This being my first article for OutsideLeft (and presumably the beginning of a long legacy, to be passed down only to the most worthy of journalistic geniuses), I will deign to open a window for you into my world. The glamorous and degrading world of a New York City musician.
Now when I say "musician" and for my intents and purposes mean "artist", I am most likely leaving out 99.999 percent of whomever just sprang to your mind. Being a fascist, I mean someone who actively attempts to create and/or perform music whose most fundamental properties and extending forms did not previously exist. I suppose I could say "composers", but then you would get the wrong idea and imagine a dead or geriatric white man. Therefore, in my little world and the world of this article, "musician" does not mean:
1. Any cover band, including jazz bands who don't write/improvise their own music and basically every classical musician (cover artist).
2. Any heavily derivative band (I say 'heavily' for you noodges who will immediately whine "but ALL music is derivative!"); to wit: any band who rehashes 'genre' music yet does not add to or reinterpret the music in any substantial/intelligent way.
3. Session musicians (yes, musicians indeed, and very technically proficient, but are not artists in this category).
4. DJs (for the simple reason that THEY ARE NOT MUSICIANS).
I'd like to get past all of these semantics, so please, it's not my fault that there isn't a wealthier world of terminology for "artists", "musicians" and the like.
Why do I feel the need for so much categorization and separation? Because being a jazz musician in New York (for example) means playing in front of relaxed, appreciative audiences who are very proud of themselves for liking jazz, and most likely making some money for playing (this includes free jazz). Being in a cover or derivative band is providing easy entertainment for an audience that does not want to hear anything that they haven't heard before 10,000 times. Both of these things are well and good, and blessed are those who have chosen such a more thankful line of expression. For those of us seeking new sounds, the road is a lonely one filled with bars of people waiting for the bands to stop and the DJ to come on so they can dance to "White Lines (don't do it)".
Starting out in New York is basically the hardest place I have heard of yet to start out as a band or musician, MOST ESPECIALLY if you do not produce mainstream or easy listening music. New York, now a safe and attractive city proven to be a Disneyworld for the Olsen Twins and being filled to the breaking point each year with new arrivals fresh from suburban business schools, art schools, and mediocre Sex in the City and Apprentice wannabes, is not nearly as avant-garde as people seem to think. Not to mention that it's the number one city in America where people move to become 'artists' of any type and try their hand at notoriety in the city that, according to legend, makes or breaks someone. Unfortunately, just because there are more people here doesn't mean that there is more brilliant art or music or anything. That percentile is most likely the same anywhere - so relatively you just have a MUCH LARGER PILE of garbage and bullshit to sift through here before you find anything brilliant. You could go out every night for a year, choosing bands at random, and not see one inspiring band in that time.
But part of this is because if you are a casual and most likely uninformed patron, you are flipping through the Village Voice, thinking you'll catch some new and interesting acts, and going to places like CBGBs, The Continental or even the Mercury Lounge to see new bands, so your chances are wrought very slim. Good bands can and do play at these places from time to time, but generally most Manhattan rock clubs (especially Manhattan) are glutted with legions of very ambitious, mediocre to awful bands that have just as much as a right to play as anyone else. Unfortunately, most of them want to play heavily derivative, boring music: i.e., they admire punk bands so they imitate what they think a punk band should sound and look like, they admire '60s garage and simulate that, et cetera. There are some places that try to reach out to the edge (the expiring Luna Lounge, the now endangered Tonic) - but even Tonic, with shows curated by avant-garde celebrities and often showcasing musicians who are already avant-garde celebrities themselves - isn't quite on the pulse of the struggling underground trying to push the limits and be heard. Excluding a handful of parties or showcases run by die-hards, there are no substantial Manhattan rock clubs truly showcasing New York's newest, smartest bands - we exist, but for now are mainly off the radar as far as the center of New York is concerned.
Recently there has been a beautiful resurgence of the underground - around Brooklyn, especially, at places like the venerable NorthSix, Southpaw, Trash, and the struggling Hook out in Red Hook - but the true concentration of new and powerful noises are at secret clubs buried in industrial lofts, often hiding in outer borough wastelands, filled with people thrilling to new sounds provided by spates of original and intelligent, frenetic and noisy bands whom pre-eminent music writers of New York's 'arts' media have never heard of. I know that this happens all over the country, in small towns and large alike, but sadly, this loyal and passionate appreciation of true indie music with integrity was lost on New York for quite a while (it still is rare for a band in NYC to sell any substantial amount of CDs or Vinyl at their shows). Due to this life subversive, when you get into my band's category - which is part of what has become a cresting wave of noisy, heavy, visceral bands - you reach a level of dedication that most people don't understand, or even consider part of what it means to be in a working band in the underground. It is not easy, year to year, to work a full time day job, rehearse at night and on weekends, pay for all of your own recordings and tours, the latter of which in order to execute, you have to figure out how all of you are going to get that much time off of work simultaneously and how you are going to afford it. We got a cold whiff of reality on our first tour, running into bands that were much tighter, more exposed and seasoned than us, struggling right along side us on the same circuit. If you are thinking "well, if the music was any good you would be on a major label and be a millionaire" neh-neh-neh- no. Aside from the practicality of moving forward with self production, many of us are on labels, labels that do not jack or compromise you and fit your needs. Many of us have had some level of critical acclaim, even if it is local or on a small-time, indie media level. Many of us have great, inspired, high energy shows with packed, thrilled audiences enthusiastically lapping up every note. We just don't happen to be able to live off of it. "Not yet... most of us think to ourselves.
It's a new world we live in (no shit), and I'm not just talking about Corporate Rock and Pop and basically The Entire Mainstream Music World. The world is saturated with bands who have increased exponentially since the Dawn of the Band, which is a beautiful thing. It just doesn't mean the same thing it used to. Even in the sixties, if you could get booked and you were new and smart and people came to see you, you would get a recording contract and live off of your art within a reasonable arc of time. You were probably living off of it BEFORE you got the contract, because back then people got paid to perform. Even weird/underground acts (see: Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, The Stooges, Psychedelic bands). In a place as big as New York city, indie bands play to packed parties, but on a bill with 3 to 7 other bands, who all split the door charge, if they are lucky. Divide that money between the members of the bands...mm, you can basically get a falafel.
But this is the world in which we live. Brooklyn, and its sleazy bastard slut of a Father, New York, is starting to hum a nasty and beautiful tune. I'm proud to be a part of it. We may be broke but we're truer rock stars than anyone named "The Edge" ever will be.
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