Time for Action – an open letter to IBMA

This open letter to the International Bluegras Music Association is a contribution from Joe Lurgio, a former staff member of the Association. Prior to his time with the organization, Joe was a working artist performing with Three Tall Pines in Boston, while he labored in a day job as an environmental scientist. In 2013, he left that all behind to take a job with IBMA, and made the move to Nashville.

Here he shares a plea with the leadership and membership of IBMA, asking that they be more open to artists and acts that are taking bluegrass music in new directions.

Joe LurgioI came to the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) from the Boston area as an active performer (mandolin) and a general promoter of bluegrass/Americana artists/events. My first experiences at the World of Bluegrass in Nashville had me hooked, first as an enthusiastic outsider amazed that this musical “family” exists and is so supportive.  Then began a series of events that would lead me deeper into this industry starting with professional membership with the organization, to annual attendance at the World of Bluegrass (WOB) events, employment by the IBMA as Director of Convention and Membership Services managing the first two events in Raleigh, to a self-employed member of the Nashville music industry with a new consulting firm called Tenbrooks Media.

Prior to and upon arriving in “Music City,” conversations with both IBMA insiders and outsiders often seemed to gravitate to the awards show and the awards process. Discussions about the awards selection process are as old as the awards themselves, and many have given up on exerting the energy required to seek revisions to the process, accepting things as unchangeable. These issues are not new and I’m not interested in rehashing the arguments again. If you’re interested in recapping, just Google it and sit back for a long day of Internet reading. Also, a quick search of recent Keynote Addresses from the World of Bluegrass will show almost all speakers over the last five years, whom as you’d presume are respected industry leaders, have touched on a need to evolve the awards process.

Another popular IBMA conversation over the last decade (often intertwined with the awards conversations) has been the “big tent” bluegrass concept. Essentially, the point of these debates has been whether or not acoustic string music related, but not identical to what Bill Monroe created, should be a part of what the organization promotes and serves.

Big tent conversations (at times, battles) have slowly seen the organization evolve into a new era, with more progressive bluegrass leaders coming to the table. Bands performing various forms of bluegrass (i.e. The Deadly Gentlemen, Yonder Mountain String Band, Greensky Bluegrass, Punch Brothers etc…) have been welcomed at the Wide Open Bluegrass Festival (WOBF). A new awards category called Momentum Awards has been added as way to start recognizing new talent. The official showcase roster was expanded with representation of the many types of bluegrass.

The big tent conversation seems to have affected the organization as a whole, but unfortunately, the hot conversations surrounding advancement of the IBMA Awards has seemed to lose it’s momentum (except for the annual roar when the 3rd round ballots are distributed with similar names as the previous few years).To retain relevancy and integrity and to increase professional membership, the organization should continue to reform its current awards process, create a stringent and transparent annual review of the awards to ensure continued relevancy and credibility in the future, with open, detailed reports to the members and general public.

As I began working at the IBMA, I started to see a relationship between the three annual events that make up the World of Bluegrass week: the IBMA Business Conference, the IBMA Awards, and the WOBF, each event intricately connecting and informing the others. For example, the Business Conference fosters growth and advancements in the industry with an exchange of information between attendees that produces stronger industry members and artists. The IBMA Awards recognizes the achievements and successes within the industry that grow out of the networking/knowledge gained during the Business Conference. The awards also inspire the industry and motivate us all to grow and expand the art. The WOBF is the organization’s opportunity to showcase the breadth of talent the industry has to offer to the greater world.

In order for this interdependent model to be successful there must be a balance within the system. With the changing climate of modern bluegrass, the organization has made large leaps in recent years, but the awards still seem to remain out of balance. While the Business Conference has broadened its horizons, inviting (many) Keynote Speakers who push the genre’s boundaries and showcase a wide variety of bluegrass forms, the WOBF showcases the artistic talents of a much more diverse palette than the years of FanFest. Unfortunately, the awards process has not embraced the big tent philosophy to the same degree as the other events. The IBMA Awards continue to reward the same individuals and forms of bluegrass each year. The organization seems to have inadvertently created a system that acknowledges the legitimacy of the various forms of bluegrass, but has yet to find a way to recognize these types of artists within the prestigious awards. This has created a contradictory image to many inside and outside the organization, that the IBMA recognizes the artistry of these performers considered bluegrass by the general populous, but the membership of the organization does not consider them worthy of recognition.

Many industry members and fans have had a hope for an IBMA that embraces and celebrates the rich and diverse artistry that is in the bluegrass landscape. For that to happen requires that the IBMA Awards evolve its process to recognize the achievements of the various sectors and individuals of the industry. This industry is made up of a wide range of traditional and progressive groups and individuals that deserve recognition during the annual awards. The lack of diversity in some of the awards categories over the last twenty some years is almost embarrassing. For example, since 1990 (in almost 25 years) only 3 dobro players, 5 fiddle and 5 mandolin players have ever been awarded the prestigious individual awards on their respective instruments. Also, since 1994 only 5  bands that won Emerging Artist of the Year (The Gibson Brothers, Nickel Creek, Dailey & Vincent, Blue Highway and The Boxcars) have been able to win one of the 57 chances at the more prestigious Entertainer, Vocal Group or Instrumental Group of the Year Award. These are just a couple examples of a system that needs to be reviewed, fully examined and reformed.

Effects on Professional Membership

In addition to retaining relevance and integrity, professional membership would also increase by embracing and celebrating the diverse bluegrass community. Let’s face it, incentives exclusively offered to the professional members are slim:

  1. You’re “supporting” bluegrass music and
  2. You’re invited to vote in the prestigious, annual IBMA Awards

Discounts to the events and all other membership benefits are attainable through the much less costly Grass Roots level

From the IBMA website:

“The Grass Roots level is for bluegrass fans or active amateur promoters of the music. This level includes all of the great incentives and discounts of Professional memberships minus Awards voting and use of the IBMA office.”

The main attraction for most to join at the professional level is the privilege to vote in the annual awards. But for many there are few categories or individuals that attract them on the ballot. If you were not engaged in the process would you have a desire to vote or pay to be a part of the process? The common response to this is to say, “Well those people should join to vote and then change the state of the awards.” That is extremely difficult with a long-standing core of approximately 1,200 professional members dominating the voting landscape (most likely the same 300-400 actually voting on the final ballots annually), making inroads for new artists and forms of bluegrass nearly impossible. With the progress made at the Business Conference and the WOBF, it appears that the organizational body has successfully made efforts to alleviate this issue, but hasn’t been able or willing to fix underlying issues with the awards.

Next Steps

There has been a lot of talk about this issue, but what has been missing is action. During my tenure on staff at the IBMA, the Board of Director (BOD) appointed Membership Committee recognized this issue as a fundamental impediment to growth of professional membership. This committee submitted multiple proposals to the BODs that would have updated the awards process and added new categories. It is my belief that these would have been the biggest changes to the awards since 2006, when issues with the live show led to revisions to the oversight process and the live show. These proposals were committee-endorsed changes, in the interest of growing professional membership by making the awards more relevant. The committee recognized the loftiness of these proposals, but this seemed to be a logical first step to begin the process of change.

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