BRAIN TUBA: Devil’s Advocacy
Not to dwell on it too much, but the disappearance of Manhattan’s Lower East Side as a home for experimental music is a real bummer, the last corner of the city where it existed comfortably. Though there are still pockets of resistance — the outlet of Turntable Lab on 7th Street, the way-goddamn-east Nublu on Avenue C, Other Music on 4th Street (which outlasted Tower Records across the street!) — Tonic was arguably the neighborhood’s musical anchor. If rats fleeing a sinking ship spell trouble, I’m not really sure what artists going to Brooklyn signify, as they’ve been doing for years, besides better rents. So they go.
The funny thing is, I’m not reAally sure it means anything outside the culture of Manhattan, at least not to the music itself. It is sad, yes, and it is worth fighting to prevent, of course. But, really, experimental music at large has never been healthier: just not on the island of Manhattan. One need only glance at random day of the trend-setting Pitchfork to see (for example) interviews with old school avant-guitar orchestratator Glenn Branca, breathtaking reports of the latest from NYC (ha!) math-freaks Battles, or glowing reviews of Baltimore bit-geek Dan Deacon.
Or, one can consider Universal’s recent partnership with Ecstatic Peace, the fiercely DIY micro-label run by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore. Or the major label bidding war over costumed Brooklyn weirdoes Animal Collective. Or, geeze, even a look at most of the major indie/mainstream crossovers would do: the Arcade Fire (whose members also play in the Bell Orchestre, created to score music for contemporary dance, puppet, and theatre pieces), or mail collaborators Postal Service (one-half of which being laptop virtuoso Dntel).
Though New York is well represented on the above list, it is by no means a Manhattan-centric collection. Ten or twenty years ago, the loss of the major Manhattan stage would be devastating. But ten or twenty years ago, there were both cheaper neighborhoods in New York City and an audience more willing to pay money to gather in rooms and watch strange people make noise. What it boils down to, on that level, is that avant-garde jazz became less popular as the neighborhoods in which it was predominantly performed grew trendier.
If musicians can be thought of as fleeing rats, perhaps we are seeing the first stages of what Joel Kotkin notes in his Wall Street Journal editorial, "The Myth of Superior Cities..’ In a few years, maybe we will see blossomings of the avant-garde in what Kotkin points out as the ‘non-superstar cities [that] have become the nation’s most prodigious centers for job creation,’ places like Phoenix, Atlanta, Dallas, and Las Vegas. (Hey, maybe CBGB owner Hilly Krystal was onto something when he announced he was moving the vaunted punk club to Vegas.)
Or maybe Marc Ribot was right, and the commercial validation of the avant-garde by the mainstream is a false indicator of actual success. Maybe it is. And perhaps the view that the internet, which bridges bedroom studio to bedroom studio, is saving music is short-sighted, and the loss (or suggestion of a loss) of a flesh-and-spit scene, the type that has gathered people face-to-face for all human existence, is far scarier than anybody wants to admit. Maybe we’re fucked. But, y’know, maybe we’re not.