What is Selling Out These Days?

As I creep slowly up the music business food chain and have thought about the state of the music business, I have had to think about what the term selling out means.  I grew up when the music business was healthy.  I also grew up following the punk and independent music scene quite closely.  There were people who “sold out” and who “didn’t sell out”.  It meant various things to various people, and was never clearly defined, but it was more so than today.  Lou Reed made a Honda commercial, but I don’t think anyone could ever accuse him of selling out.  Meanwhile a band like Fugazi never even allowed themselves to be interviewed in magazines that had booze or tobacco ads.  Johnny Rotten, John Lydon, did a butter ad a couple years ago, but he claimed this was only to get Public Image Ltd, a very avant garde band, back to making records.  Sometimes things stick to artists and sometimes they don’t.   Really I think you have to measure someone’s whole career and determine if they have artistic integrity.

Back in the renaissance,  in Italy, there was a rich and powerful family named the Medici family.  They funded the arts heavily.  They were patrons of such artists as Michaelangelo.   Basically in one way or another artists need their Medici family.  It is preferable if this is done through funding through the general public, as lots of small patrons cannot really force an artist to compromise their vision. 

However, what do you do in an age when no one is buying records the way they once were?  Art costs money to make.  Bills still need to be paid. 

You see more and more artists making corporate partnerships in order to survive.  More and more artists also appear in commercials as mainstream radio has been neutered almost completely.   This makes me uncomfortable because large corporations often act unethically.  Part of the purpose of art is to speak truth to power.  It becomes harder to do, though it is not impossible, if an artist is funded by that power.  No one will accuse John Lydon anytime soon of biting his tongue.  But he was well established by the time he made a commercial.  I do think that the relationship between corporations and artists is corrupting,  if not to every artist, then at least in the industry overall.  If it is hard to pinpoint exactly who has been corrupted,  it does seem like there is less art speaking truth to power than during the 60’s or the punk rock era. 

I don’t have the answer to these questions.  I just think it is worth thinking about.  I do think that it is important that individuals support artists with their own money through buying of records, supporting radio stations that don’t have corporate playlists, etc.  In a capitalist society you vote with your money.  If you want art that means something you need to be willing to pay for it.  I am still a person that buys almost all of my records, because I view it as investing in an art that means something to me.  Music has, if not literally saved my life, definitely kept me sane.  I want there to continue to be artists that aren’t afraid to speak their mind and to expose their soul. 

Mother Night

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I’ve been thinking about my gig at the Redneck Country Club which I mentioned in a previous post called A Late Encounter With the Idiot.  Basically if you haven’t read that, or don’t have time to read it, I played a gig at a club owned by conservative talk show host Michael Berry.  It got me thinking the long ways around about Kurt Vonnegut’s extremely powerful Mother Night.  Both the novel and the movie version, unlike most movies of Vonnegut’s work, are worth checking out.  

Mother Night is the story of an American, Howard Campbell Jr., and his role as a Nazi propagandist.  Campbell meets a member of the U.S. War Department before the beginning of World War II and is asked to work as a double agent.  Campbell agrees and as his cover he becomes a radio host that tries to persuade Americans over to the Nazi’s cause.  Campbell’s decision to take on this role slowly cause his life to crumble around him.  

I first found out about Mother Night by catching the movie version, starring Nick Nolte, on TV one night.  I didn’t know what it was, but it was like watching a car crash in slow motion as things descend further and further into despair.  Unlike most Vonnegut works this one has very little humor, aside from some things like the character of The Black Fuhrer. (pictured above)  However, this is a compelling story because it asks many relevant moral questions for our times.  

As one thinks about Glen Beck, Michael Berry, Rush Limbaugh, one cannot help but ask if these people are true believers or if they are at least partially playing a role for whatever reason.  There are many things that make one think that at least Rush is partly playing a role.  However, it matters not.  The moral of Mother Night, which is actually given to the reader in the introduction to the book is:  “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

A Late Encounter With the Idiot

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I’ve seen horrors… horrors that you’ve seen. But you have no right to call me a murderer. You have a right to kill me. You have a right to do that… but you have no right to judge me. It’s impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror… Horror has a face… and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies! I remember when I was with Special Forces… seems a thousand centuries ago. We went into a camp to inoculate some children. We left the camp after we had inoculated the children for polio, and this old man came running after us and he was crying. He couldn’t see. We went back there, and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile. A pile of little arms. And I remember… I… I… I cried, I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out; I didn’t know what I wanted to do! And I want to remember it. I never want to forget it… I never want to forget. And then I realized… like I was shot… like I was shot with a diamond… a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought, my God… the genius of that! The genius! The will to do that! Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they were stronger than we, because they could stand that these were not monsters, these were men… trained cadres. These men who fought with their hearts, who had families, who had children, who were filled with love… but they had the strength… the strength… to do that. If I had ten divisions of those men, our troubles here would be over very quickly. You have to have men who are moral… and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling… without passion… without judgment… without judgment! Because it’s judgment that defeats us.

- Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now

The reason I am starting with the above quote will become clear later.  Last night I had the extreme displeasure of playing The Redneck Country Club in Stafford, Texas.  I want to make it clear this was not because of its patrons or staff, as the staff were very kind to me and the crowd was a mixture of people, but because of the owner:  conservative radio talk show host Michael Berry.  

I also believe as entertainers that one should play for any audience as long as one does not rubber stamp an audience’s worst tendencies or ignorant political positions.  There were people in the crowd last night that I know and who I am sure do not share Berry’s political views.  However, even the people that do, it is possible that art may, at its best, change them, and at its worst relieve them of the daily pain of being a human being for a few hours.  We can’t know their life experience and how they arrived at such closed minded political positions.  Possibly they are even kind to people in their real lives, and are just fans of an idiot.  Unless you have committed a crime, or have the power to influence people, I try not to judge people other then based on my own individual experience with them.  My main distaste for playing the club was not only that it was owned by Michael Berry, but that it seemed to be a brand extension of his radio show.  I didn’t like playing a place where people might think that I agreed with his often disgusting and moronic political positions.  

I did not know quite what I was getting into last night.  I simply showed up like I would to any gig, not aware that Michael Berry owned the club, or not even completely aware of who Michael Berry was.  

During soundcheck I started to see signs that I was not in Kansan anymore.  (Although, being how conservative Kansas is, I possibly could have been in Kansas.)  First even if Berry wasn’t conservative, it is clear that he is a supreme egoist.  His venue was full of pictures of the man.  Now I’m not talking pictures of a club owner with famous musicians or whatever, as is often common in the club world.  I am talking about giant posters of Berry hocking his various products.  Also, when his radio show came on, the club decided to pump it into the place at concert volume.  Make no mistake, at every moment you were supposed to be aware that Michael Berry owned the club, and that this club was again part of the Michael Berry brand. 

Let me give those of you that don’t know who Michael Berry is a taste of his brand.  Throughout the club there were bumper stickers that said, I shit you not:

Micheal Berry
Country Fried – Southern Pride – On Your Side

‘Merica

This was all printed over a confederate flag.  Also, while listening to his show, which I couldn’t have avoided unless I put an ice pick in my ear, he kept referring to his audience as “white people”.  I should also note two other things.  When I walked into the club there was an exact replica of the General Lee from The Dukes of Hazard.  The other being that there were all kinds of dumbass slogans strung up around the bar like “The 2nd Amendment – The First Version of Homeland Security.”  

While I was at soundcheck a very in the know Houstonian messaged me and told me that I was, “playing the most racist club that I will ever play.”  

How did i justify playing such a place?  Trust me, i thought many times over about getting in my car and driving straight back to Austin.  However, I decided that one should experience everything once.  People that had bought tickets and were coming out were possibly coming out to see us and in no way supported Michael Berry, and even people that supported him may have some kind of artistic experience that might slightly alter the way that they view the world. (We do plenty of covers of black artists, one of our horn players is Mexican, and one of our horn players always wears a Rasta hat.)  I decided that if Michael Berry was going to be giving me money, I would use it to spend a day not working and writing about what a dumbass he was.  I also decided last night I would give some of the money to a charity that is in direct political opposition to something Michael Berry believes in.  

Now despite all of these troubling signs all around me, both literally and metaphorically, the staff was actually very kind to us.  Other than the clueless man that I saw wearing a Ted Cruz for President t-shirt, I have no way of knowing if these people were actually believing the bullshit that was around them, or were just Americans that were hard up for money and needed a job.  Even if they were died in the wool believers, I don’t believe that they would have been mean to anyone of a different race.  If the club had hired a group of black blues musicians I still believe they would have been treated kindly.  Often people that hate the “other” have enough cognitive dissonance going on in their brain to allow their hate to exist on some imaginary plane that effects their voting and what they talk about in private, but not their face to face behavior with other human beings.  Don’t get me wrong there is a certain percentage of these people that are just extremely hateful, but most of them are just hard up looking to blame someone else for their problems.  They are preyed upon by people like Berry to hate the “other” instead of focusing their anger on the corporations and leaders that are fucking them up the ass every day.  People like Berry rely on corporations to sponsor his behavior.  

Now this is where things get strange.  While spending time in my car, to avoid spending any more time in this bar than I had to, I did some research on Michael Berry.  Apparently he has an Indian wife and two black sons.  Now this is someone that is often anti-immigrant and who takes shots at minorities on his radio show.  How do you square the two things?  The first being that Michael Berry, if he is a true believer, is really attacking not minorities because he is an across the board racist, but because he must be able to view them in different categories.  There are the ones that are American and upstanding, and the ones that are destroying the America that he loves.  Basically he dislikes the poor ones.  There is no greater sin in America then being poor.  If he is not an true believer then he is simply gaming his audience because being a conservative talk show host is highly lucrative.  I am unwilling to guess what goes on inside Berry’s head, but being that his bar was filled with posters of himself hocking products…you get the idea…

And this is where the Kurtz quote comes into play.  Although I believe that there is a certain amount of gaming going on with his audience, I also believe that he is someone that loves his family and in some way thinks he is doing good things for the community.  Much like Kurtz, but in a much stupider way, he is embracing the evil in the world because it allows him to provide for his family and because he believes at least in part that what he is doing is will help “the cause”.  

I am not going to go into all of the idiotic things that Berry has said on his radio show.  A quick google search will supply you with a wealth of information.  I would just like to mention a few things based on last night.  (A quick search will bring up things like, although he apologized for it and still wished it had never been built, he said the the mosque built near Ground Zero after 911 should be blown up. “I hope that someone blows it up.”)  Here is some more dumbass comments from when he was a City Councilman!:

http://watchingthewatchers.org/news/1194/houston-councilman-stop-apologizing

When Berry showed up he looked like the stereotypical shock jock.  In fact, something about him reminded me of Jeff Bridges at the beginning of the movie The Fisher King.  He was constantly walking around with a cigar in his mouth just like good old Rush.  He introduced the band on stage.  In order to avoid looking like I supported him, I came out on stage late so that I didn’t have to shake his hand.  In private I would be happy to meet with anyone, even someone that has wildly different views than me.  I have many conservative friends.  I just didn’t want to look buddy buddy with someone in a public way that could be misconstrued.  

His introduction was long winded as this man clearly loves to hear himself talk.  I guess anyone that creates a bar and puts pictures of himself everywhere is going to want to be the center of attention.  The speech was filled with the kind of the middle of the road unthinking patriotism that fills so much of our public discourse.  Support the troops, support traditional marriage, love of the tribe, etc.  He clearly had a giant hard on for the troops because he called anyone that served to the front of the stage for a giant round of applause.  On the front of it this may seem like a nice gesture.   But I believe this is the kind of feel good nonsense that allows people to feel good about themselves while supporting politicians that would gladly send the troops into harms way to be killed or mutilated.  Let’s applaud the troops when they come home all fucked up from the war front, but let’s not actually talk about peace and understanding and try to make sure that they never go on another mission of imperial conquest again.  Anyone can say let’s support the troops now that they have PTSD and get a big round of applause.  It takes a much bigger person so say that we have started too many wars and that these poor troops should have never been sent anywhere in the first place.  The best way to support the troops isn’t to applaud them while you are drinking and smoking a cigar, but to try to get a real conversation going about about peace, so that these poor men and women never have to come home mangled and full of trauma, if they come home at all.  An empty gesture by a lesser mind.  In fact, clapping while drunk, is one of the easiest and least committal things a human being can do.  He was also happy to talk about loving your wife, traditional marriage, while never bringing up that maybe there are people that aren’t married or that are gay that love who they are with with the truest commitment.  He also kept going on about how great the cops were.  This is at a time when our justice system is completely corrupt and our cops more and more look like they are soldiers in occupied territory.  There was also the usual conservative shout out to small business owners.  (Trust me, I have worked for small businesses and there ain’t nothing that separates the leaders of those fine organizations from the general public.  I knew a small business owner that was such a drunk, that after he was busted for a DUI and had a breathalyzer installed in his car, he started driving the company vehicles to the bar.)  It wasn’t so much that he was bringing his radio personality into the bar, saying the stupid and often ignorant shit he says on the air, but that he was going for easy soft applause lines that don’t really mean anything if you think about them, and actually muddy the waters if you really think about them.  I never once heard him make a plea for humanity, peace, empathy, or understanding.  It is easy to support your tribe.  We need people of influence that are going to go outside of tribal mentality.  

Michael Berry couldn’t quit lapping up attention all night.  He came out on stage, or came to the side of it where the audience could see him, more times then I wished.  Every time he did, I kept wishing to make myself smaller, unseen, but there I was, in a compromised position, wondering what fucking gods I had offended to end up there.  

So my senses were destroyed by the end of the night.  I had to sit around with idiotic slogans plastered around me.  I had to listen to dumbass gibberish.  One more thing, I don’t get this whole championing of redneck culture, as I didn’t grow up in the South.  I am part Irish.  To me claiming that you are proud to be a redneck would be like an Irishman claiming that he is proud to be an alcoholic.  It is such a low bar.  

There also was reportedly someone from Duck Dynasty there.  In the words of Richard Pryor from Moving, it was like an, “asshole convention.”  

I’m still trying to make sense of last night.  Even though I was in hell, I was glad for the experience, to see what is going on out there is this strange and often frustrating country.  Even in a crowd that came out to a bar that was owned by Michael Berry, there were still decent and kind people.  We need to not do what Berry does and condemn people just for the way they look or what tribe they belong to.  

I must thank Michael Berry last of all.  Thanks Mikey, for paying me, so I could sit around this morning and write this.  Also thanks again for the money.  I look forward to giving some of it to a charity that works in opposition to your closed minded rhetoric.  

How to Sell Out

It seems that in the current music business and the arts in general it is very hard to make any kind or real money unless one dances with corporate America.  With the record business and radio in decline, even though pubic radio is becoming more and more viable for getting artists heard, one of the best ways for young artists to get their music heard is through commercials.  Many film directors also get their start in commercials. 

In the past, because record companies actually had money to promote artists that were not top tier moneymakers, and because the power of radio, it was seen as selling out if one sold their song to a commercial.  Artists like Bruce Springsteen still do not allow their music to appear in commercials.  I highly respect him for this, but let’s be honest, he has enough money that he doesn’t need to do that.  I also read that Kanye West does not allow his work to be used in commercials.  Whatever one things of him that is to be commended at least.  But again he is someone that doesn’t need the exposure or the money. 

I grew up highly influenced by punk rock.  There still seems to me, even though I realize the rules of the game have changed, something disheartening about putting songs in commercials.  It seems to have a corrupting influence on art, as once you hear a song in a Cheetos commercial or whatever, it can be hard to disassociate that song with that product.  Art should also speak truth to power, not walk hand in hand with it.  However, I do know that Hank Williams did commercials, and no one doubts that he was one of the greats.  There are also more ethical ways to sell out.  Moby allows his songs to be played in commercials, but then he uses a fraction of the money towards causes that he believes in.  For instance he will allow his music to be in a car commercial, but then use some of that money for environmental groups.  He is using the money of the company in direct opposition to what that company does. 

After watching a few really awful commercials at the AMC theater last night, I thought of an even better way to sell out.  The one commercial was a bunch of musicians making really bad music with coke bottles or some such nonsense.  Part of my brain slowly died during that shit.  So I think that artists should only allow their art to be used in commercials if they are given enough money to purchase a high end military vehicle like a tank.  Then they should personally drive that tank to the corporation headquarters that gave them the money and blow it up.  The artist would get paid and get exposure.  Meanwhile the general public would not have to watch any more stupid fucking commercials by that company.  What do you think of that? 

P.S.  The last paragraph is a joke if the NSA happens to be reading along.  I swear! 

Media Diet and Rambling Thoughts

Huffington Post is still promoting the missing plane mystery as their headline.  How many days will this go on?!!!  I bet the cable news is having a field day with that too, though I don’t know for certain, as I don’t watch that shit!

I’ve been going on a media diet in recent years.  I cut out cable TV and I cut out radio.  These are two outdated forms that offer little if any value to one’s life.  When I listen or watch one of these formats I almost start believing my conspiracy theory friends that the media is manipulating us to make us dumber.  Songs riddled with clichés and Ken and Barbie dolls reading Teleprompters are running ramped over a demoralized public.

Did you see the singer form Hootie and the Blowfish has a country career now?  Who buys that stuff?  Who bought his Blowfish albums?  Kevin Russell calls this stuff golf rock.  Did anyone notice how metrosexual a lot of the male country stars are now?  I find that funny as their base is partially composed of redneck males who think they are tougher than the rest and are often homophobic.

I wish Hunter Thompson and Kurt Vonnegut and George Carlin were still alive.  They were of the rarified few that knew how to expose the great contradictions in our society.  This is an absurd country in many ways.  Our comedians have become our truth tellers and our newscasters have become our mindless entertainers.  Remember in a capitalist democracy we vote with our dollar a good deal of the time.  Support those things that bring value to your life and cut out on the fat!

Middle Management Radio Programmers

Yes I am still on my Neil Young kick.  I am reading his book Waging Heavy Peace with my morning coffee.  Anyway, Neil talks about writing the song Ohio the day the picture came out of the Kent State shooting.  I found these comments about the aftermath of the song, and about radio stations of that time in particular, illuminating:

I picked up my guitar and started to play some chords and immediately wrote “Ohio”; four dead in Ohio. The next day, we went into the studio in LA and cut the song.  Before a week had passed it was all over the radio.  It was really fast for those times; really fast.  All the stations played “Ohio.”  There was no censoring by programmers.  Programming services were not even around; DJs played whatever they wanted on the FM stations.  We were underground on FM.  There was no push-back for criticizing the government.  This was America.  Freedom of speech was taken very seriously in our era.  We were speaking for our generation.  We were speaking for ourselves.  It rang true.  

Knowing how Buffy Sainte-Marie was blacklisted I know that it is not exactly true that performers faced zero push-back.  However, This is precisely why I don’t listen to the radio anymore, ever.  Programmers have ruined it.  Programmers are middle management types who for the most part stand in the way of you hearing anything outside the box on any radio station.  Radio should be a DJ medium.  I also wonder if it is songs like Ohio that killed off DJ freedom.  Programmers may have been put hired to keep this kind of rouge behavior from dominating.  I don’t know the answer to that, but it would make for a very interesting article.  I remember after 911 when Clear Channel banned a lot of songs they claimed would offend people, including John Lennon’s Imagine.  “Imagine all the people / living for today.”  If people did that they sure wouldn’t be working a shitty soul sucking office job for a company treated them like a serf.  Never forget that music, and art, is powerful stuff.  There are those that want to limit your access to it.    

White Slavery, Flag Waving, and Money

http://www.artsreformation.com/a001/hays-code.html

The above link is to the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930.  This was also known as the Hays Code and I mentioned it in the previous blog.  The first two things it says are: “If motion pictures present stories that will affect lives for the better, they can become the most powerful force for the improvement of mankind

A Code to Govern the Making of Talking, Synchronized and Silent Motion Pictures. Formulated and formally adopted by The Association of Motion Picture Producers, Inc. and The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, Inc. in March 1930.”

I think it is funny that the code talks about how, “White slavery should not be treated,” and that, “The use of the flag shall be continuously respectful.”  So I’m guessing that you could show black slavery, but you dare not show any disrespect towards the nation’s flag while that slavery is underway.

There are all kinds of absurdities in this document.  Again, this was 1930 so the times have of course changed.  Most of the things that were discouraged in motion pictures back then are now pumped into peoples’ homes on a daily basis.

David Milch, which I alluded to in the last blog, talked once about how the idea of the western hero, the man of few words, was created because of this code.  I’m going to paraphrase a good bit here.  Basically what he talks about is how the heroes in westerns were prevented from talking like they often would in lawless towns of the 1800’s.  In the movies they couldn’t swear or say many other things that are and were part of regular everyday dialogue.  So in order to have them not speaking in clean and unmanly terms, the filmmakers of that era just decided to not have them speak much at all.  That is how a sort of mythic American hero came to be.  He didn’t come out of history, but out of a set of rules governing pictures during a time when a lot of the templates for films were being created.  Again, this is largely me paraphrasing, but you get the idea.

I’m against censorship of any kind.  Just like with this code, often you will get absurdities in what gets censored and what does not.  We often see this now on TV where swearing is censored on mainstream television (less and less all the time of course), but someone can kill a hundred people in an action film and no one will bat an eye.   Often what is censored depends on who is in power.

That being said it is perfectly legitimate to have a conversation about what is worthwhile viewing and what damages the culture at large.  I see a great deal of reality TV as promoting casual cruelty and meaningless consumerism.  Basically things that make the world go round.  I would never want to see any of this stuff censored, but I feel that it is ok to talk about how this kind of programming debases the humanity of the people participating in a lot of these shows and also desensitizes the viewer to absurd behavior.

It’s easy to get angry at the participants of these shows.  But most of the people in these shows are just trying to survive by making a quick buck and aren’t very smart to begin with.  It’s really the TV executives and people that prosper far greater than the participants that make sure that even when one of these shows fail that there is another one to replace it.  They are cheaper to produce than a lot of other programming and make too much money when they are successful.  They also function much like the modern day versions of the Roman Coliseum.  Give the people bread and circuses and they will be entertained enough so that they can escape the drudgery of their daily lives.  There is less likely to be rioting in the streets this way.

I’d be lying if I said that some of these shows aren’t entertaining on a base level and that I never watch them.  It’s all too easy to occasionally get pulled downstream by a fast current.  However, I do try to keep that thing to a minimum.  I don’t do this because I have any kind of intellectual or moral superiority over anyone, it’s just that I know that I’m as susceptible to giving thumbs up or down in the entertainment coliseum as anyone, so I try to keep my distance.  I’d probably get addicted to cocaine if I ever tried it, so I just don’t.

Meanwhile a show like Deadwood, which features a great amount of swearing,nudity, and violence, can only be shown on pay cable.  However, I would argue a show like this could teach someone more about American history than many of the shows on the History Channel.  It deals with how a society structures itself.  It also deals with the powerful forces that shaped American culture.  This show was cancled after three seasons, but American Idol goes on.

Although many people on the right and left disagree about what is causing it, most agree that there is some kind of decline in our culture that is going on.  Although there are some things that can’t be shown in mainstream TV, or said on the radio because of decency standards, there isn’t much anymore.  This is because the only thing that seems to really matter anymore is what makes money and what doesn’t.  The right wing religious people and the PC left can rage all they want, but if something makes a buck it will eventually make its way onto the airwaves in one way or another.  Until we decide as a country that money isn’t the thing that matters most, the floodgates will remain open.  The only vote that counts anymore is one that is made with the almighty dollar.