Before he became executive director of the Americana Music Association last March, Jed Hilly held many positions in the music industry including a stint working with Sony Records in New York City. But it was his last position working in a management and publicity position with Orbison Records that he often references when talking about challenges he now faces heading the AMA.
“During the time that I was working with Roy Orbison’s music we were able to triple his Soundscan sales into the six-digit mark at a time when overall CD sales have been declining,” Hilly said. “The lessons that I learned there that work equally well with Americana music is that you have to educate and you have to promote the artistry of musicians. Roy Orbison wrote 20 of the greatest songs in American music history, he was up on the charts and down and almost out of sight for white, but some 18 years after his death, we were able to sell large quantities of his music by emphasizing his greatness as a performer and the importance of his legacy.”
“One of the things that really attracted me to this position is the passion for music and the artistry that so many Americana performers have,” Hilly continued. “You don’t have people who are changing their hairstyles or look solely to sell records. I think that the biggest mistake that the industry has made over the last 10 years in particular has been their neglect of artist development and their emphasis on making short-term hits. That’s a strategy that’s not working from a sales perspective, despite the fact that I don’t think anyone would argue that more people are playing music today and that there’s more great music available today than ever. So what we want to do in terms of Americana artists is to educate the community about their greatness, get their music out there, and help them in everywhere possible to continue their pursuit of excellence.”
This is a key month for the AMA, a trade association that represents 1,200 professionals across the board. There are artists, attorneys, booking agents, business/financial executives, concert/festival promoters, club owners, equipment and instrument manufacturers, and numerous others among the membership.
The 8th Annual Americana Music Festival and Conference is scheduled for Oct. 31-Nov. 3 at the Nashville Convention Center as well as many other local music venues. Jim Lauderdale will once again serve as host for the Americana Music Awards show, featuring a band led by Buddy Miller, at the Ryman Auditorium Nov. 1.
“We’re a small nonprofit organization working in a very profit-centered universe,” Hilly said in response to questions about the AMA’s operating procedures, methods and emphasis. “One of the prime things that I really want to do is stress the importance of regional communities, because the scenes in Austin or Knoxville or New England are very important to the health and expansion of the music. We’re constantly promoting and talking about the legacies of our performers and the diversity and evolution of the genre. Americana, like jazz and rock ‘n’ roll is broad and incorporates many things. There are classic country performers like Willie Nelson and Charlie Louvin who certainly influence plenty of artists and whose music is very welcome under the Americana banner. I feel that our audience enjoys roots sounds in many forms and that this diversity is a major selling point for our music.”
Hilly also dismisses the notion that the demographic for Americana music is among older listeners.
“We certainly do have plenty of listeners who would fall into the 35-55 demographic, but there’s also plenty of interest in Americana music on college campuses,” Hilly said. “We have artists like the Avett Brothers and Old Crow Medicine Show who are selling out houses and clubs all over the country and definitely reaching younger listeners. Then we have people like Lyle Lovett and Emmylou Harris who appeal across any lines. Americana runs from Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale to Old Crow Medicine Show and Mavis Staples and Solomon Burke. We have great fans in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s, so we don’t think that our demographic is skewing too much in any one direction.”
Another area Hilly says the AMA has been closely watching and emphasizing is the growth of the music on radio.
“We now an Americana chart with 75 radio stations nationwide on terrestrial radio,” Hilly said. “But there’s plenty of Americana being played on pop stations. The support of satellite radio has been fantastic. Jack Clement plays plenty of Americana on his show and Marty Stuart has a great new show that will air a lot of Americana as well. We’re also one of three main genres that get lots of airplay on National Public Radio. Usually it’s classical, jazz and then Americana artists. We’re also very optimistic that as HD radio grows, more Americana performers will be featured there as well.”
With this year’s awards show slated to air live on XM, the BBC and Armed Forces (Voice of America) radio and carried via tape later on Sirius, plus more stars being added to the performing roster almost daily, Hilly is pleased with how things are proceeding for this year’s ceremonies.
The conference itself will have some new panels and seminars this year, among them a two-day series of environmental events that will include some practical solutions that can be employed throughout the industry and extensive artist interviews by Lovett and Harris that will be co-presented by the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum respectively.
“The love of the music remains the driving force for all of us involved in the AMA,” Hilly said. “That’s why we’ve banded together and that’s the motivating force behind all the decisions that we make and the reason why our artists work so hard to maintain the integrity of their craft and legacy.”