Even the most casual of music business follower knows something’s going on right now. In Nashville, even more so.
Scroll through social media feeds and you’ll see shared stories about royalty statements from streaming services amounting to a mere pittance; blog posts from songwriters, with millions of plays on the services, lamenting their inabilities to make a living anymore; and opinion pieces on why the U.S. Department of Justice is kicking songwriters in the teeth. You may have read a story about BMI and ASCAP teaming up to fight consent decrees. Even if you don’t know what those two performing rights organizations do, or what a consent decree is, it’s probably clear that two rivals getting together is a big deal.
It’s apparent that while music is more accessible than ever — and in a city where we have more access to live music than most cities in the world — the music business itself is going through an unprecedented metamorphosis. Whether you’re a songwriter, composer, musician, promoter, manager, record label owner, marketer or one of dozens of other positions in the music industry, there is a lot of information to process and navigate, for your own career and those whose careers you guide.
That’s where the Conference part of Nashville’s 17th annual The Americana Music Festival and Conference, set for Sept. 20-25 at various venues, comes in. Short of getting a music business degree at Belmont University or MTSU’s College of Media and Entertainment, it’s the quickest way to meet industry leaders and get a survey of the current state of the industry.
While the Festival has established itself as the place to catch hundreds of the finest American roots-music artists, both established and emerging, playing small venues and clubs throughout the city over six days and nights for the ridiculously affordable cost of a $60 wristband, the role the conference portion plays can often be overlooked.
“There’s no other comprehensive event like it in Nashville for people in the music business,” says Jed Hilly, executive director of the Americana Music Association. ”It’s the most important music business education event in Nashville.”
The conference is ripe with what Hilly calls “edu-tainment” events. The Grateful Dead/Dead & Company’s Bob Weir will present “Blue Mountain,” his first solo album of original material in 30 years, as part of a Q&A moderated by artist-guitarist-producer extraordinaire Buddy Miller. Dwight Yoakam will sit down for an intimate interview about his career and his new album, “Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars,” which features bluegrass reinterpretations of his songs. Billy Bragg and Joe Henry will discuss their new project, “Shine a Light,” with author and music historian Barry Mazor. NPR’s “All Songs Considered” host Bob Boilen will talk with special guest John Paul White about his book “Your Song Changed My Life,” and Change the Conversation will interview Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Wanda Jackson about her life and musical career, among many others scheduled events.
While the business of music is sure to come up in these discussions, a number of sessions focus on the state of the industry more directly.
C3 Content Creators will present “Finding a Way Forward in Copyright & Music Licensing;” WXPN’s Bruce Warren and KCSN’s Sky Daniels will discuss “Crossing the Bridge from Americana to AAA Radio;” Lori McKenna, Radney Foster and Jim Lauderdale will discuss the business and art of songwriting with “A Wealth of Songs: Americana Artists Whose Songs Get Cut Again;” and in what may be the most intense discussion of the conference, musician-songwriter-producer T Bone Burnett and writer-film producer Jonathan Taplin (“The Last Waltz,” “The Concert for Bangladesh”) will discuss, “The Resistance: The Fight to Save Our Culture and Democracy from the Internet Monopolies.” Burnett will also deliver the Conference’s keynote address.
That a conference focused on Americana music would host a variety of discussions about the music business isn’t surprising, Hilly says.
“(Music business veteran) Kay Clary once wrote something for me to the effect that in many ways, Americana anticipated the restructuring of the music organization, and had a head start, out of necessity,” Hilly says. “The rejection from the mainstream forced the Jason Isbells and Mary Gauthiers of the world to create a new formula which now is being followed by Bonnie Raitt, who started her own label. If Tift Merritt was trying to be in the music business, by way of the country, pop or rock business, she would be out of business. But because she is enflamed with making music and engulfed in the passion of it, she found another way to survive.
“Now look what’s happening,” Hilly continues. “Now in 2016, it’s all coming together. We have started invading and peppering the country carts. Isbell had a No. 1 record on the country chart. Margo Price cracked the Top Ten. We have had No. 1s overall with The Lumineers, The Avett Brothers and Sturgill Simpson. How is that possible? You have all these artists who have figured out how to make a life and maintain a career without commercial success, and some who have built it into massive commercial success.”
According to Hilly, based on growth in registrations and from where people are arriving, Nashvillians have been slow to catch on to the Americana Conference’s valuable educational opportunity in their own city. In 2007, 38.5 percent (181 of 470 registrants) came from Nashville. In 2009, that percentage was 28 percent (337 of 1,206). It never really bumped up again. In 2014, out of 1535 registrants, 28 percent (437) came from Nashville and last year, of the 1,878 total registrants, 30 percent (568) hailed from Music City. Hilly expects a 15 percent increase in registrants again this year but hopes, in a music business town, more locals will take advantage of the conference.
Registration for the Americana Music Festival and Conference ranges from $325–$475 and is available now at AmericanaMusic.org. This grants access to most every event, including education panels, parties, luncheons, showcase performances and additional various events. Registrants also have the opportunity to buy two tickets to the invariably sold-out Honors and Awards Show on Wednesday night, Sept. 21 at the Ryman Auditorium.
AmericanaFest wristbands, which cost $60, get you into all five nights of performances at any of the official showcase venues. This year, artists playing showcases include Dwight Yoakam, John Moreland, William Bell, Timothy B. Schmit, Rodney Crowell, Muddy Magnolias, Sarah Jarosz, The Secret Sisters, Travelin’ McCourys, Syd Straw, Dan Layus, Erin Rae & The Meanwhiles, Sam Bush, John Prine, Wynonna & The Big Noise, John Paul White, Sara Watkins, Amanda Shires, Colvin & Earle, Bruce Hornsby & The Noisemakers, Billy Bragg and Joe Henry, Sam Outlaw, Teddy Thompson and Kelly Jones, and many, many more.