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Robbery And Resistance In The Music Biz

Robbery And Resistance In The Music Biz image
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As we all ought to know by now, there is a cultural ripoff going on these days. It is a theft of a people's heritage (like the European theft of the treasures of Benin), but when a people is robbed of its living art and artists - when its lifeline of spiritual communication is tapped, jammed or cut - that people is robbed not only of its past, but also of its present and future. The meehanics of this ripoff are simple, and familiar. It works like the classic model of imperialist economics: expropriate and export the raw material; make the native culture dependent on the imperialists' cheap manufactured goods; sell those goods at considerable economie advantage; return nothing to the colony for development beyond what is necessary to keep the ripoff operating. In contemporary cultural terms: take the young and gifted creators and performers out of the community, and ripoff some of the elements of their art; addict the population to the assembly-line "Hits" that "Keep on coming," each just like the last (because that way they're easier to grind out and "market," i.e., sell back to the people); actively discourage development and innovation by controlling the Communications media and keeping the money in the entertainment (financial) capitals of Hollywood and New York. (Quiet as its kept, that' s who makes the big money - the companies and their financiers, not this year's starnext year's has-been.) There's nothing new about the imperialist pattern. It has operated for centuries around the world, in natural resources as in cultural resources; in África, East Asia, South America as in Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit. What may be new within the pattern of cultural exploitation is the accelerated pace and insidiousness of the ripoff, and (at the same time) the concerted cooperative effort of artists in this culture to resist it. This is a pattern which affects all the performing arts (dance, drama, film), but for focus let's talk about "Jazz" and related Black music. The extent of monopoly control over culture has measurably increased since the advent of the Nixon regime (though its roots are further back in time). Huge financial conglomerates have been gobbling up smaller independent companies with the government's cooperation and blessing for ten years or more. It should be remembered that with few exceptions, the independent record companies were themselves far from ideal in their financial exploitation of artists, and their receptiveness to innovative musical ideas. Nevertheless, some readers may recall Charlie Parker's Dial sides (sold door to door?). Others may recall the startling freshness of Ornette's first things on Contemporary, Dolphy's Out to Lunch on Blue Note, or what Wes Montgomery sounded like on Riverside before Creed Taylor shackled him to his hits. Today, however, most companies catering to Black music are mere cogs in an enormous machine which is seeking(through the planned obsolescence of quick turnover hits, mass media brainwashing, and assembly line production) to monopolize, cheapen and standardize Black Culture so as to exploit it most widely and efficiently. This process resembles (and is in some cases connected to, via cocaine payóla) the dope trade. As William Burroughs put it, "Junk is the ideal product... the ultímate merchandise... The junk merchant does not sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product. He does not improve and simplify (sophisticate) his merchandise. He degrades and simplifies the cliënt." If these seem like strong words to apply to the record business, keep in mind that one of the "hottest" jazz producers in the industry, who has control of his own label (owned ultimately by a conglomérate) is notorious among musicians and listeners alike for assembling some of the best, most consistently creative musicians in the world, and making them sound merely competent. He does this, apparently by design, so that aJl this records have a uniform "sound", making them habitually indentifiable in the marketplace; apparently feeling that tot) much creative quality would disturb the narcotic haze of his formula-oriented habitual consumers. So what is to be done? How are our artists to get the music their souls must make out to the people who can use it? The obvious answer would be independent production, controlled by the artist But this is only a partial answer. Independent production companies. booking agencies, and even record labels controlled by musicians have been seen occasionally over the last few years. The main reason for their existence has often been that the musicians's company gives him creative control, and greater bargaining leverage when it comes time to deal with a major company for national promotion and distribution. Typically, this wouldmean that his organization would get 6 to 8% of 90% of the gross sales of the record, as opposed to the 2 or 3% he would get had he signed directly with the major company to be produced by them. In forming his own company, he takes over the function of the manager, the producer and Artist and Repertoire man those who exert the most direct controlover his art. But there remain between the artist and his potential audience several other gatekeepers - each of whom represents more rake-off, more obstruction. They include the major company 's A & R man or vice-president, who sign him in the first palee; and the company's promotion department, which is subject to corporate marketing strategy concerns, as well as to intemal politics, i.e., other producers and A & R men within the company exerting pressure for favorable treatment of their products. Beytyid the company, the regional promoter-distributor in the field is pressured by all the labels he handles, and anyway jazz is just a sideline, far below top 40 singles in importance. The trade press is similarly attentive only to the "majors" who provide their advertising revenue, and the handful of radio stations in the country who program any creative black music at all are subject to all of these pressures. Every step in this obstacle course is subject to well-financed and planned corporate and industry wide marketing schemes (what this year's trends are) and to hype (economically motivated lies about the quality and saleability of records). This is because the monopolies have modeled the entire industry on the top 40 teenage music process and lts values: make as much money as possible as tast as possible, and everything else be damned. Granted. it is possible tor a serious artist who has "paid his dues," i.e., been ripped off a few times, ignored for years at a time, to survive in that atmosphere as a part of the jazz line thrown into the company catalogue to complete its coverage of the "college kids and colored folks" markets. He will most likely be given neither adequate production budgets nor creative frecdom; and even if he has his own production company, even minimal integrity becomes increasingly difficult as the industry senses that jazz might be trendy again, and focuses its corny merchandising efforts on creative Black music. Always, of course. witnoui regara ior me true aestnetic, spiritual, and social content of the music. And so we are confronted with the spectacle of hyped artists in a vacuüm: critics and promoters saddle artists who have made positive contributions with embarrassing tlated reputations that obscure their actual achievements, so that (as one of the leading creators remarked on a recent visit) "There's poor ," (a famous white tenor player) "They've got hini out there to whcrc he's supposed to be up there witli Coltrane!" Or by the same token, we see strong young Black talents jammed into the "this year's star" mold. doing smooth "covers" on insipid Bacharauh tunes. This is why the self-determination struggle is vital. Music has always had deep social and spiritual significance for African and Afro American (and other) peoples. That significance is systematically washed out of the planned-obsolescence entertainment industry today. We see the same pattern in the watered-down dance and drama of commercial TV. broadway shows and Hollywood films, and even in much of the independent production of stars who set up their own companies. So finally, self-determination means nothing beyond artists getting their hands deeper in the till (though that's a start), if the self-determination effort is aimed only at duplicating the formula orientation of the monopolies, or if the self-determined production falls back into the corrupt and monpoly system. But for us to survive and grow as peoples, projecting to ourselves the genuine images of life and spirit our souls demand. self-determination is necessary- since me inausiry is certainiy not gomg to nght wrongs and jeopardize its mulli-billion dollar ripoff of a culture. The burden is on the artists and allicd members of the community to créate alternative institutions charged with fostering the arts on all fronts: Education in the sources and resources, and artistic development; management, promotion, booking; production, recording, distribution. This effort must begin at the community level, where the ripotï begins, and it must involve all of us in all the art lorms arjd media, to counter the "divide and conquer" tactics we know so well. And our institutions must be sell-sustaining ultimately ; not subject to corporate. State, or Federal whim. Ron Kiialisli plays lead gitiiar in the ( 'ontemporary Jazz Quinta and is a member of 'the Strata non-proflt inusual cooperativa in Detroit. Most record companies catering to Black music are mere cogs in an enormous machine to monopolize, cheapen and standardize Black Culture to exploit it more efficiently.