20 November 2007

More Harping on Promotion and The Scene

Something that has been bothering me lately has been the content of music-oriented newsletters and journals. I feel like a fine line is being blurred between the basically noble cause of giving exposure to a brilliant new artist (subjective as that label might be) and merely doing favors for friends; between current events coverage and a concert calendar; between a profile and a press release. I can't help but feel that many such publications I encounter have merely become conduits for promotion, hence neglecting important academic, critical, or news-oriented functions. Ironically, it is a self-defeating enterprise when pursued in this way, for now that this comprises such an astonishing majority of content, I cannot even begin to keep track of all of these people and their always impressive-sounding accomplishments.

I have myself, of course, occasionally been the beneficiary of such things, and am always involved in my fair share of promotional activities (this and similar blogs, I would continue to insist, being included in this category). It is also an unavoidable truth that some of the most enlightening and informative musicological specimens are musicians writing about themselves and their work. In my estimation, however, there is a certain gracefulness about many such works that is conspicuously absent in the garden variety articles we encounter constantly today.

I picked up the most recent issue of the ITEA Journal fearing more of the same, yet this time, I was pleasantly surprised with the cover story on tubist Jens Bjørn-Larsen. Without putting words in his mouth, I get the distinct impression that Joseph Skillen, the author of the article, shares the concerns I've laid out here: in the very first paragraph, he overtly states the intention to present "a different type of article than we normally see in our journal." In my estimation, he succeeded not just in being different but in presenting something useful, proving that granting exposure to an artist need not preclude making a larger contribution to the dialogue.

Though I found this article to be very informative in terms of pedagogy, it was a biographical detail that will probably stick in my mind the longest, and which I think is worth discussing here. According to the article, Bjørn-Larsen grew up living in an apartment, and after he took up the tuba as a kid, the noise of practicing soon became a problem for the neighbors, who sent "an elected spokesman" to talk to the family.

The neighbors said they certainly wanted him to practice, but they didn't want to hear it. Shockingly all the neighbors agreed to pay for soundproofing a room in the Bjørn-Larsen apartment so that Jens could practice and not disrupt the rest of the building. His childhood experiments then continued in this soundproof space.


I feel confident (though not happy) in saying that this is something that would never happen in Minneapolis. When I meet a musician from New York City, I always ask them about practice, and the response is always the same: everyone practices in their apartments and no one complains. I'm sure that's not true across the board, but it's obviously more true there than it is in the Midwest. While I lived with my parents (in a house, thankfully), I often practiced late at night, and even overnight. I talked with neighbors occasionally, and never did anyone tell me it was a problem. Yet one night during the summer of 2004, someone actually called the police on me. They knocked on the door and told me to stop, which I did, only to resume 20 minutes later with a mute. Eventually, I simply resumed playing at all hours of the day without the mute, and never had another problem. I do, however, know people here (some of whom live in houses, not apartments) who have had ongoing problems with neighbors over their practice, even in the middle of the day.

The Twin Cities music scene elicits a great deal of cheerleading from local observers. Since I got serious about playing professionally, I have grown skeptical about our supposedly disproportionately high ranking among music scenes nationally, although I have not spent enough time in cities of similar size to have any standard of comparison. I will say this: music is not "in the air" here; it's not an integral part of the culture. There's a lot of noise made in the press, akin to what I described earlier, but when it comes right down to it, the neighbors default to calling the cops, not building soundproof rooms for their neighbors' kid. The City of Minneapolis has also become shockingly draconian in dealing with venues that host live music: witness Exhibit A and Exhibit B.

There's no point in pouting over it, but I do wish the dialogue was a bit more informed. Take, for example, the situation with Tillie's Bean ("Exhibit A" above). Everything I've read about this story uses the fact that the musicians who perform there are not paid (aside from tips, apparently) as a way of eliciting sympathy for the establishment. I'll get to why I'm upset with the City's handling of this situation in a minute, but I'm also upset (and this is only one of a great many such instances all around the area) that the word "underselling" is never uttered. In some sense, musicians who play for little or no guaranteed money are doing exactly that to their colleagues. Yet it also seems obvious that a workshop-style gathering of amateurs is a far different thing from a polished, professional musical presentation. These two groups of people should not, in theory, be in direct competition with each other* as they ostensibly offer different products, and hence, it should not be hypocritical to assert that both have their rightful place in the local musical economy. This all rests, however, on the fickleness of that abstract entity known as "the scene," and as usual, "the scene" disappoints.

One of the truly maddening things about the Twin Cities is that these two groups are by no fault of their own in very direct competition with each other for the precious few dedicated listeners out there who have the time and the money to spend listening to live music, yet either value the ostensible social status associated with this or that venue over the music itself, or simply aren't bothered by substandard acoustics, poor intonation, and unprofessional stage presence enough to demand better of the performers. Predictably, most of them take the path of least resistance and opt for the performers they most relate to socially, and who cost the least to hear. I would posit that the national economic situation has something to do with it too, but that's outside the purview of this blog, as well as my expertise.

Suffice it to say that if we really want to have a scene,** then we (the audience) need to demand a scene, and then put our money where our mouths are. If trends start on the coasts and move inland, us Minneapolitans can expect that sooner or later, musicians will be paying to play in high-profile venues. If we really are serious about having a music scene, we ought to be giving these kinds of things some thought and heading them off at the pass. That, however, requires some serious hipness that I'm not sure exists here.

This is where you call me an elitist. This is also where you tell me that hipness is relative and socially constructed, not absolute. This is also where you call me a hypocrite for saying (as I often do) that there's no right or wrong way to listen to music, and that "educating listeners into conformity" (I love saying that) is the musical equivalent of fascism. I continue to stand by all of that, and am merely pointing out a simple cause and effect relationship: for every professional/accomplished musician working on the scene, there are 25 amateur/unaccomplished musicians underselling them. The salient feature of the professional presentation is the quality; the drawback is the cost. The exact opposite is true of the amateur. Hence, the only way the professional musician will be economically successful is if audiences choose quality over cost. If this does not happen, the professional will either move to a city where it does happen, or enroll in law school. Either way, the choices made by scenesters have a direct effect on which music is viable in that scene. If we are going to label scenes "hip" or "not hip", we have to look at what is viable there and judge it, not the people who put it out there, to be "hip" or "not hip."

Having arrived at this conclusion, the logical next question is, "Whither the Union?" Having joined for the first time a few months ago and now had a chance to review all of the relevant bylaws, I can only assume that many of them are not strictly enforced out of the practical realization that the situation here is so far gone that doing so would do more harm than good (the City could have used a dose of this sort of reasoning before they jumped all over Tillie's Bean, as could ASCAP, who has been on their own crusade against neighborhood coffeehouses for some time now). I was particularly shocked to read that as an AFM Local 30-73 member, I am not supposedly not allowed to sit in or make a guest appearance if I am not being paid. I have trouble seeing how this policy makes things better for musicians here, particularly considering (sorry, here I go again) that the Twin Cities jazz scene is spectacularly devoid of artistically and socially fruitful collaborations between young and old musicians (largely, in my estimation, a result of the latter viewing the former more as competition for the precious few paying gigs than as potential collaborators and much-needed new blood).

Given that I've witnessed this rule violated countless times, and sometimes in high-profile situations, I'm then comforted to know that whoever is in charge of policing such things obviously sees that doing so now would yield nothing positive. The same cannot be said of the national leadership's position on the RIAA's anti-piracy crusade, which has finally hit close to home. My impression of the slant of the International Musician (the AFM's monthly journal) is that they are just fine with these sorts of things; the short (3 paragraph) summary of the Thomas case was a cold, objective rundown of the verdict, concluding with a typically rosy-sounding excerpt from a statement released by the RIAA shortly thereafter. Perhaps this is the only tenable position for them to take given their role in negotiating with media conglomerates, which we have to assume is an overwhelmingly positive contribution. I wonder if the membership agrees? (And how many are "pirates" themselves?)

Somehow, I've found my way all the way back to critiquing music-oriented journals. For some reason, I feel guilty about skimming rather than reading and digesting these publications, but this is only the unavoidable result of there not being too much to digest in the first place. In talking to one fellow member recently, I realized I'm not the only one. In any case, the blogosphere has become a much more vital conduit of the sort of dialogue we're missing in print in many cases. As for the local scene, I'm happy to report that both concerts I went to over the weekend were very good, although they both involved musicians from other cities to some extent or another. They were also both very well attended, which is also good news. Maybe there's some hipness lurking here after all; or maybe the fact that a media blitz will lead a concert of Ligeti and Lutoslawski music to sell out is further evidence that it's "see and be scene" in the Twin Cities after all.

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*For a fascinating take on amateurs competing with professionals (from shockingly early in history), see Arnold Schoenberg's "The Blessing of the Dressing" in the tome Style and Idea (I've cited it before here).

**In writing that line, I'm suddenly reminded of one of the all time great Onion headlines: "New Poll Finds 86 Percent Of Americans Don't Want To Have A Country Anymore."

1 comment:

Nick Z said...

You're right.

the only way to improve it is to turn out better listeners.

maybe we (as music educators) should be thinking about that more than trying to turn out more professional musicians....

also, maybe we need to start picking some fights with the amateur musicians. i think they'd respond to a smashed knee-cap or 2.