Blues music was created as a way to express emotions and share stories about difficult circumstances experienced. It was almost a form of group therapy, to make the pain of every day life less intense. It was that ability to share real feelings that made the blues attractive to fans. Today, the connection to its roots is weakening, with many of the original blues artists already gone and others coming to the end of their performing careers. The next generation of blues artists comes from around the world and its audiences are no longer bound together by the shared painful experiences of a community like those of the origin.
With the shared emotional honesty being so important in music, today's blues artists have to find new ways to connect with an increasingly diverse and individualized set of listeners. To complicate the challenge, new digital communication technologies have made being part of a geographic community less important. Musicians are now faced with having to connect emotionally with listeners from communities they may never see.
The digital world through the ears of the listener
The variety of musical choices made available digitally to the listener has never been greater. The cost to purchase and the cost to deliver music to the listener has also never been lower. However, even with more music available, a listener still needs to eat, sleep and earn a living as well as complete any other tasks that life requires. A four minute song still takes four minutes to listen to.
As a matter of fact, the time available for listening to music has not changed to the same degree as the amount of music: it is unlikely that the majority of listeners spend much more time than in the past considering options. Decisions about musical choices are still based on what they hear and what they like.
For blues fans, those decisions are greatly influenced by the music of the masters. Recordings of B.B.King, John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters continue to be heard everywhere. The guitar challenges of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix are still the standards by which guitarists are measured. But local radio is no longer what the listener turns to when they want some blues, with the exception of some local blues programs. Today specialized digital radios provide blues music 24 hours a day through the Internet. The result seems to be that the blues fan has become a fan of the blues as a whole rather than of specific blues artists.
The independent musical artist and the reality of the digital world
Faced with the need to sell even more music just to maintain its current level of profitability, the mainstream music industry continues to heavily promote artists who have, or have the potential to have, the largest possible appeal in terms of number of fans. At the same time, it has become more reluctant to invest in music which is not popular with a mass audience. As the blues is not mainstream, blues artists record with boutique recording studios and have little budget to promote their work. The opportunities to perform live are also fewer today with blues fans more geographically dispersed.
Independently produced and modestly promoted music struggles to be heard today. With so much more music available, from everywhere, aspiring musical artists face the monumental task of finding people who will notice them and then take the time to listen. This is while mainstream music, heavily pushed by corporate music interests, dominates traditional media and flood digital media. Each independent blues artist is thus faced with learning how to use low-cost digital technologies to connect with potential listeners one at a time, while continuing with the best traditional methods of promotion.
Sharing the feeling in the digital age
Some refer to traditional blues as pure. While it is certainly unrefined, it has never been pure. The blues simply collected the experiences of a community and put it into music, using the musical styles already present. From the beginning, blues performers were strongly motivated by survival. Early performers, like Bessie Smith and Robert Johnson, performed on the streets for money in order to survive. Muddy Waters left Mississippi and moved to Chicago because he felt the move might provide him with opportunity to become a professional performer. It seems that blues artists will need to draw on their survival instincts again.
Music does have a history of changing when new technologies or new versions of musical instruments are introduced. For example, electric guitars and amplifiers significantly changed the sounds used in music and made performing for larger audiences easier. Also the live music experience changed for the listener. Today, digital communication has changed the music market more than ever and the blues may need to evolve as well to find its market back.
The need to connect and share emotions with the listener is what matters in the blues, even more than technical perfection. Jimi Hendrix is reported to have said that “the blues is easy to play but hard to feel”. This music grew and thrived on raw emotional intimacy even when the technical proficiency of some of its stars became highly regarded. The blues continues to require intimacy in a world where distance has become less relevant to make connections and building communities. Quite interestingly, with fewer places to play, artists are faced with the irony of using modern digital communications, which are regularly criticized for making a less intimate connection with audiences.
Finding authenticity and sharing feelings when you're not from there
While the market for blues has gone global, also performers now come from all over the world. This music is played by performers from different countries such as Canada, United Kingdom, Brazil and Europe. The challenge for them, who don’t have links to the American South, is authenticity. That also applies to Americans without such roots. Here’s a short list of interesting blues artists of today who cannot count on such roots.
The Damned and Dirty are a Dutch duo who won three consecutive blues awards as Best Album from the Dutch Blues Foundation: in 2014 with Rolling into Town, in 2013 with Sell Your Soul and in 2012 with their first self-titled album. Their style is a raw Hill Country/Delta blues sound. Their online videos are simple. Vocals are clear, giving an impression of honesty and frankness.
The Igor Prado Band are a group of young talented blues musicians from Brazil. Their technical ability is unquestioned. They have a new album titled Way Down South, receiving quality airplay in the United States. They also have a tour planned to begin there in May. Their strategy to gain authenticity has been to back recognized blues performers. In this regard, their new album benefits from the participation of some of those established performers. But they still face the biggest challenge: becoming a unique and recognized stand-alone blues band. Like The Band when they went on their own after supporting Bob Dylan, the Igor Prado Band will need to find their uniqueness to stand out among all the other talented artists struggling to gain attention.
Chantel McGregor is a true guitar wizard from the United Kingdom. She was named Britain’s Top Blues Guitarist for two consecutive years (2013 & 2014) at the British Blues Awards. Her acoustic cover of the song Grenade provides feelings that listeners can understand and share. She has a friendly video blog that she shares with online viewers. Both are quite intimate and provide balance to the heavy electric guitar concert videos that can be found online.
Steve Hill has built his career in Canada as a legitimate blues guitar wizard over a number of years. He can also perform as a one-man act providing his own drumming. He has recently received the 2015 Juno Award (Canada’s music industry awards) for Best Blues Album. He also received four Maple Blues Awards (Canada’s Blues awards through the Toronto Blues Society) including Entertainer of the Year and Guitar Player of the Year for 2014. Even with his live performance and guitar credibility well-established, by going acoustic, Hill can still provide an emotional intimate connection to an on-line viewer.