Open wide, and sing ahhhhhhhh

Chris JonesLast week in this space I discussed various counterintuitive business ideas, both good and bad, from giving music away, to touring exclusively in northern climates in the winter.

The subject generated both interesting comments and some spirited emails and social media response. Yes, there was the usual “you have just offended every fiber of my being!” message, but there were constructive ones as well.

There were additional counterintuitive ideas that I hadn’t thought of. Some were very useful, some were just inappropriate, like the suggestion of playing Dooley at funeral services to “lighten things up a little.” Some important issues were raised related to the subject of giving music or services away, and I thought it merited a follow-up.

One professional musician we’ll just call “Bob” (he asked not to be identified, and that’s my compromise) objected to the idea of making up for giving music away by charging for popcorn and other concessions at movie theatre rates. As “Bob” put it, “when we sold T-shirts, everybody we’ve ever known on a first name basis—and a few we didn’t—expected to get them for free. We lost serious money on them. Why wouldn’t all these same people expect to get free popcorn and corn dogs too?”

It’s a point well taken, and it brings up a larger issue, which is the expectation that artists should give stuff away (starting with their art) in the first place. Why does that expectation exist at all? I know someone who owns a hardware store, but I don’t walk in there expecting a free box of drill bits.

Perhaps it’s that openness we have with our audience, the blurred line between fan and performer. Or, perhaps people feel that artists are having so much fun creating their art (the old “getting paid to eat ice cream” analogy), that they really should be giving it away anyway. Incidentally, try that viewpoint with a professional baseball player some time.

After thinking about it, I’ve really come to the conclusion that people just like to get free stuff and services. Why wouldn’t they?

People in the medical profession—and certainly no one has ever considered the line between doctor and patient to be even slightly blurred—have people trying to get free advice from them at parties and other social functions all the time.

A dentist friend of mine, Dr. Terry Comer (“Dentist to the Bluegrass Stars”) who is also a bluegrass musician, constantly has people at music events, pickin’ parties, etc. saying things like, “Hey, doc, I’ve got this dull ache in one of my molars every time I eat licorice. Do you think you could take a look at it?”

There’s no exchange of pleasantries, like “nice to see you” or “try the salsa.” It’s straight to opening up wide and asking for a free exam.

Terry has solved this by carrying a pair of needle-nose pliers around with him (he might have gotten them for free at the hardware store), and in response to a dental enquiry like the one above, he whips them out, appearing ready for immediate (and terribly painful) action. That usually turns the conversation around to music very quickly.

Surgeons might try packing a slightly rusty scalpel (or maybe just a butter knife) around in similar circumstances.

Another reader pointed out that many bluegrass artists pay a wholesale price for their CDs, often between $4.00 and $7.50 each (if you’re paying more, I recommend a hunger strike), therefore giving them away hurts a lot more than giving away self-produced CDs.

What this means, of course, is that any bluegrass artist on a label (and the majority of your favorite ones likely are) would be faced with an ironic and unappealing scenario if they were to make it a policy to give CDs away: the better their live show was received by the audience, the more money they’d lose. They would really have to sell a truckload  of overpriced corn dogs, Goo Goo Clusters (slightly melted), and antique ham to make up for the loss.

The price artists pay for their CDs also led to another point made by a reader and professional bluegrass artist we’ll call “Linda” (her real name is Clarence). I’m glad someone besides me brought this up, too, because it might be the most sensitive and controversial subject ever discussed in Bluegrass Today since the revelation that the band Twysted Rydge is going on an unlimited hiatus due to “undisclosed artistic differences.”

I’m referring to the “CD trade” among artists at festivals and other multi-artist events. Trust me, for bluegrass recording artists, discussing this subject openly is about as appealing as talking about their bladder infections, or about how much they’re getting paid at festivals.

For that reason, I need to get up the courage myself to deal with it, so we’ll save it for next week, after I’ve gone through a week-long desensitizing program that involves sleeping on a bed of nails, eating raw meat, and engaging in social media political discussions.