Monday, November 16, 2015

A Brief Introduction to Bluegrass Music

Commonly thought to be one of the most “American” of musical styles, bluegrass – like most other things created and perfected in our great country – actually has international roots. Back in the 1600s, when Irish, Scottish and English immigrants settled in what is now the United States, they brought with them the roots of bluegrass – but, of course, much has changed since then.

Long before it became what it is today, bluegrass was the music written and sung by early Jamestown settlers as they moved out to places like Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, and the Carolinas. These songs reflected life on the farm or in the Appalachians, and were aptly referred to as “mountain music” or country music.” And while the first of these songs most likely sounded similar to English and Scottish ballads or dance music, they evolved over time to incorporate elements of African-American jazz and other regional influences.

While bluegrass music varies, you will see some permeating themes. For one, the genre relies heavily on the fiddle. Also, typically, each instrument or group of instruments takes a turn at some point during the song to improvise around the melody while the other instruments play accompaniment. This is especially prevalent in tunes called “breakdowns,” characterized by rapid tempos and complex chord changes, and the practice is only one thing that the genre adopted from jazz. It is also something that first set bluegrass apart from old-time music, in which all of the instruments play the melody together from start to finish or one instrument carries the lead throughout.

The practice of taking turns to improvise in a song instills in bluegrass a sense of playfulness and informality – and to this day, bluegrass is the unofficial music of backyard cookouts, block parties and summertime celebrations in large parts of the country.

While it can easily all sound the same to the uninitiated, bluegrass actually contains three major subgenres: There is traditional bluegrass, which features a lot of folk songs, simple chord progressions and only acoustic instruments; progressive bluegrass, which may incorporate electric instruments and elements of other genres, especially rock and roll; and bluegrass gospel, which uses a lot of Christian lyrics and soulful, multi-part harmonies. More recently, the subgenre of neo-traditional bluegrass has also been on the rise; one main differentiator here is that neo-traditional bands tend to have more than one lead singer.

But how to distinguish bluegrass as a whole from country music? To be sure, there are similarities. However, unlike mainstream country, bluegrass is traditional played only on acoustic instruments – including the fiddle, the five-string banjo, the guitar, the mandolin, the upright bass, and the dobro. Each of these instruments is also played in a distinct way; for example, the guitar is played in the style of flatpicking, and fiddlers frequently play in thirds and fifths. Additionally, bluegrass bassists almost always play pizzicato and sometimes “slap-style” to accentuate the beat. While some progressive bluegrass bands incorporate instruments like the accordion or the drums, traditionalists believe that the “correct” bluegrass instrumentation is that used by Bill Monroe’s band: manolin, fiddle, guitar, banjo, bass. That’s it.

Another way to tell that a song is, in fact, bluegrass instead of another style of country music is to examine the vocal harmony. It will likely feature two, three or four parts, and probably dissonant or modal sound in the highest voice. This creates the “high, lonesome sound” that Bill Monroe once described as a characteristic of his beloved genre.

Common themes in bluegrass revolve around everyday life, with narratives oftentimes sounding like the Appalachian answer to the blues. Songs describe the hard work of mountaintop coal mining and railroading, the perils and pitfalls of living with little cash, and inter-personal relationships. And the name? Well, that comes from the blue-hued poa grass famously found in and around Kentucky – or The Bluegrass State.

If you’re interested to learn more about bluegrass and its subgenres, visit the website for the International Bluegrass Music Association – and, of course, keep checking back with us here at HillTop Records as we continue to bring you news and updates from the American music scene.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Feeling Thankful for This November’s Music Festivals

You might think that music festivals can only be held in seasonless states this time of year, but that’s just not the case! No matter where in the country you are, you’re bound to be just a short flight (or drive, even) from one of these fantastic music festivals, and we can all be thankful for that.

Riverhawk Music Festival (11/5/2015 – 11/8/2015) in Brooksville, Florida
A family-friendly event with three stages set around campfires, Riverhawk is known for its celebratory, laidback vibe – and, of course, plenty of live music. This year the lineup features the Grand Stambovians, Chubby Carrier & the Bayou Swamp Band, Brothers Comotose, Mark Johnson & Emory Lestor, and other must-see acts from 6 p.m. Thursday ‘til sundown on Sunday.

Frank Brown International Songwriters Festival (11/5/2015 – 11/15/2015) in Perdido Key, Florida
Here at HillTop Records, we’re definitely big fans of songwriter festivals – and this one’s sure to be a great one filled with talent and fun. Grammy Award-winning songwriters will share the spotlight with up-and-comers to perform original songs on multiple stages along the coast of Florida and Alabama. If you’re looking for a new and unique festival experience, this is it.

Champaign-Urbana Folk and Roots Festival (11/5/2015 – 11/7/2015) in Urbana, Illinois
Showcasing a fabulous combination of live musical performances, street dances, jam sessions and workshops, this local music festival is sure to draw a crowd. The all-volunteer-run, grassroots festival is known for bringing together national, regional and local artists across genres like Cajun, bluegrass and blues. There will also be art exhibits, instrument-making lessons, family activities and storytelling to enjoy.

Ukefest Virginia (11/6/2015 – 11/7/2015) in Glen Allen, Virginia
Virginia might not be the first place you think of when you think of the ukelele, and this festival is ready to disprove any misconceptions you might have. Head to the Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen to enjoy live concerts by Ali Thidodeau, Thomas Wakefield & Gipsy Roots, The Aloha Boys, and Lil Rev. The festival will also offer vendor and artisan booths, food and beverages for sale, and other highlights that celebrate the ukelele.

Fall Folk Music Weekend (11/6/2015 – 11/8/2015) in Kerhonkson, New York
Brought to you by the Folk Music Society of New York, this Folk Music Weekend is one of three held annually to honor and celebrate local traditions. It kicks off with a welcome dinner on Friday night, and the music doesn’t stop until late Sunday afternoon. Full of music, camaraderie and general relaxation, this event is a great way to kick back with family and friends on a lovely fall day.

Moab Folk Festival (11/6/2015 – 11/8/2015) in Moab, Utah
Set against a stunning backdrop of high Utah dessert, this festival’s a stone’s throw from spectacular national parks – and that’s just one reason to schedule it into your November. The concert lineup features Bruce Cockburn, Dar Williams, John Fullbright, Jonatha Brooke, and so many other acclaimed folk artists worth seeing.

Oceanside Music Festival (11/8/2015) in Oceanside, California
This year – the festival’s 14th – the theme is Colors of Music, and attendees will enjoy an array of genres and styles. Live performances by artists from around Southern California including the Navy Band Southwest, The Mellowtones, acclaimed jazz and pop harpist Mariea Antoinette and others are on the agenda.

Mesa Music Festival (11/12/2015 – 11/15/2015) in Mesa, Arizona
The sunny town of Mesa, Arizona’s getting a new music festival this year – and people could not be more excited! The (hopefully annual) event is set to offer an evening of fascinating industry panels (and a special surprise guest performance) as well as two full days of live music by the likes of Authority Zero, End of an Era, Tridon, VerseCity, Billy Moon Project, Eric James and Apostrophe on multiple stages throughout downtown Mesa.

Southern Ohio Indoor Fall Music Festival (11/13/2015 – 11/14/2015) in Wilmington, Ohio
What do you do when you want to hold a large music festival but you’re not sure that the weather’s willing to accommodate? Why, you bring the fun indoors! Held in the comfortable and welcoming Roberts Centre, this family-friendly event is smoke- and alcohol-free. Attendees may enjoy live bluegrass, old-time, and gospel as well as fun and educational activities for all ages.

The Woodlands Jazz Festival (11/14/2015) in The Woodlands, Texas
This year’s celebration of jazz will feature local and national acts performing live on two stages, as well as great food and drink vendors. The lineup includes Kyle Turner, the Bayou City Brass Band, the Mississippi Rail Company, Kendrick Scott, the Copa Kings – and closes with a much-anticipated performance by the Louis Armstrong Society Jazz Band. Visit the official website to learn more about the artists and purchase tickets online.

Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festival Kauai Style (11/15/2015) in Lihue, Hawaii
The Kauai edition of this annual multi-island music festival welcomes guests from around the state and beyond to celebrate a beloved pastime and integral part of local culture: the unique musical stylings of the slack key guitar. The event is free and open to the general public but there will be extras (think artist CDs, food and refreshments, souvenirs) for sale as well.

Harvest Jam (11/20/2015 – 11/22/2015) in Minneapolis, Minnesota
An acoustic musical experience held in the Minneapolis Marriott West Hotel, this event expects to welcome a large crowd. The lineup includes Grand Ballroom performances by Flatt Lonesome, Blue Yodel #9, The Good Intentions, Pushing Chain and other acts – and you won’t want to miss the Race For A Place Band Contest during the day on Saturday.

For more information on upcoming music festivals near you, check out the listings available at – and be sure to keep checking back with us at HillTop Records as we bring you the latest news and updates from the American music industry.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Creative Marketing Strategies for Modern Songwriters

From book publishing to woodworking to illustration, every creative industry has been drastically changed (if not for the better, then at least for good) by the digital age – and the phrase “new media” is no longer relevant. Technology is here to stay, and we songwriters are remiss if we do not try to leverage it to our advantage as best we can. And while traditional roles like agent and record label are still very much at play, one thing that technology has allowed us to do is to be more entrepreneurial when it comes to creating, marketing and selling our music. But how?

Here are several new marketing methods that the digital age has placed at our fingertips. They’re already being used to various degrees by many songwriters and artists, to different levels of success. And while they may not replace more traditional avenues, they can have a surprisingly impactful effect on where, how and how often new fans discover your music.

Try a podcast.

It’s not a secret that every single one of us is far too busy these days, with few minutes to spare for leisure activities like reading a book or listening to music while not doing other tasks. Enter the rise of streaming services like Pandora and Spotify, which allow us to discover new artists and songs with minimal effort – and the podcast, which many use as a primary form of entertainment while driving, running, or doing chores around the house. Artists and companies alike are beginning to leverage podcasts for marketing purposes, as they’ve become a great way to introduce yourself to a new (and quickly growing) audience. If you’re wary of starting your own, consider instead reaching out to a few that you know and like and asking them whether they might be interested in doing an interview, a profile, or some sort of collaboration. It never hurts to ask.

Give it away.

Remember the scandal that occurred when everyone received that U2 album for free in their iTunes account and couldn’t get rid of it? Well, that was a bad example – but the upside (for Bono, at least) is that everyone in America is now familiar with that album. And while that may have been a unique circumstance, it is far from the only one wherein musicians gave their songs away for free. It may seem counterintuitive to give away something that is supposed to be making you money, but when you’re first starting out – or even when you’re not, but are wanting to increase awareness of your work – giving stuff away for free is a fantastic way to get on the collective radar. And with the dawn of “click here to download for free!”, you no longer need to bother with creating CD singles and handing them out at events and on street corners. It’s easier now than ever before to give away your music, and leverage that for marketing purposes (pro tip: consider requiring an email address in exchange for the free download, in order to compile a list of contacts that you may then keep abreast of your professional progress.)

Build an army.

It’s not as ominous as it sounds! These days, one of the most powerful marketing strategies out there is found within the world of bloggers and social media influencers (i.e. people who have access to a large number of people, whether because they are famous for some reason or simply because they have managed to amass a large number of followers on a particular social media platform.) This is the new word-of-mouth marketing; studies have shown that we trust those we follow on the internet as though they were friends in real life. If someone you happen to follow on Instagram (because, say, you like their sense of style or taste in food) posts about a new album that they love, you’re likely to check that album out for yourself. The assumption here is that since you have something else in common with that person (i.e. their interest in local street art, which is what made you click “follow” in the first place), you’re likely to like the same music as well.

To leverage this network for yourself, you’ll want to seek out bloggers and influencers who seem like they would be interested in your music and send some to them, in the hopes that they will then recommend it to their friends and fans. Many of the more popular influencers charge for this, but many still will do it in exchange for a free album. And just like that, your new song has been personally recommended by word-of-mouth (the most powerful form of marketing there is) to 1.2 million new potential listeners – by just one of your friendly army of brand ambassadors.

Produce a music video.

Music videos are a great way to get your music not only heard but seen as well.  Ever since the Beatles produced one over 50 years ago, music video has been a recognized tool in promoting a song. People find it easier to remember a song when it is associated with images. If you don't have the equipment, time and talent necessary to produce a professional music video, then consider hiring a pro. Visit our website to see our most recent music videos. 

Like what you read here? Be sure to keep checking back with us at HillTop Records as we bring you the latest news and updates from the American music industry.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Boo! Here are the Best Music Festivals this October

Summer may be over, but the outdoor fun doesn’t need to end. In fact, as fall’s cooler temps come creeping in, you may even find it more pleasant to be outside in the weeks leading up to Halloween. Here are some fantastic ways to celebrate this time of year:

Pensacola Beach Songwriters’ Festival (10/1/2015 – 10/4/2015) in Pensacola Beach, Florida
With 15 stages overlooking the beautiful white sands of coastal Florida, this festival is unlike any other – and not just because of its venue. This is a place where attendees may hear the songs that touch their hearts, performed live not by celebrity artists but by the people who wrote them. It’s a unique event specially designed for music lovers, and one that songwriters from around the country should want to attend.

Musicfest El Dorado (10/2/2015 – 10/3/2015) in El Dorado, Arkansas
Bringing more than thirty acts to downtown El Dorado, this two-day festival is sure to be fun and filled with music. Along with live performances by the likes of 3 Doors Down and Dwight Yoakam, there will be food, drinks, family entertainment, arts and crafts, a special area for children and other activities at what is now being billed as the largest music festival in South Arkansas.

Sweet Auburn Music Fest (10/3/2015 – 10/4/2015) in Atlanta Georgia
A multi-genre music festival featuring R&B, Hip-Hop & Gospel on the same stage, this annual event is always sure to draw a crowd. And while it’s first and foremost known for its music, Sweet Auburn is also beloved for its variety of food and drink items for sale as well as a friendly, welcoming vibe – so gather your friends and head to the Historic Auburn Avenue District of Atlanta.

Austin City Limits (10/2/2015 – 10/11/2015) in Austin, Texas
A gigantic annual event that now spans two full weekends, Austin City Limits is a can’t-miss festival. This year’s line-up, like the ones that came before, is packed with celebrity headliners from around the globe. Florence + the Machine, Hozier, Of Monsters and Men, Billy Idol, Foo Fighters, Alabama Shakes, José González, Run The Jewels and so many more are scheduled to perform at Zilker Park.

Joshua Tree Music Festival (10/8/2015 – 10/11/2015) in Joshua Tree, California
Now in its 10th year, this family-friendly celebration of global music keeps getting bigger and better. Set within the Joshua Tree Lake Campground amid a magical desert landscape, the festival welcomes thousands of attendees as well as headliners like Xavier Rudd & The United Nations, Ben Miller Ban, Bang Data, Calliope Musicals, and more.

Catalina Island Jazztrax Festival (10/8/2015 – 10/18/2015) in Avalon, California
Looking to get a little closer to the coast? Well, how about an island? Catalina Island welcomes guests to its annual jazz festival for the 29th year in a row, and with a pretty spectacular line-up no less. Enjoy the musical stylings of Mindi Abair, Josh Vietti, David “D-Sides” Sides and others as you soak up the relaxed yet elegant island atmosphere of Catalina.

Nebraska Country Music Festival (10/23/2015 – 10/24/2015) in Hastings, Nebraska
Two full days of live country and gospel music as well as plenty of dancing are what you can expect of this annual gathering, held in the main building at the Adams County Fairgrounds. Along with a lively line-up, attendees may enjoy a special banquet and a ceremony honoring this year’s inductees to the local Hall of Fame.

Sea Witch Halloween & Fiddler’s Festival (10/23/2015 – 10/25/2015) in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware
It wouldn’t be October without a Halloween-themed event, right? Well, this 26th annual music festival definitely fits the bill. Locals and visitors alike flock (in costume!) to an incredible parade of over 3,000 people as well as hayrides, old-fashioned beach games, horse entertainment, the Foot Stompin’ Fiddlers Festival, and the raucous Hunt for the Sea Witch. Definitely bring the kids to this one.

For more information on music festivals near you, be sure to check out – and keep checking back with us here at HillTop Records as we continue to bring you the latest news and updates from the American music industry.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

6 Musical Instruments You’ve Never Heard Of

Looking to add some unique flair to your band? Try one of these unusual musical instruments. At the very least, you’re sure to get some attention!

Hang Drum
A recent addition to the percussion family, the Hang Drum was developed by Swiss couple Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer in the year 2000. And unlike others on this list, it has been mass-produced and popularized to an extent. As an idiophone, the Hang makes its sounds via vibrating sound waves that travel through the entire body of the instrument – a body that resembles a UFO. The instrument features large dents on the top that produce low notes; smaller dents, meanwhile, create high notes (not unlike the short vs. long strings on a piano.) Its sound is melodic, gentle and mesmerizing. Hear it here.

Majestic Bellowphone
This aptly named instrument is right out of a Willy Wonka or Dr. Seuss story. In fact, its owner and creator, Leonard Solomon, has been dubbed “the Dr. Seuss of Music.” It was made by welding a variety of everyday items and toys – think bike horns train whistles, toasters, coat hangers, random bits of brass – into one extraordinary instrument. And as if all of that were not impressive enough, Solomon has been known to juggle while playing his Majestic Bellowphone! Watch him play a classic Hungarian dance number on the instrument here.

Pikasso Guitar
Obviously named for Pablo Picasso, this singular instrument does look like a cubist painting – with multiple sets of strings (the guitar has 42 strings total) in different places, and four twisting necks. The first Pikasso Guitar took about two years to build and is definitely not meant for the novice musician. Luthier Linda Manzer created it in response to a challenge posed to her by jazz guitarist Pat Metheny – a challenge to design a guitar with as many strings as possible. But what does it sound like? Head here to find out!

Laser Harp
Many see the harp as an old-fashioned, perhaps even outdated, instrument. Well, this new iteration turns that preconception right on its head. Gone are the carefully carved golden curves and delicate strings, and in their place are state-of-the-art lasers. A single laser, actually, that has been split into several parallel beams connected to a synthesizer. Since it was first made popular by techno artist Jean Michel Jarre in the 1980’s, the laser harp has made periodic appearance in modern music. Its sound is interesting but what really makes this instrument stand out is the way it looks. Watch and listen here.

Array Mbira
Ancient Africans developed a family of instruments (called Mbira) that each featured metal spikes that were played by gripping the jutting protrusions. While they have been called “thumb pianos” in other parts of the world, Mbira instruments never really saw a lot of popularity outside of Africa. California-based Bill Wesley sought to change that when he created the Array Mbira. The prefix comes from the fact that the instrument uses the Array system of note arrangement (Wesley was first a scientist) and it produces a sound similar to that of a xylophone. If popularity is what Wesley was after, he’s on the right track; both Sting and Imogen Heap have used the Array Mbira in their compositions. Listen to it here.

Sea Organ
An ambitious project created to turn the actual sea itself into a musical instrument, the sea organ – located on the reconstructed seafront of the picturesque town of Zadar, Croatia – consists of pipes built beneath the coastal promenade. These pipes react to the waves as they ebb and flow, turning the rhythmic crashing into audible music – music that locals and tourists from around the world come to hear. Hear the melodic sounds for yourself right here.

Pretty cool, right? Keep checking back with us here at HillTop Records for more interesting facts, informative updates and other news from the wonderful world of music.