Monday, March 15, 2010

So what do you do?

Anybody who's had the good fortune to read Bill Bruford's autobiography has discovered what to me, at least, is a shocking fact: you can be a legendary player and still get that question, followed by confusion or disbelief at the answer. He offers these as a couple of his favorite follow-up questions: "Yes, but what do you really do?"; "But what do you do during the day?" This is reassuring to the rest of us, if we choose to see the glass as half-full; you can have really made it and still encounter this. It can be equally disheartening if we haven't had enough sleep, are of a generally downcast state of mind, are cynical to the point of disfunction and low-grade insanity, etc. I myself have had this conversation more times than I care to remember, always coming away from the encounter in a worse headspace.

"So, what do you do?"

I used to attempt to have fun with this otherwise grotesque business of having to explain myself. "What do you do?" "Oh", I'd say cheerfully, "I'm a professional dilletante". Sometimes people would be quiet, not wanting to let on that they didn't know what a dilletante was. Sometimes there'd be a nervous laugh as they wondered what other meaning or slang there was for the term. Male escort? Euphemism for a fancy caterer or some kind of semi-legal courier? Was it anything like a liason? " you enjoy it?" "Oh yes, it's fun."

But eventually the truth would come out.

"I'm a musician."

"Oh, what do you play?"

OK, everybody who knows me knows we've just arrived at problem #1. If I start listing instruments, I come off like a braggart, which I can do without. I eventually came up with something that usually only leads to one more explanatory question in response. At least to that one question, then there's more. Like this:

(what do you play)

"Anything I can get my hands on."

"Oh, (chuckle chuckle, confused grin, was that a double-entendre, etc.), "So like, drums, guitar, sax...?"

"Yeah, mostly drums and guitar, but whatever else is necessary."

"So... do you do sessions, play clubs, are you in a band...?"

At the sound of the tone, turn the page to arrive at problem #2! DING!

Here we are at an answer requiring a history, the upshot of which will be a general all-purpose "No". Yes to all of them at one time, especially the latter two. No to all of them now.

"I make my own music and sell the CDs on the internet." Thank Jah for the internet, that catch-all of confusion where anything is probable, if not actually possible.

"Oh, so you play all the instruments?"


"So you actually make enough to make a living?"

Ugh. This one used to trip me up, but finally I learned to say, with little smile, "I get by".

If anyone has maintained interest to this point, the next logical question they'll ask is: "So what kind of music do you play?"

Double ugh. Again, anyone who knows me knows that's not an easy question to answer. Unless the questioner is unusually well-versed in musical genres, my answer will leave yet another individual trout-faced and attempting to maintain. "Well, it's sort of like a cross between progressive rock, hard rock, jazz and world music, but with a lot of classical avante-garde influence, and electronic stuff, like musique concrete." Even well-versed people will be wondering what the hell that particular blend could possibly sound like. Lately I've had the thought that I should just make up some terms, and if they don't satisfy, make up some more, and just keep going until the inquirer gives up.

"Well, it's kind of a blend of Harminozetshky and Portamentico."

"I, uh...I don't think I know those. What, uh, what bands?"

"Well, it's kind of like a cross between Harold Clam and old Hairpie Mayonnaise."

"Hairpie Mayonnaise?"

"Old Hairpie Mayonnaise, before they got too commercial. Like, the first four albums."

"Oh...uh...No, sorry, don't know 'em."

That's if your questioner is honest and actually interested, otherwise you may get "Oh wow, that's great. Listen, I see some pork rinds over there, would you excuse me?"

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Great Ink Conspiracy

One of the reasons I went full-tilt into the Pale Series method of production- home print jobs for my CDs- was that, relatively speaking, ink was cheap enough to make it worthwhile to do so. It was that, vs. the $300 and change to have 1,000 2-panel covers printed up (per release). While it's still basically cheaper (both in spite of and because of the size of the catalog), the cost of ink for my printer seems to have taken a ridiculous hike lately. Over $80 for three color cartridges and 2 blacks- at Costco! This is about a $30-$40 rise since the last time I bought. What the f..k?
While I wandered around the aisles of bread and giants vats of mayonnaise and pickles, my mind jumped from one conspiracy to the next, starting off with something realistic (and most likely to be true) to something which most likely was BS, but still....sometimes you can't help but feel paranoid and oppressed. I shall explain.

First, I shaved it on down with Occam's razor; when slashing with that baby, one usually finds a solid basis of money underneath. I own an older HP, with photo-quality printing- a wonderful machine, which cost around $100 new maybe 7 or 8 years ago. Still works perfectly. Between then and now, HP has had lots of chaos and drama in their organization. They haven't stopped producing machines, and they need money even more now than they did then. So needless to say, it's not in their best interest to have people holding on to their old machines. Somebody screwed up and didn't follow the great American way of planned obsolesence; good product got out, printers good enough to survive a decade. Not good for the company's bottom line or the GNP! Dispose dispose dispose! Consume consume consume! So they can't take these machines back once they're out in the world...what can they do? Charge more for the ink. You can now probably buy a new printer for a little more than what they're charging for one ink combo pack. Oh, but of course then you'll have to buy new ink, in new cartridges, for just a little bit more. Enough so that you'll notice, maybe, but not so much that you'll say no. After all, the new printers have new doodads, better x,y and z, they slice, dice, and make julienne fries...So you're getting more for your money. It may not be more you actually need, but it sounds good when read off the side of the box. (Special improved quality items and attachments sold seperately.)

Now this is a reasonable enough interpretation of events that I didn't feel like I should be living in a small apartment with newspaper and aluminum foil on the windows, waiting for the CIA to steal my thoughts with the help of the grey aliens that run the IRS and the Satanic cult that runs the NSA. But then, but then...well, it hits you on a personal level, and start taking it personally. And paranoia sets in.

They know we're out there, see...the RIAA and the five families that run the five record companies, in an international conspiracy to keep the little guys down. First they screwed us out of internet radio, so that power could stay consolidated in the big companies...and the really galling thing of it is that supposedly, they did it FOR us!!! To protect us! To protect us from who? Illegal downloaders? You can't sell product nobody gets to hear, and nobody gets to hear the majority of independent artists- TRULY independent artists- if we wait for our pals at corporate radio to play us. And you are well and truly screwed if you do anything that is outside of the
nauseating little "indie" boxes that are available: nerd rock, state-certified traditional punk, trendy glam throwback, country, rap, "traditional" blues, "traditional" jazz, deadass boring jamband navel-gazing crap, "world music" that will make people feel culturally diverse in a way that eases their consciences without asking too much of know the stuff. If it's got lyrics anybody can sing along; the uninitiated will find it authentic, heartfelt or really daring, like Medeski Martin and Wood or the String Cheese Incident. Nothing against those named directly,'m afraid I fail to find them daring. Maybe by today's standards. Not by Sun Ra or
Albert Ayler standards. Nobody says that was ever their number one goal, or that they get up and say to themselves every morning "Hey guys, let's be daring!". But in the land of commercial radio programming or public broadcasting, that's wild and wooly stuff. When was the last time YOU heard Sun Ra on your local jazz station? Or on NPR? When was the last time you heard Iqbal Yogi and party doing authentic snake charmer music, as opposed to setting that to a canned shishka-boom track, so that older refined Debbie can still dance to it? I tell ya, it makes me want to bang my head against the wall. But then THEY'd win....

So back to Costco, and it occurs to me next that somewhere along the line somebody'd just LOVE that...keep the little guys down, all these outsiders trying to do things their own way. Hey,'s a little kicker on the side, pay off some debts, give your CEOs nice bonuses...just uh...raise your ink prices a little on those older machines. We win, you win, the money and the power stays with the right people, the upstarts are made to tow the line...

And, as will happen in my head at times with these inner dialogues, I fight back! The people will not lose! Justice will prevail! We will gloriously justify the right of the individual to BE individual! Or blow the whole thing up trying. Nahh...Nothing gets blown up. All the truly indendent artists...the ones who will do what they're doing regardless of anything and everything...We'll do hand drawn covers if necessary, we'll do photocopies if we have to. Look, we (or many of us) lived through doing this in the '80s, when things were really rough if you wanted to home produce. We are cockroaches, there's no stopping us now. We'll block-print covers if we have to, or if we want to. (Right, Mike?)

At about this time, an image comes in my head that both makes me laugh and makes me step back, shake my head, and STAY back from all this paranoid crap. There was a segment in Ken Burns' "Jazz" (another wrong on so many levels...). There was a black female vocalist, talking about the British invasion, and how in the mid '60s all the work and the support for jazz artists dried up. She gets this angry gleam in her eye, a mixture of insanity and righteousness, backed by the emotional powderkeg of horrible history...and she says something to the effect of, "We knew what they wanted to do. They were trying to BURY us." She practically hisses it out. Now sure, who can't see the point of a black woman in the early '60s feeling oppressed? Anybody with a sense of history gets that. I see it, she's....lacking in perspective. When in doubt, think money. Her problem was, she had no doubt, even when she should have. The British invasion knocked jazz out of the charts, and rock and roll took over (even earlier), because there was a lot of money to be made. Yes, rock and roll got its start from black artists.
Yes, Pat Boone became a star as the white world's public face for Little Richard. But by the British invasion, that was all ancient history and Chuck Berry and Little Richard were becoming known quantities; Motown was slowly eroding the color boundaries, blues and soul and jazz artists were not swept under the rug but were becoming better known, despite the lack of gigs (this, thanks to records). And that was even before '64, thanks to the folk movement. The British invasion reinvigorated interest in many criminally neglected black artists who helped
inspire it. The British invasion knocked a few white pop artists into the background too- ask Brian Wilson. The bottom line here is, nobody did this to bury anybody, they did it for bucks. But if you can't get ahead and your world falls apart because nobody gives a rat's ass about what you do, while you on the other hand live and breathe for it- that hurts. And sometimes it's easier to blame someone for that than face the truth. Nobody wants to bury you. You're buried. You're not even a blip on their radar, and if there is a "they", they couldn't care less. And I hate to tell ya, sister, but I'm buried way deeper than you are. Nobody picked up a shovel, they just went about their business and chased the bucks. You and I form part of the fossil record as history piled up on top of us in drifts. That's really all there is to it.

With that in mind, I went back to thinking about how expensive ink had become, and wondered if it was time to have a discussion with Mike about the advantages of block printing.