The Delta Snake Review

The Delta Snake Review


Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Blues And The Digital Age: A New Golden Age?

There will come a time when it'll be recognized that the digitial age was one of the best things that could have happened to the blues.

The first "Golden Age" of the blues was the 20s and 30s, when the 78rpm record was the height of technology. Recorded music was a true novelty, and people were as nuts about it as they are about the internet today.

It was one of the few times when the music industry was close to being open to all and a reasonably level playing field for the artists. It still depended on businessmen with money, of course, but in those days, who knew what was good or what people would buy? Since no one knew with any real certainty, just about anybody who could play could find themselves in front of a wire style recorder, or an acetate cutter to make direct to disc recordings.

Thousands of artists were recorded and there wasn't a distribution channel (like Wal-Mart and rack jobbers) that could make or break an artist or label. People even sold records out of the back of a car trunk and as a whole, most of the records made were listened to. Whether or not this process ended up ripping artists off is a subject in itself, and I'll talk about it another time (as artists are still being ripped off now).

What eventually happened isn't a mystery. The business got big, each record had to be a hit, and if it wasn't, the artist was dropped and their music often placed in limbo.

Once the record business evolved into such a high stakes game, particularly in the LP era, the main outlet for the smaller artist became what would now be called Indie or Independent labels. The blues in particular became a mecca for small labels.

Which had it's risks. Many of the smaller labels brought in the one thing that can screw over an artist as thoroughly as having to play for free at an art festival for "exposure," that is "good intentions." In this case, the underlying recogition that a lot of the older blues would fade away into history without a determined attempt to preserve it. More than a few artists recorded music that's still in print for a flat fee or small advance, or wasn't paid at all for a reissue of their old recordings. With some small labels, the profits were often sunk into the next release and royalites not always paid out.

But a lot of the blues from that Golden Age did make it to digital thanks to those small labels, and the people who ran those often made no real money from it and often invested their own limited assets to reissue old 78 music or record a blues artist. Again, a truly fair look at the 60s blues revival would take a book, which is out of the scope of a blog entry like this one.

What is clear is the advent of mp3s as a music technology standard has empowered the average blues artist to an extent well beyond the early 78 era.

The old way of getting your music out, even with small labels, was either find someone who would invest in the cost of putting a record out (plus distribution and promotion), or doing it yourself (and be possibly treated with some contempt by the industry as a self or vanity publisher). The bottleneck was always that your music had to be judge worthwhile by someone else.

That's an interesting subject in itself. Whether or not the record industry is the best judge of music. I recall reading recently that some record executive complained that the digital age had clogged up the market with a lot of junk, or something to that effect.

Which would, to anyone with any, and I mean any common sense, rolling on the floor laughing out loud. Record companies have put out a lot of great and even classic music...but they've also put out as much mediocre and time wasting product as our Congress. The fact is, the business model of trying to find a mega star is a wasteful and destructive process.

That process always ends up in the same front of a listener, who'll then decide whether to buy it or not. Whether or not the music cost a million to produce or was recorded in a living room, it'll be listened to by someone who won't care what it took to bring it to market...just how good it sounds to them...and that person, if they're anything like me, prefers to shop from a wide variety of sources and choices.

Indie level Blues artists, or even a talented New Age pianist like Peggy Leyva-Conley might have had a chance to make it within the industry itself, but the digital age guarantees that even if a label doesn't record them, their music will not only stay in print longer, but will be always available. They can just put it out themselves without the huge financial barrier the industry established in the 60s, and not worry about the tight time frame the labels want to see a return on their was a barrier designed to make sure the record labels controlled the output, even if the real power was with the distributors (who had the power to control what came out).

In other words, digital made distribution open to all.

Throughout most of the what we call music history, the real power was in distribution. If Wal-Mart doesn't like your lyrics, then 99.999% of the time the label will make you record a PG-rated version for the market. If the rack-jobbers didn't carry you, you were small time at best...period.

Even the constant struggle with the labels and iTunes over pricing is really just a side show, the real conflict is that the labels want to dictate distribution. If iTunes, which controls much of the digital market ever folds and obediently does what the labels tell them to out.

Back to the blues...The mp3 age has created an environment where a blues artist can not only produce a record, but distribute it at small cost. When I'm on a site like iMesh, for example, I not only see thousands of artists that never would have shown up even at a used record store, but entire back catalogues are available for the classics. It never would have occurred to me to own everything Charley Patton ever recorded, as it would have cost too much. Now, the scope of his genius is available to me, and all the pleasures that having such a complete collection of his music brings.

Before, a small label blues artist would have to spend thousands to produce a record, just to find it a struggle to find places to sell it. Most of the big distributors wouldn't touch a small label record. Now, it can be online, and on a site like Rhapsody, well worth my time to download and sample with a royalty paid to the artist (small as it is, it's still payment). Back when CDs were over 12.00 a pop, it was hard to want to try out a new artist.

Like all Golden Ages, the freedom of digital will pass...but the music industry will never be the same, and for now, about as fair to both the consumer and the artist as it will ever be.

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