The Tonic Imbroglio
By Beppe Colli
Apr. 24, 2007

During the first week of February I spent quite some time reading articles on the topic of Urban Design. I can't really remember what it was that I was looking for, but while I was doing a search on the Web I happened to find a link to the text from a roundtable about Urban Design, off the latest issue (# 25, Fall 2006/Winter 2007) of Harvard Design Magazine, called Urban Design Now. Since I found the discussion to be quite interesting, I ordered the issue and proceeded to investigate it.

One article immediately attracted my attention - and how could an article called The Upside Of Gentrification ever fail to do so? One thing I immediately learned was that "gentrification" was a recent word. Having first encountered it in the mid-80s - and having no trouble understanding its meaning, given the context in which it was used - I had assumed it to have been in existence for quite some time; but when I had looked for it, it turned out that my (mid-70s) dictionary didn't have it.

After stating a definition for it ("The generally accepted definition of gentrification is the arrival of higher-income households into an urban neighborhood, gradually displacing lower-income residents in numbers sufficient to change the neighborhood's social character"), author Matthew J. Kiefer made me aware of the fact that the term had first been used by British sociologist Ruth Glass in 1964, and had been used for the first time in the USA in an article which appeared in the New York Times in 1972.

The topic of gentrification has been a heated one for quite some time now, receiving more press space when buildings that are considered as possessing a high cultural value are about to be replaced by condos or business. The most recent case in point being the (world-wide famous?) New York club called Tonic.

I first became aware of Tonic at the time when John Zorn started bringing "avant-garde, experimental music" to the venue (about nine years ago, I think). Every time I got an e-mail with the names of those who were about to play there, I thought about what a fantastic experience one was to have, provided one lived there. I've never been to New York, but every time somebody I know went there (and every time I read a concert review) I got the news about Tonic. It's only recently that I started to realize that I had never asked - nor it had been communicated to me in plain, simple terms that I could easily understand - about things such as Tonic's size, or its solvency.

I was obviously saddened, last year, by the news that Tonic was sailing through financially troubled waters. So it was not a real surprise to read of it being about to close its doors. Which in fact it did, on April, 13th.

If there ever was a case of "gentrification in action" this is it, the Lower East Side being a part of the city where new buildings come up practically every day. But reading newspaper and magazine articles a more complex picture began to emerge. Thanks to Tricia Romano (Dead Again, which appeared in the Village Voice website on April 9th, 2007 4:02 PM) I learned that "the two owners, Melissa Caruso Scott and her husband John Scott, were months behind in paying their rent, and now owe more than $10,000. They are being evicted". I also learned that "the basement, which hosted relatively big moneymaking parties like Bunker, had been closed by the city because the Scotts lacked the simplest of paperwork - a certificate of occupancy and a public-assembly permit, both required for any space. That they'd gone so long without getting busted was a gift. That it wasn't a licensed cabaret and had been operating as one for several years without incurring violations was like winning the lottery". Also that "Tonic almost went under two and a half years ago when the Scotts needed to upgrade the sewer system but couldn't afford it. A series of benefits bailed them out". And talking about the sewer, I also got to read about the (sad) state of the bathrooms.

Clearly, this was not a situation when something went wrong, but one that had been in a financially perilous state for ages - practically forever. At last, I got to know Tonic's official capacity: 180. And since my memory is not what it used to be, I looked up for the number of people currently living in the city of New York: 8.000.000+.

What happened later - which I read about on the Web, the situation now being in a state of flux, with changes expected (or, at the very least, hoped for) every day - is nothing short of surreal. In a nutshell, some musicians formed a group called Take It To The Bridge in order to address the bigger problems regarding the current situation of experimental music in the city. They staged a peaceful protest at Tonic on April 14, the day after the club closed. There, the police arrested two musicians - Rebecca Moore and Marc Ribot - having them in handcuffs; they were later released.

More about the coalition can be found on the Web. In a nutshell, they are asking that the city council adopt a principle similar to European cultural policy, i.e. that the arts should not be left to the mercy of market forces; that the city recognize the damage done to its cultural heritage and status as a "cultural capitol" by the displacement of venues central to experimental music, and act now to protect those remaining venues from displacement, either by providing funding sufficient to allow them to withstand the explosion of commercial rents, or by legislation forcing landlords to restrict rents of culturally valuable venues, or both.

I also happened to read elsewhere (no, I didn't get it) an "open letter" sent by (reed player) Ned Rothenberg and addressed to "Dear Friends in Europe", which stated that "Europe, which has always supported this music, has a great role to play because New York's political leadership is well aware that European (and Canadian tourists) are central to the strength of NYC's economy".

What I don't understand here is (what I perceive as) a certain reluctance on the part of the speakers (I've read texts by other musicians, all running along similar lines) to admit that what we are talking about here is nothing more - nor less - than a value judgment, as in "Since I consider this music to be culturally relevant/important/indispensable/well worth preserving, I'm asking for some money". Plain and simple. A venue like that (capacity: 180) being in the red practically from day one shows with no trace of ambiguity that people in New York just don't care. And with all due respect to Rothenberg, I find the notion of European tourists flocking to New York with Tonic as a part of their itinerary a bit too hard to swallow.

Before I go on I'd like to briefly illustrate my point of view regarding public funding when it comes to the arts - as opposed to, say, education, public safety, health care, and the like. I implore those who are kind enough to read this to pay attention - I've noticed that even musicians sporting a higher-than-average I.Q. sometimes show a lack of understanding when it's (their) money that's at stake.

Of course, I have nothing against private donations (well, here we could have a nice chat about tax exemptions, but let's save this topic for another time). What I'm talking about is public funding. I have to admit that, being a rock'n'roller at heart, I've always found the notion of subsidizing a bit strange - and especially so after reading about all the distortions, inefficiencies, and thievery (plain and simple) that may originate from public intervention. So every time somebody says something along the lines of "Why shouldn't musician X get funding when opera and ballet get it?" my reaction (very tongue-in-cheek, somewhat) is "Why not eliminate all funding for opera and ballet so they can play on a level playing field with musician X?". I have to admit that a part I don't really like is that money coming from low-income people (though taxes) is used to fund things that high-income people use disproportionately more - it works just the same with (public) University, a fact made worse by the (very) different distribution of tax evasion in the general population.

Let's have an example that's easy to understand. Let's suppose we have a Festival lasting, say, eight months, with a few concerts a month. Let's suppose the total budget to be 1.000.000 euros. The money is spent for artist compensation, of course, plus: air fare; hotels; food; posters advertising the concerts; tickets; programs printed for each event, with notes and photos; renting the venue; renting instruments and amplifiers; a P.A; a monitor system; and the roadies and technicians who go with this. At the end of the day, we could arrive at the conclusion that, provided it's the musicians' well-being that we care about, we could send them, say, one-tenth of the total sum (i.e., 100.000 euros) to stay at home doing nothing, with the rest of the money being spent to better the conditions of schools and roads. In fact, the largest part of the total doesn't benefit musicians, just "unrelated" business - and let's not forget the wages of those working for the bureaucratic organization that runs these things. This should act as a gentle reminder as the reason why a lot of people are extremely in favour of public-funded arts.

Of course, as soon as I propose this people start laughing. Paying musicians to stay home doing nothing! What about audiences? Well, talk is one thing, but nowadays nobody really believes in the old "high art will make people better" adage. Even the existence of "high art" is in doubt. Public intervention increasingly goes in the direction of "events" that a lot of people will be able to enjoy - incidentally, those where private companies can act as sponsors, with no added strain to already-exhausted public finances: large events such as "big name X for free", or, increasingly, those that have "ordinary people as the real protagonists of the event", which mostly consists of staying outdoors all night while various attractions go on, all shops open, and the like ("Circenses", for those who studied Latin). I don't really know who could possibly believe in the notion that a musician selling, say, 100 CDs in a whole nation could change the perception of what is art for, say, 200 people in every town s/he plays, who have paid a pittance (provided they have paid at all) to attend the concert, have no idea who the artist is, and will forget his/her name as soon as they are out of the venue (and if you believe this, well, I have an old building in Rome I could sell to you).

While searching for more news about this Tonic affair, just by chance, I happened to find an article written by Marc Ribot. Titled Crisis In Indie/New Music Clubs, it was submitted on Wed, 09/20/2006 - 8:50pm. It is a long (even longer than this Editorial), complex, rich and stimulating article, which really needs to be read in its entirety. What follows is not a summary of Ribot's writing (though I've quoted him at length in order to avoid misrepresenting him), nor a rebuttal of his point of view (though some of his arguments left me unconvinced).

"This paper will argue that the market is failing as a means of funding downtown new music", he starts. Then he adds: "Market funding is no longer feasible. This idea feels shocking and strange, but historically speaking, it's our expectation that new music ever could be successfully funded through the market that's strange."

He notices that "New music composers of the 40's through the early 60's didnít expect to make money through the live performance market: many taught to earn a living. John Cage's income wasn't based on packing a nightclub with door fee paying, drink buying customers: many of his history making premieres were attended by fewer people than attend an average gig at CBGB's. He was supported mainly by commissions and performance fees, by grants from private and public foundations".

Stating that "The idea that new music could be supported by the market was born in the downtown NYC in the late 70's" he goes on saying that "By 1988, the marketability of the "downtown" experimentalists was so strong that the music could support a 7 night a week club of its own, the Knitting Factory, with main acts playing on weekends". But with the passing of time, "Tonic, however, already represented a downsizing in the new music audience: its room capacity was 180, compared with over 300 at the Knitting Factory's main space".

After stating "I've spent c/a two months a year on tour in Europe since 1984, playing over 1000 gigs", he proceeds to open a new chapter in his argument reminding us of the fact that "European public subsidies have funded cutting edge US music since the time of Louis Armstrong". He adds: "The idea behind European public arts subsidies (...) is a doctrine called "the European cultural exception," a set of government policies based on the concept that, even within a market economy, art/culture is to be treated differently from other commodities".

But lately he's noticed a change: "When I started playing Europe regularly in the 80's, festival rosters read like lists of US, mostly New York musicians. Today, we are included less frequently, if at all. The reasons behind this are complex: long overdue recognition of excellent European artists; attrition of the "jazz/new music" market by "world music;" euro/nationalism; political antipathy to the US; and the gradual fading of the historical conditions that produced the enormous popularity of US jazz/new music in the first place".

Meanwhile, "At the rock/pop border of the experimental margin, another type of subsidy is now in short supply. Major record labels once were willing to invest in critically respected music, even if it wasn't as lucrative as mainstream pop. Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, John Zorn, The Lounge Lizards, and this author were all signed to majors at one point", but for a variety of reasons that his writing discusses at length, this is no more.

Where do we go from here? Ribot's solutions are to be judged after a careful reading of his article. In the larger scheme of things, however, all points to musicians from the avant-garde asking for public intervention, in whatever guises it may come. The manifesto of the coalition I referred to earlier in this piece certainly goes in that direction. Nothing bad here. But there are a couple points I'd like to address.

First, Ribot is right when he talks about John Cage. But this is only half the story. In those days, Academia really existed, and had a virtual monopoly in a system that "certified" a musician as having the right qualities that made him/her a potential recipient of the approved ways of getting funds. The system was, essentially, closed, admitting just a few. Nowadays, who's an "avant-garde" musician? Well, it depends on who you ask. It might be a DJ, a kora player, a kid with a laptop, even a person who's on top of the charts but who's doing something... well, different. That in the present situation any person calling him/herself "avant-garde" could hope to have access to any certified status that's in any way comparable to John Cage's is totally out of the question.

Wynton Marsalis has been attacked left and right for his views on music, on cultural heritage and what have you for a long time now. But his strategy worked: By presenting a recognizable past that could be defined as "still with us", to be cherished and (in a very specific sense) "improved upon", he has used a definition of "culture" that could get funded.

(One can't help but notice that quite a few members of the "avant-garde" are boomers who, one imagines, are now confronted with the idea - the nightmare? - of having their sons and daughters go to College. Could it be that... Well, let's not sink that low.)

I have to say it was about ten years ago that I started perceiving a definite shift on the part of "avant-garde" musicians towards a kind of "subsidized" scheme, as opposed to a "market" scheme. Like their priorities had changed, or they had abandoned any hope things could ever change for the better. This does not entail any value judgment about the music that's played, of course. It could even be better than ever. But I could not escape the sad impression that, while treating "the market" with disdain, they (well, definitely some) had their eye on a different kind of market. Sometimes it's strange to read about all the different projects musician X has, all ready to tour - it reads just like a restaurant menu. And everybody (well, definitely more than a few) goes on putting out CDs that nobody will ever hear, the number of listeners having gone down, with the number of released CDs being at an all-time high. And when one finds, say, 150+ reviews in a single issue of a magazine, most of them of CDs by people one has never heard of before, most of them being "at least very good, if not excellent"... well, enough already!

As a consumer, I increasingly find less and less to read. I mean, these days, when I read interviews with musicians (including quite a few whose music I like), I find that, more and more, they lack any real passion and commitment - like they think they are really wasting their time talking to the press. Of course I could be very wrong, but with no "centre" existing any more, and with no hope left of convincing anybody to actually buy their CDs (did you say "download"?), it's like they would rather talk to somebody who can get them a few good gigs, maybe a commission.

© Beppe Colli 2007 | Apr. 24, 2007