Impact of COVID-19 on the Blues

Following the widespread cancellation of tours and gigs, with associated loss of income, American Blues Scene contacted four UK and Irish blues musicians to assess the impact of this awful virus on their livelihoods. We also asked them how they are coping and what steps they are taking to continue promoting their music and engaging with fans.

Grainne Duffy: Irish singer, songwriter, guitarist

Well, of course it’s had a huge impact on my life and my husband too as we are both musicians, so it’s our employment gone temporarily (and our upcoming festivals). We were super excited about returning to Glastonbury 2020 but in the whole scheme of things it’s only a small short-term price to pay. I’m so worried for all the smaller festivals and clubs. These places have been our lifeline and keep us alive. They need to work so hard to keep going even in a good climate. I’m really hoping the governments do all they can to help and support them to stay alive.

I’m trying to stay in touch with fans out there. I’m doing videos from the studio and will hopefully do a small concert live. Even doing wee online live video collaborations with other artists has started now since the outbreak which is a positive thing. Who knows where they might lead in the future. We also have a few fun ideas for upcoming posts lined up too which I am excited about.

Grainne’s Facebook Duo Recording

Thankfully our wee boy Bobby Joe who’s one and a half keeps us entertained for the most part. We are making this a good opportunity for quality family time, nature walks, cycles, art and crafts etc. Mainly we try to exercise and take time to write and record songs that we haven’t had the chance to do. We also take time to listen to older albums that we had never got the time to enjoy and watch videos from artists who inspire us. I love reading too, I’m reading Alan Lomax, The Land Where The Blues Began. It’s a super read, very informative. I believe this will provide us with a new way of looking at and appreciating Mother Earth, slowing down a little and really appreciating our families and valuing their importance even more than we do. 

It’s the simple things in life. Maybe we all needed to press stop momentarily. Nothing really stops this modern world turning but this has and it really makes you stop and think about what’s most important in life. Hopefully we will get back to making and enjoying music together soon.

Phil Woollett: Lead singer and guitarist with the John Doe Trio

Phil Woollett on right

The Covid-19 situation is hugely disruptive and costly for us, both as individual working musicians and as a band.  From the band perspective, the entire tour designed to promote our new album Railroaded has collapsed and, with it, the impetus it would have brought to its promotion.  As an independently produced album, with no record company backing, there is also a major financial consideration, as the album cost over £2000 to produce and the majority of sales in our part of the musical marketplace still come from CD sales at gigs. We were looking to mitigate this by live streaming some gigs but the latest UK government regulations in term of group gatherings make this impossible to do.  There is potential for modern online technology to allow us to perform as a band from completely different locations and this is something that our bass player Craig is looking into.  I am also going to experiment with streaming solo sets from home and am even thinking about having a “virtual” Craig and drummer Paul, by using the album stems of their recorded parts and playing live alongside these. 

We are trying to maximize streaming opportunities for Railroaded and our debut album, Stranger. Whilst the lack of financial benefits to the recording artists are well publicized, it still allows us to get the album heard all over the world.  The financial element of recorded music tends to be of secondary consideration these days, contrary to when I first started in the business.  Back then, artists would release an album and then tour to promote it and encourage sales, which would be their primary income source.  Nowadays this has flipped onto its head, with recorded music being used to popularize artists in order to sell tickets to live shows: these now being the main source of income.  Sadly the effect of this is that artists such as Joe Bonamassa are charging large sums for tickets, which feels like it’s pricing folks out of the market, when in fact I suspect that, were the individuals to calculate how much they used to spend on albums rather than streaming etc. the costs wouldn’t be so different.

Another vital source of assistance for bands like us, during these gig-free times, is the Independent Blues Broadcasters Association (IBBA) and the likes of journalists in the written press.  They really are so important to us as, even more than streaming, writers allow our music to still get to the ears that we want to listen to it.  Especially now, it’s very easy to just think in monetary terms about the music scene (particularly if you are currently a couple of grand out of pocket as I am) but the primary purpose of John Doe Trio (and most other blues bands, I would opine) is to provide entertainment and pleasure to those who appreciate our style of music.  The blues radio broadcasters and blues journalists allow us to do this, even when we are unable to get out and perform to folks directly.  I can’t express enough how important this is to the likes of our band.

Brooks Williams: Statesboro Born Country Blues Singer

These are strange times indeed. My internal soundtrack is bouncing between moody Skip James, apocalyptic Blind Willie Johnson and ecstatic Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Aretha Franklin and Susan Tedeschi next, I think!  The direct impact on me is up to 60 cancelled shows. Perhaps more depending on how long this all continues. We’ve been working two years toward the release of Work My Claim (March 2020) and the celebration of my 30 years on the Road (a tour from late February to early July). I was a couple of weeks into the tour when we had to pull the plug. The grim reality is lots of money invested in PR, advertising and preparation for this tour over the last year or so, and thousands lost in just weeks through cancelled shows. I have built my career on gigging. I identify as a ‘road dog,’ if you know that expression. For me, it’s all about the face-to-face. Not only do I count on it for my livelihood, but I genuinely love it. To my way of thinking, music is all about what happens in a room with an audience. All the rest of it is just a means to get you to that room with those people. I’m old school in that way, I guess. Gigging has been the constant of my 30-year career. Now that is off the table, I’m trying to figure out a way to stay connected with my audience. They have been great before and I’m assuming we’ll find new ways to connect. 

Like so many others, the strategy is to try and keep in touch via social media. I have a new Patreon page and an email list that I connect with every week or two, but I also use Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I’m filming videos of songs – deep cuts from my back catalogue, old blues songs – and beginning to post them. We’re also planning a series of live streaming concerts from my office. Additionally, I’ll be doing online guitar lessons as well. Of course I’ll keep co-writing with my collaborators – we can do that online – and figuring out other ways to stay connected with my musician friends. I’m not tech-phobic by any means, but I’ve never had a home studio or a live streaming set-up before. To be honest, I didn’t have time. Now I have the time and I have the need, so taking ‘baby steps’ learning how all this works and asking lots of questions. Many of my peers are way ahead of me here, but I’m kind of enjoying the process. It inspires me to think outside the box. We’re all being challenged to be inventive in a way we haven’t had to be before. 

I don’t really have any hobbies other than guitar, song writing and music, so those continue as part of my daily routine. I’m re-discovering reading and trying to re-learn the fine art of sitting still and being attentive to what’s around me. I’ve put the flight cases in the loft for now and have truly unpacked for the first time in I don’t know how long. Who knows what can happen? I’m also listening to my music collection again and making it a point to explore the music of other musicians, something I’ve not had the opportunity to do. I watch their videos and, in some cases, order their music. Long before thirty years ago I loved this acoustic roots music and I’m delighted to discover I still love it not only as a player but as a listener.

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Giles Robson: Harp maestro both sides of the Atlantic

Giles Robson with Billy Branch (photo credit: Tim Russell)

Our first cancellation on arrival in Calais on, yes you guessed it, Friday 13th March, was for a gig that evening in Abbeville, France. We were on a double bill with Chris Bergson and Ellis Hooks. As soon as the Eurotunnel train hit Calais I got a message from my agent saying that France’s President Macron had banned events of over 100 people. Myself and the band waited in Calais for a couple of hours for final confirmation that the show was off, which inevitably came and so back we went. Slowly over the next few days it became clear that all of my work for March April and May in Europe and the UK would be cancelled. I must admit this was initially a great shock. The work was some of the best I had received in France, Romania and Holland and Spain and it seemed that we’d turned a corner this year with sold out shows in Paris and just outside Lyon. 

On a more practical level – there was the money situation which is pretty nightmarish I’m sure for all musicians and indeed any creative freelancers who are living on a job by job basis without anything saved up. The next few months will be challenging to say the least and hopefully the government will step up a bit more and help the self-employed somewhat further, and whilst I write this it looks like they will be. The one positive thing about being a professional musician is that if you’ve stuck with it and toughed it out over the years, you’re used to fighting through unexpected situations, cancellations and financial challenges that have made you stronger in the face of adversity because you have no choice if you want to carry on.

I’ve decided to use the vast amount of new free time as positively as possible to start building up my online teaching presence internationally and to try and monetize it. It’s something that I’ve wanted to do for some time. I love breaking down both the legendary masters of the harmonica and writing new stuff to help with understanding different aspects of instrument and the art of playing the music. I’ll also be writing and planning my new album. That way I’ll be on top of the overall concept, songs, artwork photography etc. when the touring kicks back in. I will also be writing some articles on  blues masters of the past and also interviewing blues masters of the present for some magazine articles including Billy Branch.

I wish all my fellow musos well, and look forward to catching up on the other side of this.

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