In today's increasingly competitive media world, it's both easier and more difficult to get publicity, especially the type that helps performers generate enough consistent income to keep bands together, let alone maintain music as a full-time occupation. This appears particularly difficult for bluegrass bands, many of whose members come from a culture that punishes “gettin' above your raisin'.”
In the early history of bluegrass, bands would travel hundred of miles from their base to perform live on 5000-watt radio stations broadcasting from small cities and towns. They'd play 15-minute or half hour radio shows, often advertising their performance that evening in the local schoolhouse auditorium or an old barn. During the 1930s and '40s, Bill Monroe traveled with a semi-professional baseball team on which he played shortstop and members of the band also played. During the afternoon game they'd advertise that evening's bluegrass show. The Stanley Brothers moved to Live Oak, Florida, so they could represent a regional developer of retirement houses on a local radio station.
Here they are on WNER in Live Oak, Florida, in 1960:
Few musicians are able to make an adequate living solely from performing. Keeping a band afloat is expensive and difficult, but there are many ways bands can help themselves. Some are reluctant to handle their own publicity, arguing that the quality of their music should be the sole criterion for judging them. One radio DJ expressed exasperation at bands who don't make contact far enough ahead of time to be scheduled for on-air or in-studio appearances, or neglect to use their own social media to tell their fans about the upcoming program. After all, the DJ says, “It's a two-way street, and bands should take opportunities to boost the audience of the station when getting free publicity for themselves.”
Radio broadcaster Steve Martin, a lawyer who lives in northern Kentucky and hosts a weekly radio program broadcast on several public radio stations around the country and streamed worldwide, suggested during a long interview that younger, more media-savvy musicians tend to take a different view of publicizing their music and spreading the word about their performances.
“Younger bands are better at working media. They understand (how it works) and prepare,” he said. He cited Man About a Horse, a fairly new Philadelphia-based bluegrass band, as showing real savvy in its appearance on his radio show. The band arranged a conference call that simulated having them live in the studio and made their music easily available. That's important, Martin points out. With the decline of the CD as a popular medium, listeners seeking bluegrass are starting to accustom themselves to streaming. Streaming online through cell phones, for instance, is available and simple in most modern cars. This means bands should make sure their material is available for streaming, and let their fans know where their streamed music can be found.
When I googled “radio bluegrass streaming,” hundreds of stations showed up; some were broadcast stations that stream while others were solely internet stations. WDVX in Knoxville, Tennessee, features a live, in-station studio broadcast called Blue Plate Special every day that's broadcasted locally and available for streaming worldwide. As it works for most stations, artists scheduled to perform in the listening area should contact the station well before the show date to give ample opportunity for their local appearance to be highlighted. This is only one example of the dozens, perhaps hundreds, of stations that are looking for content to fill their time and provide support for local venues and traveling performers. Another example is Amy Orlomoski, who hosts a weekly show called The Bluegrass Café each Sunday afternoon on WHUS, a college radio station in Storrs, Connecticut.
There was a time, not so long ago, when bands toured in support of their recordings. Today, bands record to support their tour. CDs, having replaced racks of LPs in stores, once filled banks of display cases, but now are hard to find in most places. They can be ordered online, but, increasingly, the digital download has become the go-to way to archive personal music collections, while personalized playlists on Spotify, Pandora, YouTube, and Amazon Music play music according to what consumers request or the company's algorithm. The game is rapidly changing. The strategies bands employ to get their performances noticed must change, too.
Bands spend hundreds of hours a year cooped up in a van traveling to gigs. These days, each band member, bored out of his or her mind, sits for hours listlessly roaming the internet. Suppose the band decides to use a portion of this time to search for media outlets near where the band is scheduled to perform. Examples could be local newspapers, alt weeklies, local radio stations, regional public radio stations. This list merely suggests the rich variety of sources to be found.
The second step is to use social media to target the population of towns the band is visiting. Here's a Facebook manual on geographic targeting. Search YouTube for videos on using targeting capabilities on Facebook. Once you've identified the targets, contact them! Finally, follow up by using your notifications icon to identify who has picked up your announcement and shared it, or written about it with a tag to you. Send thanks, like their posts, send them a note. Always remember, it's a two-way street.
Back in 2011, Eric Gibson of the Gibson Brothers wrote a Facebook post about having seen some albino squirrels while on a trip gig in Illinois. It was commented on by 37 readers and liked more than 70 times. Eric later made the wry comment that a post about white squirrels received more attention than one in which he spoke about the joys of writing a new song. But there's a lesson here: let your self be known. Eric does it by talking about the accomplishments of his sons, his joy in baseball, some of the daily pleasures of his life. Beware, however, about getting into matters that, while they might cement some of your fans, risk alienating others. Above all, be natural and not contrived.
Performing is the dessert of a career in music. It's the high that all musicians crave. But building and maintaining a career is hard work, especially for those who can't afford extensive support staff. But you can do it, and it will pay off in bookings, sales, and sustaining a career over the long haul. Here's the Del McCoury Band, no stranger to the long haul, in a live performance at WNCW's Studio B.