A “Band On The Brink” – An ‘Industry’ On The Edge

Last night, a rogues gallery of characters from Nashville’s business and creative communities assembled at the Belcourt Theater to deliver what could be considered a start-of-the-New-Year self-assessment:

bannerThere were three parts to the evening that did a surprisingly good job of hitting any number of moving targets.

The first part was a short documentary film describing the origins, history, demise and resurrection of a band called “The New Dylans.” The film was the final, compiled installment in a year long effort to document the reconstitution of a group that broke up in the mid 1990s – and uses their tale as an object lesson on the State of The Music Industry in Nashville in the Digital Age.

The nucleus of The New Dylans is a duo: singer/songwriter and guitarist Jim Reilly and singer/songwriter and keyboard player Reese Campbell. These two have a long history, having first met, as we are told in the movie, at their pre-school in Warren, PA sometime in (I guess?) the mid-1960s. As they grew into adolescence and developed a mutual interest in music, they started performing together. In the 1980s and 90s they toured together and eventually landed a record deal with indie label Red House Records. Despite considerable critical acclaim, fame and fortune never knocked on their door; the group disbanded after releasing an album in 1995 [Spotfy] ; Reilly came to Nashville and has swung his axe in the songwriting and publishing trenches of Music Row for nearly twenty years. I’m less clear on Campbell’s subsequent path, but the two re-united last year here in Nashville to make this new CD [Spotify].

The name of the band says a lot about their pedigree – and their standing. Calling themselves “The New Dylans” was an oblique, tongue-in-cheek nod/swipe at the industry press that is always on the lookout for the next whatever-it-was that just went by. In this case, the inference is that the industry was always on the lookout for “the new Bob Dylan.” This band decided they were it.

The film was a fairly typical tale of twenty-first century artistic woe. Yes, it’s hard out there for a pimp – or a songwriter, a guitar player, a band. The film is essentially a paean to the changes that the 21st century has forced upon an industry that has deep roots in the two previous centuries. There is much lamentation and gnashing of teeth over the shrinkage of the industry that has given Nashville much of its identity in the larger world.

But to this observer, there was very little discussion in the film of any new initiatives other than the film itself. In re-forming to record and release a new CD, it looks to me for all the world like this is an enterprise that is still doing pretty much the same things that they did back in the 1980s and ’90s. And what does Einstein tell us is the definition of insanity?

The origins of the film itself tells a very different story – this documentary was produced by a newspaper company. “Band On The Brink” is a “visual production” of Nashville’s daily newspaper, The Tennessean. Several of the paper’s staff worked on the project – starting with music industry reporter Nate Rau, who was joined by videographer Karen Kraft and photographer Sam Simkins. Say what you will about the Tennessean: it’s clumsy handling of staff reassignments last year, the thinness of its daily issues (“the ‘Thinnessean,’ one clever pundit called it) or the fact that each daily issue seems more like a local edition of now-corporate-parent Gannet’s national daily, USA Today. But the evidence embodied in this year-long effort, culminating in the film that was shown last night, is that these ‘newspaper’ people are doing whatever they can to find their place in the new media environment.

I have no way of knowing if the genesis of this project was an assignment from Nate’s superiors or something he talked them into, but either way it’s precisely the kind of thing that legacy media need to do if they’re going to have relevance in the digital future. I hope they have the bandwidth to do more of this kind of truly comprehensive reporting in the future. Rather than doing the same things and expecting different results, the Tennessean seems to be doing what for a newspaper company are new things.

Too bad the same cannot be said for the band featured in their reporting. Spoiler alert: if you don’t like statements of the obvious, you might want to skip this next part:

bandThe second part of the evening was a disappointing performance by The New Dylans themselves.

What is one to make of an ostensibly rock-and-roll show in which every performer is seated for the duration? It seems to me that the purpose of loud, electrically amplified music is to get people moving. And while I am sympathetic to some obvious physical limitations, there was just something unnecessarily creaky and static about an entire hour in which not a single performer on stage got out of their chair.

But the real shortcoming in the performance was in the quality of the sound, which made it nearly impossible to comprehend a word that either vocalist sang.

We had been told during the film that the music of The New Dylans is built on a foundation of smart, rich, deep and clever lyric content. But who could tell? This was yet another performance that suffered from a condition that plagues entirely too many live shows – a condition I call “sonic saturation” – where ‘everything is so loud that you can’t hear anything.’ Least of all those brilliantly crafted lyrics.

You don’t need to go much farther than titles like “Camel Through A Needle” [Spotify] and “Blue Sky Sweet Midsummer Nightmare” [Spotify] to know that there’s a lot in these songs that you want to hear. And I did manage to discern just enough of “Little Brother”[Spotify] to want to hear it again – as I’m doing via Spotify even as I type this paragraph. “It’s a fucked up magic show… and you’ll never be the same…” – that much landed on its target. And “Low Hanging Fruit [Spotify]” and “It’s Over” [Spotify] are what sentient creatures go to rock-n-roll shows for.

But last night, we sat there for the better part of an hour, listening to song after song where the instrumentation and the mix drowned out what we had been told should have been the central component of the whole experience. At one point, after having endured a half-dozen or more songs where I could not understand more than a snippet of lyric here and there, I longed for the sort of system they use now at the opera, where the translation of the lyrics is projected on a screen above the stage.

It’s common knowledge and accepted wisdom now that the live music experience is the cornerstone of the new ‘industry’ – making it doubly important for this band’s first live appearance in two decades to come off without a hitch.

So I should perhaps further elaborate that the preceding is not really intended as a critique of the band, as much as a longing for some further discussion of how things typically sound in live venues. Which is to say, gawd-f’ing-awful.

Not being more familiar with the old New Dylans, I have nothing against which to judge other than what I saw and heard last night. Hopefully, the abysmal sound last night was a one-night stumble, diminishing what might have been an enjoyable experience for the audience and was certainly an important event for the band. I’m sure everybody would have liked a better result for the band’s first live appearance in something like 20 years…

I stuck around because I wanted to see/hear the panel discussion that finished out the evening – because I get a sick, vicarious thrill from watching ‘industry experts’ trying to pound the square pegs of their old business model into the round holes of the new, digital media environment.

panelThe panel consisted of (from right to left) Chris Keaton – who (I surmise?) is The New Dylan’s manager (and made a cameo appearance playing saxophone in the movie); Bart Herbison, Executive Director of the Nashville Songwriters Association International; Mark Montgomery, Founder and CEO of Flo {Thinkery}; Charles Alexander, Founder and CEO of Outside The Box Music; and Greg Greene, Founder and CEO of featuring.me.

I really do sympathize with Bart Herbison. He has the hardest job of any of the panelists – trying to articulate a relevant platform as the presiding officer of what is essentially the Buggy Whip Coalition. Bart’s stock in trade is citing all kinds of frightening statistics about the shrinking market for non-performing songwriters over the past two decades, and the consequent hollowing out of Nashville’s songwriting middle class. Yes, Bart. I know it’s a tough thing to hear, but the traveling public has moved on now from horses and buggies to that new-fangled auto-mo-bile thing. We just don’t need them whips any more… have you thought about contacting the Amish?

Mark Montgomery understands as well as anybody on the panel that we’re not going to get anywhere until we fully cleave the word “music” from the word “industry” and get on with one or the other:

“The tide is coming back in…there is not a better time to be in the music business than right now. If you believe that music has power and if you believe that music will continue to touch lives… it ain’t goin’ away, folks. You can either put your head in the sand and hope or wish that we’re going back to the 80s (what we can remember of them) or you can think about where the puck is going and try to skate there… “

Hell, even Bart Herbison had a moment of clarity when he opined that “the expression ‘music industry’ is now an oxymoron…”

And you really have to appreciate the well-informed enthusiasm that Charles Alexander brings whenever he shows up on a panel like this. I’ve known Charles fairly well for a number of years and have seen him really do the very hard – as in downright tedious – work that it takes to create a presence in the digital firmament for an aspiring performer. So he knows whereof he speaks when he tells us:

“It’s not enough to create. You have to be willing to educate and self educate and innovate and be prepared to be entrepreneurial. The beautiful thing about this time we live in is that it’s self empowering. If you want to go out and start a video channel and put your own music out and have a career, you can do that. That wasn’t an option 20 years ago. If you’ve spent a lifetime being a songwriter because you’ve been told that your voice isn’t good enough, your guitar playing isn’t good enough to be a ‘star’… dump that. Step in front of a camera. Make a simple video. Put it on YouTube. Who cares if no one pays attention. But if someone does pay attention, then you’ve got a business…. Don’t wait for someone else to tell you you have a place. You have a place…”

That was the big applause line of the evening. And since it was not drowned out by screeching guitars, the audience could hear and absorb every word of it

The wildcard in the evening was Greg Greene, the CEO of of a Nashville based music/tech startup called “Featuring Me” – an app that (if I understand it correctly) lets users re-mix a recording. Releasing their music through Featuring Me is possibly the most – if not the only – innovative, new-paradigm-y thing that The New Dylans are doing with their new CD (apart from making it available via streaming services like Spotify), but that element of their program was given short shrift in the movie and the discussion. I would really have liked to hear a lot more about that.*

An app that lets listeners remix a recording? Hmmm. I could have used an app like that during the live performance. Maybe then I could have heard and been moved by those all those brilliantly crafted lyrics.

Finally, a well-deserved nod to Beth Inglish who put the evening together. She’s been a passionate (and readers know I don’t use that word lightly) advocate for Nashville’s creative community, and recently parlayed that advocacy into a full-time position with the Tennessean with the intriguing title of “Engagement Editor” – another indication of an institution that is doing its best to not do the same things and expect different results. I think last night’s event was the first full-blown expression of what that job entails, and regardless of the quality of the live performance portion, the event was, not to be too cute about it, entirely ‘engaging.’

The New Dylans’ new album “Meta” was released earlier this month. Listen to it on Spotify. I’ve been listening to it as I’m editing this post, and I’m pleased to say that, thankfully, the lyrics are much clearer than they were last night:

*correction: an earlier version of this post suggested that Greg Greene was added to the panel as “an afterthought.” I have since learned from the organizer of the event that such was not the case.