Karen Reynolds Brings Girl Power to Knoxville

Knoxville is no stranger to music festivals, but the 2010 Indiegrrl Music Conference and Festival will put a different spin on a now-familiar format. Besides a dense slate of performances—more than 50 artists spread over four days and eight venues—the event will feature a series of workshops aimed at helping artists hone their creative and business skills in an increasingly challenging industry. This is Knoxville's first time hosting the annual conference, but local music scene stalwart Karen E. Reynolds is working to make the event a Knoxville fixture.

Reynolds, a veteran Knoxville singer/songwriter and host of WDVX's Writer's Block showcase, has been involved with Indiegrrl nearly since the organization's inception in 1998. What originally began as a networking group for independent artists and music-industry professionals gradually morphed into something far more expansive, finally becoming its own stand-alone nonprofit organization in March of this year. Now operating under the name Indiegrrl Women in the Arts, the group aims to provide networking and educational opportunities for women in all aspects of the arts. The group produces numerous festivals and workshops each year, and engages in fund-raising activities for groups like the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Citizens Against Family Violence, and the Men's Rape Prevention Project. Indiegrrl is currently raising money to build a music and arts camp in Mineral Bluff, Ga., that will serve both as a retreat space for artists and as a day camp for children seeking education in the arts.

A performing member since she joined in 1998, Reynolds was named to the board in 2009 and was asked to serve as vice president earlier this year. One of her first undertakings in her new role was to convince the board that Knoxville is the ideal place for the group's flagship event: a music conference, now in its third year, that offers musicians, venues, and other industry pros a chance to network. Reynolds petitioned the board to bring the conference to Knoxville in hopes of ultimately making the city the annual home of the event.

The board was receptive to Reynolds's idea, so she pitched another one. Since artists from all over the world would be gathering for the conference, why not include a music festival, too? And not a traditional, fixed-location event—Reynolds envisioned a sprawling, multi-venue festival that would encompass much of downtown Knoxville.

"I wanted my hometown to shine," Reynolds says. "Part of what Indiegrrl tries to provide is a real connection for the artists to venues and other artists, putting them in front of a supportive demographic of the listening public. By taking some of the performances out into the city, we provide all of this. After this event, when one of our bands from Canada or Germany is booking its next tour, they won't have to go looking for a contact in order to gig back in Knoxville. That contact will already have been made."

While the conference is open to both male and female participants, the event is very obviously aimed at female artists—in fact, only groups fronted by women are eligible for the festival's stage performance slots. For Reynolds and the rest of Indiegrrl, the idea is to offer a forum that will help break down some of the stereotypes that persist, even today.

"When you mention ‘women's music,' many get the idea that it's a bunch of man-haters who won't even use a tampon because they're too phallic," Reynolds says. "The flip side is the preconception of the sensitive female singer/songwriter who is so sweet they can bring about a diabetic coma just by listening to them. Indiegrrl plays host to all the ‘grrls' in between. Truth is, some of the most interesting, thought-provoking songs have been penned by women. It's important to point that out once in a while."

Showcase artist Tori Sparks, who is working on her fourth album and spends so much time touring North America and Europe that "her cats don't recognize her anymore," is also looking forward to the opportunities the conference will provide.

"I think it's great when any organization tries to promote independent music," Sparks says. "But it's especially important when the focus is on women in independent music. Indiegrrl seems to do a better job at it than most. Although there are obviously tons of women entrepreneurs and artists in the music industry, it's still really a man's business, I think. It's great whenever you can get a bunch of women together who are saying, ‘We can do this ourselves, thank you very much.'"

One of the most stubborn obstacles that female artists must face is one that Reynolds refers to as the "pretty little thing" attitude—the idea that a woman's appearance is evaluated before her musical ability or songwriting skills.

"Stellar female artists… have been shunned by the commercial music industry in the beginning because they didn't have the ‘look' they wanted. Not enough cleavage! Too many ‘real woman curves'! The playing field may have leveled a bit, but it's still pretty hilly in places."

Reynolds says it took some doing to convince local artists that the conference represented a serious opportunity for them—one that they would normally have to travel to Nashville or New York to experience. For some of the event's highest profile participants, though, all it took was a phone call or an e-mail to get them on board. Besides a main stage performance by Sparks, the conference will feature AC Entertainment's Ashley Capps as Friday's keynote speaker, with Nashville-based singer/songwriter Jen Foster heading up Saturday's line-up. Both speakers will address changing trends in the music industry, and what it takes to get noticed.

"I have a lot of experience with regard to the do-it-yourself approach that so many artists have to take these days," Foster says. "I hope to share what I've learned with regard to online marketing, building a personal relationship with a fan base, and how to handle all the various facets of running an independent career. … I'm finally running a successful, profitable business with my music. I love sharing what I know to help others. There is simply nothing more rewarding."

Reynolds' efforts to convince Knoxville that the Indiegrrl conference and festival is a worthwhile venture seem to be paying off. According to the event's website, both the Artists Row reservations and the sponsor vendor booths are sold out. Ultimately, though, the event's future in Knoxville will depend on its performance this weekend. Planning for next year's conference will begin as this year's event ends, so any successes—or failures—will be fresh in the board members' minds.

"We'd like to see the conference make a permanent home in a community where this type of event can continue to benefit all who are involved," Reynolds says. "As a Knoxville native, I hope we've found that here."