Let me pursue the idea that we all have a right to what someone claims to be an advance in human culture, its contradiction in contemporary society, and how this is worked out. For art or music to be advanced is a comparative claim, meaning nothing if it didn’t cast all other music that is current as in some way lacking some important quality necessary to be a contemporary. In doing so it puts itself on the stand for comparison and judgment. One cannot make an “international revolution” in the trumpet and then keep it private to a taste group, however small; it must be trumpeted from the rooftops, up for grabs, subject to wide debate. Most major American cities have at least one museum that recognizes the democratic universality of culture by allowing free admittance at least one day a month. The Tate Modern in London, which prides itself on having the highest number of visitors of any museum of modern or contemporary art, has free admission all the time. Of course, although the museum makes art available to all, we can’t take any art home without a transaction, for all artwork that has a singular, material original is owned by someone. But it is possible for anyone to walk right into a NY gallery and have as rich an experience of an artwork as the millionaire who buys it.

For visual art there has been a top-down encouragement of the lower social ranks to appreciate art, without any thought that they would run out to Sotheby’s to buy the latest speculative treasure. For music, however, the line between ownership and availability has been blurred and shifting, a contested territory ever since a socially proprietary music was separated from the original communal ritual. In the 17th century art music found an exclusive home in the higher social ranks; what wasn’t still communal in the church was street music. In recent times the tug of war involved radio, which resolved it by agreement of the businesses in control, the record companies contracting with the radio networks to be paid for each transmission of their music.

This dividing line has become questionable at each stage of technological progress and consumption, the latest stage of which provides the possibility of downloading music onto one’s hard drive. Ownership, with theft as its corollary, has thereby become relative, and it’s not even clear that the hard copy disc is more available than having it on one’s hard drive, due to the physical compression and the user-friendliness of the latter. And both of these are just one step away from being able to borrow a friend’s copy. (I myself have acquired most of my recorded music by copying anything of interest where I stay the night on tour.) So the argument that says, indeed anyone may listen to music for free but to own it is something else, is weakened when ownership is a matter of relative availability. The record company and artists want to be compensated, and argue that production of music will be limited if they aren’t, but that isn’t enough to stop technology from poking more and more holes in the sieve. Nor are individual consumers likely to take into account the collective argument (missing out on their favorite artists’ production) instead of following the consumer rule of buying more for less money. Moreover, there is a majority of players who don’t think it’s realistic that they will make much of a living from selling their product, and so aren’t going to climb aboard the leaky ship of “major” artists and labels.

To consider the relationship between value, availability, and ownership as debatable is opposed by the argument for the totalization of property claims held by the neo-liberal version of capitalism. Under the full power of that regime, each copy of the original studio recording would be treated as if it shared in the materiality of the original, regardless of the number produced, and the original owner must be compensated by those who also want to possess it. This is deeply rooted in the assertion fundamental to capitalism (and not necessarily a market economy) that there is nothing of value that cannot generate profit. There are two understandings of value in conflict in this view, with values that are inherently universal, such as freedom, enlightenment, and art, tending to be reduced to commodity value, equivalent to all other commodities and available only to those with the cash resources. Meanwhile those who defend universal values, who also call themselves liberal, resist the commodity form and insist on their availability to all.

This conflict is commonly assumed but the implications reach very far into the lives and choices of those making art. Just as the development of jazz was curtailed by the commercial conditions of performance in the sixties, so today players are limited by the conditions under which they are creating music. For instance we, I include myself here, are forced/encouraged to pose as icons-in-the-making, and build our careers on the basis of extravagant claims that have little to do with our actual music. Then of course we feel obliged to deliver. In terms of pay scale, in fifty years we have gone from a musician union (which had finally democratized, opening its door to blacks) that at least guaranteed its members would be paid something, to individual contracts (guaranteed fee plus transportation and lodging) for entrepreneur-musicians, who have scorned the union. This is the preferred model, but for most musicians there was the door gig, and this has devolved to pass-the-hat handouts (“please give what you can, all the money goes to the musicians”), which often does worse than busking on the corner. Who’s to complain? Compared to the sixties when it was a common riff in interviews, to examine and criticize current conditions today appears to be taboo among academics, critics, and even the musicians themselves. You get what you deserve is the unspoken rule; those still begging for gas money or a place to stay at the end of the gig are obviously not worthy of serious attention.

Returning now to the narrower question of the image musicians must present of themselves and its implications for the music.

First of all, a statement one affirms by posting it on one’s website, even if written by another, is meant to be taken as what one believes about oneself. If one were indeed shy, as claimed in the case of the trumpet player cited earlier, one would not post it. This is true especially when it comes from the authentic Artist, who unlike the pop star is pledged to honesty and hopes to be seen as occupying a higher ground of truth. At the same time claims will be commonly understood by savvy consumers as advertising copy, that is, a lie necessary to hone an identity attractive to a particular niche marketplace. Put the two together and we get the image of one who will be successful and admired partly because he or she has adopted a well-known entrepreneurial model for the sake of prestige and eventual monetary success. It is well known to social science that people want to believe artist ad copy and make purchases based on it even as they are cynically aware of the hype. This is calculably true, not just a success strategy that might work but the best one. It is markedly better than convincing immediate listeners at a concert on the strength of one’s music to return the next time, to pay to hear the music, or to buy product. At a pass the hat concert listeners can be wildly enthusiastic, coming up to the players with individual accounts of how deeply meaningful their playing was, and leave without giving a dime. What brings in the bucks is the aura of high cultural significance that some Other has presumably bestowed, not the individual’s personal experience of music. The Other is the secular substitute for God, the great unknown that is worshipped by even the most cynical of believers, who if questioned will admit it is all smoke and mirrors. The aura manufactured in publicity refers to the older musician as a legend (who presumably has sacrificed for his/her art) and the younger as up and coming (emerging) artistically, which at the same time means financially advancing; if there is a gap it is only temporary. An aura that is not linked in some way to financial reward is not conceivable today. If it was true for a Van Gogh, that is precisely what the contemporary art market and museum prides itself on correcting.

Secondly, you (the musician) do not merely present an image to potential buyers (whether funding institutions or individual customers) but inform other musicians of your desired relation to them. For you to say that you belong to a select group of players in advance of all others on this instrument means that you will not recognize as peers those who do not make such claims. You create a circle around yourself and those you associate with that is unbreachable: you have nothing to learn from them but they have everything to learn from you. To ask to play with such a musician is either to claim to be one of the select peer group or to beg a favor. This is a far cry, incidentally, from the “put up or shut up” situation of the cutting contest of jazz history, a past to which there is no returning, where listeners and other players are asked to determine who will bear the crown of “king” in a concrete playing situation. And it is also a stretch to imagine this player in a free playing situation, where musical relations with others are radically egalitarian, and anyone who interrupts the flow with a little spotlight-friendly solo will not be invited to the next session. There is indeed little prestige or monetary reward for being good at improvising with others; it is one’s ability to be identified as an individual artist, in the traditional sense, that counts on the marketplace and with funding sources.

A question begged by the kind of publicity blurb that defines one as anticipating the future is, do we want the future which is being envisioned? The future is to be different than the present, ok, so is it a difference that we choose? Because the future is always different, it is the specific nature of that difference that is significant. To say, “I represent the future you will want” is as authoritarian as any high art pronouncement of the past and leaves the listener out of the equation, the very pretentiousness that postmodernism was supposed to have done away with. It does appeal, however, to the listener who does not want to engage his or her own experience of the music.

Thirdly, to make claims of comparative and historical significance is to signal that one’s music, what one actually chooses to play, is going to fit what one imagines an audience is looking for. It is essential in determining the kind of music one will play and how far one will go in exploration. Along with this, the current art musician must be audience-friendly; the days of musicians turning their backs and other indications that there might be an unbridgeable gap are long gone. This greatly lessens the degree of boldness that might otherwise resist competitive pressures. To play like a “new leading voice” suggests that one knows what the leading voice will sound like to others, and so one is selling what one thinks others are expecting. Boldness that is understood as such by listeners is applauded and rewarded, a stance that has to be properly coded and legible to the target consumer group. Is it bold to do that or just the smart thing to do?

I don’t blame anyone for this or offer an alternative “strategy,” as they say in the spatial (visual) arts. So long as the entrepreneurial model is the vehicle for respect and income the musician must appear to be following it, to the extent that he or she hopes for more than an accidental and low-paying audience. This is simply the situation we must adapt to, and wince at the contradictions.

For myself, the sufficient reason I could take the position I do now has been fortunate circumstances, plus taking the opportunity for an alternative path.  The 70s, when the financial ground for my present situation was established, was still an era of relative prosperity, so no one with an unambitious lifestyle had to invest the amount of time in making a living that they do now. I bought a cheap shell of a house, hunkered down with the cheapest food, trashpicked almost everything, and worked minimal hours for the rest. Today such an aloof position as mine is unrealistic; survival for most musicians requires being able and willing to squeeze what they can of parental, spousal, or inherited support for as long as possible. Especially this is true with the financial crunch. Only the top dogs, what I call tenured musicians, the “names” or nomenklatura, can be assured paying gigs and full legitimate status as artist-professionals, since promoters will rarely take a chance (or act out their erstwhile adventurous idealism) on anyone else. At the upper reaches of the hierarchy one need not even apply for gigs; in fact to have to ask is a sign that one’s name is relatively weightless. In these times the icons with a good draw will do relatively well compared to the mass of players, since there will be less competition for audience from “little gigs” available for minor players like myself. Hasn’t it been the largest financial institutions that have benefited from the crisis?

Here is another aspect of the situation: the downward curve of the musician to consumer/listener ratio and of the pay scale noted above. In the ideal painted by art liberals musicians should be able to get rewarded for their recordings, just as even minor musicians such as myself should not have to pay out of our resources in order to perform the music that is our artistic decision to play. But what does “should” mean when the reality of the historical curve has been going the other way, against the paid professional? How can you resist what is culturally defined and reinforced as progress?

In the beginning of blues and early jazz, music provided a living for some with little competition because it was simultaneously expanding the market along with the number of market-ready players. Here was born not just genuine rags to riches stories, told and retold, but the myth of the (white) Man at the back of the club who comes forward with the record contract, followed by strategy-free success without a touch of cynicism. On the macro level, just as in the broader economy the overall demand was for popular brands, aided by advertising and image creation, and this meant hierarchical pay scales and exclusion. At least by the late 40s the jukebox was putting musicians out of work, such as the territory bands of the Midwest and the large dance orchestras, as well as piano players (in Texas, for instance) who moved from town to town in regular circuits. On the supply side, however, there was something of a compensation. Musicians of popular music (jazz) were seen as a caste apart, a low caste at that, not an attractive vocation, so numbers were limited (similar to the icons of turn of the century European avantgarde art), and jazz was not yet being taught in music schools. Middle class parents, feeling responsible for putting their kids on a track leading to a stable job, discouraged them from becoming jazz musicians.

Enter the 60s, however, and there was a grass roots explosion of interest in playing music to the point of becoming a musician, the stigma removed by youth rebellion and the popularity of folk, blues and rock. This reached below the middle class, both black and white, which was the usual source of musicians. Here begins the idea of the nonprofessional musician who becomes professional by popular appeal and not the Man, the American dream applied to youth culture and not just immigrants and workers. Huge numbers were playing guitar as a cultural phenomenon, without thinking of eventually making it a living. The most successful bands tended still to be made up of “good musicians” who had worked on their instruments in the traditional way, but the audience went home and mimicked them. Punk democratized this; for the first time it seemed as if traditional learning, which required the work ethic and delayed gratification, was not necessary to make music, and even a negative sign. This re-inspired the flood of rebel musicians, who learned to play their instruments in the band practice space, with minimum homework. In the 90s this rebellion could merge with the neoliberal intervention, “everyone is a creative artist, all you need is good marketing.” The supply of musicians is saturated, each one increasing output to improve “market visibility,” and the demand is not increasing proportionately.

Added to the social and ideological change that yielded the relative expansion of the number of musicians competing for limited available slots, there is the long-term economic curve. Technology and consumption substitute for actual musicians playing their instruments, just as robots and other automation cut into the industrial workforce. All these factors are immune to change and can’t be stopped by pouring more into a saturated market or by moralizing to music pirates.