It’s been a well-known fact among musicians since the early 20th century: you’ve got to pay your dues to play the blues. However, thanks to recent changes that price may soon not be so high.
“I just feel it’s a real disservice to erect a paywall between today’s young musicians and this vital American art form,” said 28-year-old Dylan Zimmer, recently named director of the Office of American Rural Arts, a little-known division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which for decades has been tasked with the collection of dues. “It’s high time we chucked out the old, exclusionary system and moved things toward more of an interactive, open-source model.”
Created in 1928 by the Hoover administration, the OARA was formed when the popularity of so-called “race records” was booming as a way for white America to profit from the primarily African-American music phenomenon. Initially a secretive shadow organization, it was staffed by the strange bedfellows of white Southern establishment officials and a number of prominent Jewish anthropologists from Manhattan’s West Village. In the early 1950s, the department was discovered and completely overhauled. It subsequently flourished under black leadership through the halcyon days of the blues revival.
“For years, the office was funded from the dues of guys like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Son House,” said Bob Johnson, Jr., who headed up OARA from 1958-1969. “We’re talking significant dues.” With the 1960s came a sudden flood of interest in the blues, and more money. “We saw an astronomical jump in revenue, just unbelievable. Hundreds of thousands of young middle-class white kids were crazy about the blues and equally motivated to pay their dues. They were all so curious — what exactly were the dues, could we take a personal check, how soon could they receive confirmation of having paid… we could barely keep up with the administrative work alone.”
In a familiar story, however, the excesses of the ’60s precipitated a downfall. Over the course of the following decade, OARA became a bloated behemoth, rife with corruption, lack of oversight and redundancy.
“You had these bands in the ’70s supposedly releasing blues records,” scoffs rock critic Jim Christie, “and my God, they were just awful. So you’d ask around, like… have these guys paid their dues, man? And miraculously they had… either with the drummer’s trust fund, or through someone’s uncle who was a mid-level flunky at OARA cutting them a deal. But it just wasn’t the same.”
A combination of scandal, financial mismanagement and deep budget cuts during the Reagan–Bush era left the office with a skeleton crew.
“We hardly had the budget to keep the lights on,” laughs Dick Springfield, who saw the office through some lean years. “So when someone like Robert Cray came along, frankly we were just happy to have some revenue to justify our existence. But though it kept us afloat temporarily… how shall I say… it did not exactly burnish our reputation. I swear, I spent most of the ’80s hiding in Port-a-Pottys at blues festivals so I wouldn’t have to answer questions from the press.”
These days, funding comes from many sources. Thanks to Zimmer’s changes, dues can now be paid online, or bundled with VIP memberships to any number of co-branding partners like SonicBids, CDBaby and MySpace. “Starbucks, for example, has been an absolutely invaluable partner,” says Zimmer. “Now with the purchase of ten grande Frappucinos, you’ve officially paid your dues and can play the blues! It’s quite a change from our parents’ and grandparents’ days when you had to, I dunno… hop freight trains or drink wood alcohol or something. Some really toxic, dysfunctional stuff.”