Some Thoughts on Ms. White, Mr. Lowery, and Getting on with Our Art

I.

My interest in the WhiteLowery affair has been driven almost entirely by my friends’ feelings on the matter. As for myself, I can only add or amplify that if one chooses to take part in the mainstream recording industry1, one is consequently subject to conditions characteristic of profit motive in all cases. Among the artists with whom I collaborate, however broadly, two axiomatic truths come to bear in this light:

1) There’s only so much money to go around and those who control the existing majority of that money will fight harder to keep it than artists will to get what they believe they rightfully deserve. I believe the reason for this is simply that the artists, at bottom, spend their time making art; the profit-seekers spend their time seeking profits. Opportunity cost dictates that one cannot devote one’s resources to both pursuits simultaneously.

2) One result of this separation is agency, whereby the artist enlists the aid of a person or organization that assumes the profit-seeking role, freeing up the artist to pursue her artistry. This agent could be Kickstarter, Jay-Z, a manager, a booking agent, Bandcamp, or even an experienced bandmate. But they will be primarily motivated to seek financial reward derived from the artists and their art. When the money runs out or otherwise fails to appear, so does the agency.

In the case of Bandcamp, for example, service and commitment to musicians and their output is contingent on profitability. Were the profits to dry up, I have no doubt that the people who put that service together would remain devoted listeners and/or performers but their resources would seek money elsewhere. I don’t hold this behavior in contempt. On the contrary, I understand as well as anyone that the rent must be paid. The recording industry, in this light, is as good a source of income as any.

So while most agents provide their service to anyone trying to avoid the distractions of moneymaking and, if their business heads south, abandon their field altogether for a different line of work, most of the artists I know make their art because they believe they need to.

What I learn from this distinction is that there will always be art and its creation will remain constant, essentially stable, and contingent only on the artist’s intent. Agency, on the other hand, will shift and morph and adopt new means as it adapts to new channels, media, and technology in order to secure as much of the available profit for itself as possible. There may be periods of common interest among artists and agencies but ultimately it resembles nothing more than casino gambling: some people win and even win big but most of us don’t. Most of us who frequent casinos know this and gamble anyway, though we do so with smaller stakes, commensurate with our means. We do it because it is fun, because it pulls us, temporarily, out of our quotidian routines and excites us with its possibility. But it is not art.

And though art can provide some similar reliefs, elevating us from our daily lives, providing thrills and a sense that risks are worth taking, it is, at least among the artists I know and work with, based on trust and inspiration, not compensation and profit.

II.

So much for business, I guess, which doesn’t address the matter of stealing music. Let me be frank on this subject: no one is stealing music. They’re stealing recordings.

Several people — in some of whose company or adjacency I have made music for several years now — have written variously about piracy or file sharing, home recording, shoplifting, and the making of mix tapes, so I won’t dwell on that here. 2 I will, however, point out that the relevant materials are not music, which I believe occurs in immediate time and space as a demonstrable organization of rhythm, tone, duration, harmony, and pitch.
Music is air moving towards a conscious receptor. If this effect is at a given time derived from an mp3 I found online, what I acquire is the encoding, the recording, not the music itself. What is being stolen are objects and instances over which a party claims ownership. They might as well be wristwatches, which is, as far as I can tell, precisely the point. I don’t, however, know anyone who would honestly claim that a wristwatch is time. 3

Further, not everyone stealing recordings would have paid for them otherwise. Torrents and download sites are, to my thinking, the equivalent of listening to or taping songs off the radio: one hears or hears of a recording and pursues it. Once it’s in one’s possession, one can decide whether or not to buy the recording.

This is not, as has been pointed out elsewhere, new behavior. That there are agencies in place to enforce payment to the artists (BMI, ASCAP, SEASAC) for conventional airplay, for example, is also not new. For what it’s worth, this sometimes-bullyish practice has, over the years, brought me nearly enough income from what will doubtlessly remain my best-selling group to pursue my subsequent music-making. This income, about which I am sufficiently ambivalent to exclude my current work, is nevertheless a double-bonus: not only do I receive a (very) modest income for work I did several years ago but I also have the pleasure of knowing that people still enjoy that music. For me it would be arrogant to presume that I deserve this income. I earn it according to the terms of a handful of contracts I signed, the agreements of which are between agencies and the members of my old band. There’s no mention in those deals of how our audience is supposed to behave. We get what we can from it and if we have listeners who don’t support us financially, we also have listeners who do and I’m grateful for all of them.

III.

Those binding conditions and practices, however, only exist within the established music business. Unions, agencies, and copyrights only apply to those who take part in their economy according to their laws; that is, if you want the wages and benefits these agencies can provide, you must adhere to their rules. If you choose instead to release your work outside of that system, you will surrender the ‘protection’ it provides but you’re also free to do whatever you want with your work, as is everybody else.

So what’s a mainstream artist or corporation to do to ensure the best return on their investment? I don’t care. I don’t care about the fate of the mainstream recording industry. Even if the bottom drops out of their current interests, which seems unlikely, they can turn to other media or industries for profits.

As for the artists, they might do well to seek sustainable income independent from their art, and like many of the most talented people I know, get day jobs.


  1. A choice which I insist is not endemic to listening to music, performing it, recording it, attending it, exhibiting it, acquiring it, writing about it, providing artwork for it, or reading about it.

  2. e.g. Gordon Withers, Matt LeMay (I’ve linked to this one here before), Travis Morrison.

  3. The *Rollex* and *Rolux* watches one used to buy on Canal Street come to mind. As far as I know, people shopping for watches on Canal Street were not deeply concerned with chronometric accuracy. They were looking for knock-offs. Giving money to counterfeiters is not the same thing as taking money from Anglo-Swiss craftsmen. Though this analogy is ill-formed, I suspect you’ll see where I’m coming from.

Energies: A Note on Influence

The matter of influence is a varied and frequently complex one, not least because of its relationship to authenticity, which I address here. I think it’s worth reiterating that I believe being truthful to one’s influences is as much a moral matter as it is a practical one, if not more so.

This is not, as far as I know, a popular position even though it is also far from unusual. Certain ideas about gender, freedom, confinement, and love, for example, have been passed to subsequent generations by country and blues singers; there’s a strain of tenor players whose heritage can be traced to John Coltrane’s spiritually explicit efforts.1 I choose these cases precisely because they support my premise but there are countless others. In fact, I’ll even go so far as to say that one takes on an influence because it offers a sense of right and wrong, defines or echoes one’s sense of struggle or success, confirms what one seeks to confirm in whatever situation is at hand.2

So we all, one way or another, actively seek influences. I take it as a measure of maturity, however, that one eventually assimilates them into an existing style and builds from there. That is, however much imitative modes might satisfy many performers, I think stopping at the sum of one’s influences is short-sighted.


  1. Perhaps even to a single record, A Love Supreme.

  2. I’m writing here about music, of course, but influence pervades all activity. We see or hear then learn and then we do.

Home Viewing

It wasn’t very long ago that if one wanted to see films notable for their distinctly experimental nature and relative historical import, one had to:

a. attend screenings in major metropolitan areas;
b. rent prints oneself from The Filmmakers’Coop or Canyon Cinema, mostly, though New Yorker Films had an extensive catalog of European art cinema, and still might;
c. wait for a nearby university to host a screening.

There were occasionally other options but not often. When I first became interested in alternative cinemas 1, home video was still largely the province of mainstream work, though not entirely. One could find, here in New York anyway, films by Beth B. & Scott B., R. Kern, Vivenne Dick, Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, and Mark Rappaport, for example, but the dearth of experimental work from 1960-1980 or so was, to me, remarkable 2 Because much of the work in question concerned itself with the physical properties of filmstock, it was frequently excluded from video release at the outset. Seems an archaic distinction these days but this was the 20th, not the 21st, century.

Public viewing has characterized nearly all film-viewing for most of its history. At the least, one invited friends, colleagues, or family to see one’s films, and in any case it has been unusual, until the last 30 years or so, to discuss a film without having viewed it in the company of other viewers. Which means, or meant, that unless one made a concerted effort to escape the screening venue in silent solitude, one was likely to end up talking to someone else from the screening for some period of time, however brief. Opinion or study was, under these circumstances, born of a combination of etiquette, remark, debate, and consensus. It was social.

As for myself, I’ve had the By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volume 1 since its initial release and have never watched it alone. Though I pre-ordered A Hollis Frampton Odyssey the day it was announced, I have yet to view a single frame of it: I’m waiting until I can find a time that mutually suits my friends, that we might watch some of the films and discuss them together in person.


  1. Alternative was an adjective then, not a genre, and I pluralize cinema because my interest led me to many different kinds of filmmaking from many different times and places; like most of my friends at that time, it was important to see everything.

  2. That the work of these filmmakers has yet to appear on DVD or online streaming is a mystery to me, as is the current lack of L.A. Rebellion cinema, though that is a topic for another time.

Inspiration: Geoff Dyer

gd-bb

Years ago, he used to catch himself thinking about what he was playing, conscious of his own technique, and while this distracted it also reassured because it meant that in between these spasms of self-consciousness he had simply been playing — and he played best when least conscious of what he was doing. At a certain point, playing became a wild amnesia of technique.

— Geoff Dyer, But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz, p. 174.

Energies: A Note on Music and Disbeliefs

I do not believe that the act of making music, however deliberate or spontaneous it might be, aspires to a preordained ideal. That is, there is no perfect music, except insofar as a given musical piece or performance fulfills the needs of its participants — listener, composer, and performer alike. This fulfillment is, in the end, all that matters.

I also do not believe that all music aspires to art, nor should it, any more than any other activity aspires to art. I emphasize my use of the word activity because I believe music is something one does.1


  1. This idea will be familiar to readers of Christopher Small’s Musicking, a book I’ve only recently come across. I recommend it to anyone who’s interest in music is more than passing. His development of a theory of music-as-action has inspired rather than deterred my remarks here.

Energies: A Note on Music and Utility

I am, like many people I know, a person whose identity has been discovered, determined and formed through the music I listen to. This is more than the cigarette-smoking or various haircuts and wardrobes I adopted to suit my nascent rock-and-roll, metal, or punk phases; it is in fact the way I have learned to view the world and be a part of it. By which I mean that without music, there is little doubt that I would have ceased to exist some time ago. In this way it has been and is useful to me.

Of course, the criteria for utility vary according to need. Hollis Frampton, in an essay whose title I cannot currently recall, describes art as a practice whose utility has become obsolete. His example, as I recall, is painting, which initially appeared on cave walls as warnings (“Keep an eye peeled for bears!”) or narrative (describing, perhaps, a hunt). From there, it evolved into religious iconography, and only later into a secular mode of entertainment, expression, or reproduction. He distinguishes photography as falling outside this progression, positing that it moved in reverse, from expression (a substitute for amateur painting) to utility (a recording medium whose veracity was intact without question for nearly a century).

Music falls somewhere in between or alongside those media: music has sustained its utility throughout its history, as prayer, as communication, as entertainment, as expression, as rallying point. That is, rather than evolve from utility to art, music has remained a utility and evolved into art simultaneously.

Energies: A Note on Records and Listening

My record-buying and listening pattern is a combination of impulse, artwork, artist, review, and genre. I tend to listen exhaustively, by which I mean I latch on to an artist or group and pick up whatever I can from them until their music is either assimilated into my listening-repitoire or the buzz of the new music simply fades. Most music falls into the latter group but it doesn’t matter.

Reckless Records, Chicago, IL

As Ezra Pound once said, art of any kind in any era requires journeymen, whose works serve “to sustain the art.” Likewise, these eventually-mediocre records serve as journeymen in my listening. They keep things moving, keep me in the habit of listening and seeking, keep things afloat. Once they recede from the turntable and playlists, I’m left with the indefatigable records that are useful and endure.

From My Old Blog, September, 2006: Muriel Rukeyser

I’ve been re-reading Muriel Rukeyser’s *The Life of Poetry* the last few nights. It’s not an easy book by any stretch, its density matched only by her elusive biography of *Willard Gibbs*. But there are numerous passages of immediate moral if not linguistic clarity, the following of which struck me last night:

[I]f communication has broken down, then it is time to tap the roots of communication. Poetry is written from these depths; in great poetry you feel a source speaking to another source. And it is deep at these levels that the questions lie. They come up again and again during these years, when under all the surface shouting, there is silence about those things we need to hear.

Later, in a somewhat different context, she writes, “The gestures of the individuals are not history; but they are the images of history.”

Rukeyser’s insistent humanism reminds me of Hayden Carruth’s, but not as individualist as his, and though her prose can, as I said, be cumbersome, her position is clear. Against the dominant strains of violence, imperialism, and inequality, she defines poetry as the center of healing, peace, community, and learning, as a measure of progress. Whether or not she’s right in this assertion might be open to debate (I’m pretty sure she is, for what it’s worth) but she remains, in any case, an active and productive source of inspiration as we approach election-times and face a seemingly neverending war.

Energies: Authenticity & Slow Culture

Further thinking about slow movies1 has brought me to both a more general and a more specific idea about the distinction of slow culture, inspired in part by this insightful piece by Matt LeMay.

Slow media 2 are not necessarily the same thing as slow culture, though they are certainly related. The term *slow media* as I’m using it here refers to a direct, physical contact with a medium’s material; *slow culture*, on the other hand, is not so limited and refers to a culture which produces reflective, meditative, deliberate, and/or restful gaps in its material. Mainstream culture’s works bear revisiting because we look forward to the known satisfaction of their resolution; how we get there is less important than that we know it’s coming, and, for the most part, the sooner the better. Slow culture’s payoff comes generally in the works’ process. That is, slow culture gives its participans and audience members a chance to think about what they’re participating in while they’re participating in it. This thoughtfulness is essentially creative and mutual, an investment by the artist in the audience as well as an investment by the audience in the work.

Though the formats and modes suggested by the *slow* terms are generally appreciated by many people, they exist outside the main channels of production, exhibition, performance, broadcast, and spectatorship: it’s cool to know they’re there but they’re not the money-makers of their fields.
They remain, nonetheless, characteristic of a kind of hipness that is less obsolete than it might seem.3

I’ve digressed from my original intention but not irrelevantly. We’ve grown accustomed to the speed of not only cultural works themselves but also their accessibility. Even though the ideas here can probably be applied to any aspect of artistic or cultural life, for the purpose of this piece, I’ll stick to music.

The last decade has yielded an exponential increase in the number of musicians and musical artists and a subsequent increase in recorded and performed output. And yet there has been little *new* music in this period.4 We’ve seen new ways of getting it, new ways of making it, storing it, and distributing it; new places to discuss it, new places to see it, new places to bring it. But the music itself tends toward retro/nostaglic styles 5 whose chief asset is described according to the artists’ *authenticity*.

So from the soulful voices, hard or smooth MCs, sassy cheerleaders, brooding journeymen, laptop-toting maestros, cool popsters, forthright post-punkers, and whoever else has shown up in the last ten years, we learn that many of these artists write their own songs, or that their talent first emerged in early youth; that they heard the call of G-d to sing out in His name. Yet none of these experiences is unique to them or artists in general.

Let me be clear: I do not mistake the experiences of these artists for pretense. On the contrary, I believe we have all been moved by our faith, our youth, our need to find or build a community around what we fear separates us from everybody else or might, however tenuously, connect us. But for these expressions and performances to be meaningful takes time, and what’s been increasingly absent is a culture willing to take the time to think while it listens.

Observed from a different and more pointed angle, the artists, captivated by the availability of recorded music’s entire history, give or take, are deliberately making derivative music. This is not simply the case of punk bands sounding like their predecessors or tenor players adopting the modes of post-war heavies, which practices are rooted in identity-formation, alignment, alliance, homage, tribute; in most such cases, the younger artists anticipate finding their own voice through inspiration. What I’m trying to get at is the widespread assumption that copping styles from older music is good enough. It is not. The standard for original playing has unfortunately been replaced by a standard of authentic fandom, which is fine for fans but diminishes the prospect of hearing anything new when held to by the people who make the music.


  1. See my brief entry on slow movies here.

  2. e.g. LPs, a preference for movies in which people who don’t say very much don’t do very much, books as opposed to magazines or the internet, live performances in small venues

  3. That is, hipness to the kinds of material described above; knowing that vinyl is cool, for example, does not mean that one is buying any. To be *Old School* is, a surprising amount of the time and somewhat paradoxically, to be hip.

  4. Jaron Lanier discusses this subject with great intelligence in his book, *You Are Not a Gadget*, a terrific if sometimes opaque manifesto on life online, its evolving homogeneity, corporate control, and a host of other relevant cultural and economic stuff. Worth a look.

  5. e.g. the last-several-years’preponderence of so-called *psych* music; the americana boom at the turn of the century; hip-hop’s relative stasis compared to its evolution from, say, 1980-2000; the odd mini-boom of British soul singers highlighted by Amy Winehouse, Adele, and Duffy; the mostly-Madonna-derived successes of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry. Other genres present their own examples, which are surely known to their constituents. This note sticks to the well-known to avoid confusion.

From My Old Blog, September, 2006: My Favorite Book and Its Author

hollisframpton

On the left is a book called Circles of Confusion: Film · Photography · Video: Texts 1968-1980 that was written by the man on the right who was (in his lifetime, from 1936 until 1984) and is called Hollis Frampton. It is a book of essays, most of which were originally published in Artforum magazine when it was edited by Annette Michelson, a film theorist and critic whose abundant and energetic wing fostered three generations of scholars and filmmakers, including and perhaps especially, Hollis Frampton.

Visual Studies Workshop Press in Rochester, NY, published the collection. The connection between VSW, Rochester, and Frampton is not as obscure as it might seem: Frampton taught at SUNY Buffalo in the 1970s, the campus of which is situated roughly 70 miles west of Rochester, home of Kodak, and therefore a center of film manufacturing.

Such connections are, rudimentarily speaking, the stuff of Frampton’s thought and work. He came to still photography via Ezra Pound and James Joyce; to filmmaking via still photography, painting, and a devotion to mathematics and science; to video and photocopiers via filmmaking and a return to still photography.

His films run the gamut from his earliest efforts whose concern was primarily motion (e.g. Manual of Arms, 1966) to found-footage films (e.g. Maxwell’s Demon, 1968) to so-called structural 1 works (e.g. Lemon, 1969; in this case a full-frame shot of a lemon subjected to a range of light and exposure, about which Frampton said, “As a voluptuous lemon is devoured by the same light that reveals it, its image passes from the spatial rhetoric of illusion into the spatial grammar of the graphic arts.”) to the unfinished Magellan, which was intended to expand to include a film for each day of a 371 day cycle. A spirit of inquiry, a sense of humor, and a feeling for the necessity of art infuse his writing as they do his films. These are curious works, works of a curious mind, works for curious minds.


  1. I’m not sure I agree with the entirety of this page’s explanation but it does serve to provide a definition of this kind of filmmaking. I prefer to view structural film, like film noir, as a style or method as opposed to a genre.