SPOTLIGHT: Check out this new site to find information on oldtime – a North American musical practice

Estimated read time: 5 minutes

Every once in a while, I like to highlight new projects, communities and sites here in the spotlight section. In 2018, Ben Smith launched Oldtime Central and was kind enough to share some information about it with me.

Christoph: Why did you start this project?

Ben: Let’s start at the beginning. For those who don’t know, oldtime is a living musical practice based around North American fiddle traditions, usually involving some combination of fiddle, banjo, guitar, and bass, most commonly played by enthusiastic amateurs at jam sessions, dances, and festivals. Oldtime Central is aimed at those playing this music.

I started Oldtime Central for a few really present reasons. One was simply that I perceived a gap in how the oldtime music community was being served, or not served. There was basically no online media space dedicated to the oldtime community. Yes, there were enthusiasts who wrote about one topic or another, there is a handful of people on YouTube who post videos of jam sessions, festivals, or lessons, and there’s a single quarterly print magazine. But it was all spread out, hard for people to find, and often of a lower quality than most people expect today. So, I saw an opportunity to create a central online space with a website, YouTube channel, and Facebook page to provide content to support the needs of that community.

One other strong impetus was to show how media can be done differently, how media can actually be useful in pursuing activities we care about, whatever they might be. Over the past decade I have been involved in many conversations and projects that sought to understand how it is that mainstream media is failing us, feeding us clickbait that at best wastes our time and at worst sows misunderstanding, fear, and conflict. It became very clear to me how media could be done differently and I was anxious to just go out and do it. So, Oldtime Central is a way for me to experiment with those ideas about community-focused media that has just one goal: be helpful!

Christoph: What’s the ultimate goal?

Ben Smth

Ben: The ultimate goal of Oldtime Central is to become the first and most trusted online resource for oldtime musicians around the world. I want it to have a steady flow of interview videos with musicians, videos teaching fiddle, banjo, and guitar, resources such as audio archives, transcriptions, and documentaries, as well as reviews, news stories, festival profiles, musician profiles, and in-depth articles addressing key community topics.

If I can build Oldtime Central into the place where people go first to find essentially any resource they need to keep their local oldtime music community alive and well, then I’ll be happy.

It’d be good if I could pay my rent too!

Christoph: How has the community taken the project so far?

Ben: Oldtime Central launched just in October 2018, so this is all pretty new. Still, most of the feedback has been very positive. Videos are getting several hundred views, articles sometimes into the thousands. For a very small community – maybe 10-20,000 worldwide – I take this as a great start. People have nice things to say about the design of the website, about the video and audio quality, and about the resource pages.

Christoph: What are your best practices when producing the videos?

Ben: I’m quite new at this, but my best practices center around keeping things as simple as possible. For me this means having a set format for each video that I can stick to. Then when it comes to shoot or edit, I’m already in the pattern and don’t need to think too much about it.

I’m also very aware of how people use a video. On Oldtime Central most videos contain performances of musicians playing tunes that others might want to learn themselves. That’s how oldtime music usually works. We don’t learn tunes from sheet music, but from others’ performances, either on audio or video. For my videos that means that I’m quite strict about using 1080p for good resolution, 60fps so that the videos can be effectively slowed down on YouTube, and a single static shot so the camera doesn’t pan or change shots just when you’re trying to see what a musician is playing.

Christoph: Who might find your site of interest to them?

Ben: First and foremost, Oldtime Central will be of interest to people in oldtime music communities. So, people who want to learn new tunes, people who want to learn about others musicians not from their area, and people who want to dig more into the history and culture of the music.

But I think it could also be of interest to people who want to see how media can be simply and effectively be used to support a community through a variety of content types and delivery platforms. If I’m being honest, I think most contemporary media is doing a pathetic job of serving the communities they claim to address. And I don’t think that doing differently would require much effort or change. Oldtime Central is trying to show what that looks like.

Christoph: What are the long-term goals?

Ben: Long-term I would like to see Oldtime Central grow to serve the global oldtime community as well as possible. I’d love to see an ever-growing archive of interview videos, of lesson videos, of history articles, of reviews; a constantly expanding, well curated list of resources of all kinds. I’d like to see how the work can be sufficiently funded by the very community it serves. And I’d like it to become a paradigm of how media can support our activity and well-being in those areas we decide to spend our lives.

Check out the site at Oldtime Central


This was first written in 2018 and then updated in late 2019 to add a podcast with Ben.