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Marc Ribot: The Care and Feeding of a Musical Margin

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The fact that access to Europe was easier and cheaper for NYC musicians than for their LA counterparts is an important factor in the historical productivity of the NYC new music scene as compared with the West Coast.
By Marc Ribot

Musicians working in Downtown new music and jazz have a history of self help, often turning to benefits when musicians died leaving family without a pension or got sick without health benefits or when a central venue hit a hard stretch and needed some cash to keep the doors open or buy a PA. I, like most others I work with, have played a number of such benefits over the years.

Lately however, the requests for donations or subsidies have been coming fast and furious. In addition to paying yearly dues to Roulette, which has been presenting new music composers and improvisers for years, I've had requests to play at several smaller new spaces for free or for less than I would normally be paid, to donate equipment to these spaces and, in the case of Tonic, which had been for the past decade NYC's center for Downtown music, before closing unceremoniously last month, to play in a series of benefits, which, combined with direct appeals, raised $93,250 needed to pay off the club's debts. Another part of Tonic's attempts to balance its books involved a reduction in the amount of financially risky music they presented. The desire to provide a venue for those excluded by this change was part of John Zorn's reason for establishing The Stone, which he subsidizes entirely (100% of the door goes to the musicians) out of his own pocket and from recordings donated to his non-profit Tzadik record label by relatively more established musicians. Suzanne Fiol's non-profit Issue Project room is also serving a function in this regard, specializing in rare or premiere performances.

Not only has this new round of donations been different in quantity, it has also been different in kind. Over the past 25-30 years, there's been an assumption that the condition of a downtown jazz/new music venue's needing to be subsidized by benefits was an abnormal condition, a special situation necessitated by a particular emergency, after which the venue would return to its normal functioning, either as a market entity (Knitting Factory, Tonic, etc) or, in a few cases like The Kitchen and Roulette, as institutions funded by public and private foundations. I and many others played benefits for Tonic when it first opened but they were seen as a push to get the club on its feet or buy a new PA, with the understanding that Tonic would then function in the night club market place.

But a sea change has taken place in the relation of these clubs to the market with few really acknowledging it. The donated recordings that will subsidize The Stone are not envisioned as a temporary helping hand: John Zorn plans to fund the room in perpetuity through this source. The $93,250 raised by Tonic was spoken of as a temporary measure, but the fundamental conditions driving the club into such massive debt remained the same and became insupportable.

The market is failing as a means of funding downtown new music venues. The venues have either abandoned new music booking priorities (like Knitting Factory did at the end of the '90s), switched to being subsidized by musicians (like Tonic and the above mentioned new venues are doing now) or both. Musician benefit concerts and recordings, once a 'special' situation, are being normalized as a means of funding.

Those caught up in the immediate task of opening new spaces, keeping older ones opened and scrambling for funding tend to explain the situation in terms of its details: this or that club was poorly managed, this or that club didn't appreciate new music. They tend to see themselves uncritically as "helping the musicians" or "doing something good for the scene." And there's no reason to doubt the sincerity of these hardworking and deeply committed people. But subjective details don't explain the wider phenomenon of club failures and subjective good will won't keep the music and the people who play it alive if the system now being put in place fails.

I don't regret participating in benefits for any of the venues discussed. But these benefits have at most bought time. If we don't use that time to discuss the options and act on them, the options will eventually act on us. To do this, we need to put what's happening to us in a longer historical and wider industry perspective.

For complex reasons, market funding is no longer feasible. This idea feels shocking and strange, but historically speaking, it's our expectation that new music ever could be successfully funded through the market that's strange.

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