In recent years the house concert has been getting increasing attention as a suitable space and format for playing many kinds of music in front of others, including folk, punk rock, and “experimental” (or more colloquially, “weird”) musics, my specific focus here. Small audience shows in low-rent galleries and cafes might as well be house concerts, since audience size is normally no greater. Non-chain record stores, where there is a spirit of independence from mass-advertised taste, have the kind of limited space that make them suitable as venues. Basements, of course, abandoned churches, and spaces landlords have been unable to profitably rent have also been common. “Small” to entertainment consumers might mean a hundred in attendance; for the shows I’m considering here it would be anywhere from five to twenty or so.

This development has much to do with the rising cost of commercial space that has been accelerated by the financial collapse, especially in the cities, where the bulk of musicians live. To stay afloat, urban coffee houses and clubs need customers motivated to buy drinks, not just to hear the music, which would characterize the largely marginal-income experimental audience, at best a “bring-your-own” group. To rent a hall, or even the space required for an urban art gallery, for a low-revenue, low-attendance show is out of the question. And unnecessary. This is one of the significant features of music compared to visual art that affects its class status: a performance is like a poorly financed guerilla operation, here now gone tomorrow, and does not require a 24-7 encampment, as art does for its commercial operation. It is possible to have the very same music presented in a small space as a large one (sometimes the acoustics are even better), and pay no rent for the privilege.

For the denizens of such shows, however, “small” is not felt as a lack in comparison with a large capacity space; they are enabled to say, “we fill this, we are the full content here, we have exactly what we need for what we do.” It is this positivity that I wish to explore, one which, in contrast to a political and sociological event as massive as Occupy, for instance, is ongoing and not waiting for the next groundswell. First I will outline the models of small and large venues, followed by the more specific category, the DIY performance and venue, where free improvising most often finds itself.

I.

As a form the house/small show should be distinguished from the commercial or funded art performance for an evening entertainment crowd, those who would scroll through the live music offerings the way one picks a movie to go to, or for a fandom drawn to an appearance of their icon. The latter is “public” in the way the word is used as an adjective. For this show there can never be too much audience; if there’s an overflow then the space chosen next time will be larger. Audience and venue size will translate as significant in respect to the master signifier, Music. [1] The event may be experienced aesthetically by attendees, but also as cultural capital, something to acquire that would yield prestige and confidence, or prevent one from being classed as a philistine. Often presented as an “event,” the effort there is to draw the maximum numbers, which requires shaping and choosing the music, performers, and publicity to facilitate that. The grounding assumption here is commercial exchange, that the receipts (or grants) will cover expenses, and performers will be paid as professionals. While the small show appeals to a network of friends individually invited through email and facebook, the larger one aims to reach an entertainment market, categorized by taste groups, through targeted advertising. An event categorized as avantgarde will advertise itself as “challenging” or “risk-taking,” thereby signaling those who perceive themselves as prepared for a serious art performance. Performers at either the small show or entertainment event will be happy to see large numbers, but the latter depends for its existence on significant numbers, whereas those choosing to attend the small concert are generally content with being few in number.

For the commercial or funded show it is assumed by the organizers and curators that attendees will make their decision based on the publicized reputation of the performers, venue, or series. Those who may be uncertain of their judgment will likely feel they have made the right choice among the evenings’ options if they are in a space filled by a crowd. Given a suitable urban demographic, proper promotion, and high-credentialed performers, success in relative numbers will be more likely. On the occasion that few come to fill a large space there will be an air of disappointment, leading often to mediocre, merely dutiful performance and response. The audience, having been persuaded that the event would be significant, feels diminished and betrayed, taken for a fool. They apparently made a mistake in coming and would leave without the cultural capital they had been promised.

The house show, on the other hand, often provides aspects of a private home atmosphere, where people are greeted individually by the host, players, and their friends, and catch up on small talk. It is something of a community gathering where one knows the others face to face, or at least can imagine that possibility. One does not come to be seen, as at a social obligation, but to meet up with one’s familiars. As such one is more likely to feel oneself a participant than spectator. It is difficult to enter without being labeled a “newcomer,” which would not be true of the more public commercial event.  It may be open to all, but what it promises is music in a context of social interaction, which is part of the reason for the proverbial delayed start time. In this situation players might speak about their music as a member of a group that includes the listeners, and not as an outsider; listeners, feeling secure within the circle, can respond with personal impressions of the music. Strong criticism is limited, however, by the understanding that one comes as a friend and perhaps a supporter, and if one “can’t find anything good to say, don’t say it.”

This show is especially attractive to the broad category of players of “experimental music,” who do not have to show any credentials or audience drawing power to get the gig. Practically all who ask are invited to perform.[2] They tend to think, like their left-cultural audience, that their kind of playing is so alien that it would upset people outside a small urban gathering.[3] One bond between such players and listeners is the unspoken assumption that they are a tiny island surrounded by the vast majority, the consumerist mainstream, which would be hostile to their musical interest. These left-culturals (as opposed to media-prominent high-art visual artists and “world class” musicians) are “locals,” who do not think of themselves as collectively significant in the wider world, politically or otherwise.

Certainly it is reasonable to assume that one will communicate best within a network constituted and predisposed to an open rather than a genre-determined taste (including the genre of “art music”). To expose one’s music to ridicule or even indifference, it is presumed, would distance one from the interested listeners and affect one’s playing negatively. We all tend to prefer safe environments, and the small show is no exception. The welcoming that musicians receive in the house concert prevents fears of negative response from obtruding, since the listeners presumably know they are there to get something they cannot find in commercial entertainment and are grateful for it. Some of the rituals of theatrical performance are in place, encouraging automatic acceptance, yet the informal context discourages the kind of knee-jerk relationship that star/fandom depends on, as well as professionals who think of their music as self-validating apart from listener response.

This kind of show contradicts the common conception of what art performance is all about–the anonymous spectator and consumer-appealing artist. Players can be said to share their music, offer it the way ideas can be offered as suggestions (as I conceive my own writing activity), rather than to present or represent it. Presentation is the mode for the professional art musician, as well as craftspeople and visual artists when they place their work in a shop for sale. The small show even represents what the Left talks about positively, a counter model to consumer society, one that unlike the sixties counterculture shows no sign of longing for commercial success, without going to the extreme of the traditional bohemian of fearing it.

One might say this local gathering represents a kind of folk community, making the music most appropriate to it a contemporary folk music. In the twenties at least blues musicians, like Charlie Patton, played at what were called “house frolics,” social occasions at private homes for music, dancing, liquor and goofing around—the pointed opposite of church social life. But blues was an art form, not a true folk music, and this label won’t work for house concerts today either. “Folk music” is understood via a mythical notion of “real people,” unsophisticated and rural, of which the denizens of weird music would be the antithesis. Moreover, folk music has passed its phase of being any kind of contested site and is today little more than a collection of competing subgenres marketed alongside others. It represents feelings and sentiments as they supposedly once existed, preserved in the same recorded/performance form as its competitors. In the common view, the public sociality that was the major reason for people to gather to hear music and stories is a thing of the past. This would be all the more dismissed by those who claim that “ordinary people”today, that is, those otherwise tagged as backward, red-state “middle America,” would have to step up to the role of the contemporary urban consumer, selecting entertainment strictly on the grounds of individual taste, in order to be prepared to listen to anything but the most bland, familiar, and canned conventional music. Those who make this judgment (which includes those who dole out state funds) would say that the “folk” are simply not ready for more challenging fare, that the hierarchy of “the best” art and the most critical judgment requires the objective judgment of the anonymous urban spectator, with a cultured, knowledgeable opinion. On the other hand, this belief goes, when people come to enjoy the presence of those they know or could know, who are even interchangeable with the performers, their judgment is tainted. They are just folk.

These assumptions are part of the package of ideas common enough to be found in journalism, academic departments and music schools, that distinguishes Art from the everyday and Artists from students, Sunday painters, and untutored improvisers. The Artist is a skilled producer, separate from the mass of humanity known as art lovers or the curious, and specialized to bring enlightenment, or at least “vibrancy,” from on high.[4] Trained, and heavily in debt for the privilege, the artist counts on (some day) commanding serious attention, a kind of revenge for years of institutionalized youth. Improvisers who want to be “taken seriously” as consumable fixtures of the music world are in a bind, for however much they may work behind the scenes to develop and practice, immediacy is at the core of their playing, and not the trail of training, discography, and credentials that marks the legitimated artist.

The proper artist wants to be taken seriously and that means to have the largest audience possible. To specifically choose to play in the small-audience house concert situation, rather than to have it be a mere failure of adequate publicity (or the weather, or competing events),  risks one’s status as an artist, for it looks like one lacks the artistic quality to attract more people. The respected artist is the one who, all payment aside, would prefer one concert of five hundred audience over a hundred concerts of five. Artistic validation is then rewarded with a devaluing of actual playing. To enter into the pleasure of playing is equivalent to labor—the less the better. This is an ascetic parallel to the scale of financial reward–the greater the pay, the greater the renunciation demanded.

The common joke among improvisers is that we have a stiff requirement, that to agree to play there must be as many listeners as players, though sometimes even this is not met. It is a joke because we know that to be disappointed at the size of “the crowd” is to dishonor our music. To feel deflated indicates that we need more validation, that we want to be respected not for what we do at this moment but for all the prior, entrepreneurial work we and others have done. Rather it is a strictly musical success that is the surplus value we’re after, what we are hooked on, and that is not signified by a surplus of cash at the end of a tour, by a state grant, by a mention in the music press, or by the number of consumer choices made in our favor. Our ability to play our best, to reach musical heights, is not strictly our doing, “individual expression,” as the art enthusiasts put it, who use art to assert themselves. We play in front of others because we are secure enough in our independence to know that we are dependent and linked to them, especially people who might say, I know nothing about music, who say this goes too far for me, who say, it reminds me of a dream, a wish, a childhood, a mystery, and we are grateful that you arouse thoughts we did not even imagine could be aroused. These are the folk of today, and they are ourselves as well.

This is not a “small is beautiful” appeal to communal solidarity, nor a preference for the kind of intimacy that would make the playing impervious to criticism, the safe haven that is the strength and weakness of the small concert. Rather I am questioning the assumption that, if people are looking for the richest  musical experience they will be more likely to find it in the larger-is-better performance or festival than in the closet-sized gallery, whose events the newspapers will not even deem worthy of listing. The idea that the venues and curated series administered by the art music world will attract and collect the most sensitive, critical audience is fundamental to the claim that there will be found “the best music” available within its local catchment area.  The pyramidal concept of musical success, with those most worthy to be heard highlighted by journalists and academics, is commonly derived from this assumption.

II.

Free improvising has had its historical ebb and flow in terms of numbers of player enthusiasts, but it is not a musical subculture, for it has no loyal fans, and no distinct consumable signifiers of membership; even the name requires a booklength explanation.[5] Nor is there a “scene” for free improvising apart from the handfuls of players who do this music around the world. A scene is properly local, and only in the Bay Area of California could anything like it be said to exist for this kind of playing, and even there the community of players forms the core. Musical subcultures and scenes also have potential for commercial growth, or at least watered down for media culture, rising from the underground in the familiar pattern. More realistically, most players merely make use of the predominant environment for most non-commercial music, broadly called DIY.

Sometimes referred to as a movement, DIY is both a catchall of cultural dissent (including “experimental music”) and a commitment to a lifestyle outside the mainstream, one that would not aid in defining oneself as middle class (the so-called “bourgeois bohemians”: see note 6 below). DIY has taken over this category from punk rock, which is now a genre with its “classic” music assimilated to the mainstream and advertising, and whose bands today hope to achieve success beyond the DIY venues where they often get their start.[6] The focus of DIY however is not on particular bands that represent it but on the activity of anyone so identified as refusing the market-success orientation in favor of a collective ethic. The pattern of losing “our music” through commercialization (classic punk rock) and bitterness may reinforce this DIY resistance today, together with the huge flood of players who realistically will never gain iconic status, and are happy to stay local. Their dependence is on the local scene, not national status off in the distant and highly mediated future.

The name “DIY” is unintentionally ironic, since it originally referred to the leisure hobby of fifties suburban breadwinners who felt inadequate and stripped of their manly independence and to some extent the physicality of manual skill. Their decently paid professional jobs subordinated their individuality to their function, and the basement shop was their private space to recuperate, an alternative to TV, which was only beginning to become a culture. Originally a mild rebellion against the very expertise and professionalism they embodied, it has been revived and coopted today by commercial suppliers (such as Home Depot) who provide expert advice. Moreover, the former middle class DIY-ers, now declassed by the economic downturn, are those who simply can’t afford professional craftspeople.

DIY music is also on the side of anti-professionalism, but by contrast defines an existence that is as much collective as it is proudly self-sufficient. DIYers perceive themselves as relatively withdrawn from consumer appeal, production, achievement, and entrepreneurship, all the elements of the so-called “creative class,” among whom are found the content providers of media culture.[7] The line between performer and audience is informal and minimal, as often the audience consists largely of the other groups of players. DIY is a community, the tag for a band or individual player and often for a space, advertised or promoted only through emails and facebook. It is a network one must take some initiative to discover rather than one that expands through a strategy aimed at art market hipness.

Trust, camaraderie, and a loose relation to money is essential to this community. It is normal for locals on the bill to donate their share to traveling players, and the funds collected by passing a bowl after the event (when it is possible to avoid paying) are usually referred to as “gas money,” which indeed often does not cover expenses. Part of the ethic is that pay is a donation, not the right of the players to an income, and so it is a direct slap in the face to art music professionals. To them this is demeaning, for its egalitarianism undermines the pay scale of the hierarchy. In effect the player ends up paying for the privilege of playing for people who are open to a music that might not fit any standard of art, as in the more formal and prestige-oriented art situation.  Free improvising, which has no appeal as a genre or scene except when it is framed as art (such as reductionism and its successor, electro-acoustic improvisation), finds a ready audience in DIY situations.

I myself wear two hats; I play at both the formal art performance and the informal small show and DIY spaces. These are the options. From my position straddling the two I can see how much overlap there is between them, yet they are qualitatively different models and not just different points on a singular scale of size. They are in some competition for both players and listeners, the key differentiation being the kind of experience people are looking for. What is excluded, and would be my preference, is a cross between the two: a noncommercial performance that is outside the sanctioned art space and, unlike that and the DIY space alike, truly seeks the widest range of listeners. In such a situation players will abandon the security of a predictably positive reception and can be inspired to commit themselves deeply to their playing


[1] For those unfamiliar with this term drawn from linguistics I suggest http://lilt.ilstu.edu/kscoat2/master_signifiers.htm

[2] I was once involved in scheduling such a space and had to turn down a performer on the grounds that he was too credentialed. He would certainly draw an audience but he could easily get a gig at the funded performance space in town, whereas we had to reserve ours for the many players who were excluded from it.

[3] Briefly, I prefer the term “left-cultural” to “countercultural,” since the counterculture refers to a specific formation of the sixties that long ago lost its social referent and remains only as nostalgia. “Left-culture” refers to a broad group that makes choices and holds opinions that it considers on the left side of the spectrum, yet would not express itself as “on the Left,” in solidarity. Artists are at the social and ideological heart of the left-culture group, and with them the “creative class” workers in the media who think of themselves as artists. It would be difficult today to find a self-identified “artist” who professes a Right identity and set of opinions. To the extent that the Left appears on the political horizon at all beyond the academic wall, left-culturals are mildly suspicious of it, fearing political correctness and dogmatism, by no means a charge confined to the Right. The activists and supporters who do identify themselves as on the political Left generally (show me that I’m wrong!) do not think of their work as that of artists, and they have shown little interest in art-oriented left-culturals, except as potential allies in the more significant political struggle. This may seem harsh but it is worth it: art is not something the political Left will invest in apart from the way it can be analyzed and subordinated. They shall not be moved.

[4] This word is suggested in an article by Thomas Frank in The Baffler, http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1162/BFLR_a_00045 in which he shows how art is used to prop up decaying and depressing cities, large and small, with infusions of this. He cites an NEA/corporate project called ArtPlace: “Art creates vibrancy and increases economic opportunity.”

[5] Playing in Lincoln Nebraska once in the late 80s a deadhead (now one of an aging subculture of Grateful Dead fans) asked me what my music was. I said, “free improvisation,” and he stumbled in trying to repeat it, something like “free improbibilization? What the fuck is that?” Though the term is more familiar now, when I tell people the name they invariably associate it with something far from what I and my partners do.

[6] See the article by Brian Cogan, “What Do I Get? Punk Rock, Authenticity and Cultural Capital” at http://www.nyu.edu/pubs/counterblast/archive.htm.

[7] This term was promoted by Richard Florida in his 2002 study, The Rise of the Creative Class, which claimed that the economic growth of today’s post-industrial capitalism is due to workers who are innovative, professional problem-solvers employed by large corporations or independently making a contribution. This is 30% of the workforce, including even a small contingent of adventurous, unconventional “bohemians” (among whom he would surely class DIY-based improvisers), who contribute to capitalism even through their critical withdrawal. In 2000 another writer, David Brooks appropriated “bohemians,” the 19th century term for unconventional artists and declassed young aristocrats, and generalized it for the creative class (far from the success-averse true bohemians!) who adorn themselves with “artist” signifiers such as neglected hair, shaving and clothing, and trash-picked furniture (Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There). This concept had more relevance during the booming 90s, the high tide of “bourgeois bohemians,” than today, when the creative class has been financially crunched and its insouciance more due to joblessness than affectation.

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