The Sound Cafe
Ken Wallis Chats With Canadian Blues Artist Erin McCallum
By Ken Wallis. Photo Credit: Ken Wallis.
Erin McCallum is a seasoned veteran of the blues who sports a Big Voice, Big Sound. She’s garnered a bucketload of awards and recognitions, including two Maple Blues Awards and an International Songwriting Award. She is not solely a performer, she’s a savvy business expert in the music industry, an investigative journalist, and writes an exclusive monthly column, 'Behind The Curtain', here at The Sound Cafe.
We wanted to chat with her about the current state of the music industry.
Ken Wallis interviewed Erin McCallum for the radio show BluesSource Canada. The following are excerpts of that interview edited and amended for brevity and clarity.
With everything that's been going on lately in the music world, the shutdown because of Covid, sales plummeting, we thought we’d touch base with a musician that really knows what's going on. Joining us is Erin McCallum. Erin thanks for coming on the show, it's great to see you again.
Thanks for having me Ken, it's really great to be here having a conversation with you.
Well first of all I understand you're in prep for a new album.
Yeah, most definitely and it feels like it's been like that for a while. We had some plans that were in place prior to the pandemic shutting everything down, and then there were delays I think that everybody experienced. Now it's kind of a period of regrouping and re-establishing where everything was before the pandemic.
And how do you go about re-establishing? That's going to be a real challenge.
It is a challenge, and I think it's a challenge that a lot of artists are facing right now at any stage in their career, whether they're burgeoning artists that are starting out, or ones that have had a lengthy career, an established career.
How do you go about re-establishing?
Well you rethink where you're at, and maybe rethink where the music scene is at, because everybody from artists, to consumers, to events presenters, sponsors, it's all sort of been reassessed. I think that's part of re-establishing is kind of getting a new lay of the land on how things are working.
And what do you think the new lay of the land is? How are things going to change?
I think there's an awful lot of emphasis or a lot of success being put on things like sponsorship, branding, small events, as opposed to the way it used to be. Before a band could invest in recording an album and they would go out on tour to support that album, in a live way, and they would sell their CD's as they go. And as you go, you let the people in your area know, and that feeds the radio and everything else. It's not like that anymore, it hasn't been like that for a while, but it's really obvious now post pandemic that you can't really invest in the physical product of a CD anymore, and expect that you're going to get that investment back in CD sales. You can't even buy a car with a CD player anymore. So, rethinking why you're putting music out there and rethinking how you're going to maintain being a musician, those are really important things to come out with a new product and to continue doing what you're doing. The business itself or the music industry has changed in ways that people are consuming their music, getting their music and also enjoying it live. There are virtual concerts now, and you know what, that has its bonuses too because there's no capacity. There are bonus things happening, and there are difficult things happening as well, but knowing how to navigate those things is I think the key to moving forward.
I would think live touring is probably the most important peg right now in the industry.
I think what a lot of people are seeing is that from a musician's standpoint, when the pandemic hit, obviously everything stopped, and it had to for all the reasons we already know. When things like capacity restrictions got lifted, one of the things that happened was the artists that were postponed before, that were supposed to play when the pandemic happened, their contracts got honoured rightfully so. There were a good amount of musicians that basically had to wait another season for those festival contracts and so on. Then you run into another potential difficulty with artists who had released an album, even just coming right out of the pandemic, that if they're waiting for that season to take a stage, now their album is no longer new. These are things that affect all and I don't just mean for people to purchase your album. I mean maybe contention for a Juno submission, or maybe it's consideration for a Maple Blues Award, those things matter because they keep your resume current in order to get those jobs. So, there's this collective kind of re-climbing of the ladder that's happening for a whole lot of artists.
It’s sort of like a catch-22. You need to have music to get gigs, but you need the gigs to sell the music. I have seen some artists are now selling download coupons and you pay $10 or $15 for the album, and you get a download and a password. And that bypasses CD's. I've also read an article that CD's are coming back believe it or not.
Download cards have been around for a while and this is where there might be a positive with Covid sort of forcing its hand on the industry. As we know things like digital media have been around for a while, however there have been plenty of mediums such as terrestrial radio that hasn't had the ability to take those digital downloads with the proper signatures and the proper accreditation to the artist, to log them into a database. In a way Covid sort of modernized those things which is good, and artists are rethinking that. And you're seeing a lot of artists that are now recording a single instead of putting out a whole album for very much the same reason. There's so much digital media now that things like a video matter, branding matters, sponsorship matters, and if you're gonna throw everything on the fences pick your single, very much like the A side, the B side, except maybe there's not a whole album to grab. One thing I've noticed is I have not seen a theme album in a long time, and I think that's the reason why. And vinyl too. People still want, especially in the blues community, people still want something they can take home with them as part of the experience. It's the very same principle as a tour shirt, some people want to walk away with that piece of that experience. So yes, I think certainly in the blues there will always be a place for a hard copy but it does look different from a business perspective.
What's your take on the blues? Is it sticking to its roots, or is it starting to morph into something new?
Well, that is a very loaded debate amongst many. Blues is one of the genres of music that hasn't evolved so much from its parameters in a hundred years. If you take let's say another genre, take for example country music, you can listen to country music from today and you can listen to country music from the early 90s, something that was revolutionary back then like Garth Brooks. You can listen to country music today and all it's almost indiscernible. It's grown so much. So as far as it goes, blues hasn't stretched too far. However, there are people who don't think it should be and there are people who say you need to stretch its parameters in order for it to hit a commercial market. So that is a loaded question of great debate.
Well, you certainly answered it properly by basically providing the two sides which is quite true. There's two sides to the coin on this one. Let's get back to you and your future album. How have you been going about composing your music?
Prior to the pandemic there was a really good resource. It was a matter of pulling some triggers and setting things in motion. However, it's also offered a great opportunity to reevaluate, re-establish, rewrite, review all of the material that was there. One of the things that's different this time around is that I want to bring in a co-producer. We've got this band, we've got the musicians that we're looking to have. It's not so much the material that's different, it's the process that'll be slightly different and it shows growth.
I think the point you’re making is that the music grows with whoever is playing it rather than the other way around. It depends upon who you're playing with. I have to bring this point up, you've been playing an awful lot with Teddy Leonard lately, and Teddy is a well-known guitarist in Canada. What's it like working with an artist like that?
I'll say this point blank, I love working with Teddy. He's the reason I want to pull in a co-producer on this next album, he knows his stuff. I called Teddy to see if he wanted to be part of this band a good handful of years ago now. I've always been a big fan of this playing. I quickly realized his musical instincts are really, really good. The best way I can say it is that Teddy meets the music where it's at and I'm not sure there's a better compliment than that, because it's the highest compliment you can give. When I think about the idea of putting out some new material, I've got a really good set of ears. Teddy has a really good set of ears, but we both hear things differently. I can see that augmenting a project and making for some really good music. Working with Teddy, it's like a gift.
It's a kind of gift that you like to have that's for sure, and I hope you unwrap that gift soon because we would love to hear a new album from the Erin McCallum Band.
You and me both Ken
Erin thanks so much for talking with us, it's been great chatting and we'll keep in touch as the time unfolds and hopefully, we'll see you on tour soon.
Yes, thanks so much for having me.
Photo Credit: Harry Dunbar Photography.
Touring blues musician, Erin McCallum's formal post-secondary education was in media studies (news, radio), graduating from Humber College in Ontario, she went on to be mentored by Canadian News Hall of Fame inductee, Robert Holiday, and she is a regularly published writer in music and investigative journalism, having focused on music for the last six years. Erin has an exclusive monthly column in The Sound Cafe featuring musicians and industry professionals from across Canada who work predominantly in the Blues & Roots genres.
Erin McCallum. Big Voice. Big Sound. www.erinmccallum.com
Read Erin's Articles ...
www.thesoundcafe.com/post/behind-the-curtain-quisha-wint www.thesoundcafe.com/post/behind-the-curtain-steve-marriner www.thesoundcafe.com/post/behind-the-curtain-michael-fonfara