A musician friend and fellow improviser sent me this link and I respond below: http://thetrichordist.wordpress.com/2012/06/18/letter-to-emily-white-at-npr-all-songs-considered/]

I didn’t read much of this since I’ve always advocated that improvisers, above all, try to make a living from something other than music. Moreover, I’ve presented this as a positive step towards the realization one’s musical imagination, and have pointed out the detrimental effects on music of treating the music career as the life path of one dedicated to music. Since I’ve been able to follow that advice myself I have felt no pressure to earn “real money” from recordings. In taking this position beginning in the 1970′s I’ve been ahead of the curve of the decline of professional musicians. Those who stick with the program in spite of this decline are obliged to create music that accords with one or many preexisting categories and bodies of opinion that promise financial support. They find themselves engaging in and promoting fantasies of their music’s value, which extend to their own personal value as their music’s authorial owner. It is indeed possible to have something that looks like a career in music without idealizing one’s playing, but not the most successful one possible, for publicity claims frame the musician, and without such frame a musical career is difficult, if not a pretense altogether.

My own career is such a pretense, fabricated to deceive people (most of all promoters and venue organizers) into thinking that my music has some value in the conventional sense. Yet listeners themselves do not seem to be deterred when I make it clear that whatever frame I or others might put around me is not to be taken seriously.

What our culture teaches and attempts to enforce is that to be a musician in the fullest sense is to be a professional, and that means to be paid to play, regardless of the quality or type of music. At the same time there is the belief, especially strong in the US, that art, a vast territory of which freely improvised music is considered a very minor province, is universally human, and so is an entitlement should not be limited to those able to pay. This is not written into the founding texts of the nation but is implied in government (of, by, for the people) funding for the arts as formulated in the sixties, a revision of the ownership of Art by the elite (formerly called the Establishment). Moreover, philanthropic funding today indicates that a significant number of the rich, for whom art is a luxury and a private investment, adhere to this democratic credo. The efforts of museums to re-image themselves as people-friendly and accessible and not institutions for the elite is one of the consequences of this post-sixties entitlement.

Those classed as art-musicians (including improvisers) are caught in the middle of this contradiction. On the one hand they wish the income and status of being paid for services rendered, like the servant-musicians of the past and professionals today. On the other, they need to present themselves as Artists as conceived in the still solid Western tradition, whose work is their autonomous creation. This means their creative work is for the good of Art in its human universality and not just for a niche market. The market does not support them in so far as they are players of music; instead they depend on government and private funding, which establishes the hierarchy of players and validates them as artists with grants, awards, and fees from funded venues. The institutions that fund the top echelon of musicians are paying for artists in the fullest traditional sense (not “artistes”), those who embody the idea of Art, or more commonly “high art,” or “serious” music. They will not fund music that is marketable, and this is especially true of those who play music that is popular, or more likely thatcan be imagined as popularwith audiences.

Musicians dependent on popular support generally wouldn’t hesitate to say that they expect to make a living from the music marketplace and are doing what they can to achieve it. They and their promoters might present their music as riding a current wave of response, but not that their music has intrinsic, universal, and lasting value. Students of popular culture might selectively defend it as an aesthetic choice in some ways comparable to high art, but this is not how the market is approached. In fact part of the attraction of pop music, a subcategory of marketable music, has been that it is not presented as aesthetically valid and defensible but is something of an indulgence, and Art is not conceived as an indulgence. They don’t idealize their music as representing a high level of cultural achievement but rather work to stay close to their market, whatever it takes within their means, talents, and inclinations. Even swing music was not promoted as anything but popular and market-based, the precursor of the Top 40. That some of the musicians employed in this music began to feel out of step with the commercial orientation of swing was at the origin of the split leading to jazz as an art music, with a worth measured independently of commercial success.

“Popular” has meant entertainment, and it is widely accepted that one must pay on some level to be entertained. Entertainment is a commodity that must be purchased in order to be enjoyed. If government is construed in liberal terms as providing what is essential for bare existence, then entertainment is a luxury and not a necessity, for there is no subsidy for popular musics or anything that can be labeled “commercial.” Popular entertainment used to be available on the public streets, played by musicians who were just a step above beggars, and art was solely for the upper classes. Now things are reversed: art has been democratized, at least subsidized for the enlightenment of all, and popular music is set up so that there is as little handout as possible. Funding supports commercial music by excluding it from funding, making it clear that it is the domain of a choice generated from below and not from above, as is high art. So, to return to the initial issue, I would say, yes, pop musicians are entitled to make money on their recordings, and if they can, to stick it to whoever doesn’t pay, just like any other consumer item. That their ability to do so has become exceedingly difficult is taken up in part 2.

The situation is different when universal claims are made; cultural capital is not the same as entertainment value. If the meanings of “culture” could be reduced to two, they would be the horizontal, anthropological meaning (American culture comparable to Samoan) and the vertical meaning as Culture, a specifically Western universal meaning the highest expression of human beings, which, unlike “culture,” would not show up as functional to the lives of most people. One index of the former would be popular musics, the latter would be those supported by so-called cultural institutions. The “true” or fine artist is the one with the cultural goods in the latter sense, and must present an image of not pursuing the conventional commercial exchange, not seeking a mass audience indulging itself. In a pattern opposite to musicians of marketable music, those going for high art validation might like to see larger audiences, but this is only going to happen through their validation as artists; attention to anything but the miniscule niche market for art products is a waste of time. In buying the products of the fine artist one is buying something other than, for some perhaps more than, the pleasure of getting something popular. Indeed, one is buying a sense of separation from the kind of pleasure that fuels commercial music, and separation from those who, one imagines, only yield to that pleasure. The artist figure and its audience have survived postmodern reduction or elimination at the hands of pop culture. Yet—and here’s where the contradiction comes in–in a society that claims to be democratic it is difficult to argue, as one might in an oligarchy, that only those with money are entitled to it. If art is for the good of humanity it cannot be denied to any human, in fact it is advertised as “for the good of all.” That’s where the music “thieves” are right, for what is presented as truly of value, and not just a matter of taste and personal preference, cannot be restricted to those who can or will pay.

Regarding this category of “true” artists, which I unwillingly inhabit as a non-popular musician of an unknown music (so-called free improvisation), I recently read the bio of trumpet player and was amazed at how willing he is to market himself as “part of an international revolution in improvised trumpet,” opening this with “[…] is too shy to tell you this…but…”. Then I see another young musician who is, in his words, “rapidly emerging as a new leading voice [on his instrument].” I wonder if they have given a thought to what it means to make such a claim, the implications when other players of his instrument read it, especially since there is nothing particularly unique about their playing. These unsupported and fantasized claims are but random examples that could be multiplied to include a large part contemporary American avantgarde self-advertisement, almost the template for musical ambition. The bigger the better, as P.T. Barnum well knew is what works best. I myself have tried not to make such comparative, universal claims for my music, but in order to get any paying gigs I must make myself look like a serious musician, and that entails publicity claims that go beyond the bland resume.

The postmodern argument (and celebration) made in the 80s was that the division of high and low culture has been disappearing in favor of the latter, which has been raised aesthetically in the process. High art took off its tails and evening dress and came in by the back door. It is true that contemporary American fine artists, just like pop musicians, must present themselves as competitors and think strategically in order to be validated, thus weakening the modernist division. Yet the distinction functions quite well in artist promotional strategies, since it is useful for them to give the impression that they provide something beyond entertainment, something of universal cultural value, capitalized as Art. Moreover, that high value has taken a discursive form it did not have before the 80s, the appeal of radicalism, that art is the way to change the world, something the modernist elite would never have sanctioned. The patterns of consumption and the market are strengthened and not disturbed by tagging music as radical. The publicity statement that promotes the artist as risk-taking, breaking through barriers, transgressive, genre-leaping, revolutionary, a new voice, emerging and post-emerging, is militantly performative and not descriptive of anything in the music. It is designed to appeal to an audience that wants to identify itself with high art that is hip like popular culture and embodies popular frustration with “the way things are.” At the same time it appeals to the current arbiters of high culture who dole out the funds, who want to think of their mission as, ultimately, bringing Great Art to the people. This mission has been altered from that of the liberal wing of the Establishment, as embodied in the Endowment for the Arts of the sixties, to where it is prominently inflected with pseudo-political radicalism.

Such claims are not found among European high art musicians, who need merely offer a boring resume and not put an advertisement in their mouths, even in their visit to the states. It is the promoter who must trumpet the degree of success they have achieved and does not need to add that it is artistic success. They are available to the cognoscenti, who are expected to know the scorecard of who is and is not carrying the bags of cultural capital. Indeed, their attractiveness in the states compared to Americans playing the same kind of music is at least partly because they can more easily be sold as the epitome of the fine artist, and the most authentic “true artists” do not market themselves. What goes unmentioned is that they can fulfill the image because their support system is the state and cultural institutions. It is the duty of these to select and fund art in all its valid forms according to supposed objective aesthetic judgment, thereby enabling the survival of art against the vagaries of popular taste and the marketplace. Authentic art, the argument goes, is in no need of convincing potential listeners or increasing their numbers. In Europe the work of artist-musicians, including those who affirm themselves as improvisers, can be kept distinct from competitive appeal, as it is emphatically not in the states, by the higher rate of funding available (and shrinking). And American musicians hoping to compete in Europe find that they are better marketed as representatives of American small “c” culture than as artists on the European level. The old shibboleth of European authenticity in the arts, with Americans as mere anxious wannabes, was not done away with in the post-war hegemony of Abstract Expressionism but is still alive and well, at least as regards art music.

To continue the earlier thought, if one makes a universal high-cultural claim, then one’s demand to be paid commercially is weak, beyond offering one’s (reproduced) music and merely asking for payment. Those who claim to sit on the front edge of cultural advance cannot restrict their music to listeners willing to pay for it without calling its universal value into question. Pop music is not caught in the contradiction, but high art is.

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