The October Revolution

I visited the Jazz Record Center in New York City a short time ago. In the back room, behind some old dolly's, were a couple hundred Downbeat magazines stuffed into worn dusty boxes. I pulled one carton out after another and flipped through each issue quickly, looking for high yield images of musicians from the 50s, 60s, and early 70s. I had been assembling a jazz oriented series of collages for my street and online sales, in and of itself, a profoundly lucrative undertaking (I would add the stone face smiley here were I texting you).

The July 1972 issue had a striking blue and purple front piece, covered in typography and inside more than a few poignant photographs that would go well on black backgrounds. There was one in particular, of the alto player Robin Kenyatta, horn askew, hand emerging into the foreground, pressing levers, half the photo shrouded in black. I glanced at the title of the article, by Valerie Wilmer: Robin Kenyatta and the Gypsy Life. The word gypsy interested me so I put down my scissors and read. Turns out Wilmer had gotten an exceptional interview and I wish to appropriate some of her quotes here. The article concerns preserving artistic integrity in the face of what Kenyatta said was a problem of "economics."

The jazz musicians at the time were having it hard. A golden age had come and gone. The author used the expression "The October Revolution of 1965," a term coined by Alan Beckett in the New Left Review, for which he had written a well know series of articles about jazz.

‘It is our belief that jazz musical forms must be extended to meet an entirely new set of artistic, social, cultural and economic circumstances. It might seem strange to some to see the word ‘jazz’ mentioned in context with such cold hard realities as society and economics, yet it is an undeniable fact that the very origins of the music itself and all its subsequent development was rooted in societal forms. The field holler, the spiritual, the blues—each serves a definite function and grew out of very real, very painful experiences."

The era spoke to originality and passion and cooperation within the industry. All that had been acknowledged not just by the writers but by the musicians themselves. Kenyatta attributed it to a "spirituality," which in a few short years,  had all but evaporated: "There was solidarity there. It was a good movement, a lot of beautiful people, but the musicians have changed. Times have changed and the situation has changed. Living conditions for the people who are playing that way are very hard, so it never stays the same."

Kenyatta saw other musicians dropping out of the scene because they became discouraged. "After a while you get tired and you say, 'Wow, I've got to live like other people. I've got a wife and kids, I've got to take care of them. . . '"

His gypsy life style, all his moving from one music venue to the next, was simply to make ends meet while continuing to do his thing. He played for the Isley Brothers a short while and recouped his finances, but at a price:. "There's no freedom at all - you just do their thing. . .in terms of economics, it was ok." Kenyatta recognized the syndication of the recording industry even then. "They (musicians) are owned by the record companies and they record the way the companies tell them to. . ."

In the early 1990s, thirty years later, Steve Albini, (the producer for Nirvana, Pixies and PJ Harvey) wrote a seminal and often quoted article which notoriously begins: "Whenever I talk to a band who are about to sign with a major label, I always end up thinking of them in a particular context. I imagine a trench, about four feet wide and five feet deep, maybe sixty yards long, filled with runny, decaying shit. I imagine these people, some of them good friends, some of them barely acquaintances, at one end of this trench. I also imagine a faceless industry lackey at the other end holding a fountain pen and a contract waiting to be signed. Nobody can see what’s printed on the contract. It’s too far away, and besides, the shit stench is making everybody’s eyes water. The lackey shouts to everybody that the first one to swim the trench gets to sign the contract. Everybody dives in the trench and they struggle furiously to get to the other end. . . "

Karl Marx would have understood what Mr. Albini's scatological references were all about. The issue is not really the jazz, it's about supply and demand; what the public is willing to pay for and why. Music, art, literature were seen as commodities; the mindsets of those people who distributed, bought, sold and contracted entertainment was of a business ilk.

I am trying to make money selling original art work on the street. Same thing. In order to make money with the average consumer stopping by the table, a street artist needs to sell a lot of what the fans want at low prices and be out there all the time; or, if its original work, probably not do it that way to begin with; and seek representation from a third party. Someone has to institutionalize the artist so they can make a living. Not always but it goes on at some level.

Part of the problem is dilutional - there are more artists, musicians and writers than ever. One symptom of this affliction are the hundreds of writing degrees programs created by universities in the United States, most of them not present or would have even been conceived of thirty years earlier: As a result, short story writers, poets and novelists are emerging on conveyor belts all speaking with a similar syntax while most of the literary journals are encrypted to be read by other writers as opposed to attracting an outside readership or trying to explain what they are doing. That in itself is nothing new and I don't wish to imply editors of the plethora presses are to blame, although responsibility is another issue. The new system had been created and driven by economic forces from above.

I do recall seeing several John Steinbeck novels on my grandmother's bookshelf in the sixties; she wasn't the literary type nor one for keeping books she didn't read.

In music the advent of Napster and pirated songs became institutionalized; record labels realized there was no getting around the internet. These companies stream music with paid advertisements; the musicians earnings are a lot less; they don't have to pay them and besides, there's an enormous pool of music to be exploited financially. People have figured out how to make money while cutting out, not the middle man as is said, but the actual creator. Marx would have understood that irony as well.

In Union Square I speak with other artists, many from Eastern Europe, who display their own work as well as New York city sky-scapes making up their bread and butter sales. They all tell me the same thing: Five or six years ago, it was different; people didn't haggle; they didn't complain; they paid for their art and were happy. Now they want more art for less money. Its different, they all say. Each successive generation says its different.

The mindset of big publishing has also changed with the plethora of writers and advent of the internet. They are counting on big hits paying for the rest of their books that don't sell. And their list of books is being cut. There is over saturation of e commerce and overcrowding of the market. 

Yet the value of art is not the same as a can of soup. The worth of a specific CD, painting, film or novel to a specific individual is not held in the same esteem as their car tires. It doesn't devalue either, like other manufactured objects. Music or film or poetry can lift you out of yourself, help you survive and give solace through identification, recognition and intangibles of the lyricism. Art objects are not exchangeable one for the other like other commodities: Art economics is based on scarcity of unique objects. Which objects are deemed scarce and desirable is another issue, as well as how art and music markets are manipulated by those in control.

Art sales in 2015, as a point of reference, totaled $64 billion, according to a report by Clare McAndrew, an art economist, making it bigger than the economy of Kenya or Costa Rica.

Art is receiving attention from Economists and Marxist philosophers now, trying to figure all that out - what is art and music worth? They use terms like Commodification referring to the transformation of goods, services, ideas and people into commodities, or objects of trade; and Exceptionalism; that art is unique and apart economically. The artist/musician/writer are creative laborers and the difference between them and a laborer in a factory is again debated. 

Funding the arts and all the starving artists is problematic. A representative of the government's granting agency for the arts notes: "Orthodox micro-economists dismiss concern for artists’ relatively low earnings given their high educational attainment as simply a case of market over-supply. The logic goes thus: artists love their work, and so they crowd into this “market,” earning lower returns. There are plenty of them, so we don’t really need to fund them."

At the same time, it's acknowledged: "As human capital investment targets, artists are also worthy, because their creativity drives cultural industries—media, publishing, advertising, music, and tourism—that are among the most important US exporters. . . "

Nothing much has really changed since the interview with the gypsy sax player, Robin Kenyatta. Executives of the companies streaming music make millions; the musicians they stream make pennies.

 

References:

Steve Albini, “The Problem of Music” Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll #133

Robin Kenyatta and the Gypsy Life by Valerie Wilmer Down Beat Magazine  July 20, 1972

The New Wave in Jazz: 'The October Revolution'"Alan Beckett New Left Review Nov - Dec 1965

Mike Shatzkin The reality of publishing economics has changed for the big players, Sept 2016 

Ann Markusen The Economics of Arts, Artists and Culture Making a Better Case; http://www.giarts.org

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