Charting the future: Diverse local scene awaits listeners, but it's a tough go for musicians
What's the future of popular music in 2020, in Vermont and beyond?
For answers, we reached out to people who work with music and musicians in Southern Vermont. Our panel, which responded by email, includes:
- Jeff Morad, program director and on-air personality, WEQX-FM, Manchester.
- Doug Hacker, founder/promoter, Billsville Concerts.
- Billy Straus, co-founder and interim executive director, Next Stage Arts Project, Putney.
- Jill Turpin, founder/promoter, Green Mountain Bluegrass and Roots Music Festival, Manchester.
Their answers are below.
1. What was your favorite song of 2019?
Morad: Fontaines D.C., "Boys In The Better Land."
Hacker: Fruit Bats, "Mandy From Mohawk."
Straus: The Waterboys, "Where The Action Is"
Turpin: Mandolin Orange, "Paper Mountain."
2. What was your favorite album of 2019?
Morad: Sturgill Simpson, "Sound & Fury."
Hacker: Fruit Bats, "Gold Past Life."
Straus: Wilco, "Ode To Joy."
Turpin: Rayland Baxter, "Good Mmornin."
3. What was the best show you saw in the region in 2019? (Including the Pioneer Valley, greater Albany, N.Y., and the Berkshires.)
Morad: Beck, Cage The Elephant, Spoon and Sunflower Bean at Saratoga Performing Arts Center.
Hacker: Hiss Golden Messenger with Erin Rae, Billsville.
Straus: The Suitcase Junket, Next Stage Arts Project.
Turpin: Strength in Numbers at Green Mountain Bluegrass and Roots, Darrell Scott at Cafe Lena, Hiss Golden Messenger at Billsville.
4. Which artist or what genre of music do you think is going to break big in 2020?
Morad: I think alt-country is going to have a big resurgence in 2020.
Hacker: I'm all about wishing that tons of artists will break "medium" in 2020 and be able to establish meaningful and substantial careers. While it's great when it happens — Maggie Rogers would be the 2019 example — I think spreading the love is more valuable to the music ecosystem.
Straus: The Suitcase Junket. He's a fantastically talented songwriter & singer, great and quirky showman. And Yola — but she is already on her way!
Turpin: Americana because it encompasses all genres: country, pop, alt rock, folk, jazz, rap even. 2020 is going to be all about bridging and community. When things seem so divided politically, musicians seem to want to join forces for the greater good and make everyone come together. When you have Rayland Baxter doing an album of Mac Miller's rap songs (one of my favorite albums of 2020) and musicians like Sarah Jarosz covering Billie Eilish and then her next song is a cover of Joni Mitchell, that says to me we are living in a time where artists find inspiration everywhere and never shut their minds to what might move them.
5. How would you describe the live music scene in Southern Vermont? What needs to happen for it to grow and/or stay healthy?
Morad: In our part of Southern Vermont there is a lack of any sort of sizeable venue, and that's just the way it should be because the population just doesn't exist to support a large venue. Bars and small venues seem to do well, but overall people just don't leave there homes anymore and that is certainly hurting the live music scene.
Hacker: The music scene in southern Vermont is a bit trapped by demographics. There's not a lot of disposable income around to spend on entertainment and not a lot of youth, as most of the natives who would make strong music consumers move out of the region. We wouldn't survive if it weren't for our proximity to Western Massachusetts and Southern New Hampshire. Better, more progressive economic reform would help, universal basic income especially. Also if we could attract a new campus-based college or two to replace what we've lost.
Straus: Vibrant in lots of ways but at times feeling too diffuse. It's a great scene for local artists, but a harder market to consistently bring in national artists.
Turpin: Diverse ... That's how I would describe it. Diverse but not necessarily unified. There is no one place for people to tell the public what they are doing and there is a lot going on lately, but it's easy to miss events. If you pay attention and sign up to get updates from a bunch of different sources, then maybe you can see everything that's going on, but it's work — and it shouldn't be. All of Southern Vermont seems to appreciate the arts but there also seems to be a complacency, too, and I think that's because there has been no consistency over the years. Music series come and go and it's sporadic. What the area needs, in my opinion, is cohesion and a unified front to the greater area to say, "Hey world, look at us, we are the place to be for arts and food and natural beauty, come check us out." We should be the consistent place for everyone from within an hour or so drive to come for an evening of dinner, shopping, and entertainment.
6. There's been a lot of change in the music business in the past 10 years, some positive, some negative. What's your bold prediction for the state of music in the next 10 years, at the local level and as a larger business?
Morad: Music will be just fine. When the TV was invented people thought music would be negatively affected. It wasn't. When the internet came along there was a general thought that this would negatively affect music. It didn't. Music is in our DNA and it will always find a way to exist. It's funny because it couldn't be easier to find new music, but thanks to most people being exposed to music via algorithms, the music that finds its way onto the charts is underwhelming. You just have to dig deeper to find the amazing stuff that's out there. Or, listen to WEQX because we are more than happy to do the heavy lifting for you!
Hacker: The future is rather bleak financially, but luckily not much more so than the past. Music will survive because of the artists, their passion that pushes them to dedicate their lives to a pursuit that will almost surely not be lucrative, and fans that are touched by their art enough to turn out and support them.
Straus: More and more emerging local artists and bands, which is great on a hyper-local level. But we are a tiny market which means hard for artists to make a viable living (outside of club gigs). Larger business is going to be more and more geared toward live shows with recordings being a calling card to tide audience over between live shows. Themed events and tribute shows will continue to gain steam as they have dramatically in the last few years. Streaming revenues for artists who can get themselves onto YouTube stand to make some good money from advertising, versus streaming services which pay more nominally for the most part.
Turpin: I think the artists are truly understanding the pitfalls of "big business" and how easily it is to fall into that trap. I think people like Eddie Vedder and others that are taking a stand against Tickemaster and the big companies, including Spotify, are showing others the way and inspiring artists to maintain control of their own business. This started over the last five years or so with house concerts, where artists are paid directly, and look how popular house concerts series have become all over the world. Artists are becoming their own booking agents and their opting for smaller companies to manage them. I believe this will lead to a more authentic experience in every way!
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