Bluegrass Free Trade Agreements

Chris JonesI had promised to bring up the thorny issue of the “CD trade” this week, but I’m sorry to say that I’ve chickened out, so I’m going to fall back on yet another article on band names.

Just kidding; I’ll go ahead and brave it. When I say “CD trade,” by the way, I’m not referring to the CD business or the marketing or selling of CDs. I’m talking about the trading of CDs among artists at festivals, multi-artist events, or in supermarket checkout lines in Nashville.

It’s not that it’s a particularly controversial subject on the face of it, but it may involve a kind of honesty between bluegrass artists that we tend to shy away from. It’s natural to do so, not because we’re dishonest (except when discussing our record sales or the authenticity of our hair color) but because we’d rather not step on each other’s toes.

Perhaps we need to develop a thicker skin and try to hearken back to the early days of bluegrass music, which were known for being more openly competitive. Back then, stepping on each other’s toes was more common, even encouraged (two words: Molly and Tenbrooks, or is that three words?). Maybe there’s a happy medium.

In any case, I plan to handle this topic with the utmost sensitivity. In fact, I’m typing these words very lightly, almost caressing the keyboard. If it helps, you can imagine this being read to you in soft gentle tones with some incense burning in a spa-like atmosphere.

The CD trade is a simple enough transaction: Artist A approaches Artist B and proposes that they trade CDs, with no cash exchanged at all (in rare cases a baseball card is thrown into the deal). All is well and good, right?

Well, yes and no. The problem with this transaction is that it is almost never mutually initiated. Really, in order for that to happen, the two parties would have to accidentally suggest it to each other simultaneously, a pretty rare occurrence, though awkwardly funny when it actually happens. Instead, it involves Artist A wanting to get Artist B’s CD without really knowing whether Artist B also wants Artist A’s CD. Artist A needs to make that assumption in order for this transaction not to seem purely self-serving.

You may think at this point, “so what? It’s just a CD after all.” Well, here’s where the price paid to the record label (discussed last week) becomes a fairly important factor. If artist A’s CD is self-produced and released on his/her own label, there may only be a buck or two of wholesale value in that CD (talking strictly of manufacturing cost) with the added benefit that the CDs may already be paid for, making it at least feel easier to give it away or trade it. If Artist B has paid $7.00 for his/her CD, and artist B didn’t actually want to spend that amount on artist A’s CD, artist B is essentially paying a price for avoiding a potentially awkward situation that has been caused by Artist A.

If you observe how recording artists who are signed to record labels act in a merchandise sales situation (you can do this discreetly by wearing some dark glasses, strolling casually around the CD tables, whistling Kentucky Waltz and trying to look distracted), you’ll find that they almost never approach another artist’s merchandise table and propose a trade.

This is not to say that they don’t occasionally voluntarily engage in a trade. In fact it’s not even that unusual, but when it does happen, It’s likely to be between friends in some other setting, and even then, it’s handled pretty gingerly:

“No, here, let me pay for that.”

“No please, I insist. You gave me yours, and I’d been wanting it anyway.”

“You’re sure?”

“Do I not look sure?”

“I don’t know; the light’s dim in this back parking lot. I’m not even sure who you are.”

If you’ve proposed a CD trade with another artist, whether friend or stranger, don’t feel bad. First of all, you’re definitely not alone. If you were alone, we wouldn’t be discussing this. Also, that artist you may have traded with doesn’t want you to feel bad about it either, which is the reason that most of them agree to a trade in which they’re receiving a CD they probably didn’t intend to purchase. Still, though they’re unlikely to ever say it, they probably wish you hadn’t.

Now that we’ve dealt with the negative side of this kind of transaction, the question remains, what to do? This takes us back to an important fundamental question. What is it that you want?

If what you want is another artist’s CD, then the first step should simply be to walk up and buy it first. Remember too, that this should be a simple transaction that isn’t awkward, just like you’re any other customer there. It’s not quite the same if you say, “I’m a professional picker too. Do you want me to pay for it?” Or: “I can even pay for it . . . if you insist . . . I guess . . .” Just stick to the plain old, “I’d like to buy your CD.”

After you initiate this simple transaction, if the selling artist is so inclined, he or she may say, “why don’t we trade? I really enjoyed your show.” Or, “how about five bucks? That covers my cost.” Or perhaps, “Oh come on, Mom, I don’t expect you to pay.” You never know.

The important thing, I believe, is to keep your own CD a separate issue. Once you’ve paid for artist B’s CD, artist B is free to come over and buy yours, and if he/she does, you’ll know for certain that artist B really did want your CD. You’re of course under no obligation to discount it if the one you bought wasn’t, and what will have just happened is a trade that both parties actually wanted, except that money changed hands in both directions.

Now if your primary goal is for artist B to listen to your CD, that’s another matter, and that should be separated from a trade completely. The best way to make that separation clear is to give your CD to that artist as far away from the merchandise table as possible (like a local bowling alley), so there’s no trade even implied. Then, if that artist happens to say, “thanks a lot, and let me give you one of mine,” so much the better.

So, in the end, the CD trade may involve more complicated etiquette than we previously had thought. It makes dealing with a salad fork at a formal dinner, or filling out a baseball box score seem relatively straightforward.

Next week: trading CDs for root vegetables.