WE'RE ALL IN THE SAME GANG . . .
by Danny Alexandercopyright © 1999 Danny Alexander
If I get $45 for a concert review, that's $45 for the hour I spend going to and from the show and the three hours I spend there. There's also the time I spend listening to the artists' CDs and actually writing (and thinking) about the show. If I bought food or drinks, I'm already in the hole. Essentially, I do what I do for free.
Here in Kansas City, most bands work for, at best, $200 a night. A decent soundman is $75. If there are four people in the band that's $30 apiece left over. That isn't enough to pay for new guitar strings, gas, rent on a rehearsal space, and studio time to make a demo. Essentially, they do what they do for free.
A bandleader in LA explained to me that the main difference between a musician and the average person living in poverty is that the musician always thinks he's about to get a big break. The promise of a major record deal keeps them going. Writers feel the same way. We put what spare energy we have into book proposals that get their one shot with publishers in a 20-second pitch by an agent.
What happens to virtually every band if they do get signed by a label? The high turnover in the industry makes it likely that the A&R people who had some enthusiasm for their music will be gone by the time they finish their first album. The same thing happened to me when I had a book about Soul Asylum published as part of a series by Putnam/Berkeley. The people at the company who cared about the series were gone by the time it came out, the book was released with little publicity, and most Soul Asylum fans never found out that it existed.
A record company president, when asked recently by LA Weekly writer Sarah Luck Pearson if he warned artists that they might fail, answered bluntly: "They will fail." Did he mean fail to make a good record? No, good records get made all the time. He meant they would fail to be heard by any semblance of the audience they spent their life honing their skills for and, broke and demoralized, probably give up the ghost. If Pearson could find an honest book or alternative newspaper publisher to interview about music writers, she'd get the same answer.
The obvious question is: Why don't musicians and writers work together to improve our similar situations? Partly, we just don't know how. But it's also true that creative people tend to be such individualists that they isolate themselves from each other.
Paradoxical as it might seem, what we need to effectively bring us together is something outside our obsession with music. Fortunately, it's already here. It's the March of the Americas, the month-long 350-mile walk from Washington, D.C. to the UN in New York that begins October 1. The March is bringing together poor people's organizations from the U.S., Canada, Latin America, and Europe to call attention to massive violations of economic human rights and to insist that there's no reason for anyone to be poor on a planet choking on its own abundance.
The March is also designed to be a continuous cultural festival. Bands will play every night and musicians from as far away as Australia who can't get there are sending in tapes to be played on a truck-mounted PA as people walk. Under the leadership of Chicago's Steve Darnall (Uncle Sam), 42 comic book writers and artists from the U.S. and England are creating a 64-page anti-poverty comic for the March. There will be puppeteers and graffiti writers doing their thing along the route. Support has come from music journalists at a wider range of publications than have ever united before: Gospel International, Crossroads (folk), Rap Pages, Al Borde! and Rocketeria (rock en espanol), Z Magazine, AFIM Indie Music World, San Francisco Chronicle, and Performing Songwriter. DJs from Miami, Toronto, and Santa Barbara have thrown down, too.
The strongest support has come from hundreds of musicians. Fund-raising concerts are being held in Chattanooga, Los Angeles, Camden, NJ, and Ventura, CA. Steve Earle, Mos Def, Ani DiFranco, Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Springsteen, and Jackson Browne are on board, as is 77 -- one of Portugal's top punk bands. There's Bruce Hornsby and Orbit, along with Philly rappers the Mountain Brothers and gospel singer Mary Love Comer. There's Shawn Colvin, Wayne Kramer, and the Boxing Gandhis, along with the heavy metal of Dead Society and Pittsburgh rappers Strict Flow.
Many talented but unknown musicians will get needed exposure since the entire March will be broadcast live on the website of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union. The March will also be linked to NetAid, the October 9 anti-poverty project that will webcast stadium concerts from three different countries.But the fun really begins after the March, when all kinds of artists who never would have met each other under normal circumstances will be in a position to collaborate artistically and politically. Musicians and music journalists in California are already planning a mid-November "creative council" to discuss next steps.
The March of the Americas isn't just the latest in popular music's endless stream of good works. That was made clear at a recent support meeting in Los Angeles that attracted both well-known and unknown musicians. Someone made the eminently logical suggestion that, rather than focus on a march taking place 2,500 miles away, they hook up with similar local efforts. But the local efforts, no matter how worthy, are currently limited to picking at some small scab of poverty, while the March proclaims its goal in terms of global transformation: the end of poverty itself. The discussion at the LA meeting quickly went back to the March.
To find out how you can get involved, no matter where you live or what you do, contact: Kensington Welfare Rights Union, Box 50678, Philadelphia PA 19132; 215-203-1945; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.libertynet.org/kwru.
from Rock & Rap Confidential Number 165
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