While this book’s focus is on musicians, it’s worth remembering from time to time that it takes more than pickers to keep musical performance alive. Sound engineers, stage hands, ticket takers, managers and publicists have their jobs to do. Or, as my publicist friend Erin Scholze puts it, “these things just don’t happen by themselves.”
I had made plans to stop and see Erin on the way home from the Mt. Airy music festival in northern North Carolina. I met Erin several weeks before at Merlefest, where one of her clients – Tara Nevins, who fronts Donna the Buffalo and also has a solo career – was talking up her new CD, “Wood and Stone,” in the press tent. Erin is one of those people who is instantly likable, with a warm bearing, terrific smile and whose eyes, as I’ve pointed out in an earlier post, are full of sunshine. What also stands out is her love of her clients’ music. I have dealt with many publicists during my years as a critic and many times they seem to simply be going through the motions. Erin, by contrast, is genuinely enthusiastic about her work. Over the course of the Merlefest weekend, whether at the press tent or during a performance, she would slip by to fill me in on some aspect of the song being played, perhaps how it fit into the band’s history, or to invite me to another performance. I would soon find that Erin’s enthusiasm is also a reflection of her belief that music is not simply entertainment but a source of social cohesion and an antidote, if only temporary, to life’s endless trials and tribulations.
So, I was looking forward to seeing Erin, whose eyes were indeed sunny even though she was a bit low on sleep. She greeted me warmly near the Smilefest stage, not much more than a half-hour from Mt. Airy, and explained that the moonshine fairy had made her rounds the night before. It seems I had woken Erin with my10 a.m. text though she cheerfully led me to a table backstage, saying that two of her clients — The Big Daddy Bluegrass Band and flatpicking marvel Larry Keel — would be playing soon. We sat down to talk about how she became a publicist, what her job entails, and about her passion for music and her musical community.
Erin, who was born in 1979, grew up in a fairly large, close knit family in Erie, Pennsylvania and later moved to Boardman, Ohio. “In high school I was known for my parties,” she told me, adding that they were open to anyone who wanted to come. “I was friends with too many people who weren’t popular to be popular.” She also warmly recalled annual family reunions, where she and her kin would sing “American Pie” and other favorites. She later studied cultural anthropology at Ohio State University, did street team work for musician friends, and began attending music festivals, a passion that took her zigzagging across the country. She moved to Asheville, N.C in 2001 and taught home school classes, took jobs in restaurants and an art gallery, and eventually started working with local festivals, including the Lexington Avenue Arts and Fun Festival. She also came to understand that she was basically “unemployable” – a fact driven home when her last day job employer suggested she’d be better off working for herself.
Fortunately, conditions were auspicious for a leap into self-employment. Her circle of musical friends was not only expanding but included acts that needed help with publicity. One of her first touring clients was guitarist Larry Keel and his band, Natural Bridge. “I had been a fan of Larry’s for 11 years,” she said, and over time they had become friends to the point where Keel and his wife would sometimes practice at the house Erin shared with a bandmate. Erin had been spending a great deal of time researching media contacts so was a perfect match when the Keels decided, a bit over three years ago, that they needed a new publicist. A year and half later, another group of friends – Donna the Buffalo– also hired Erin. “They had a friend who would handle calls,” Erin explained, “but no real publicity person focusing on the band. Some band pictures featured members who had not been in the act for years. They asked if I’d be interested in working with them and I said I’ll give it a shot.” Her company, Dreamspider Publicity (website (www.dreamspider.net) represents “a diverse clientele that values uniqueness with a funky edge: Donna the Buffalo, Larry Keel & Natural Bridge, Tara Nevins, Dehlia Low, Galen Kipar Project, Jonathan Scales Fourchestra, stephaniesid and more…” Diverse as they might be, they all share one characteristic: they areErin’s friends. “I work with them because I like them,” she said.
Erin works out of her house in West Asheville, usually between seven and eleven hours a day, most of it on her computer. Besides setting up interviews with journalists, she also handles Twitter, blogging and Facebook duties for some clients. As a longtime drone in the conventional journalism world, I was interested in how important social media is to her business.
Gone are the days, Erin said, when publicists simply targeted newspapers, radio and television stations, though these traditional media sources are on her radar screen. “Traditional media and social media feed into each other,” she told me. “I’m always reaching out for preview articles and try to get photographers and videographers to come to shows. I post videos and articles that mention my clients and send them out to people on my email and Twitter lists, and over the band’s network. I also direct link to papers and publications that mention my clients, and I often interact with writers through their publication’s Facebook fan page. I keep up with their Twitter feed to see who they’re writing about. If they’re writing about, say, The Steep Canyon Rangers, I suggest they look at clients who play the same type of music.”
All of which, she says, “builds relationships. I have gotten to know people all over the country via social media. Sometimes it takes a while to actually meet them. There is one guy who is awesome who I’ve been working with for three years that I just met at Floydfest,” a few weeks ago. Erin says she has no idea how many postings she might do in any given week, but that social media is vital in “connecting fans with the bands and the media.” She says she often receives videos fans have taken at performances. “If it is decent I’ll post it,” she says. “Fans really like it and even if it’s not perfect it takes you back to the moment and keeps the energy going. “
I asked her how she measures success. One measure is growth in the number of new fans at shows, Twitter followers, Facebook fans, and when booking agents are able to place bands in new venues. “It’s really hard to tell sometimes,” she added. “You might get a radio interview and pretty good media buzz for a show and nobody shows up. Or, you can have no buzz and a big crowd appears. What I do is constantly put my client’s names out there, which builds communities.”
While Erin is passionate about her clients, she is equally passionate about music’s ability to draw people together. “I think of festivals as big family reunions,” she said. “I was very fortunate to have a good family, but I know many people who weren’t so fortunate, and some of my friends have been abused and are from broken homes.” Festivals, she said, allow people to celebrate what they have in common – especially musical interests – and set their troubles aside, at least for a few days.
Community is a word Erin uses quite often, and it’s not simple rhetorical fizz, as I discovered after I suggested, in an earlier section of this book, that bluegrass musicians tend to be more individualistic and competitive, at least in their music, than old time players, whose music is more communal. This was not meant as criticism but merely to point out that bluegrass allows musicians to show of their chops during instrumental breaks while old time is more about the entire ensemble supporting the melody. Erin responded with a long, passionate, but always friendly response, an edited portion of which follows:
“I do have to disagree with the statement about bluegrass being individualistic and competitive… I feel the need to add my experience of working with and living with bluegrassers through the years. I find them to be completely community oriented and wanted to give the other side. I told you the story of how I really connected with festivals in general because they reminded me of my family reunions, but with more (and better) music. After going to Hookahvilles up in Ohio during college I ended up at Suwannee Springfest down in Live Oak, Florida. It is a very bluegrass oriented festival with members of Old and in the Way (Peter Rowan, David Grisman, Vassar Clements), Doc Watson, and even more progressive stuff like Larry Keel and Bela Fleck. The community spirit at the festival amazed me and I have continued to go back to that event and others like it for over ten years.”
Erin also took issue with a quote (from a vendor at the Clifftop old time festival) that bluegrass players tend to be GOP supporters while old timers tend to be Democrats. “Most bluegrassers I know (who tend to be a newer breed of bluegrassers) are Democrats, liberal, accepting of pot (even if they do not smoke it), open to all types of people and love to get up on stage with each other and try new things. Even very traditional guys who sing songs about the Bible, like Del McCoury, are very modernistic, teaming up with the Swamp Gospel sacred steel band from Florida and The Lee Boys to put out truly unique sounds that fans are completely wild about. Del even started his own successful festival, DelFest, up in Cumberland, Maryland. You often see the players teaming up with one another, sittin’ in with one another. Look at the Steep Canyon Rangers — they just feel the music, play it really well, respect each other and give each other room to shine. When Steve Martin plays his banjo with them they still have their other banjo player. He is not pushed to the sidelines and neither is the band. They are top notch, well respected, and still down to earth people. Bluegrass music and music and events that are rooted in bluegrass have been a HUGE inspiration in my life and my sense of community. Maybe the tension comes from non-musicians not knowing the difference between the two genres so they have to bash each other . Kinda like when you accidentally call a West Virginian a Virginian. They get a little edgy and tense. Sometimes I want to ask, ‘Why can’t we all just get along?’ It is so much more fun that way…”
There’s some passion for you – with a smile. One more note about Erin. She’s something of a rainbow farmer: “I have a prism – a sun catcher – in my office window and when the sun hits it right around 6 p.m. it creates hundreds of rainbows.“ If you look closely at the picture at the top of the column, you’ll see that the girl with the sun in her eyes has a rainbow on her forehead.
I said goodbye to Erin and headed home. My next festival would be Clifftop, perhaps the best-known old time festival in the world. Mark Olitsky, the phenomenal clawhammer banjo player, and Jason Sypher, one of the best acoustic bassists I’ve ever heard, said they’d be there, as would my friends from the Cary Street Jam in Richmond, Virginia. Plus a whole lot of other people.