
Panellists: Will Kaufman (University of Central Lancashire), Andy Fyfe (Q, Mojo) & Beth Nielsen Chapman (singer-songwriter)
Beth Nielsen Chapman traced her journey into Americana back to childhood; “I was always following the song…the distinction of Americana is great songs and stories.” Woody Guthrie expert Will Kaufman contextualised those stories and that sound – “what becomes American folk” – as deriving from a range of British musical traditions, including border ballads, which further developed in America and then returned as skiffle – an example of an ongoing exchange.
There was disappointment, then, amongst the panellists and delegates that, even in the transnational internet age, “this fiction of national borders” still seems to hurt UK artists; the assumption that “if you’re from Nottingham rather than Nashville, perhaps you’re not as authentic.”
The panel discussed the usefulness or otherwise of genre classification. Despite the risk of ring-fencing by journalists and consumers, the general consensus was that embracing ‘Americana’ isn’t a bad thing. A distinction was agreed – “it’s rougher than country” – and “the only thing that can hurt this music is to not play it all.”
Will offered an interesting aside on a developing news story, explaining how he discovered the landlord that Woody Guthrie complained of in his lyrics and letters (“Just how much Racial Hate he stirred up”) was U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump’s father!
Making the most of retail
Moderator: Kim Bayley (Entertainment Retailers Association)
Panellists: Jon Tolley (Banquet), Drew Hill (Proper), Del Querns (Music’s Not Dead) & Joe Porn (Music Glue)
The next panel looked at the state of retail, particularly the independent sector. There were a few surprising facts – apparently two-thirds of music sales are still on a physical format. The desire for something to hold, own and collect has endured. The sentiment “I would be more worried if I was trying to sell mp3s for a living was shared; selling records is “selling experiences.” Speaking of records, vinyl is increasingly important and now demand outstrips supply; “having something as impractical as vinyl is brilliant.”
The message from the independent retailers to each other and to the artists, promoters and managers was the importance of working together. Explaining how Amazon is prepared to sell music at a loss as their business model is based on earning interest from its vast revenue. “If we all compete on price, it’s a race to the bottom”; when retailers can’t be cheaper, they need to be better.
The call was made to artists and labels to understand that if they undercut indie stores in price, or if they offer exclusive special editions or merch extras, they’re giving retailers little incentive to push the release. This is despite the fact that retailers have an important role to play in reaching new fans through recommendations, in-store play and shop window display. Thus, sending a promo copy or poster in advance of a release are simple but important ways to encourage retailers to stock and promote the record. Better still, limited editions or in-stores. It’s not just about the release either – if there’s a significant TV appearance, stores should be informed via an updated promo plan so they can be ready to respond to – and encourage – demand.
A recurring theme of the day was genre classification. For one retailer, it simply wasn’t important – “the only separate section that we’ve got is jazz…there’s no boundaries for [the customers].” On the other hand, genre can be embraced as a niche for emerging artists. Otherwise, charts, playlists and other markers in an industry that is organised by genre can easily be dominated by the “big hat stars of country music.”
So, what exactly is Americana? Jed Hilly was on hand with a definition – the dictionary definition, literally: ‘a contemporary genre that honours and/or derives from American roots tradition.’ It was clarified as a ‘get out clause’ for sounds that were not uniformly folk or country. Jed explained that every music type has a problem with definition, but Americana is here to stay so “if you’re not cool enough to know, get cool!”
Having previously discussed the problematic position of non-Americans in the genre, talk came to the potentially divisive nature of the ‘American’ part of Americana. Might antipathy to American foreign policy alienate potential listeners? It was countered that anti-Americanism is not immutable;there was significant pro-American sentiment after 9/11, and “Levi’s are f***ing great, so are Frisbees.” The jury was still out, though. For some, Americana itself is problematic; we “should be looking to champion country music.”
Radio: How to get played
Moderator: Baylen Leonard (The Front Porch, Amazing Radio, BBC Radio 2)
Panellists: Mark Hagen (BBC Radio 2 Producer, Bob Harris Country Show), Claire Paxton-Rider (Radio Plugger, Fleming Associates and Conehead UK) & Crispin Parry (British Underground)
Radio 2 is the UK’s biggest radio station. Given that Mark Hagen receives upwards of 27 CDs and 8 streams a week, compared to between 8 and 14 songs played on each Bob Harris Country show, what does it take to get played? It’s not necessarily persistence but it is confidence. Do you really have what it take to be a music star and do you have confidence in your music – is your best song first?
It’s about passion and talent too. Claire Paxton-Rider spoke about the importance of believing in the artists she works with. It’s also important to understand the audience – paradoxically, “people don’t listen to radio.” For most, “it’s on in the background, a reverie.” Thinking particularly about the graveyard shift, “people are most likely to fall asleep to this.” Nonetheless, Mark saw Americana as a gateway drug, reaching an audience more prepared to seek things out, helped by judicious playlisting between more well-known artists to ease listeners in “so they’re not scared.”
Context, too, is important. “I always like to have a reason to play something, whether it be a tour, a release or a TV appearance.” Releases are especially important for an audience that is prepared to seek new music out – “I would be very reluctant to play something people couldn’t get from somewhere.” Genre, again, was discussed – not sure how to label your music? “What genre does iTunes think you are? That’s what you are.”
What’s the most important thing to bear in mind when chasing airplay? Production values. The song has to sound right alongside releases by established artists; simply put, an OK song that sounds amazing might get played but “you can’t get an amazing song with OK production on the radio.”
Bob Harris in conversation with Billy Bragg
Billy Bragg and Bob Harris discussed the roots of Americana in the UK in the post-war era, a time when hipsters were into trad jazz and “youth culture for boys was skiffle.” Skiffle was discussed as an “epoch making category for John Peel’s generation.” Billy was clear about the importance of Lonnie Donegan’s Rock Island Line; “all roads lead to Lonnie.” He went further still, saying “UK musicians invented Americana…ability of outsiders to get a perspective on culture.”
Billy went on to talk about Woody Guthrie – “like me, he wasn’t particularly musical.” Guthrie was a prolific songwriter, only about 10% of his 3,000 songs were every recorded. Billy worked with Wilco to set more of the songs to music; Woody’s daughter Norah had considered other artists for the job but “she felt they were too close, saw him as a giant.”
Like with the other panels, genre was discussed. Billy noted “like gender, genre is a construct.” He had a definition of Americana, though: “country music for people that like The Smiths.” What of the recent scene? The pair spoke highly of the Milk Carton Kids – “they touched a nerve” – then Billy noted “I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the impact of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack.”
With that, the conference ended. Just enough time for a raffle, a chat, photos and a few craft beers from the London Fields Brewery before heading to the AMA showcase that evening.