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The Thaddeus Gazette

CD Capitalist


I have a long-standing acquaintence in the slippery world of street performing/guerilla folk, one who's by no means limited to that backwater but who steps in and out of it with grace and practical wisdom. He and I were down at that last bastion of old Seattle, Pike Place Market, shooting the breeze between sets. Being pure of heart, I made some self-disparaging comment about being a capitalist and he immediately corrected me: we're not capitalists, we're entrepreneurs. We're competing for profit in a free market, providing services. Capitalists profit by renting out capital, accumulated wealth.

Fair enough. Econ 101. There's a reason the Pike Place authority classifies us with the independent stall venders in the market. And for the vast majority of human history, we of the perhaps-oldest profession (other forms of entertainment may claim whatever they please) have rejoiced in that classification, or at least tolerated it.

But then, as in so many things, along came Thomas Edison.

The invention of sound recording, despite any evidence 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 intricate devices of instrumental reproduction were rampant from the Middle Ages onward, church clocks and barrel organs and music boxes and self-playing keyboards galore. Scores were instantiated on pin barrels, metal disks and paper tapes.

But for all their ingenuity, musical machines were just musicians made out of wood and metal instead of hormones and ambition. Sound and soundmaker were still inseparably united in the realtime presentation of composition and arrangement.

Edison's phonograph was a game-changer: it didn't just imitate an instrument, it imitated everything. For the first time, an actual musical performance in all its glorious perversity could exist independently of the musicians who created it. Exist, and be reproduced, and most importantly, be sold. It created a brand new type of product. And in its usual rapacious fashion, the greasy beast of economic opportunity grasped the novel Desireable Thing tightly in its rapacious claws and ran with it like a candy-assed baboon. In the process it took what had started artificial life as a scratchy novelty and groomed it into a full-blown stereo hi-fi quadraphonic 5.1 DDD web-based competitor to and replacement for live music. And, incidentally, live musicians.

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. At its inception my bright notion took the form of 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 Lauriate Bob reminds us, were a'changin.

In a way, I had it better than many at first — my perverse fondness for busking, the sludgey bottom link of the food chain of show biz, left me far more in control of my product and presentation. At a point where DJs and turntables were eating the lunches, dinners and midnight snacks of highly-trained twelve-piece matching-outfit ensembles, I still had my windy streetcorner pitches and hats overflowing with nickels and dimes. No boss, no agent, no door charge, just me and my talent in search of an audience.

It was only when my chosen profession was infected with that all-too-common malady, competition, that the squeeze began. When you compare your nickels and dimes with the wads of cabbage accumulated by the likes of stilt-walking jugglers, the choice is clear: adapt or starve. In the absense of the necessary athleticism to compete directly with such nonsense, I turned to that great American passtime, comodifying myself. A lifetime of messing with recording left me with no fear of the process, and soon I and my blushing bride and partner in musical crime were up to our 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 our loyal listeners. Those were the days.

But there's a devil's deal to physical art: it accumulates. Even in the microdose quantities we turned out of our cheesy products, the demands of the market for new and fresh produce piled masters and layouts and supplies up to the roofs of our various storage lockers and closets and outbuildings, defying all attempts at classification or even containment. And when we made the mistake of actually mass (for us) -producing our first CD, we staggered under the weight of thousands of units to stack and pack and pick up and carry about.

We had, in fact, ceased to be mere entrepreneurs and decended into the distopian realms of capitalism. Our capital was our back catalogue, and all our performances were was advertising. In blunt capitulation (see what I did there?) to that unpleasant truth, about a dozen years ago I put together an ugly but reasonably functional online store to allow anyone foolish enough to still want to get physical to pick up one of my copious albums, complete with automagical Paypal payment links, my own personal shoulder to the great wheel of commerce.

And then recently, someone actually tried to buy something off the site. Surprise, surprise, it wasn't working. At which point I was faced with two choices: admit my failure to serve my own needs and take the bloody thing down, or break out the ducttape and coathangers and patch it up somehow. 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 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.

Meanwhile, anyone wanna buy a CD?s

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