by Polar Levine July 23, 2002

Last month I wrote an article called The Key to an Alternative Music Distribution System: Explore the Explorers. I was surprised at the number of positive, passionate responses. As I suspected, it appears that were a force out there. A number of people said OK, great -- but whats the next step? Since my arms been twisted -- Ill lay it out there in installments.

If you refer to the above mentioned piece, youll note that I stressed basing a new distribution paradigm around the market that most needs us -- what I called the Explorers. These people, myself included, are always looking for unconventional, multi-layered and challenging work -- music, film, literature, visual art, theater, etc. I urged that rather than spin our wheels going toe to toe with mega corporations to seduce the hearts of the mainstream, our new system would work completely outside the pop machine and devote its service to the Explorers. These people dont require high gloss bullshit to capture their attention. This audience only needs to know theres a venue out there to find what its looking for and it will show up. So how do we find this audience and fill the trough for them to chow down?

Are you the kind of person who, when visiting somebodys home for the first time, heads straight for their CD collection? If you discover some of the same bizarre virtually unknown artists that you like, I bet you say to yourself, I think this is the start of a beautiful friendship.

Hows this for a fantasy: A virtual town made up of people whose audial needs are in your zone. If theyre in the same weird sonic zone as you, theyre probably there on other levels too. Being in the same aesthetic zone, by the way, doesnt mean you all like the same artists or genres. But youre all aware of those artists and genres. Or, if youre not -- youre probably the type who wants to become aware.

You may love or hate Bjork, Mouse On Mars, Kelly Joe Phelps, J-Live, Morton Feldman, Django Reinhardt, John Fort, Oumou Sangare, Mitchell Froom, Sonny Boy Williamson, Manu Chau, The Harry Smith Collection, Captain Beefheart, John Zorn, Mahavishnu Orchestra, or Albert Ayler. But you probably know something about most of them. I want to hang out in the same neighborhood as the people who are aware of these artists, the same neighborhood where the artists, themselves, live.

This virtual town includes the entrepreneurial class that manufactures and facilitates the business district -- the primary industry being independent music. That includes artists, labels, journalists, retailers, broadcasters, etc. Also in the town are the commuters -- those whose work hours are spent out of town and in other industries. But when they return home, they are consumers, like the rest of us, of the shops on the main drag.

Economically and socially, this is a very diverse town. We speak English, French, German, Urdu, Japanese, Portuguese and Spanish. There are the rich folks -- corporate CEO's who commute to the big city and trust fund babies. After a hard day of scamming the stock market or chomping bonbons they like to kick back, pop open a Chardonnay and chill out to Coltranes Ascension or Cannibal Ox. There are other commuters and employees of the local industry -- the students and blue collar workers who like to suck on a fattie or a Bud and trip out to Iannis Xenakis or Kitty Wells.

In my virtual town, the folks who own and operate the business district are the comfortable middle class. Theyre not making millions because the audience they reach is not large enough to turn challenging music into multi-platinum. But business is always good and everyone enjoys their work because theyre music fans first. The musicians are comfy because their record companies actually pay them the royalties due. And the performance venues prosper and pay the artists. The labels are doing well because the artists arent sucking them dry from huge advances and limos and popstar paraphernalia; in fact they consider themselves on the same team. The network is reaching an ever-growing audience which demands live performances where new artists are discovered and then signed to indy labels. Competition for profits is not lethal because downtown works more like a cooperative than the normal business world. It has to in order to serve their market -- a market maintained only by keeping it in the loop. Secrecy and throat-ripping kills your competition but, in this case, your competition is helping you reach your market. Like, Golly no, Mrs. Lumm, we dont carry the strawberry/onion ice cream but Als shop next door has it. Tell him I sent you over.

OK, Polar, if youre such a Marxist why do you paint this glorious picture of a comfy bourgeoisie? Why arent we all muscled-up staring triumphantly toward the horizon, glistening with the sweat of proletarian dignity, living nobly on subsistence wages? Because we deserve to be paid well for our work and our investments, thats why. Ba-da-boom. And we only maintain stability with our Large-Enough but permanent market of Explorers by not eliminating parts of the machine (known in the corporate world as the competition) that interface with that market.

Look -- you run a label that specializes in Eastern European Gypsy brass bands. You have no interest in sinking another small label run by somebody in the network. This is because the bigger the mall, the more shoppers there are dropping pizza on your stores carpet. Those other world music or punk-bebop labels are your friends. Their advertising is a call-out to your own clientele. Remember, were serving a very particular niche market that the major labels are ignoring. But their tastes are anything but niche-oriented. Many of the people who like those Gypsy brass bands also like soukous, underground hip hop, Appalachian folk, the weirder species of electronica and free-improv jazz. The only predictable thing about our Explorers is that theyre curious about everything out there with the possible exception of the stuff the major labels sponsor.

Two paragraphs back I tossed off this term Large-Enough. Look at it again. I learned the concept reading this stack of manuals that came packaged with my kid. Theres a parenting philosophy about being a good enough parent. It means that no matter how dedicated you are at kid-rearing; no matter how much stuff you buy them and how much you hug them and render discipline with care and nurturing -- by the time theyre preteens theyre going to assume that youre the cause of all their zits and existential turmoil. And theyll be paying shrinks a fortune to lay your defects out in graphic detail. Therefore sweating over being the ideal parent is useless. It turns out that kids grow up pretty well conditioned for life on Earth having been raised by parents who were good enough. The goal is to be a good enough parent -- not a perfect one.

I apply that concept to our perpetual global community of Explorers. Theyve always been there. They always will be there. In the late 60s and early 70s they might have been easier to find but theres always enough of them -- a market thats not large enough to make millions off of. But definitely, large enough is enough for a dedicated distribution system to profit comfortably by servicing them respectfully and creatively.

An important thing to realize about the Explorers is that theyre seriously isolated. Often these folks have few or no acquaintances who share their shadowy sonic obsessions. Theyre lonely and misunderstood and are likely to ignite in a murderous flameout at any time. At this very moment, at your favorite record store -- in the USA, UK, Japan, Norway, Germany, France, Brazil and Jupiter -- you can hear one of them nervously muttering to herself right after the clerk says, Never heard of em. I know this -- Im one of those subterranean creatures. In high school I knew about four kids in my whole north Jersey town who were into free jazz and delta blues. We were a tiny secret society. But the two blues guys didnt know the two jazz guys. I was a lonely little dude. Still am. So -- not only will our alternative distribution system get networked, but through it, the Explorers get networked. Carnage is avoided, romances are consummated and a babyboom of little drooling Explorers are born. And new hot tubs are purchased from the profits made by the worker bees of our little towns entrepreneurial and creative class.

One real challenge is how this type of system -- a network rather than a nonstop competitive dogfight -- can encourage innovation? The innovators are the ones who create the latest advances in compression algorithms, cool ideas like one-click shopping, P2P (peer to peer) and webcasting (internet radio).

Innovation is always motivated, in large part, by rewards other than the satisfaction of doing something well. Innovation must be rewarded financially and, at the same time, avoid the stress caused by patent lawsuits and high licensing fees. We can see the potential devastation awaiting webcasters because of impending high royalty payments. Do musicians really want to levy huge taxes on radio programmers for exposing their music to consumers? Are they truly that dumb? No. But the corporati that currently control music distribution are precisely that dumb. Theyll inadvertently blow up the malls parking lot in a questionably legal attempt to squeeze a few more bucks out of the Golden Calfs udders. So the innovation of webcasting as an antidote to the pernicious ClearChannelization of the airwaves might be destroyed at birth and webcasting might become a streaming replica of the analog mess we now have. How does a collective reward its innovators? And how are innovators and more profitable companies in a limited market discouraged from cannibalizing their neighbors?

Creating a viable alternative to the cultural cesspool we now have is a big conceptual challenge. Socialism stifles innovation by not rewarding it. Capitalism inspires creativity but that creative energy is bent toward lowest common denominator tastes to achieve numbers and success is dependent upon corporate advertising and largess. Its also bent toward unmitigated slaughter and waste. Where is that middle ground and how can it be achieved?

Any ideas out there?

Elections in the USA are approaching and the stuffed envelopes are changing hands at the golf courses of America. Tic tic tic . . .

Send this URL to other potential cogs in the network and stay tuned for Part Three in this series.


Polar Levine
July 23, 2002