The Mote Around The Indie Music Mystique
Featuring a Conversation With Paul of
the primeTime Sublime Community Orchestra

by Polar Levine for popCULTmedia, July 28, 2003

The digital revolution brought state-of-the-art music production tools onto every musician's desktop. It allowed musicians to compose, produce and release their own CDs independently of the music industry's corporate show-biz machine. The internet opened up unlimited potential for the distribution of indie music to a vital, but invisible, global audience. This audience hungered for unique new sounds and words to break through the stock conventions that defined the parameters of a cautious, calcified, profit motivated industry. The plumbing for the revolution, chips and broadband internet wiring, was being installed in every dorm room, office cubicle and home in much of the "developed" world and indie music had the whiff of revolution in the grooves.

But the revolution wasn't televised and it didn't add a fourth chord to the boilerplate genre-bound music it was supposed to supercede. Once the smoke from the digital big bang cleared, the indie music scene looked pretty much like the corporate music scene, but with a lower talent quotient.

Go to any indie music website and do a search through the database of thousands upon thousands of artists and you'll notice the same menu of genres that you find anywhere else. The indie bands within each genre follow the same predictable set of conventions as their corporate models.

The most surprising and discouraging development is found in the "Alternative" genre. Now here's a good place to mention that I'm writing this piece as an inquisitive journalist/music fan and also as an indie musician who's banged his head repeatedly on the genre wall. I'll go into my personal experience with the genre wall in a later installment of this series.

The "Alternative" tag is largely a cruel misnomer. There are those of us who crave music that carves new grooves into our grey matter: discovering a new genre in the making -- a strange detour off a too familiar genre or music from a place or time that we've never encountered. But "Alternative," to many people, is a very specific genre of its own -- a subdivision of rock that is as formulaic as any other genre. So what's the alternative to "Alternative"? There's plenty -- but without an identifying moniker to make it accessible.

90% of what I've heard in any "Alternative" category of any indie site sounds exactly like what I hear on MTV 2. It might be the Counting Crows format of intelligent "sensitive" writing (maybe with a "na na na" passage in there somewhere) accompanied by a standard big amplitude rock band setup; bombastic rap metal; or the more virtuosic and sinister Tool/System of A Down variety. The remaining 10% might be Singer/Songwriter with the addition of a synth and drum machine mixed in with the acoustic guitar; or one of the rare occasions when something truly original pops up. If these sub-genres of rock and the sub-genre to come will forever be known as "alternative" -- what do we do with all that music that seamlessly combine exclusive genres or could be a genre unto itself? Without serious consideration for the truly independent spirit, what can the indie music movement ever be other than a bin full of conventional genre music that no label wants to sign?

It seems to me that in a viable indie music world, when we enter the "Alternative" genre -- or whatever word some creative indie music webmaster comes up with -- we should expect to be surprised, confused, confounded, turned on, turned off, pissed off, pissed on, transformed, enlightened, maybe inspired to waste many hours in search of more of Whatever-It-Was that lit up the room.

So who would I consider as examples of genre-busting entities that would define the Alternative bin in my musical cosmos? A small sampling would include Zappa, Bjork, Radiohead, Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits, Beck, Captain Beefheart, Los Lobos/Latin Playboys, Laura Love, Mitchell Froom, The Residents, Manu Chau.

Paul Minotto is a composer from Ridgewood, New Jersey whose band, Primetime Sublime is what Alternative should be all about. Minotto's work should have a suite all its own in that alternative ward. His music is both orchestral in both the modern classical sense and in the loose big band jazz in the Mingus or John Zorn sense. It's shot through and through with samples, free-association and detours through some truly bizarre back alleys, rice paddies and ivied halls. Beneath the conservatory surface is very clear evidence of pop music DNA.

I asked Paul talk about his experience flailing around in the genre sandtrap.

PL: So Paul, what is it? What would you call your music?

PM: Well, it sounds kind of like the Partridge Family and the Lawrence Welk Orchestra on acid performing Black Sabbath songs at the Grand Ole Opry on Christmas eve.

Those six words, What - Kind - Of - Music - Is - It?

Many artists are influenced by different styles and genres of music, but often the end product still fits under a genre as Jazz, Rock or whatever. If you make and/or promote music that effortlessly fits into a box called "Heavy Metal" or "TechnoBilly" or "Dysfunctional New Age", then those six words are not a problem. In fact, life is comparatively easy from a marketing and promotion standpoint since the targeted demographic is narrowed considerably.

PL: But, what if you do something that cannot be easily labeled or categorized according to one of the established styles or a combination thereof. In fact, what if you make something that incorporates many genres to the point of not gravitating to any one. How do you answer, "What Kind Of Music Is It"?

PM: My band is the primeTime sublime Community Orchestra (ptsCO). The central idea behind our agenda is to blur the boundaries between Pop song, orchestral suite, film score, Jazz improvisation and cartoon soundtrack with the spirit of the amateur. (The original definition, which is one who audaciously follows a pursuit out of love, not money as the professional does. The operative word here is "spirit".)

Essentially a traditional, Classical chamber orchestra augmented with guitars, synths, electric piano, drum kit and/or computers (samplers), the freeform expression of ptsCO bursts the barriers of music style/genre. No, I don't mean "free" as in free improvisation or Free Jazz, though those element are present at times. I mean as in the fusion of many styles of music, styles that are "foreign" with one another yet in our context, coexist, fuse together or even clash.

Some of the sounds you will hear include late 1960's Rock, ECM Jazz, old time Country, Hip hop, Contemporary Classical, Chinese and other ethnic folk musics, Spaghetti Western and other film music styles, Motown R&B, 1950's easy listening, 1970's Funk and Warner Brothers cartoon soundtrack to extramusical sounds like garbage trucks, 200 chanting chipmunks, a Ginzu knife commercial underwater and various sound design effects.

PL: So, when you submit your music to a radio station, record label, publicist or indie website -- what do you call it when they hit you with that menu of categories? Which style/genre market do you promote it to?

PM: Jazz? Well, perhaps. Out of all the genres, Jazz has been and continues to be the most open to outside influences. But there are different styles of Jazz, all with fans that are "purists" and any deviations are sacrilege, not only within Jazz but sometimes within a particular Jazz style. I suppose the same could be said for Rock or Country or R&B (though less so) or Classical Music or any other genre for that matter. (Some Hip hop incorporates very unHip hop elements, but in the end, it still hops and some of it's even Hip.)

For a Classical music enthusiast, the presence of an electric guitar or drum kit might turn their stomach, unless maybe these instruments are in a nonClassical context, but with a String orchestra and Oboes, French Horns, etc..? No, no, no....and what's that Kazoo doing in there?

For the Pop music bopper, there are no words to sing-a-long to or sexy pictures to masturbate with. And there's just too much information to process. (Excuse me while i pop this zit.)

And for the Country, R&B or Rock music fan, there just isn't enough repetition. (Dude, like ah... I can't Rock out to that.)

The other day, I went to the Tower Records on Broadway in lower Manhattan and outside was a guy asking people passing by if they like Hip hop music. If they answered yes, he handed them a CD of the band he was promoting. I imagined myself doing that: - Do you like Rock, Jazz, Classical, R&B, Movie Soundtracks, Country, Latin AND various ethnic folk music? - Sure. What Kind Of Music Is It?

The other common dilemma one encounters when trying to promote [New? Music That Doesn't Fit Anywhere] has to do with the on-line providers of musical entertainment such as which offers "...comprehensive genre and Artist charts...". I think these sites can be beneficial to an "Artist" if they make something that neatly fits into one of the designated flavor compartments offered on the particular site. doesn't give you the option of indicating six or seven styles or genres (why would they?); you have to pick one. (Let's,, Giving in to the futility of this, i chose "Comedy".

The primeTime sublime audience exists somewhere in the cracks: their tastes are not easily classifiable and this is a reflection on their interest in unusual entertainment experiences, musical or otherwise. Impervious to the mass marketing techniques of the Music Industry, they turn their ear the other way, and the separation of Low (Popular) culture and High ("Serious Art") culture does not exist for them.

PL: What can the creators of the current indie infrastructure do to keep the system more open to the highest denominator of creative expression and appeal to that diverse audience that craves it?

PM: Maybe one forgotten element in the current Music Industry Revolution will have to do with words, specifically labels, not sounds and their distribution. Why? More and more listeners today enjoy a wide variety of styles and genres: Charles Mingus followed by Motley Crue followed by Mozart would not be unusual to today's music lover who can not live by one music alone. (Ok, maybe that's a rather severe example at this point in history.) But this expanding of one's ears will only become more prevalent in time, and many of these listeners will be music creators. Perhaps in the future, multi-genre music will become more common, out of which new genres evolve we can't imagine now. (Duke Ellington: "In the future, there will be one music.")

Ok, this is all starting to sound like an episode from Star Trek. The fact remains: Most people desire a particular music dependent on a particular mood they are in or wish to create through ambience enhancement. No matter how inclusive in terms of genre, one music will not do the trick.

If a serial murderer is driving to work, he probably wants to be listening to the loudest, most stress inducing music possible, not the Partridge Family. And, if you work in a record store and he comes up to you with a primeTime sublime Community Orchestra CD and asks, "What Kind Of Music Is It?" -- you better have a good answer.

Thank you, Paul.

Are there other artists out there who have lived the genre drama? If you're a pro and your music is recorded, mastered and ready be heard by the world, talk to us. Only genre-defiant artists need apply.

Polar Levine