Despite the Downturn is an internet LP curated by Disquiet's Marc Weidenbaum in response to a particularly noxious Atlantic article equating the decline of the record industry with the decline of music in general. Megan McArdle, the article's author, assumes (among other things) that musicians won't make music without financial incentives--as if the recording industry provided those. The various published breakdowns of what artists make after the top-heavy executive tier takes its cut should have exploded that myth long ago. The industry shoves bushels of cash and promotion at one or two mediocrities: that kind of machinery can manufacture stars but not what many of us would call music.
Despite the Downturn includes a short music piece of mine so excuse the self-promotion of excerpting the recent press below. I'm interested in these issues of creating in a post-industry landscape so am quoting at length.
While not exactly the kind of album that will rocket up the iTunes Music Store charts (mostly because it’s free), Despite the Downturn is, like the illustration it’s inspired by, a fascinating auditory Rorschach blot, an alluringly open-ended set of meditations on where music is right now, and what some of its creators think about it.
Despite the Downturn’s composers used a fascinating range of materials to create their pieces: public domain recordings of Beethoven’s "Adieu au piano," field recordings of children playing outside in the summer, sampled bits of NES games, Risset tones, and more. They were scrambled, reconfigured, and manipulated in ways most people have never heard before. Depending on one’s mood, they can sound either stranded or intrepid, defiant or lonely, incomprehensible or exciting.
They are also pieces of music that would have been impossible to produce just a few years ago. They may be part of McArdle’s vision, labors of love produced in spare moments. But they also embody the new creative possibilities that enable musical dialog as well as collaboration, and Weidenbaum relishes the opportunity to spur those conversations forward. "I really admire people like Hal Willner and Rick Rubin," he says, "whose production work is more a matter of setting up situations than it is of writing charts or laying down beats."
We All Make Music: An Interview with Despite the Downturn's Marc Weidenbaum - Part One:
I’m a firm believer that constraints are essential to the development of art. I think that formal constraints — whether broad, like a mythic storyline that might inform the overall structure of a classical symphony, or specific, like the chance-based rule systems of John Cage or Brian Eno — are inherent in artistic practice. What made this project so natural was that the illustration by Jeremy Traum suggested itself as a score because it had a score in it. Some of the musicians on Despite the Downturn interpreted the music in the score literally, especially Tom Moody, who fed the notes into MIDI and took it from there — the result to me sounds like Scott Joplin and Conlon Nancarrow getting along quite nicely. Others used the score as a canvas that only by coincidence had notes in it; they took it as a narrative, the way C. Reider has the hip-hop appear at the end, an aural symbol of the urchins that is, compositionally, like something Paul Dukas might have done if The Sorcerer’s Apprentice — perhaps the great work of narrative music about the unintended consequences of systems — had been about filesharing. [link added]
...I think musicians are, generally speaking, all too familiar with the fragile relationship between producing art and eating a full meal, and have been for a long time, long before the arrival of MP3 players and Rapidshare. All the musicians I contacted initially for Despite the Downturn were ones who are already very much at home with music being something that one might give away for free — that is, give away the opportunity to listen to it, and to have it in a form, a DRM-free audio file, that allows the audience to listen to it when and where they choose.
That’s an interesting question about whether or not these artists address these questions in their art — by which I mean, I’m not sure I have an answer. I think that all these musicians actively engage with every aspect of their art, from its conception to its performance to its distribution. I can tell you that many of them when responding via email to agree to participate in the compilation wrote some retorts to McArdle’s article that were better written and far less polite than what I have written. I didn’t introduce these concerns to them. I just gave them an opportunity to vent non-verbally, to commiserate sonically.
From Part Two of the same interview:
Programmers are musicians, too. There’s a long tradition of mathematician-musicians, and the rise of code-based music is, I believe, producing a whole new area of interactive music making, in which tools are provided to general audiences — yes, through the iPhone, but that’s just one example — that let them express themselves and not just "listen." In these cases, the programmers are meta-musicians, giving people tools to make sounds that are shaped by the programmer’s aesthetic and ideas. There’s a running joke that people are slowly realizing isn’t a joke at all, the idea that when we credit people for the creation of a song, maybe we should thank the software, the people who make the software. James Rotondi touches on this in the note he wrote for his contribution to Despite the Downturn. I think too much time is being spent eulogizing the death of the record industry, when there is so much new musical creativity occurring that deserves more coverage.
Music territorializes our minds. All art, all communication, territorializes our minds. That’s what riffs and hooks and melodies and lyrics do. I am going to see the musical based on Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend, and I re-listened to the album for the first time in, easily, five years, maybe 10, and I still knew every single word by heart. And I could sing or hum along with every little lick that Robert Quine and Richard Lloyd played on their guitars, even these tiny filigrees that are little more than minor flashes of feedback.
The current legislation of copyright in regard to fixed recordings simply doesn’t allow people to access their own memories, literal and figurative. Rob Zombie tells a great story, a sad one really, about not being able to use Super 8 footage of himself and his brother as kids at McDonald’s in a music video because, well, it’s McDonald’s — and well, you know, it may be McDonald’s, but it’s also a kid’s memories, an adult’s memories of when he was a kid, and the laws as they’re currently enforced protect the interests of companies who actively territorialize our memories and then charge us to access them. Lawrence Lessig has done tremendous work in pushing to revise these laws, but we have a long way to go. Can you imagine how a John Coltrane or Charlie Parker would feel hemmed in today? “Oh, man, I felt myself wanting to drop in a little bit of 'Tea for Two' when I was soloing, but I was too worried some ASCAP or RIAA spy in the audience was gonna tap my wages. Glad I caught myself."