Thoughts About Survival Part 1

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In the short gap between European tours (duo with Paal Nilssen-Love, then El Infierno Musicale, led by Christof Kurzmann w/Martin Brandlmayr, Eva Reiter, Clayton Thomas), the days in Antwerp and now in Vienna have given me a chance to ponder the contemporary “situation” for working with music vs. the one I was faced with when I started touring in the mid 1990s. At that time I adopted what I perceived to be the approach of bands like Fugazi: get in the van, bring your equipment, sell your merch to help cover expenses, get paid as much as would sustain the system; then do it again, and again, and again- with the hope of building and cultivating an audience.

At that time much of the music that was being played on the Indie Rock scene (released on labels like Touch & Go, Amphetamine Reptile, Dischord, Estrus, etc.), even though incredibly diverse, often projected the cathartic energy of the music I was performing with Jazz and Improvised Music bands from Chicago and Europe, which I toured with in the States, groups like the Vandermark 5, AALY, School Days, xxxx. Through adding the DIY attitude built in Chicago by the AACM organization- creating your own concerts, trying to have complete creative control over the way your original music- the people I worked with quickly realized the significance of bringing concerts to places where open minded listeners already went- Rock clubs.

This worked well in Chicago and worked well on the road. In a sense, the model used was the last feasible stretch for the “Get In The Van” approach developed by the underground Rock scene in the States by the bands on SST (among others) and in Europe by groups like the Ex: you’d work on your music, develop your aesthetic(s), document the material on album (the biggest difference between the 90s and 80s with this system was probably format, the shift from “the end of vinyl” [ha ha ha] to cd), set up a tour by phoning every presenter you could think of (and all of this information was almost always shared by musicians), hoping for guarantees but usually getting the door, then you’d borrow a car or rent a van and play the shows, selling merchandise (albums, t-shirts, posters) to help defray costs, that night you’d sleep either at a friend or fan’s place, usually on the floor or couch, after breakfast you’d head out to the next gig, usually 6 or more hours away. To get your music further afield than your hometown or, better yet, out of the country, you relied on your record label (if you had one). Occasionally, in the world of Jazz and Improvised music that I was working in, you’d get contacted to play a festival in Europe.

After years of this kind of activity, pushing forward uphill the whole way, a musician or group could sometimes get a booking agency to represent them, which made the effort of putting a tour together easier but left finding the necessary physical and creative energy to press ahead year after year still a challenge. The system was hard, but it usually worked as well as the musicians did. Naively, and probably due in part to the fact that I was so focused on the process of making music, documenting it, playing concerts in Chicago (this period was dominated by the years of weekly gigs at the Empty Bottle on Tuesday nights, among performances at the Velvet Lounge, etc.), and touring- developing the music and bringing it to audiences step by step, building the systems that would expand what was possible on the scene- I was completely unprepared for the transformation that took place with the dissemination of music as things moved into the new millennium. Paal and I from our concert in Oradea: