’03 til infinity

The MVA Studio weblog—thoughts on design, creativity, business, marketing, teaching, writing and culture by J. Namdev Hardisty and Kimberlee Whaley.

I’m all for file sharing. That’s great—as long as people are prepared for the significant consequences. One is that music will become completely couched in advertising. That’s already happened. And another is that people should be prepared to have fun with the past because the only music that can possibly be free is the music that’s from the past. It costs money to make music. And if people are prepared to only have the past to listen to, then let it be free.

But if they want new music then they are going to have to figure out a way to be patrons of the arts. And they will. We discussed doing a free option, but we were like “No, Fuck it. They can pay a dollar.” We played shows for five dollars at a time when people thought it would be impossible. We played five-dollar shows for so long and nobody ever complained about that, and then we sell it for five dollars and they’re like, “Why isn’t it free?” Well, it’s just trying to help us recoup a little bit.

“good points as usual from Ian MacKaye from this Pitchfork interview - especially about advertising, that’s always been my fear/annoyance with the ‘free’ cost of many things online (when it stops being an annoyance and is, as he says, ‘couching’ content in a way we don’t really pay any conscious regard to but which nonetheless shapes, distorts and underpins the medium, that’s probably worse).”

Additional commentary at hardcorefornerds

I should be so lucky

I was driving home tonight listening to the 2002 album Two Guns Twin Arrows by Abilene. I have no idea how many people have even heard of the long-defunct Abilene but I’m guessing its 5,000 at the absolute max. There’s probably about 3,000 of these CD’s in circulation and because the label that issued it went out of business I have a feeling there’s boxes of these in a warehouse or, more likely, a closet somewhere.* But that doesn’t really matter because I own this record and it means a great deal to me whether there’s 10 or 10 million of them. Two Guns Twin Arrows is the kind of record that just dredges shit up in me. Its this raw mixture of guitar-driven screaming post-hardcore (in that guitarist Alex Dunham used to be in hardcore bands not that its weird or goofy) with some kind of jazz element due to the trumpet and quasi-dub underpinnings. All of which sounds horrid when put down to paper but its sounds like no other record I have heard. And it gets to me. I start thinking of big F situations—failure, frustration, my dead father. It just dredges shit up in me. I can’t point to what exactly does it (as if you ever can with a great record) but its not content-based as the lyrics are so cryptic as to border on meaningless (but just bordering). It has to be the emotional space of the music. It basically goes from raw, noisy and angry to melodic and melancholic. Its definitely not a record with “a little something for everybody.” I can’t listen to Abilene all the time. They produced 2 records, neither of which I will ever part with but I take them out in measured doses (and always this time of year incidentally). I think they’re some kind of therapy and so, for the next week or so, I’ll listen to them until I can’t handle it any longer and they’ll go back on the CD shelf for another 8 months or a year or whatever.

Abilene toured a little bit, they played shows and they sold CDs. And they probably never made a legitimate dime of profit off their efforts. Hopefully they made enough off of selling CDs and at the doors of clubs to get to the next city. They took time off of work to do the work of touring in a band but it was likely more of an expensive vacation. I doubt that they came home with more than a couple hundred dollars in each members pockets, if that. And while money is never the be all end all of creative endeavors it certainly helps to make things worth it. Abilene broke up sometime after Two Guns Twin Arrows and its no shocker. The members were in their 30’s, had been touring in different bands for 10 years plus and probably had to due the kind of “shit sorting out” that one needs to do in order to say, have kids or build a sustainable career. And while that’s sad, my point has nothing to do with the conundrum of aging work-horse punk musicians but with the value of their art. I have gotten something major emotionally out of Abilene’s music for 11 years. What are we really talking about? Two pieces of plastic that cost me a grand total of $25. How can something that bring so much value to my existence have cost me so little? What’s the real value of those discs? How much is it really worth to own something (or access it as the case may be) that can transport you to a wholly different emotional place; that can make you miss your father and cry in traffic? How did it come to be that the catalyst for that experience—a CD—cost me the price of lunch pro-rated 100 times across a decade?

Music industry 1.0—the making and selling of plastic objects—set the expectation that music was a commodity with no real differentiation between artists, hence every CD had (and has) to cost the same. The punk scene set the expectation that paying someone for their art was bullshit and hence CDs had to priced in such a way as to recoup the production costs and not much else (if the entire print-run sold out). Music Industry 2.0—the making and selling of bits—has continued this folly to its extreme. Music is now either free or $.99 a song. We’ve officially decided that a Snickers bar is worth more than a piece of music. What the fuck is wrong with us?

I don’t know how or if I can ever repay Abilene for what they’ve given me but I know its worth way more than the $12 I paid for a copy of Two Guns Twin Arrows and its definitely worth more than $2.28 that you can buy a new copy of it on Amazon.** On the one hand, its offensive to musicians that we find it reasonable that they’re creative output is worth less than a pizza but on the other hand, what is it that we’re constantly complaining about? The most compelling and affective art that we engage with in our daily lives is music. And we get it for nothing. We complained that CDs were pushing $20 a piece. Our complaint wasn’t that it was $20 and musicians were still getting screwed on royalties, no, we complained because we knew that it only cost $.95 to manufacture a CD (as if we really had a clue as to what it cost to manufacture anything) so therefore we were paying $19.05 too much.

I don’t have an answer as to what a download of a song should cost but I know this, we should feel royally fucking blessed that right now it only costs $.99. There would be a gaping void in my life if Two Guns Twin Arrows, Life.Love.Regret., It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Paul’s Boutique, and every other transformative record were to be erased from existence. What if every $15 I ever spent managed to bring me so much repeated enjoyment for years to come? I should be so lucky.

*Hopefully, I’m wrong about this and there’s 10,000 copies all of which have found a happy and loving home. **But, I see that you can buy a new copy for as little as $2.28 on Amazon so I think my instincts are correct on this one.

Related Links:

Nick van Woert

While I was on a trip to New York in 2008 I had a realization that there was a certain kind of artwork that was guaranteed to get my attention. Walking through the exhibition Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century, and later the 2008 Whitney Biennial I noticed that I was consistently stopping at and being blown away be pieces that fit a few criteria. They were large, usually geometric, sculptures using the language of minimalism or Modernism but upon closer inspection they revealed some subversive gesture—a grotesque surface (as in the Donald Judd meets candle wax work of Jebediah Caesar) or a use of surprising or cheap materials like the sorta gold sculptures of Alice Könitz). Eventually I realized that these pieces acted as a visual anchor in a sea of images and that they also engaged me on a physical level. They weren’t pedastal sculptures, they were imposing physical objects with a form that was readable from across the room but a pay-off once you gave them your attention.

The work of Nick van Woert talks to what interests me in art to such a degree that I was convinced that I had seen his work on that same trip to NYC. It turns out I was mistaken but the work is amazing nonetheless. van Woert originally trained as an architect and you can see this influence in the numerous references to scaffolding, multi-level building, and grids that are especially apparent in his recent work. The beauty of his work is the constant tension between the immediate perception of beautiful structures and materials and the later realization of the grotesque or abrasive. This untitled piece from 2011 is a great example:

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