Are you in the music business, bluegrass or otherwise? Is 2015 the year you plan to take your business to the next level by kicking it up a notch, thinking outside the box, marching to the beat of a different drummer, and using as many cliches as possible in a single sentence?
This week I gathered several music business innovators together to brainstorm on this very subject. Or, I wanted to gather several music business innovators together, but right now I’m in a small city on the east coast of Scotland, so I ended up gathering together two professional golf instructors and one electrician. Truthfully, I had trouble understanding them, so we just sat around, drank some strong tea (with just a wee bit of Strathlochcraighanmuirachan single malt Scotch on the side), and said “aye” a lot. I felt inspired, though, and here are some of the bold new business ideas I can pass along at this point. Some of these ideas are just too cutting-edge to pass on right away. Either they or the bluegrass music world will need time to mellow (or just fall asleep) before it’s safe to disclose them.
- Start a Kickstarter campaign because you’d “just like some more money.” Be very up front about your goals, and offer breakfast out with you (paid for by contributors) as a premium.
- Start a Kickstarter campaign to purchase Kickstarter. I’m pretty sure I stole this idea from someone, but I don’t claim that these are all 100% original. We’re just sharing ideas here (and saying “aye”).
- Record a tribute album to the studio musicians who played on the “Pickin’ On . . .” CDs. For those unfamiliar with the concept, years ago a series was started in which top notch bluegrass pickers in Nashville went into the studio and recorded instrumental versions of, for example, Jimmy Buffet songs, and released “Pickin’ on Jimmy Buffett.” The series was so successful, they ran through every single likely artist with a cult following, until they finally started doing “Pickin’ On” albums of the music of country artists who had just been signed to record deals two weeks ago. When “Pickin’ On Nickel Creek” came out, I knew the concept had now come full circle and was bumping into itself. The time was right for “Pickin’ On The Band That Played On All the Pickin’ On Albums.”
- Record a tribute album to yourself. This has been done subtly in the past. The anniversary album is in that spirit, but an out-and-out tribute album is a bolder statement that may intrigue people. Some will be refreshed by your shedding of all false humility. Suggested titles or subtitles: “This One’s For Me,” “My Tribute to Myself,” “Our Music As Only We Can Play It.”
- Hold a live album non-recording session: Book a venue, fill it with devoted fans, tell the band that you’re doing a live album, then don’t record it. Instead, secretly record the album release party six months later. The crowd will be even more enthusiastic, the band will play that much better because they won’t be feeling the pressure of being recorded (this was Night Drivers mandolin player Mark Stoffel’s idea). The problem remains what to sell at what will then be an album release party for nothing. But isn’t that why they invented pizza?
- Hire multi-tasking members of your team. You know how it goes: as you become more successful, you tend to add personnel, from lead guitar players to lighting people, to bodyguards, to astrologers. Suddenly, your once neatly-contained four-piece unit has turned into an unwieldy entourage requiring two tour buses and a really patient travel agent. This ballooning factor could be greatly reduced if you hired people who could do more than one thing. Remember we already have the great tradition of the bus driver who comes up to sing a song or two, or the bass player/comedian. Some other combinations you may not have considered are: dobro player/martial arts expert (for security), fiddle player/psychic, bass vocalist/hair stylist, sound engineer/step dancer.
- Offer more at the merchandise table. There’s no doubt that touring artists have learned to diversify to some extent at what used to be called the “record table.” I’ve seen everything from belly dancing instructional videos to pork rinds being sold, and that’s the right idea, but why limit yourself to products? Why not sell some of your services as well? Your multi-taskers mentioned above might feel better about doing double duty if you permit them to turn around and peddle their services to the public for a profit. Think of a banjo player who has a background in veterinary medicine who could do some on-the-spot pet surgery at a bluegrass festival for a few hundred bucks? How about marriage counseling, fly-tying lessons, or academic tutoring. This could generate so much cash (and I would keep it strictly cash!), selling CDs may seem like a letdown and hardly worth your trouble.
- Play hard-to-get. At one time I suggested this as a method for booking your band, taking the approach that’s the opposite of seeming too anxious. It can also be applied, though, to sales. At a time when sales of recorded product—particularly in the hard copy form—continue to slump, why not make buying your music seem more like a privilege than something you’re desperately encouraging? Try charging regular retail price for only your first ten copies, then announce that the price will continue to increase in five dollar increments, until you eventually sell the rest auction style. You could also take a page from the playbook of banks and universities. Make people apply to purchase your music (and make sure to require adequate ID).
- Hold a “closed” event. The above approach need not be limited to musicians and/or recording artists. Promoters and event producers could easily adapt the same principle, so that rather than spending all their time trying to welcome new people, they could concentrate on making their event seem exclusive and difficult to be admitted to, along the lines of the “invitation-only” jam session. Eventually of course you would let everyone in (for a 20% surcharge) but first make them go through an application process that asks invasive personal and financial questions, and maybe require a one-page essay about why they feel they should attend the event. To add to the growing mystique surrounding your concert or festival, you might try keeping its location a secret, while making sure to leak it to a few key sources. A cryptic web site that gives little or no information would also be a nice touch. Some of these methods have been tried before, though not necessarily on purpose.
Be looking for some of these ideas to be the subjects of 2015 IBMA World of Bluegrass seminars. I’d recommend applying to attend them the day they’re announced.