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Black Sky Thinking

A Musician Vs. The Music Industry: A Conversation
Wyndham Wallace , September 7th, 2011 07:58

The Icarus Line have battled as hard, if not harder, than most to survive. In a follow up to his essay How The Music Industry Is Killing Music & Blaming The Fans, Wyndham Wallace exchanges mails with Joe Cardamone about the difficulties of making a living from music

In late May, The Quietus published a story entitled ‘How The Music Industry Is Killing Music And Blaming The Fans’. In it, I argued that the music industry’s lethargic response to the possibilities of downloading could have catastrophic consequences for musicians, and indeed art as a whole, and that the battle to prevent filesharing was already lost. But musicians, like us all, need to be rewarded for their work - assuming of course that others are benefiting from it - otherwise we risk them being silenced simply due to their need to pay bills. The industry therefore needs to adopt a forward-thinking policy that acknowledges that people no longer consume music in the way that they once did, and instead allows them to pay for it in a manner that suits their new habits.

Despite its considerable length, the piece went on to become the most read story the site had published to date, provoking a stream of comments and also a slew of private messages. Amongst them was a mail from Joe Cardamone, who turned out to be the singer of The Icarus Line. Some three weeks later, a promotional copy of the band’s new album, Wildlife, arrived. Unfamiliar with their work, but intrigued by Joe’s correspondence, I played it without hesitation, and was pleased to discover that the thrilling rock & roll contained within matched the passion of his message. Bitter, angry, desperate and honest, it sounds like the bastard child of Swans, the Bad Seeds and glam-era David Bowie. It reminded me of why I love rock & roll, at a time when most of it's depressingly predictable, but paradoxically when we need it the most.

I won’t be alone in that discovery, I hope, but how many people will actually pay for the pleasure it gives them? Wildlife’s existence underlined for me why we need to fight to preserve the musician’s right to be compensated for their work. If Joe and others like him can’t afford to continue, the existence of powerful voices will be threatened. I suggested we pick up our communication once again to discuss the issues raised in more detail. What follows is an edited version of a candid exchange, beginning with Joe’s original message sent a few days after the original feature’s publication.

Joe Cardamone: No one knows how fucking heartbreaking it is to see my best friend sit there with a guitar in her hands looking at me with ‘What's the point?’ on her face. This was my day today, trying to motivate the singer of a band people actually care about, but she can’t afford to buy food. Like, anything to eat. Giant Drag’s new record has been done for months, but she has been so disillusioned that I am watching the effect of major labels on a fragile soul first hand. It’s crushing. What am I supposed to tell her??? It’s going to get better? I don’t know what to say. Her dad runs a gas station and mine has been out of work for two years. No trust funds here.

It’s fucked. We are starving our art into extinction, not because we don’t care but because what the fuck are we supposed to do? We carry on, sure, but the integrity and ideal that made us who we are today are the same things that are slowly rendering us a non-product.

Wyndham Wallace: So sorry to see things illustrated that are every bit as bad as I fear (though, as I suggested in the feature, they can still get so much worse). I worked as a manager for the last few years, and previously with record labels, and in many ways I feel like my article was a resignation letter of sorts to the business. But it’s music, and music is in our blood, so what’s one to do? Personally, all I can do is continue to champion what I consider to be valuable and hope somehow it makes a difference.

JC: When we (musicians) speak out on this kind of life we are made out to be spoiled brats. Nothing could be further from the truth. I came from nothing, made every opportunity myself and continue to. These last couple years have been a test of will and survival skills. The thing is, I would rather die trying than give up. I don’t know how many others feel that way, but without this, what do I have? 15 years of my life have gone in one direction. I have no high school diploma and nothing to fall back on, so when people kick back to enjoy the free shit it can get you down. I don’t know how it is where you are, but, in Los Angeles, not only are you supposed to give the music away but then people want you to play for free. The club gets paid off the bar and the band spends countless hours preparing and paying for space to prepare in.

So, thank you for explaining exactly what my life has become so that I don’t have to. It meant the world to me, even though I know things might just keep getting worse. We won’t stop.

WW: Reading a number of the comments made by readers of the original article, I was struck by something that you too refer to: the idea that some people hold that musicians are ‘spoiled brats’. 'There's no reason that society should have special rules to favour musicians over anyone else,' one person wrote, and that somehow seemed to summarise the confusion. They were arguing against the point I’d raised that musicians deserve payment for their work, failing to recognise that this situation is not about ensuring musicians are paid merely for picking up an instrument, but that musicians are paid by others who reap the rewards of that act. Musicians are being asked to work under special rules that mean they do not get paid for the work they do that others enjoy, a rule that few other professions would find acceptable (though more and more, like writers, for instance, are being asked to do exactly that).

JC: The reason that this is increasingly the case is because artists are inherently vulnerable to this circumstance by nature. Any art worth its salt isn't primarily motivated by commerce. It usually stems from some need for expression. Personally I have withstood unimaginable circumstances to create and perform. Even though it has been over ten years since I held any sort of 'clock in/clock out' job, that doesn't mean I have been receiving paychecks for sitting around acting cooler than everyone. When your means to communicate with the world is intertwined with your best means to sustain life, you are put in an extremely vulnerable situation. I would often choose going without over stifling one of the few avenues available to purge myself of ills that would probably otherwise manifest in negative ways. I feel like many decent artists are a breath away from a life of crime. Not because they are bad people, but because they were born with a limited range of ability to relate to the world around them. Perhaps I'm wrong, but before music I had a hard time finding a way to acclimate to society. When I speak about the threat of extinction, this is what I mean. Take away the means of expression and what choices are left? This makes it very hard to leverage against an industry hell-bent on the lowest common denominator.

WW: Why do you think some people hold a grudge against musicians?

JC: Because good musicians represent an active distaste for the status quo. Modern western society at large is encouraged to witch hunt anyone who might wake up some sort of revolutionary instincts. I know it may sound dramatic because rock & roll is supposed to be fun and games, but artists have always been political/social vanguards. As we know, the vanguard is always the first to be killed.

WW: Why is there such a misconception that being a musician automatically equates to being a filthy rich capitalist bathing in asses’ milk and champagne whilst snorting cocaine off the chest of young nymphs?

JC: Probably because that's what we do for fun on the weekend. I mean, the notion of celebrity has been so contorted in recent times that anyone with moderate success in a creative field is put on a pedestal. The problem with that is human nature: envy inevitably kicks in. The successful artist is expected to live and portray themselves a certain way, as some kind of heathen that is above all of society’s rules. At the same time, they are made out to be the guy next door who won the lottery: they aren't there because of hard work or talent. Often these days it might be exactly that, and, if it’s not, artists are expected to be portrayed this way to appeal to society’s notion of success.

WW: Has the industry spent so long focusing on the glamour big stars enjoy that they forgot to acknowledge the extreme hard work that many musicians have to put into their careers for far, far smaller rewards?

JC: Shows like American Idol perpetuate this phenomenon. The idea that the guy cleaning toilets is just one lucky break away from being plucked out of obscurity. The idea that hard work in a chosen field of art is useless, so keep buying lottery tickets and you might be the one who gets to step out of the feed line. In the meantime just do your job, watch TMZ and shut the fuck up. It's also a mind frame supported by a music industry that will turn complete non-talents into musical legends. The technological advances in recording have been abused to no end. Recording tools that were developed to enhance great performances have become a short cut to control. Why would a record company deal with a real artist who could be moderately more difficult to control when you can put lipstick on a pig and make it sing? They saw a loophole and turned it into a drawbridge. The mentality of manufactured pop stars is nothing new, but it has been taken to such an extreme these days. Technology that was supposed to even the playing field has been abused to cast away many legitimate voices.

What can be done? I’m not sure, because the public mainstream palate has been permanently dumbed down. The sound that is pleasing to today’s listener has become such a watered down charade that is an uphill battle to offer contrary acts of art. The main thing someone can do is reject the notion of perfection as a standard in art. Support unique voices and actively deny manufactured dreck. It comes down to people making personal choices and digging a little deeper. In the music scene that I come from, this is mostly a standard thought, but there isn't always enough of us to keep something special alive.

WW: Some people mistakenly felt I was pinning all the blame upon record companies rather than an overall business system that has failed musicians and fans. Do you think the fault lies with any particular arm of the industry?

JC: I will say that the record industry heads slept on piles of gold while the pig was cut from head to tail. They had a chance years ago to do something about this current debacle. Instead of suing Napster they should have been on Capitol Hill. They missed the point completely and now face an increasingly uphill battle. The time to set laws in the wild west of the internet was over five years ago. They just couldn't wrap their heads around the impending haemorrhage, which proves that they are either moronic or completely greedy. There must have been a way to protect artists and even their own interests without censorship, but they just didn't acknowledge the threat until it was way too late. Now what? Is there a Band-Aid large enough to stop the bleeding? For people overpaid so much to be the think tanks of a huge industry they sure had no foresight. They had no angle on the endgame, so why were they being paid so much?

WW: Do you believe that there is still a difference between the manner in which indie organisations and corporate organisations operate, or have the former been forced to adopt many of the less honourable approaches favoured by the latter in order to survive?

JC: I think there is a difference, of course, but it isn't a rule of thumb. When I was a teenager reading Maximumrocknroll there was a difference for sure. Labels like Dischord outlined a model that worked and was ethically sound. Some smaller labels are still able to survive under these practices and some have to go the other way. At this point it is so fragmented that it is hard to criticise any small label for their practices. They really have to take advantage of every opportunity they can to survive the modern record business. Even though as an artist it may be saddening to see, I understand some of the concessions made by good labels. Today it's hard to get by on records alone.

WW: In your press release for new album Wildlife, you write about its genesis that, 'I had moved out of slums of Hollywood back to my hometown, Highland Park in East LA. The change of scenery was prompted by a need to get away from everything that living in Hollywood brought - Desperation, Drugs and Record Industry scum.' While none of these are terribly appealing, they could be said to have provided inspiration for many artists – would you consider that to be true of yourself, and of this album?

JC: The record, like all the others I have made, is just a direct result of what is going on around me. If things were different would the record sound like it does? Probably not. Records to me are documents of time. You do the best you can to paint a picture of the world around you as you currently understand it. At least that's how I have always approached it. It’s not the same as making a documentary film, of course, because I have to respond to events with sound and phrase. I have been enamoured with music as art my whole life, and when you play rock & roll it’s such a fine line between fantasy and real life. How else can you put someone halfway across the world in your shoes for three minutes? It blows my mind sometimes how powerful sounds can be. Actualizing emotion through song is just such an awesome thing to me. It’s hard for me to take it for granted, no matter how many times I produce a new tune. To me music just seems like such an alien, immediate and direct form of communication. Hopefully the listener can get a feeling for what is going on before a verse is even sung. To me, that is magic.

WW: Do you think that, as some people suggest, there’s a danger of succumbing to a sense of nostalgia about ‘how things used to be’? Was there ever a golden age in which the music industry knew what it was doing, artists were treated fairly, and the cream rose to the top?

JC: I’m not sure if such a time ever existed. Many of my favourite records were made by unsung or undersung heroes. Sure, Johnny Thunders is known by people like me and you and the readers of your publication, but the world in general ignored him. Was it because he wasn't good enough to rise out of the dreck? Or did he sabotage his trajectory through drug use or whatever? I feel like that’s just life. There are only so many seats on the bus, so people who don't want to wait in line have to walk on their own feet. Artists have often been treated unfairly but it's a hazard of the situation. That's pretty evident on day one.

WW: Is it actually relevant whether such a time existed, the point being that the situation now is way worse, even critical, and the complaints about how musicians are suffering for their art are becoming even more desperate?

JC: It's just that the current situation is of unbalanced proportions compared to past times. That's all we have to measure against. We are at critical tipping point where the rules are being rewritten all the time. Not just in music, but in our daily lives and freedoms. Open societies are slowly being closed down as people gladly hand over control to the powers that be. You would think that the internet revolution would be an empowering thing against these forces, but often it seems to act as a foil to scatter efforts and keep things that are underground exactly where they are. The chance of marginal mainstream success became an ever closing door the day Kurt Cobain blew his head off high on heroin. They sure aren't going to let that happen again. He made sure to reverse whatever progress he initiated that day, unfortunately.

WW: Has commercial success become too significant in our judgement as to whether something is valuable or not?

JC: In mainstream culture? Oh, hell yeah. Especially in America. This country's appreciation for fine art dwindles at every turn. Funding for arts is cut all the time. The very things that inspired the innovations that made this country great are being strangled. People are encouraged to shut the fuck up and do what they are told. The whole mentality is so dangerous. It is scary to think that there is a generation that thinks music/art is basically worthless. A mentality encouraged by 'cool' artists like Radiohead. Pay whatever you think the music is worth: that's a terrible message to send to impressionable youths. Today I decided that Gucci suits are worth 10 dollars. Fuck anyone who spent time designing, manufacturing and creating them. It's madness.

WW: We’ve watched growing demonstrations across the world over the last six to twelve months voicing disgust and dissatisfaction with the current order, in which the divide between the haves and the have-nots has arguably never been greater. But are the actions of the illegal downloaders not comparable to these protestors and rioters, another – albeit often inarticulate and ill-directed – attempt to voice their frustration at a system that, frankly, will only be rebuilt after it’s been torn down to the ground? Is there even any purpose in trying to save the music industry as we know it?

JC: There is a point to saving what we can. It has been a system that supported great artists and fostered pieces of work that enhanced lives of generations.

WW: Do you think people underestimate just how hard it is to survive the rock & roll dream?

JC: I’m not sure if they estimate at all. They see a record come out, they see a show date and they either support it or they don't. As it stands, independent artists are forced to make insane choices. I could never do this band if I had a child to support. At 32, having a child and a family is just not an option. How many other professions require you to completely give up huge parts of life like this?

WW: And, if it all ended tomorrow, would it have been worth it for you and The Icarus Line?

JC: Like if I died? Yeah.

WW: Do you think that the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll, even at its most sleazy, still offers glamour, or is it, as you sing at one stage, 'a bitch with no hope'?

JC: It has to be a bitch with no hope or it isn’t rock ‘n’ roll.

WW: How much of what stops you is money?

JC: 100%.

WW: And what can keep you heading towards that goal in the face of continuing adversity?

JC: My love of what I do is what keeps me going. It's that simple.

The Icarus Line’s Wildlife is out now. They play UK dates as follows:

10 Oct UK Cardiff Clwb Ifor Bach
11 Oct UK Manchester Ruby Lounge
12 Oct UK Glasgow King Tuts
13 Oct UK Wakefield The Hop
14 Oct UK London The Lexington