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AN OPEN LETTER TO A SUFFERING ARTIST

by Polar Levine April 10, 2002 for popCULTmedia

We talk a lot about how to consolidate the indy media as a mutually supportive vehicle for getting non-commercial creative expression to an audience. But we don't talk about that audience itself.

One of my oft-repeated axioms is that maybe 98% of music out there serves strictly as sub-cultural identifiers (the stuff that one's peer group listens to up to college graduation) or environmental facilitators (otherwise known as background noise -- muzak). This is akin to car consumers who use their cars as identifiers (status brands and models) and facilitators (merely a means of transportation). What if we eliminated those users and were left with only those who have a deep sensual and intellectual curiosity about music or cars -- the searchers for the non-familiar and the inspirational? We would find a relative small but deeply passionate and committed consumership for the music that is most unique and challenging or vehicular under-the-hood avant-gardeness.

But let's stick to the issue of this small committed audience for music. Let's call that audience the Explorers. Relative to the gigantic overall size of the consumership for music -- our Explorers would probably be a small global network of hepsters and geeks somewhat bigger than the size of the audience for independent and international films, poetry or post-modern dance. In those other artforms, the audience is highly concentrated and aware. In the poetry section of the bookstores we don't find our favorite poets scattered among shelf after shelf after shelf of Rod McEuens and Jewels. The theater that shows "Yi Yi" or "Pi" is not going to have "Scorpion King" in the next room. The audiences for these artforms have clearcut venues for consumption.

In contrast, think of record stores -- almost all display areas are in payola-bought visual prominence and with all the retail showbizzery that only the major labels can afford. And that stuff shares the same real estate as the obscure and extraordinary music lost somewhere in anonymous bins. That genre-defying indy stuff is rarely on the display racks or the listening stations. As for radio -- music that's not corporate sanctioned will be played primarily on small college stations which are, themselves, largely genre oriented. We know that the bulk of the radio spectrum is owned by 3 corporations and is programmed in some corporate bunker far from the local culture of its listeners. Because of this media fragmentation, the Explorer audience is also fragmented and in the dark about a huge body of attractive work.

For those of us who are seeking to broaden the range and accessibility of musical options, it's crucial that this audience of Explorers be consolidated and offered a steady flow of challenging music that is easy to discover and purchase. A creative network of indy artists, journalists and venues could generate airplay, record sales and careers for musicians and entrepreneurs alike. This audience is out there. Always has been. It's global. These people want to spend their money. They know their history. They've heard every genre there is and are on to every cliche and convention. They're smart and hip and will not be bullshat.

Our concentrated efforts should be aimed at this audience that already exists. We should not be banging our heads against the wall to create some miniature infrastructure that we imagine will compete against the Big Five to reach the mainstream and, simultaneously, reach that Explorer audience lurking in the shadows.

The music this audience wants to hear and dance to will not find a sponsor in the musicBiz corporati. This is a tide that, largely, runs parallel to the corporate tide, not within it. A new business model must set its own rules for an audience that respects artistry, unpredictability and honesty over funny hair, hype and cute blonde girls.

This is where we parse out the complainers from the builders of the next music distribution platform. If you're another rock band, rap group or techno head that grouses at being overlooked -- you have no problem with The System except that you're just not in it. You're not really looking for an alternative system. You just need an effective biznizz staff. You should seek that.

If mainstream acceptance is not your main goal, then an alternative paradigm should be your agenda. There's this myth that "artists" do not get hot and bothered with idea of getting paid. Bullshit. Creativity should be rewarded. Alternative music (as opposed to the "Alternative" genre which has its own rigid set of VH1-friendly conventions) is not intended to be made strictly for the joy of it. Business should be conducted as seriously as the majors with the exception that royalties should actually be paid. Artists and entrepreneurs can prosper if they work on the same team -- as opposed to being mutually exploitive -- and if this alternative business model targets the Explorers, keeping marketing and manufacturing costs focused on that demographic sweet spot.

Think of how Apple permanently screwed up its market share. The IBM/DOS based PCs had already achieved a foothold in the business world as the stock system for data entry. Apple had a stronghold on graphic designers and were starting to take over Amiga's hold on video artists. But Apple booted the visionary Steve Jobs and turned the ship over to the suits who, instinctively, tried to go toe to toe against the DOS world at the expense of the creative community which was devoted to Macs. When Microsoft ripped off the Mac graphic interface and created Windows, the graphic and video hegemony that Apple held began to dissolve. Apple, predictably, never had a chance in the data entry world and they lost their edge in their niche where the expensive workstations were sold. So what's the point? The point is that an alternative music distribution system should be run by, and music produced by, people who are committed to serving the permanent and global Explorer audience that is hungry for a truly alternative music. We should not be wasting time and resources thinking about how to break into the mainstream corporate-controlled World "O' Showbiz.

This is the moment when something can be created. Once the dust clears, the RIAA have made its donations to the election campaigns and the Cheney administration loads the Supreme Court with more corporation-friendly right wingers -- the internet will be controlled by the media cartel and it will be too late.

Now is the time.

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Polar Levine
Editor, popCULTmedia.com
July 9, 2002