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Erja Lyytinen: Blues owes me money (Notes & Letters column)

by Erja Lyytinen

I was three and a half years old when I performed for the first time, at my father’s employer’s Christmas party. One of the guests gave me a Finnish ten-mark note. It seemed like a lot of money – especially for singing! We sang at home all the time, so it didn’t feel like work even though performing in front of such a large crowd felt exciting. Singing was something I loved doing and it moved something inside me. And someone liked my singing enough to give me money – paper money.
Of course I had no idea I had done something people pay you for. The seed had been planted. I knew music was a part of me. As I grew up, I understood that I wanted music to be my profession, I never questioned the idea of making a living by making music. I had a fire inside me. I refused to admit to myself how challenging a path I had embarked on. When I caught the blues bug, the stereotypical image of the impoverished blues musician seemed to occupy other people’s thoughts, not mine. I wanted to succeed as a musician. Money was an afterthought.

I was asked if you could make a living playing the blues out there in the world, never mind Finland. After starting my own company seven years ago, I’ve had to give this a lot of thought as I’ve realised I can’t make all my visions come true within the constraints of the given budget. 

I’m a blues musician who uses her financial resources in a manner not typical for the genre. I break barriers by taking the blues to places where it shouldn’t be heard, such as concert halls and theatres. Blues is supposed to be played in little hole-in-the-wall clubs. And you’re supposed to suffer for it, too. Blues was born out of hardship, whipped out of the backs of America’s slaves, and our new generation, born and bred in Western opulence, can’t even imagine these circumstances. Throughout the ages people have suffered, if not by the hands of others then at least as a spiritual agony, like heartbreak, depression or the pain of creation. Each artist uses his or her pain in their own way.

Half a song for free

Over the years I’ve written dozens of songs about the pain that wells inside me. I’ve searched for redemption from my pain by sliding the bottleneck on top of the fretboard to find the right keening notes. It has been that blues, a sort of melancholy, that takes over at times.

I visited the birthplace of the blues in Mississippi for the first time in 2005. I stood by a cotton field, enveloped by the heavy air, and thought about history. Great things happened in Mississippi in the 1930s. Muddy Waters, Son House, Bukka White, Leadbelly – all made and played their way into the annals of history with blues. Around the same time my grandfather, a pelimanni musician, sat in the corner of a community hall in the forests of Nilsiä and played his accordion. I have a receipt that states he was paid 30 Finnish marks for the performance. My grandfather died young, like many Southern blues musicians. They strove for a common goal: to be able to make music, and to support their family doing it.

So yeah, the money. I comprehend the importance of income streams when I stand at the venue selling records and T-shirts after sweating on stage. I won’t be performing far from home if I can’t afford to pay for the band’s flights. I feel like I’ve succeeded when I can pay the band and still come out ahead. I can invest the income into making my next record. Maybe I’ll buy a new effects pedal and attain a brief nirvana as a musician. I have to work; I have to make money to make my musical dreams come true.

Pink Floyd’s song “Money” was supposed to talk about all the bad things money can bring. Ironically, with 34 million copies sold, the song earned them a stupendous amount of cash. Nothing wrong with money when you have some.

I was on a plane recently and asked for a glass of water. The stewardess told me I could have half a glass for free. What if a band decided to do the same when they’re asked for an encore? “You can have half a song for free.” I think their gig calendar would start looking pretty empty pretty soon.

Back to playing for drinks?

When I look at the shiny surface of my resonator guitar, I don’t see just dollar bills. A musician can’t concentrate on details at the expense of the big picture, even if the union would sometimes like us to. Counting hours is not a good idea, because you’ll realise how tiny the hourly wage is. As a joke we sometimes say that the gig is free, but you have to pay for the time we use to travel and haul our stuff!

Early last century, the resonator guitar worked as an armour when fights broke out on the dance floor and someone pulled out a gun. You had to play for a living. Literally.

Blues musicians received a part of their pay as homebrew whisky and a place to sleep. Maybe a few coins were thrown in. Being a musician was a lifestyle. If you got to make a record, you were lucky, but they only paid you for that one session.

Playing for drinks is mostly history, but in many other ways we’ve gone back to the way things were a hundred years ago, as far as the way you earn money goes. Today, too, most of a musician’s money comes from performances, not from record sales. Leadbelly, who’d written several hits, said as much in interviews. His music has stood the test of time and ended up covered by countless artists.

Son House, another delta blues guitarist, talked about how he hadn’t been paid for a recording he’d made. When he met the session’s producer decades later, he couldn’t even justify why this was. He just shrugged. To paraphrase an old reggae song, “Blues owes me money”. This surely wasn’t the first or the last time this happened in the biz. Despite all this, the blues musicians did their best and lived their music. And the thirsty crowd demanded a glass of water filled to the very brim.


Translation: Arttu Tolonen

Erja Lyytinen

:: b. 1976
:: Blues guitarist, singer, songwriter
:: Studied music pedagogy at Sibelius Academy 1998–2003 and was the first woman to major in electric guitar
:: Master of Music from Sibelius Academy 2010, final thesis on Son House’s playing style