Red Dirt: The Power of Infrastructure
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.
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.
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.
A Circuit of Gigs/Festivals
Jason 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.
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.
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.
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