Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Talk: Music as Community

[Somewhere There asked me to give a talk to kick things off at the start of their fourth annual festival. I felt a certain amount of apprehension, mostly at not being able to fill the large shoes of all those who had spoken at the festival in years past. Once it was done, I felt profoundly unable to evaluate myself, so I'm forcing myself to accept the positive sentiments that have been directed at me. In any case, here it is, both as audio and in written form. I had to restrain myself from continuing to tinker with the latter, so here it is, pretty much as presented.]

[Permanent downloadable link for audio file.]

Music as Community: Contingency, Fungibility and Solidarity

[Presented at the Somewhere There Creative Music Festival (The Tranzac, Toronto, Canada) on February 26, 2016]

Although I'll be darting about a bit, I'd say there is a structure here, so unless I go right off the rails, maybe we'll let me stagger through this and then we can talk some at the end. (But if I do that thing where I start mumbling or talking very fast, someone do give me the gesture.)

I have been greatly enriched by everyone who has spoken at this festival before me — Scott Thomson, Martin Arnold and Casey Sokol in 2013, David Lee and Jeremy Strachan in 2014, Marie LeBlanc-Flanagan and Allison Cameron last year plus workshops by Dave Clark and Nilan Perera — so I worry those are all big shoes to fill. I'm also not giving a history lesson or talking about music at a technical level so much as trying, I guess, to articulate something about my own point of view, so I hope there's something in that for others go grab on to. My biggest worry is that some of the stuff I'm talking about and the big reveal at the end! might be seen as superficial or frightfully banal. But to be honest, there's some stuff here that it took me years to figure out, so maybe it'll be useful to try and articulate it.

At these talks people generally say something about their background and why they're here, so I'll do some of that. But just to sort of frame everything I want to start off with a metaphor and a definition.

First: the metaphor. It's probably a little trite, but I've spent a lot of time thinking about Sisyphus pushing his rock. If you're not familiar, this is an ancient Greek myth. Sisyphus was a king who was prideful and crafty in a way that pissed off Zeus, and he was condemned for eternity to endlessly roll a huge boulder up a steep hill. It was cursed to roll back down, just before it reached the top and Sisyphus would have to trudge down and start over again. Over and over, forever, never completing the task, always having to go back and start pushing that boulder up the hill again.

Nowadays, this little story is often remembered because Albert Camus, the great French philosopher and writer, adopted Sisyphus as an absurdist hero. Sisyphus is us, caught up in the endless banalities of this world, tasked with a pointless job that can never be completed, failing every time with the result of all his toil crashing down around him. This constant, unremitting failure is probably pretty relatable for anyone in this room that has tried to make a go of it — artistically, financially — in creative/weird/improvised music.

But the thing to remember is that to Camus, Sisyphus is a hero, because in those moments after the rock has rolled down the hill, while he has to go back down to start again, he has a moment of freedom and nobility, a moment where he is conscious of his fate and thus able to rise above it. Indeed, Camus concludes that "the struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

I spend a fair amount of time thinking about the absurd struggle that a lot of us in this room go through just to create space for what Somewhere There calls "impossible and unreasonable music-making", and about how to find those little moments of nobility in the middle of it all. Sisyphus pushing that rock up the hill is sort of the frame I saw a lot of this through, so keep that in the back of your mind for now — I'll loop back 'round to this later.

And I also promised a definition: I tossed a word into my title for this talk that you might not know if you're not into economics — or haven't read Moneyball. So, fungibility, for the purposes that I'm gonna use it here, is the quality of an commodity where individual units are capable of mutual substitution, where one can be substituted for another. So let's say I wanna borrow twenty bucks and a friend hands me a twenty dollar bill. And the next time I see them I hand back a ten and two fives. Not a big deal, right? 'Cause it didn't matter that it was that particular twenty dollar bill.

But let's say another friend lends me her Picasso. And then the next time I see her, I give her back two Cézannes. Or a print of a Picasso. She's gonna be pissed at me, 'cause there was something valuable about that specific Picasso.

So — is music more like the twenty dollar bill or more like the Picasso? Park that in the back of your head, and I'll come back to that in a bit.

And so: who am I, and what did I do to get asked up here to talk? I play a little, and in fact, Paul Newman put me on the bill of a show Somewhere There did couple months ago. And as a very occasional promoter, Karen Ng and I booked and co-presented a show together last year. So I have my fingers in this and that. But the main thing I did was show up a lot.

If there's anyone here who knows Doc Pickles, he's fond of saying that the most incredible thing you can do is to show up, and he's right. Especially in this little world where there's lots of shows where six or twelve — or three — people show up, you tend to get recognized. And all sort of neat things happen.

I came to such prodigious showing-up through a sort of roundabout route. Seven, eight years ago I was going to a decent number of shows, sometimes with friends, but increasingly on my own. Mostly indie rock, and mostly touring bands, but I was going to enough shows that I was starting to find out what sort of situations I liked: one of my early rules of thumb was that if I had a choice between going to a show at a bigger venue and one at a smaller one, I should always pick the smaller venue. At that point it meant, like, steering myself away from The Phoenix and going to The Horseshoe.

Along with going to smaller shows, I was going to more shows on my own, 'cause I was going to stuff my friends hadn't heard of, and there was a downside to that. I was really unable to hook into other people. There were shows — really good, amazing shows — where my main memory was not of the music, but of a painful awkwardness and loneliness. That wasn't sustainable.

Around the same time I was getting very bored with my job and with my life in general. I had one of those "something has to change" moments. If I were a practical-minded person, what I should have done was quit my shitty-but-consistent job. But this was 2009, and I convinced myself that it wasn't an auspicious economic climate to look for a job. So I started a music blog.

At the outset, my blog wasn't particularly remarkable. Some show reviews, some album reviews, a little casual snark. I didn't advertise or try to call attention to myself, really, just started plugging away at it, and it was a nice enough outlet.

And then a few months in, I acquired some recording gear and that changed everything. I kept writing show reviews — sometimes exhaustively — but that was the start of what's really been my unique element: recordings from the shows I went to.

Over the next few years, just through hands-on discovery, the mix of shows I went to slowly changed, with fewer rock shows and more experimental/improvised/weirdo call-it-what-you-will shows. Slowly, instead of choosing The Horseshoe over The Phoenix, I was choosing The Tranzac over The 'Shoe. And when you go to those shows, it's easier, by orders of magnitude, to connect with the other people who show up and with the musicians. You get remembered if you're always one of the three people in the crowd!

So, over time, the recordings have built up — it's heading towards three thousand tracks posted — and as time has passed, it's been more skewed to stuff that happens before smaller audiences and quite often it's improvised or ephemeral moments that might be rare or might be one-offs. It's an archive that sometimes really surprises me when I go back to dig for something.

I'm not a big self-promoter and it's not for me to try and evaluate how "important" all this is — and like Professor Lombardo, I don't take praise very well. I do this in my own way for my own reasons. When I started, I tried to wrote a blog that I was wished someone else was already writing. But I do see it as a community service.

And that's the thing that's worth noting: in doing all this I found and have become a member of a community.

This is probably way too obvious and way too banal for some people, but this was something that it took me a long time to figure out, so I think it merits discussion regardless. People are going to figure shit out in their own time, and I dunno if my own conclusions would have come any quicker if someone would have connected the dots for me, but I figure I might as well put out there some of the basic things that it took me a long time to learn.

One, that being around people makes it easier to be around people. Two, that sometimes when people are awkward around me it's not necessarily because of my own manifold failings but because they might be feeling socially awkward too. And three, that it's fundamentally better to belong to something larger than yourself. In my younger days I would have especially blanched at the last of those. I can't really explain what sort of atomistic reserve I had to breach to get past that. Or I would have tried to say that something as amorphous and oft-times as casual as my music-based social connections are just aren't worthy of being elevated to "community". But that's bullshit; you might as well take the community you find.

In any case, belonging to a community has made all sorts of things happen that would impress my younger self.

Being able to get a recording back to an artist when they wanted it has always been a kick. And that some of them have been used as "proper" recordings is pretty awesome. There's a Japan-only Mantler compilation that has a track that I recorded sitting right there, and don't think that doesn't give me a smile whenever I'm in this room. Even when it's something that a group can throw up on soundcloud, just to have something online, it feels good. Or when someone asks for a recording to use for a grant application, or when a musician says they got a gig because someone else listened to a recording I posted, that's pretty sweet. It's pretty fabulous to feel useful.

Through that sheer persistence and that power of showing up I've gotten a rep — not entirely deserved — as someone who's at all the shows. Even if I'm at home painting my nails it seems like if people don't see me at their gig, they just assume I'm at some other show that night. Not true at all, but you do this for a few years and you start to meet a fair number of people — and as networks of connections get denser, more and more interesting things happen.

Over the past year, after getting out of that shitty job I was feeling stuck in back in '09, I've had some time on my hands — side note, I'm looking for a money gig if anyone's got any leads — and after putting on a couple shows, through some random flutters in my personal network I ended up running a monthly music series. And that's been a really positive experience (and a get-over-yourself exercise in a different way) to accept that musicians I like are into what I'm doing enough to come play my gig, as un-prestigious as it is.

Running the series has also given me a chance to think about gigs from the other end of the process, thinking about things like draws and pay-outs. And while inviting people to play an experimental music series with a Pay-What-You-Can door on a Tuesday night tends to dampen expectations all around, there is a part of me that just feels awful every time I divide up the money at the end of the night and do the rounds, like, "that was an incredible set!" Followed by, "here's sixteen dollars in twonies!"

I did a show last year — some friends of friends from out of town wanted a Toronto gig on a little tour they were doing, so I basically wanted to get them some gas money — and I asked an acquaintance to come out and play. And she was really enthusiastic... and she asked, "can you guarantee me enough to pay for the GO Train back to Hamilton?" And I literally had to pause for a minute and think, like, "is there enough money for that?"

It's not news to anyone in this room, but the economic situation for making the sort of music that Somewhere There celebrates is extremely shitty. And I guess people get inured to that, but I think there's always that clutching at the back of the mind. It's psychologically draining to think about how to just get by in this city, how to try and fit in creative, soul-nourishing work around pay-the-bills work. But it goes deeper, too: we're conditioned in this society, no matter how much we think we've liberated ourselves, to cash out the worth of things in monetary terms, so it becomes existentially damaging to always feel degraded. The money side of things, that's Sisyphus pushing that rock up the hill.

All of the wonderful stuff that comes out of weird and creative music scenes falls into this terribly-fraught zone of just-not-failing. Whether that's the internal economy of keeping a band going, or running a label and putting out recordings, or putting on gigs... it all works by the skin of our teeth, by making just enough with one show or one album to seed the next while keeping the circling sharks at bay. And while there's the whole romantic, rah-rah side of this — leveraging moxie and ingenuity to keep things going by hook or by crook — it gets really draining, even soul-deadening.

And then, on top of that, there's also the fact that in our musical hinterlands, the non-money rewards can be thin, too. You put on a show and bust your ass to promote it, but you're playing to your same small group of friends anyway. You manage to make a recording, and no one buys it, and you've got a box of CD's in your closet forever. And no one bothers to review music anymore, so it's hard to tell if anyone cares at all.

I think ego-gratification is a big reason that people bother to make and create art. And in just proportions, that a well and befitting thing — we all need ego gratification to some degree. Acceptance by others is a powerful thing. But in our current cultural climate, it's a hard slog against indifference —even if you get those semi-personal likes (or, now, if you're lucky, those semi-personal "wows"). And in all that, plus in the whole rarified matter of "aesthetic satisfaction" there's the sheer matter of diminishing returns — the law of entropy says it's hard to keep getting the same satisfaction over time. So people get burned out — it's a very real thing that the hill gets really fucking steep and that bolder gets really heavy.

I do want to pause for a second and just sidestep myself to note that while these existential burdens are very real and very cumbersome, probably to most of us in this room to various degrees, we have to stop and remember that the burdens are not distributed equally.

There are people in our communities who have to deal both subtle and overt forms of racism. There are people who get treated differently because of their bodies, sexuality or their perceived social or economic class. There are differing outcomes for getting gigs, for access to media — for pretty much everything related to artistic/musical production — for persons who happen to be female instead of male.

I assume that everyone has to deal with these same existential burdens to greater or smaller extents, depending on their own personalities and circumstances; but racialized persons and women have whole other layers of bullshit they have to navigate before they can even worry about pushing their boulders up the hill.

There are whole talks to be devoted to this, and there are people in our communities that are talking about it. I think my job is to listen to them, and to stay aware of my own relative privilege, so I just want to be make sure when we're talking about the obstacles people face that this is acknowledged. Otherwise, I only really have one other thing to say about this, that I'll get to in a couple minutes.

Having said that, maybe now I'll come back to my definition at the start. So: is music more like an interchangeable twenty dollar bill or more like a unique Picasso? Obviously, it's a totally unfair question, and at least two of the things in the question are pretty wiggly. "Music" is an amorphous thing, and it could mean those physical objects for sale in the crates over there, or it could mean something you go and dance to, or it could mean something you make with your friends.

But that being said, there's a strong cultural impetus with all of those to make us think music is more like the Picasso — unique, irreplaceable. The way that we talk about a favourite song (or band or album) is often in the same terms of a one true love in a romance novel, like a spiritual connection destined by fate. I know for a real long time, that was how I felt about music.

But one of the things that has changed as I've been doing all this is that I've come to feel rather the opposite... and given my proclivities, I'm largely thinking of this in terms of going to one show instead of another. Which isn't to say that I'd consider any show picked at random to be as good as any other so much as the quality of music (and my emotional relationship to it) isn't the main thing that drives me to any particular show. Vivid example: at one point, if a band I really, really loved was coming to down and playing a festival, I'd go to that festival. Nowadays, the notion of being fenced into a field, surrounded by branding opportunities is the last thing I want to do. I'd substitute some other band that I might not "love" so much and still have a better time.

Is the show at a place where I feel comfortable? Is it safe (and safe-feeling) for all members of the community to be there? Will there be friends or acquaintances there? Who's putting it on, and do they facilitate a good vibe? Things like that mean way more to me now. A place where I'm participating in the social life of the music, rather than consuming it like a commodity — even if that commodity is a fine wine — means a huge amount to me.

I hope I'm not belabouring this point too much, and I hope this isn't one of those things that seem like a big dilemma to me but if totally obvious to all of you. But this consideration, which is something I've been trying to articulate for a few years now, is a big deal to me, and definitely affects how I choose what shows I'm going to.

Now, the fact that I'm also into a different sort of musical experience also plays into this. When we talk about improvised/creative music — the sort of shows that Somewhere There is putting on — I think that those of us who are immersed in it forget how much of a different beast this is. When we're talking about experimental and improvised music, we're talking about music that is always in development, is always becoming. It's unfinished music, it's not pinned-down-and-described music. No one's going to play the big single and send us home humming that song we remember from when we were in high school.

For those of us that are immersed in this stuff, I think we tend to forget how foreign, how scary and how undesirable this is for a lot of people. Sometimes we lament that there aren't enough people at our shows and we act as if this is a textbook case of market failure — or marketing failure: that not enough people got word about our shows to make the rational choice to come and see it. We try to avoid considering that maybe the continuing unpopularity of our marginal music is because it is well and truly unpopular.

Which isn't to say there isn't room for improvement. I remain a die-hard romantic who thinks that every one of our shows that has six people at it could have twelve if we hustled right. Which sounds, I admit, a bit jokey, but really is not. We want a few more butts in the seats, we want a few more bucks in the kitty, we want musicians going home with something more than beer money and cab fare, but what I'm getting at here is that the low-stakes-ness of our shows (is that a word?) is a feature, not a bug. There are some shows that are simply meant for twelve people.

Low-stakes shows go hand in hand with the process music I was just talking about. Creative music needs shows to try things out, shows that sometimes flop at the musical level. Collaborations that were a good idea on paper — or even charts that were a good idea on paper but that don't quite fly in open air. Shows where musicians are trying out their moves instead of worrying about executing the game plan. Shows that pause for troubleshooting. And so on.

This isn't all I go to, but this is indeed the sort of show that I dig a lot these days. And maybe that gives me another way to try and explain why I feel as if live music is fungible: I threw away my bucket list. There's no particular show that's essential to the whole experience. They're all little slices of this continuous becoming.

Now the downsides of this are manifold, and I've probably dwelled on them enough: there's no money in it, it's hard to have more than a handful of spaces that embrace it, and these gigs can feel like a slog to organize and, sometimes, I'm sure, to play. But there's a whole bunch or rewards, as well, and these mostly revolve around the social life of the music. (That's a phrase, by the way, that I owe to Scott Thomson.) These process shows make it easier for audiences to recognize each other and hopefully to get to know one another (Even if it can also be a sort of gated community that throws up very real social barriers to unfamiliar faces, which is something we always have to work at overcoming.)

These shows also make the divide between audience and performer more porous — and this is another thing that creates a feeling of community, a sense of being all in it together. If I hadn't found these musical communities that treat me like a respected member because I'm good at showing up, I surely wouldn't be standing here today. And if I didn't feel like I was part of these communities' greater projects, I definitely wouldn't have put a fair amount of effort into documenting them.

I also think embracing this small-stakes-ness can give us some perspective on where we should direct our struggles to make our larger communities better. I think dedicated artists shouldn't be consigned to a life of poverty — I really believe this, but a lot of the avenues where this get expressed seem like pointless fights to me. As the way people consume music changes, there seems to be enormous energy expended on lobbying for artists to get paid .01 cents per stream instead of .004 cents per stream — or to pick something closer to home, there's a never-ending struggle to make it acceptable to charge ten or twelve bucks for a show instead of five or seven.

And this is possibly contentious, but I think those hills are too small to fight and die over. If the music's not going to be paid for, if we can't raise more than dinner money at the door, then maybe we shouldn't worry so much about it. So far as I can tell, if we were going to agitate for something in Toronto — instead of sitting down with venal "suits" from the industry cabal to talk about building a "music city" — it should be for affordable rents, for a living wage and for a guaranteed annual income. And these things, by the way, that would make a very big difference in a lot of artists' lives, would also tie us to a larger community in a way that those pie-dividing struggles wouldn't. 'Cause affordable rents, a living wage and a guaranteed annual income would also make a material difference to racialized Canadians, to newer Canadians, to women... and to seniors and to the millennials who are getting the generational screw job. And being in common cause on these bigger issues might help us to make more of those people feel welcome in our smaller musical communities.

But I digress. What I'm trying to express is that there's a real value to the sort of shows that groups like Somewhere There put on, and something special about the "space" that they create, even if that space isn't contained in one venue. The community they're building and the support they give to "impossible and unreasonable music-making" is a valuable thing, and I think what they're doing is making some folks' boulders a little easier to push up their mountains.

In that spirit, I want to loop back around to Sisyphus and close by making a suggestion to switch that very familiar metaphor that I lead off with. I don't have too much to say about the burdensome part, the pushing-the-rock-up-the hill part. But I have a suggestion on how to enhance those moments, those validating moments walking down the hill before starting over again.

Albert Camus, who wrote the essay about the Myth of Sisyphus also wrote a novel called La PesteThe Plague. For those who aren't familiar with it, it's a story about a colonial French port in Algeria that is struck by an outbreak of Bubonic plague, and about how various people in the city react to it. Some try to flee, some try to hide, and some fight the plague, even though that means a high risk of death. It's a metaphor for the Nazi occupation of France in World War II, and it's a metaphor for the existential struggles we are all in engaged in. It's an absurd fight that the protagonists are going to lose, just like Sisyphus pushing his boulder up the hill.

Tarrou, a visitor who happened to be trapped in the city when the Plague struck, and Rieux, the local doctor, are stoically helping the victims. One night when they have an unexpected respite from their work, Tarrou says something quite simple and quite beautiful to the doctor. He says "Voulez-vous que cette heure soit celle de l'amitié?" —— "do you want to take an hour off... for friendship?"

They spend some time sharing stories about their lives, and then Tarrou suggests that they go down to the beach and have a swim. In the midst of this unbearable spiral of plague and death, they share this special moment of fellowship and serenity, floating together out in the sea before they swim back and go back to their work fighting the plague.

It's a beautiful moment, and something that I've gone back to many times over the years, but until I was working on this, I never really connected that back to Sisyphus. And yet, the parallels are obvious: the absurd, implacable, killing struggle... and that moment of calm, of humanity, of worth-while-ness in the pause before returning to the grind. But there's something different in the two scenes, something so obvious I missed it for years: in the one that gave me nourishment and a feeling of hope in that moment of rest from the struggle, the hero is not alone.

So let's not be alone. When we're pushing out boulders up the mountain, or fighting the plagues, or organizing our shows, or playing our music, let's not be alone. Let's take an hour for friendship in the quiet moments and let's try to be less alone when we get caught up in our absurd and fatal struggles. All we've got is each other.

photo by Melissa Goldstein.

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