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In The Garden of Money

October 15, 2013

Triptych of Garden of Earthly Delights (right wing)

In the garden of money
Resentment blooms.

In the jazz music world there has been a steady deterioration of the artist’s economy for at least forty years. This decline began with desegregation and rising real estate costs. The traditional Black communities where jazz began, developed and flourished got colonized and absorbed into the wider marketplace. Just as it became more and more expensive to keep a neighborhood club open, it became more and more difficult to integrate what will never be a ‘popular’ music into the mainstream economy. With the advent of the internet, the physical product of LPs and CDs virtually disappeared. 10 years ago I was talking to the brilliant composer and musician George Lewis about the exciting possibilities of internet distribution. He said, “Yes, but the problem will be the same. How will people know about me?”

The scale and nature of internet distribution means that with services like Spotify and Pandora, etc., musicians must accumulate 100,000 hits before any meaningful compensation arrives. That is just not realistic for most jazz professionals. In a report release today (10/15/13) Spotify revealed that in a (reported) catalog of 20 million songs, 4 million have never been played once. Gizmodo reported this claim by saying that this was “music that nobody wants to listen to.” This kind of equation that says that because something isn’t racking up numbers on Spotify means that nobody wants to listen to it is not only wrong, it’s insulting. More and more musicians are pulling their work from those services, most saying that they can’t make any money there and that free data devalues the market overall.

I have seen this steady decline in the opportunities for both performance and payment over the years give rise to no small amount of bitterness and resentment among some professionals.  They see vast fortunes being made by a small number of performers and middlemen selling what most regard as mediocre, often clownish entertainment, while skilled artists of what is often called (unfortunately, to my mind) America’s Classical Music are so marginalized that few actually make a living with the music itself. Most rely on teaching or working in the regular, wage-slave economy. Again, this has been a long and drawn out process for musicians. The same process is now happening (or has been for about 10 years) for writers and photographers who used to work as journalists.

I have no solution to this problem. We are in the midst of a vast cultural shift and no one really knows, nor can they know, what the landscape will look like once it settles down.

It has also been my experience with musicians that, in general, they are not what we would call ‘early adopters’. In fact the force of tradition in the musical community is a very powerful one. Most musicians and composers of the avant-garde spend a good part of their lifetimes as exiles from the traditional community. In a regular industry, the avant-garde are called the innovators and are generally recognized and rewarded for their positive, creative work. Not so in the music world. The strength of conservatism tends to carry over to technology. It took two decades and the passing of a generation for computer-based equipment to enter the realm of acceptable instrumentation, regardless of its apparent ubiquity now.

When I attempt to discuss what may be new, or actually renewed approaches to creative work, I’m often met with appeals to ‘what should be’ and ‘how it used to be.’ And to be fair, sometimes I’m simply talking about technological systems that are unfamiliar, unknown, and/or untested in the creative community. However, there are aspects of this that are interesting, having to do with technology and cultural behavior.

First and least interesting is the process of lowering expectations. Most serious musicians have already undergone this process and have been forced to accept the reality that it is next to impossible to support oneself as a creative artist in the United States. This is not new. But the rise of the superstar in the mass-market music industry and the gross misapplication of wealth have nevertheless produced a veiled jealousy among some who work in the creative fields and are effectively locked out of that industrial process. Where money is, resentment blooms. And I have no solution to this problem either. I have written elsewhere that Music is Worthless.

But I think it is becoming clear that for both creative musicians and now also for journalists the phenomenon of the aggregator, the principle threat to the legacy industries, as an honest and fair intermediary is not going to work, if for no other reason than that it is part of that industrial mass-market system itself. For musicians, this means streamers like Spotify, Pandora and others are useless as direct generators of revenue. For journalists, this means that, as it is, there will be no added revenue regardless of how many times your work is repeated by any number of other aggregators. I run a small aggregator myself with the Paper.li technology (http://paper.li/paxlupo) and currently there is no way for the original authors to be paid for the redistribution of their work.

But there can be, and the technology does exist in nascent form with micropayments made possible by using Bitcoin itself or with a platform such as Flattr.com. Now I want to say very clearly that I have some issues with Flattr and it is far from perfect, but I do think it is moving in the right direction. That direction is one that encourages voluntary contributions made directly to creators. Using Bitcoin, the whole problem of an intermediary service like Flattr is eliminated because Bitcoin is both the platform and the currency. For musicians it is a simple matter of putting a bitcoin address on your website, Bandcamp, Soundcloud or other hosting service where you already post your work and probably receive nothing for it; you consider it advertising. In performance it means simply posting or projecting a QR code at the gig. For the journalist it is simply a matter of including your Bitcoin address (or QR code) along with your by-line in such a way that it stays with your work no matter how many times it gets bounced; in fact the more bounces the better. But Bitcoin is currently not very user-friendly, though that’s changing. It still has very marginal use and must be converted to fiat currency for any practical purpose.  When the day arrives that you can pay your electric bill with Bitcoin that will be great, but we’re not there yet. Flattr on the other hand deals in standard national currencies as well as Bitcoin, but as it is implemented now the main drawbacks are its service fees, its inability to designate specific amounts to specific artists, and its poor adoption in the US. It also has an added technical difficulty for writers of incorporating the Flattr button code on to the originator’s blog or website and it is unclear to me if that code will survive the aggregation process. Nevertheless, the technology is there, at least in basic form, to enable micropayments directly from users to creators.

This brings us to the cultural aspect of the process. The current model has creators negotiating or otherwise determining the cost to the consumer up front. Money is exchanged before the product or performance is delivered. But in free data world, almost no one will pay anymore for music they haven’t heard. For journalists, this is the problem with paywalls. Internet consumers are reluctant to pay for what might be behind that wall. I recently saw speculation that a mass layoff of writers and photographers at the Palm Beach Post was not because of the internet, but because of a paywall recently put up by the newspaper in an attempt to generate revenue.  The argument was that by putting up a paywall and shutting people out, they lost click-through ad revenue. Who knows? But it’s pretty clear that unless you’re the New York Times, Washington Post or Bloomberg Financial, paywalls don’t work. Even if they manage to work for the company, content creators are still looking at a legacy industry with a collapsing workforce.

But given that all real artists of any discipline do what they do by nature, meaning that they must create to be who they are, then it is incumbent on the culture to find a way of rewarding them, rather than it being the artists responsibility to figure out how to get paid. Let me repeat that: it is the responsibility of the people to reward the artist, not the responsibility of the artist to coerce the people. In short, I believe it is imperative that the relationship between artist and populace be returned to one of mutual respect. This is definitely not what we have today. What we have today is widespread disrespect of artists as creators, and disrespect of audiences as intelligent, aware beings who are our neighbors. So what I am suggesting is that we need to move toward a culture that says “thank you” rather than a culture that says “fuck you.”

How do we do that? We see in our culture already that for some, like food servers, cabbies, valets, porters, barbers, and it was recently pointed out to me, strippers, it is customary for an individual and personal exchange of money called a tip to occur. This seems to occur with occupations where it is known that both the wage system isn’t fair and a personal service is performed. What makes some professions fall into this category and other not, I don’t know. But it is obvious that for creative artists, the wage system is not in operation and yet a valuable personal (and social) service is being done. I’ve seen audiences paste money on a sweating King Sunny Ade. Nusrat Fatah Ali Kahn had a dedicated person on stage during the performance to collect the freely given tribute to a great master. In some cultures, this expression of “thank you” still exists for artists.

While I do not know how we get to that ‘thank you’ mode in our society, I do think it is necessary for artists to help create that environment through the use of the dignified request. They must help with the process of asking.  And they must investigate the methodologies to make voluntary giving possible by experimenting with and adopting developing micropayment systems like Bitcoin and Flattr, or with more large scale up-front models like Kickstarter or Indigogo, which are appropriate for defined projects with specific objectives. In either case, it is on the foundation of mutual respect that this new economy must be built. Nobody is going to get rich this way. We won’t get to the Promised Land, but we just might get somewhere more comfortable than where we are now.


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It Goes Without Saying.

September 3, 2013

wires (712x800)I took an afternoon nap
During the storm that killed a man in Dade.

I dreamt of a world where everyone misunderstood everything.

Awakening, the clock said 8:05.
“How strange and beautiful” I thought
“That it should be so dark in the morning.”


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Forest and Factory

August 23, 2013

The Three Jewels.

 

What does the word ‘refuge’ mean?

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I take refuge in the Buddha who shows me the way.
The way through the forest is not the same as the way through the factory.

I take refuge in the Dharma of wisdom and understanding.
The Dharma is the wisdom of all time. This is our particular time.

I take refuge in the Sanga, with harmony and peace.
I wish you well.
Cultivate compassion where there is no water or soil.
The landscape is a dust bowl.
“A noble effort, doomed, but the only choice.” ~Giorno


“We’re lost in a Roman wilderness of pain.”
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One cannot take refuge and brave the storm at the same time.

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Buddhist Reincarnation in Six Obvious Steps

August 19, 2013

Buddhist Reincarnation in Six Obvious Steps

  • 1. You’re born.
  • 2. You spend a lifetime making a gawd-awful mess of things.
  • 3. You die.
  • 4. Another iteration of your form emerges into the previous mess you made.
  • 5. Since you don’t remember a thing, you blame the mess on everyone else.
  • 6. Go to step 1.

Haywain_central_panel_of_the_triptych_WGA


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Music is Worthless

August 14, 2013

Music is worthless. Perhaps that is as it should be.

It is as worthless as the swallow-tailed kites above Arbuckle Creek; as worthless as the free wolf in the mountains, howling. Who would pay for the flight of a blue heron or hawk, unhindered over the Everglades? These things are wild and uncaptured and therefore free and worthless.

The great composer and writer and trombonist George Lewis once said to a friend, the singer and performance artist Jill Burton, “No one pays you for the music. They pay you for what is said about the music.” This was a kind of confirmation to me about a line of thought that said “music is a kind of thing that is never compensated.” Indeed, it is the kind of thing that cannot be compensated, because by its very nature, it cannot be traded or exchanged. It is a phenomenon – or one aspect of a collection of phenomenae – completely temporal, “free”, and impossible to hold. What is bought and sold however, is access to the social container where music occurs, either directly in the case of the venue such as the opera house or concert house or whore house, tavern or theater, or indirectly as the container’s efficacy as a symbol of class, or tribe or religion or as a subject in an academic paper.

The distress and resentment I often see, and have experienced myself, over the plight of musicians; disrespected and insulted at every turn, comes perhaps from this confusion over the unbridgeable difference between intrinsic value and social value that becomes eventually, value in money. One need only to look at the myriad examples of commercial music encountered everywhere that we would say, quite rightly, have no intrinsic value as music and yet which garner mansions worth of fortune for its traders, while other music, astonishing in its beauty and luminosity, often literally, goes for nothing. Now it may be true that over time the practitioners and admirers of such sound may eventually come to some acclaim, but it will be because, as Mr. Lewis points out, because of what is said about it (its symbolic container), how it references a lifestyle, such as hip hop, or cool sophisticated jazz, or the progressive-hip lifestyle of a ‘cutting-edge’ cognoscenti of the downtown art scene; social value derived from the conference of an identity. These things are the packages, the containers, the fashion styles which only reference something completely different – the music itself which they invariably fail to capture. Perhaps, to use a cliché, it is like the finger pointing at the moon. We pay for the directions, the signage, but we cannot pay for the thing itself because it is beyond the realm of compensation.

Perhaps this confusion as I see it has been exacerbated by recording technology which claims to ‘capture’ sound in a device, giving rise to the increased commerce around the (sadly deficient) representation of the original event. In this case it is natural that composers and musicians are concerned with their share of the commerce from the sale of the replications, which only mimic the original event. (Wasn’t this Warhol’s point?)  The composer who never performs sells only the guide to the realization of the sound, and the cache that surrounds it. It is my contention that, in the United States at least, compensation to artists is given – when it is given at all – as an exchange for the labor of its manufacture, and with little regard for finese. It is my understanding that BMI has different compensation scales for so-called ‘classical’ composition – that is, music with roots in the European Imperial court, and another much lower scale for everything else. This blatantly racist structure makes it pretty clear. When your work is part of an industrial process and your collar is anything but White, expect to be paid, and cheated, as a laborer.

I once was trying to describe my position to a venerable Buddhist jazz musician who rarely works. “Look,” I said, “We are beggars or something like monks. We walk into town with nothing but our rags and our begging bowls and our wisdom.” “No!” he cried, demanding respect for his talent and the sacred history of his profession. It shall never be. The profane has no bridge to the sacred. They are separate worlds. One is the realm of Caesar the other is the realm of the saints. Each is worthless to the other.

“America, when will I be able to go into the supermarket and get what I need with my good looks?” asked Alan Ginsberg. The question is when will the intrinsic worth of beings freely born into creation transfer into food from the supermarket without effort or explanation? I am not holding my breath. Not with the devil running things the way they are.

John Cage said When you separate music from life, you get art.”

Thomas Merton saidThere is another kind of justice than the justice of number, which can neither forgive nor be forgiven. There is another kind of mercy than the mercy of Law which knows no absolution. There is a justice of newborn worlds which cannot be counted. There is a mercy of individual things that spring into being without reason. They are just without reason, and their mercy is without explanation. They have received rewards beyond description because they themselves refuse to be described. They are virtuous in the sight of God because their names do not identify them. Every plant that stands in the light of the sun is a saint and an outlaw. Every tree that brings forth blossoms without the command of man is powerful in the sight of God. Every star that man has not counted is a world of sanity and perfection. Every blade of grass is an angel singing in a shower of glory.

The gentle earth relaxes and spreads out to embrace the strong sun. The grasses and flowers speak their own secret names. With his great gentle hands, Atlas opens the clouds and birds spill back onto the land out of Paradise.”  ~ Thomas Merton, Atlas and the Fat Man, The Behavior of Titans

What is it that you expect from music, anyway ?


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Miami – the Real Follywood

June 19, 2013

Has South Florida Displaced Los Angeles In The World Of American Crime Fiction? ~by Nathaniel Sandler

http://www.wlrn.org/post/has-south-florida-displaced-los-angeles-world-american-crime-fiction

A Response:

Ah, probably not. Or maybe so. Not a concern of many.

But honestly, this post raises a couple of other more worldly questions. Is this piece, posing as literary criticism, a contribution to WLRN’s Florida-glare treatment of ‘the arts’ in South Florida, or is it yet another prop for boosterism? I think the latter. Is WLRN capable of publishing anything other than boosterism? Probably not, given the entanglement with the Miami Herald which, at least since the killing of the Miami News, functions principally as the publishing arm of the various Chambers of Commerce.

The justification: “but it’s worth exploring to better understand the lineage we here in South Florida share with written crime narratives as well as various slinky women with muscle-bound henchman at their whim and/or tails.” No it isn’t worth it.

The argument: “there are a lot of moments where Gopnik’s brilliance just doesn’t get it.

What doesn’t Gopnik get? According to the latest generation of boosterists, when Gopnik and people like me say “the system is fake”, we just don’t understand that in Miami, that which is fake is the substance of our authenticity. The ubiquitous ocean of fraud, corruption and (self) deception in which we swim is the very domain of our existence. The wholly artificial and unsustainable fabrication of Greater Bloated Miami, in both its physical aspect and its mental self-conception, is the very essence of who we are. In this respect the comparison of Miami to Hollywood (not LA) may be of service. But at least Hollywood understands at some level that it is fiction. But wait, people like me don’t get it. We need to dig deeper. When you dig into Miami, you get water and/or broken sewers.

The story of Greater Miami as a viable, sort-of-grown-up city is a fiction. One need only look at another piece also published by WLRN on its website asking, much too late, what ‘solutions’ might be found for South Florida’s rising sea-level troubles. http://bit.ly/11o9VRU The piece lays out, again too late, all the options that won’t work to save Greater Miami from reverting to its appropriate size for human habitation (about half as big as it is now). But it studiously avoids the “R” word, a word that is being openly discussed in other mature cities faced with this same crisis, like Bangkok, where the Relocation of hundreds of thousands, perhaps over a million residents is discussed as probably the only realistic option that they have. But no solutions are offered in the WLRN report as there is only one; the relocation of much of South Dade. But we are a people who regard realism as an unwelcome and decidedly unfashionable buzz-kill. Boosterism keeps the economy afloat on nothing more than a lilly-pad and a lot of drugs.

This is the story of Greater Miami exceptionalism; a myth of being special, just because we believe we are. Boosterism can work for a while, just like every other kind of charlatanism. But sooner or later the charlatan must get out of town or face the consequences of lies and deception. The great self-deception here is that our industrial machines can do what no civilization before even tried to do – build a metropolis in Miami on a flat foundation of limestone and hubris. Wrong. The ocean wins.  Mayans, Aztecs, and every other people who came before us understood this. We understand nothing except intoxication.

“Inform, Entertain, Inspire”; that’s the essence of boosterism.

alpha 66*Oh, and by the way… The closest the 9-11 terrorists came to training in South Florida was a few hours in a flight simulator. Their flight schooling was in Venice, Pensacola, Arizona and California. If you wanted to make an argument about terrorists in South Florida there were plenty who were actually based here; Cuban and Nicaraguan terrorists. The training camps were here, not so hidden in the Everglades. The bombs blew up here. Alpha 66 had an office on Calle Ocho. (Now closed but still bearing the signage.) People like me were assaulted here. But that’s not to be mentioned by boosterists; it doesn’t fit the fantasy.


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This is not Times Square

April 13, 2013

I know nothing about modern art. My visual sensibility ends in the time of Man Ray, that straddling of eras between the bio-centric and the wholly industrial. Charlie Chaplin. That time between when men were the instruments of war and the time when machines took that job and all the others anyone still talks about.

This retardation is not so bad though with my connection to modern music. I have a pretty good sense of it, and tend to favor the jazz-rooted, improvisational avant-garde over the avant-garde constructions of what can be said to be coming generally, I said generally, from the modern Euros.

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Nevertheless, Brook Dorsch was opening his new Emerson Dorsch gallery in Wynwood, that area of obsolete textile and shoe factories being taken over by the new Creative Class, or rather by artists who will provide the suitable ambience for the Creative Class once the conditions are just right. Dorsch and his gallery had just been the focal point for an article in Atlantic Cities, a web publishing division of Richard Florida’s urban planning venture centered around this meme of the “creative class”. The author, Alesh Houdek, tells the story of respectable art gallery pioneers disgusted with Miami’s drunken party animals who have followed the scent of alcohol and hipness to Wynwood’s art walk event. “Bristling at their own success” was the title. This is a problem because R. Florida’s Creative Class needs a proper setting for creating wealth, a setting which needs to be more like a sedate café than a wasted rave. But I digress.

Anyway, a friend of a friend, Rene Barge, had a sound installation as part of the opening so I decided to go. Being weary of the 50 mile drive to Miami, I set off on TriRail for the gallery. TriRail to MetroRail to the #2 MetroBus; no problem really when you’re tired of driving.

The Emerson Dorsch Gallery is a well done factory conversion in the style of modern galleries. Everything is hard and white; hard floors and hard angles of the hard walls and ceiling. Every sound ricochets a hundred times before its energy fades, like light in a house of mirrors.

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I arrived early, before the art lovers, who were also mostly angular and white; early enough to be able to hear Rene’s work reverberate through the gallery, as it was designed to do. The stereo piece was made of material sounds captured with contact mics and processed through computer modules to produce a field of static sound overlaid with longer waves that, maybe  through phase interactions, oscillated over the static wall. It was one of those architectural pieces, à la Alvin Lucier or David Dunn – with whom Barge is a collaborator – which does not call attention to the composition, composer, instrument or auditor, but rather is designed to give information about the space it is in, much as a bat navigates a cave. It works well in the empty gallery, but is impossible once the chattering gallerists arrive in numbers, who are of course all chatting and not listening. We are a species of chatterers, not listeners, as the Buddha suggested.

P1020588 (800x600)The installation of Barge’s instrument is one of the few things in the gallery not hard, angular and/or white. Two arcs of bent plywood with belts of red fabric serve as bells or cones for what appear to be bass or sub-woofer drivers (without their normal cones) which act as the speakers for the ipod containing Barge’s materials-derived music.  This is the installation, architectural enough to engage the visitors (briefly) as they go about their visit. Of course they care nothing about the sound; it’s not really necessary.

DSC01617 (800x532)The other major work in the gallery is that of Brookhart Jonquil, of which I can say little other than my direct observation. Besides, the installation entitled “In a Perfect World” has a printed program of explanation far more in depth than I would ever attempt, and which I have not read. The pieces are large constructions of steel frames holding angled, irregular rectangle sheets of mirror which extend outward from a central, flat white surface of a simple two dimensional geometric shape; oval, rectangle or triangle. Each assembly is traversed by arching and curved steel rods which continue through the mirror walls to the frame, or to the gallery wall itself to which the whole assembly is mounted with industrial hardware. Viewed straight on the pieces gave me the feeling of portals into which the viewer could be drawn and travel through to the white space beyond, where perhaps this perfect world exists. Viewed from an off center angle however, the mirrors produce the illusion of intersecting planes of separate universes. The flat white surface in the center of the structure becomes in appearance a three dimensional object; cube, sphere, or pyramid. The structure becomes an illustration of advanced cosmology, multiple universe theory, intersecting planes of space-time.

After a while the gallery filled with gallery-goers and the reverb of their unstoppable conversations. Needing to catch the last Tri-Rail north lest I spend the night wandering the foreign streets of Hialeah, I said good bye to my friends Gustavo and Claudia, who arrived late. I walked across to the bus stop at NW 2nd Ave and 25th St., past the Creative Class Café (not its real name) to wait on the corner for the next southbound #2 bus. Two white women passed by, talking about someone else who was an asshole. A car blocked the street briefly, the backed up car horns sounded, the finger got flipped. A collar-less dog darted through traffic to come smell the grass near the sidewalk. Two young black boys on bicycles, possibly adventuring up from Overtown with nothing better to do on Friday night, wove up the street studying the Creative Class conquistadors.

The bus arrived. It is a moving box full of tired but jovial workers, all Black and Brown and fleshy. There is absolutely nothing hard, white or angular anywhere. But two young white girls do sit in the very back corner, which, post Rosa Parks, is where white folks tend to go when in a bus full of black people, generally speaking. In every bus in Miami-Dade County, there is a seat in the very front dedicated with a plaque to Rosa Parks. I like to sit across from that seat to see who sits there. These are the workers and the descendants of the workers who used to tend the machines in those factories that once made shirts and shoes, but now make artistic ambience. Those machines moved far away, beyond the range of the municipal bus, where the space and the attendants who feed them leather and fabric are cheaper. These are the workers who constitute what Richard Florida calls the Service Class, but I call them The Servants just for the effect. And besides, a servant is at least human, whereas a class is a mental category. Somebody’s category.

It took me less than 5 minutes to go from the one universe of the gallery to the other universe of the bus. Perhaps, if I can find a perspective that is somewhat off-center, I can see how these universes intersect. Right now though, I can not.

 


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