Dan Aykroyd announced early this week that he and John Belushi’s widow Judy Belushi Pisano are launching a new record label: Blues Brothers Records, to be distributed by the long-running jazz imprint Blue Note. The idea, he explained to Billboard, is that he’ll be able to plug its releases through his radio show and eventually put together a revue that could tour the clubs with which he’s affiliated; Rolling Stone quoted him, inevitably, saying that it’s a “mission from God.”
The “Blues Brothers” routine that Aykroyd is once again extending, for the record, is a joke that appeared on exactly three episodes of Saturday Night Live in 1976 and 1978. The Blues Brothers — Aykroyd and Belushi in suits and shades, as Elwood and Jake Blues, feigning Chicago-blues cool — made a #1 album, Briefcase Full of Blues, in 1978, and followed that up with a weirdly bloated but very successful movie full of R&B celebrity cameos in 1980.
John Belushi died in 1982, which didn’t stop the act: the Blues Brothers Band continued to record and tour, sometimes fronted by Aykroyd and/or Belushi’s brother Jim, more often not. According to the band’s official site, the roles of Jake and Elwood are now played on stage by Wayne Catania and Kieron Lafferty — and Aykroyd lost a 2013 bid to legally bar a tribute act to his tribute act’s tribute act from dressing in suits and sunglasses. Meanwhile, Aykroyd co-founded the House of Blues chain of music clubs in 1992, and hosts the syndicated radio show Elwood’s BluesMobile. These days, he’s also flogging vodka in skull-shaped bottles. Let’s maybe not get into the trainwreck that was Blues Brothers 2000, and instead acknowledge that he was pretty good as James Brown’s manager Ben Bart in last year’s Get On Up.
It’s undeniable that Aykroyd’s got a genuine and deep love of blues, and that he’s devoted the better part of his life to waving the flag for the artists he admires. (He generally comes off as a music aficionado who accidentally ended up with a comedy career.) But the initial announcement of the new label strikes a couple of notes more sour than blue.
One is the declaration that they’re taking submissions from would-be signees. The dream of sending in a tape to the slush pile, having your genius discovered by a label’s artists-and-repertoire person, and going on to be an idol of millions has almost never been the way the music business has worked. It’s definitely not the way the business works now. And it’s especially not the way blues works.
“I always want to find the next Gary Clark Jr.,” Aykroyd told Billboard, and what record label wouldn’t? Clark’s Blak and Blu was a Top Ten album in 2012 — a rare accomplishment for a blues artist who hasn’t been recording for decades already. Blues is a niche music, consumed by a distinct subculture that knows exactly where to find it. It’s also a performance-based music; successful blues musicians build their audience one club date at a time. Either you’re keyed into the blues scene enough that you know who’s a significant live act that needs a record label, or you’re not — and if you’re making an open call for submissions, you’re not.
For that matter, it’s worth squinting at Blues Brothers manager and Blues Brothers Records administrator Eric Gardner’s assertion in the same Billboard piece that “a lot of [blues] labels don’t have the wherewithal or the financing to have strong digital strategies.” That’s not quite the case. One of the struggles of small and independent labels has always been getting their releases into (the right) stores — but it’s not especially difficult to get digital distribution, and the iTunes Store stocks basically everything that’s now in print. (A strong physical strategy is at least as much a battle as ever; many contemporary blues musicians self-release their recordings — that’s what Gary Clark Jr. did with his first two albums — and others stick to labels like Alligator and Blind Pig that know how to reach the blues faithful. But it’s not clear that even distribution from Blue Note, whose forte is jazz, can help much with that.)
And when Aykroyd starts discussing blues staying alive through crossover, he gets it exactly backwards. (“Jack White and Aerosmith have done blues records. After I saw Miley Cyrus… I could hear her doing Lightnin’ Hopkins.”) Crossover is when artists develop in a subculture and then get embraced by the mainstream — as Clark did when his song “Bright Lights” appeared in a bunch of TV shows and the video game Max Payne 3. What Aykroyd’s talking about is pop artists cheerleading for the earlier music they love, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But The Blues Brothers is older now than Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Baby Please Don’t Go” was when The Blues Brothers came out. Aykroyd slapping his old comedy routine’s name onto a record label that’s at a loss for artists suggests that his divine mission is mostly about nostalgia for the glory days of his own career.