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Interviews

Bern Nix: A History In Harmolodics

By Published: August 24, 2009

The Changing Music-Making Environment

Nix notes major changes about the general state of music and playing in public now as compared to in the '70s, even the '80s. The move from analog to digital recording, the decline in the amount of "organic," human-performed music produced, and the advent of the internet and its impact on the record business, are the major differences. There are also fewer live jazz performance opportunities, and the environment for jazz artists has changed in New York since the '70s. He introduces the theme when discussing the beginning of his first trio and one of his first bass players, avant-garde bassist William Parker: "You see, the thing is, I used to play with William quite a bit. Everybody was playing with everybody a lot. In New York then, there was a lot more playing. We'd all play with each-other a couple of times a week. If it wasn't a gig it was a rehearsal. That doesn't happen so much now."

Bern NixHe elaborates: "We [all] lived in Manhattan. There were more places to play. Plus you're all younger—all of the above! It was a different time and the city was different, too." Living expenses are a major factor. "It got to be too expensive. The rent was low, [but now the city's] too upscale, bourgeois. The whole thing is, when you first get to New York, you get excited, but it gets to be a struggle. Like this trumpet player I know. Between gigs he's doing all these different [jobs]. You get worn out—you [can't play]. The cost of living is so much higher—you've got to live in Brooklyn someplace. Everyone used to live in Manhattan."

It is even harder for avant-garde musicians: "Especially if you're playing the kind of music I play—you're not playing mainstream jazz. It's hard to get gigs that pay well unless you've got a name. That's the downside. It's kind of frustrating.

"It's all vulcanized now. It used to be in Manhattan. You used to see the same people three or four times a week, whereas now you see someone once a year. When I came to New York in 1975, the subway was like 75-80 cents. Everybody either lived in the East Village or on the Upper West Side. You didn't have to worry about any noise rules. You could play from 11-pm to 4-am. But now it's all gentrified, so clean, so sterile, no room for creativity. The city went bankrupt and the urban gentry took over... the bourgeoisie.

" It's hard to get gigs in New York. It's not what it used to be. Something sapped the spirit of the city, that whole 9/11 thing. Everything is out of Manhattan. A lot of the major clubs have closed. You've got to have a name, a brand name to get gigs. It's all about the business. You could be the best guitarist in the world, but... That's why Artie Shaw left music. He said there was no place for him in the new music. It's how many people you can bring into the room. It takes precedence over musicality."

The drop in the number of venues has led Nix to become his own boss, whereas he really wanted to be a musician solely. He says, "Before I was forced into becoming a band leader, I had thought that if you could be a good enough professional musician, people would hire you. Maybe I was naive... Because I really like to do this. I thought it would be like a job, if you knew how to play."

Urban gentrification is not all that happened in New York. Another development in the mid '70s hit the making of music itself. With the city's financial problems, public school music lessons diminished. Trumpets and other instruments, previously available for inner city children to learn on, disappeared. With the absence of real instruments to play, many younger would-be musicians took to playing with turntables and discarded LPs—the birth of hip-hop. The extant Jamaican scene of MCs and sound systems, never a sole means of musicmaking in Jamaica, replaced learning an instrument as the first step in the process of creating new music.

As Nix puts it, "Nobody wants to play instruments anymore. Jazz is an instrumental music. [Now] the groove is different. The romance of playing an instrument well has gone. It's not about people anymore, it's about machines. It almost as if that thing that makes music musical, they're trying to get rid of it!" Nix compares the artificial drums of a computer program to a human behind the kit: "[It lacks] the energy of a real drummer. [It] sounds robotic. I'm really frightened, because in a couple of generations, they'll think that's what music really is, that this is the norm. Everything else will be antiquated."

His words may already be coming true, for some people: a recent comment on YouTube about indie rock singer/guitarist Liz Phair praised her '90s rock music uploaded, but added "though her 'beats' are different to now." Actually, her "beats" have existed for thousands of years. The "beats" on the track were also played by a human, the drummer!

It is the computer-generated 'beats' in the head of the YouTube commenter that are out of step with "now," or indeed any time, future or past. The listener in question may have already accepted the artificial beat sound as what "music really is," in Nix's words.

Then there is the generally-accepted view among musicians that LPs sound warmer than the digital CDs, let alone mp3s. In 2007, Bob Dylan was reported as saying that he had not heard a good recording in the previous two decades, and that the records sound "like static." Nix says of the latter word, "That's a good description."

Nix refers to hip-hop and the perfect "on the line" beats: "People don't want to play instruments," he repeats. "Perfection is the art of imperfection—[a reference to a quote from pianist Vladimir Horowitz]. It's part of the paradox. Technique and craft do not necessarily mean a great artist." He admits hip-hop is humorous, and says, "You have to give it to them business-wise. I admire the entrepreneurialism." But he points out the general lack of "real" musicians, and the obvious reliance on computer-generated "beats"—"I'll probably get into trouble for saying this," he laughs. There is no arguing with Russell Simmons' early vision of a hip-hop industry as an industry (for clothes, lifestyles), but there will always usually be something misplaced about computer-generated beats providing the backdrop for a music track.

A relevant example of the contrast is classical guitarist John Williams. Nix says, "I saw him on TV. He sounded like three or four guitarists—a whole other ball game." In the classical field, Nix also has an interesting comment about guitarist Julian Bream. Many listeners admire Bream's excellent feel. Nix says, Bream, "as a kid, was into some kind of expression. He used to play jazz and popular music, and that might have had something to do with it."

Finally, the changing record business sales landscape has been felt by most musicians. It is all about the move from macro to micro: because of mp3 downloads and (illegal) peer-to-peer mp3 file sharing, the large record companies have ceased releasing and signing all but the biggest-volume sellers. This was already in train in the early '80s (because of the lack of adventure-ism among the younger record executives, so much lamented by Frank Zappa in interviews), but the emergence of mp3s took the record companies to the wall. Niche or smaller-selling artists have now been forced to become their own business managers.

This is a second way that Nix has, in his words, been "forced into becoming a band leader." It is not only because of the absence of venues and the opportunity to be hired by a band; it's also because dramatically fewer record sales mean all performers in all genres have to rely almost exclusively on gigs, touring and merchandise sales (also film synchronization revenue) for money, and (the niche artists, at least) have to record and release their records themselves. Witness, for example, Madonna's move to maximize revenues from touring. So, in the case of New York jazz, it becomes a double squeeze: less (or no) record sales and fewer venues in which to play.

As is taught in music business courses, such as that offered by UCLA Extension's Entertainment Department in Los Angeles, a performer is now literally his own business. He needs to work on marketing his own, self-made recordings. Fortunately, the thing that has brought this about, the internet, also provides a ready answer: web-based marketing. The musician has to master the computer as well as his instrument! Nix has a few words to say on this as well (see below). Musicians in New York, and surely elsewhere also, are trekking to the Apple Store to find out how to make and upload an mp3 of their music.

UCLA music business instructor, author and, like Bern, Berklee graduate Bobby Borg, has put it in this straightforward way: there is "no excuse not to have a web presence." Indeed, it's essential. But first, you need to know how to achieve it. Your own website, iTunes or Myspace for downloads, and CD Baby for hard copy CD sales are just some of the better known options.

This change was foreshadowed in 2004, in a BBC classical radio interview with pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy. Ashkenazy simply said that the record industry was finished, at least for classical music. Solo artists will simply record themselves and make their music available online. As an example, the famous classical piano duo of Katia and Marielle Labeque has just released their first album on their own label, KML. So even in classical music, this trend is well on the way. There is not necessarily any longer an EMI or a Sony for the artists, and a small name classical ensemble or soloist does not need a record company, just a good condenser microphone, a computer, and a website.

Nix has investigated record labels for a new album with his trio. However, the new environment has been having its predicable effect. He says, "I've talked to different labels, but the record business is falling apart." Despite this, he says recent discussions indicate a new album is a strong possibility.

Bern Nix / Jayne Cortez"When I've got to deal with business it takes a couple of hours to come down after that! I just wanted to be an artist when I was a kid, like when I was 11... [Now] you have got to have a press kit, and all that stuff," says Nix.

As a sign of the new times, his album Low Barometer was released as a download, not as a CD: "(The label) Tomkins Square did records for Charles Gayle and Ran Blake that were beautifully [packaged]. I had sleeve notes ready, but they said it's going to be a download." There were a number of CD-R copies made, but they sold out quickly in a Greenwich Village record store.

Nix sums it up: "The record companies are done. The thing now is to go to the internet and try to establish a brand for yourself. You have to look at it as a brand and how you want to present it—having an image on YouTube, and people see you. There are so many little niche markets now. It's a whole new world. You have to learn the computer, [just as you had to] learn the guitar! But I get a headache and I can't look at it again for another week. A lot of people know it so well that they can't really explain it to you because it's all second nature to them. And the books are all too complicated! It's too much information."



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