Americana Music Association Executive Director Jed Hilly Is On A Mission

Sam Gazdziak | October 23rd, 2009

jed-hillyWith the halcyon days of multi-platinum records and even diamond records (for 10 million copies of an album sold), the music industry has run into economic struggles. Sales of CDs are down, music piracy is continuing to take its toll, and the industry’s seemingly reluctant embrace of digital music hasn’t done much to stop the bleeding. According to a recent Rolling Stone article, album sales are down 11.1 percent in the third quarter of 2009 compared to last year. Total sales are down 13.9 percent from 2008, which was down 14 percent from 2007.

In spite of the gloom and doom elsewhere, things are fairly optimistic at the Americana Music Association. The group’s annual Americana Music Festival in Nashville just drew around 11,000 people, plus an additional 4,000 attending non-sponsored but related events. Jed Hilly, the AMA’s executive director, states that the Americana music genre is the new model and has been for some time.

“The secret to the music business today is, if you don’t have the gumption to get in a van and drive from town to town, don’t get in the business,” he says. The typical Americana act, he says, is in the business for the long haul.

“They are not the artists who are waiting to see if they’re going to get a Top 20 hit before their album is released, which happens quite often, too often, to artists on Music Row,” he says. “Being a flash in the pan is not something that they’re looking for. A career making music is something that they think about. They’re not writing songs to fill Madison Square Garden, they’re writing songs that mean something to them, and I believe those are the songs that are going to remain with us.”

Prior to joining the AMA in 2007, Hilly had a long career with Sony Records in New York, helping to break artists like Pearl Jam and Oasis. While acknowledging the struggles of the music industry, he points to several bright spots in the Americana world, including the prevalence of the genre at major festivals and official recognition of the genre by the GRAMMY Awards.

What is Americana anyway?

As the executive director of the AMA, Hilly’s definition of Americana music carries some weight.

“Americana music is contemporary music that honors and/or derives from American roots music,” he says. While the statement is simple enough on paper, in practice it’s broad enough to include a huge variety of music. He likens it to jazz, which features diverse artists like Harry Connick Jr. to Miles Davis to the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

“Americana is similar that way. From Solomon Burke to Mike Farris to Lyle Lovett to John Fogerty,” Hilly says. “There is a certain thread that weaves through the varying music that we call Americana that honors American roots music.”

Existing somewhere between country and rock, but with dashes of blues and other types of music thrown in for good measure, Americana music defies easy categorization, and it requires some alternative marketing to survive in a cookie-cutter music world. However, Hilly says that cookie-cutter status of the music industry has led to its current struggles.

“We’re so boxed in as a society, where it’s got to be this, or it’s got to be that,” he says. “We follow more of a model of ‘it’s got to sound great.'”

Hilly and the AMA try to rise the bar for the genre as a whole and raise awareness for this music, and Americana has enjoyed some mainstream recognition. Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ Raising Sand album broke into the mainstream, thanks to Plant’s Led Zeppelin background and the album’s five GRAMMY Awards at this year’s show. Many of the major music festivals in the country, including Bonnaroo and South by Southwest, have Americana music at their foundation as well. Part of Hilly’s job is to give that music a home.

The AMA has been involved in its own festival, the Americana Music Festival and Conference, held this September in Nashville. The event has continued to grow over the years, with more and more events selling out. This year, the kick-off event was held at the Nashville Symphony and drew a sell-out crowd of 1,700 people. The event, “An Evening of Classical Americana,” paired Americana artists like Buddy Miller, Sam Bush, Alison Brown, Abigail Washburn and Jerry Douglas with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. The rest of the festival included performances by Marty Stuart, John Prine, Fogerty, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and dozens more, most of whom came and played for a whopping $150 honorarium.

“The breadth of artistry that came to our event this year was really impressive, and what makes it even more impressive is that they come for the love of the music and the community. I’m humbled by it,” he says.

One of the AMA’s biggest victories is a reorganization of some of the categories at the GRAMMY Awards, including the creation of a Americana Album category.

“The Americana award was implemented at the same time as what was arguably the greatest changes in the last three decades at the GRAMMY Awards,” Hilly explains. The folk field and blues fields were eliminated and moved into the new American Roots music field. Bluegrass was moved out of the country category and put into the new field as well.

“I believe that thought process was due to the Americana Music Association and the savviness of the Recording Academy, and the Recording Academy’s interest in what’s relevant in the industry right now,” he adds. It didn’t hurt that Plant, at last year’s post-GRAMMY press conference, was asked which of the five awards he won was his favorite, and he responded that his favorite award was the Album of the Year award from the Americana Music Awards.

Raising awareness

One of Hilly’s current battles is to get Amazon, iTunes and the other music retailers to recognize Americana music as a separate genre instead of as a sub-category of something else. As of this article’s publication, the top three albums on the online music store’s country music chart are from Rosanne Cash, Bob Dylan and Lyle Lovett–ahead of mainstream acts like Carrie Underwood, Sugarland and Taylor Swift.

“Does Rosanne Cash make country music? No. It’s an Americana album,” Hilly says. That Americana album, ironically enough, contains covers of many classic country songs, like “I’m Movin’ On” and “Long Black Veil.”

The fact that an album of classic country songs isn’t considered country anymore is a pretty telling statement on today’s country music. Hilly expresses admiration for several of today’s country singers, including Miranda Lambert, Jamey Johnson and Dierks Bentley, and the fact that they’re able to make the music they want to make. However, he notes that the classic definition of country music (Merriam-Webster’s definition is, “music derived from or imitating the folk style of the Southern United States or of the Western cowboy”) bears no relevance to what today’s country music actually is.

Gaining more recognition for Americana music will continue to be the AMA’s challenge. It is helped when a high-profile artist like Plant, Fogerty or Elvis Costello records an Americana album, as it attracts mainstream press and gives Hilly a chance to educate people about this music they might not be familiar with. Granted, those are artists who had successful careers well before they made their Americana records, but Hilly notes that Americana has broken several new acts as well.

“Three years ago, The Avett Brothers were the Americana Emerging Artist of the Year,” he notes. “Last year, they played at Bonaroo before Levon Helm in front of 15,000 people. They just released a record produced by Rick Rubin on Columbia. I think we helped them.”

He also points out the success of Old Crow Medicine Show, who played a private event at an AMA festival a few years ago and were overheard by a record executive. “Two months later, they had a contract on Nettwork Records. I think Americana had something to do with that.”

As an experiment, the AMA created an Amazon landing page for Americana music this year, available through a link from the Association’s web site, www.americanamusic.org. The page listed the artists who performed at this year’s AMA festival, and within three months of its creation, sales for those albums increased by a collective 15 percent.

“I think what that proved was, if you give it a home, you’re going to sell records,” Hilly explains.

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  1. Jon
    October 23, 2009 at 1:49 pm

    “The fact that an album of classic country songs isn’t considered country anymore is a pretty telling statement on today’s country music.”

    Well, it might be if it wasn’t Jed who said that it isn’t country. I mean, according to this same story, Amazon’s calling it country, and so is iTunes…

  2. Justin
    October 23, 2009 at 2:07 pm

    I believe what Jed is saying is that country radio doesn’t consider it country anymore.

  3. Jeff
    October 23, 2009 at 2:15 pm

    I believe what Jed is trying to do is claim a whole lot of music to his genre, which is intentionally vague as to let him do so.

    to me, Americana is a bit of a white flag to the modern country music industry. Seems strange that the first opportunity he gets to define his artists, he talks about people getting in vans and driving from town to town. That also sounds like punk rock to me.

    Don’t get me wrong, most of what I listen to would be considered by Jed to be Americana. I like to follow Ketch Secor’s observation that the word “Americana” seems to describe Wal-Mart, the GOP, and flag-waving people, which seems to go along with Carrie Underwood more than it does O.C.M.S., who makes music for people from the “country”.

  4. Jon
    October 23, 2009 at 2:23 pm

    “Does Rosanne Cash make country music? No. It’s an Americana album.” Doesn’t sound to me like he’s saying anything about country radio, and it’s pretty clear that Jed doesn’t consider The List to be country music; I mean, that’s what he says, in so many words. But really, my comment had more to do with the quote from Sam than with Jed’s statement.

  5. nm
    October 23, 2009 at 2:24 pm

    There’s nothing in the interview about Americana being clandestine, though.

  6. stormy
    October 23, 2009 at 2:46 pm

    Jeff: All musicians starting out hit the road in vans because you need something big enough to carry the drum set.

  7. Sam G.
    October 23, 2009 at 2:47 pm

    Amazon is also calling Bob Dylan country, so does that make it so?

  8. Jon
    October 23, 2009 at 3:03 pm

    Sam, you/e missing the point. What; “telling” about country music in a comment by the amA’s director claiming Cash’s album for his format? If retailers refused to call it country, or if country publications refused to cover it, or if a single were worked to country radio and PDs rejected it as “not country,” *that* would be telling.

  9. Sam G.
    October 23, 2009 at 3:31 pm

    The List is #6 on the Americana music chart and has had more than 900 spins since its release. When I’ve listened to mainstream country radio in my neck of the woods, I have yet to hear “Sea of Heartbreak” or any other song on the album. Are its singles doing well on any mainstream country music charts? ‘Cause from what I’ve seen, the mainstream country industry hasn’t made much of an effort to try to claim Cash’s album as its own.

  10. T. Scott
    October 23, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    I think “mainstream” may be the best term.
    In the 70’s most “country” stations didn’t play much Waylon,(at least pre ’75),Willie,Asleep at The Wheel, or most other “progressive” country artists.They became “mainstream” later.
    Now Rascall Flatts and Taylor Swift are “mainstream”.They may or may not be respected later( as Waylon and the rest are now),but as for now they are on top.

  11. Jon
    October 23, 2009 at 6:04 pm

    You’re still missing the point. So far, the only person or entity that’s been established as saying Cash’s album isn’t country is Jed. And that’s just not a very telling statement about the state of country music.

  12. Truersound
    October 23, 2009 at 6:12 pm

    The fact is the term country has been co-opted and now means sacharine sounding bullshit. you guys argue about the weirdest things.

    Oh, and I remember 15 years ago when this same argument was being had, only then the term was alt-country and now there is a new term for it because “alt-country” has been co-opted by whiny sounding indie bands with weak singers, and guitarists who can’t seem to use a tuner.

    15 before that it was cow-punk, 10 before that it was country-rock, 10-15 years from now when the term ‘americana’ gets co-opted by some other group for a cheap buck, who knows what it will be called.

    Truth is corporate music has always sucked, be it country or non, and every so often someone needs to come up with a term to describe the artists on the fringes who have more in common with the past than the moment. This is nothing new.

  13. Rick
    October 23, 2009 at 6:44 pm

    Truersound is spot on about the generalized term “country music” always being used to describe the current mainstream, Top 40 commercial mass market music marketed through “country radio” stations. This is the big label, corporation dominated realm it has been for decades, but its the 1990’s advent of massive corporate owned radio station chains that skewed mainstream country towards the mediocre pop-rock oriented crap it has become these days. As long as these “Young/Modern Country” Top 40 stations can attract sufficient advertiser dollars they will have no motivation to change their current format even if the listeners don’t purchase much country music. Radio can thrive on playing airhead music that listeners don’t buy, making the music labels far more at risk than the radio stations themselves.

    I’m glad there is an Americana Music Association which has helped provide a support structure for all the artists that choose to be identified with this classification and those who wind up there by default. Their annual festival, the Americana format radio shows and stations that air them, and roots music festivals that embrace these performers all help these artists to get exposure and earn a living. I discover far more new artists I like on the Americana airplay charts than I do on the Top 40 mainstream country these days.

    I just wish someone with a mindset like Miss Leslie Sloan would get together with some like minded folks and create a “Traditional Country Music Association”. If Americana and Bluegrass can do it, so can Tradition Oriented Country music!

  14. Razor X
    October 23, 2009 at 8:28 pm

    The List is #6 on the Americana music chart and has had more than 900 spins since its release. When I’ve listened to mainstream country radio in my neck of the woods, I have yet to hear “Sea of Heartbreak” or any other song on the album. Are its singles doing well on any mainstream country music charts? ‘Cause from what I’ve seen, the mainstream country industry hasn’t made much of an effort to try to claim Cash’s album as its own.

    Sam, I’m the last one to disagree with the notion that country music has lost touch with its roots, but I think you are falling into the trap of allowing mainstream country radio to define what is and isn’t country music. Just because something isn’t played on mainstream country radio doesn’t mean it isn’t country or that it automatically falls into the Americana category. Not all of Rosanne Cash’s albums can be classified as country, but The List certainly can.

  15. Jon
    October 23, 2009 at 10:26 pm

    “I think you are falling into the trap of allowing mainstream country radio to define what is and isn’t country music.”

    Yep. The 150 or so reporting stations would like to think that they set the parameters of what’s considered country – despite the fact that the rest of the industry, from secondary and tertiary stations to publications (print and online – and note that Billboard is reporting The List on its country albums chart) to the video channels, etc. take a wider view (you can watch the video for Rosanne’s version of “I’m Moving On,” read an interview about The List with Chet Flippo, etc., on CMT.com) – and I’ve never understood why anyone would agree with such a narrow view.

    I’ll also point out that “Americana” and “country” are no more mutually exclusive terms than “Americana” and “bluegrass” are, or “bluegrass” and “country,” or…

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