People decrying the decline in funds flowing towards music and art in general (and thus an almost complete halt in the subsequent trickle towards the underground – trickle-down only ever works in times of extreme affluence), seems to conveniently forget that what could be termed “the golden age of the musician” actually did not last for very long.
Starting around the 1950’s, for a period of around 5 decades, life was good for (at least some) musicians, with money flowing in their industry – in larger and larger extent also flowing down to the actual artists, until suddenly one day it did not flow anymore, and the plight of the musician went back to being exactly as it had been for most of the rest of history: you either became a travelling performer, or you suffered the fate of many a talented artist: starvation, or finding another trade to earn your living from.
Or – you could find a wealthy patron, willing to pay you for your art.
In many European languages, the role of patron of the arts points back towards the old Roman empire, specifically Gaius Maecenas (hence the word Maecen), who is more or less credited with “inventing” the role of the rich patron.
Now, before being smitten with this setup and it’s (probably) impeccable logic, one does well to remember a few things about this more captialistic way of approaching the arts. First of all – wealthy support always comes at a price.
In Gaius Maecenas case, the Wikipedia article about him states “His patronage was exercised, not from vanity or a mere dilettante love of letters, but with a view to the higher interest of the state. He recognized in the genius of the poets of that time not only the truest ornament of the court, but the power of reconciling men’s minds to the new order of things, and of investing the actual state of affairs with an ideal glory and majesty.“. (Which kinda reads like a raison d’etre for Soviet state-sponsored art in the decades after the revolution – but I digress).
Also, the commoditization of music as a product carries its own downside, inasmuch as you’re only a viable product as a musician, as long as what you are creating can make a sufficient amount of sales (or incite sufficient support for the state or whatever purpose the backers have for backing you in the first place). For all the glory and proclaimed independence of the rock star – when all is said and done, in the eyes of the funders, he or she is nothing more than a glorified temp-worker, easily replaceable and easily replaced.
Well, all this came to a somewhat abrupt end with the coming of the digital, online age. Suddenly, information (and music) became available at your fingertips, distribution channels became disrupted and replaced by something that worked much better, faster and easier (at least from a distribution point of view). Napster became synonymous with all this new evil – but in essence, Napster was a symptom more than it was the cause, and had the music industry seen the way they too could benefit (and profit) from these developments at a much earlier stage, I’m certain things would look quite different now.
Instead, we’re now in a situation, where a) new musicians’ chance of actually making a decent living off their art is rather miniscule and b) the people who made their living from different supportive roles during the abovementioned “golden age” (like record company staff and owners, managers, distributors, bookers, producers, DJs etc.) are still to a much greater extent than the musicians, able to make a decent living.
But, the digital age brings its own set of benefits too. When musicians suddenly find themselves with access to the world right at their fingertips, their ability to fund their art in other, perhaps more economically democratic ways become explodingly larger. And in my view, the subject of crowdfunding has not nearly been exchausted, is in fact very much in its infancy. And where else but music do you find these fiercely loyal groups of people (aka the fans). The whole setup of rock music seems particularly well-suited for crowdfunding in as far as you have a product that can relatively easily be mass-produced (crowdfunding a painting or a sculpture is perhaps somewhat more difficult). And even more so when regarding the underground – there is after all a much larger feel of independence and resistance towards the established music-industry among the more “brotherhood-like” fans and artists of the un-established.
And with the emergence of independent sales- and streaming-platforms like Bandcamp, it has become remarkably easier for both bands and independent labels to reach the fans. So, from an underground-perspective, there seems at least to be some foundation for hope, with regards to the ability of non-mainstream, commercially non-viable art to survive and thrive, and for the actual fans to become active, co-operative patrons of the artists they love, in the process securing the continued artistic output of those.
And, then enters the Roadburn Festival with yet another amazing new initiative, which actually could end up being equally revolutionizing for small and medium-sized artists. As a first for this year’s festival, Roadburn have actually commissioned two pieces of original music from two diverse and influential groups of artists, to be premiered during the festival of course.
In its (music-industrial) essence, what Walter Hoeijmakers and company have done, is not much different from what we’ve seen earlier from those huge pop-artist, being commissioned to write music for ads for their sponsors and such. There is a but, though, and this is both where the waters separate between two very different approaches to music, and where this can have a hugely positive effect on the alternative music-scene(s).
The but is three-fold.
1) Instead of imposing commercial reasons and restrictions for the commissioned work’s existence, this initiative seems to stem from exactly the same boundary-shattering love of musical variety and expansion that fuels the Roadburn Festival.
2) Instead of focusing on the market-penetration of the artists chosen for commissioned work (which would be the market-centered way of doing things), there seems to have been more of a sense of experimental playfulness involved in chosing the artists for this experiment.
3) Instead of chosing the perhaps more “secure” path of chosing a single artists/group to create the commissioned works, they have chosen to instead demand co-operative work from 2 respectively 4 artists – granted, artists that are part of the same geographically close scene, and have previously exhibited the ability and interest in co-operation, but still it’s more of a “going out on a limb” choice.
Now, for obvious reasons, it’s still quite impossible to foretell anything about the outcome of this experiment. But like many other ideas developing in the pressure-cooker of minds that seems to be what Roadburn also is, it will almost certainly propagate and manifest itself throughout the world of smaller, alternative music festivals, and this could very well mean some kind of resurgence of better conditions for the higher-profiled artists of the underground – which again (much more than the existence of huge megastars) means higher quality, more interest, better conditions for the local underground-scenes overall also.
And as such, it is not simply a very interesting experiment, it is also hugely fascinating and it will be most exciting to follow how this will hopefully spread like rings in the water.
(Again, I could be completely wrong, and all this will bring will be a couple of phenomenal and inspiring performances in Tilburg this coming April – which of course is no bad thing at all).
Also: read a great article by Noisey about this whole experiment