Doing the Tamworth Two Step

Doing the Tamworth Two Step

I am returning to Tamworth in late January for the Country Music Festival. I have been there in early January in recent times to teach at the Country Music Academy (as it is now called) but have usually left before the festival really gets underway. This will be the first time I have played a concert there during the height of the festival for many years. I will be there for at least five days so I’ll get the chance to soak up some of the music and atmosphere that I haven’t experienced in a long time.

In common with most festivals, numbers in recent years have been down. The economy, particularly in the demographic that loves country music, has been stagnant for some time and they have not traveled as much as they might have in the past. In addition the Country Music Association of Australia (CMAA) has been through a very difficult time, struggling to maintain sponsorship funding for its Golden Guitars Award night, experiencing a decline in audiences and in membership (and consequent loss of revenue) and dismissing it’s general manager after a highly embarrassing gaff two years ago when the wrong singer was given a major award without the mistake being corrected on the night.

For all the admirable things the CMAA has achieved (the Academy being just one of many) it cannot escape criticism. I have been a member and, in common with several with whom I have spoken, let my membership lapse in the last 12 months. I have been critical of its failure to communicate with its members – in the years in which I retained my membership I was never sent a copy of its annual report (that it may not have issued one is another matter). I had no information about membership numbers, its financial situation, what it had achieved during the year, the problems it encountered or what strategies were to be adopted to address the major issues it faced.

I wasn’t asked to participate in any research into what the membership might think of its own organisation or how it might improve its services to members. Industry bodies exist only to serve the needs and interests of their membership – damned near impossible if you don’t know what they are. The failure to tangibly demonstrate care and concern for membership needs and then communicate outcomes is, I suspect, one of the principal reason why membership has declined. I should caution that on the subject of membership numbers I am speaking from anecdotal reports – I don’t have any concrete figures to back up my assertion – again another measure of the failure to communicate with the membership.

That the Awards have continued despite the serious financial state of the CMAA is due largely to the indefatigable Joan Douglas who recently retired from the board and her role as Chairperson. She has been instrumental in securing Council funding to enable the CMAA and its Awards night to continue. Council support is simply recognition of the significant income the festival generates for the town – revenue that for many businesses is the difference between making a profit and merely existing. It is also due recognition of the bond that exists in Australia between the twin brands Tamworth and country music.

And that bond will remain if for no other reason than that the CMAA doesn’t own the brand name “Golden Guitars”. It is owned by Tamworth Regional Council. Do I hear a collective intake of breath? Yep, the CMAA doesn’t own the brand name of its own awards. The brand “Golden Guitars” was ‘sold’ to the council some years ago in return for financial support to continue to grow the festival. As inexplicable as that may seem the CMAA and Tamworth are now so intertwined that it is mutually beneficial they both work together to support the short and long term interests of each other.

So, what does the future hold for the CMAA and country music? I’m not sure I know. Hopefully my trip to Tamworth in January will go some way towards answering that question. But one thing is certain, country music is changing inexorably, as is the music business in general. I have heard it said by a number of people that country music isn’t creating the stars of the past – “where are the John Williamsons, Lee Kernaghans, Gina Jeffreys, Troy Cassar Daleys and Kasey Chambers of the future?” they say somewhat despairingly. It is true that any entertainment category, irrespective of the audience it seeks to appeal to, needs “stars”. However, any preconceived notions of how you went about creating ‘stars’ has gone out the window in the digital age with the increasingly fragmented nature of the media and the entertainment environment. At the top end of the market record companies no longer simply make music and sell it. They have been forced through financial necessity to become vertically integrated businesses seeking to earn a piece of the action at every touch point between an artist and his or her audience – CD sales, downloads, merchandise, concert receipts, sponsorships, copyright royalties, endorsements, TV appearances, etc, etc. The manner in which shows such as The Voice, Australia’s Got talent, Australian Idol and The X Factor churn out instant stars who all get their 15 minutes of fame is indicative of the way in which talent is now manipulated for the financial benefit of the investors – they being the TV channels, the record companies, publishers, telecommunications companies, the production companies, etc.

How then does country music sustain itself in such an environment and how do the young aspiring stars of the future reach an audience and create a viable market?

I saw two of my past students from the Country Music Academy on The Voice this year. They sang well without ever being likely to progress much further than the first round or two. That Keith Urban was a judge probably led them to believe that they might get a sympathetic hearing. But Urban, for all his country credentials, is, in the broadest sense of the phrase, a “pop star”, albeit a slightly more sophisticated one than Justin Bieber and, given what his brief must have been from the show’s producers, was unlikely to settle for anyone who couldn’t deliver across the genre divide. That they chose to enter reflects the perception among the younger market, country or otherwise, of the road to commercial success. Country music is awash with talent quests, few of which lead anywhere and most are simply a way for the local pub or club to pull an audience without having to pay for the entertainment.

That said there is within that much maligned entertainment format a lesson to be learned. Go to any local talent quest and you will find most performers have gathered up 20 or more friends and family to come along and support them. Often it is the performer with the biggest supporter group who wins the night – grassroots fans with a personal involvement with the talent. These days it’s the performer with the biggest and most active Facebook page, website, YouTube or Twitter presence who wins. For those starting out in any genre, country, pop or rock, it’s coming down increasingly to building an audience from the ground up not from the top down for those who want to sustain a career. Building grassroots fans takes time and commitment to the process – it is a much more demanding a process than recording a killer song, getting it played on the radio and watching it rocket to the top of the charts. That helps of course but that’s a lottery few will ever win, certainly in these changing times.

And what must the CMAA do to remain relevant and not be completely subsumed by the power that the Tamworth Regional Council now commands? That’s a tough one. But it needs to be answered and the membership needs to be kept fully informed. I have just renewed my membership so hopefully I will find out.

I will continue these reflections on my return from Tamworth. Whether I will have gathered any significant insights remains to be seen, but the research will be fun.

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