We get a rare opportunity to talk to Joe Whitmer who is responsible for coordination and production for the 31st International Blues Challenge(IBC). Hundreds of Blues Societies from all over the world have held preliminary competitions to choose who will have the right to represent them in this final blues challenge in Memphis. Come January 20, 2015 over 800 blues musicians from around the world, their fans and the Blues industry will converge on 4 blocks of Beale St to eat ribs, Jam, make friends and showcase to the world that the blues is thriving. Over the years the “IBC” has evolved into the largest gathering of independent blues musicians, Blues fans and the Blues Industry in the world! Record companies, Festival Buyers, Booking Agents, Public relations companies, and more come to the IBC in the hopes of discovering the next new indie blues artists. And each band has come to show what they can do. Even though this is a competition, over the years it has become clear that winning and losing is not always the end all of the IBC. Many of the acts that have participated in the IBC and have not won, have gone on to great careers. Susan Tedeschi came in Second, Jarekus Singleton after 4 times at the IBC did not even get into the finals, but instead got signed to Alligator Records as did Selwyn Birchwood. The success stories of those who did not win the IBC seem to outnumber the winners! In addition, the Blues foundation has created a full schedule of seminars and events to help the musicians that come to the competition understand the business aspects of music. So sit back and relax, and listen as we talk with Joe Whitmer about what it takes to keep such a large event on track, where the IBC has come from and where it is going, as well as what he sees as the Future of the Blues.
The Blues Foundation will present the 31st International Blues Challenge January 20- January 24, 2015 in Memphis, TN. The world’s largest gathering of Blues acts represents an international search by The Blues Foundation and its Affiliated Organizations for the Blues Band and Solo/Duo Blues Act ready to take their act to the international stage. In 2014, 255 acts entered, filling the clubs up and down Beale Street for the quarter-finals on Wednesday and Thursday, the semi-finals on Friday and the finals at the Orpheum Theater on Saturday. We will have at least that many in 2015.
The 31st year of the International Blues Challenge will once again include a youth showcase for those under the age of 21. The 31st IBC will include an afternoon (Friday, January 23) of talented young people showcasing their talents for record labels, media, festivals, managers, talent buyers and the fans.
The week of events will once again kick off Tuesday night with a Meet & Greet hosted by the Beale Street Merchants Association at the New Daisy Theater, followed by the International Showcase. In addition to the evening Blues competition, the days are filled with seminars and workshops and topped off in a moving Friday afternoon in which the Blues community will honor its own with the prestigious Keeping the Blues Alive (KBA) awards that honor the men and women, who have made significant contributions to the Blues music world, in 20 categories such as journalism, literature and photography and to the best clubs and festivals, as well as managers, promoters and producers.
This is something you’ve heard, but many of you don’t (and won’t) believe this: Winning the IBC should not be your only goal. Use this time to network and showcase. Make contacts and do the things that you do best when you get onstage. Susan Tedeschi and Homemade Jamz both came in second. Watermelon Slim didn’t even make the finals. All of them have done fine.
BEFORE YOU LEAVE FOR MEMPHIS
- Pack everything you might need for a gig. Make sure you have strings, cables, and picks. Pack your tuner.
- If you might possibly need something, bring it. If you think you might need a spare, bring it. Give one to your drummer to pack. Better yet, give it to your drummer’s girlfriend.
- Drummers-bring extra sticks and a drum key. The most common equipment problem I have seen is a malfunctioning high hat clutch. Bring one.
- Send your bio, photo and stage plot to Joe Whitmer. If you need something that’s not on the list you sent to Joe don’t expect it to be there. If it’s on the list you DIDN’T send to Joe, don’t expect it to be there either.
- Bring LOTS of promo stuff. In the past few years I have seen a tremendous increase in the number of industry people. You want them to know who you are and to have your contact info. Bring business cards, press kits, CD’s etc.
- Bring CDs. You never know how many you might sell. Make sure your contact info is printed ON THE CD.
- Nobody cares who you’ve “shared the stage” with. I’ve performed with Jimi Jamison of Survivor and Tommy Aldridge of Black Sabbath. I’ve been on the same stage at the same time as Ike Turner, Little Milton, BB King, and Ruth Brown. I still can’t play well enough to get paid for it.
- Bring comfortable shoes.
- Too much to haul? There’s a FEDEX right across the street from the DoubleTree. You can ship stuff there for them to hold for you – in a whole lot of cases, way cheaper than those extra baggage fingerings they give you at the airport.
- I’ve been there when it was 60 and sunny. I’ve been when it was 30 and snowy. The worst was the year it was 20 with 30mph winds and sleet. Check the weather as close to the time you leave for Memphis as possible.
AFTER YOU GET TO MEMPHIS
- GO TO ORIENTATION. PAY ATTENTION. Read the instructions e-mailed to you by Joe Whitmer. Listen to the instructions given you at the orientation by Joe Whitmer. Follow those instructions. If you are not clear about the instructions ask Joe Whitmer or your venue coordinator to clarify. Chances are the boyfriend of the singer from some other band that you met five minutes ago doesn’t know as much as you do.
- Play nicely with others. You may have to borrow a cable like the one you forgot to pack. Lend what you have if you are asked. That guy who just asked to borrow your tuner? The one you told to buzz off? He books the club you’ve been trying to get into for the past six months. (Yes, I saw this happen stage right at BB King’s. )
- Get a schedule. Follow it.
- Sleep when you can. It may be the last chance you get.
- Be on time for check in and orientation. Be on time for your venue.
- If you are a performer, promoter, manager, agent, publicist or anyone looking to network at the IBC bring twice as much promo material as you think you need. Cards, CDs, press kit -load up as much as you can haul. Leave that extra pair of shoes at home if you need to but make sure you bring lots of stuff with your name and contact info. Make sure your contact info is printed ON THE CD.
(Do not leave the comfortable shoes at home. You will definitely need those.)
- Don’t even try to do everything you want to do. There is way too much good music and way too many cool things to do to fit them all in one week. Take the time to truly enjoy the things you can and come back next year and the year after to fill in the gaps.
- Stay at the headquarters hotel if you can afford it. Lots of fun things, both official and unofficial, happen at the hotel. If you can’t stay close to Beale, there are lots of inexpensive chain motels in West Memphis, Arkansas and in Southaven-Horn Lake, Mississippi. Both are an easy 10-15 minute drive from Beale.
- Don’t stay on Raines or Brooks Roads unless you feel a need to write songs about having hookers and meth labs as your neighbors.
- Don’t expect to have public transportation. There are trolleys downtown on Main and Madison. There are cabs. There may or may not be a bus. It’s Memphis. People have cars.
- Memphis has good areas and bad areas. Sometimes they can be on opposite sides of the same street. DON’T rely on the word of some guy who went to IBC last year. Ask a local. Lots of cool things to see are OK in daytime but not after dark (Forrest Park) or are in unsafe neighborhoods (Stax Museum, Graceland.)Example: Beale between Front and Fourth is OK. Sun Studio is OK. Walking from Beale to Sun is OK as long as you stay on Union Avenue. DO NOT walk east on Beale any farther than Fourth Street with the idea you can cut back to Union.The street people who are out after dark are not your friends. Many of these are guys who have been banned from the shelters for bad behavior. Do NOT engage them in conversation. They will hurt you.
- Wear your comfortable shoes.
YOUR PERFORMANCE AND SCORING
- GO TO ORIENTATION. PAY ATTENTION. Read the instructions e-mailed to you by Joe Whitmer. Listen to the instructions given you at the orientation by Joe Whitmer. Follow those instructions. If you are not clear about the instructions ask Joe Whitmer or your venue coordinator to clarify. Chances are the boyfriend of the singer from some other band that you met five minutes ago doesn’t know as much as you do. (Yes. I know this is a repeat. It really is that important.)
- The best musicians don’t always win. Years ago I saw a phenomenal guitarist at IBC, one of the best I’d ever seen anywhere. He now tours with a major recording star. He didn’t even make the finals. He was deader than Francisco Franco on stage.
- Remember, a part of your score is stage presence. How well did you engage your audience? The top BMA is the BB King ENTERTAINER of the Year award. Chops are essential but any chef can tell you a chop by itself isn’t a meal.
- Shut up and play. Your time starts with the first sound you make. Don’t waste that time with introductory speeches. The Emcee will do that for you. Besides, unless you’re a better talker than you are a musician, you are more likely to engage the audience and the judges with your music than your are your spoken words
- Musicians-tell your fans and friends to leave the sound man AND THE JUDGES alone! Very few things at IBC are as irritating as a well-meaning but overly enthusiastic fan telling the judges that “his” group is wonderful unless it’s the one who tries to tell the engineer how to mix. The engineers want you to sound good. They will try to make you sound good. Having a well intentioned (and usually well lubricated) loud mouth tell them what to do with their board in their house isn’t going to make them do their job any better or faster.
- If you’re not in the right place at the right time, you lose points.
- Turn it down. If your amp is at 11 the sound guy can’t help you. If he needs you louder he can and will tell you.
- Want to impress the girls at home? Do a crowd walk while playing the guitar with your tongue. Want to impress the judges at IBC? Show them a tight, professional act that’s true to the blues genre but different enough to stand out from the crowd.
- GO TO ORIENTATION. PAY ATTENTION. Read the instructions e-mailed to you by Joe Whitmer. Listen to the instructions given you at the orientation by Joe Whitmer. Follow those instructions. If you are not clear about the instructions ask Joe Whitmer or your venue coordinator to clarify.