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ESSAYS Mousse 32

“Thanks, But No Thanks.”

by Vincenzo De Bellis

 

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Vincenzo de Bellis introduces us to the thinking of Thomas Boutoux, who has a very original take on the subject. Why talk about “alternative”—a concept that has become a rather empty cliché—when we can talk about thriving systemic realities like “mainstream” or, better still, “establishment”? An enlightening text that explains why it is better to keep your eyes open, because more and more often what is alternative and genuine gets not only coopted by the system, but even hoodwinked and humiliated.

 

Everyone knows what alternative in cultural industries is about: it is about doing things differently than the mainstream. The trouble is that no one seems quite sure these days what the mainstream is. Not only is it an essentially contested concept, it is a multiply defined one, multiply employed, wholly imprecise.

Mainstream was never really part of the contemporary art vocabulary anyway. The reason is because, even if contemporary art is commercial – and it is, indisputably so — it is not mass-market fare. In the art world, we would rather talk about what is “powerful,” “market-driven,” “established,” or “taken for granted.” But even these expressions are not so much in use anymore, and what they are referring to the object of much critical thinking. Precisely, they refer to a situation that is taken for granted, in all its imprecision.

The fate of the notion of alternative is remarkably different. It has not been naturalized, but emptied out, ridiculed, turned into a cliché. We have learned to debunk alternative as a romantic fantasy, an overblown claim. We are disillusioned about alternative because we know today that difference is more often than not sameness, and diversity consolidation. We know the forces and logic of co-optation too well. Alternative has been made into almost an embarrassing label.

Yet, it is unsettling to realize how much critical intelligence and wit has been focused on trivializing something as underpowered as alternative, when so little is being done to take issues with something as systemic as the mainstream or the establishment. And this is maybe enough to want for a more negotiated reading of the notion of alternative, and of its trajectory, for a closer study of its promises, its meanings, its possibilities, as well as its limitations.

Regardless of whether the idea of alternative deserves in the end to be rated as an obsolete or not-so-obsolete idea, the fact that the word itself could be simply discarded is also upsetting. What if the catalog of adjectives consistently associated to the notion of alternative — alternative being nothing else than an umbrella term for a number of more specific attitudes, dispositions and values — was to be shadowed in the same move? I think about words like principled, independent-minded, determined, direct, unyielding, confrontational, honest, on-the-ground, consequential, ethical, uncompromising, DIY, do-the-right-thing, adversarial, discontent, committed, cooperative, irreverent, political, self-inventing, self-willed, self-sustaining, self-supporting, well-reasoned…

Probably most or all of these words could be examined and dismissed in the same logic or on the same grounds as “alternative”: they all comprise ambiguities that need to be clarified, and paradoxes that need to be resolved. But maybe what also matters is not just what these words exactly mean, but what they sound like. They have certain tone, a certain music: they are operative, inspirational, energetic. They speak to our desiring cells, they move us first bodily rather than intellectually.

What if “alternative” is more a collection of stories well-told, arguments well-put than the true truth? Does it make it less forceful and valid?

Here is an example:

There’s this band. They’re pretty ordinary, but they’re also pretty good, so they’ve attracted some attention. They’re signed to a moderate-sized “independent” label owned by a distribution company, and they have another two albums owed to the label.

They’re a little ambitious. They’d like to get signed by a major label so they can have some security you know — get some good equipment, tour in a proper tour bus — nothing fancy, just a little reward for all the hard work.

To that end, they got a manager. He knows some of the label guys, and he can shop their next project to all the right people. He takes his cut, sure, but it’s only 15%, and if he can get them signed then it’s money well spent. Anyways, it doesn’t cost them anything if it doesn’t work. 15% percent of nothing isn’t much!

One day an A & R scout calls them, says he’s “been following them for a while now,” and when their manager mentioned them to him, it just “clicked.” Would they like to meet with him about the possibility of working out a deal with his label? Wow. Big Break time.

They meet the guy, and y’know what? — he’s not what they expected from a label guy. He’s young and dresses pretty much like the band does. He knows all their favorite bands. He’s like one of them. He tells them he wants to go to bat for them, to try to get them everything they want. He says anything is possible with the right attitude. They conclude the evening by taking home a copy of a deal memo they wrote out and signed on the spot.

The A & R guy was full of great ideas, even talked about using a name producer. Butch Vig is out of the question — he wants 100 g’s and 3 points, but they can get Don Fleming for $30,000 plus 3 points. Even that’s a little steep, so maybe they’ll go with that guy who used to be in David Letterman’s band. He only wants 3 points. Or they can have just anybody record it (like Wharton Tiers, maybe—cost you 5 or 7 grand) and have Andy Wallace remix it for 4 grand a track plus 2 points. It was a lot to think about.

Well, they like this guy and they trust him. Besides, they already signed the deal memo. He must have been serious about wanting them to sign. They break the news to their current label, and the label manager says he wants them to succeed, so they have his blessing. He will need to be compensated, of course, for the remaining albums left on their contract, but he’ll work it out with the label himself. Sub Pop made millions from selling off Nirvana, and Twin Tone hasn’t done bad either: 50 grand for the Babes and 60 grand for the Poster Children — without having to sell a single additional record. It’ll be something modest. The new label doesn’t mind, so long as it’s recoupable out of royalties.

Well, they get the final contract, and it’s not quite what they expected. They figure it’s better to be safe than sorry and they turn it over to a lawyer — one who says he’s experienced in entertainment law and he hammers out a few bugs. They’re still not sure about it, but the lawyer says he’s seen a lot of contracts, and theirs is pretty good. They’ll be great royalty: 13% (less a 10% packaging deduction). Wasn’t it Buffalo Tom that were only getting 12% less 10? Whatever.

The old label only wants 50 grand, and no points. Hell, Sub Pop got 3 points when they let Nirvana go. They’re signed for four years, with options on each year, for a total of over a million dollars! That’s a lot of money in any man’s English. The first year’s advance alone is $250,000. Just think about it, a quarter million, just for being in a rock band!

Their manager thinks it’s a great deal, especially the large advance. Besides, he knows a publishing company that will take the band on if they get signed, and even give them an advance of 20 grand, so they’ll be making that money too. The manager says publishing is pretty mysterious, and nobody really knows where all the money comes from, but the lawyer can look that contract over too. Hell, it’s free money.

Their booking agent is excited about the band signing to a major. He says they can maybe average $1,000 or $2,000 a night from now on. That’s enough to justify a five-week tour, and with tour support, they can use a proper crew, buy some good equipment and even get a tour bus! Buses are pretty expensive, but if you figure in the price of a hotel room for everybody in the band and crew, they’re actually about the same cost. Some bands (like Therapy? and Sloan and Stereolab) use buses on their tours even when they’re getting paid only a couple hundred bucks a night, and this tour should earn at least a grand or two every night. It’ll be worth it. The band will be more comfortable and will play better.

The agent says a band on a major label can get a merchandising company to pay them an advance on T-shirt sales! Ridiculous! There’s a gold mine here! The lawyer should look over the merchandising contract, just to be safe.

They get drunk at the signing party. Polaroids are taken and everybody looks thrilled. The label picked them up in a limo.

They decided to go with the producer who used to be in Letterman’s band. He had these technicians come in and tune the drums for them and tweak their amps and guitars. He had a guy bring in a slew of expensive old “vintage” microphones. Boy, were they “warm.” He even had a guy come in and check the phase of all the equipment in the control room! Boy, was he professional. He used a bunch of equipment on them and by the end of it, they all agreed that it sounded very “punchy,” yet “warm.”

All that hard work paid off. With the help of a video, the album went like hotcakes! They sold a quarter million copies!

Here is the math that will explain just how fucked they are:

These figures are representative of amounts that appear in record contracts daily. There’s no need to skew the figures to make the scenario look bad, since real-life examples more than abound. Income is bold and underlined, expenses are not.

The band is now a quarter way through its contract, has made the music industry more than three million dollars richer, but is in the hole $14,000 on royalties. The band members have each earned about 1/3 as much as they would working at a 7-Eleven, but they got to ride in a tour bus for a month.

The next album will be about the same, except that the record company will insist they spend more time and money on it. Since the previous one never “recouped,” the band will have no leverage, and will oblige. The next tour will be about the same, except the merchandising advance will have already been paid, and the band, strangely enough, won’t have earned any royalties from their T-shirts yet. Maybe the T-shirt guys have figured out how to count money like record company guys.

Some of your friends are probably already this fucked.*

* Steve Albini, “The Problem with Music.” The Baffler #5 (1993).

 

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So here is a text that managed to unpack the contradictions and ambiguities of the notion of alternative without throwing out the baby with the bath water. Point made. Can it be translated into other realms, such as contemporary art instead of the business of music, and at a different time than the early Nineties, but in the present? Can a similar story be written, which would begin with: “There is this artist. He’s pretty ordinary, but he’s also pretty good, so he has attracted some attention.” Or… “There is this curator; there is this non-profit space, this gallery?” I guess yes.

But the main purpose of quoting this text at such length is because its importance, its usefulness, is that of a tale, and originates in its particular rhythm. It is not so much a text to be paraphrased, or to which a following or commentaries can be associated. It is a text to be subjected to. It has an empowering quality. It can make you want to adapt it instantly to a more personal set of issues but whether or not this will take the form of a new text does not really matter in fact. What matters is that a text such as Albini’s has the ability to put you in a certain state of mind, make you want to postulate theories, hold debates, air grievances, or simply just pay attention to details, do things differently, and sometimes reply “thanks, but no thanks.”

This is what alternative has always been about, and why it is still a valid concept today I believe. And there are nowadays still a myriad of small presses, music labels, art organizations, or generally low-pressure profit projects all over the world that can, and should, still be called “alternative” in the sense that they can be credited for that.

 

Originally published on Mousse 32 (February–March 2012)

 

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