Ethnography Excerpt – Jake Merrell

Reflecting on the experiences of a performing musician who sees music as his or her career, one might anticipate in the general case the heavily glorified poverty and insanity that pervade cultural archetypes of performing artists—certainly not strictly archetypes contained to the Northeast where I am doing my research. With the networks in which I’m researching, many have an intensely business-minded attitude. Indeed, in today’s music industry that attitude is surely part of the minimum means required for a livelihood. My study focuses on Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts musicians, whether they be imports from other places or born and bred in the area. Performing acts generally travel frequently and/or settle into an established or developing scene, so the communities tend to have overlap. In the case of my research, snowball recruiting will practically define the vague “bounds” of my subject fieldsite. This is not to say that I imagine my musician participants exist in bounded musical communities, but instead to acknowledge that I am not working at all in one particular, bounded community, but instead in a loose network of friends and colleages in which I loosely fit. These friends might be acts that I have booked as a student managing a portion of the booking for Bard College’s concerts, put on for students most frequently at SMOG and the Root Cellar, or friends from my own participation in various communities of musicians as a musician and involved listener in my own right. They might also be bands who play on bills that I attend in New York, or that I used to more frequently attend in Connecticut, or in the case of many on the rosters of the label Exploding in Sound or of the collective Dark World, they may be based out of Massachusetts and frequently touring elsewhere. Exploding In Sound bands are known for playing ten hour bills with each other that being at two in the afternoong, and Dark World is based out of a particular region of Western Massachusetts around Amherst. These regional and vocational communities are close-knit, but they’re also inclusive and connected with seemingly unrelated groups of people in the music industry. I have not encountered in my research a truly insular community of musicians thus far. Though I’m sure they do exist to some degree, my subject network is one which is constantly changing and in conversation with the world outside of it. It constantly serves as a discourse of styles and values that can never settle so long as its participants shuffle in and out of relevance, which they are constantly doing.

I often spoke with my informants about DIY, or do-it-yourself, a concept that has been changing since before its incorporation as a facet of a punk ethos in the 1970’s. Prominent musicians like Kurt Vile are coming out in interviews to say: “In this day and age, ‘punk ideals’ are totally irrelevant. Not that it isn’t cool to have them, but times have changed, man.”[1] It seems more worthwhile then to consider DIY as a dialogue, which is in keeping with my informants’ positions, which treated DIY as having an element of adaptation to it and a flexible definition to allow musicians to thrive in whatever environment they choose to work in (“I mean it’s just like having principles or values. It’s like following commandments, it’s as basic as that.”; In response to a question about whether or not DIY is sustainable: “To survive you have to be able to morph.”). The savviness about adaptation in changing markets reflects a kind of business sense that contradicts the myth of the genius artist unable to represent his or her self. Today, as David Byrne notes in his book How Music Works, the old model of signing with a big label that would pay a minor act’s expenses with surplus from the major celebrities is gone. The overhead for producing a record, particularly one distributed digitally, is rapidly approaching nothing. The means are in the hands of anyone willing to do the work, yet as sales drop, the industry can support fewer acts. In this environment, the artists more often have to manage their own finances and business, their own promotion, distribution, and/or booking. The performing artist, more capable of being responsible for their own business than ever before, and potentially bringing with them some kind of interpretation of the DIY ethos, has to make a lot of a little. One informant spoke of how having less forces creativity, though he was quick to point out that having too much and having too little can both leave one struggling to produce good work. Though not necessarily the prevailing attitude musicians display in media outlets relevant to these acts, like Stereogum and Brooklyn Vegan, the musicians who I’ve interviewed have seen themselves as business-minded artists navigating a difficult market, no matter where they were located. They have been grateful for their work. At this point, I have not done many interviews. I intend to continue this project for at least the next two years, so this trend may be contradicted in a hundred different ways by then, but I think it reflects something of what this moment in the industry demands of performing artists, and how they are seeing themselves as a result. Another striking thing in interviews was the frequent number of jokes about the financial insecurity of their positions, and the way they mocked, rejected, or simply were silent on the matter of “cult of personality”-style self-promotion. These particular musicians values hard work foremost. They voiced concerns about external forces that might affect the purity of their work, about how their work reflects upon them, and about prizing a steady, diligent career over fifteen minutes of roaring fame.

These particular musicians want their living, but claim to see little of value in the pursuit of fame and money, the enormous gamble some observers assume all musicians to be trying to win. One informant called the difference between his life and a conventional career track “a bigger TV,” and pointed out that he can afford his livelihood from other work and still has time for friends and family, all while enjoying a musical career that engages him with a community made up of people who come to see him play or just to have a beer and hang out at the bar where he’s playing. This is how loose the network is, where fans and bystanders are included as audience, where bandmates, labelmates, and acts on the same bill form a professional network. It’s as in flux as the label rosters, the band lineups, and the venues’ bills, as one’s recorded music fans, live music fans, and whoever else might happen to be there, whether for the music or not. This is obviously a difficulty for me as researcher, and means that it is nearly impossible to know for whom I am trying to speak, but nonetheless I have been spending time with musicians in these areas long enough to know that people I met in middle school, high school, and in my last two years as a college student frequently converge around places like Brooklyn and Allston, around venues like the Silent Barn and Great Scott, and around people like 21-year old promoter and music journalist Jake Saunders, whose neverending concert series The Colonel Presents has become a trademark for kids seeking something new and exciting in Brooklyn. It’s not a bounded community I’m studying by any means, and yet it serves a purpose for musicians, linking them with fans that support them, as well as the social company that sustains them and that for many legitimizes the whole endeavor. This is the experience shared among people I know and have known that I would like to bring forward in my research, so that it can be scrutinized for an understanding foremost of the musician’s place in relatively localized communities, and of the ever-changing identity of the musician.

[1] http://pitchfork.com/features/interviews/9100-kurt-vile/

  4 comments for “Ethnography Excerpt – Jake Merrell

  1. Noah Stuber
    April 25, 2015 at 5:05 pm

    The whole do-it-yourself mentality has never been more important as it is today. You are right in saying that the performing artist has to take care of their own self promotion and in many ways the artist has to operate like a business. I’m sure it is definitely challenging to be an artist on one hand and a businessman (or woman) on the other. I feel like a lot of musicians today simply do not know how to treat their music-career in a business-like manner. Have any of your informants expressed this fear? It is obviously much easier now with the internet and social media, but you still have to be tech-savy and know what you are doing.

    • Jacob Merrell
      April 26, 2015 at 3:33 am

      Nobody has expressed fear exactly. People have consistently articulated money insecurities in particular in such a way that they just sound resigned to it. The way my informants treat the work of promotion, distribution, etc. in my interviews, it just seems that the business of music is a given to them. That fear didn’t come across in the interviews reflects a kind of stoicism, at least a public-facing stoicism, that I find really interesting and important to understanding the roles and morals of many contemporary musicians.
      Thank you for commenting by the way! Very helpful question

  2. Thomas Moore
    April 27, 2015 at 12:00 pm

    Heyyyyy Jake.

    Great work thus far, though i have some questions about the collectives you mention early on. Exploding in Sound and Dark World are interesting networks that certainly serve to enhance the work of these DIYers. Given your intimate connection with dark world, I feel that you could get a lot out of looking into that network because, while they are DIY, their collective approach certainly affords them many of the luxuries of having label-level promotion. It’s hard to say that too many of those performers could have been so successful without one another providing criticism and guidance etc.

    • Jacob Merrell
      April 27, 2015 at 2:09 pm

      That’s a good point. I wanted to interview 1913&Lil Jon but that didn’t pan out, and Show Me The Body has been featured on Dark World mixes. Actually, Sam and Harlan are both connected to Dark World in–actually I can’t remember exactly how right now. Collective work is important to DIY, and non-hierarchical alternative business structures could certainly be a hot spot for the kind of identity forming ideals I’m studying. Thanks!

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