Americana Music Association Executive Director Jed Hilly Is On A Mission
With 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.
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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