By: Peter Goddard Visual Arts, Published on Fri Jan 16 2015
Blues music has been called all sorts of things from soulful to misogynist. But a business? A viable business at that? Some time before, during or after the Maple Blues Awards Monday Jan. 19 at Koerner Hall “Stormy Monday” will be sung, with the lyric’s famous line about “the eagle flies on Friday.” This means payday. Once was that was about all the business a blues star might worry about.
Not any more. The awards, the 18th to be hosted by guitarist and raconteur Danny Marks, is the party-time face of the sober-minded Toronto Blues Society (TBS), which has personnel — how about an “office manager?” — not hitherto associated with the blues. TBS celebrates its 30th anniversary this year mostly by having convinced government bureaucrats — TBS gets some $100,000 in grant money — that blues business also meant good business. “We started as an entity to protect the music,” says TBS board chair Derek Andrews, part of the founding group along with John Valenteyn and David Barnard who in the mid-’80s together helped make Albert’s Hall the local blues bar destination.
“There’s been a certain amount of ingenuity in what we’ve been able to pull off. But for years the music industry had a condescending view of blues music. But we’ve overcome that. We’ve repositioned the blues brand. “We’ve had to. An artist is a small business. I don’t think every ballet dancer coming out of dance school knows how to organize a business. Our members — there are around 500, about 80 per cent of them musicians — need to know how to keep their heads up above water. And it’s not always just about playing a gig.”
They shouldn’t look to the music industry’s major players for help, warns Bruce Iglauer, who’s giving the keynote speech Sunday at Blues Summit 7, the biennial blues conference at the Eaton Chelsea hotel leading up to the awards. “Right now, nobody knows how to make a profit from any genre of music,” says Iglauer, who heads Alligator Records, the Chicago-based blues label in its 44th year. “Record companies don’t know how to even make money from having hits because services like Spotify allow a lot of people music for free.”
New to the Maple Blues Awards this year is the Cobalt Prize, for original blues composition. The $1,000 first prize is donated by local blues songwriting veteran Paul Reddick, who says, “blues needs new blood, and not only among its audiences but also in its repertoire.” “We had 110 submissions for the prize, which was incredible,” Andrews adds. “We got some straight-up electric Chicago blues. But there were others pushing boundaries. ”Some boundary-pushers can be found among the awards show performers, including Steve Hill, the extraordinary songwriter/guitarist from Montréal.
“We need to step back and see the blues form for what is was,” says Danny Marks. “The 12-bar form was something imposed on the blues, not something you would have heard in Africa. So we need to open-minded about it because these days the blues come from all over the world. ” Alligator Records survived and grew due to the new artists and new music it cultivated, Iglauer maintains.“I am 67 years old and very aware of the aging of the blues audience,” he adds. “I don’t want this music to become a museum piece. To do that I have to make records that are significant to an audience much younger than I am.”
The 18th annual Maple Blues Awards is at Koerner Hall, 273 Bloor St. W. Jan. 19 hosted by Danny Marks. Peter Goddard is a freelance writer and form Star music critic. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .