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The future of Americana music

Country Standard Time Editorial, October 2005

Whither the future of Americana music? That is the key question one is left with after attending the sixth annual Americana Music Association conference in September in Nashville.

If listening to most of the converted from the conference, the answer would be a resoundingly positive, but, like anything, that is not entirely clear.

One of the biggest puzzles surrounding Americana music is simply defining the term. That is not an easy proposition. The music, or least the radio stations playing the music, typically incorporates country, bluegrass, folk and blues. Others want to include jazz into the mix.

Based on what Americana radio stations are broadcasting and comments made during panel sessions at the conference, it seems that the potpourri can differ quite widely from one radio station to the next.

The question persists of whether Americana is a genre or a marketing term. And even when asked during a panel session of leading Americana experts, the answer was not entirely clear.

Several years ago, the Americana Music Association lobbied to have a Grammy award in the Americana category. At the time, it seemed questionable. The idea never gained all that much traction and hasn't been head from in awhile.

Justifiably so. Since Americana music can't even be uniformly defined even by its participants, how could it be given a Grammy category? If it had received Grammy status, several categories in folk, blues and country would have been eliminated.

Bottom line is that Americana is really a marketing term, a kind of catch-all phrase for the aforementioned musical styles. That's fine and even perhaps makes it easier to get the music across to the public since it is not easily pigeon-holed.

What is the future? The growth heretofore has not exactly been exponential. Almost 10 years after it started, there still are only about 70 radio stations broadcasting Americana, and some of those are not doing it full time.

One music promoter at the conference commented that sometimes it felt like Americana music was the retirement home for artists whose star has waned in their traditional music market.

In contrast, another supporter at the conference said that a bona fide Americana star would help propel the genre, but if Americana is a marketing term, that means that folk or country or blues music lovers will first claim the "star" as their own. So, how do you have an Americana star?

Despite questions of growth, definitions and numbers - and a number of stations certainly indicated they can make a financial go of it - Americana music certainly has a future.

It will take some major financial players to commit to Americana before it can really reach a wider audience. Since they assuredly will be bottom line oriented, don't expect the Clear Channels of the world to step to the plate any time soon.

Perhaps satellite radio, which is becoming more and more adventurous, will be a key area to grow Americana music by playing the type of music that is awfully difficult to find on regular radio stations, except maybe college radio.

As usual, eclectic musical listeners need to make their choices loud and clear because more than anything else, that could help determine the future of Americana music.