Publish And Perish1/14/22
About a dozen years ago I put together an ugly but reasonably functional online store to let anyone foolish enough to still want to get physical pick up one of my multitudinous CDs. I learned barely enough PHP to build it in some semblance of Web twozero standards, and I even rigged up automagical Paypal payment links. After relentless debugging, the gimcrack thing actually worked.
As a self-manufacturing self-promoting relentless independent, I was lean and mean enough to want to hold onto the reins of minuscule power myself, and obscure and poh enough to not want to pay the piper for display privileges on a big destination site with a zillion other starry-eyed wannabes.
I stuck it on my server and went back to sleep. About once a year, sure as sunrise, someone would buy something. And then recently, a wouldbe customer emailed me. Surprise, surprise, my music vending machine had quit.
The advent of sound recording, despite any contention to the contrary, was by no means a black swan out-of-nowhere event. Civilizations from the fertile triangle to ancient Greece had been coming up with methods of notating the ephemeral art of music since at least 2000 BCE, and at the blood-red dawn of the Industrial Revolution sheet music publishing blew up right alongside books and magazines, becoming a major 19th century biznis.
But then, as in so many things, along came Thomas fucking Edison.
Edison's phonograph, and the installed base of phonographs that it instigated, changed the game by increasing the quality and variety and decreasing the cost of mechanical musical reproduction. In the process, it went into competition, not just with notes on paper or player pianos, but with musicians themselves. And in its usual rapacious fashion, the greasy beast of economic opportunity grasped the New Desirable Thing tightly in its rapacious claws and ran with it like a candy-assed baboon.
While all this was going on, I was born and grew up (or at least older) and got derailed from my fabulous career path as a research biologist or whatever it was my mother thought I should be into becoming an undertrained but undoubtedly charming live musician myself, little suspecting that the fabric of my chosen profession was unravelling behind my back. I started with an aphorism: it's better to be a musician than an artist or a writer because there's a bar on every corner and a band in every bar. Which was true. At the time. But the times, as Laureate Bob reminds us, were a'changin. Even as I dove into the slimy mire of live music, recorded music was taking over.
In a way, I had it better than many at first — my perverse fondness for busking, the bottom rung of the food chain of show biz, left me far more in control of my product and presentation. At a point where DJs and juke boxes were eating the lunches, dinners and midnight snacks of highly-trained twelve-piece matching-uniform ensembles, I still had my windy streetcorner pitches and hats overflowing with nickels and dimes. No owner, no agent, no door charge, just me and my talent in search of an audience.
But even in my chosen field of endeavor, necessity and ambition, not to mention an influx of stilt-walking jugglers, pressed upon me the admonition to publish or perish. I turned, grudgingly and with maximum DIY, to commodifying myself. Not for me the established ecosystem of studios and duplicators: a lifetime of messing with recording left me with no fear of the process, and soon I was up to my knickers in dirtbag production, cassettes recorded raw off the board at gigs, dupped with multiple decks bought on credit from Radio Shack (and then returned, muhahaha!), packaged with hand laid-out Kinko's J-cards and sticky labels and vended hot from the guitar case directly into the hands of loyal listeners. Those were the days.
But there's a devil's deal to physical art: it accumulates. Even in the microdose quantities I turned out of my cheesy products, the demands of the market for new and fresh produce piled masters and layouts and supplies up to the roofs of various storage lockers and closets and outbuildings, defying all attempts at classification or even containment. And when I made the mistake of actually mass (for me) -producing my first CD, I staggered under the weight of thousands of units to stack and pack and pick up and carry about.
I had, in fact, like all other live musicians, ceased to be a mere entrepreneur and descended into the dystopian realms of capitalism. My capital was my back catalogue, and all my performances were was advertising. It was in blunt capitulation (see what I did there?) to that unpleasant truth that I rigged up my hail-mary infernal internet money contraption.
So after years of substandard returns, when the beastly thing borked I was faced with two choices: admit my failure to serve my own needs and take it down, or break out the ducttape and coathangers and patch it up. Almost, I caved — cried quarter, folded my tattered tent of enterprise and crawled off into the comforting darkness. What spurred me to continue wasn't gumption, or stubborn pride, or even greed. It was inertia — the gathered mass of expended effort and purchased equipment, a whole mechanism refusing to slow down from one little speed bump like a busted website. I geeked up and fixed it.
In that particularly personal example of the Sunk Cost Fallacy I imagine I can see a process, writ small, of the perishingly slow yet grindingly inevitable decline and fall of our world civilization. Noble creatures though we be, blessed with insight and foresight and hindsight enough to tell if we're ambling towards the abyss, we nonetheless still amble, driven by the momentum of our own acquired physical capital, all the toys and tools and trumperies of our benighted culture lashing us mindlessly on. Capitalists all, enthralled to our own intention.