Marc Ribot's piece in All About Jazz, The Care and Feeding of a Musical Margin, is getting some well-deserved attention, especially for the way it exposes the limits of Doing It Yourself when it comes to working in the creative new music scene:
For complex reasons, market funding is no longer feasible. This idea feels shocking and strange, but historically speaking, it's our expectation that new music ever could be successfully funded through the market that's strange.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The only reason I was able to travel to Cologne last October and collaborate with the CCJO is because the venue where we performed, Stadgarten, is funded in part by the city of Cologne. This funding gives them the ability -- and the responsibility -- to present music that the market won't.
Despite some encouraging signs that at least some in the private sector understand the basic issue here -- emerging artists are vital to the cultural heath of New York, and emerging artists need affordable spaces to live and to create art -- it would be foolish to expect a market solution to this market problem. New York badly needs places like Stadgarten -- city-supported venues that will ensure the survival of creative music in this town. Past performance is no guarantee of future success. Just because creative new music has historically thrived in this city doesn't mean it always will, and the trajectory we're on -- clubs closing left and right, rents and cost of living through the roof, no outside support -- leads straight off a cliff.
The capital in the music industry has traditionally been supplied by record companies, big and small, who were willing to make long-term investments in artist development and promotion (by fronting the money for tours, recordings, and/or promotion), with the confidence that at least some of those artists would eventually hit it big, at which point the record companies would reap the benefits of the enormously exploitative contracts artists were required to sign if they wanted to have a shot. It was capital-with-strings-attached -- and those strings were usually wrapped around the artist's neck -- but at least it was capital.
Now even that money is gone. What is left of the "jazz recording industry" exists primarily to supply Starbucks with product for in-house play and impulse buys -- check out this exchange from a recent interview with Ethan Iverson:
WW: The two main reasons I’ve seen you mention about why you left Columbia were the spyware issue and the label not really knowing what to do with the group at that point. Is it possible to break down by percentage how much each had to do with your decision?
EI: We asked to be off the label, but they would have dropped us anyway. The only instrumental artist they have right now is Chris Botti. So that’s just the way they’re going.
Laissez-faire types might insist that if labor costs are too high, it just means that performers are being paid too much, and either salaries should be lowered or ticket prices should be raised. Lowering pay, though, is pretty much a death knell for professional performance: musicians, actors, and dancers are skilled workers, and in order to make sure enough people stay in those careers, wages have to at least somewhat keep up with what skilled workers earn in other industries. (The fact that they hardly do is testament to the dedication of artists.) More importantly, performers have to be able to earn a living wage, and the cost of living is not going to be determined by how much artists take home, as they're in a significant minority; rather, the spending power of workers in more common industries will set the pace.
As for ticket prices, there's another complaint about Baumol and Bowen figuring into that. The most common riposte to the cost-disease has been to point to the rise of recordings and mass media—those technological advances, it's argued, have greatly increased productivity: one performance can now reach thousands more people than it did in the past, at no extra labor cost. But it's a mistake to so completely conflate the recording and performing arts industries; record companies don't perform, they buy a performance, which they then reproduce and sell for a profit. There's a one-time payment to the performers, and the possibility of royalties, but the ability to reproduce performances ad infinitum correspondingly increases market competition. (You're up against not just your local contemporaries, but everyone in world history who's ever gone into a studio.)
What's more, since the mass reproduction of recordings makes them relatively cheap (even free, in the case of advertising-supported media), their very availability drives down the price that audiences will pay for live concerts. And, oddly enough, as technological advances make recording cheaper, the cost-disease becomes more of a factor, not less. It's the difference between capital costs and labor costs: when the initial investment in recording equipment and space was prohibitively expensive, the difference between paying a four-piece rock group and an 80-piece orchestra was comparatively unimportant, but as the up-front payout goes down, the players' paychecks make up a higher percentage of the financial risk, and the cost-disease once again rears its ugly head. (This, incidentally, is why giving recordings away outright as a means of promoting live performance doesn't solve the conundrum; while it might be viable in a given situation, in the long run, it just puts your financial health back into the fickle hands of Baumol and Bowen.)