Avant-Garde Wrap-Up

Last week was the most successful Junta to date. Ten or so people showed up and turned the back of the bar from a damp and sticky foosball room into an underground outpost of intellectual enlightenment.  Josh’s presentation on the development of the New York downtown avant-garde art scene was well researched and provoked a lively debate and discussion. It touched on the art, of course, but also on the factors necessary to create it – social themes, urban planning, cultural mores, etc.

The beginning of the discussion centered on musician John Zorn, his life and work. There was the mention of a specific piece he did with one of his groups which covers some numbers of musical genres all in about a minute – I’ve lost my notes from the evening but some basic research suggests that it may be Speedfreaks, performed here with Naked City. Someone please correct me in the comments if I’m wrong.

Speaking of genres, we spoke of how names like jazz, rock, reggae, techno, emo, etc are basically the marketing creations of record companies, designed to move units. The rise of music journalism helped accelerate the trend, but before any of that, music existed for thousands of years without such labels. Josh cited an internal memo at Sony Records from a few years ago which directed the marketing division to concentrate less on genres, as they were becoming too divisive (and therefore not broad enough for the mass audiences needed to support their business model). The new directive was to focus on the artist as brand – to create superstars out of everyone. When genre was mentioned at all, the memo instructed marketers to define any individual artist with “at least four genres.”

Tim spoke up at one point about the longer history of music. We look at avant-garde music of the twentieth century, he said, some of which is atonal, and see it as a rejection of what we consider traditional music: melody, harmony, etc. But he said that tradition only goes back 500 years or less – the music that dominated the medieval era was more similar to today’s avant-garde music than to popular music.

Later we ventured into government support of the arts. The genesis was one of the articles Josh cited as reading, in which a musician points to European public financing of his craft. Tim, who is a touring musician, agreed that he could live an easier life in Europe, where he would have more help from the government. Josh argued that the government should play a role in making sure that art, even so-called avant-garde art, isn’t overwhelmed by market forces. Others weren’t convinced that America should give up its current philosophy, which is to support the arts to a limited extent, but certainly not to interrupt the gentrification of neighborhoods just because art is being lost. Noah, a banker, was particularly adamant about letting artists survive on their own – either by living poor, making some concessions to mass culture by, say, writing commercial jingles, or a combination of the two. As he put it, avant-garde means anti-establishment; to directly support it with public funds (at least on a mass scale) would be contradictory.

Towards the end of the evening, we did an informal survey and found that – no surprise – most were perfectly comfortable downloading copyrighted music off the internet for free. An argument was put forward that record sales were never a viable business model for artists, but only for record companies. The labels would give an artist an advance, provide the resources to cut the album, and then pay the artist a minimal cut of the profits; meanwhile, the artist could use the marketing machine to generate revenue for himself through touring. According to this argument, aside from maybe the 100 top-selling bands in the world (Metallica), no artist is being financially impaired by this activity. Well, perhaps. What’s definitely true is that the record companies will not survive without coming up with a new business model.

Look for the next Junta to convene around late January/early February. Josh’s piece should appear in Harper’s this spring – we’ll be sure to note it here when it’s published.

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