Performance art role models vs. celebrity “culture”


I’m at a career crossroads. I’m done with tech (finally), corporate tech in particular, and despite the warhead-sized crater that the global economy tanking left in my performance gigs a few years back, and in my freelance writing/editing/production gigs as well, I’m still here and moving on.

The problem is that what constitutes popular live performance – and the income that comes with it – seems to have shifted once again.

In specific: my music/performance art role models have been and continue to be experimental performance artists, skilled musicians or people/groups that are both. A short list, by means of example:

  • Laurie Anderson
  • Grimes
  • Marina Abramović
  • Grace Jones
  • George Clinton
  • Sun Ra
  • Art Ensemble of Chicago
  • M.I.A. (without the anti-blackness, because wth, M.I.A.)
  • Frank Zappa
  • Tom Waits

In addition, there’s some overlap into singer-songwriters, such as Joni Mitchell, Peter Gabriel and Leonard Cohen. So far, so good.

What I see happening these days is that songwriters are in a position of being an emotive vessel on stage, typically in ways that look transformative – and sometimes, are exactly that – but more commonly, are repackaging vulnerability (or social justice) in ways that reinforce both the status quo and the fourth wall. In ways that the artists above – and myself – primarily don’t. It’s like everybody is supposed to be “the voice of a generation” now – which means that seriously overworked bad concept has gone viral and spread. They’re channeling a lot of emotion into their performances – which is good, obviously – but it’s getting commodified in ways both on the stage and off that make me sort of uneasy.

It’s a corruption of the original concept of being “the generational voice” (which has many flaws, including the assumption that a single person or musical group can represent a generation), as well as moving in on the “artist are weird” territory that makes it harder to compete with, or whatever “The process of making a living as a more-or-less experimental artist in 2017” qualifies as. It’s hard to “sell” “I’m a weirdo, and I’m good at it. Ask me about hegemonic capitalism” up against “I uphold neoliberal tropes via appearing to bear my soul on every song – I am the bloodletting that changed a nation, to enrich my corporate benefactors, en route to my product placement and tie-in deals. Talk to my agent for details.” Deliberately or not, it’s a commericalization of the the risk-taking and openness that has been around in experimental performance for decades. Which tbh, bugs me. Selling my work *at all* bugs me, but that’s another topic.

Performers – like most artists – are decidedly *NOT* special, by any terms upheld within the social mainstream of the U.S. We’re flawed, complex and in a lot of ways, not-normal. Which is good! That state of being is what I want to celebrate and uphold in my work, not being some sort of pressure valve for the status quo – weird, but not *too* weird. (My life goals: 1500% weird, at all times.) Asserting to the contrary gets into the realm of artists-as-celebrities, which frankly, is a norm that I want to dismantle, if not destroy. Including in my work.

What many of the artists I listed have in common is critiquing that position, if not working to dismantle artist-as-celebrity as a concept and practice itself. Sometimes through criticism of mass media (Frank Zappa), through ritualizing performance in a way that is unapologetically pro-black (Art Ensemble, Sun Ra, George Clinton), or feminist (Marina Abramović, Laurie Anderson, Grimes), or by turning the nature of celebrity on its head and making the artist’s elevated position one of performance, if not satire, itself – rather than an assumed position of celebritized status and superiority (Grimes, George Clinton, Frank Zappa).

Then there’s making money. The norm in this corner of arts and entertainment is to either a) figure out standard “The Business of Music” protocols and stick to them while not selling out in a way that tanks both your work and your credibility, b) figure out the grant world, or c) become an academic. c) gets sort of close for me (I love to teach), but academia, especially in the U.S. is in a protracted labor crisis, as well as a crisis of affordability. Which leaves d) crowdfunding, which is possible, but can be and frequently is a crap shoot.

I don’t know what to do, other than to keep trying and see what happens. Which sucks, but at least I’m not going under water, so I feel some sort of desire, if not responsibility, to continue. It’s a work in progress, as is life itself. Here’s to moving forward, and seeing where this leads me, once again.

What I would’ve said in tech interviews, if it was ok to be honest


Don’t hire me unless you’re good with someone who works part-time, 100% offsite and independently, while getting paid a living wage in the region where I live. Don’t lie about being OK with honoring that agreement when you’re not, or your bosses are not, either.

I’m skilled, experienced labor. (I’m also well over 30, which is its own issue.) My work will probably make your bosses happy — as in, they get to capitalize on my skill set in a way that’s profitable, gets the job done efficiently or both — but I’m one serious INFP anti-authoritarian nerd. (Can I have some coffee? Thanks.) I wouldn’t even be looking if I could make real money for what I do creatively — which is still on the table, and will remain so as long as I’m still on this earth.

I’m likely more queer than anybody you’ve ever met (as best you know), and I refuse to stop reclaiming a word that people fought and died for. I’m also probably more leftist/anarchist/anti-capitalist/anti-imperialist than anybody you’ve met as well. As best you know.

Where do I see myself in five years? Breathing, hopefully.

I don’t think your sexist jokes are funny, and I’m the one who threw your MAGA cap into the trash, or burned it — but not to the point that you couldn’t make out what it was, then left it at the step of your cubicle.

I’ll make friends with the janitors and cafeteria staff, even if you turn your heads when I do so.

I’ll wear Dead Prez t-shirts on casual day, and probably forget to shower as well.

If you misgender me, I promise to get even. If you hit on me, I promise to get even.

If you push me until I break, I’ll break. Openly. I won’t try to cover it up.

Still with me? There is a way forward that can serve as a “Well, have you considered detente” compromise — which is what I led with at the start. I also know most employers are about worker compliance as much as anything, and my terms are typically counter to that. Even when it’s potentially profitable to come to an agreement — this isn’t about profit, it’s about the threat that workers asserting their ability to think and act independently potentially represents to profit. In other words, it’s a rock-solid labor issue, that gets couched in neoliberal non-solutions such as life-work balance. If life is something that counter-balances work, then what is work itself?

Lastly: I’ll steal all the snacks from the break room, even if you’re looking while I do it.

New focus


This blog is about music and mass media now, music in particular. I plan to focus on both experimental and popular forms of music, both critically and practically. Enjoy <3

Rompler keyboards, live performance and capitalism


I give to you: a box full of sampled sounds, with a keyboard attached, and a synthesizer that would not be missed if it disappeared from the next iteration, after the grumbling about it online ceased: $800. I also present to you this humble offering: another box full of sampled sounds with a keyboard – of the same size and type – attached, a synthesizer that would not be missed if it disappeared from the next iteration, after the grumbling about it online ceased, and that includes a bunch of knobs that do things of a hopefully musical nature: $4,500.

They serve an identical primary purpose: making a variety of sounds when someone’s fingers strike its keys in a coordinated fashion, or when struck randomly, if that’s to your liking. The rumor is they both contain a computer inside, in case you want to add your own operating system and play Solitaire (or run an illicit media server on the darknet), viewed through a screen that’s smaller than a deck of cards, while voiding your warranty in the process.

So why the difference in price? There’s no inherent reason that an instrument that is mostly a much-adulated rompler should cost $4,500, while another one with a more down-and-out reputation, but that holds largely similar specifications, is perfectly functional, and that gets used by many professional musicians – ones that aren’t high profile enough to have to worry about such things as brand credibility down to the level of what they happen to be playing live, or pretending to play live, for that matter – costs $800.

Even if the more expensive one provides additional features, such as the ability to add your own sounds (which it does), and an arguably nicer-sounding (although also limited) synthesizer – what is it about said features that adds up to a $3,700 difference in value? Is the more expensive keyboard 5.625 times larger than the other? Does it have 495 keys? Can it play 1,440 notes at once? For that much money, it should be able to overthrow capitalism, not enable it.

As an aside: the $800 keyboard likely shouldn’t cost that much either, even under capitalism, but welcome to economic leverage – the cheaper of the two has a corner on the “low end” market – inasmuch as anything that costs several hundred dollars can be considered low-end – most likely due to the greed of their competitors, and possibly, because of economies of scale, resulting in mass-manufacturing of $800 keyboards being more viable than reduced-cost boutique ones.

How much said economies of scale holds true in relation to the price differential, and how much it’s due to people hyping up the definitely-over-inflated-by-whatever-means brand over another, is unknown (both appear to be trade secrets), but both are factors. Thankfully, this doesn’t result in something that is so shoddy to be unplayable – far from it – although that happens as well.

Also, many keyboards are most likely built with the same exploited labor as computers and cell phones. Same goes for guitars, and a host of other things. That shiny smart toaster you got as a gift? Shady. That “Does everything but import the beans” espresso machine you fancy so much? Sketchy. (None of your most beloved devices are free of sin, sadly.)

Given the nature of much of modern pop and dance music, it’s debatable that musical keyboards are even necessary – who needs individual notes when everything is made up of loops, or if you’re fancy, arpeggiators – yet they persist. Keyboards serve a functional purpose for all kinds of musicians, one that is tethered both to studio use and live performance. They’re hands-on in a way that making music with nothing but a computer frequently is not, they represent the bulk of the sonic range of western music in a relatively easy-to-grasp way (if they have 88 keys, that is), and for many of us trained musical types, their physical nature speaks to our tactile sense. They can even be used as a control surface to bang out drum parts! They remain useful things, overall.

Also, some keyboards are red. Which clearly is worth an additional $3,700, as opposed to a more mundane white or off-teal finish.

In terms of technology, music is at a strange crossroads. In theory, there’s no reason to create much of anything outside of a computer when in the studio; increasingly, there’s not much of a need for keyboards on the stage, either. (Devices that play backing tracks to support solo performers, or to make up for missing band members, is a different story.) With a few exceptions, everything that is generated “ITB” (in the box, for you non-producer types) sounds close enough to “real instruments” that they pass muster, and further, people are used to listening to music that makes heavy use of samples. Via compressed audio streams, on earbuds. So there’s not much of point in having an argument about fidelity: it clearly is for nerds. Given the way some keyboards sound, it’s arguably not for people who spend $4,500 on one, either. Did I mention that it comes in red?

“Ah,” you say, “but then there’s live performance. Red is clearly more important during live performance. Your notes will sparkle and shine much more than with the off-teal model.” Given digital media technology, is there a need for live performance at all? I’d argue that there is, but the way the industry works now, performance is less about the needs of the general population (the masses, if you will) – socializing, being able to dance, drink (or partake of other substances) and unwind, enjoying the sound and spontaneity of live music itself – and more about addressing the needs and wants of the small percentage of people who have the time, money and energy to go out. Listening to music live – in venues in particular – is frequently an expensive affair.

Also, much of the human needs that popular music used to address is handled by DJs these days. So live musical performance as a popular medium is not quite as, well, popular as it used to be. Resurgent, perhaps – but accessible to all, and with an affordable ticket price? Not so much.

In addition, media technology has advanced over the past several decades; it’s possible to make, distribute and promote an album without having to go on the road. From an artistic perspective – and to no small degree, a listener perspective – it’s an open question whether or not an audience needs to be at a club or venue at all. Listener-supported YouTube channels prove that the musical aspects of live music’s social value can be addressed online. In reality, even non-profits such as KEXP are tethered to the ways the music industry works, where touring is required for working artists. It’s similar to the ways that the music industry has worked for decades (make of that what you will), the wrench that digital media threw into the industry’s machinations notwithstanding.

That’s not a slag on KEXP, by the way. It is what it is, the industry is what it is. I happen to think “what it is” in the case of the industry as a whole is bad, if not evil. But that’s clearly not KEXP’s express-if-not-sole doing, either.

As a live performer, I wrestle with all this, and as a leftist/anarchist, I wrestle with it double. What is the social purpose of my labor? Does it even have a purpose? Is there some other set of things to do that would be of greater benefit? What about creative acts of resistance, such as producing works based entirely on pirated media? These are real questions, amplified by the present-day socioeconomic dynamics of music making, by the commodification of mass culture, and by the music industry itself, then and now.

Nevertheless, musical labor *IS LABOR*, and is of social relevance and importance, my own worries and soul-searching notwithstanding. Please don’t respond with your hot take on how playing music isn’t actual work – it is. There’s nothing worse than when someone goes on at length about how your work is suspect – typically while not holding a mirror up to their own labor – when you’re just trying to get paid. So thanks in advance for keeping that to yourself. Triple especially if you’re a software developer by trade.

PS: My first draft contained multiple technical and aesthetic explanations as to how this all works. If you’re muttering to yourself “Thank you for not going into all that”, you’re welcome.