A New Boss with Big Plans

IBMA at the Crossroads

Registration numbers for IBMA’s final World of Bluegrass week in Nashville are down slightly from last year, but Executive Director Nancy Cardwell is pulling out all the stops to try to finish on a high note before next year’s move to Raleigh, N.C.

There’s still time to close the gap, but even if the numbers continue to lag, Cardwell is implementing plans to strengthen IBMA going forward, including cross-promotion efforts with the Folk Alliance, membership phone-a-thons and a first-ever Youth Council aimed at bringing bluegrass to new generations.

“I’m very interested in the future of this organization and the future of bluegrass music,” she said in an interview shortly after her official promotion to executive director after serving for most of the year in an acting capacity. “We have to reach younger folks.”

The Youth Council idea, which Cardwell pitched to the IBMA board of directors in March, is based on a similar effort at Wintergrass. The council will include 10-20 high school and college students with a passion for bluegrass. They’ll offer input for World of Bluegrass activities and programs that will appeal to new, younger fans.

Registration for this year’s business conference remains open until Sept. 7, but walk up registrations can be purchased at the Convention Center starting on Sept. 24. Cardwell attributes the drop off  from last year’s sales “to the economy, mainly.” But while registrations are down, Fan Fest tickets are selling well, with reserved seats already sold out.

Cardwell and the staff will announce some World of Bluegrass changes in a week or two. But she did say there would be a dedicated jamming area for Old Time music and, for the first time, Fan Fest performances will be recorded and televised on Jubilee, a Kentucky-based roots music and bluegrass program.

Beyond World of Bluegrass, Cardwell’s main challenges as executive director will include trying to expand the membership base and balancing the organization’s budget. IBMA’s expenses have outpaced revenues since before the economic recession began in 2008, forcing the association to dig deeply into its reserves.

IBMA President Stan Zdonik and the board have pledged to erase the red ink, but specific steps haven’t been spelled out. Cardwell said all aspects of IBMA will be examined. “Every year, we need to reevaluate what we are and what we’re doing,” she said.

Membership is stable at around 2,100, with members in all 50 states and 30 countries. Some factions of IBMA argue that expanding the membership requires broadening the music. But others say existing members will be driven away if IBMA continues to open showcases and other events to bands that don’t play traditional bluegrass.

Cardwell says she sees an IBMA that has room for everybody. “Some people live on Main Street. Some people live on the edge of town. Some people live in the next country,” she said. “But it’s all bluegrass music.”

She also expressed a willingness to listen to any IBMA member with ideas or concerns.

“You learn from your critics,” she said.

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About the Author

David Morris

David Morris, an award-winning songwriter and journalist, has written for Bluegrass Today since its inception. He joined its predecessor, The Bluegrass Blog, in 2010. His 40-year career in journalism included more than 13 years with The Associated Press, a stint as chief White House correspondent for Bloomberg News, and several top editing jobs in Washington, D.C. He is a life member of IBMA and the DC Bluegrass Union. He and co-writers won the bluegrass category in the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest in 2015.

  • Lynwood Lunsford

    IMHO, the first task fronting the IBMA is to find out why so many members have left the organization. Making that determination, might enlighten the leadership in what is right……..but more importantly, what is wrong with the organization’s direction.

    • David Porter

      Many of the people who have left the organization are dead I suspect. When I look around my local bluegrass club I see the same people I saw when I was in my 20’s, 40 years ago. No form of music can thrive or perhaps even survive without reaching young people. Only California seems to have really figured this out. I applaud Nancy’s efforts to bring in more young people. Local clubs need to spearhead this.

      • Lynwood Lunsford

        David, I know of quite a few that haven’t died yet! Myself included!

        The funny thing about your theory is, when many of these “Bluegrass” fans were young, they weren’t interested in that “old people’s” music. But as they reach their mid to late 30s, all of a sudden this music starts to appeal to them!

        So I hear all the time that the “Bluegrass” audience is getting older, dying off and we’ve got to bring young people in, or the music will die. Those same people fail to take into account my above statement. So the actual “Bluegrass” audience has increased in recent years, not declined.

  • Derek

    I have to agree with Lynwood. Also, I don’t think they need to reach the younger folks. I think that there are plenty of younger folks at IBMA. What they need to do is target EVERYONE. And make things more affordable. You can end up spending over $1000 (and often more) for a week at IBMA. Who wants to do that for what is essentially as business trip (one that rarely yields any results, by the way)?

  • Max Gainey

    I’ve been an IBMA member for a few years now. I haven’t seen the numbers but from what I’ve experienced the numbers at WOB haven’t changed as much as the overall personality of attendees. The move to Nashville a few years ago swung things more towards the Music Business. But for me the attraction of bluegrass is its orientation towards the fans as participants, not as audience. This is a much different philosophy than in country music where Nashville does a great job catering to audiences. I always enjoy WOB in Nashville for the Nashville Country Music experience (as I will this year). But I’m hoping the move to Raleigh next year will refocus WOB on the deeply rooted participation we value in our music (let’s not quibble over bluegrass, newgrass, progressive, jamgrass, old-timey, acoustic, roots, young, old, ad nauseum). The move will add some miles for this Hoosier but WOB and IBMA is still the best value by far for this quality of event. By comparison NSAI and Americana Music Association events, that I attend when I can afford to, are several times more expensive (and worth the money). But WOB is a great value for me every single year. Member involvement with the music is what has made bluegrass unique and will make IBMA strong.