Sunday, March 3, 2013

Thoughts on PMN – past, present and future

I thought I'd post this "open letter" to the People's Music Network for Songs of Freedom and Struggle just so PMN members who may want to easily refer to my suggestions on expanding and broadening the organization can do so.  The letter follows!

I had a really good time at the PMN gathering last weekend. I think PMN is a wonderful event in a whole variety of ways – a great social space for sharing songs and hanging out with a wide variety of people, mostly acoustically-oriented musicians representing the whole spectrum from great to not-so-great and lots in between. The workshops also involved all sorts of useful content for those looking to improve their crafts, and for those preferring to do a song swap instead, a variety of them were conveniently running concurrently to all the workshops.

With no qualification needed, I enjoyed the weekend a lot. During the course of the weekend a lot of different people, mostly long-time PMN participants, brought up the subject with me of how to improve PMN gatherings in such a way that they might attract more youth, more accomplished young musicians interested in topical songwriting and such in particular, as well as more people of color.

Although I'm now solidly middle-aged, and no longer particularly care how old anybody is anymore (even if I do still notice these things), I was once a fresh young kid who discovered PMN for the first time. I was profoundly affected by the experience of going to many PMN gatherings over many years, and then, still more or less a youth (under 30) I stopped going for many years. Since then I became a fairly accomplished professional musician with a significant youth following in many different countries, along with a following among those of older generations. I think all of this makes my story and my thoughts on attracting youth to PMN potentially relevant, so I thought I'd share them with you. (Feedback of any kind most welcome!)

When I first got to PMN in the winter of 1990 or thereabouts, I was a budding songwriter. I wasn't very good, but I was very enthusiastic. My friend Chris Chandler had convinced me to come. He and I were both flat broke – Chris a professional street musician back then, and I a barely-employed office worker. I was already a big fan of Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, and Fred Small, so I was appropriately blown away to be spending an entire weekend in the presence of Pete, Fred, as well as Phil's big sister. I don't think I had yet heard the music of any of the other folks there, but I quickly became a huge fan of Charlie King, Pat Humphies and others I discovered there, and have been ever since.

Aside from satisfying my need for advice and affirmation from these iconic figures, I also enjoyed hearing new songs of varying quality from everybody else, being part of the song swaps and the Round Robin, etc. But what I enjoyed the most at those PMN gatherings was hanging out with the other young musicians who were there. Back in my twenties, it was important to me to have other people my age to hang out with. I identified more strongly with people closer to my age, and this is very normal for young people.

Then sometimes I'd show up at a gathering and the little group of 4 or 5 young musicians I was hoping to see weren't there at all, or only one of them showed up. I had basically got the affirmation I needed from the icons I had discovered at PMN after a few gatherings, and after that there just wasn't enough to keep an ambitious, budding young songwriter interested in coming back much, because it's just no fun to be the token youth in a gathering of people mostly old enough to be my parents or grandparents.

Again, I'm 45 now and I don't feel this way anymore at all, but I recount this because I know what I was feeling was totally normal and that other young people who came to PMN back then, as now, feel the same way as I did. I think PMN gatherings do have a lot to offer young musicians, though, and I like to hear from people who think it would be nice if PMN could attract more youth. I think I know how this could potentially happen, so I thought I'd share some ideas in case anybody thinks they're useful ones to pursue. I should say perhaps now that I have no interest in being on the steering committee or any of that, but if those of you running the organization would be interested in pursuing any of these ideas, most of them are ideas I would personally love to be involved with implementing if I had backing to do so.

The overview not to lose sight of here, I think, is the main thing that's necessary to attract more youth is to attract more youth... If there are a critical mass of 20 or 30 people under the age of 30 coming to PMN on a regular basis, they will keep coming, I think. If the number gets too low, the youth may just drop out completely until that changes. So a “jump start” is what's needed as far as I can tell.

I'd say the biggest single way to do jump start youth participation is to address the issue of cost. $140 is way too much for most youth to contemplate spending, especially young people who are struggling to pay their bills by playing music. This element of society – young musicians – are some of the poorest in the USA, along with youth generally, and youth of color in particular. There needs to be a subsidy through a grant or something like that, so that the website can clearly state that the cost for youth is something like $40 for the weekend, rather than $140. The young people don't want to feel like they're coming as beggars when they see there's a sliding scale, or when they see that youth are encouraged but “youth” is not defined. I would suggest that “youth” be clearly defined as 30 or under, and the youth price be something like $40 for the weekend, and that the money necessary to subsidize this be found somehow. (I realize money doesn't grow on trees, but...)

But with or without making that change, I'm certain there are other things that can be done to attract youth. From my experience, though, there's no single magical solution. But just as with organizing a well-attended concert, the best promotion is lots of different kinds of promotion. Each kind might bring in a few more people. Together, it amounts to a big crowd. If I had to make a prediction, I'd predict that each one of the following suggestions could bring in a few more youth to future gatherings, and taken together, the effect could potentially multiply. But I don't like making predictions, because whether a promotional strategy goes viral and really works is very hard to predict. These sorts of things have worked for me, though, to increase my audience, and I think they should all apply to increasing attendance of PMN gatherings, and certainly they will help increase awareness of PMN.


There's a lot of activity on the PMN Facebook pages, and it's being very well-used, which is great. The PMN group has over 1,000 members, but the organization's page that people can “like” only has 246 “likes.” For those who may not know, when someone “likes” your page on Facebook, they then get on the page's “news feed.” They see (or might see) the things people post that way. So it's a very good thing to have lots of people “liking” your page.

One successful way I've found to increase “likes” is to set up my Facebook page ( so that anytime someone “likes” the page, they are offered a free download of my latest CD. “Likes” can be further increased by advertising on Facebook that people who “like” a page will be able to download a free CD. Advertising can be targeted according to geography, so the advertising budget is well-spent on people who live in, for example, the northeastern US, and might be most likely to come to a PMN gathering if they're the sort of person who would want to click on the PMN free CD offer. (They're unlikely to bother “liking” the page or downloading the CD unless they're already into leftwing folk music, or think they might be.)

Twitter and YouTube

On PMN's main website the link to the Twitter account doesn't work, and the link to the YouTube account takes people to a page with two YouTube videos on it. The Twitter account should be set up and linked to the Facebook account, so updates can be sent through both of the most relevant forms of social media on the landscape today. The YouTube page could feature dozens or even hundreds of videos of PMN artists, and could be updated regularly when PMN artists write a new topical song. This would drive lots of traffic to the YouTube channel, including people who would then subscribe to the updates and thus get sucked in to the PMN fold that way (hopefully). To further amplify this effect, every time a new video is uploaded to the YouTube channel, this can be announced on Twitter and Facebook. Each time this is done, there will be more Twitter followers signing up and more people “liking” the Facebook page, from my experience.

PMN Livestream

For those millions of people out there who might like to come to a PMN gathering if they knew PMN existed, if they had the money, and if they lived in the northeastern US, but they lack one of these essential qualities, I think livestreaming parts of PMN gatherings would be tremendous. The effect of doing this wouldn't be immediate, but it would have an impact down the road, I'm pretty sure.

Livestreaming on the web would of course allow people to see parts of what's happening at PMN remotely. Given the drawbacks of watching something on the web as opposed to being there, I think it's extremely unlikely that many people would just stay home and watch it on the web rather than coming in person. Rather, people will watch who would otherwise not be there, but might want to come in the future after seeing stuff on the web. The livestreamed event would then be archived on the livestream channel for some time, and would be there for people to check out in the future as well. Livestreaming is something that can be done essentially for free, it's just a matter of someone taking their iPhone (or whatever they're using for this) to workshops, plenaries, concerts, etc., and filming. This could be done by volunteers, whether it's something that one or two people take on for the whole weekend, or something that's divided among a bunch of people.

PMN Podcast

Another medium to take advantage of is the podcast. What people tend to respond to on the web these days are not static websites, but media that changes and updates regularly, like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. Same with podcasts. Most people will look at a post, a new video, or a new podcast soon after it's put up on the web. After that the numbers will tend to trail off. So the new stuff has to be put out there regularly, in drips. My idea with a PMN podcast is to hype the upcoming gathering each month in the form of a podcast, which could be an hour-long interview with one or more of the musicians who have been booked to perform at the next gathering's Friday night concert, to interview organizers of the gathering, folks who have played at PMN in the past, etc. This would be yet another way of generating buzz, which is something performers as well as organizations all need, very much including PMN.


Among DIY-minded youth these days, the “skillshare” is a popular phenomenon. People come together somewhere and lead workshops on subjects they're familiar with. I think it'd be good if there were more emphasis on the skillshare aspect of PMN, and perhaps to expand that aspect of the gatherings somewhat, perhaps with more panel discussions along with the workshops and song swaps that already happen.

Other Website Updates

Although the social media presence will generally attract more attention than the less dynamic home page, which doesn't get regularly updated the way social media does, it's still important to keep the website up to date, especially for those who might be thinking of actually attending a gathering. The music history section should include something on forms of politically-oriented music that have blossomed since the 1970's, such as punk rock and hip hop. Also the section with links to the websites of members could be dramatically expanded, which could also make the page a bit more of a real resource for people looking for this kind of music. It's currently too limited to attract the kind of attention I suspect it would attract if it were a more expansive list of artists.

Thoughts On Bringing In Different Artists

Over the years PMN has always featured artists that don't fit into the typical acoustic guitar-slinging folk revival tradition, which is a fine thing. However, pretty much every time I recall organizers and others at PMN talking afterwards about how they wished that bringing in different sorts of performers would attract different sorts of audiences. As someone who has participated in lots of multiple-bill events, I would just say this: it's unrealistic to expect fans of a hip-hop artist to want to spend money to hear their favorite hip-hop artist play a 20-minute set that's couched in between a bunch of acoustic folky stuff they don't think they're going to like. Fans of the artist in question will go hear them do a full-length show instead, or they'll go hear them when they're playing with other artists with which they are familiar. Also, the hip-hop artist in question is unlikely to want to promote their appearance in the PMN show, because a) they suspect much of their audience wouldn't like the show overall and b) if they're not getting paid to perform, there is a strong financial incentive for them not to promote the show, especially if they have paying gigs happening in the same area around the same time which they would like to have an audience come to. Remember, we're talking about some of the poorest members of our society here – musicians. These are not people who are always able to ignore their financial needs and promote a show which they're not making money at – even if they might want to do that (if they think their audience would like to hear the other acts on the bill).

Additionally – even if the artists on the bill for a Friday night show are actively promoting the show to their people, here's the thing: most audiences for any show for what we could call “third-tier celebrities” like me, Charlie King, Emma's Revolution, etc., are going to be coming because of the efforts of the local people promoting the shows. Our own email lists by themselves won't do much. Although I may have a hundred fans in every major city in the US, most of them aren't on my email list. By my estimate, my own promotional efforts may have brought 5 people to the Friday night concert who might not have come otherwise.

The idea has been mentioned of trying to interest more well-known artists to participate in PMN in order to try to attract more youth. One thing worth mentioning is that many of the more well-known artists we might think of inviting do not actually have much of a youth following, even though they're famous. You can see this at their shows and on their YouTube stats. But it seems possible that involving a more well-known artist could attract more people, if not more youth. I suspect it would mainly attract more people to the Friday night concert, but not to the rest of the weekend. I don't have enough direct experience with working with rock stars to know this with any certainty, but to the limited extent I've worked with them at different events, this is my suspicion. I would also say that until PMN does have a bigger youth element, it's premature to invite such people to participate, and would be better to wait until there's a bit more momentum in that direction happening first.

OK, I'll stop there, and look forward to hearing from anybody who's interested in talking about or implementing any of these ideas in the future.

Onward people's music!


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