Bluegrass Music

The New Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine: Some Thoughts

I received my November 2020 issue of Bluegrass Unlimited yesterday. Now that it is being published by the Bluegrass Hall of Fame & Museum, one could expect a few changes in the appearance. Well, a lot has changed visually, and here’s my take on it.

A first glance at the cover tells you that there is a new sheriff in town. Gone is the laid-back look of a sit-down magazine. Instead, we are treated to a more in-your-face look. The use of multiple fonts can give your eyes a workout, to say the least. The design leans more toward a fashion magazine. Instead of simply stating who or what will be covered within the pages, the cover shouts what is ahead with subtitles.

Opening the magazine, one can see that larger advertisements for instruments and accessories seem to remain the same, although there seems to be a lot less of them than before. This could be due to the Coronavirus (lack of festivals scheduled for 2021) or an editorial choice. There are also a lot less half- and quarter-page ads. The departments in the early pages (General Store, Notes & Queries) are still there, although it is a bit confusing to read with all of the new fonts on text and titles. Also, before N&Q, there is a new column called The Tradition that seems to be an op-ed style essay on a specific time/date in bluegrass (in this case, it is about one of Bill Monroe’s quotes and how it originated).

Featured articles are now each part of a section. Before, there seemed to be a flow of the cover story, a few other artists’ stories, an article on a popular festival, then concluding with a bluegrass gospel artist profile. Now, there are sections on The Artists, The Sound (apparently covering instrument makers and dealers) and The Venue (covering festivals and concert halls). As for the artists, there are the usual A-list articles, but there is also an article on Lindsay Lou, a performer more in line with the jamgrass and progressive grass culture – something not usually found in the previous incarnation of the magazine. Personally, I like seeing a more diverse listing of artists. I was finding the previous coverage a bit tedious, with some artists being interviewed only a year or two after an earlier article. However, I do see the possibility of some traditionalists complaining.

The rear of the magazine contains the stalwart inclusions of reviews and the national survey. As for the reviews, there seems to be a lot less included, with only the more outstanding albums appearing. The old BU used to have a good handful of mini-reviews that were helpful to interested parties. Also there are no book reviews, only announcements.

This issue includes the yearly Talent Directory. In previous years, the directory was about a dozen pages of small print listings of artists that sent in their particulars. This year, the print is bigger, there are a lot less artists listed (deadline concerns?), and a few of the more popular bands have photos along with their listing. My listing is in there (actually, it is in there twice due to a printer error), but I do not remember an offering of publishing a photo for payment (the listings are free).

There is one big amateur slip-up here. An article in the Tradition section covering a tribute to guitar luthier Preston Thompson was incomplete, with no “continued on page XX” or conclusion. Given that it’s the premier issue from the HOF, one can understand, but the managing editor Dan Miller has handled print magazines in the past and should have caught this before sending it to printer. He does have an editorial introduction at the front of the magazine outlining the intent of the publication. These op-eds rarely appeared in the previous incarnation of BU, so it will be interesting if this continues.

Overall, one could see that the magazine is looking to get more readers, especially ones outside of the normal bluegrass scene. One thing is for sure, it does not look anything like the old style. In fact, one could easily mistake it for American Songwriter Magazine, as the look is nearly identical. The editorial slant also seems to lean more toward its Americana counterparts than the magazine ever did previously.

Only time will tell how BU will weather the future. As it is the only true print magazine covering bluegrass exclusively, readership should not change much. They may gain some hipster types but lose some hard-nosed traditionalists. If they are trying to be more like AS, I do hope that they don’t follow its editorial path and become a lot more politically liberal based. That is the reason I stopped subscribing to AS. I wanted to read about music in a music magazine, not politics.

Chew on it and comment.

Bluegrass Music

Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine Changes Hands

Earlier this month, it was announced that the Bluegrass Hall of Fame would be taking over publishing duties of Bluegrass Unlimited starting with the November 2020 issue. Ever since the passing of long-time publisher of Pete Kuykendall back in 2017, his wife Kitsy has held the reins and is eager to see this transfer come to fruition. This looks to be a good fit, as the HOF has the resources to provide historical input as well as knowledge of the audience that would read the magazine.

I know for a fact that running a business like a magazine is treacherous. I have written for a number of magazines over the years, and many of them no longer exist. Knowing the readership is probably the most important factor for keeping a magazine alive. I was a regular contributor to a magazine called Bluegrass Now years ago. It was probably the closest competition to BU. It was bi-monthly, but had a much more glossy appearance to it than BU. Unfortunately, the print costs forced BN to go online only in 2008, which led to the publication’s complete demise a short time later.

BU has a unique position in the magazine world. Its subject coverage (bluegrass music) is a niche/boutique audience. It can’t compete with other music magazines like Rolling Stone, but it doesn’t need to. It is a specialized reference for bluegrass music to other parties. It puts out special issues each year dedicated to musical instrument manufacturers, a festival guide, and an artist talent directory. Each regular issue has about five articles on either performers or venues/events, a Q&A section assisting reader inquiries, and a short “in the news” section. They also occasionally publish a “letters to the editor” section when space allows. There are a lot of advertisements, especially from festivals. Of course, with those events being cancelled during the Coronavirus, page count with BU has been down most of this year. In short, it is a comfortable read for the audience it is intended to meet.

My only real complaint about BU is the coverage of artists over the years. It seems that when you get the latest copy, the cover story is about a performer that they just did a story on within the past two years. The editorial end always feels like it is in its own comfort zone and doesn’t want to step out of it unless it is absolutely necessary. As BU is the primary resource on bluegrass music to the masses, it has so much opportunity to knock down walls and introduce its audience to new and innovative bluegrass talent. Putting a new voice in bluegrass on the cover would show that the editors and publisher have their ear to the ground and want to not only see the format continue, but also to grow even more.

At this point, it looks as though BU is being put into good hands. I hope that the new editorial staff considers the potential power that they have with the magazine and becomes more innovative than ever before. With the decline in paper publications due to access online, it will be an even greater challenge. Let’s hope they are up to the task.

Chew on it and comment.