Jam Pearls: do musicians need to diversify to survive?

As plummeting music sales send the industry into crisis and musicians like David Byrne reinvent their roles, Scott Messenger meets the people behind an experimental improv program in Manitoba that is breaking all the rules
David Byrne

The other thin white duke … David Byrne.

In the fall of 2011 I sat in on a jam I’ve since recognized as part of the future of how we create and consume music. What’s more, for musicians, it points a way forward for an industry that often seems like it would rather die than evolve from a reliance on making and selling records.

It took How Music Works, David Byrne’s new book, for me to finally understand the impact of what I saw and heard in a small studio at the University of Alberta, where perhaps a dozen musicians had gathered for a weekly session. The lights were low and most people sat cross-legged on the floor in a wide, loose circle. Apart from a guy with a saxophone and a girl with a violin, few of the players had traditional instruments—or used them in traditional ways if they did.

Instead, one player swished a whisk, broken and splayed like an aging tulip, in a metal mixing bowl. Another tapped bamboo skewers on the lino tile in front of her. Someone rubbed together rough sheets of paper. The saxophonist issued mournful, reedless puffs, while the violin lay free on the floor, bouncing as the bow was dragged tunelessly across its strings. “Play free, no rules,” Scott Smallwood, the collective’s leader and assistant professor of composition, had told them. He joined in, squeaking out discordant notes on a synthesizer.

Despite giving the impression of hippies at kindergarten, this symphony of found objects was hardly without form. Over the course of a fifteen- to twenty-minute piece, Smallwood’s Experimental Improv Music Ensemble, or Xie, cycles through patterns; it will work itself into a frenzy of sound, or lull itself into near silence to accommodate, well, a whisk solo. Structures and patterns emerge organically, providing enough tension to keep listeners wondering what might come next and rarely able to guess.

But when it’s over, it’s gone. Smallwood will suggest a new direction to explore, and his band starts over, the sonic slate wiped clean. Xie might record pieces to discuss them amongst themselves, but there’s no attempt to use them as the sketches that, in conventional jams, go on to become songs. There is no intention to make and sell records; ephemerality is the goal, and it’s achieved handily. In the time it takes to make a forty-minute album, for instance, Xie would have created dozens, if not hundreds, of unique compositions, simply to explore the mechanics of unfettered composition.

I’ve talked to some emerging musicians who are still watching the industry tank,” Byrne writes, “and when I asked them why they even wanted to make a record, their feeling was, ‘I want to do it while they still exist’

Independent up-and-comers—the most reliable source of innovation and creativity in modern music—can learn from this, because Xie represents an overdue parting with the past. Making and selling records has been the heart of both the industry’s business model and the musician’s artistic statement for decades. However, file sharing, iTunes, even well-intentioned distribution sites like Bandcamp.com, have rendered the format about as relevant as an 8-track tape.
Musicians make albums at their own, often considerable, expense and consumers pick them apart for next to nothing, (or nothing at all, more likely: according to a recent study, Canadians are amongst the world’s worst offenders for illegal downloads of music files).

That means creativity today comes at a cost that may soon prove unsustainable, even for established acts. Byrne’s book—a collection of ten essays covering how spaces, physical formats, collaborations, and more have shaped western music—includes a chapter on business and finance in the industry. For what it means to the average musician, it might as well have been written in red ink. “I’ve talked to some emerging musicians who are still watching the industry tank,”
Byrne writes, “and when I asked them why they even wanted to make a record, their feeling was, ‘I want to do it while they still exist.’ I may have been operating under the same impulse.” How’s that for a business plan?

For Byrne’s 2004 release Grown Backwards, recording swallowed up nearly ninety-seven percent of his advance against sales, leaving him with $7,000 for roughly a year’s worth of work. Though he admits he could have recorded more cheaply, “you have to sell an awful lot of records to expect to live off record sales alone, and maybe you shouldn’t count on that happening.”

Not to say the album is dead. In 2012, Rush celebrated the format by releasing Clockwork Angels, the Toronto trio’s first full-length concept record, selling 103,000 copies in its first week, their highest number in a decade. Other artists that year leaned on the album to accommodate unusual bursts of output. Mark Knopfler went double-long for the first time in his thirty-five year career with the two-disc Privateering. Yellow & Green, the double album from Georgia-based metal act Baroness, gave indie label Relapse its best first-week seller in more than two decades. And R&B phenomenon the Weeknd’s first major release (following a series of mixtapes) was a triple disc. It has since been certified gold.

But these are outliers. As Byrne’s research points out, and as everyone knows, sales of CDs have plummeted—roughly $15 billion between 2000 and now; at the same time, digital sales have risen to only about $4 billion. In 2009, only two
percent of the nearly 100,000 records made sold more than 5,000 copies, he adds. Ugly odds for newbies.

That’s part of the reason why he also makes art, works on films, and writes books—all of which cost too much money, time, and energy for most musicians to consider. But Byrne’s diversification makes sense, and that’s where an idea like Xie becomes so important.

Could the spirit and intention of Xie be applied to modernizing the music industry? Why not create a site devoted to capturing those moments of inspired creativity of traditional bands? I’ve experienced these in my own projects. You take chances when you ‘play free.’ You and your bandmates lead (or push) each other into unfamiliar territories. Quite often, the results are so extraordinary that, even if you recorded to later refine the piece into a song, it’s like bringing a fire from inferno to controlled burn. By capturing and posting homemade video, musicians would be treating listeners to a new kind of intimacy, giving a glimpse of an artistic point of origin. It’d be quick and dirty, but the internet doesn’t care.

The same site could also host one-off projects, for which we’re already seeing an appetite. NPR’s music site is growing its collection of Tiny Desk Concerts, in which artists like Ben Gibbard, Martha Wainwright, and Lyle Lovett drop by the office for short, lo-fi sets. Undercover, from the A.V. Club (The Onion’s arts and culture property), is a video series featuring bands that pick from a list of songs to cover; it’s now in its third season. And, independently, two guitarists launched the “$100 Guitar Project” in 2010, shipping their cheap music-store find to sixty-five accomplished guitar buddies to use it to make short, novel recordings of compositions to post on the project’s website. It has since spun off a record, a double album, no less.

That might be one source of revenue for the site’s musicians: occasionally compile and sell tracks as cheap digital downloads, perhaps coupling the release with concerts showcasing the music those early jams wrought. A little more cash might come with advertising (no one, after all, is going to pay), and that might help to bridge the gap to that next record. Few will be able to do it by touring non-stop.

More than that, this sort of venture would help satisfy consumers in our era of relentless engagement. Social media has produced a generation of fans that demand not just content but connection. The internet may have taken the industry out at the knees, but it’s also offering unexpected opportunities for it to try to walk again: for bands to build brands and even grow as artists.

“For me,” writes Byrne, “diversification is about seeking out ways of stretching creatively. Diversity is not a business decision: it’s a way of staying interested, alert.”

All artists should all be so lucky. Since they’re not, they should put the creativity that goes into their work toward creating sustainable business models, rather than accepting breaking even as their brass ring.

“We’re so inundated by the idea of playing by the rules,” Smallwood told his players during the Xie session at the University of Alberta. A jam had just come to an end, and he was both complimenting them for breaking those rules and pushing them to do even more. After all, the task the collective has set for itself is bigger than it might seem at first listen. Xie, he told me at the end of the evening, is ultimately about discovering new ways to make music. “We’re trying to invent a new language,” he said.

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