Red Dirt: The Power of Infrastructure

Ben Cisneros | April 10th, 2008

Red Dirt Music

Having a major label record deal has never guaranteed success for an aspiring artist, but by and large in the past, having a major record deal served as a pre-requisite for success, after all, recording costs were prohibitively expensive and the majors had a lock on the retail distribution channels.

We know now that it’s a different story; anyone can record an album for a reasonable price and in the digital world distribution is a breeze. However, a multitude of questions still remain.

Who will you sell your records to? Where will you play? Who will review your record? How can you get it on the radio?

That’s where infrastructure, or a “scene”, comes into play. As difficult as it is to gain a following, it’s even more difficult operating in an artistic vacuum where there is no set “crowd” who will be open to your work.

The great triumph of the “Red Dirt” movement, and the reason I think it continues to be a valid and even important term, is that “Red Dirt” has managed to create a highly developed infrastructure that enables regional success.

If you are a part of the LA country music scene it’s likely that you are either an artist or a promoter, though it’s more likely you’re both out of necessity. If you are part of the Red Dirt music scene you might be an artist, or a DJ, or a journalist, or a promoter, or a booking agent, or part of a management company, or part of a record label, or you may run a record store, or you may run a website, or you might even run a clothing company. That’s the difference between the Red Dirt movement and all the other country music scenes around the country, and that’s why “Red Dirt” is probably the best thing that’s happened to our kind of music in the new millennium

It’s fairly staggering how “put together” the Red Dirt scene is. For those of you who don’t know, allow me to give you an overview.


Radio

For all the change that has taken place in the way of MySpace/blogs/podcasts/etc, radio airplay is still one of the best ways for an artist to reach people with their music because there is still something special about hearing something on the radio and knowing that people all over your area are hearing the same thing. If your radio stations are anything like mine, they never offer any surprises. In Texas it’s different though.

Program directors and DJ’s all over Texas and Oklahoma have set up shows that feature Red Dirt music. Not only that, but many stations in major markets are including Red Dirt music in their regular rotation right alongside mainstream modern country.

Furthermore, unlike stations on the Americana Music Chart, the stations playing Red Dirt music generally focus on singles. There may be arguments in favor of free-form radio that plays whatever it likes, but for an independent artist, I’d argue a singles driven radio format makes it easier to become established in the minds of casual listeners and it also allows for an album to be promoted for a longer amount of time (an important consideration when you don’t have a brand new recording budget every 8 months).

To top it all off, the stations playing Red Dirt are also generally gracious about having Red Dirt artists stop in for interviews/on-air performances.

Imagine that, a local, independent artist having access to radio airplay in a major market where their song is played right after the latest Nashville offering. In the minds of listeners, it immediately puts the local independent artist on par with acts who have a national story and the DJ’s and Program Directors who work actively to promote the Red Dirt scene deserve an enormous amount of credit for giving the opportunity to local, independent artists to compete on a level playing field.

Radio Charts

A group of 80 stations that play local independent music are great, but a group of 80 stations that play local, independent music and report their spins to a chart help bring cohesion to the community and give independent artists and labels a way to focus their radio campaign to get the most out of their efforts.

Without a chart, an independent artist has no reliable way of tracking his airplay, no idea what markets he’s receiving considerable spins in, and no specific way of communicating his success at radio to press or industry professionals.

The Red Dirt scene has both The Texas Music Chart and The Texas Regional Radio Report monitoring airplay and helping artists focus campaigns and build stories around their regional success.

A Circuit of Gigs/Festivals

Miranda Lambert & Adam HoodJason Boland is about to embark on a tour with Aaron Watson, Adam Hood plays regularly with Miranda Lambert, as well as with Sunny Sweeney, and you can bet your bottom dollar that Cross Canadian Ragweed has shared the stage with Stoney Larue.

Standard gigs within a scene, as well as big festivals, are the perfect way for a new artist to connect with a built-in audience, and all across Texas and Oklahoma there are bars and clubs that feature established, as well as up-and-coming, Red Dirt musicians, allowing them to access a ready made audience.

Meanwhile, big festivals like MusicFest in Steamboat Springs, Ziegenbock Festival, and others, connect Red Dirt artists with large numbers of dedicated fans the likes of which independent artists in other parts of the country can only dream of.

Dedicated Press

Where radio and festivals help to create and grow an audience, dedicated specialty press helps to inform and sustain it. Magazines like the Texas Music Times and Mavrik Magazine, as well as websites like Galleywinter.com, Lonestarmusic.com, and Gruenewithenvy.com are dedicated to keeping the Red Dirt movement alive and strong by keeping its audience informed and excited.

RadioFreeTexas.org deserves special mention as well. Internet Radio may not be huge yet, but that hasn’t stopped them from working their tails off to help expand the Red Dirt community throughout cyberspace and if Internet Radio ever comes to the forefront, they’ll be positioned to lead the pack.

Promoters/Booking Agents/Managers/Record Labels

It’s not news to anyone that the music business is about who you know, just like it’s not news to anyone that musicians tend to lack organizational skills and business acumen.

Radio airplay, an established group of venues and festivals to play, dedicated press, and word of mouth help to create and sustain an audience for Red Dirt music; having a group of industry professionals who specialize in the Red Dirt scene helps to ensure that Red Dirt artists can connect efficiently with that audience, as well as focus on doing what they do best–creating music.

Southern Thread

Honest to goodness, the Red Dirt music scene has a clothing company that sponsors artists and specializes in Red Dirt clothing. It may strike some of you as odd, but the fact of the matter is – the more enterprises there are tied up to the longevity of local, independent music, the more sustainable the market for that music becomes, and the more income there is available to the musicians who play that music.

All and all the “Red Dirt” scene is pretty impressive huh?

Ultimately, we critics pride ourselves on our listening ability and the specificity of our expression. For our purposes, the term “Red Dirt” isn’t very helpful, after all, saying that a song or album is “Red Dirt” doesn’t say very much about it (although I could argue that there are broad norms within the movement).

The term “Red Dirt” however, is what allows the regional infrastructure to act as more than the sum of its parts and as long as there is an idea of continuity in the scene, artists will have the opportunity to capitalize on an infrastructure that allows them to build a fan base without having to travel the entire country. Abolish the term–and thus the coalition–as artificial, and you’ll witness the disintegration of a brilliant promotional machine.

I, for one, hope that not only does Red Dirt music continue to thrive, but that folks in other regions of the country follow Texas/Oklahoma’s example, get organized, and work together to enable regional success for independent artists playing new, original country music.

3 Pings

  1. [...] matter? It’s just a name.. right? I read an article recently from the guys at The 9513 about The Power of Infrastructure and they refer to it as “Red Dirt”. The whole article is about everyone getting [...]
  2. [...] music that draws on country influences and is the perfect example of an artist supported by the Red Dirt infrastructure outlined by Ben [...]
  3. [...] that they can have their independence squelched (if that’s what they want). In his excellent Red Dirt: The Power of Infrastructure at The 9513 last year, Ben Cisneros (himself active in the Southern California scene) concluded: I, [...]
  1. Kelly
    April 10, 2008 at 12:54 pm

    Great post Ben! I have long been one of the voices speaking out against the term “red dirt” as it pertains to the music. I havent really considered the term as it pertains to the structure of a “scene”. Since I have lived in Texas all my years, I perhaps have taken this scene for granted. Last year at the Larry Joe Taylor festival, where there was over 20,000 people watching Boland, Reckless kelly, Randy Rogers, etc.., I realized that no other scene or region could pull of a festival that was so heavily attended and featured acts that are mostly unknown outside of the texas/okla/ark/lousiana area of the country. While I still think that applying the term “red dirt” to describe a musical sound falls short, is flawed and is now becoming fairly vanilla where it used to represent the opposite, I will now look at that term with more seriousness as it truly does encompass much more than a sound…

  2. Jim Malec
    April 10, 2008 at 1:10 pm

    Cool article, but did I miss the obligatory nod to Mike McClure and The Great Divide? It’s hard to write about the history of the Red Dirt scene and not mention M.M..

  3. Matt B.
    April 10, 2008 at 5:30 pm

    I agree Jim, Mike McClure/TGD are ‘godfathers’ of the scene for almost all artists, especially Cross Canadian Ragweed. Also, If one plays this kind of ‘country music’ to non country fans, those fans generally like it.

  4. Hollerin' Ben
    April 10, 2008 at 6:10 pm

    Kelly,
    Last year at the Larry Joe Taylor festival, where there was over 20,000 people watching Boland, Reckless kelly, Randy Rogers, etc.., I realized that no other scene or region could pull of a festival that was so heavily attended and featured acts that are mostly unknown outside of the texas/okla/ark/lousiana area of the country

    The west coast country scene couldn’t pull off anything even close.

    Jim,
    it’s hard to write about the history of the Red Dirt scene and not mention M.M..

    That may be the case, but this was more of a survey of the scene at present, and an evaluation of the usefulness of the term, as opposed to a history of the movement.

  5. Rick
    April 10, 2008 at 7:49 pm

    Thanks for enlightening an LA guy on all the manifestations of the “Red Dirt” scene. Before discovering The 9513 and Country Standard Time blogs I had never heard the term. Now I have a much better grasp.

    Texas and Oklahoma have vibrant regional music scenes that no other states in the union will ever match due to traditions kept alive by the residents. Western/Texas swing music from the heyday of Bob Wills until the present time has never lost its appeal to Texans (ie Asleep at the Wheel or Elana James) but has been forgotten most other places. While Nashville tends to ignore young artists that have a traditional sound these days such artists can still build a following in Texas (ie Sunny Sweeney). Artists like Aaron Watson thrive in Texas in a way they could not do in any other region of the country.

    I’m just grateful to the country music loving people of Texas and Oklahoma who have fostered this environment as more fresh and interesting new music comes out of Texas than Nashville nowadays.

    I agree with Ben totally about the power of a strong supporting infrastructure to any genre of music. Bluegrass and Americana/Alt. Country music have dedicated supporting organizations (IBMA and AMA), radio stations, awards ceremonies, and festivals around the country that keep their audiences growing and the scenes fresh and vibrant. I just wish someone, anyone would pick up the ball and do the same thing for traditional and honky tonk country music as they have become mainstream Nashville orphans these days and continue to be further marginalized. I commend Sunny Sweeney and Elizabeth Cook for feeling a personal burden to keep classic country styles alive, but without a supporting infrastructure its just not gonna happen.

  6. Baron Lane
    April 10, 2008 at 9:32 pm

    One thing about us Texans, we might cuss you up and down but if someone comes down on you, or you’re down and out, we are the first to stand by our own.

    The Texas Dirt movement might be part of a larger regional support movement along the likes of country and rock music from the early part of last century. Regional support allows bands and artists to break on a smaller, but more sustainable level.

    Thanks Ben, great post.

  7. Pierce
    April 11, 2008 at 11:46 am

    The only part of this movement I don’t like is the over-regionalism. I know none of these guys really aim for national stardom, but believe it or not, these guys do have fans outside of Texas.

    For instance, I would easily pay good money to see Boland and Watson, two of my favorites. Unfortunately, I spend all of my time in Nashville and Raleigh, no where near any of their tour stops.

    Luckily for me, Boland has done some national touring (I saw him in Raleigh, singing to a crowd of about 50). I saw Randy Rogers in Nashville with Eric Church (Church headlined, but they spent equal time on stage), I’ve seen Dale Watson in Raleigh twice, and I’ve seen Cross Canadian Ragweed on tour with Dierks Bentley.

    The problem is there isn’t a real incentive for these artists to tour outside of Texas/Oklahoma, which is a shame for the rest of the country.

  8. Hollerin' Ben
    April 11, 2008 at 12:20 pm

    Pierce,

    I agree that lack of incentive is a real shame for the rest of the country, but the fact that artists can make a decent living playing music in one region is what has enabled those artists you mentioned to rise to prominence in the first place.

    There is a solution of course; both for you specifically and generally speaking – start organizing locally. If Raleigh had a thriving local, original country music scene that could afford to pay artists handsomely, artists from Texas would make the trip out.

  9. jeff
    April 16, 2008 at 8:32 am

    I think the one thing that Red Dirt music suffers from is having the wrong filter in place. Red Dirt fans seem to classify Texas music as “good” (with a little Oklahoma sprinkled in) and Nashville (or really anywhere else in the country) as “bad”, when good music should really be quantified by its originality, thoughtful lyrics, and well composed music (critiqued when sober). That is the reason that the New York Times classified a few “Red Dirt” bands as “drunk country” – not because they are from New York, but because you have to have a BAC of .08 or higher to enjoy it. There is LOTS of good music in Texas. and lots of TERRIBLE music. I just hope Red Dirt fans keep the filter in place, that just because its from Texas doesn’t mean its good, and just because it isn’t, doesnt mean its bad.

  10. Hollerin' Ben
    April 16, 2008 at 10:09 am

    Jeff,

    I agree with you.

    The infrastructure is all in place, but the fans don’t seem to be very discerning or demanding all the time, but so long as the infrastructure is in place, it gives truly talented artists the chance to thrive; even if it’s alongside music of questionable quality.

  11. Kelly
    April 16, 2008 at 11:47 am

    Jeff & Ben:

    I think we need to make sure not to over-generalize and cover all red dirt fans with the same blanket. As silly as it is to say that every Mom that drives a mini-van loves Rascal Flatts, it is equally so to say that all red dirt fans think artists outside of texas suck. Yes, there are drunk 20 year olds who think that even Cross Canadian “sold-out” because the dont play 10 different versions of “carney man” or “boys from oklahoma” on each album, but they are in the minority (judging by the growing number of fans at their shows since they strarted releasing major label albums). Also, many acts from outside of the state have been embraced by the red dirt scene. Dierks Bentley, Gary Allan, Drive by Truckers, Chris Knight, Adam Hood, Ryan Bingam (who has a large fan base in california, and has lived in plenty of other places), Shooter Jennings, etc…are examples of bands that either arent from Texas or only share a loose affiliation with the state, yet are beloved by many fans of red dirt.

  12. jeff
    April 16, 2008 at 11:49 am

    Kelly –

    thats GREAT! I think if anything, that shows evidence that fans DO have the filter in place and are listening for the best possible music, not just something that was made by the guy who bartends at Chotchke’s and only wears Southern Thread.

  13. Brady Vercher
    April 16, 2008 at 12:04 pm

    Drew Kennedy, Reckless Kelly, and Jason Eady are a few more artists that are part of the scene that aren’t from TX or OK, so it’s definitely not a prerequisite to be from TX.

  14. Hollerin' Ben
    April 16, 2008 at 12:20 pm

    Kelly,

    you’re point is a good one, I certainly never meant to group all red dirt fans together, and I think that it’s great that a lot of artists from outside Texas are getting access to the infrastructure.

    but most everyone who I talk to or communicate with on the subject wishes that the scene had a tighter filter on what it let through quality-wise. My opinion is that I’m willing to accept questionable music from the scene so long as the great music has access to the same infrastructure for success.

  15. Kelly
    April 16, 2008 at 12:35 pm

    I agree with the need for more of a filter, for a good portion of the fans, just not as large of a portion as many people think. I also agree that you have to take the good with the bad to a large extent. I’ll sit through a Eli Young song on 95.3 KHYI to get to the Hayes Carll or Reckless Kelly song any day of the week!!

  16. Andrew
    April 27, 2008 at 6:40 pm

    This is a great post and the comments are all really valid. Hailing from Texas and being a fan of both the Red Dirt scene and the Nashville scene, I think the filter referred to always allows the cream of the crop to surface. The best of the best have the success in the Red Dirt scene and not too much of it could be considered “filler.”

    Nashville-based major record labels are slowly but surely embracing the scene as a valid indicator of good music. Pat Green, Cory Morrow, Kevin Fowler, Jack Ingram, Cross Canadian Ragweed, Randy Rogers Band, and even recently Eli Young Band have all started gaining noteriety in Nashville and across the country and with good reason. Despite some of the commercializing of what these artists used to do (ex. Pat and Jack), the artistic integrity of the rest of these artists hasn’t been compromised. If the labels really give these artists the push they deserve, the Red Dirt scene could become a huge part of the national country music scene. As stated, the infrastructure is there.

    I hope to see this regional scene embraced by the industry across the country so people can see what we’ve known down here for years.

  17. Hog
    May 8, 2008 at 11:03 am

    Ben, et al, I hate to break it to you but Red Dirt is music from Oklahoma and Texas Music, Texas Country, is well, music from Texas. When you talk about the “Red Dirt” scene you’re talking Ragweed, Stony, Boland all the guys from Oklahoma…get it? The Texans don’t go for their music being called “Red Dirt” — learn it.

  18. Hollerin' Ben
    May 8, 2008 at 11:57 am

    Hog,

    Ragweed, Stony, and Boland all use the exact same infrastructure as the “Texas Country” artists.

    For that reason I’d say that it’s more worthwhile to group them together than to differentiate.

    wouldn’t you agree?

  19. Brady Vercher
    May 8, 2008 at 12:13 pm

    Hog, one of the guys at Galleywinter picked up the conversation and ultimately came to the decision that he’s moving towards calling the whole scene “Red Dirt.”

    Ultimately, all these guys are playing the same joints to a lot of the same crowds with very little distinction between what they’re doing infrastructure wise, so I don’t see any reason to further classify the artists based upon geopolitical boundaries. If you can demonstrate a difference in the music they’re playing, then by all means, feel free to classify, but those classifications should be based upon the music itself, not the state they come from.

  20. freewayradio guy
    May 29, 2008 at 10:00 pm

    Call it Red Dirt, call it Texas Music, it’s a marvelous alternative to big national labels or promoters dictating local taste. These Texas and Oklahoma acts thrive with local stations supporting them, online and over the air. Sure there’s some good music from Nashville, too. But Texas and this region of America do not let Nashville decide what sounds good. Pretty cool, huh?

  21. mark
    December 26, 2008 at 10:30 am

    thank god i live in okc and can see all the dirt bands each weekend at the wormy dawg

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