Sunday, June 28, 2009

Blues Foundation Director Jay Sieleman Speaks Out

Jay Sieleman, Executive Director of The Blues Foundation, took time from his busy schedule in May 2009 and spoke with Crossroads Newsletter Editor Steve Jones about the Blues Music Awards, the IBC Challenge and other blues topics.
Pictured are Priscilla Hernandez and her husband Jay Sieleman enjoying the Arkansas Blues & Heritage Festival.

SJ: We appreciate you doing this interview with us. I guess now that the Blues Music Awards are over that you and your staff can take bit of a breather while the summer festival season begins to rev up. Can you give us your impressions of this years awards and the event in general?
JS: I may be so close to the event that I am not the best judge, but certainly I was very happy with all the events beginning with the Blues Hall of Fame Induction to the Blues Music Awards to the events on and around Beale Street on Friday. The musicians and fans in attendance have universally hailed the 30th Blues Music Awards as the best ever. Some commentators who have not been here for awhile were in awe at how far we have progressed. I will accept their verdict!! They are talking about all aspects--the production, the music, the warmth of the vibe. It truly was something else this year. The nominees loved it.

SJ: The Blues Music Awards seem to grow every year. The last Foundation newsletter mentioned that the ceremony may have started to outgrow the current location. Are you looking at perhaps trying to find a larger location for the awards night?
JS: Recognizing there may be room for improvement is the first step. We will be talking with the folks at the Convention Center in the near future. It was the pre-party and silent auction that seemed too crowded, not the dinner set up in the ballroom. I have never seen that huge lobby so packed. It was not like that when we were last in there in 2007. The 2008 location in Tunica, MS was too small and it caused problems. I guess it is a good problem to have—growing numbers every year. This applies to both the International Blues Challenge and the Blues Music Awards. We have growing pains.

SJ: I believe that you have been with the Blues Foundation now for almost six years. How has the Foundation grown or changed in that time?
JS: Since taking the reins of the Foundation during a period of financial and administrative turmoil, we have engineered a pretty remarkable turnaround of the organization. Reducing staff and expenses, the Foundation was able to turn negative net incomes in 2002 and the first half of 2003 into a significant net income for 2004, allowing the organization to eliminate its 2002 and 2003 debts ($150,000). Today, we have invested in our technology and programming and still built a reserve of over $250,000 so The Blues Foundation will never again face the prospect of closing its doors and ending its programs. During this time, the Foundation has staged some of its best-attended and most highly-acclaimed Blues Music Awards and International Blues Challenges (2004-2009) and doubled individual memberships and affiliated blues societies (170). Each of these has contributed to a much-improved reputation both in the Blues world and the general public. BITS programming around the country is probably at its peak and we are helping musicians with medical expenses through the HART Fund.

SJ: I’m sure you get tired of being asked, but I must ask you what you have in store for the Blues Foundation. What things do you, your staff and the board have planned?
JS: In 2007, The Blues Foundation completed a building feasibility study and in 2009 hopes to begin the capital campaign that will lead to a permanent “home” in downtown Memphis that will serve as the international headquarters of Blues music, serving as office, tourist destination and educational center. This is a tough economic time for fundraising but the downturn offers some advantages too in terms of real estate, borrowing and construction costs. In order to make this happen, we will need the involvement of people who have money and can raise money. There are blues fans that fit this bill and we need them to step up and make this happen. To borrow a rather infamous quote from the 2008 presidential campaign “The fundamentals of The Blues Foundation are sound.” Now is the time for The Blues Foundation and the Blues community to take the next step—establish a Home of the Blues.

SJ: I always have to ask people in the industry about the phrase "keeping the blues alive." When I talked to Bruce Iglauer about this last year I alluded to the “blues industry” which I think he found to be a little amusing when one considers how small of a percentage of total music sales the blues accounts for. Whether or not the term “industry” is appropriate, how do you evaluate the state of blues music as a whole right now?
JS: I do not generally evaluate the state of the blues. I do not have the facts to make a macro assessment. I only have anecdotes and as a lawyer for almost 25 years, I take anecdotal evidence for what it is—one person’s story. I am not, however, a purveyor of gloom and doom. The business of The Blues
Foundation, perhaps, has never been better. The business of Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise, perhaps, has never been better. The number of Blues Festivals around the world has probably never been larger. The ability of a musician to make and market music has probably never been more in their own hands. As Doug MacLeod said at the 2008 Blues Music Awards “all things go in cycles.” Some parts of the blues world are up and others are down. Individual musicians and companies have their own perspective and they can speak for themselves, but the industry components that are down, I think are down across the musical landscape and not just in Blues. But that is impression, not fact. I am not aware that anyone in the industry actually undertakes to conduct “studies” of these issues, the way a business might.

SJ: The overall recording industry seems less focused on CDs and is offering more alternatives like DVDs, downloads and perhaps other new formats. How do you see the blues recording labels responding to this?
JS: I have no expertise in running a label. I do not get involved in telling others how to run their businesses. There are some rather massive changes going on in the record and live performance aspects of the music industry. The fact that it ain’t like it used to be is nothing new. Today is never like it used to be. Look at major companies and industries that we thought would never go out of style and they have. Law of the jungle and survival of the fittest and all that.

SJ: The economy is still way down. Some festivals have been cancelled, others have cut back in the quantity and/or the relative quality of artists, yet some new festivals have sprung up. How do you think that the blues industry has been impacted by the general economic conditions?
JS: I am sure they are impacted, but that is to be expected. People need to set priorities and adjust. But this too shall pass. And I do not believe listening to blues, whether live or recorded, is the first thing to go. Indeed, in tough times, people turn to the arts. Blues music is a relatively inexpensive entertainment form. This is related to my earlier answer about cycles and that some aspects of blues are doing relatively well. Eden Brent told me that in the Delta, they say what recession? What does she mean? There have always been tough economic times in the Delta. There have often been tough economic times in the Blues; indeed the music itself grew out of the toughest times. I have no doubt that Blues music will be around long after we are all gone. The music will be here. I do not know about the industry or economic model of a blues industry going forward. But that’s not the music, that is the music business.

SJ: The blues as a music form seems to remain somewhat the same yet it is also constantly evolving. Some of the music that spawned from the blues has come back to influence blues artists to incorporate those styles of music into their blues. Some purists complain about this but I kind of see it as a positive thing because it’s just a natural part of life. How do you see blues music evolving? (and as a follow on to that) In your opinion is that a positive or a negative thing?
JS: Adapt, migrate or die. That is what they say. And most importantly, let musicians do whatever they want to do. They are the artists, not me. I am just a “%$#@*! suit” after all.

SJ: Our Crossroads Blues Society is heavily focused into conducting Blues In The Schools (BITS) programs. We tend to support between 8 and 14 schools a year with blues music programs. Do you have any idea how many organizations are sponsoring BITS programs in the US and perhaps even abroad and what sorts of programs are they sponsoring?
JS: We do not have either qualitative or quantitative studies, but I know there are dozens and dozens and dozens. I know because I read about them in e-mails and monthly newsletters like your own. Your May-June issue heralded “Over 1200 Students Attend BITS Programs.” And it is happening abroad too. European festivals have American artists going into their schools in conjunction with festival appearances. Incredible. Blues societies, blues education organizations, individual teachers and musicians all present and produce BITS programming and most of them do what works for them. Generally, these are local initiatives done in the way that they believe works best for them. Most BITS programming has more in common with the entrepreneur, small business, mom and pop operations than the recently discredited too big to fail, national, one size fits all enterprises that are a cause of all this economic grief.

SJ: Fundraising is always a difficult task and I am sure the current economy raises the bar on the challenges for this. Are there any recommendations you can give Blues Societies about how to improve their fund raising efforts?
JS: Even after six years, I am not an expert on fundraising. I am much more comfortable with a “Field of Dreams” model. Build it and they will come. Make a product that people want and then you will have a chance to “earn” income from blues fans, or those that appreciate the arts or those that just want to do something. When I was able to speak with the founder of the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company about becoming a sponsor of the Blues Music Awards, he told me “but we don’t market or advertise” and I told him “I know. You spend all you money on hops.” That is my advice “spend your money on hops.” And don’t forget, you all are the custodians of this art form in your area, just like those in charge of the ballet or symphony. Take this responsibility seriously and continually strive to offer better and more product.

SJ: The International Blues Challenge (IBC) seems to be as popular as ever. Have you any good tips for sponsoring organizations that you would like to share with us?
JS: What is more important than a band getting to the IBC, where it has a 10% chance of making it the finals and a 1% chance of winning (solo/duo odds would be somewhat better), is what the IBC as an event can do for an affiliated blues society. The point is not only Memphis for one band, but about the dozen bands competing in several venues over several weeks and the fans the local competition brings out to those venues and how you use the competition to grow your audience.

Half tongue in cheek, tell your judges--more blues and less rock; more singing and less guitar and harp; more slow than fast; more promise and less past; more solo musicians and less “I can play without my band” and more originality in songwriting, more young than old.

SJ: Sounds like some sound advice. Can you get more into what you mean about what is in it for the affiliated blues society?

JS: We get people who call up and want their band to be in IBC. Or want to start a blues society to get their band in the IBC. If the IBC was about bands, we could just eliminate the requirement that the act must be sponsored by an affiliate. Or we could just let anyone one become an affiliate. We scrutinize applicants for affiliates now and have been for some years. The goal is functioning blues societies, not just another band coming to Memphis . We have enough acts. What we do not have is enough functioning and prop-
erly functioning societies that are promoting blues in their local area 52 weeks out of the year. Sending an act to the IBC is supposed to be the culmination of the local competition and just one of the things an affiliated society does throughout the year, not the only thing it does. That’s why we like to emphasize the IBC is a benefit affiliates, not the entrants. It gives the affiliate something to promote and rally around and build around. The Blues Foundation has ongoing relationships with its affiliates, not the acts those affiliates choose to send in any given year. A properly function-ing society breeds more music and more music breeds better music and in this way the local blues bands have a better shot when they get to the IBC.

SJ: I’d like to thank you for your time in talking with us about the Foundation and the blues in general. How is your summer personally shaping up from a music fan’s perspective?
JS: I will be in Cali , Colombia in late May for a bi-cultural exploration of the Blues, while Joe is at Eureka Springs , AR. Greenville , Leland and Indianola the first week in June. Joe and I will be at other festivals in June and July—have not sat down yet to map it out—before I head to Notodden , Norway for the 2nd European Blues Conference, that once again is being held under the auspices of The Blues Foundation. I am pretty sure Joe is headed to Wheeling , West Virginia . I am trying to figure out how I can attend my nephew’s wedding in Oelwein , Iowa while being in Aurora , IL for Blues on the Fox at the same time.

SJ: Wow! What a busy summer! It looks like it's over 250 miles from Oelwein to Aurora . Assuming the wedding is on a Saturday, the Friday night part of Blues on the Fox followed by a very long drive might work, but it would be tiring. The Chicago Blues fest is the week before that. Our Society has a lot of folks attend those two festivals. Our biggest turn out is for the Mississippi Valley in Davenport over the 4th of July. The Grafton WI blues festival is in mid-August this year and has grown in appeal. We also have a blues stage in Rockford as part of the "On The Waterfront" Labor Day weekend festival. It would be great to see you at one of those!
JS: And there is Prairie Dog Fest in Prairie Du Chien and Bluesmore in Cedar Rapids and several more downstate. You all are pretty centrally located. I have been to Chicago and Aurora but still have to make it to the others.

SJ: Well thank you again so much for your time! We appreciate your insights and what you have done with the Foundation!

Jay Sieleman Bio Facts
· A native Iowan and a graduate of the University of Iowa College of Law who practiced law for 25 years
· Served as a Provincial Legal Advisor as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Solomon Islands in 1983-85
· Began his involvement with the Blues Foundation in 1996 as a lifetime VIP member and then served on its Advisory Board from 1999 until his March 2003 appointment to his current position
· Assisted Blues Societies with nonprofit management and legal issues as an Advisory Board Member
· Served as a lead panelist at BluesFirst conventions in 2000 and 2002 and authored articles on Blues Societies as Nonprofit Organizations and ‘So You Want to Start a Blues Society’ that are featured on the Foundation website.
· His wife Priscilla Hernandez and he are huge blues fans; she is a tireless volunteer and the unofficial Blues Foundation hostess

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