Monday, June 27, 2022

Singing for Sectarians

I sang at a conference in Kansas last week, for CPIUSA.  Response was mixed.  From conference participants, my musical contributions were well-received.  Feedback from the wider public on social media to the fact that I was going to sing at this conference, to the extent that there was any, was mostly negative.

Times are very different now than they were when I was young, in many different respects.  But there is also consistency here, and this situation reminds me of my youth, so I'll start there.  And I do so not to be self-indulgent, but because my own trajectory is undoubtedly shared by countless others, if you change a few details.

My parents were (and are) politically progressive.  I went to a wonderfully alternative sort of elementary school, and a summer camp run by an anti-nuclear activist Unitarian minister.  And then Reagan came to power, threatening nuclear war with the Soviet Union.  By the age of twelve, I had found a loving community of like-minded kids -- fellow pubescent anti-nuclear hippies, basically.  And by the age of thirteen Reagan was enthusiastically developing big new nuclear missiles.

I devoured Helen Caldicott's critiques of the nuclear arms race, nuclear power, and the military-industrial complex.  Along the line in my teens I discovered the books of Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn.  I subscribed to Chomsky's regular periodical, Lies of Our Times, about the New York Times (which I read every day, so I knew what he was talking about).

Up to this point, the sociopolitical influences I had mainly been exposed to ran the gamut from the Reagan supporters and church-going Christians I was largely surrounded by, growing up in a conservative suburb of New York City, to the various ecumenically-oriented progressives, social democrats, socialists and left-leaning libertarians that populated the pages of most of the sorts of publications people like Zinn or Chomsky were involved with.

Still in my teens, I studied a bit of Marxist political economy in college and then dropped out, heading to Berkeley, California.  That's where I became more intimately acquainted with the more vanguardist-oriented elements of the left. who were often some of the most accessible adults a teenage leftist wandering the streets of Berkeley on any given day might find to talk to.  In particular, Trotskyists and Maoists. 

True to form, the Trotskyists spent most of their time on college campuses, having quite a bit of success with student branches, with a focus on popular education -- or indoctrination, depending on who you ask.  The Maoists' focus was more on the lumpen, a class which I fell into at the time, more or less.  I was mostly not homeless myself, but certainly spending most of my time hanging out on the streets.  

The Maoists put out a sizeable weekly paper, the Revolutionary Worker, which I read cover-to-cover every week.  I never joined the party, never myself becoming convinced that any kind of vanguardist party politics were the way forward, of whatever variety.  But I learned a lot from the pages of their newspaper, and even more from endless hours of discussion and debate with both Revolutionary Communist Party members, and especially with the many former members of the party I still meet everywhere I go.

At some point in my twenties, my critique of what some would call the sectarian left, by which we meant vanguardist socialist and communist parties, became more hardened.  Whether because of the times or because we were young, or both, me and many others who shared my orientation might be polite and even friendly in public when interacting with those we viewed as the paper-pushing elements of the left, but behind their backs, we'd smugly agree that they were brainwashed cult members, unlike us.

The academic left didn't hang out with the punks and hippies and assorted riffraff in Harvard Square, so we didn't have much of a chance to talk about them behind their backs, because we never talked with them.  We talked to the ones who talked to us, who we learned so much from, and then we called them cultists behind their backs.

But to the extent that I did make contact with those elements of the left that had been so formative for me as a young teen discovering radical ideas, the example set by Professor Howard Zinn was tremendous.

If you've read Zinn's books at all, you know why people love his writing -- he's a brilliant storyteller, bringing to life exciting historical events that so many of us had never heard about.  I had vague knowledge of a guy named Joe Hill, but I never really knew of the existence of the Industrial Workers of the World until I read Zinn's A People's History of the United States, for example.  But as a human being, he was also so loved by so many -- he was a kind, gentle, witty, thoughtful man, with an enveloping warmth about him.

And when he did leave the campuses and set foot in the off-campus world, he could occasionally be found giving a little talk at Revolution Books, the book store of the Revolutionary Communist Party, then very centrally located in Harvard Square.

Not only that, but he and some other like-minded college professors in Cambridge basically forced their students to go to Revolution Books, at least once a year.  As the half of society that has attended college may recall, you have to buy a lot of expensive, hardback textbooks every year for your classes.  These are often sold at the book store on the campus of your university, but sometimes a professor makes an arrangement with an off-campus book store instead, which is what Howard did at Revolution Books.

Whenever me and a certain bunch of young radicals in the Boston area heard about Zinn or Chomsky speaking for the public somewhere you could get in for free, we'd be there.  It's been so long, I can't remember if I actually posed questions to Howard or if he just answered my questions through his actions, but in any case, he was making his position clear.  

Did he know that the RCP were Maoists?  Did he notice the posters in the room that included not just Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Mao, but Stalin, too?  It was, at the time, the height of the AIDS crisis.  Did he know that the RCP considered homosexuality to be a manifestation of bourgeois culture?  Did he know his presence in that book store was causing a lot of impressionable young leftists to question what we might call our anti-sectarian sectarianism?  Or to put it another way, that his presence there was helping to legitimize this Maoist cult in the eyes of their potential recruits?

Of course, we knew that he did know about the RCP, obviously.  This was not some academic who got invited to speak at a book store, where he just found out when he got there who runs it.  He knew, and he was doing this on purpose.  He knew the RCP and he did not see eye to eye on lots of different things.  He knew that in a different time and place, he might have been fired from his university job and sent to the countryside to work in the fields, were the folks running this book store running the country.  But he spoke there anyway.  Or even because of this.

While I don't for a moment want to condescendingly suggest that vanguardism is just a phase some left-oriented youth go through, for some, it is, just as other political tendencies are.  While I might like to believe that as people grow up and learn about the world they will naturally drift more towards a libertarian socialist orientation like mine, in fact, political viewpoints evolve in all kinds of different directions.  Some teenage anarchists grow up to become Republicans.  Many kids raised by communists grow up to become anarchists.  Lots of social democrats used to be more militant when they were younger.  Other long-time believers in electoral politics become disenchanted and radicalized later in life.  

These things happen for all kinds of reasons.  In the meantime, given the political differences and similarities that exist in society, and on the left in particular, what do we do with what may indeed be some pretty stark divergences of opinion on all kinds of things?  Including, even, disagreements that may make some people feel threatened or "unsafe"?  (In the modern sense of the word, which has very little to do with actual physical safety most of the time.)

For me, although I found it very challenging at the time, Howard Zinn, by example, provided the answer to this question:  we communicate, openly and honestly, with civility and empathy, with anyone.

A bit later in life, in my late twenties, when I was starting to do a lot of songwriting and performing at small venues, I sent a song lyric I had written to Pete Seeger.  I had met him before at gatherings of the People's Music Network, and his mailing address was right there in the annual, wire-bound PMN member directory.  

To my surprise, Pete called me up.  He was still relatively young then, in his seventies, and clearly not retired.  He was in recruitment mode.  And I bring this up not to impress everyone with my phone call with Pete Seeger, but to tell you about his particular recruitment efforts.  

Knowing what most readers probably already know about Pete Seeger (you can look him up if you were born yesterday and never heard of the guy), we might expect him to call a young leftwing musician and encourage them to keep writing and performing, and invite them to sing at a lefty music festival.  But in addition to these things, Pete's focus in this phone call was to educate me about a group of people who lived all around us in there in the Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania region, but who most of us knew nothing about.  

There are actually a bunch of populations that fit this description, but Pete was calling to promote the Bruderhof, a socially conservative, German-speaking Christian community a lot like the Hamish, except the Bruderhof are institutionally politically radical, big supporters of Black liberation and Mumia Abu-Jamal, and they were at that time trying to make more connections on the left outside of their communities, which are all basically Christian communes, a bit reminiscent of the more well-organized of the hippie communes, but with the hippie parts being replaced by serving God and the people.

Pete was certainly not a believer in so many of the things the Bruderhof believe in.  It would be hard to know where to start, in terms of distinguishing them from each other.  Among the Bruderhof, men wear slacks and women wear dresses, and nobody wears shorts.  Married and unmarried women wear different-color dresses.  There is no acknowledgement of LGBTQ Bruderhof members.  The Bruderhof of course don't believe in abortion.  And on and on.  

But they believe in living simply, they believe in society being egalitarian, and they actively speak out against racism in American society.  Was Pete hoping a young leftist musician like me might join the Bruderhof and adopt their socially conservative value system?  No.  He was just trying to bring people together and facilitate good communication and good work on those values and campaigns we can all happily support.

In the years and decades that followed, I've played at a lot of different sorts of conferences and other events put on by a very wide variety of groups, whether apolitical, culturally-oriented groups, or political parties and organizations running the gamut -- generally liberals, socialists, communists, and anarchists of all descriptions.

I'm aware of fellow musicians, mostly ones a bit younger than me, who have had to agonize over whether they'll play a certain event organized by a certain group, or associate with a certain other performer.  I empathize with them deeply -- I could have been them, and probably almost was, except for the examples of the more inclusive left icons I was so impacted by.  Not just Howard and Pete, but many other people of their generation and lots of younger veterans of the 1960's struggles as well.

Howard Zinn may have been a libertarian socialist, but in his history writing this is not evident.  His writing is of great interest to anyone who is interested in the many social movements that have made up the hidden history of the US.  He had (and has) fans among all walks of life and political persuasions, especially on the liberal-left spectrum.  Further I'd suggest with no hard evidence that many conservatives who happen upon his books get radicalized by the time they finish one, and many more sectarian leftists who read his books become more nuanced and ecumenical in their political orientation after they read one.

If one's inbox can be believed, the same is true for some people who get exposed to my music.  Before this was ever clarified for me, though, I operated on this assumption, that getting exposed to a new audience is inherently a good thing.  Whatever the cons may be, they are vastly outweighed by the pros.  Communication is a good thing, and whether people are offended by my music or radicalized by it, whether it encourages a black-and-white thinker to develop a more nuanced perspective, even if it may be seen as "legitimizing" a sectarian group that is organizing an event or running a book store or whatever, it is overall, overwhelmingly, a positive thing for me (or artists like me) to sing anywhere we have an audience.

Divisions on the left are nothing new, and these sorts of criticisms aren't new, either.  Neither is the ecumenical orientation of popular educators like Howard Zinn, Pete Seeger, and so many others.  

What is new, at least for me, in my lifetime, in terms of the parts of the world I'm familiar with, is the degree of sectarianism on all sides, and the amount of vitriol involved with it.

I don't want to make light of political differences.  These are potentially life and death issues.  Roe vs. Wade has just been overturned.  There are lots of "what if's" in terms of decisions made by activist groups over the past years and decades that could perhaps have changed this outcome.  It's legitimate to wonder, to agonize is natural.  Russia has invaded Ukraine, and whatever led up to this invasion, people and groups feel compelled to take sides.  There's a massive proxy war still going on Syria, and between the various factions many left groups around the world feel compelled to take a side.  Some support the Syrian government, others support Rojava.  None of these are small choices.

But then what do we do with this information?  If we follow the logic of exclusion, "safe spaces," and political purity -- the logic of callout culture, cancel culture, or whatever we want to call the mentality -- then we just isolate ourselves and help isolate others.  We would then say we can't play for this communist group because they like Putin and Xi.  We can't play for that Trotskyist group because one of the party leaders was involved with a scandal of some kind.  We can't play at that anarchist squat because one of the collective members has been accused of an unknown transgression, but the rest of the collective won't kick him out, so we're boycotting that place.  We can't play for that progressive group because even though they also support universal health care, rent control, and forgiving debts to students, they support continued US membership in NATO.

This mentality may, perhaps, make for safer spaces -- though I seriously doubt that.  What it mostly does is help foster the echo chamber, the social polarization effect that is already being monetized very profitably by the monolithic social media platforms that oversee all of our communication with each other these days, increasingly each year, for many years now, growing exponentially during the pandemic.  (If you haven't seen the Social Dilemma, it's on Netflix, and it's a must-watch.)

This kind of exclusionary mentality is rife in various sectors of society today, across the political spectrum.  It's very evident among many young anarchists, social democrats, communists, Democrats, and Republicans of every persuasion.  It can't lead anywhere good.  It could lead to civil war, of many possible varieties.

At the same time, the ecumenical, inclusive, empathetic impulse is unquestionably commonplace as well.  I would venture to suggest that this can be measured on my Spotify profile.  From abundant personal real-world experience (and to some extent you can see this illustrated in different ways on Spotify and other platforms as well), my song, "I'm A Better Anarchist Than You" is the song most often requested and appreciated by anarchists, and my song, "Vanguard" is the song most requested by members of vanguardist parties.  The former song makes fun of holier-than-thou anarcho-puritan types, and the latter makes fun of sectarianism of the more communist end of the left.  And these are the songs of most interest to anarchists and communists, respectively.  

Most people, including most people on the left, have a sense of humor, and are capable of self-reflection and humility.  But the silo-building cancel campaigners and critics can be very loud, and their voices are amplified tremendously by Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

To those who would, perhaps without even thinking about it more than a microsecond, shoot off the question, "don't you know they're Stalinists?", and to anyone out there who has been invited to speak or perform at a conference or event organized by a group that we might consider conspiratorial or sectarian or pro-Putin or pro-NATO or whatever other terrible thing, to all of you I say what I saw Howard Zinn and Pete Seeger say by example over and over again:  take the invitation.  Communicate.  Share your thoughts (and your music) and listen to the thoughts (and the music) of those around you.  If you disagree, if you get heckled, stay calm, don't be snarky, breath deeply, be humble, and keep communicating.

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Merrick Garland: Drop the Charges Against Julian Assange

I turned on the news yesterday and there was Attorney General Merrick Garland somewhere in Ukraine, talking about being part of the effort to prosecute war crimes charges against the Russian invaders.  Coincidentally, the night before seeing our chief prosecutor in Ukraine, I had finished reading Nils Melzer's recently-published book, the Trial of Julian Assange, which is an eloquent and devastating exposé of endemic political corruption deep within the state apparatuses of the US, the UK, Sweden, and other countries.

The unmistakable fact is that Merrick Garland's Justice Department is still actively pursuing the extradition of Julian Assange, in order for him to face charges under the Espionage Act and spend the rest of his life in prison.  This is the same Espionage Act that the Nixon administration considered using against Daniel Ellsberg, for leaking what became known as the Pentagon Papers, which were published in the New York Times and elsewhere.  

Unlike Ellsberg, Assange did not himself steal, hack, or otherwise make off with secret documents that exposed US war crimes.  He only facilitated the leaking of these documents, and the eventual publication of redacted parts of them by Wikileaks, the New York Times, and most of the rest of the world's media.  But unlike with Ellsberg, the government is going ahead with prosecuting someone -- a journalist and editor named Julian Assange -- under the Espionage Act.

The Espionage Act is one of these laws that is on the books but is not generally considered particularly useful by prosecutors because the law is so blatantly an outrageous, draconian relic of the Red Scare, an example of the most authoritarian responses to the militant labor movement of the post-World War 1 period.  Enforcing the Espionage Act makes a complete mockery of all of the most fundamental democratic institutions.  It's obviously in total conflict with the First Amendment and many other elements of the Bill of Rights.  The possibility that other journalists who expose war crimes might go to prison for the rest of their lives for violating the Espionage Act is a terrifying prospect.  But Garland's prosecution of a journalist for exposing war crimes under the Espionage Act continues.

While Garland makes plans to help prosecute war crimes committed by Russian soldiers, the war crimes committed by US forces in Bagram, Kama Ado, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Fallujah, Haditha, Baghdad, and on and on and on, go almost entirely unprosecuted and unpunished, and generally unacknowledged, except when the media spotlight is temporarily impossible to ignore, and a few crocodile tears must be shed to maintain appearances.  But even while occasional noises are made by officials to half-heartedly acknowledge some of the shortcomings of the US military invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, the person most responsible for bringing the knowledge of these shortcomings to the global public is being prosecuted under the Espionage Act of 1917.

As far as I can surmise, the significant difference between 1971 and 2022 is Daniel Ellsberg had a very large national and global antiwar movement supporting him, and Julian Assange does not have such a movement behind him.  He has many, many supporters, to be sure, despite all the massive deluge of propaganda actively put out by the US, UK, Swedish, and, since a change in administration in Ecuador, by the Ecuadorians as well, to delegitimize and vilify Assange.  But the anti-imperialist movement that existed in Ellsberg's day is absent today in the countries where it would be needed for Assange, such as in the UK and US.

Listening to the loud voices in the media constantly focusing on the war crimes of one particular nation -- Russia -- while consistently dismissing those committed by the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, the fact that the world's most well-known exposer of US war crimes is in prison, silenced by the British authorities, makes this a silent scream if ever there was one.

In a maximum-security prison on the outskirts of London, built for what they call terrorists, barely allowed any visitors, cut off from communication with the outside world, while being tortured through solitary confinement, isolation, deprivation and degradation of all kinds.  You and I have not heard Julian Assange's actual voice for years.  Almost no one has.  

Most people who attempt to visit him in prison are turned away, including members of parliament.  Whatever we know about Julian's condition and his thoughts on anything can only be transmitted through Julian's wife, Stella, who is able to talk to him regularly, but his ability to follow his own legal case, let alone global events, is made impossible by the British authorities, who are also clearly trying to drive him completely mad, in addition to silencing him, in the true tradition of authoritarian regimes everywhere.

The caging and silencing of Julian Assange today, and for years now, from his involuntary confinement in the Ecuadorian embassy to his abduction and imprisonment at Belmarsh, the inability of Julian to communicate with the outside world, makes the brief conversation I had with him a decade ago seem that much more precious and rare.

I had written a song about Chelsea Manning's heroic whistle-blowing on US war crimes in Iraq.  ("Song for Bradley Manning" as it was originally recorded and released -- later with the vocal track re-recorded and the song re-released as "Song for Chelsea Manning.")  Folks at Wikileaks were putting out an album of songs related to whistle-blowing, and I got an email from the people in charge of the album project, followed soon after by a phone call from Julian.

Julian mainly wanted to talk about Chelsea Manning, how important her whistle-blowing was, how good it is that artists write songs about her and get the word out in whatever ways possible.  I believe he was calling each of the artists on the album to thank them, basically.  

As for me, I wanted to take the opportunity of having Julian Assange on the phone with me to thank him for all of his work, which I assured him was very threatening to the powers-that-be.  He of course well knew this, but deflected my compliments, as people often do with compliments generally.  

I also wanted to make sure he knew how much he was loved and appreciated, in the face of the onslaught of negative publicity he was receiving in the wake of a police report being filed by two women in Sweden.  It was abundantly obvious that whatever went on between Julian and his hosts in Sweden, the police report was being weaponized in the fullest way possible by governments and corporate media outlets all over the world who hated Assange for exposing their dirty laundry, and he had exposed a hell of a lot of it.  

It was equally obvious that many people on the left, including many people I knew, were apt to assume the worst, and also were somehow unable to distinguish between allegations of sexual misconduct between two people, and governments that wanted to kill or imprison a man for exposing war crimes.  For many people, once the sexual allegations were floating around, Julian was a hot potato, too hot to touch, war crimes exposures or not.

Around a couple weeks after our phone conversation came the news that he had received asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy, fearing extradition to the US.  

For years it was the case that Julian had tepid levels of support on so much of the left, particularly in the US and Sweden, as the Swedish authorities have intentionally dragged on legal proceedings purely in order to assist British authorities in keeping Julian locked up in London under a plainly preposterous legal pretense, while simultaneously managing to make sure that any time he's in the news, the words "sexual misconduct" or worse will be associated with his name.  

The demonstrations I attended outside the Ecuadorian embassy in London during these years were embarrassingly small.  At least some of the global press still took him seriously and interviewed him and his advocates regularly (thank you, Amy Goodman), but by and large he was either ignored or ridiculed, in many cases by journalists writing for the same publications that had worked with Wikileaks to expose US war crimes.  Since his access to a phone and the internet was cut off in the embassy, after there was a change in administration in Ecuador, no more interviews with Julian.

Things have changed in recent years, with what is unmistakably a significant upsurge in support for Assange, and recognition of the importance of his case, and the implications of his persecution for the freedom of the press in the US, the UK, and Sweden, along with the rest of the world.  It turned out that his fear of being extradited to the US and facing life in prison was fully accurate, and since the extradition proceedings and his imprisonment at Belmarsh, the ever more obvious injustice here is becoming too obvious to ignore for increasing numbers of individuals and organizations.

Whether the increasingly vocal support of mainly European political blocks, newspaper editors, organizations representing journalists, doctors, lawyers, artists, and many other professions, or human rights groups like Amnesty International might have any impact on the ongoing persecution and caging of this man, there is one person who could, with the swoop of a pen, release Julian from what is now over a decade of some form of intentionally cruel confinement.  That is Attorney General Merrick Garland.

The Obama administration persecuted more whistle-blowers than ever before, but in the end the president at least pardoned Chelsea Manning, so she wouldn't have to serve the rest of her 35-year prison sentence, and he opted not to try to prosecute anyone under 1917's Espionage Act.  But as with so many other initiatives of the Trump administration, we are not seeing Biden or his chief prosecutor change course here.

If Merrick Garland actually believes in the rule of law, as he claims he does, then while he is prosecuting war crimes committed in Ukraine, he should drop the charges against this man who exposed war crimes committed in Iraq and Afghanistan by the United States, Julian Assange.  Then he should prosecute US war criminals, and Israeli and Saudi ones as well, while he's at it.  And he should renounce future use of the Espionage Act to persecute journalists for doing what we all need journalists to continue to do:  hold the powerful to account, by shining a light on the crimes and corruption they are trying to hide.

Saturday, June 11, 2022

Breaking Even in the Gig Economy: We're All Crust Punks Now

Things change fast in societies dominated by the market economy.  When a place is growing, it grows fast.  When a place is decaying, it decays fast, too.  It's the same with professions of all sorts.

An average gallon of gas in the US now costs over $5, and the cost of food has risen dramatically as well.  Plane tickets, as well as the fees charged by rental car agencies in much of the world, have doubled or tripled in price.  The cost of housing -- whether buying or renting -- has risen at a far higher rate than anything.  These are all regular stories in the news.

The impact of these more recent developments on the cost of traveling in particular seem to warrant a little revisit to the topic of the current state of the gig economy, for that classic little subset of the gig economy known as touring performers.  It occurred to me how much things have changed at this point when I realized, without having consciously made any decisions, that my orientation towards booking the next tour had changed dramatically from what it was even just a few years ago.  

The new business plan, such as it is, is breaking even.  Given that my situation is very relevant to the situation other artists are in currently, I thought maybe I'd help unpack some of those snippets you might have heard on NPR, such as an interview I heard recently with a member of a band that is thinking about canceling some festival gigs because of the rise in the cost of gasoline.

Some folks are doing just fine, to be sure.  The real estate companies and the banks that own them.  The property management companies and the banks that own them, they're doing better than ever.  Big Tech is doing very, very well.

Similarly with music acts that are able to scale up, or charge more, or otherwise adapt to the new circumstances.  If an artist is popular enough, their touring operation may be able to triple the ticket price for the show at the 1,500-seat venue that's going to sell out anyway, for example, in order to deal with the rising expenses.  Artists and audiences may be unhappy with the ticket prices, but not as unhappy as the artists that can't afford to pack those venues anymore in the new economy, and thus have to stop touring with a band altogether.

And then there's the more subterranean, or maybe street-level arts and music economy, the ever-elusive Greenwich Village-in-the-60's kind of scene, the sort that tends to vanish almost as soon as its existence is acknowledged by the corporate establishment, which then systematically destroys it by trying to profit off of it.  

Scenes like Greenwich Village in the 60's, or Portland, Oregon 15 years ago, can only exist in a place where the cost of living is low.  It's sad to see the surprise on the faces of people who moved to Portland more recently, who had no idea that so many of the now comparatively sterile streets around the city full of upscale establishments were once lined with funky little cafes, from which acoustic music could be heard, often old-time fiddle music, which was all the rage around here for years.  And when I say acoustic, I mean totally unamplified, in so many cases.  You'll find very little of this kind of thing in Portland today.

The ongoing gentrification of Portland and so many other cities notwithstanding, if you look for the underbelly of the traveling performer gig economy you'll find people who are traveling like bees to flowering plants, seeking out those diminishing spaces where there is still a more or less thriving scene involving small independent cafes and other such venues for small acts to perform for small audiences.

When we're talking about a few dozen people in a space that fits a few dozen people at the maximum, this is a fragile ecosystem, easily destroyed by capitalism.  These spaces really only tend to thrive, or even exist, in areas where those running the venue aren't having to spend most of their time and effort figuring out how to shell out another trove of monthly earnings to the landlord.  Venues that have to come up with enough money to buy a new car every month have other priorities, and can't even think about offering their space to host your weekly folk club, because they no longer have that function room upstairs from the cafe anymore anyway.

When we hear about developments like inflation and the particularly dramatic rise in the costs of food, gas, and anything else associated with eating or traveling, the story can be just a story.  But if we connect the story to broader trends, the picture it paints is bleak.  For example, if we look beneath the hood here, with the example of a band that is thinking about canceling a festival gig a couple hundred miles away because of the rise in the cost of gasoline.  The first thing that comes to my mind, and presumably others, is just how marginal were the economics of doing this gig in the first place, that the rise in the cost of gas makes or breaks whether you can do the gig at all?

This band may cancel some of their gigs, and of course many others just won't book them in the first place.  Some will find ways to make more money from other sources, in order to afford the new expenses.  Others will find ways of cutting costs further than they already probably have, such as in this case by packing the band and the instruments into a Greyhound bus instead of a van.

What won't generally be mentioned in a 3-minute news story, of course, are what similar situations the band faced prior to the $5 gallon one.  What costs did they likely cut in the past, in order to make past tours possible?  When did they reach the stage where this kind of rise in the cost of touring would make or break whether they could tour at all?

Of course the answer will be different for everyone.  There are always musicians just trying to get started with some kind of touring, just barely squeaking by, others who are packing stadiums, and lots at every level in between.  But in terms of fundamental changes in earnings and expenses for any traveling performers attempting to subsist in that most precarious of scenes characterized by the small, independent venue, the back story here can be summarized, or at least I'll give it a stab.

The 1990's were very far from a golden age for artists.  But rent in most of the US was still relatively low, small independent venues were relatively plentiful, student groups at colleges and universities were still well-funded and spending a lot of their money on visiting performers and speakers, and without getting any commercial airplay, with no involvement with the record industry as such, someone could travel, do shows, and sell independently-produced CDs at $10 or $15 a pop.

There were, of course, plenty of people involved with performing who weren't making a living at it.  Sometimes this was more or less by choice, or because people were more or less allergic to money.  I knew lots of punks who just couldn't bear charging for their CDs, or if they did, they'd sell them for barely more than the cost of production, like a few dollars.  Giving away their CDs, or refusing to sell them for more than a few dollars, they also couldn't afford to maintain a car with a full tank, but they preferred to hop freight trains anyway. 

Equally, lots of others were more realistic about these things, and would manage to charge for their CD sales.  Back then, regardless of how much you might have made from ticket sales or anything else related to playing gigs, if you had a good crowd, they'd buy CDs, and if you sold dozens of CDs in an evening you'd make substantial amounts of money, like enough to make a decent living.

In the 2000's, with the rise of MP3's and music piracy (as downloading an MP3 you didn't pay for yourself was coming to be called), the major record labels and the artists on them suffered massive financial blows.  The music industry began its rapid collapse in this period, shrinking down to a fifth of what it had been.

I haven't seen a clear breakdown of the stats on this one, but I know that for me, and I think for lots of other independent artists, the first decade of this century CD sales were still great.  My impression was that music piracy was mainly a problem for the really famous artists.  For independent artists it was much less likely than anyone would bother to make all our music available for free download somewhere on the web that most people would feel comfortable going and downloading files.

More of a problem during this period was the inexorable rise in the cost of housing in more and more cities, and the precipitous decline in small independent venues that went along with that phenomenon, especially in the more expensive cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and New York, accompanied by the rapid decline in student groups with budgets, in the US at least.

In the 2010's, the collapse that the big record labels and the rock stars had dealt with in the previous decade caught up with independent artists, brought on largely by the phenomenon of free, legal music streaming platforms, specifically Spotify, which came to dominate the music streaming landscape globally.  Suddenly, for me and many other artists who already had all our catalogs signed up for streaming on what had been a bunch of different paid streaming platforms, the rug was pulled from beneath our feet.  If you had more of a youth following it was a faster and more devastating process.

This sudden, massive loss of income was accompanied by a further rise in the cost of housing and a further loss of small venues.  For some of the specific stats I recommend the book, The Death of the Artist, by William Deresiewicz, which came out near the beginning of the pandemic.  But basically, the ranks of independent artists shrank.  Folks found other jobs, or more fully transitioned to other forms of work.  Those who stayed in the game of playing in small venues either had to have an inheritance or some other form of income like that, or they developed an income stream from getting a day job, or by crowdsourcing the income online, whether by crowdfunding for individual recording projects, or crowdfunding in order to basically subsidize the life of the artist -- including the touring.  Touring, in the post-merch era, combined with the problems associated with the housing crisis and the independent venue crisis, was more and more precarious.

By no coincidence, this period of industrial collapse associated with the rise of Spotify's free tier also saw the rise of crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Patreon.  Those who hadn't moved on to other pursuits were still trying to make records, but in the absence of being able to fund the costs of renting a studio and hiring musicians and otherwise putting out a recording by selling CDs, they were raising the money through crowdfunding.  Or trying to, and failing, far more often than not, and then drastically cutting back on the vision of a given recording, or other such project.  Let's skip the bass and drums and the studio, and just record with two guitars in our bedroom.  

Enter the 2020's.  If, like the relatively successful artists who survived the 2010's -- and I'm still talking about artists playing in small venues for small audiences here -- you were living a largely crowdsourced existence by the time the pandemic hit, however it was that you rode that one out, now that restrictions in most countries are lifting and gigs are happening again, you are now facing a situation where not only are lots of the venues you used to play in permanently closed, but the cost of travel has gone through the roof.

I can already imagine how the corporate press is going to try to spin this situation.  When we were busy losing half of our income due to free, legalized streaming platforms doing their legal thing, we were told that now the money was in touring.  What a strange way to reframe the situation -- you've lost half of your income, so let's just focus on the other half that you haven't lost, and talk about the money being there.  But that's what they did.  

Then they started telling us that vinyl was all the rage.  I was far from the only idiot who took the bait, and put out a vinyl record, many hundreds of copies of which are still weighing down shelves in the closet of our bedroom.  What you'd only figure out if you looked into it more deeply than I had done is vinyl was only outselling other forms of physical recordings comparatively speaking -- basically nothing was selling, including vinyl.

Now they'll be encouraging online touring, busking in the metaverse, since driving and flying and doing physical gigs is bad for the environment and also unaffordable.  Unaffordable unless you've achieved a certain degree of success, playing bigger venues for more money, or if the alternate streams of income you had to pursue when the music industry began its collapse were sufficient to include the new costs involved with touring.

In my own case, the last tour, like the next one, will be some of the few I've done over the decades without either using my own vehicle or renting a car.  I always used to say carrying around a guitar and two suitcases was just too much to lug around on buses and trains.  I long ago changed that policy when it came to various places, like Norway.  But now it's the new policy everywhere.  

And not just because of the cost of renting a car, but because I no longer need to travel with two suitcases.  One of them was always for merch.  In the old days, I needed to do mail drops to fill that second suitcase periodically, on the longer tours.  But now, with no merch to bother with, one carryon will do.

There was a time where I regularly paid for hotels, bought plane tickets for friends, and was in the priority lane at all the airports, which is what happens when you fly more than a hundred thousand miles a year on the same airline.  But I long ago since cultivated a network of friends with guest rooms, to avoid the hotel expense when touring.

My newest method of downsizing the touring operation is to abandon the guitar altogether for road purposes, and travel with a bouzouki, which is decidedly smaller and lighter than my guitar is, and far less of a problem for my back to be walking around everywhere, dragging my carryon suitcase behind me.

A few years ago I wouldn't have really given it much thought, but being in a situation where touring is only possible if someone else buys my plane ticket, and then when I reach my destination, I travel by bus or train to gigs because cars are too expensive, and stay with friends because hotels are out of the question, what's the next cost-cutting measure that might be taken, to keep this touring hobby going?

Unlike rental cars and plane tickets, train tickets in many places are subsidized by governments, and they don't just triple the prices when the market apparently dictates they should.  So maybe they won't become as unaffordable as other things have become.  

If they do, though, perhaps it'll be time to downsize the bouzouki to a mandola and downsize the carryon suitcase to a napsack, and learn to hop the freights with the crust.  Though I still know too many people with guest rooms to need to sleep outside for too many nights, and thus may never quite achieve crust punk status, I can aspire.

Linda Wiener's Echo

When people die, they leave behind many different kinds of echoes. There were a lot of people back in the 1960's like Ken Kesey who, for...