PANEL QUESTION #3:
WHAT IS THE IMPACT OF THE CURRENT ECONOMIC MELTDOWN ON YOUR RESPECTIVE COMMUNITIES? WHAT CAN A COMMUNITY DO TO MINIMIZE IT?
My first inclination was to say no, I don’t feel that the current economic circumstances have affected the contemporary situation for Jazz and Improvised Music. The musicians I collaborate with have always been interested in creating a self-sustainable approach to the work, especially in the United States where funding for the arts is, generally speaking, nearly nonexistent. The grants or programs that still exist for uncommercial music usually force an artist to meet the specifications of a grant’s proposal, which leads to creative compromise on various levels (is it not better to support the musicians for the work that they are doing, as opposed to what some committee thinks they should be doing?). Not least of the problems is the time taken away from music and put into bureaucratic paperwork, which, compared to the typical amounts provided for “support,” amounts to something of a waste of energy on the part of the applicant. The response to the arts funding “system” by many of the people I work with has been inspired by organizations like the AACM and the DIY methods of Rock bands like Fugazi- organize your own performances, get in the van, make the overhead as cheap as possible, sell merchandise at the shows to help defray costs, play the concerts wherever its feasible to find an audience, then get up in the morning and do it again. Even in Europe, where some significant funding for this music still exists (either from state or city governments), the focus has been to develop the music and build audiences by playing clubs, asking for reasonable fees based on the fan base, and using festival payment to help cover transatlantic flight expenses.
But when I consider the logistical shifts of the last few years, both in the North America and in Europe, I see a change that has most likely been caused by the impending collapse of the record industry, as we have known it, coupled with the unraveling of the international economy. Last year was the first in more than a decade that I did not undertake at least one significant tour of North America. In last few years, The Vandermark 5 would attract between 100 to 200 people for each show- by any account very good turnouts for uncompromising music. We would finish a tour, and everyone in the band would be paid decently, but after a decade the audience had leveled out. We needed about one hundred people more per concert to make the situation as financially viable as the one in Europe. Why? The audiences aren’t bigger or better overseas. The factor is funding. Presenters in Europe cover accommodations and meals for the bands, and larger organizers can provide money towards transportation. This difference leads to a 3 to 1 difference in pay between the continents. Since early the early 2000’s, it became impossible for me to tour with more one band a year in North America. If I did presenters would indicate that the critics would say that I came around too often, even if the groups were as disparate as the Vandermark 5 and CINC (with Paul Lytton and Philipp Wachsmann), performing with a half year between tours. In Europe, it was possible for me to tour with four to six different ensembles in the spring and the fall, including various festival options most summers. The result- at this point almost no one outside of Chicago has seen most of my current groups in performance. Because of this set of circumstances, European listeners and writers currently have a clearer sense of what my music is about.
This may just sound like a set of issues connected to the benefits of European arts funding, but it is also connected to the changes in the way many people currently listen to music. In the 1990’s, it was possible to factor into a tour budget hundreds, in some cases more than a thousand, dollars per gig based on cd sales. Even with independent music, cd sales have plummeted. So far no one knows what will be next- will all music go to downloads, will the lp make a comeback (who would have imagined this possibility in 1998?), will another format be invented, will bands go back to surviving on their music through performance instead of selling recordings, etc., etc.? We’re in the middle of a music upheaval, and though there are many theories, it seems that all of them are still thick in the woods. If you take hundreds of dollars away from a touring band each night you are eliminating their chances of making a tour financially viable.
Once of the offshoots of the current economic situation is the perpetuation of the airline struggles that started after 9/11. The gas prices of the first half of 2008 didn’t help matters. At this point, most airlines have implemented a mandatory expense of anywhere between $150-$450 to fly with a bass in a trunk, including SAS; which, on my first flight to Stockholm in 1996 bumped me and my wife up to business class both ways because the person at the ticket counter was concerned that my tenor sax case would not fit in the overhead in economy class. This summer, it cost me more than 1200 euros to fly with my baritone and play in Kongsberg, Norway; Vigo, Spain; and Vienna, Austria; one week of work. Luckily most of these were festival gigs and the presenters were willing to help defray those costs but, in most cases, the musicians incur these new overweight expenses. End result? Almost every bass player I know no longer travels overseas (either to or from Europe) with their instrument. I’ve had to change the instrumentation of the Vandermark 5 several times. When the band goes on tour in Europe this February I will only play tenor and Bb clarinet, Kent Kessler will borrow a bass each night. This is not a musical decision. It was forced by economic considerations that have then become a creative problem, which now needs to be (re)solved.
Another change that’s taken place is the increased distance that it’s been necessary to travel between gigs in Europe. When I first started touring overseas in the mid 1990’s, it would be possible to play several shows in the same country. For example, on that trip to Sweden in 1996 I think we played nearly ten concerts over two weeks. This spring I did a tour with Lean Left (w/Terrie Ex, Andy Moor, and Paal Nilssen-Love) and we played nine concerts in nine nights in eight different countries. Two weeks ago I finished a tour with Sonore (w/Peter Brotzmann and Mats Gustafsson) and the average travel time each day was ten hours, plus a concert each night. Our “day off” was ten hours of train travel in Poland, seven without heat. Why has this been happening? Fewer organizers are getting enough or any funds to present their programs, so it’s become mandatory to travel further to get to each possible show. The irony? It costs more to get there.
The international aspect of the economic downturn has lead more European governments to follow the American spending model (??!!) and cut down or eliminate funds for the arts. Musicians in the States have been dealing with this issue pretty much forever, but in countries that used to have incredible (by U.S. standards anyway) support systems for the musicians (Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany) have cut way back on spending and left a vacuum for the musicians to fill. But since in many cases there are fewer venue options for the musicians to organize something in these countries, it’s as if they’ve been cut off at the knees and asked to now go find work.
Since concert programs are usually booked a year in advance in Europe, most of 2009 looks as it will be as “stable” as 2008; the budgets for next year’s programs were already put in place. The repercussions of the status of the international economy may not be more directly felt on the international music scene until 2010. The continued erosion of recorded music as an economic factor for even the independent music scenes will probably still be unresolved, which means another budgetary resource for working groups will remain limited. It is easy to wonder how soon the cost of flying will be so expensive that overseas music opportunities will have to be phased out. Even so, I remain optimistic. The creativity that my peers put into their music often also applies to their economic survival. It may mean more day jobs, longer travel, taking a ship overseas (as per a conversation with Lean Left, my version of hell), being fed by friends and sleeping on their couch each night (pretty much what’s happening in many cases anyway), but the music will continue. It’s a privilege to do this, not a right, and those committed to the process and the art of Jazz and Improvised music will find a way. They did it throughout the 20th century and, the last time I checked the history books, that wasn’t a cakewalk either.
Ken Vandermark, Chicago, 12/31/08.