Selling the Blues
Current Condition of the Blues
There are those who say the current condition of the blues is good. They are usually the more traditional fans that may go to a show once a month in a club or go to maybe 1 or 2 local festivals a year. Their understanding of the state of the genre is usually narrow and very hyper local. But even at this level you should be able to take a look around you and determine the current condition of the blues in your area. If you have less than 2 venues in your immediate area(within at least an hour’s drive) that brings in “Touring” Blues acts, blues may be in trouble. If when you go to a show and you look around and 80% of the people at the show is over the age of 40, blues may be in trouble.
For a good portion of my working career my job was finding the “Root Causes” of problems and identifying the Solutions.
Finding the Root cause is a method of problem solving that tries to identify the root causes of faults or problems. Once removed from the problem fault sequence, it prevents the final undesirable event from recurring.
You talk to Touring artists and their booking agents, you will hear the same story over and over again, they are finding it harder to route a tour with enough paying venues to make it profitable. When you add the price of Gas, Lodging, maintenance of their vehicles, time on the road, off days between gigs (yes the band has to get paid) etc., going on the road becomes expensive and sometimes it is just not profitable, but they still have to do it. The reality of it is, without a circuit of venues that will bring in a touring artist on a regular basis and pay them enough that they can make some sort of living; the economic base of the genre is in jeopardy. Despite what you may want to believe, the way an artist makes his living is performing and touring, whether he is a major label artist or a small independent one.
Now I can’t place the blame on the venues either. Let’s face it; they are in business to make a profit. They sell food and drink, they are not running a musicians charity. The Music is there as part of the business model to make themselves profitable. In order for any bar or restaurant business model to work, they have to attract at least 20% of their customer base as new customers annually, just to maintain their current customer base. If people don’t go to a show, buy food and drink, then the venue will not make a profit. If the venue does not make a profit then it cannot justify paying the musicians to perform. Even if you are one of those who supports your local blues venue, you know that 90% of the crowd are on their way home by 11pm-12am (come on face it you know I’m right), and how many of those order a coke and not much else. Yes, I am guilty as well and I am going to say it, we are getting too old to rock and roll. So, if the genre cannot attract new young fans, as the current fan base ages and goes out less and spends less, the venues that host “Touring” Blues Artists will soon disappear. The sad part is it is already starting to happen.
In order for us to take a real look at the problem we need to go a little deeper to find the root cause. So let’s break it down.
In 2006 the Kitchens Group conducted a survey of current blues fans to determine what the actual demographics of the Blues fan base is for advertisers. The results of that survey are extremely telling and provide us with a baseline for our discussion of finding a Root cause. So let’s take a look at some of the more glaring results of that survey. Now remember these are people who already like “Blues”.
Age: The most telling demographic was the average age of a blues fan. There was NO fans under the age of 21, between 21 and 30 there was only 3% and between 31 and 40 there was 9%. When you get to age 41 and older your percentage rises to an astounding 87%! The majority of these are baby boomers. The median age is 49 years old (that was in 2006, they are now 58 years old). The problem with this demographic analysis is there are little to no new fans being created for the future.
Race: 80% of blues fans are white and only 4% are African Americans.
Music Purchased: The median number of CD’s purchased in a given year is 9½ . Nearly one-quarter (24%) of respondents say they purchase more than 20 CD’s per year, even higher percentages of those earning more than $75,000 per year. Ironically there is little to no “New” blues on the shelf of the major retailers of CDs today. Of this group 48% NEVER buys music from digital retailers. This is mainly because of the age demographic of the blues fan. Most older fans prefer a more tactile experience when buying music. They want something tangible in their hands when they spend their money. As opposed to the younger market who is used to having more of an online experience.
Festivals: Eighty-one percent (81%) of Blues fans attended at least one Blues Festival in a year. The median attendance at Blues Festivals per year is 2.7. The most frequent response as to the distance a Blues fan is willing to travel to a Blues Festival is 250+ miles. Thirty-seven percent (37%) offered this response. The median number of miles a respondent is willing to travel is 177 miles.
On Ramp to the Blues
It is acknowledged that most of the current fan base came to the genre by way of another artist that was popular in their youth. The British invasion gave new life to the blues in the 1960’s and those artists went as far as bringing the blues greats as opening acts with them when they went on tour. They revered them and they made sure their fans knew where they got their influence. Blues was cool, and the way it was interpreted by these young artists made it current and relevant. During the 1980 and 90’s it was Stevie Ray Vaughn that brought a whole new fanbase to the genre.
I was having a conversation with Mick Kolassa, Vice President of the Blues Foundation and he used the Analogy of the “On Ramp To the Blues”. I thought this was a great way to look at how most blues fans were introduced to the genre. Whether it was the British Invasion, Stevie Ray Vaughn or the Black Keys I can be pretty safe in saying that the majority of blues fans took some “ON RAMP” artist to get on the Blues. The artists don’t have to be pure, traditional blues. They just have to be proud to acknowledge their roots and their fans will find their way onto the blues highway where they can discover other artists, old and new.
Being Blues Aware
So, awhile back I started a “Blues Aware” campaign for myself, where I would pay attention to where I hear blues in everyday life. I started to pay attention to TV Shows, TV Commercials, Movies, etc. I also invited those who listened to my radio show to do the same. What I quickly discovered was Blues is being used in all of these outlets extensively! So much so I can be pretty safe in saying that you cannot watch TV for more than 2 hours and not hear a blues song and you would be hard pressed to go to a movie that did not have a blues song somewhere in it. The only conclusion I could come up with is the music cannot be the problem. Think about it, there are people on Madison Ave and Hollywood making large paychecks and for that money their only responsibility is to find just the right music to put their client’s product or movie scene in the right light or mood. Time and gain they are choosing Blues! Howlin Wolf sells Viagra, Reeses Peanut butter cups used blues to sell you candy, Vintage Trouble sells you on Hyundais, Outback Steakhouse recently started using a Remix of Muddy Waters to come in and “Get Satisfied” and the list goes on and on. Try it for yourself for 30 days, just make note of where you hear blues. It may take a bit to get used to picking it out, but once you tune your ear you will be surprised how many times a day you say to yourself “Hey that’s blues”!
The Blues Can Sell Everything but the Blues!
Now, this is a great advantage to the genre. Because of all the subliminal injection of The “Music” into the mainstream mentality by all the media usage, when people “Hear the Music” they are immediately hit with images of being “Cool”, “Rebellious” and a “Free Spirit” and all qualities that are used to market to their specific demographic. The one caveat is this, the images that are being presented with the music reflect for the most part, a younger demographic. You don’t see a bunch of old hippie types wailing away on guitars, you see young hip 20 something’s doing hip young 20 something things to the music. Even the commercial for the Toyota Camry that feature BB KING, where a girl buys a storage locker and finds the old “Lucille” in the locker and brings it to BB King in the end. The whole commercial revolves around her journey as a young fun loving girl, only at the end does she have a very brief encounter with BB King. What a concept associating Blues with Young and relevant! What this tells me is not only is the “Music” relevant, but the media is working in favor of the genre for mainstream attention. This is a positive if the those in blues recognize it and learn to capitalize on it.
Lori Feldman, EVP Brand Partnerships and Creative Synch Licensing at Warner Brother Records, believes music connects people to other people, images on screens and even their own emotions. “Music is used in advertising and marketing to help ensure these connections, whether it’s through the use of a particular artist, a set of lyrics, or a specific song structure that makes you actually feel something,” says Feldman. “Music and the artists who make it are integral to helping connect brands to consumers,”
On top of this you have all those “talent” shows; The Voice, American idol, America’s Got Talent, etc. How many times has a contestant had a moment that can be directly attributed to a “Blues” performance? How many times did a judge compliment a vocalist for their “Bluesy” Tone? This cannot be a coincidence and the only conclusion I can come up with is the problem with the Blues is not with the music. The Music when performed with passion and truth is relevant and can touch the soul like no other music can.
What is in a Name?
‘When you think of blues,” Ike Turner once mused, “all you think about is crying guitar like BB King’s guitar. You think about someone crying that their woman’s gone. And how bad life is and all that. Why can’t it be something happy with the blues? Why can’t it have a hip-hop beat to which you can do the dances of today?” (Excerpt from the “Guardian” article http://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/jan/01/little-punk-jazz-shoegaze-the-new-blues )
Ok, here is the bottom line. There is a problem with the name of the Genre. The word Blues has been so restricted over the last 30 years it has garnered a very negative impression on the minds of the music buying market. The traditionalists, who have been in control of most blues radio and media have kept such a narrow view of what is or is not blues, they have actually created a negative perception of the genre. Even the outgoing president of the Blues Foundation Jay Sieleman stated “It will take a marketing genius to turn around this perception”.
One promoter I spoke with told me straight out that if he put the word “Blues” on a poster he would lose at least half of his market that would have gone to the show. As a booking agent for young blues band, I can’t tell you how many venues tell me that they cannot book blues because it doesn’t draw.
Finding the Root Cause
Here is where we get to the Root Cause and possibly a solution. We know the music is viable. We understand to have a strong genre we need a strong venue system to support the artists in that Genre. That goes hand in hand with the fact that the current Blues market is aging and not getting renewed. This can be directly attributed to the fact that those who control (or had controlled) the media outlets of the genre are not open to new innovative artists. Let’s face it, this does not bode well for attracting new fans. When you have an aging fan base that is not being renewed by new fans, you get less people going out to shows. The less people that attend a show, well the less profit the venue makes putting on that show. The less profit, the less likely that venue will continue to present shows in that genre. No venues for the touring artists, the harder it is for the genre to survive. Simple Economics.
I often draw parallels to another genre that faced a similar problem. Country music at one time was considered to be old fashion and not relevant to what was happening in the world around them. During the 1960’s a movement called “Outlaw Country” began to take hold of the genre. Artists like Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams Jr., Merle Haggard took the genre over and revamped the sound and image of country music. By the time the 1980’s came around these artists had created strong careers but when the movie Urban Cowboy hit the movie screens, country music hit the big time! Since that time the genre has not looked back. As a Genre they have embraced, nurtured and supported their new artists and they have embraced new sounds. Country Radio and media pride themselves on bringing new artists to their base. Let’s face it Taylor Swift is as far from traditional country as you can get, but she brought new fans to the genre. Those fans discovered other artists that they could relate to and made country music stronger. The best part is no traditional country artist was harmed in the process! The bottom line, they realized that without new fans there was no money to be made and EVERYONE suffers. Again Simple economics.
So here we are, the Root Cause.
We need to find and support new “ON RAMPS” to the blues.
Attracting new fans to the genre should be the primary goal of every Touring blues artist, blues radio station, Blues press media outlet, Blues Society and the Blues Foundation. To attract these new fans we have to start embracing new artists that are creating and interpreting the blues in a new way. Their music has to be relevant to those new fans. That means those in the genre need to encourage young artists to write and perform NEW songs that speak to their truth and not a constant rehashing of songs that was created 50-100 years ago.
The best way to honor the past is to support the future of the Blues.
I can almost see the pitch forks and torches from the blues purists now. But, let’s face the facts here. Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Willie Dixon will always be with us. We have their music forever and by supporting new artists and new music, this will not change that fact. But, Muddy, Howlin and the rest are not creating new music, none of them are out there touring and bringing new fans to the genre. You are not going to dilute or harm “Blues” by allowing your definition of Blues to Expand. Let’s be honest, Muddy Waters was once one of those new Blues artists who took the music in his own direction. His electric blues sound changed the world and influenced all of popular music, imagine what would happen if we embraced the next blues innovator! History has proven that by supporting and encouraging new “ON RAMPS” to the Blues, you are introducing more potential fans to their music then if you were to guard the genre like a hoarder guards their possessions. Change is essential!
In the summer of 2010, Jim Fusilli, the rock and pop critic for the Wall Street Journal, travelled to the 31st Blues Foundation annual gala in Memphis, and his resulting report sounded puzzled and somewhat disappointed: “I heard folk blues, country blues, jump blues, Chicago blues, Delta blues, Texas blues, fast blues, slow blues, good blues and bad blues,” he wrote. “What I didn’t hear was new blues.” Fusilli wondered what the future of the genre might be, and like Turner, considered the possibility of the blues rethought: “Young fans who still fuel the music marketplace may admire veterans like Mr [Buddy] Guy, but they’re right to ask if there’s a new way to play the blues, one that’s affiliated with new sounds and styles.” (Excerpt from the “Guardian” article http://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/jan/01/little-punk-jazz-shoegaze-the-new-blues )
We need to Re-brand the genre
Rebranding is a marketing strategy in which a new name, term, symbol, design, or combination thereof is created for an established brand with the intention of developing a new, differentiated identity in the minds of consumers, investors, and competitors. Often, this involves radical changes to a brand’s logo, name, image, marketing strategy, and advertising themes. Such changes typically aim to reposition the brand/company, occasionally to distance itself from negative connotations of the previous branding, or to move the brand upmarket.
The fact is that no matter what you do, the moment you say the word “Blues” you are behind the 8 ball. I propose (Unless someone comes up with a better idea) that the artists, publicists, Booking Agents and Radio people refer to any “Touring Original Blues based artist” as an “INDIE BLUES” or “INDIE B” artist (Remember the B in R&B is “Blues”). No sub genres, no separation between Country blues, blues rock, Texas blues, etc. Just one genre, just one music. By re branding we can separate ourselves from the stigma that has been attached to the word “Blues” but still honor the past. I have already seen this begin to work in my own booking endeavors. I have marketed a young blues band as an INDIE B Band, though the venue was not sure what INDIE B was they listened to the music and decided that they would book them. Had I told them it was a Blues Band, I doubt I would have been able to get them to even give them a listen.
It’s a Team Effort
Blues Artists– Take back your genre! Don’t let anyone tell you what is or is not blues. Don’t try to fit into the small box that someone else decided you need to fit into. Be true to who you are, write music that expresses your truth. Stand up as a true “Indie Blues” artist! And if anyone tries to tell you that you are not “Indie Blues” enough, you just refer them to me ..
Blues Radio- Really simple, start opening up your playlist to include, young “Indie Blues” artists. At the very least give the largest percentage of your playlist to the living “Touring” Blues artists that is creating new music. Help promote the re-branding of Blues to “Indie Blues”.
Blues Societies – Create outreach programs to attract young musicians and members. Be open to new interpretation of the blues and understand that they are communicating to their peers. By showing them that you are willing to support them, they become more open to learning where the blues came from.
In addition, the Blues Societies should work to create opportunities to bring in touring artists into their area. Remember you are a non for profit, so using monies to put on a show is well within your charter as a blues society. In addition, if you use a venue for a show and the venue starts to realize that it can make a profit bringing in a “Touring” INDIE BLUES band, they may start doing it more often.
You may also qualify for grants for the purpose of supporting American Roots Music and presenting music programs that showcase the Blues. Having someone on your board that is willing to learn how to write grant applications is a great way to help fund these types of programs. A great Resource for finding where to get grants and how to apply for them is the “Foundation Center”. They have an extensive database of currently available grants and their requirements. Many Libraries have direct access to the database for you to search for grants.
If there are members that have extra rooms in their homes (empty nesters), ask them to make them available to help the touring artists by giving them a place to sleep. I have done this at my own home many times. I cannot tell you how appreciative the musicians are when they are given a clean bed and a warm welcome while they are on the road.
Create outlets that showcase local and touring indie blues artists. The Atlanta Blues Society created the ABS Bluescast which only plays Local and touring blues artists. It’s an easy process to setup such a station and the added benefit of having this resource it puts that organization on the world stage. You can find an article on this site on how to create your own Internet Radio Station.
Blues Foundation –as the pre-eminent voice of the genre the Blues Foundation should be taking the lead on advancing the Genre. They have a golden opportunity in that they already have several vehicles in place that can do just that. With the opening of the “Blues Hall of Fame” they are uniquely positioned to be the organization to spearhead what is needed to do to re-position the genre. Memphis could become the “Nashville” of Blues, if they open their eyes to the possibilities and are given the support of the artists, fans, Blues Societies, Radio, the blues media and industry.
The IBC – This should be the single most important showcase of what is new and exciting in the genre. Unfortunately, the winners of this event most often reflect what the more traditional fanbase wants to hear and not what will bring new fans to the genre. Ironically in its history, more artists have created successful careers that did not win, then those that have won the IBC. It might be time for this event to open up to an “INDIE BLUES” (or contemporary blues) category that would showcase artists that have the best chance to move the genre into a more mainstream market and bring in new fans.
The BMA’s – Open up the nominations to more young and innovative artists. Start embracing more out of the box artists that have that young fan base. Give them an incentive, something to strive for and embrace them as “Indie Blues” Artists.
Not all the news is bad, actually it’s quite the opposite. There is no shortage of “INDIE BLUES” artists. Right now on the road there are literally hundreds of great “Indie Blues” artists, that have the ability to attract new fans and help the genre grow. They are out there, creating new music, bucking the tide and fighting the good fight. All they need is for the rest of us to start stepping up to the plate and supporting them and supporting the creation of new “Indie Blues” music. This can be done, and the best part .. the purest can still say what is and what is not blues .. but they have no say in what is or what is not “INDIE BLUES” !
A Small sampling of INDIE BLUES artists to check out!
Joe Bonmassa, Selwyn Birchwood, Jarkus Singleton, Samantha fish, Mike Zito, Royal Southern Brotherhood, Gary Clark jr., JPBlues, Eliza Neals, Jeremiah Johnson, Magnus Berg, Oli Brown, Missy Andersen, Jeff Jensen, Albert Castiglia, D.A. Foster, Mike Andersen, Jeff Chaz, Big Bill Morganfield, Neal Barnes, Balkun Brothers, Sean Chambers, Tas Cru, Annika Chambers, JP Soars, Sena Ehrhardt, Liz Mandeville and the Billy Walton Band to name just a very Few!
Join the INDIE BLUES movement!
Read the Follow up Article