Business As Usual

The words “happy new year” have been on the lips of many folks over the last two weeks. People the world over are apparently habituated to wishing others better luck during the next circumduction of the terrestrial orb we inhabit, ostensibly to counterbalance feelings of disconsolation about the previous one. I’ve never thought much about this time of year, other than whether or not to pursue working on December 31; but, since I found myself composing this column on January 2 (and into January 3), I felt compelled to probe into the question of why January 1 is the circumscribed default reset for so many aspects of our lives. To be circumspect, the results of my reconnaissance have given me an understanding of the painful historical circumstance behind the circumvection of our circumundulating wishes circumvallating the date. Although it’s merely a matter of tradition and ritual, as a practitioner of American improvised music, I might switch my personal reset date to March 25.

A personal tradition of mine is to reflect on previous posts on NMBx (especially my own) to circumstantiate the discussion of a current topic. I would like to repeat the ritual by referring to David Liebman’s eulogy of drummer-composer-lawyer Pete “La Roca” Simms from November 30. In that post, I made note of how Liebman hadn’t examined La Roca’s track record in the world of law. He did, however, scrutinize an important and on-going development in the American music industry: the shift of jazz pedagogy from its traditional paradigm of mentor-apprentice in a subaltern community to one of affiliation with a mainstream academic institution. Although the traditional relationship is still in play, it now is ever-increasingly inclusive of an educational institution regularly employing the mentor. While this development has good and bad sides—intensive and comprehensive study of canon (“good”) versus lack of analysis of canon suited to individual strengths and tastes (“bad”), I’d like to look at a few ways the paradigm shift brings the two cultures of the jazz community and the jazz academy into conflict and, hopefully, resolution. I’ll start by describing an example of cross-disciplinary conflict from (1) inside the music’s pedagogical milieu and (2) one from outside of it.

(1) A few months ago, an enterprising student of jazz studies posted on a message board what was intended as helpful advice to other students for researching movies and television shows that impact their analyses of soundtracks and how jazz musicians are portrayed visually, since not all graduate students, especially those working nights, have the time or resources to go to movies or record television shows. The student found an app which allows one to watch, but not download, them for free and on demand over the internet. (I’ve tried it and, although it’s not perfect, it works.) But another student took umbrage with the idea of not paying a fee for access to cable TV or going to a movie, insisting that denying profit to their distribution network is tantamount to bootlegging. There was a rather heated exchange that lasted several weeks and attracted protracted arguments from other students that included rather personal slights on the character of the student making the original post. Fortunately, the inappropriateness of the extreme invective was eloquently addressed by its recipient and the thread died out. I assume that a professor also dealt with the matter during a classroom lecture.

(2) I recently performed with pianist Sarah Jane Cion, which was mentioned in a previous post. (In response to one comment: it was a success, although the turnout could have been better.) Cion is married to one of today’s finest bassists, Phil Palombi (I’m pretty sure I’m his sub), and her music is particularly challenging for the bass, so rehearsal is a necessity. One of the cool things about rehearsing with Sarah is that I get to hang out with her kids (who are gangs of fun) and Phil. We rehearsed twice: on the Monday before and the afternoon of the concert. At the first rehearsal, Phil told me he was going to be performing with pianist Don Friedman at the Miami Jazz Festival and we naturally expressed our mutual regret that we’d miss each other’s performances. At the second rehearsal, during a break for coffee and magic tricks (their daughter is prestidigitating these days), a fellow who had been raking leaves in their back yard came into the kitchen. When he pulled back his hoodie, I saw that it was Phil. Thinking that he was going to change and go to the airport, I started to ask, “Did you guys drive back here when you saw the sign marked ‘Washington, D.C.’?” But he beat me to the punch and told me that the festival had been cancelled on 36 hours notice and now he was doing baby-sitter duties. It seems that the presenter of the concert hadn’t seen enough advance ticket sales and pulled the plug on the event. Of course, there would be lots of haggling to pay the contracted artists pennies-on-the-dollar while, in the meantime, sidemen like Phil would have to wait for the money they planned to bring home.

The most obvious conflict is in example (1): that watching videos posted on the internet is not illegal, while the so-called “unauthorized” downloading of them (which is considered a form of bootlegging) is. I used quotation marks because the internet has rendered the concept of authority somewhat ambiguous. Once upon a time, the publisher of sheet music was the authority. Later it was the company that recorded and distributed the music. Authority is now shifting to whoever can stream a sound file, but rarely were, and are, these concerns inclusive of the artists’ wishes. (More than once I have unsuccessfully tried to get YouTube videos that include my image-and-likeness and that I never “authorized” taken off of their website.) Another aspect of conflict arose when a student posted how fortunate it is that “successful” artists, like one whose performances are readily available for free on YouTube, get enough money from sales to act philanthropically toward Hurricane Sandy relief (a reference which didn’t include anyone performing at the Jazz for Hurricane Sandy Relief concert), yet watching free videos on the internet fosters trickle-down opportunism that exacerbates the suffering of humanity. I was reminded of my NewMusicBox debut in an issue examining the topic of major vs. independent labels. In that edition, pianist-composer-educator-mentor-producer-presenter Connie Crothers took off the emperor’s clothes of CD sales in the music industry.

When considering whether to record for a commercial record company or form your own, any musician might consider that any commercial release is paid for entirely by the musician. As good as it gets is an advance on royalties. Then, after the record company has recouped its production costs, the musician can receive, perhaps, 10% of any money that comes in from sales, providing that the company is honest. Besides that, unless you lease your music, the record company owns it. They can take it out of print. They can refuse to release it at all. When you own your own production, you have creative control, and you can get 100% of the money that comes in. The major problem, of course, is distribution.

An essential element in the distribution of cultural artifacts like movies and CDs is advertising. In When the Music Stops (a. k. a. Who Killed Classical Music), Norman Lebrecht describes how the Franz Liszt mythos was promulgated by an advance-man who arrived in a city days or weeks before Liszt to tell anyone he would meet about the pianistic phenomenon’s impending performance. (It’s no news that Richard Wagner shared his father-in-law’s propensity for shameless self-promotion.) Today, an effective way to promote one’s work is to make some of your music available for free. This practice has heavily impacted how American music is disseminated along the information highway as artists use the internet as the advance-man. Saxophonist-composer-educator-philosopher-producer-independent scholar Steve Coleman has been doing this for decades (in fact, most of Coleman’s listed self-produced output is available for free), while drummer-composer-educator-philosopher-mentor Marvin “Bugalu” Smith takes the approach to another level: he and his entourage of students will bring a mobile recording unit (24-track with video) to wherever he performs, record it, and then put it up on YouTube. Occasionally a problem can arise with unsuspecting sidemen, as in the case when I hadn’t been informed of Bugalu’s methodology beforehand and blocked the recording. (The music was so powerful, though, that I wish I hadn’t.) While this practice might seem intuitively counterproductive from the point of view of a paradigm that places ultimate value on profit margins, it is important to state that music and the creation of artifact are practices that predate the concept of profit and that their intrinsic value is found in their reception.

This modern concept of profit created the conflict of example (2) when the presenter eschewed the burden of risk that is a traditional part of the entrepreneurial role. According to one source, the presenter’s trepidation was due to his own bad planning. Instead of choosing a modest venue that could be sold out, one was chosen that seated almost 20 times the advance sales, which were low due to inadequate publicity. Another factor is that the festival would have arrived on the heels of the controversial Miami Nice Jazz Festival held at the end of October. Although I don’t know what the costs of the hall associated with the defunct festival were, I know the artists are demanding their fees and are prepared to take him to court to get them. There was a possibility that the advance ticket sales would have been matched at the door and that the artists might have returned some of their fees in support of the “failed” event (I’m thinking that an event that happens hasn’t really failed) and that the losses would have been nominal. But even if the artists settled for pennies on the dollar and the money saved from the rental of the venue and whatever airline tickets had yet to be booked balance out the deposit on the venue, the idea of another Miami Jazz Festival has been tainted. Hopefully lessons were learned and next year’s Miami Jazz Festival won’t fail, but the cross-disciplinary conflict between presenter and artist, one that would deny the artist his or her promised income and the presenter with reasonably cut losses, is a tradition of the American music-industry paradigm and one that has made it difficult, if not impossible, for an artist to succeed based on his or her talent alone. The culture of adversarialism that has become rooted in our culture to the point that embezzling the retirement accounts of the elderly has become honorable has infected the music industry in ways that are legendary. The nearly ubiquitous practice of misappropriating the authorship of music is the tip of a gargantuan music-culture iceberg.

I believe that reception is at the heart of the issue of these examples. How audiences receive a movie or a musical performance is an expression of cultural stratification. Whether or not we feel that direct sales of their works is more ethical than viewing them second-hand for little or no cash outlay has a lot to do with how we’re raised. My own experience was of a middle-class (as defined in the 1960s) upbringing that, due to an automobile accident, changed to living on the government dole in the ‘70s. During that time, I went from movies and concerts and nights-on-the-town to food stamps and Medicaid and scheduled trips to soup kitchens. I find nothing wrong with getting one’s music wherever, whenever, and however one can, as long as the primary concern is to hear the music. It’s when the primary goal is to be cheap about it that one suffers. One must prioritize whether or not one pays market price according to one’s station. The philosophy goes to making music as well. If one has the resources to pay top dollar for a custom-made instrument, one should. But great, important, and lasting music has been made on machine-made instruments that were not acquired at their full retail price. (Bird didn’t play a Mauriat!)

Just in the next few days I’ll be performing in settings where the artist takes all the risk for presenting their music as well as some that don’t. This Sunday, I’ll be leading a band featuring virtuoso trumpeters Herb Robertson and Lex Samu, trombonist David Taylor, and saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock at the COMA series at ABC No Rio, a Spartan pass-the-hat venue that has been in business for decades in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. On Saturday, I’ll be performing in vocalist-poet Fay Victor’s “Herbie Nichols Sung” project (fitting as I’m writing this on Thursday, Herbie Nichols’s birthday) with saxophonist Michael Attias, pianist Anthony Coleman, and drummer Rudy Royston at iBeam in Brooklyn. At this venue the artist rents the space. (Victor is presenting a series of events there this month.) However, tonight (Friday) I will be performing with pianist David Lopato and drummer Tyshawn Sorey at the Kitano jazz club. This venue, like Studio 100, where I perform regularly with vocalist Melissa Hamilton, actually pays the artist a modest stipend. The difference here is that ABC NoRio and iBeam are run by musicians and Kitano and Studio 100 are corporately sponsored venues. Interestingly, it’s the artist-presented venues that, in the long run, offer more financial security to the artists who perform there. By allowing the artist to retain all of the cover charges (called donations) and record their music for their own use, the margin of profit can tip in the artists’ favor. Management allows artists to perform based on its assessment of their artistic merit while the fixed-wage paradigm of the corporate sponsored venues demand that money is the deciding factor and, therefore, the fixed-wage is always on the low side.

It’s hard to say whether or not this is where the element of risk should reside. It seems that the nature of the business is that risk alternates between the artist and presenter. Of course, there are collectives, like New Artists, that pool the resources of their artists to better promote their work, and there are networking festivals, like MIDEM, that ostensibly exist to benefit the industry as a whole. But, paradoxically, it seems that as long as the primary focus is to present the music, and not to rake in the money, it’s music business as usual. When it’s the other way around, though, and people get greedy that the bottom falls out and things fail.

You might also enjoy…

One thought on “Business As Usual

  1. Gordon

    What a great article! I likewise find the January 1st “reset” date a bit arbitrary, as my year still centers around the school semesters. (I thought your “circum”s were a nice touch for discussing the yearly cycle!)

    As for YouTube, perhaps they did not remove your videos because they focus primarily on copyright-infringing videos. I believe whoever filmed the video would technically hold the copyright (though the presence of music further complicates the matter). Privacy issues and speech issues butt heads a bit here.

    I thought this statement was especially poignant: “…it is important to state that music and the creation of artifact are practices that predate the concept of profit and that their intrinsic value is found in their reception”. The reception of a work is so important. I think the creative process itself can subsist on its own merit as well. People (most) have an insatiable desire to create, and lack of an audience does little to quell this desire.

    Offering free music can be a wonderful promotional tool. I’ve discovered many artists such as Defiance, Ohio, The Max Levine Ensemble, Chotto Ghetto, Laura Stevenson and the Cans, and Slingshot Dakota through music offered for free online. Reaching out to an audience creates a connection and which can be developed into a relationship, that hopefully results in an audience coming to shows, purchasing records, and offering support in general (financial or otherwise). While free music is by no means a requirement, forming a connection with an audience very much is. Though the creative procedure is highly personal (often, but by no means exclusively, individualized), the full realization of a work is entirely communal.

    Overall the trend in music of decentralized creation and distribution is an incredibly exciting one. As a new year begins one can look both at the present and future, seeing composition, recording, and dissemination constantly becoming more accessible to artists everywhere. Here’s to hoping for the best, for the new year and ones to follow!

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Conversation and respectful debate is vital to the NewMusicBox community. However, please remember to keep comments constructive and on-topic. Avoid personal attacks and defamatory language. We reserve the right to remove any comment that the community reports as abusive or that the staff determines is inappropriate.