Promoting bluegrass in Europe

This post is a contribution from Terri Holloway, one of our 2010 IBMA correspondents. See her profile here.

Bluegrass, apparently, isn’t quite as popular in Europe as we all believe. At least according to Rainer Zellner, promoter, and Hansjoerg Malonek, cultural arts director. According to these guys, it’s an image thing. Country music (oh, gasp!) has a relatively bad reputation in Germany and our genre is considered an off shoot, while being very unknown and inseparable to the “average Joe,” although Johnny Cash country is considered kind of cool, Merle and Lefty aren’t as well thought of.

The key, Zellner explained, is to change to affiliation from “country” to “Americana” or, even better, “roots music.” The country music image in Germany is stuck on the romanticism of the 1940’s and ’50’s cowboy era twisted into cowboys, Indians, Old West gunfights and horses. American folk music isn’t as well accepted because of the negative anti-war sentiments left over from the Viet-Nam era (and probably aided by current politics as well).

In many parts of Germany (these guys focused on Germany, Austria and Holland, claiming to not promote acts in the rest of Europe) “roots” music has a big hold because of the ethnic nature of the title. “Jazz is not considered to be American music, where American or Country is not so well accepted,” said Zellner.

When asked how to raise something that’s not known or has a bad image, Malonek suggested that the genre needs to be presented in an art form that’s more acceptable to town councils (who run the arts and cultural councils). He continued by suggesting that bands not be booked in a single events, but play through a music series, mixing genres (i.e., classical program this month, bluegrass next, and jazz the month after).

Presentation by artists needs to be highly visual and active. Pictures in the press kit need to show action – Zellner reported that bands with a high-energy stage presence but static press pictures won’t be able to draw a crowd which disappoints event producers and leads to a further disconnect. “Magic of the music should be in the picture” of the band, Zellner told his small audience.

Reaching the listening audience is best accomplished by entertaining them because, Zellner said, “Germans love to be entertained.” Part of the magic, he continued, is in telling the story of the song.

Additionally, the competition from local bands is minimal as Zellner will only promote those who are acceptional. He acknowledged that these bands tend to have their own fan-base, which does help with crowd draws, but that the originals need to be there first. American bands are considered the founders of the genre. Zellner continued, “We have no bluegrass police, I can do what I want.”