Scrounging Through the Wreckage

Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait after the Spanish Flu, 1919

The present situation which has precipitated an emptiness of activity within the performing arts need not be named nor enumerated, so consider this introduction to be a vague wave of the hand, at …all this.

I read recently that in Britain, as of November, something like a third of musicians were out of work completely and over three-quarters were still lacking consistent work. The situation in America seems, anecdotally, to have been just the slightest bit better, yet thus, I am understanding that my colleagues and I who have much of anything to do now (regardless of remuneration) are remarkable statistical outliers. Instagram certainly distorts these facts. TikTok aggressively distorts these facts, as we are inundated by the same hit constantly every day, as the lonely young people of this world attempt to ride its success to exposure. To money? No. Maybe the idea of it: but the need for exposure is symptomatic of something rather remarkable, from an economic standpoint.

This is to say that having work, meaning, community, and, honestly, friends, are incredibly valuable commodities now. The situation that shall remain anonymous drove a wedge into the ways in which the internet was already separating us, watching the feed obsessively waiting for it to direct our attention, in which the highest reward, paid for with a significant fraction of time that could be used for, on the one hand, remunerative work, or on the other hand, genuine soul-nourishment, is to simply have somebody’s eyes (or ears) on you.

This particular Pride in Brooklyn has prompted something I have personally never seen before: DIY performers showing up at social events specifically to pass out QR codes that point to the show they’re doing on their friends’ roof. It’s a pretty smart idea because it certainly removes a lot of the middlemen that are usually necessary for live performance, but something about it still rubs me the wrong way. Is it the spirit of competition, the spirit of aggressive hustle, the capitalization on community, the rampant Americanism of the whole thing? Partly, but none of these things are out of place in New York. Is it the way in which specifically queerness and solidarity-in-difference are being so used, out of keeping with the mood of the event?…not really, because Pride in New York is replete with systemic-level offenders of such things, so it makes no sense to hold on to resentment for people much more similar to myself.

My best hypothesis is inverted, in a way, and far more sympathetic: this is what artists are reduced to now, when tastemakers have diverted themselves towards tracking TikTok thirst traps, a strategic step above shouting a song at strangers in the park, the creative-person-to-person equivalent of a desperate crowdfunding campaign. The actual business of music now is all digital from first to last, and shaped very much by what comes across in a ten-second video: a dazzling couple of seconds of music (it doesn’t matter if the overall form is even tolerable without pulling your hair out the third or fourth time you hear the same measure again) with normatively sexual imagery to force as many eyes as possible. The YouTuber Tom Scott discussed a couple of years ago the possibility that shorter-form video would eclipse the kind of mid-to-long-form content he creates, and what intrigued me is that he did not make any mention of the short forms that had already taken that very goal on as their own. What has exceeded my own expectations is the way in which short video clips have not only reshaped musical products in their own image, but reshaped the entire music industry in their own image: think of how people like Adele and Florence Welch have prominently lamented the ways in which even their fully established careers have been squeezed into this straightjacket. It is thus no wonder that performers’ last-ditch effort is to pass out flyers at a bar: but what do we do with music which is neither suited both to digitalized compression nor to guerilla spontaneity?

A convoluting problem is that even when concert-music (it is the best term I can come up with) performers and composers are fully confident, indeed hungry, for the ability to create, the possibility of a financial vote of confidence is eliminated by the unstable state of events. There is no confidence in a premiere, no one actually likes streaming, so funding a new commission is Simply Absurd, certainly in America where the very presence of tough times is considered a justification for eliminating even the most familiar and profitable things-that-make-life-worth-living, let alone those with niche audiences that were never able to turn money into more money in the first place. I have been speculating as to a way in which this type of work can employ online resources as a means of resilience, but short of becoming the very thing we became concert musicians to avoid, I have yet to find one.

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