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Pattern into Pattern

PierreBonnard-Twilight

At the exhibition of paintings by Pierre Bonnard, called “Painting Arcadia,” there were about five rooms filled with work by the artist. Early in Bonnard’s career he belonged to a gang known as “Les Nabis.”

In the first room, there’s a painting called “Twilight, or The Game of Croquet.” This was one of my favorites. I only want to draw your attention to one thing. Look at the pattern on the clothing against the organic patterns of the garden. There’s no solid, dark line separating one pattern from the other. The patterns are distinct, but flow into each other. That’s a beautiful way to look at objects. And you may think this is a step too far, but it’s an ecological way of looking.

Song of the City

I want to call it a “song,” but it's really more of a hum, a drone. Less like a melody, and more like one of those eternal drone pieces by LaMonte Young. It's the sound that a city makes, but it's not something you hear in an ordinary way. It's a vibration that one's whole body can sense.

In the Sunday paper, a writer was documenting his interior journey, as his family was priced out of Brooklyn and moved to a suburb, up the Hudson River Valley. In passing, he noted, “I didn't really vibe with the city anymore.” What he was afraid he'd miss, was no longer there. The charge he'd felt was gone. And the process of attuning himself to his new environment was going better than anticipated.

The vibrant drone of a city isn't an abstraction, it's the sound and feel of all the things in the city. When the composition of those things changes enough, the feel of the city changes. Some have a kind of faith that New York City will always be some version of itself. It's core hum will always throw off roughly the same set of vibrations. The hum of a city can be an addictive experience. You can see the rush of the city in the eyes of young people strutting down the sidewalk mouthing the words, “New York City,” to the rest of their crew.

SoHo, the area south of Houston street, has been ruined for a long time. The corporations chased the artists out years ago. But walking around SoHo now, one can feel the pre-packaged, bland, corporate cool even more. The vibrations that drew these corporations to that part of town are almost entirely gone. Slivers of the older SoHo manage, somehow, to continue to exist. They emit strong beacons, that are nonetheless swallowed by the roar of commerce surrounding them.

It's as though the experience, the sound of the city, had been replaced with a store, offering to sell you the sound of the city. And not the actual sound of the city, that's gone, it's an “amazing simulation.”

 

The Stream: Music Without a Container

A common complaint among collectors of recorded music is that they've had to buy the same music over and over again in different formats. First the vinyl, then the cassette, then the CD, and now the digital files. Somehow the consumer believes he is buying the “music” and not the mechanical means to play the recording.

The cost of producing and distributing physical containers for music recordings has played a large part in what consumers have paid for recorded music. As the cost of producing these containers goes down, the price of recorded music remains the same. The theory is that these expanded margins allow the record labels to invest in new and undiscovered musical talent. That rarely happens anymore, the capital is deployed into other kinds of investments. It's no longer considered a good investment to develop talent.

The cut-of-the-pie taken by non-musicians is enormous, even as the risk taken by the record companies gets less and less over time. All of the risk has been shifted to the musicians. If they show up with a built-in audience ready to buy product, then there's a contract waiting for them to sign. This is true in the publishing world as well.

The issue lost in all these calculations over the cost of producing and distributing various containers for recorded music is: what is the value of the music itself? Since, for the most part, all CDs are the same price, can we assume that all music has identical value? In this model, the differential in artist compensation is based on the number of units sold. Sell a lot of records, make a lot of money. Or as it sometimes plays out: take an advance on future units sold; don't sell enough units; end up owing money to the record company; work without compensation to pay off the debt.

If you want to understand how power and morality works in business arrangements, simply ask who is taking risk and who is being compensated for it. Imagine a business where an artist is asked to take most of the risk, but isn't compensated when the risk pays off. Reducing risk and increasing profit is business as usual for corporations.

The digital file download was the last remnant of the music container. The file was downloaded and actually existed on some device. Cloud-based services parked your files in a location where network-connected devices could access the full library without specific files being physically present.

The music streaming services have done away with the container altogether. You don't even get the files. The consumer only gets access to the stream. Since the cost of the container is no longer and issue, the price of the service is lower. If you look at it from the pure consumer perspective, it's a bargain. Let's say you're big music fan and you buy two or three CDs, or album downloads, a month. For the cost of one download, you have access to a huge library of recorded music streams. For the cost of 12 album downloads a year, you get access to all popular recorded music all year long. It's pretty obvious that the economics favor a mass migration to the streaming services, and that movement is backed up by industry stats.

We're familiar with the old story about musicians who were paid a flat fee to record a set of songs. Some of those songs were turned into vinyl records that became hits. The record company took in all the profits for record sales, and the musicians had signed away their right to a piece of the action. Over time that model was adjusted to give artists some compensation for record sales. But what happens when nothing is actually sold anymore? No music is sold, streaming service revenue is based on monthly subscriber payments. Turns out the value of an individual stream of a song is a tiny fraction of a penny. That's what the artist receives each time the consumer streams a song.

For the consumer, the risk of buying an unknown album becomes zero with a music streaming service. Since nothing is bought or sold, the consumer can take a bite and if it doesn't taste good, it can just be put back on the shelf. This lack of real investment changes the whole dynamics of new music discovery. (And by the way, streaming is NOT a discovery method prior to purchase. It replaces purchase.)

Ask any investor whether it makes sense to take uncompensated risk. This is the question musicians need to ask themselves. By releasing their new music to the streaming services, they've effectively eliminated any possibility of selling physical CDs or downloads. If sales of recordings is a significant part of a musician's annual income, streaming will quickly eliminate that income category.

Working outside the music industry system used to be considered big risk. It was a risk that limited the upside of sales and popularity because big distribution only existed through the system. Even the “independent” and “alternative” categories have ended up inside the thing they're supposed to be independent of, and alternative to. Since the streaming services take sales out of the picture, all that's left is the promise of the possibility of popularity. But like the risk, it's uncompensated popularity.

Musicians are already taking risks. A risk is an investment, and musicians need to figure out where they can be fairly compensated for the risks they're taking. Music consumers need to understand that they're part of a whole ecosystem. The idea that the world owes consumers free music forever is childish and self-centered. If you don't value music enough to pay for it, then you really don't value music much at all. Do you think fair-trade coffee is a good idea? How about clothes that aren't made in a sweatshop? How about seafood that isn't the product of slave labor? How about fair-trade music? Does that sound good to you?

 

Kentridge: Ubu and the Truth Commission

With Baltimore and Ferguson on my mind, I walked into a revival of William Kentridge's production of “Ubu and the Truth Commission.” In 1997, Kentridge collaborated with the Handspring Puppet Company on the production for the 100th anniversary of Jarry's “Ubu Roi.” Jarry's play debuted and closed on December 10th, 1896 — it caused a riot.

Kentridge and Handspring began their project in South Africa listening to daily radio broadcasts of the witness accounts from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Jane Taylor was asked to write the final script combining Jarry's proto-absurdist drama with the real-life absurdity of South Africa's Apartheid politics.

The original production of “Ubu and the Truth Commission” is described in the book, “Kentridge,” in an essay by Lynne Cooke called “Mundus Inversus, Mundus Perversus”:

Cunning bully, monstrous rogue, Ubu, when challenged at the dinner table by his wife, lapses into a paranoid, punning defense riddled with Freudian slips and double entendres. This blackly comic exposure of deep-seated cowardice contrasts minutes later with a bravado vaudeville routine when Ubu, now resolute leader, sings a rally refrain in unison with his triple-headed henchman: “We are the Dogs of War.” The exuberant wit of this music-hall presentation is later matched by the hilarious episode in which the microphones flee the torrent of lies of the brash usurper, as if refusing to contribute to their conveyance.

The cutting edge of Jarry's play is as sharp as the day it first graced the stage. When combined with this vision of South Africa, the result is almost more than a person can bear. It's also the kind of theater that's needed more than ever. This is theater that is thinking through the spirit of our times.

 

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