Marc Ribot: The Care and Feeding of a Musical Margin
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."
[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.]