Some of you may have been watching the development of the North American Banjo Builder Series over on Banjo Hangout (thread here: banjohangout.org/topic/202324). I'm Craig (frailin) Evans, the producer of that programming. I'm currently in conversations with the good folks at Smithsonian Folkways about the possibility of developing a similar series of documentaries on current violin/fiddle makers. I'm interesting in learning if this is something you fiddle folks would be interested in seeing?
It works like this.
I research the leading 20 or so violin/fiddle makers (based on criteria like: full time builder, 5+ years in the trade, producer of 20+ instruments a year, perceived widely as a "historically accurate" or "interesting/innovative" or "maker of exceptional instruments" ... and more). I interview them about their influences, backgrounds, take a guided tour their shops (recording stories on how they build) and then show pictures of some of their best work. The 20 minute shows are complied onto several DVDs and individual shows made available as PPV "eaches".*
The Programs - a "time capsule" for how this work was completed in 2011 - become a part of an Americana Instrument Builder Collection at Smithsonian Folkways. Imagine how we would feel if we found something like this from Builders 100 years ago... or how people will respond as they watch this program 100 years from now. It's exciting. :)
If the 20 minute programs were priced at something between $30 and $85 per DVD of 10 or so fiddle makers (probably 2 DVD sets for the Fiddler Builder Series), is this something you would be interested in viewing?
Craig (frailin) Evans
* The DVDs and PPVs will be sold on BHO and a % goes to our favorite forum! (Thanks, Eric!).
Would I watch something like this if I saw it scheduled on PBS? Absolutely. Would I pay $60-170 to watch the entire series? No. Would I pay $1.50 each to watch a few selected episodes? Possibly, but only if I knew it would be well done.
I think the idea has merit, and could possibly be very interesting viewing - for a fairly limited audience. I guess that's the rub of any documentarian, making an esoteric subject engaging for the general public. Good luck in determining the 20 leading violin/fiddle makers - I think that could generate some heated discussions 'round here.
I say pick one maker, do your 20 minutes on him/her, put it up on Youtube, see how many hits you get. That should give you a decent idea if you want to pursue this thing further.
Well here's my thoughts, which are admittedly from someone who has been interested in banjo a couple years longer than fiddle.
I can name a half dozen modern or current banjo builders (and these are almost exclusively openback builders) off the top of my head-Creed, Enoch, Ramsey, Reiter, Lee, Flesher, Menzies...OK 7, and I probably left out several important ones yet I could easily name more if I looked in other parts of my head. Several of these guys are icons of openback banjo building, and they've got IT. I cant tell you how many similar names there are in bluegrass/resonator banjo building, but probably there are a few.
I have never heard anyone say "oh you gotta try to get a ___ or a ___ for oldtime fiddling" like they do with Creed, Ramsey and Reiter banjos. Now part of this is certainly due to the usual ignorance on my part, but I have been lurking around fiddlers long enough to hear this sort of talk if it was common, as it is with banjos. It may be different in other fiddle genres that I pay less attention to, but I think this idea has less going for it, ie less potential interest, than the banjo project. There just dont seem to be the same sort of Holy Grail builders. I suspect that may be a little different among the violin crowd though? But dont know.
As noted, I'd watch it on PBS, but I'd be unlikely to pay cash money. I'm also unclear on how 20 different takes of the fiddle-building process would play out. I can envision 20 minutes of a factory shop, and I could probably see a 20 minute overview of a master hand-builder, but I'd also want to see a very great deal of detailed recordings of the tedious minutiae of the process. No doubt you've made note of just how little detail goes into those Discovery Channel how-to programs. They must have figured out that the attention span of your average viewer is...So-what do you make of the Packers this year?
I'd love to see what I think you're intending with this. I most certainly cannot shell out the big bucks for it, and so far as MY wallet is concerned, you're talking big bucks. When I was still working, at approximately the national median income, I would still have been reluctant to part with that kind of money. Sadly, I suggest a little more aggressive market research, which will probably give you answers that neither you nor I care for.
As a fiddler and wife of an instrument maker (banjo and guitar family instruments, not fiddles), maybe I can give you a little insight on this.
I've followed your thread on the BHO some, and it's a very cool project. And it seems that the banjo players are eating it up like candy. However, the fiddle is such a different animal, I think you'll need to re-invent your project quite a bit to make it successful. Here are a few points to illustrate why I think that's true.
- I can personally name more banjo builders than fiddle builders, and I don't even play the banjo.
- I know a lot of fiddlers, and I only know the maker/style of about three fiddlers' main instrument. There's not a lot of brand name recognition or cache associated with a particular make of fiddle.
- There are no key identifying features on a fiddle - no name or logo on a headstock - to identify the maker. You have to look inside for the label, and a great deal of the time that label says it's a Stradivarius!
- I would guess that the majority of fiddlers either play a modern factory instrument or an old/antique factory instrument. A small fraction of players (compared to banjo players) play a bench-made instrument.
- I have never paid more than $450 for a fiddle, and I've bought four.
- Violins are played by musicians in many different genres vs. a fairly limited number for banjos. Also, there are thousands of children taking violin lessons or playing in school symphonies. I think this accounts for the plethora of affordable instruments (of varying quality) available.
I would be interested in something like this, but not really if it just focused on the building process. I would be more interested in luthiers who are fiddlers as well as luthiers or who come from a strong luthiery tradition (maybe passed down through the family or community) or those who are self-taught or have some other special interest component. Examples of luthiers that would be of interest to me are Clyde Davenport, Charles Horner, Gene Ivey, Lebron Batey, and Phil Tanner (descendent of the Skillet Lickers). All of these have a story beyond their luthiery art that would possibly interest me enough to purchase a DVD. That being said, I don't think anything more than $15-20 per DVD would fly, and I can't imagine watching more than a handful of profiles.
I wish you much success on the banjo project and the fiddle project, if you choose to tackle it.