Counterintuitive business strategies for bluegrass bands

Chris JonesThe word “counterintuitive” has definitely earned its place among the most overused words and phrases of the last 10 years, like “frankly” (the favorite of politicians, and that may cover the last 20 years), “twerk,” “going forward,” “at the end of the day,” and “rock me mama like the wind and rain.”

Let that opening paragraph serve as a warning that I’m going to make heavy use of the word this week anyway, but hereafter, I plan to give it up for Lent, along with Reese’s peanut butter cups.

The word “counterintuitive,” to paraphrase the Webster’s definition, simply refers to something that is counter to what your intuition or “gut feeling” would lead you to believe, like turning right to go left, losing weight by eating more, or hiring a mandolin player to sing bass (making Adam Steffey a counterintuitive poster child).

In the business of bluegrass music, we do a few things that are counterintuitive. I’d like to point some of them out and recommend a few more. Some would even suggest that playing bluegrass music as a means of earning a living is itself counterintuitive, but that’s another story.

One of the biggest counterintuitive things we do as professional bluegrass pickers is drive over 24 hours to play for 40 minutes. Maybe that’s just inconvenient.

This one is true in various genres of music in the year 2015: we use many thousands of dollars-worth of recording equipment to capture the true sound of vintage instruments worth many thousands of dollars, and then encourage people to download an MP3 of the finished product for 99 cents, knowing that they’ll probably listen to it through $10 earbuds. Or, maybe that’s just ironic.

Some things are counterintuitive because they’re just bad ideas, i.e. your intuition is absolutely correct. One example is the placing of artist merchandise tables at bluegrass festivals as far from the stage as possible, preferably up a steep hill. Perhaps the thinking is that people who really want your CDs will make the effort. I guess this does help weed out the casual fan, and who wants to take money from them anyway?

You could build on this marketing strategy by briefly interviewing each potential customer to see if he or she is genuinely interested in your music or not. Those that aren’t up to your standards will just have to get their music elsewhere. I can’t think of anything worse than a fan base of people who just think they like your music.

Here are some other counterintuitive business strategies you might consider, no matter what the intuitive naysayers might think:

Rather than post your latest accomplishments on social media sites, like your Bluegrass Today chart position, or your new L’Oreal hair product endorsement deal, try posting when nothing at all is going on in your career. Something like this would serve the purpose: “It’s been 3 years since we’ve been in the studio. That’s how we like it. #WeHaveNoMaterial #PointlessHashtag”

Or, consider posting updates about the tedium of the road: “I-80 is extremely long. Wendy’s or Arby’s? Frosty vs. Jamocha Shake. Decisions decisions.”

This serves to make your life seem even duller than the lives of people in non-artistic lines of work (like country road musicians . . . kidding of course, please hold your comments!). This in turn helps to generate sympathy for you and may actually increase music sales.

Speaking of sales, in a past column, I had brought up the revival of the cassette and L.P. formats. Try going a step further by selling your music in a format you’re absolutely sure no one has anymore, like the beta videotape. People can buy CDs all day long, but who else is going to have those at their table?

In fact, the era of Spotify and Pandora (which also happens to be the name of the current winter storm sweeping the southeast) is really making music sales counterintuitive in the first place. What may be called for is bold and even more counterintuitive thinking.

Artists in some other genres with significant online followings have actually experimented with giving all of their music away, not just a free sample here and there. They’re having success with getting donations as a source of support.

That’s a big part of what the “funding” of projects through Kickstarter and others is all about. People are essentially getting paid by their fans up front for their work, and offering premiums and “experiences” in exchange for these donations. The donations used to come after the project was complete and the “premium” was the CD itself in exchange for 15 bucks, but that was back in heavily intuitive 2005.

Could we rely on a donation-only system in bluegrass music? I’d predict not, but perhaps we could borrow from the second-run movie theater business model, which relies heavily on concession sales and not so much on the ticket price. I know what you’re thinking: our CDs (or beta tapes) are the concession sales, but hear me out: your music is the thing that can be easily downloaded, or anyone with “flexible” scruples can get it for nothing, but where can they get drinks and snack food for nothing, besides prison? Nowhere. Why not simply give away your music but charge $3.00 for a can of Coke? Don’t forget the $5.00 tub of popcorn. One sale of each of these items, and you’ve just about equaled the profit of a typical CD sale. Feel free to autograph the popcorn tub.

One counterintuitive band business strategy I’m deadly serious about is a timely one, given the havoc being wreaked by winter storms “Pandora,” “Quantum,” and “Richie”: If you can’t be in south Florida or southern Arizona in the winter, try confining your January to March touring to the furthest northern states and Canada, preferably nothing further south than Minnesota or the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

The reason for this is simple. When a snowstorm hits in one of those places, you’re still likely to have a full house. In fact, if it’s been snowing all week, your turnout may be better because people are probably tired of sitting around the house. I don’t have to tell you what happens when a snowstorm (or basketball game) hits Kentucky. You might as well get another breadstick at Fazoli’s and plan your drive home.

I believe those breadsticks are free too, once you’ve pre-funded your meal.