IBMA 2005 in retrospect

viewpointWARNING: Inside baseball follows. If you aren’t an IBMA member or don’t work in the business in some capacity, much of this lengthy post may not hold much interest for you.

IBMA 2005 is now over. Most of us are home and sleeping in our own beds again. John and I had a lot of conversations throughout the week about the event, and people’s impressions of it. Overall, it seems that attendees found a lot of good things that happened with this year’s move to Nashville. There were also a few downsides that were mentioned.

Perhaps the biggest positive we saw was the increased focus on the “business conference” aspect of the event. That was a point raised repeatedly by exhibitors and folks who work in the industry, and as a business person in attendance myself, I appreciated the increased security and the clamp down on unregistered persons crashing the event. There are festivals all year long where a focus on jamming and hanging out are part of the scene, but the IBMA Trade Show is not meant to be the place for that. Nothing wrong with jamming, I enjoy it myself. It’s part of the music and should be facilitated, but might perhaps not be the primary reason people attend during the week. The increased focus on this being a business conference made it eminently easier to conduct business.

The Fan Fest on Friday through Sunday is slightly different, and jamming may play a larger role in that portion of the event, but a number of complaints were heard – from both pickers and business people – that a way needs to be found for both groups to coexist without either inconveniencing the other.

One suggestion that we heard about the Fan Fest is the idea that it either run only on Friday and Saturday, or perhaps end by 2:00 p.m. on Sunday. This last day of IBMA week has always been a “get away day,” and the stage show and the exhibit area both have a “also ran” vibe on Sunday that suggests an element of non seriousness, especially to someone who might attend for only that day.

We heard nothing but praise about the trade show exhibit area this year. The space is plenty large with ample room for growth, and the layout allows everyone to get good exposure without some booths being relegated to an adjunct room that is not visited as often. Traffic through the aisles was less hectic and we did not hear from a single exhibitor with serious complaints, or a preference for the exhibit space in The Galt House.

Also generating mostly positive feedback was the effectiveness of the new showcase arrangement. Instead of holding after hours showcases in hotel rooms this year, these were conducted in designated breakout or meeting rooms in the conference center, or in similar rooms in the Renaissance Hotel. All of them I attended had a sound system, with someone running it, and plenty of seating. This is a huge improvement which brings an enhanced level of professionalism to the showcase environment. Some missed the intimacy of the old arrangement, but it’s hard to invite industry pros to your big event, and then ask them to sit on the floor.

The one area that generated the most negative responses was the Thursday evening Awards Show. The historical significance of holding it at the Ryman can’t and shouldn’t be discounted, but seating there is very limited, and the seats aren’t particularly comfortable for a long program. In addition to that, the backstage area is so small that the logistics are problematic for a show with so many stage changes.

The biggest complaint we heard, though, is more with the presentation of the show itself. The talent level on stage was staggering, and no one suggested otherwise. All the best in our business were there, but we heard from dozens of people in attendance that we did not showcase them very well. John and I were in a conference room on the second floor watching a video feed and listening to, what I’m fairly positive, was the audio feed that went to XM satellite radio. It wasn’t good. Did we have someone who knows bluegrass, and sound, in the truck mixing that feed?

We also heard frustrated comments suggesting that the overall professionalism of the show left much to be desired. The pacing often seemed quite slow, and much of the show was described by attendees as feeling a bit disorganized. While some found Ricky Skaggs and Alison Krauss charming and amusing, many others found the flippancy and “cornball” humor to be inappropriate for an event of this type. Wichita Rutherford is funny, and perhaps we should leave that to him or people like him. One prominent bluegrass radio personality commented to us that Ricky and Alison looked like second graders trying to read the teleprompter. These shouldn’t be seen as personal criticisms of our hosts this year, as their main MC gigs are very different than this sort of scripted show, and they were asked to manage a show that may have been outside their comfort zone.

The need for a host or hosts who are experienced in this sort of presentation, and know how to pace a show, was brought up many times. In fact, it was mentioned to us several times that the show flowed most smoothly during the times that Eddie Stubbs was announcing. That is exactly what he does as his profession, and there are few better.

In frank discussions with some industry types – both individuals involved in IBMA week, and who put on shows of this nature on a larger scale – it was pointedly suggested that we might be well served to involve a production company that has shown an ability to control and effectively manage a presentation like ours. The sadness I heard expressed several times was that if Thursday evening was our chance to impress Nashville, we may have failed.

People could be seen leaving as the show progressed, and we heard plainly angry reactions over the next few days from people who had felt annoyed or even insulted by aspects of the show. People in the balcony who wanted to concentrate on the show reported that many in attendance were eating, drinking and talking almost as though they were at a club.

I think we would all love to see the award show televised. The increased attention that would draw to the music could only be beneficial. Bluegrass music is its own best ambassador, and can speak volumes in its own favor. All we have to do is get it in front of people. We can’t do that if the powers that be in television and the larger entertainment industry don’t take us seriously. The fear we heard expressed was that they won’t if we continue to act like we don’t know what we are doing.

No one who voiced these complaints or fears had any doubt but that the IBMA board and staff would be eager to learn of these concerns, and would work diligently with the membership to find solutions. Our intention is only to engage in that conversation.

Comments are enabled on this post, so please share your thoughts, opinions, concerns, or suggestions about IBMA’s first year in Nashville, or any of the more specific issues raised.