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The Blues Performer as Business Entrepreneur

The Blues Performer as Business Entrepreneur

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Published by Erwin Bosman
Defining the blues artist as a professional entertainer
Defining the blues artist as a professional entertainer

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Published by: Erwin Bosman on Sep 19, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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- The Blues performer as business entrepreneur
Posted on August 14th, 2011
The history of the United States flows largely in the riverbed of the relationship between the white and theAfrican American population. The way in which those ethnic groups have interacted since colonization fillsthe main chapters of the book on the development of this nation. As a student of the emergence of theblues the reading of those chapters is thus mandatory. However, it seems difficult for many a student toconduct this reading of what can be called the “race-issue” in the genesis of the blues without implicitly or explicitly expressing social-political opinions. This is understandable and natural, but it tends to give rise toa biased interpretation and it creates the risk to stand in the way of a full understanding of historic facts.Many a discussion even quickly takes an emotional direction which then completely obscures the debate.I do not plead innocence in this matter; my personal views can easily be read between the lines in myprevious articles. At the same time however, I continue to feel the need (fed by my background associologist) to develop a framework which allows me to approach the emergence of blues in a moreobjective way which lets the facts speak as they are (if this is possible). In this framework, the race-issue isof course an aspect which in no way can be ignored, but I consider it as only one of the angles from whichthe blues in her full meaning and significance can and need to be considered.What follows is my first attempt in building this framework. I acknowledge that it is incomplete, and that itwill need to be checked and detailed by further study. Perhaps, I even took a wrong direction and I will needto change over later as my insights grow. Within the context of this article, I also need to stay on a verygeneral level. However, I believe that for the moment the main elements of the framework are alreadycapable of offering support for the comprehension of many observations in a more socio-political neutralway. At least, they helped me to interpret data in such a perspective.Throughout this exercise, I admit, I felt the handicap of the absence of a musical background and thereforeI count heavily upon feedback from musicians reading this article to fill the gaps in the model.In this model, I understand that a musical performer can be defined according to some key dimensions,which are:a) the way by which musical skills are/have been acquiredb) the (broadness of the) repertoirec) the degree of integration with the audience/publicd) the degree of autonomy.The musical performers of the pre blues and early blues period in the Southern States can be positionedon each of those dimensions. The musical evolution over time or sometimes also throughout the lifetime of a particular performer can be depicted in terms of the movements on each of those dimensions.Let me explain all this in what follows, concentrating mainly on whathappened on the scene of the ‘popular’ music in the last half of the 19thcentury and in the beginning of the 1900s. Following this generalintroduction, I will then try to come to a more detailed profile sketch of 
The way I feel about blues
- The Blues performer as business entrepreneur | MyBlueshttp://www.myblues.eu/blog/?p=13291 van 1023/08/2011 10:29
the early blues performer according to those dimensions.a)
The acquisition mode of musical skills
The question here is: how did an artist develop his (her) musical skills?Was there an involvement of formal schooling and learning, next to hardpractice and (self) study?It is a well known fact that (early) blues artists and their ascendants developed their musical techniques inthe ‘school of life’. Most if not all of them started already as a child to develop interest in music, stimulatedby the musical background of their relatives or neighbours. Hearing them play at home or at social eventswas the input for the youngster to cultivate his own talents. “Self-taught” is a word that constantly pops upin most of the biographies of those early musicians, and it would even be foolish to try to quote examples of biographies here.At first perhaps limited to family and neighbours, the sources for the acquisition of skills expanded over time with the increasing mobility during the second half of the century. The accruing density of the railroadnetwork went hand in hand with a higher level of mobility of the musicians, sustaining the popularity otouring groups and performers. This allowed the learning musician to pick up techniques from visitingperformers but also to travel himself to picnics, parties or other social events at ever further distances wherehe could learn from other musicians he admired.The advent of the records at the end of the century augmented further the learning sources. Liveperformances were complemented with waxed material as the inspiration for learning (new) techniques,tunes and lyrics. The phonograph became widespread – let us not forget the role played by mail order companies here – and assured that music could spread around much faster than before. The possibility toreplay a record over and over again was of course a luxury that could only contribute to the refining of thetechnical skill of the zealous student.There are legends which let us believe that some artists acquired their skills from a bargain with the devil.But that is a totally different story; if this type of devil would exist the world would not look the same.b)
The (broadness of the) repertoire
In his in-depth study, “Segregating Sounds”, Miller (2010) strongly highlights the variety of the repertoire othe early blues artist and his ascendant. Even when the blues became an ever increasing part of themusical repertoire, other popular songs remained on the list of the performer. At the risk of too strong ageneralization, one could say that the average musician included a substantial part of European inspiredmusic in his performance acts. I refer to ballads, polkas, waltzes, marches…The second half of the 1800salso witnessed the rising distribution of tunes produced in New York City by the famous Tin Pan Alley-collection of music publishers and writers. Mail order companies helped the spread of the Tin Pan Alleysheet music in the Southern States, which was further sustained by touring (vaudeville) theatres (oftenorchestrated from New York City) and medicine groups.Whilst in the first decades of the 1800′s the nostalgic black face minstrelsy – eulogizing the supposedlyperfect social harmony during slavery times – dominated the scene, the coon song – which stripped to itspurest form the burlesque and stereotyped image of the African American citizen – became top of the popsby the end of the century. This song became the guarantee of success, next to Tin Pan Alley-products.
- The Blues performer as business entrepreneur | MyBlueshttp://www.myblues.eu/blog/?p=13292 van 1023/08/2011 10:29
Blues may thus in the late 1800s, early 1900s, have become an increasingly important part of the musicaloffering – thanks also to the popularity of the slow drag dance – most of the artists continued to have aneclectic approach to their musical offering and embraced a quite wide range of genres to attract the public.c)
The degree of integration with the audience/public
The distance between the performer and his audience is in myopinion an essential characteristic in the typology. In this I refer toboth the audience that is present during a live performance, as tothe record buying public.During a live performance, it is of course vital that a performer reaches out directly to his audience. Contrary to classical music,which demands foremost a technical perfect and if possible an individual interpretation and translation of anexisting composition, the success of a popular performance depends upon the sustained feedbackbetween performer and audience. The closer the distance between them (not merely in the physicalmeaning of the word), the more the success is guaranteed.In the case of the blues for instance, the interaction between the musician and his public is as crucial asthe song itself. One can even wonder whether it is not even more crucial than the pure tune and lyrics. Ablues song is not written on paper, it comes to life when it is nurtured by the input of the public. Its shapingtakes places when an individual performance style is enriched with the mood of the one who listens to it.The artist’s and public’s mood feed each other to become, at each new successive performance, a newsong, never heard of before. Blues are not only born out of and in reaction to a particular social context,they depend for their survival on the public which lends the song each time a new meaning.The distance between a performer and its record buying public is another aspect, which is however lessevident to observe or to measure. The introduction of the recording technology and its media for distributionadded a totally new dimension to the relation between a performer and his public. Very broadly spoken, onecan observe an evolution from a situation where the popularity of a performer depended exclusively on hisability to appeal directly to a physically present audience, to a situation (starting at the end of the 1900s)where his popularity was also based on the distribution of his product by an increasing complex array of intermediary bodies. The live performance of a song in itself was no longer sufficient to obtain success.And what is more: the art of live performance is quite different from the skills that are required in a recordingstudio. I think we cannot imagine ourselves enough the psychological earthquake that it must have causedfor those early artists to go into a studio and perform for a big wall with a horn (later replaced by coolmicrophones). One can find examples of artists who ‘froze’ when they needed to play. Also, it has beenobserved that in an early stage, the artists who were invited by the record companies to produce thecylinders and discs did not necessarily perform live (William Howland Kenney, 2003). Especially the earlytechnology imposed upon the voice and the instruments other requirements than those needed during alive performance. The sensibility and accuracy of the early recording techniques were far away from whatthey have become later.The integration between performer and public is closely linked to the next dimension: to which degree can aperformer manage this integration himself, and how far can he manage his own career?d)
The degree of autonomy.
- The Blues performer as business entrepreneur | MyBlueshttp://www.myblues.eu/blog/?p=13293 van 1023/08/2011 10:29

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