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Marc Ribot: The Care and Feeding of a Musical Margin

By Published: June 5, 2007

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.

New music composers of the '40s through the early '60s didn't expect to make money through the live performance market; many taught to earn a living. John Cage's income wasn't based on packing a nightclub with door-fee paying, drink-buying customers; many of his history making premieres were attended by fewer people than attended an average gig at CBGB. He was supported mainly by commissions and performance fees, by grants from private and public foundations. In experimental jazz, things were much the same, although less generously funded; avant gardists through the '70s played a 'loft' scene not known for generating big bucks. Cecil Taylor worked as a dishwasher while developing his history-changing style. And when he was able to quit his day job, it was due to the backing of mostly European, subsidized festivals.

The idea that new music could be supported by the market was born in the downtown NYC of the late '70s, when 'no-wave' artists influenced by punk rock, John Cage and Thelonious Monk started drawing first very hip and then very large crowds at the nascent NYC Downtown club scene. Bands like DNA, the Lounge Lizards, Defunkt, Elliott Sharp's Carbon, James Chance and various John Zorn projects were often double-billed with groups from a jazz avant-garde such as James Blood Ulmer or Downtown new music minimalists such as Glenn Branca.

By 1988, the marketability of the Downtown experimentalists was so strong that the music could support a seven-night-a-week club of its own, Knitting Factory, with main acts playing on weekends and new projects (often solo projects of main band members or sidemusicians) playing the weekdays. As the market continued to expand, so did the club, moving in the early '90s from its original Houston Street space into the much larger three-performance space building it now occupies on Leonard Street, launching a European booking agency, a record label and opening an LA branch. In addition, other LES nightclubs, now all defunct, booked new music experimentalists: CBGB's Gallery, The Cooler and others.

The Knitting Factory's expansions, however, were based on an overestimation of demand. By the late '90s the Knitting Factory European booking agency closed and the club began to redirect its booking policy toward indie rock. At this point, some Knitting Factory performers, led by John Zorn, took the position that Knitting Factory was no longer committed enough to new/experimental music and jumped ship to support the then-brand-new Tonic. Tonic, however, already represented a downsizing in the new music audience. Its room capacity was 180, compared with over 300 at the Knitting Factory's main space. By 2005, even this downsizing was not enough and as yet another club faced the choice between bankruptcy and moderating or abandoning its new music booking policy, Zorn again downsized, this time to The Stone, a space with a maximum capacity of 70-80.

In truth, our belief that the market could fund new music was always as illusory; European touring, heavily state subsidized, has been the real economic motor of experimental jazz/new music for decades, the light at the end of the tunnel of months of scarce and/or poorly paid NYC gigs. 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.

European public subsidies have funded cutting- edge US music since the time of Louis Armstrong. They've been a part of the landscape for so long that US musicians have come to take them entirely for granted, seeing them as natural a part of Europe as the Alps or snotty waiters. Unfortunately, they're neither natural nor guaranteed. They were created by people through struggle and they are in the process of being challenged and to some extent dismantled by European neo-liberals.

The idea behind European public arts subsidies, the reason why NYC jazz/new music artists for at least the last 40 years have played Paris, Cologne and Zurich many more times than they've played Hartford (and how many have ever played Des Moines?) is a doctrine called "the European cultural exception", a set of government policies based on the concept that, even within a market economy, art/culture is to be treated differently from other commodities.

This concept asserts that some music deserves to exist even if the market says it doesn't. That the best string quartet isn't necessarily the one that plays the most TV commercials. That the best composer isn't necessarily the one George Lucas picks to score his film. That the best band isn't always the one most favored by a large radio network's advertisers.

Proponents of the "cultural exception" have argued that there's a social good being served here that goes beyond simply providing jobs to the individual string players, composers or bands: society derives benefit from having access to this "best."

That enough Europeans have chosen to value this social benefit, to codify these values into law and fund the laws into being...is why about half the music I care about exists.

Experimental jazz/new music people once occupied a margin delimited and fed by both market and European state funding. As both of these sources contract, we're facing the consequences of a lack of US public funding. As the expressed will of the American political majority, this radical market liberalism seems hard to oppose. Nationally, "we've" made our choice, "we" will live with the results: America will finally get the culture it's paid for.

Perhaps I'm being overly pessimistic. Some believe the scene will reconstitute itself outside of Manhattan. A number of interesting venues have opened in Brooklyn: Zebulon, the new Issue Project room, Barbès. None of these clubs has the room capacity of Tonic or The Knitting Factory and my own experience has been that its harder to draw a crowd at these than at the Manhattan clubs. This is hardly surprising: downtown Manhattan's preferable market location is what caused the high rents that have driven clubs out in the first place.

Another optimistic idea is that the music will actually benefit from a defunding in which its true believers, now purified of base financial motives, will be driven back to the catacombs and things will return to the much romanticized period of the mid '70s, when concerts took place in tiny spaces or even apartments. But the catacombs this time will not have open passageways to funding institutions like the '70s underground did or much possibility of major labels seeking out critically acclaimed avant gardists to boost label prestige.

While the independently wealthy, the extremely committed and those with no choice would remain in a scene without hope of money, the reality is that musicians tend to drift towards those scenes which pay. John Zorn for example, draws on a pool of side musicians with strong connections to the rock/pop/c&w and 'uptown' classical worlds and, through a combination of market success, good (self) management and extremely disciplined and economical use of everything from musical notation through production technique, has been able to compete successfully with rates of pay in those worlds. Would the music sound the same if the pool was drained? Would it sell the same? I doubt it.

While small may sometimes be beautiful, there's a critical mass below which it becomes difficult for a scene to replenish its audience. Tonic and Knitting Factory were both large enough to run ads in the NYC weeklies. The smaller venues mostly aren't. These latter may hope to make up for this lack by presenting artists likely to be previewed in the critcs' choice sections. However, they're likely to find the editorial offices located closer to the advertising deparment than they might have imagined, particularly at advertising-dependent free-distribution weeklies like the Village Voice.

Musician response so far has been doing benefits to subsidize failing venues or to start venues. Although ostensibly linked to a leftist/anarchist anti-corporate politics, "Do It Yourself" has also served quite well to foreclose discussion on state subsidy and fits quite comfortably with the free market/neo- liberalism which will, sometime soon, install some very corporate chain stores and condos where favorite venues once stood.

"Do It Yourself" is a lovely idea, one which leaves its believers with a comforting sense of control over their destiny. the only problem is that when the "It" is running a business capable of treating musicians fairly and the "Yourself" is the musicians themselves, it doesn't work, for the same reason that kibbutzes haven't globally replaced private farming, food co-ops haven't replaced supermarkets, housing co-ops haven't (as their original proponents theorized) provided massive havens of low income housing and workers co-ops haven't replaced private industry: Businesses need capital. People who work gigs for a living, by definition, don't have it.

Without capital, venues either eventually fall back on the old strategies of musician exploitation, abandon new music priorities, fail or all three. If those venues are 'artist run', the only difference is that we get to exploit ourselves. Hooray for progress.

Where real capital is provided, a musician friendly business, co-op/non-profit or not, can succeed. I've spent close to two months a year on tour in Europe since 1984, playing over 1,000 gigs. For years, I've asked presenters how their funding was structured. I was often surprised at the answers: even some of what I thought were private clubs were in fact administered by jazz or new music societies or co-operatives. The European gigs were almost always subsidized: usually by the city or state government completely donating the performance space itself. Were Tonic subsidized in this manner, the yearly subsidy would be equal to the amount raised through benefits: but they would have received it EVERY year of their existence.

This is real subsidy, coming from those with access to real capital: not peanuts from a bunch of musicians half of whom lack health coverage, pension or savings.

Tonic was not able to pull off raising $93,000 on a regular basis, spiralling into debt again as constant demands for support exhausted musicians and fans. Were the city to do what many European cities have done, and give them the club space or one like it, this situation might have been different.

The possibility of winning such funding may be small, but small becomes zero if we aren't willing to fight for it, either because we're invested in fantasies of rescue by DIY 'artist friendly clubs' or because we're immobilized by ideologies which deny the existence of anything outside the market.

It's necessary at this point to acknowledge a counter argument to public arts funding. Even those of us with no taste for "magic-of-the-market" rhetoric will admit that competition at clubs forced to live off door receipts has sometimes produced a dynamic energy we (and our audiences) like, while the lack of competition at some large or very long-term well funded public institutions has sometimes produced a lethargic, self satisfied 'in-group' that books its own friends for its own friends, with little incentive to reach out to new musicians or audiences. In addition, the funded 'institutions' can be slow and bureaucratic while the 'private' can be less so.

To state the obvious, the current national government will not be sympathetic to arguments for increased NYC arts subsidy. But if the popular support existed to raise over $90,000 to keep one club (Tonic) open for a while, then the possibility exists for a serious political fight at the city or state level.

Another positive outcome could include the city providing subsidy and/or an alternate venue on a city owned site. How could venues and the art they present be kept responsive to the needs of artists, art and audiences rather than those of the funders? It's a serious problem demanding serious thought. But the idea of subsidy shouldn't be dismissed out of hand for ideological reasons, particularly not by already well connected downtown musicians living in subsidized housing and playing subsidized Euro gigs at many times market value.

Deep support for the survival of the downtown cultural scene is there. But deep support isn't going to translate itself into effective action without a conscious decision to act. I'm not suggesting a moratorium on benefits. But if we're all bailing water so fast we can't take time to fix the gaping hole in the boat, we'll soon all be very tired and very wet.

As markets decline, rents rise and European subsidies contract, things are changing. Since there's no state mechanism for protecting those whom the market fails, those changes may be ugly.

Experimental musicians aren't the only ones the market occasionally fails: children, old people, the sick, the unemployed. All consume without producing. The market says if CBGB couldn't afford $20,000 a month rent, then bye bye. And when it applies that logic to grandma or the former population of New Orleans?

Music and art were always supposed to provide a firewall from the horror of that question, a protection from those greedy or ideologically brutal enough to answer it. We were supposed to be, remember, the canary in the coal mine?

Well, news from the mine: the canary is on the bottom of the cage wheezing. For those who can still value what the market doesn't, "attention must be paid."

Visit Take It To The Bridge and Marc Ribot on the web.

[Editor's note: A longer version of the piece was published in 2005 in the Slovenian political economy journal Muska. This incarnation draws from that and has also been edited to reflect current events such as club closures predicted by the author. It is available in its original form at the Take It The Bridge website, along with a petition to City Hall.]



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