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Marc Ribot: The Care and Feeding of a Musical Margin

By Published: June 5, 2007
That enough Europeans have chosen to value this social benefit, to codify these values into law and fund the laws into 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.

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