Technology has arguably been a big part of the blues as it has matured in the 20th century. Most notably, the electric guitar and amplification changed the way artists sounded. (Can you imagine Leadbelly wailing on a strat? Me neither.) Freddie King just wouldn’t sound like Freddie King without his Gibson ES-345 and Fender Quad Reverb. Have you noticed that Albert King almost always had his Phase Shifter pedal on?
T-Bone Walker was one of the first blues players to pick up an electric guitar, around the 1940s, and it totally changed the role of guitar in music. In the big bands of the 1920’s and 30’s, guitar was literally part of the rhythm section, providing a steady chunk-chunk to support the brass. Soloing on an acoustic guitar in that setting was tough, if not impossible. With his newly electric guitar, Walker pioneered a style that’s quickly become an essential part of blues and rock and roll.
Also consider Little Walter, he started blowing harp through a mic and PA system around 1945, trying to keep up with the ever-increasing volume of the new electric blues bands. He took it a step further, and pushed the amps beyond their intended use, getting a nice warm, overdriven tone. He may well be the first musician of any kind to purposely use distortion, and that influence on the blues cannot be overstated.
Aside from these obvious examples of technology influencing the blues, in the past 20 years or so, the recording studio has become more of an instrument for some, going beyond overdubs and compiled performances. Think about trance blues, and the use of drum loops and samples like the Tangle Eye material that chops up old Alan Lomax field recordings. In 2000, French producer St. Germain famously used a John Lee Hooker track for his song “Sure Thing”, which, it’s been argued, is the first trance blues recording. It’s really in its own category — there’s no other song like it.
Another approach to trance blues is building the song from the ground up, like Little Axe or Slo Leak. These groups don’t use samples, but are really good at taking blues standards, like “Spoonful” or “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues”, and creating an electronic trance-like weave that uses sonic elements of blues, like slide guitar or harmonica.
But what about the internet? File sharing, social media and iTunes? What does that mean for the future of the blues? For me (and arguably not for blues purists) blues has always combined high-flying innovation while keeping one foot in the Delta. Albert King may have a crazy Phase Shifter going, but he still evokes the eerie sadness of the early Delta scions, like Son House and Charlie Patton, while being completely original. File sharing, and access to hundreds of thousands of songs with the click of the mouse through services like Spotify and Pandora have put a huge dent in CD sales. For some genres more than others, an artist’s income is derived more from merchandise and live shows than traditional album sales. These days, to survive financially an artist must have more than just albums. Just take a look at Joe Bonamassa’s website – he’s got everything from t-shirts to coffee mugs to pick tins! He’s even started his own clothing line.
That really does not come as much of a shocker for me. The biggest stars in Rap and Pop music have perfumes, colognes, clothing lines, endorsements, and far more. This is how they make their fortunes. It is as if the music itself has very little monetary value, and hopefully drives people to their shows to buy into their product lines and help the artist create a brand out of their name.
Will this happen to the blues? Well, with Joe Bonamassa it already has. His team at JR Adventures are very savvy; they know how to take advantage of social media to develop and maintain the ‘grass roots’ following that is essential to success. In fact, we are well into the era where having a great website and strong presence in social media is imperative for essentially any artist.
I hear music industry analysts heralding the death of the album model. In many cases, it makes sense to abandon the album for a stream of content. Why wait 12 months for the next CD when your fans are hungry and have a short attention span? You may lose them if you do not have them securely hooked into your brand.
The blues may be behind the curve in this respect. Many fans are baby boomers who still like to buy a CD, put it in the stand-alone CD player and listen to the whole thing. Is this true for fans of Kanye West and Lady Gaga? Probably not. But at some point to survive as a genre, the blues needs to get with the program. My daughters have a smattering of classic rock on their iPods, but hardly ever do they have a complete album. What will the future fans of the blues want?
I see a lot of families at blues shows. Dad and Mom bring the kids, who discover the joy of seeing real people play real instruments in real time right in front of them. No lip-synching, no dance troop. Thankfully its still appreciated!
Blues music has so much to offer. Hopefully artists will not wait for the music industry to catch up (even the publishing industry seems to be passing it in the fast lane) and tailor their releases to the development of new technologies and get their music out there to the tech-savy and Luddites alike.
John Kessler – Radio Host, All Blues on KPLU
Dudley Taft – Musician