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Marc Ribot: The Care and Feeding of a Musical Margin

By Published: June 5, 2007
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."

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