David Keenan’s Collateral Damage

So arts funding has been slashed? Good. Is there anything more contradictory and hypocritical than a ‘radical’ music festival that’s essentially government sponsored?

Mr. Keenan, how did you arrive here? I’ve read your opinion piece from the July issue of Wire (#329) numerous times, but it becomes more incomprehensible with every reading, and it’s at the above quote that I become most puzzled every time. I’ve never heard of anyone cheering for a loss this way, and it’s made worse because it appears as though you’re cheering for selfish reasons. I hope I am wrong.

In Wire Issue #327, UbuWeb founder Kenneth Goldsmith recalls a series of epiphanies he’s had about MP3s and file sharing. His insights are numerous, and I believe they show some understanding of the complexity inherent in the free music debate. Music on the Internet is attractive for so many reasons, not the least of which is availability. Perhaps you’ve always had access to the music that most interests you, but I can assure you that not everyone has had the same experience. I’ve been frustrated numerous times because certain limited edition LPs or CDs were not available when I wanted them, or because local music stores didn’t carry the artists I wanted to hear. File sharing changes that; it opens up a whole world of music to people who couldn’t possibly access it otherwise, and I see that as a generally positive phenomenon, not as a “dull leveler.” I heard many of my favorite artists for the first time by downloading their songs from private FTP sites, and I ordered their records because those sites made their music available in the first place. Indeed, file sharing ensured that several very worthy artists were compensated for their work by a very eager teenager living in a very conservative Midwest. It’s likely I would have never found them otherwise.

When Goldsmith celebrates the inexhaustible supply of MP3s available from blogs and torrents across the Internet, this is at the heart of his cheer: that music is becoming more available to more people all the time, and that’s something to celebrate. It means that artists have the ability to reach more people than they could have possible reached just 10 or 15 years ago, and it also means that more people’s lives are being enriched by music to which they feel genuinely connected. You will accuse me of being Pollyanna-ish, but my optimism is well founded. I see it happen all the time when friends trade CD-Rs, USB flash drives, and mixes of their favorite music. My own experience is that hearing music makes me want to buy it, and since I can’t hear Pierre Schaeffer or Michael Pisaro on the local radio, I sometimes turn to blogs and torrents for help. I do buy music, at least as often as I can, and sometimes more frequently than that. Just look at my credit card statement for proof.

That brings me to another of Mr. Goldsmith’s epiphanies: music is expensive and not all of us have the money or means to appreciate it. When Kenneth recalls downloading ten ultra-rare discs in a flash, he’s echoing the excitement countless fans feel when they finally hear that $20 record they’ve wanted since before it’s release, plus shipping charges of course. You see, few record stores stock what we listeners want to hear, and not all of us are willing to pay the ridiculous charges companies like FedEx and UPS charge for cross-country or trans-global delivery. It is not uncommon for shipping fees to total more than the cost of just two or three records, as I’m sure you are aware, and paying that fee doesn’t always insure that the records will show up safely. It may not be a lot asking $20 for this or that record, but watching limited editions disappear quickly and then reappear at inflated prices is disheartening. Reissues help, but they’re not always available either, and why wait for production to catch up? I can hear a record now, and buy it when it finally hits a price I can afford. Besides, I don’t always need the special edition artwork or unusual extras included with some records. Artists like Andrew Chalk make the extra cost worth your while, but that can’t be said for every artist and label out there.

Nowhere in your manifesto do I read an acknowledgement of these factors. Instead, I catch you tossing catch-phrases and words like “Protestant work ethic” and “Marxism” around, neither of which capture the reasons men and women everywhere choose to download. I grant you you that some are simply greedy and irresponsible, but this is not the whole of the story. Whether you want to believe it or not, audiences do not download music because they secretly disdain the musicians they want to hear. In fact, your argument about the Protestant work ethic almost makes less sense than the joy you exhibit over cuts in arts funding.

I do not download free music because I secretly loathe the lifestyles of the people who make it, I download it because that’s sometimes the easiest way to get it, and because it saves me the dissatisfaction of paying a lot of money for records that simply aren’t very good. You complain about superficial engagements with culture via outlets like Wikipedia and UbuWeb, but you neglect the endless stream of only so-so music released by artists and labels who appear to care little for presentation or decent liner notes. Why would I want to pay full price for a package that includes horrible artwork, cheap production, and throw away ideas? How can anyone justify paying $15 or more for CD-R releases in flimsy cases, and who would argue that such a thing is more authentic than an MP3 copy with good digital scans and some background information?

I know what you’re thinking: we wouldn’t have that problem if people paid for music. I agree, at least in part, but ridiculous release schedules are nothing new, and there would probably be fewer artists and labels worrying about downloads if they simply practiced a bit of quality control, or even self control. I know that I am just one of many buyers who have hesitated at the record store when confronted by the newest album by Band X; if only I could hear it before I bought it, then I’d know whether it was worth my money. This isn’t the internal dialogue of a selfish customer, it’s the reasonable expectation of a suspicious buyer, who is quite aware of all the junk out there, in part because of the Internet and file sharing.

Again, you ignore all of this, and take up as your sparring partner a straw man made from anti-capitalist sentiment and Protestant bias. I’d be honest with you if I knew anyone who downloaded music for those reasons, but I don’t. Maybe they exist somewhere, but we’ve never been introduced and I’ve never even seen one on a message board. I know you know this, but much of the United States is in an economic recession right now, and whatever you’ve heard about improvement is mostly a matter of soft incremental changes. New jobs with low wages and poor health services do little to alleviate the financial difficulties shared by audiences everywhere, but that doesn’t make listeners less worthy of hearing music. Sampling a new record before buying is financially essential for some, and it’s no secret that blogs, torrents, and message boards do better jobs of promoting records than many labels or publications do. I’ve never seen a study conducted of the number of albums sold as a result of downloads, perhaps because that data is difficult to obtain, but I suspect the numbers would shock most people. I’m speaking from personal experience here, some of which includes publicity and working with labels. As a matter of fact, many music writers cover the records they do because they’ve downloaded them, and I know a few label owners who get excited when the right blogs post their music to the Internet. None of this is a secret, but in the mire of the file sharing debate, you failed to acknowledge it.

That’s enough about Goldsmith’s points, though. I don’t want to make it sound like I agree with his every last word. I don’t.  In fact, I’m quite sympathetic with Chris Cutler. You could even say that my job—and yours—depends on a healthy music economy. Artists cannot and will not thrive without support from audiences. There is no doubt about that. Monoculture, as Mr. Cutler so elegantly puts it, is the inevitable, unsightly, and often unspoken end of the mad Internet buffet. But, where Chris exercised subtlety and understanding, you touted a weird kind of extremism and a laughable contempt. I say laughable, because as you ranted your self-righteous rant, you also fell into one of the Cutler stereotypes mentioned in issue #328: the whining Goliaths in the music industry. At no point in your essay do you address any of the questions Chris asks: why do we pay for an Internet connection, but not music? Why should someone not connected to the making of music make money from its proliferation? Instead you argue for and exult the authenticity of an object-oriented encounter with art, which is dubious enough in itself. It’s a perspective for which you provide no argument, but I’ll get to that later. First I want to address Cutler’s questions.

The answer isn’t Marxist or Protestant, as you might think. There are alternative perspectives, and I’m offering the following up as just one example. You might remember Steve Albini’s article, “The Problem with Music.” If you don’t, read through it again before continuing, because I’m going to assume you know something about its content. That same circumstances that informed Albini’s article also fuel the doubts of many listeners, myself included. How can I be sure that the money I hand over at the record counter is really going to the artist that made the album I’m buying? Who ends up getting the most money out of the transactions I make on the Internet? Why does a single LP with only modest production values cost over $30 when better records with better production values are available for less? Just who is making money from all those foreign field recordings I like? Why should I have to pay for something in full before hearing it in full? Why do artists continue to struggle even as record prices continue to rise? How is it that Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails can give their albums away for free, but other artists can’t? Is it really true musicians don’t make money from records in the first place? You see, it’s a matter of education, and nobody’s speaking up about details. As a result, cynicism grows. Big businesses, especially record labels, have left a bad taste in my mouth. I feel confident that others feel the same way. After all, it’s hard to feel good when your favorite band sues its fans. It isn’t shocking that, as a result, listeners go looking for music from alternative sources.

You get the idea. There’s a cynicism among listeners that’s born of the music industry itself; whether it’s deserved in every corner of that industry is a question we could debate, but I’m only trying to add some dimension to the one-sided argument you gave in your opinion piece.

It isn’t the Protestant work ethic that’s eating away at music so far as I can tell, it’s the corporate work ethic, maybe even the artist’s work ethic. What argument do artists have that listeners should shell out exorbitant prices for limited edition records that turn out to be dull or unsatisfactory? Your manner of writing suggests that you think obsolete formats and limited edition releases will clean up the MP3 and file sharing contaminants that have polluted the artful and pristine waters of underground music. Yet, the obsolete formats you so sentimentally champion exhibit a sound quality worse than that of MP3s, and most of them feel cheaper than CDs do, which is an accomplishment to be sure! I think it’s obvious that objects do not guarantee authenticity, especially when those objects are small rectangles that break easily and sound worse. If you think CDs make art trivial, then take a look at the tapes you own and ask yourself what makes them any more valuable than a high quality scan of an LP’s cover featured on a blog somewhere in cyberspace. I agree with you that handmade editions and specially crafted records are special; that when they’re assembled lovingly and thoughtfully, they far exceed anything we can get from the 1’s and 0’s of digital music. I do not agree, however, that their appeal is matter of reproduction. As you put it,

Labels like Medusa, Child Of Microtones, Winebox Press, American Tapes, No Fans, Faraway Press, Time-Lag and countless others have established themselves by producing recordings in limited handmade editions with an intimate relation to the music distinguished by a tactile aspect that defies reproduction.

The very success of these labels depends on reproduction being possible. Limited edition or otherwise, artists make money by reproducing something, whether it is music, artwork, feelings, or an exhibit like David Tudor’s Rainforest V. In a debate that focuses prominently on how artists can afford to continue their work, I find it odd that you emphasize obscurity and privacy. Making already difficult music even more difficult to find will not encourage anyone to seek it out any more than they already do. It will not encourage anyone to buy more records. Rather, it will make all those limited records more desirable, more expensive, and therefore more downloadable. When we talk about expenses, we so frequently bemoan the costs of making a record. Why is no one counting the costs of buying records, especially in the information age? Labels and artists want to sell all the records they can, because that means they make more money, but few are willing or able to offer up the right prices. I guess the question is, which event caused the other? Are prices steep because people aren’t buying, or have people stopped buying because records are expensive and the payoff isn’t always so great?

The answer might be neither. Listeners and artists aren’t each other’s enemies, after all. If continuing the life of a label or artist is the thing at stake, why not let the audience decide what they pay for? There could be art editions for those who seek them, normal physical copies for the less obsessive fan, and MP3s for anyone that’s curious. Providing a cheap digital alternative could work if all the DRM and availability issues were sufficiently handled: make the MP3s easy to find, cheap, and free of hassle. The best news is you don’t need iTunes or Amazon to do it. The Arcade Fire did well with this strategy, and I think other bands could, too. You might argue that the Arcade Fire have the benefit of greater exposure and a larger fan base than most experimental artists do, but let’s be honest: selling the album for 4 bucks probably helped sales a lot. Only a select few will sell more records by making expensive, limited edition albums the only available option for audiences.

As to authenticity, my love for bands like Coil is authentic, at least so far as I can tell. I would presume to be an expert in at least that field. But, it all began when someone lent me a Nine Inch Nails remix CD, one that I didn’t own. It then progressed because I downloaded more of their music, which went for over $25 a CD in most record stores. Again, this was music I didn’t own. I would not have spent that kind of money had I not known what I was buying. Besides, the avant garde world is notoriously hermetic, and most artists do little to make their music more accessible, which is understandable, but expecting already inundated listeners to invest their time and money in the inscrutable productions of frequently silent musicians is unreasonable. If the artist isn’t extending his hand to his audience, it’s likely that the audience won’t extend their hand either. Making things harder to find will not improve Chris Cutler’s situation even a little bit, nor will it improve anybody else’s situation.

I do not mean to suggest free music is the wave of the future, because I think compensating artists and labels is both necessary and ethical. There must be a middle ground, however, and my own experience tells me that free music will be essential to finding that ground.

I could further question your sense of simulacra and authenticity if I thought it would help, but I won’t, because there’s something more hideously insidious waiting at the end of your piece: the quote with which I started this response. Some of my thoughts have been leading in this direction, as I think I can already hear you saying, “Who cares if other people listen? The underground is distinct from the mainstream, and it will do just fine by itself.” Yet, your exchange with Goldsmith and Cutler proves the opposite is true: it admits tacitly that there’s a problem with funding, even in underground circles. Unlike Milton Babbitt, you as a store owner do care if someone listens, you must. It’s the thing that drives your business.

Nevertheless, your thoughts up to this point might have been characterized as merely haphazard and incomplete were it not for the way you talk about arts funding . Without warning you just cry out, “Thank heavens fewer people are being educated about the arts!” and I can’t fathom why. You don’t say exactly that, though, so let me quote you just one more time:

So arts funding has been slashed? Good. Is there anything more contradictory and hypocritical than a ‘radical’ music festival that’s essentially government sponsored?

This has nothing to do with the rest of your piece, it contributes nothing to your argument, and worse, you get your facts wrong.

I was suspicious of your claim about government-sponsored music, and then I recalled a passage from Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise. I’d like to call your attention to page 383 from the softcover edition printed by Picador in 2007:

David Monod, in his history of music during the American occupation [of Germany], writes that OMGUS [Office of Military Government, United States] inadvertantly helped to bring about a ‘segregation of the modern and the popular.’Darmstadt and similar organizations were wholly subsidized by the state, the city, and the Americans. They had no obligation to a paying public.

The entire chapter from which that excerpt comes does a great job of explaining how experimental music after World War II was funded, at least initially, by government organizations. If Darmstadt isn’t a name you’re familiar with, then maybe you’ll recognize some of the composers that attended courses there: Milton Babbitt, Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez, John Cage, Morton Feldman, György Ligeti, Olivier Messiaen, Luigi Nono, Henri Pousseur, Karlheinz Stockhausen, David Tudor, Edgard Varèse, and Iannis Xenakis. It’s a virtual who’s-who list of some of the most radical composers (and performers) of the last 70 years. I see neither hypocrisy nor contradiction there.

In all fairness, you offer an alternative to arts funding, but this funding-revolution is filled only with vague and ambiguous ideas about alternative economies. You don’t explain what those are, exactly, and you move along quickly, as if you’re cognizant of the hole you’re leaving behind. Your memory must be short, however, because whether or not there is an alternative economy available to musicians, Mr. Cutler himself very clearly states that alternatives aren’t always an option for bands or labels:

And today, ‘properly’ means six to eight months of composition and rehearsal and something in the region of £9000 in travel, living and recording costs (the last International Federation of the Phonographic Industry report averaged the industry recording budget for a new group at £20,000). There are no shortcuts, especially for a group that still uses technically demanding instruments, plays in real time and wants to use the studio as a proper instrument. Laptop plus ProTools is cheaper, but it supports only a narrow genre of music.

And here is where the irony of your response comes crashing down so damningly. Chris Cutler spends much of his time talking about thoughtlessness. If we continue to download with impunity, without taking into account the future effects of our actions, artists will be forced to compromise their time, and that means art will be compromised, too. It’s a powerful argument and I have little to say about it because I agree with it.

But, what would happen if arts funding was cut entirely? Who would lose in that situation, and what would the collateral damage be? You believe that wandering through a dusty record shop is superior to finding music using Google and I agree to an extent. For those who don’t have access to such shops, however, your argument is meaningless. You believe decreased funding for the arts is a good thing since nobody has ever done anything revolutionary with their arts education, but to many students in love with the radical music they encountered in their classes, your argument is all fluff.

Both you and Mr. Cutler ostensibly believe that downloading means thoughtlessness, and that thoughtlessness leads to a bleak future where consequences sneak up on us unexpectedly: the death of the artist and the label ensues, and perhaps the death of the dusty record store, too. Yet, you failed to glimpse a future without arts funding, where fewer people care about the music that’s being made because fewer people have been given the chance to encounter it. Who does that help? Furthermore, what does arts funding have to do with saving the music industry, since the connection appears tenuous at best.

Ultimately, I wonder who is more short-sighted in this case; the kid downloading new music in his room, or the self-satisfied record clerk who gloats about the genuine encounters with art that he’s been privileged and lucky enough to have.

I do not think we should all stop buying music. I want to support the arts in whatever way I can. Your article, however, falls short of accounting for all the complex reasons people download anything at all. It also neglects a group of people that every other article on this topic has neglected: those of us who download music, and still buy it ravenously because we love it so very dearly.

No, you do not account for that at all. Worse, you pretend such a group of people couldn’t possible exist, and use that to excuse the contemptuous attitude that plagues modern art in many parts of the United States. I wonder if the situation is that much different in your native country of Scotland. It’s obvious to anyone who has ever loved a record, a painting, a book, a movie, or even a decent television show that getting rid of our arts programs is a bad idea, maybe even disastrous. You seem happy for it, however, and I cannot for the life of me understand why.

Like you, I appreciate difficulty and mystery in art. It educates as much as it entertains, and for that reason alone I hope artists and audiences can find a way to support each other. Unlike you, however, I genuinely hope that art’s great mystery and difficulty is made available to as many people as possible.

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11 comments

  1. james · · Reply

    3rd from last paragraph, second line, ‘you’re’ should be ‘your’.

    you could edit it down to just that line (without the grammar fixed). would tell us all we need to know. a dumbass trots out the usual tired old self-justification. again. waste of internet.

    1. So says the person with multiple incomplete sentences and incorrect capitalization. I also can’t tell which piece you think is a waste. Oh well.

  2. alexanderhenriksenpress · · Reply

    Beautiful article. Blistering. Thank you.

  3. Donald Fagen II · · Reply

    Ironically enough, I’ve witnessed Keenan performances at subsidised events.

  4. David Keenan’s very own Subcurrents Festival in Glasgow was Arts Council funded, and it was hosted in a venue that was also Arts Council funded, namely the CCA. By Keenan’s own logic doesn’t that mean he too is “contradictory and hypocritical”? But then we all knew that already, right?

  5. @james & paul – I posted this late last night not thinking it would be noticed so quickly. I had hoped to edit it significantly before sending it to Wire magazine; ideally, it would be shorter and more forceful, but I have a full time job and don’t always get the chance to write when I want.

    I’ve never said I don’t need a good editor!

  6. Wire writers are the best at kicking up mega shitstorms. extremely entertaining to read but yes definitely many holes in the logic. but still we read. and enjoy hahahaha. thank you sirs!!!

  7. i say it all boils to romance, or the idea of it. romance of the hardworking struggling artist, the love of the record/tape/cd and the record store as the place where the epiphanies take place.

  8. Complimentary to your discussion of being both a music-downloaded and a music-purchaser is the revelation that those who acquire more music from free sources, also acquire more music from paid sources:

    http://boingboing.net/2011/07/26/ousted-emi-boss-pirates-are-our-best-customers-suing-is-bad-for-business.html

    1. outstanding link! thank you!

  9. […] a result, I didn’t post much this year, though my hastily composed retort to David Keenan’s Collateral Damage article in Wire magazine received way more attention than it deserved. What was meant to be a sketch ended up an article […]

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