WE HAVE FAILED BLUEGRASS IN FLORIDA
(Before I continue I am not condemning any current or former promoters. This is about the Florida Bluegrass Culture)
We had the opportunity and momentum to set the course for Bluegrass in the state for generations, yet we seem to only care about one generation.
We have had a rich history of Bluegrass music in the state for generations, with many of the top industry headliners making the state their winter stomping grounds but now it does seem like the state’s former glory is getting closer to some waterfall-like precipice.
(I know this is going to be an odd way of telling this timeline, but you will understand why)
The State of Florida Bluegrass Today
The sheer number of Bluegrass festivals has dropped drastically over the last two decades with many of our historical festivals either fading into history altogether or being supported by a small contingent and being operated as a shadow of its former self.
Where there used to be massive lines of RVs and campers vying for the venue’s spaces and overflow, now most festivals struggle to even fill their powered sites. The “Bluegrass Circuit” in Florida that used to take folks and their RVs from festival to festival not missing a beat all winter has now become a story we tell the younger generation. Even with social media, easier access to the music, and the “Brother Where Art Thou” shot in the arm, it seems harder and harder each year to pull in a crowd large enough to break even on the cost of putting a festival on. The crowd that is a staple of the Florida Bluegrass festival is a far cry different from those in the 70s and 80s, even though many of them are the same people.
The festivals themselves have changed. It’s much rarer today to see jams now than it was even in the 90s and those jams in Florida end about midnight where their predecessors often saw the sunrise before cases were put away. (Personally, in the last calendar year I have had people complain about my jams at 5 different festivals, once even storming into our campsite and screaming in my face. None of those jams went past midnight or had anyone drunk or rowdy…I just wasn’t in bed by 10 pm). Folks constantly cold shoulder younger pickers at festivals and don’t invite them into their jams. They seem to see them as some kind of threat or just assume they don’t like the “Classics” and kind of blackball anyone under 30 (I HAVE SEEN THIS HAPPEN FIRST HAND). The most progressive songs you are allowed to play at LRB and Blue Highway songs from the 90s and they better not have more than 4 chords. There is no “improvising” or “learning on the fly” anymore just the same songs, in different keys using the same licks.
Nearly all the Bluegrass venues stick to a strict No-Alcohol policy forcing those who do enjoy a drink during their recreation time to either abstained, hide their beverage, or take other measures. Folks get their assigned seats (no first-come), sussh folks for talking or being too rowdy, and are in bed just after the stage show is over (and it better end by 10 pm, or they will pitch a fit)
Because we have chased the fun-loving, jamming, youthful generations away, promoters have all but had to cater their festivals to this “60s, 70s, and 80s” age group in order to stay afloat. All the Bluegrass MUST be “Traditional” people cant move around the stage, cant play any percussion, no “hippie bands”, the sound cant be too loud…..am I missing anything???…O-yes…defiantly no dancing!!! Florida Bluegrass is becoming “The Fun Police”
How much longer do you think Florida Festivals will survive only catering to folks in their 60s, 70s, and 80s? How do you see Bluegrass in Florida 10 years from now? 20?
If I was a promoter, I would honestly be frightened…This path we are driving doesn’t seem to have a light at the end of the tunnel…..
Florida Bluegrass in its “Hayday”
To understand how we got to today, you must look back at the ’70s in Florida. Bluegrass was starting to spark and catch fire in the state. Large Bluegrass festivals and associations were sprouting up all across the sunshine state, and folks couldn’t get enough of that festival lifestyle. Even monthly festivals in a place as urban as Miami was pulling in thousands each first Sunday. Bands and fans alike were starting to ride the “Florida Bluegrass Circuit” going from festival to festival which seemed to happen nearly every weekend. There was so much innovation, folks were creating bands, songs, and traditions seemingly out of midair, and what I call “The Florida Bluegrass Boom” happened.
Promoters and associations were so excited about this boom that they latched on with both hands and started to ride this generation of Bluegrass excitement into the 80s and 90s, holding tight to the methods and traditions of that 70s Bluegrass boom. They decided that that generation was the standard, and all other things after would be judged against that. As those 20-somethings from the 70s started to get older, Florida Bluegrass got older with them. Instead of evolving with the next generations as most music and cultures did, they decided that they would hold onto “The Bluegrass Boom” and keep the Traditions started only a few generations ago by the 20-somethings in the 70s who were now getting closer to their 50s.
In the early 2000s, there were still plenty of festivals going strong, but you could start to see a change. You could blame economics, demographics, or strict traditions but one thing was for sure Bluegrass wasn’t getting healthier…crowds were getting smaller, venues were becoming stricter with alcohol and other “no-Fun” policies and things just started to shift to make these events more somber. You started to see less and less young folks hanging around, even children of long time Bluegrassers in the state started opting to go to other music and hobbies instead of picking up the torch.
As we get to the present day, folks have started to wonder if we have hit some wall at the end of the line that there is no turning back from…..
That is not the case!
Is it fixable?
Bluegrass Music is alive and well across the country. In rural areas, in cities, in northern states, in southern states, out west, east, and everywhere else you will find Bluegrass thriving. Greyfox pulls in tens of thousands of people each year in New York, Charm City Bluegrass keeps getting bigger each year, Rocky Grass has become a behemoth out in Colorado and even Ohio has such a Bluegrass following and tradition that they are actually starting new festivals even now in this time of COVID! We aren’t talking anemic, barely surviving festivals….we are talking money makers and music culture spreaders. Festivals which have hundreds of children, teens, and 20-somethings mixed in with the prior generations…..BLUEGRASS ISNT DYING….Florida “BOOM” Bluegrass is!!!
How We Fix It!
Like any change, this is going to hurt a little….or at least be a little uncomfortable. This will be especially hard on the “Bluegrass Boom” generation but in the end….don’t you want to leave something behind?
Here are some suggested steps from myself and other industry people:
- Get ready to suffer a little: Promoters and Associations have relied on the “Bluegrass Boom” generation as their safety net for so long, that it is inevitable that business might hurt a little while you transition.
- Youth Outreach: You need to start programs, grants, and do anything you can to foster young people at your event. The more they are around “FUN” Bluegrass, the more likely they are to keep coming back.
- Youth Opinions: It is a smart idea to add youth positions to any board or focus group used in the planning of festivals in events. No matter how “Tuned In” you think you might be, if you are over 30 years old, you are not.
- Plan your operation around the younger crowd:
- Do away with reserved seating, you want the more animated people (and those are who get there early to get a seat) upfront.
- Set aside a section up front for standing/dancing. Some folks enjoy being able to get close up and move around.
- Don’t be so strict on drinking alcohol. People are there to have fun, it’s not a funeral. I have been to dozens of festivals that allow/sell alcohol and I have never seen any problems.
- Foster progressive or “MASH” jams. Have some of your artists wade into the jams too to help get that new school jam feel.
- Book at least one “Progressive band” per day at your festival. It’s easier to ease folks into it, and usually, it will grow on them.
- Reach out to local music teachers/facilities to see if you can bring in younger pickers.
- Anyone under 18 should be free to get in. You want the young people there, and you don’t want to give their parents any excuse to leave them home. This is a win-win for you!!!
- Have a quiet camping section at your festival. Some folks will still only be there to watch the show and won’t want to be kept up late. Set up a section in the camping area at your venue for these folks to be at and make sure everyone knows about the sound curfew in that section.
- Be patient: It took generations to create this problem in Florida and it will take some years to reverse it. Stick to your guns and it will be a net-positive thing for you in the long run if your goal is to be supporting the music in the next generations.
We failed Bluegrass in Florida, but there is still time for a makeup test before the final grade is written in!