Beneath the turbulent and stormy woes of the modern music industry, the avant-garde underground the true underground, really has continued to plod along, partially immune from and partially impacted by the problems and solutions of its commercialized cousin. In a sense, much of the credit for the survival of this alternate universe can go to a contemporary extension of the ephemeral cassette-trading culture of the early- and mid-'80s that is still very much alive today, having carried over into cyberspace and the revolutionary MP3. In fact, that file format and the Internet through which it is transferred has despite the problems inflicted on the mainstream music business turned out to provide a sanctuary for artists struggling against the troubling state of distribution.
For an artist working on the (way) outside, conventional distribution has never been a reliable way to get material heard. Obviously, major label distribution has a chokehold on any material that gets to the major CD outlets and radio stations. So from the start, innovative and original voices clearly know they haven't been and aren't welcome in the mainstream a situation with which, for the most part, the artists are content. As Kenneth Goldsmith of UbuWeb (www.ubu.com) says, "Avant-garde art has never nor will `it` ever sell. UbuWeb is a distribution space for this sort of work."
This distribution barrier affects nearly every conceivable genre of music which touts even an iota of innovation, and therefore affects any musician or artist with an interest in staking a claim to even the slightest deviation from formula. As the British neo-absurdist, cross-disciplinary bad boy Ergo Phizmiz contemplatively states, "The state of standard distribution is appalling. The entire music industry is stuck in a whole range of cul-de-sacs music that doesn't fit into preset genres `doesn't get an opportunity`." Ergo Phizmiz recently released his new CD, a singular take on the Velvet Underground's White Light/White Heat, at his website, www.ergophizmiz.com. He's also published material at UbuWeb and Alt-X (www.altx.com).
"The Internet has been responsible in many ways for me having a career at all," exclaims Phizmiz. "The ease of contact with others and the advantage of having a website makes the work I'm producing accessible to a far wider audience than would have been possible otherwise."
Although poor music-distribution practices are nothing new, the situation only seems to be getting worse. The odd thing is that there are more independent labels present today than ever before, but the glut of competition doesn't necessarily assure one of either quality or diversity. If you track various labels' schedules of releases you begin to see the same names popping up again and again. This is most likely to try to solidify sales with a proven name, but it does little to break any new ground. Meanwhile, the few independent distribution channels that do exist (such as Forced Exposure, Carrot Top and Revolver) become clogged up. As a result, distributors neglect to make payments to labels on time (or at all, in some cases), and the labels come and go quickly, particularly if they are run on a shoestring budget. More often than not, they are. The problems are myriad.
So if distribution channels for independent artists are failing, and truly off-the-radar material isn't lucrative (or funded by grants), doesn't it make sense to seek alternative methods of circulating material? It worked out for a number of artists in the early '80s who, after releasing and trading cassettes, went on to sustained careers. However, the context of the cassette-trading culture was different. It was more autonomous than the ubiquitous Internet, and not blurred into a blatantly consumerist culture.
London-based audiovisual collagist Vicki Bennett (who records under the moniker People Like Us) recently released the material on her new CD, Abridged Too Far at UbuWeb. No stranger to providing her material as free downloads, Bennett claims in her press release that, "Given the poor state of music/media distribution for non-major-label music, People Like Us is favoring circulation of one's work as the ultimate goal, in the belief that gift culture `economy` ultimately reaps as much, if not more rewards by reaching more people." Bennett insists that in order to get the music to the public, one must identify who that public is and move the work to them. Given the substantial problems of distribution, she says, "One must adapt to that unless they have a lot of money and contacts. The way forward is to see what model exists in 2004 that effectively circulates information and get the `music` out there fast."
A gift economy is a self-sustaining economic system in which participants give away things of value to the shared benefit of the community. Given the context of our profit-driven capitalist economy, it is a poignant question as to whether the rather utopian idealism of a gift economy can survive the increasingly commercial context of the Internet. Still, it's an intriguing proposition, and one begging to be explored fully.
Sensing the inevitability of the Internet as an alternative distribution tool, several websites have popped up over the last decade or so that provide a centrality for these concerns. UbuWeb, Comfort Stand (www.comfortstand.com) and the Internet Archive (www.archive.org) are but three of them, and all are glowing examples of the possibilities of the idea. Their interconnected existence and at times disparate content intimates a burgeoning, tangible counterculture existing in the anti-land of invisible cyberspace.
UbuWeb, which has been in existence since 1996, has morphed into something broader and more all-inclusive than originally envisioned. "Embracing the eclectic, it's funny to see what now falls under the category of 'avant-garde,'" says founder Goldsmith. "UbuWeb started out with more streamlined intentions and has, over its nearly 10 years of existence, moved to embrace those artworks which fall between genres. `The site was originally` devoted exclusively to visual and concrete poetry, but as bandwidth increased and materials started flying our way, we've moved toward becoming a clearinghouse for the avant-garde whatever that might mean.
"Today we host everything from Simias Rhodius's visual poem 'Wings of Eros in Theocritus/Eidullia Theokritou Triakonta' (1516) to Otis Fodder's 365 Days Project, a massive collection of outsider music MP3s (2003). As with Napster, our statistics tell us that UbuWeb users are as likely to download a Renaissance visual poem as they would our MP3 of Louis Farrakhan singing 'Is She Is, or Is She Ain't?'"
Similarly eclectic, Otis Fodder's remarkable Comfort Stand site remains a model of consistency for artists of all stripes to release work online. Fodder remarks, when asked about the motivation for the creation of his website, "A label had been in the planning for the past couple of years and a few business models were thought out, from a full label with product and distribution to a small CD-R-only label `to eventually` a 'net label. Having dealt with distribution issues before `while` running my own independent label, and being an artist on several labels, I wanted to go the route of the 'net label."
Comfort Stand currently has 54 releases in a variety of genres. Fodder, an acknowledged supporter of music activism, is no stranger to the problems of the industry. While he concedes that there are competent (if structurally flawed) distribution companies in existence, he notes the potential fallout from the recent merger of Sony and BMG, explaining that, "This merger will mean many bands `will be` cut and distribution, once again, is controlled by lesser sources who have the money to do so. What does this mean for independent bands and labels? Well, they get screwed. It's not a fair, competitive marketplace. It's hard for new bands and small distribution companies to survive."
Pointing to the often interdependent nature of the free online-media construct, Comfort Stand's files are hosted by the incomparable Internet Archive. Far from merely being an outlet for sound, the Internet Archive is actually a public nonprofit founded to build an Internet library. As part of their multimedia collection, the archive provides a central outlet for 'net labels to congregate, making the search for online material more accessible while providing the backbone of a solid philosophy of free cultural exchange, augmented by the legal support of The Creative Commons (www.creativecommons.org).
NAKED MUSIC GETS MORE ACTION
There are fundamental differences between the traditional formats of media consumption and the MP3 revolution. Proponents of the new formats must contend with the familiar habits of fetishization the ingrained desire to possess a physical item with which you have something to show for the money and time you've spent. Often, and surprisingly, even the fact that these downloads are free does not overcome the lure of the object. Furthermore, there are elements of packaging that cannot be convincingly reproduced digitally. In an interview in the May issue of The Wire magazine, Andrew McKenzie of Hafler Trio said that, for him, people who make MP3s of his material are pursuing a useless endeavor, implying that the accompanying material (art, liner notes, etc.) are as important as the sound itself to the overall meaning of the work. "It's like pulling every other page out of a book," he contends, noting his displeasure.
This position mirrors trademark squabbles about authorial intent, and one can arrive restlessly at either side of the argument. Kenneth Goldsmith, in an attempt to lend definition and meaning to the elusive nature of MP3s, states, "In thinking about the way that UbuWeb (and many other types of file-sharing systems) distribute their wares, I've come up with a term: nude media. What I mean by this is that once, say, an MP3 file is downloaded from the context of a site such as UbuWeb, it's free or naked, stripped bare of the normative external signifiers that tend to give as much meaning to an artwork as the contents of the artwork itself. Unadorned with branding or scholarly liner notes, emanating from no authoritative source, these objects are nude, not clothed. Thrown into open peer-to-peer distribution systems, nude media files often lose even their historical significance and blur into free-floating sound works, traveling in circles that they would not normally reach if clad in their conventional clothing."
More than a simple defrocking of context, the MP3 actually opens up multiple contexts simultaneously occurring with none. In the end, the choice of final meaning is up to the listener. As well, whether packaged in a jewel case or recorded onto a hard drive as a series of ones and zeroes, the ultimate decision about "context" falls to the listener anyway. There will always be those who cannot immediately embrace a new technology as being legitimate, yet this new method of distribution is not meant to be a replacement or proxy for older methods and more tried channels. Its existence is simply an alternative.