24 October 2009

Hidden Tracks (ii)

As long-time MFEDI readers know, I've been fixated for some time on the question of the inherent value of art considered apart from it's content. This comes as a direct consequence of the frequency with which I encounter people, institutions, theories, philosophies and public policies alike that take art to be an inherently positive thing simply by virtue of its being art. The most obvious flaw in this idea is that we, collectively, cannot seem to agree on what is and is not art in the first place, and hence, a rational debate is impossible because we cannot agree on a definition of our terms. But what if we could define our terms, proceeded to have the debate, and reached the conclusion that all art is, in fact, wholesome, constructive, and valuable (i.e. the way many seem to have concluded anyway, but which I personally disagree with)? Where would that leave us?

More recently, what fascinates me about this idea is the matter of supply and demand. How much of a good thing can we have before that good thing becomes a mediocre thing, or even a bad thing? Is there anything about art that would lead us to expect it to be immune to this mechanism (other than the fact that because we can't define what it is, we can't really know the answer)?

Supply and demand is an economic principle, but there are parallels to this idea in every conceivable facet of life. There's the physical aspect of it, seen in the principle of diffusion; the geographical/migratory aspect of it, seen in people going where the jobs are, where the resources are, or simply trying to get farther and farther from each other (i.e. suburban sprawl); the biological aspect of it, where practically any element in its purest form is toxic to living things, where we know it is possible to die from drinking too much of the substance most essential to survival (water), and where overpopulation ultimately leads to near extinction.

I lack the formal Philosophical grounding to know if there's an established global term for this idea outside the realm of economics, but one can clearly see that it is everywhere, both in nature and in society. It is not only possible to have too much of a good thing, it is virtually always the case that having too much of a good thing is 100 times worse than having just barely enough, and only marginally better than having none at all. Hence, even if we cannot define art, it would be silly to believe that its case would any different. And so I worry about it. A lot.

Art is everywhere. There's more music available for free online than a person could listen to in a thousand lifetimes. It would be a chore to find a vacant storefront in a bad neighborhood to fix up and turn into an art space because most all of them have already been bought up and turned into art spaces. And then there's the relatively recent idea of finding beauty in everyday objects or sounds (i.e. from Cage, et al), something which I embrace wholeheartedly, sometimes against the complaints of acquaintances and colleagues, but which also scares the living crap out of me as an artist because it would seem to render my work irrelevant, even to myself.

Digging even further, there's the "music is for everybody" issue. There's scarcely a saying I feel more conflicted about than that, since, while I (and everyone else) would just love to believe it solely for it's power to validate what we do, we all know it's not true. Speaking in absolutes is a death wish in rational debate, and this saying manages to do it not once but twice, first with "music" (i.e. ALL music? Music generally? What?) and, more obviously, with "everybody." More relevant to the present discussion, though, is that us musicians are literally putting ourselves out of business with this phrase. This is a brutal irony considering that it is most often trotted out as a marketing tool aimed at getting more kids involved in music, and hence yielding more income both for the music teachers who teach them and for the performers whose concerts it is assumed they will then attend for the rest of their lives. I've bellyached before about the soulless cynicism inherent in that thinking, so I'll leave that issue alone for now. The point is that in aiming to create more and more of a good thing, we inevitably create too much of it, and that it's equally inevitable that this will leave us worse off in the long run than we were before.

Some would (and do) argue that we're not creating the same good thing here, since the vast majority of these students don't become professional musicians, and hence don't offer a competing product (i.e. "professional level" performances). In a world with any justice whatsoever, that would indeed be the case, but we do not live in such a world, for in practice, audiences don't choose "professional level" performances over less-than competent performances; they're more interested in their friends' bands than anyone else's band simply because it's their friends, and they largely can't tell the difference in musicianship anyway where there is one. The retort to that is that more music education creates more astute listeners who can tell the difference. Perhaps, but it also creates more friends who continue to perform at a less-than-professional level as adults, creating a product that friendless professional musicians simply can't compete with, no matter how good they are. Further, it is demonstrable that more and more of these students are pursuing professional careers insofar as that entails majoring in music in college. That's the crown jewel of the "music is for everybody" battlecry, and one which is responsible above all else for its exceptional power to induce the opposite of its intended outcome.

Why the extreme cynicism? Because if there's one thing I wasn't prepared for when i left school, it was what audiences everywhere do and don't notice about musical performances. We've all had the experience of playing a less-than-stellar show and subsequently receiving a warm compliment from an oblivious audience member who couldn't tell the difference. That's not really what I'm talking about, though. I'm thinking more of identity: age, gender, dress, manner, politics and social group all seem to have more to do with success than musicianship does. I won't even tack on the seemingly obligatory "...these days" to that last statement, since "these days" are the only ones I know. Who can say if it's ever been any different? I do have a theory, though, which is that the age of musical plenty we live in has made this even worse than it could possibly have been before. Indeed, it would mark a rather momentous break with countless observable phenomena in nature and human society alike if this were not the case.

It's fun (and very blogospheric of me, I must admit) to list off economic, geographic and biological principles as if I know something about them, whereas in truth, I have only a cursory understanding of each phenomenon I listed. Nonetheless, allow me to attempt to spin this cursory understanding into a halfway compelling recommendation for the way forward. As I understand it, the word "sustainability" is on the tips of a lot of people's tongues these days. This is because we're slowly realizing that economic growth is not mediated solely by our desire to make it happen, but by factors beyond our direct control, like the non-renewability of certain natural resources, or the impossibility of technology replacing more workers than there are left to replace. Hence, instead of continued economic growth benefitting everyone, we are finding that the costs of maintaining a certain rate of growth are so severe as to defeat its utilitarian purpose.

It's more than a stretch to lump modern-day arts advocacy in with fascistic global capitalism, but I don't think it's debatable to say that growth-for-growth's-sake describes the philosophy of one as well as the other, or that there's a tipping point right around the corner in both cases. As we know, too much of something portends that thing's imminent starvation or diffusion or migration or explosion. So-called sustainability isn't so much about surviving that endgame as it is about achieving a kind of equilibrium that prevents the situation from ever getting quite so dire in the first place. So what does sustainability mean in the economics of art? A good start would be to abandon citing extrinsic benefits as the primary method of establishing art's value in the public arena. Nothing could be less sustainable than that smoke and mirrors act. A related action would be to embrace the idea of exposure over that of proselytizing, or in other words, to present music one believes strongly in to new audiences without a hint of superiority or moralization. This ensures a sustainable (if small) influx of new listeners who haven't merely been fooled or seduced into showing up. And last, of course, is to abandon the conceit of music being for everyone.

How could I write such a thing? Besides knowing it not to be true, the idea terrifies me, and not because I'm some elitist snob who'd rather be poor and unknown if it means getting the better of my aesthetic enemies. Sign me up for fame and fortune yesterday, but I'm afraid that what's keeping me from getting there isn't a lack of a musical awareness in the world at large, but rather a heaping, volatile, unsustainable pile of it that just keeps on growing, rendering my contribution to it more meaningless by the hour.

Hidden Tracks (i)

I often think about how the relative fortunes and career trajectories of musicians of different generations are affected by technology, and when I say this, I'm thinking purely in terms of their paths to "success," whether defined by themselves or someone else. Obviously, technology affects what we create, not just our success or failure in being recognized for it, and that's certainly a fertile area for discussion, but it's also worth pondering whether or not a musician is in the right place at the right time relative to technology, and how that affects, for lack of a better term, their business decisions.

I was born in 1982, started playing music around 1993, and consider myself to have gotten "serious" sometime in 1999. It's often difficult for me to distinguish what has actually changed since then from what I was simply ignorant of, but to my recollection, while record labels still meant something, everybody and their brother was already recording, producing and distributing their own discs back then, and it was obvious that sooner or later, having a CD out would cease to mean anything at all. When exactly that threshold was reached is probably impossible to determine; it probably happened at different times in different places, and may, in truth, have already happened most places by the time I even became aware of it. Suffice it to say, then, that I've always felt just a bit screwed over.

Whether or not that's justified is another story, for I've benefitted in innumerable ways (most importantly as a listener, I think) from the increased accessibility (lower case "a") of recorded music. It's no coincidence that my getting "serious" about music happened exactly when I started spending substantial portions of my time listening to music, but the cruelty of that scenario is that I was allowed to become enraptured with a world that was already dead and gone. Even though I've tried many times to accept that fact and move on, part of me will never forget the feeling of staring at the paltry stack of discs that comprised my collection circa 1999 and looking forward to the day when I could offer the world such a document of my own. Every one of those discs mattered to me, so the idea of making one myself seemed significant. Little did I know it was already too late.

So, my relationship to technology is a bit like the milk commercial where the guy arrives in what appears to be heaven (for those who haven't seen it: besides angels, there are brownies and chocolate chip cookies everywhere, but when he opens the fridge, the milk carton is empty, and he's left wondering where he actually is). Such is life as a musician who came of age during digital distribution's pre-natal stage, seduced by music when physical media still mattered, but unable to move others beyond casual resignation using the same format.

Truthfully, I could have jumped on the train just in the nick of time had I so chosen. There certainly were people my age and younger in 1999 who had discs of their own, and although it may already have meant next to nothing in the "real world," it certainly seemed pretty cool to other young people who didn't know any better. The problem with me was that I did know better. I largely resented these kids, first of all because their rich uncle had obviously bankrolled the project, and second because, though I had quite a ways to go myself, I could hear that their playing (and writing, in some cases) was not worthy of releasing a document.

I didn't want to be like that, and so it was something of a point of pride for me for a long time that I didn't have a disc. I wanted one, but I wanted it to be good, and seeing so many kids my age coming out with junk that they'd obviously be embarrassed about within the decade made me think twice. I'm glad I did, because anything I could have mustered back then would most certainly have had to be pulled of the shelves (err...servers?) in short order. I was quite self-righteous about this choice for a long time; it was the only way to console myself for being left completely in the dust, especially after it became obvious that people were tiling their bathrooms with these things, and that I'd passed on my only fleeting chance to make one that mattered to anyone at all.

The vestiges of that self-righteousness now have me thinking that this is just one of the many cases where I've been punished for doing the right thing. But was it the right thing? I saved myself some cash, and spared the few people who would have heard it the consternation that I felt for so many of their kids' recorded efforts. But in a sense, I was also fiddling while Rome burned. If I had the benefit of hindsight, I might have gone whole hog just to do my best to catch the twilight of the pre-digital age. It's a chance no one will ever have again.

I'm making it sound like I have an enduring fondness for physical media when that's not entirely the case. I've been dragging my feet a bit, but recently opened an iTunes account, and have purchased a few things that way. One thing holding me back is that I acquired more physical media over the last several years than I've been able to listen to, and so there's really no reason for me to start buying MP3's by the dozen (speaking of which, while the pricing is eminently reasonable, it is waaay too easy to spend a shitload of money on iTunes, so that has me being cautious also). The blossoming of digital distribution is just one part of the story: it's also cheaper and easier to record, edit, design and promote a record, and predictably, everyone is doing all of those things in copious amounts, hence saturating the market and people's attention spans along with it. So, I don't mean to get sentimental over the discs themselves; it's the particular conditions of the era they shaped (or perhaps my mistaken notions about it) that are more worth mourning.

11 October 2009

NoDak Reflections

Today marks a blogospheric rite of passage for yours truly as I have the opportunity to blog about a tour for the first time (minus the photos and itineraries of course, as it's company policy 'round these parts not to waste precious bytes and pixels on personal stuff that y'all could care less about, or should).

On September 29, the Copper Street Brass Quintet embarked on a 10-day, 7-city tour of North Dakota, performing 7 concerts and innumerable workshops and masterclasses throughout the state. This was my first tour as part of a professional (rather than a student) ensemble, and predictably, I have a newfound appreciation for touring musicians who are able to bring it night after night under less than ideal conditions, although I have to admit that I've been witness to such relentless bitching from colleagues and teachers over the years that the experience was more one of elucidation than pure shock.

A pre-existing and significantly more acute misgiving about touring (i.e. the fact that it involves burning petroleum) which I brought along with me is documented more extensively here. Rather than focusing on that, though, I want to say a bit about the differences between performing in a metropolitan area of 3 million as opposed to rural towns of 6,000 (or even 600). While I can't be absolutely sure that I'm perceiving things correctly, it certainly seemed to me that many of these small town residents were significantly more appreciative of hearing something they can't just choose to go out and hear any night of the week (or year) than would be a city dweller who has the luxury of taking such concerts for granted.

That's not to say that there are no appreciative listeners whatsoever in the city, or that our group doesn't have something unique about it that elicited such a reception. I'd like to think that both of those things are true. Nonetheless, it's safe to say that the audience for concert music everywhere is not only small, but increasingly fatigued by the barrage of phone calls, e-mails, social networking invites, and fundraising campaigns that musicians and institutions heave at them, and hence, that being on the heaving end of this relationship, it's easy to feel like no one really cares, even if they do but are just to busy or too frazzled to respond.

In light of this dynamic, what this tour has taught me is that there's real value to touring to remote areas after all, both for the performers and the audience, and whether this is the result of quality, novelty, or simple lack of competition doesn't particularly concern me. I felt more appreciated in the last 2 weeks than I normally do in a year. That sounds like I'm seriously trashing my hometown...I certainly have a love/hate relationship with the place, but I'm wondering if this dynamic isn't inevitable given the conditions that exist. It's as simple as supply and demand: having many groups in town creates a buyers' market for concerts, and if this has attendance and revenue implications for musicians, why wouldn't it have social ones as well?

We know that a buyers' market for concerts can't sustain musicians financially, but tend to assume that buyers who don't show up to our particular concert nonetheless value what we do in some generic, relativistic fashion (and in a place like the Twin Cities, they would certainly say they do, and in that very fashion to boot). What if that's not the case? I'm by no means equating financial support with moral support, but wondering whether oversupply of the product might not, in fact, have the exact same effect on both. As a friend of mine who shall remain anonymous once said, "Even smoking weed on the beach in Hawaii gets old after a while." Similarly, at what point does our breathtakingly transcendent musical product or service cease to matter to anyone simply because it's abundant? Or does audiences' seeming inability to distinguish among performances of widely variable quality simply lead to an undue perception of abundance? Don't answer that.

There were, of course, both successes and failures in the attendance category throughout the course of this tour, but there were some very appreciative (and occasionally even well-informed) people in each and every group, which, for me, made the whole thing worthwhile. I've written at least a dozen times in this space that I'd much rather play for one person who cares than for 100 who don't. That's just my opinion, and I know not everyone feels that way, and for a variety of noble and not-so-noble reasons at that. While we certainly would have liked to play exclusively to packed houses, it was gratifying nonetheless (for me, at least) to know that we reached someone each night, dare I say in a way that I'm not sure many of my performances in town have attained over the last few years. The differences in accessibility and marketing between this and the other groups I'm in have a lot to do with this, but so, I think, does location, which has me looking at touring in a slightly more wholesome light, at least for the moment.


he's lost in the form
furtive glances, panicked looks
oh shit, where's the bridge?

attention trombones
let's hear the ride one more time
i just love your sound

mix meters freely
throw in a sharp here and there
all the singers faint

faculty concert
claim ownership of bebop,
then play it poorly

conducting teacher
hypes perfunctory gestures
god bless your left hand

he may be god's son,
but I still won't play at church
unless you pay me

read in c, jerk-offs
a d is only an f
in saxophone land

the diminished scale
does not equate to hipness,
but sax men think so

a chorus consists
of new music detractors
the suburbs are worse

women flock to him
in spite of all the wrong notes
justice is deaf, too

feign relevant ideas,
prefer fairy-tales

jazz is still the shit
without chord tones on strong beats
get a life jamey