Going to the International Blues Challenge? Good for you! It’s the World’s Largest Gathering of Blues Musicians, and it’s fun. I’ve been involved with the IBC since 1999. I’ve been a venue coordinator and chaired the Blues Foundation Board’s IBC committee. I’ve been a fan on the street and the guy backstage at the finals. If it’s happened at the IBC I either did it, saw it, or know the guys who were there when it happened.
This is something you’ve heard but many of you don’t (and won’t) believe.
Winning the IBC should not be your only goal.
Use this time to network and showcase. Make contacts and do the things that you do best when you get onstage. Have fun.
Susan Tedeschi and Homemade Jamz both came in second. Watermelon Slim didn’t even make the finals. All of them have done OK.
Here are a few suggestions based on my time at the IBC.
Musicians: Before You Leave for Memphis
- Read the rules.
- Read the rules again. Pay attention this time.
- Pack everything you might need for a gig. Make sure you have strings, cables, and picks. Pack your tuner.
- Keep it simple. It’s a 30-minute set. You don’t need eight guitars and 50 pedals.
- You got an email from Joe Whitmer. Bring whatever he told you to bring.
- Send Joe Whitmer your stage plot.
- If you might possibly need something, bring it. If you think you might need a spare, bring it. Give one to your drummer to pack. Better yet, give it to your drummer’s girlfriend.
- Drummers-bring extra sticks and a drum key. The most common equipment problem I have seen is a malfunctioning high hat clutch. Bring one.
- Send your bio, photo and stage plot to Joe Whitmer. If you need something that’s not on the list you sent to Joe Whitmer don’t expect it to be there. If it’s on the list you DIDN’T send to Joe Whitmer, don’t expect it to be there either. All that is in the rules I told you to read in #1 and #2.
- Note I always refer to Joe Whitmer by his full name. There are a lot of Joes in the world. Joe Whitmer is the only one who counts when it comes to the IBC. Don’t trust any old Joe. Make sure you communicate with the Real Joe Whitmer® and do things his way.
- Bring LOTS of promo stuff. In the past few years I have seen a tremendous increase in the number of industry people. You want them to know who you are and to have your contact info. Bring business cards, press kits, CD’s etc.
- Bring CDs. You never know how many you might sell. Make sure your contact info is printed ON THE CD.
- Nobody cares who you’ve “shared the stage” with. I’ve performed with Jimi Jamison of Survivor and Tommy Aldridge of Black Sabbath. I’ve been on the same stage at the same time as Ike Turner, Little Milton, BB King, and Ruth Brown. I still can’t play well enough to get paid for it.
- Bring comfortable shoes.
- Too much to haul? There’s a FEDEX right across the street from the DoubleTree inside the Peabody. You can ship stuff there for them to hold for you. In many cases you can do this way cheaper than what they charge for those extra baggage fingerings they give you at the airport. Check with the Doubletree desk. You may also be able to ship to the hotel and have them hold it for you.
- Check the weather as close to the time you leave for Memphis as possible. I’ve been there when it was 60 and sunny. I’ve been when it was 30 and snowy. The worst was the year it was 20 with 30mph winds and sleet.
- Wear your comfortable shoes.
- Meet people. I’ve met people from all over the world. One of the coolest things I remember was introducing a group of Norwegian friends to a group of German friends in the lobby of the Orpheum.
- Don’t try to do it all. By my count, 2015 IBC had more than 700 sets of music over five days.
- Go to the Youth Showcases. These are usually held on Friday afternoon. Musicians under 21 are eligible. I’ve seen some great shows at these.
- Go to the agency, blues society, and record label showcases. VizzTone, Galaxie, Nashville Blues Society and Women in Blues Showcases are all great shows.
- If you’re coming for one or two days only, buy a wristband. They’re all over Beale Street. These get you into all the participating venues.
- If you’re planning on going to the finals, buy a pass good for the entire week.
- Get a program. See which venues are solo/duo or band venues. Go to whichever you prefer.
- If you want to hear a specific artist, be in the venue at least 30 minutes early.
- Some people prefer to stay in one place all night. Some prefer to see specific groups and hop from club to club. Both plans work.
- If you don’t like what you hear in one place, either wait a few minutes or go across the street. IBC has more choices than a Baptist potluck.
- Pack your ID. Most Memphis venues check ID, even if you’re bald headed and gray bearded like I am.
- I park at the Peabody Place garage. It’s well lighted, covered, and a short block north of Rum Boogie.
- Some clubs are smoking, some are smoke free. Be prepared.
Musicians: After You Get to Memphis
- GO TO ORIENTATION. PAY ATTENTION. Read the instructions e-mailed to you by Joe Whitmer. Listen to the instructions given you at the orientation by Joe Whitmer. Follow those instructions. If you are not clear about the instructions, ask Joe Whitmer or your venue coordinator to clarify. Chances are the boyfriend of the singer from some other band that you met five minutes ago doesn’t know as much as you do.
- Read the rules again.
- Play nicely with others. You may have to borrow a cable like the one you forgot to pack. Lend what you have if you are asked. That guy who just asked to borrow your tuner? The one you told to buzz off? He books the club you’ve been trying to get into for the past six months. Now he knows EXACTLY who you are. (Yes, I saw this happen stage right at BB King’s).
- Get a schedule. Follow it.
- Sleep when you can. It may be the last chance you get.
- Be on time for check in and orientation. Be on time for your venue.
- If you are a performer, promoter, manager, agent, publicist or anyone looking to network at the IBC bring twice as much promo material as you think you need. Cards, CDs, press kit, table cards one sheets-load up as much as you can haul. Leave that extra pair of shoes at home if you need to but make sure you bring lots of stuff with your name and contact info. Make sure your contact info is printed ON THE CD.
(Do not leave the comfortable shoes at home. You will definitely need those.)
- Don’t even try to do everything you want to do. There is way too much good music and way too many cool things to do to fit them all in one week. Take the time to truly enjoy the things you can and come back next year and the year after to fill in the gaps.
- Stay at the headquarters hotel if you can afford it. Lots of fun things, both official and unofficial, happen at the hotel. If you can’t stay close to Beale, there are lots of inexpensive chain motels in West Memphis, Arkansas and in Southaven-Horn Lake, Mississippi. Both are an easy 10-15 minute drive from Beale. I recommend Southaven. The traffic is easier.
- There’s plenty of parking near Beale. I recommend the Peabody Place garage. Covered, well lighted and maybe 100 yards from the Rum Boogie Cafe.
- Don’t stay on Raines or Brooks Roads unless you feel a need to write songs about having hookers and meth labs as your neighbors.
- Don’t expect to have public transportation. There are trolleys downtown on Main and Madison. Maybe. There are cabs. There may or may not be a bus. It’s Memphis. People have cars.
- Memphis has good areas and bad areas. Sometimes they can be on opposite sides of the same street. DON’T rely on the word of some guy who went to IBC last year. Ask a local. Lots of cool things to see are OK in daytime but not after dark (Forrest Park) or are in unsafe neighborhoods (Stax Museum, Graceland). Example: Beale between Front and Fourth is OK. Sun Studio is OK. Walking from Beale to Sun is OK as long as you stay on Union Avenue. DO NOT walk east on Beale any farther than Fourth Street with the idea you can cut back to Union.
- The street people who are out after dark are not your friends. Many of these are guys who have been banned from the shelters for bad behavior. Do NOT engage them in conversation. They will hurt you.
- Wear your comfortable shoes.
Your Performance and Scoring
- GO TO ORIENTATION. PAY ATTENTION. Read the instructions e-mailed to you by Joe Whitmer. Listen to the instructions given you at the orientation by Joe Whitmer. Follow those instructions. If you are not clear about the instructions ask Joe Whitmer or your venue coordinator to clarify. Chances are the boyfriend of the singer from some other band that you met five minutes ago doesn’t know as much as you do.
- (Yes. I know this is a repeat. It really is that important.)
- Read the rules again. Pay attention this time. (Yes, another repeat. Are you beginning to get the idea?)
- The best musicians don’t always win. Years ago I saw a phenomenal guitarist at IBC, one of the best I’d ever seen anywhere. He didn’t even make the finals. He was deader than Francisco Franco on stage. He left the next day to go on tour with a major recording star. He’s still touring with her.
- Remember, a part of your score is stage presence. How well did you engage your audience? The top BMA is the BB King ENTERTAINER of the Year award. Chops are essential but any chef can tell you a chop by itself isn’t a meal.
- Brownie McGhee said “Blues is Truth.” If you’re a 30-year-old white guy from Minnesota, don’t try to talk like an 80 year old black man from Mississippi.
As Larry Garner said, “If it ain’t in ya, it ain’t gonna come out right.”
- Shut up and play. Your time starts with the first sound you make. Don’t waste that time with introductory speeches. The Emcee will introduce you. Besides, unless you’re a better talker than you are a musician, you are more likely to engage the audience and the judges with your music than you are your spoken words.
- If you don’t know the difference between a middle buster and a tar bottom, don’t sing about picking cotton. Be who you are. Stick to what you know.
- Musicians-tell your fans and friends to leave the sound man AND THE JUDGES alone! Very few things at IBC are as irritating as a well-meaning but overly enthusiastic fan telling the judges that “his” group is wonderful unless it’s the one who tries to tell the engineer how to mix.
The engineers want you to sound good. They will try to make you sound good. Having a well-intentioned (and usually well lubricated) loud mouth tell them what to do with their board in their house isn’t going to make them do their job any better or faster.
- If you’re not in the right place at the right time, you lose points.
- Turn it down. If the sound engineer needs you louder he can and will tell you. If you start at 4 you can go up to 7. If you start at 9 you can’t dial to 11. You’re not Nigel Tufnel.
- Want to impress the girls at home? Do a crowd walk while playing the guitar with your tongue. Want to impress the judges at IBC? Show them a tight, professional act that’s true to the blues genre but different enough to stand out from the crowd.
- GO TO ORIENTATION. PAY ATTENTION. Read the instructions e-mailed to you by Joe Whitmer. Listen to the instructions given you at the orientation by Joe Whitmer. Follow those instructions. If you are not clear about the instructions ask Joe Whitmer or your venue coordinator to clarify.
- Have fun. Meet people. Make friends.
That really is the point, after all.