“Bluesmen do not tour anymore. It’s too expensive”: How blues clubs across the US are struggling in a post-pandemic world

“I don’t think anybody’s having a banner year,” one club owner says.

Joe Bonamassa

Credit: Gina Wetzler/Redferns

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A new report has shed light on the difficult time the blues scene in the US is having, with many blues clubs struggling to recover from the pandemic.

Billboard reports that the genre has “taken a significant hit” in the last few years for numerous reasons, particularly the pandemic altering people’s habits when it comes to nights out. More people are staying in or going home earlier, while rising crime rates have also deterred fans from making a trip out to a blues club. The scene also faces strong competition from competition from nearby music festivals and home alcohol delivery.

“Things are 50% normal,” estimates musician Mike Wheeler. “[There are] more clubs open now, but mostly Wednesday through Sunday. We’re trying to find the most gigs I can get in the city, but as far as tours and revenue, it’s kind of limited.”

“It is sporadic, to say the least,” adds Lisa Pellegrino, who manages Chi-town’s famed Kingston Mines blues club. “I don’t think anybody’s having a banner year.”

While artists in many genres are facing similar problems, blues has its own more specific problems to deal with as well. With its demographic skewing slightly older, some of its big stars have passed away. Others, meanwhile, have retired or cut down their touring schedules as they’ve got older, which hasn’t been helped by touring costs.

“Bluesmen do not tour anymore,” says club owner Ilan Elmatad. “It’s too expensive. These days, they’re staying where they are, whether it’s Mississippi or Arkansas. There are no blues clubs from Philadelphia to Montreal. We’re the only one.”

As such, the scene is having to think of new strategies to stay afloat. Joe Bonamassa, for example, says he’s broadened his marketing efforts to rock fans who attend Foo Fighters, Eagles and Red Hot Chili Peppers shows. “We’ve always looked at it from the point of view [that], ‘If Eric Clapton can pull 15,000 people in a market, there’s clearly 15,000 people who like this kind of music,’” he reasons. “It’s a classic rock-/blues-based audience, and that’s where you want to target.”

Although streaming numbers for blues music has increased by 41 per cent since 2020, these issues persist on the live circuit. “Everywhere, promoters are dealing with: ‘How do you deal with an aging fan base? How do you deal with a reduced number of headliners that are appealing to the baby boomer generation?’” talent buyer Zach Ernst says. “We don’t get too prescriptive by explaining exactly what we’re doing. We’re just like, ‘Hey, this is great music. Have a great time.’”

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