I was in line for a comedy show last week in New York City. Standing next to me was a young woman talking on her cell phone to a friend back home. She was telling her friend about all the things she's been doing in New York lately. At one point she said, "And then we walked past those insane protesters on Wall Street and laughed at them. They're just a bunch of homeless people complaining in the park, and they smell bad. It was gross."
I had walked by the protests in Zuccotti (formerly Liberty Plaza) Park myself a few days before. Unfortunately it was the only day recently that was full of rain and wind, and the gathering had turned from a conversation in the park to a game of survival. Cardboard signs were soaked through, with slogans running. There was one that was taped to the big red sculpture in the park that caught my eye. It was in French: "Faire la revolution c'est bien; etre la revolution c'est mieux," which translates to, "To make the revolution is good; to BE the revolution is best." The rain made it unpleasant just to hang around. Wind tugged at the bottoms of tents. It reminded everyone that if you want to get somewhere with a revolution, you are going to have to go through some unpleasant shit.
It reminded me for some reason of bees. They are to us the embodiment of hard work. It's always been funny to me that we look at an insect who is trying to survive, unknowingly participating in a process that beautifully keeps flowering plants alive and therefore most of the food supply for the animals on Earth-- and we think of it as "work." It is neither work nor an accident. It's just what they do. If bees had never pollinated plants before and we went up to them as a species and asked them to do it, there would literally be nothing we could do to convince them it was worthwhile. They would say, if they could talk, "You want us to do WHAT? Why??" We always think of productive physical or mental actions as work, and maybe it's because we're so used to trading our time and spirit to accomplish someone else's goals. Which is ultimately a fine deal if you can be assured that you'll be taken care of when you need it. The protests, to me, are about the outrage over the breaking of that contract. If people complain that there isn't a coherent strategy or list of demands from the occupiers, I think that's okay. Sometimes it's enough to just say, "Stop robbing, stop lying. Just stop."
The struggle to survive becomes the essence of a person's life. I've spent so much time trying to determine at what point you can consider your life's work a success. If you're a musician, is it when you sell out a certain room? Or sell a certain amount of CDs? Or make it on national television? Even if there were proven benchmarks before, certainly the benchmarks have changed in the last twenty years now that there are exponentially more bands and a more fractured audience, and all the normal filters that used to qualify success have been discarded or made irrelevant. Like the cardboard sign says, maybe to make art is good, but to BE art is best. That doesn't necessarily mean turning yourself into a painting or a freak show, or even singing your songs as you walk down the street. It just means aligning the thing you do onstage with what you do in life. Maybe that leads you away from playing a guitar in a bar. Maybe it leads you away from music itself. The problem with revolutions is never in the dreaming stage, but in the practical stage. When you've been sitting out in the wind and rain and it's not a pleasant experience anymore, that's when you really learn why you're doing what you're doing, or if you even want to do it.
I did a tour of the west coast recently that was personally and artistically fulfilling and commercially and financially a disaster. We had trouble getting people to come out to the shows, and when they were there, we had trouble selling any cds. There is a certain desperation I'm familiar with that only comes from driving all day and getting to a venue and having them say that they didn't even know about the show and that nobody is going to come.
Part of the struggle feels institutional. There is a definite change in people's attitudes towards cds. Even just a couple years ago, you used to be able to play a great show to a receptive audience and feel confident that you would be rewarded with a bunch of cd sales. Now you play a show and someone comes up to you and says that it changed their life and you shyly point to your new cd and they look at it like it's a box of Girl Scout cookies. "Oh," they say, trying to think of some excuse. "I'd love to support you. I'm really low on cash right now…" It used to be an item that people needed to consume like it was food. They were hungry to be fed and the cd was the only way to eat. Now they can eat everywhere.
The solution, I'm told, is to diversify. I need to sell T-shirts. I need to sell artwork with download codes. I need to package different products together, give away the music, give away everything for the exposure. Those ways of making money would certainly be more appealing than some of the day jobs I've had, but something in me stubbornly resists it. There's nothing wrong with a T-shirt with a band name on it, and I've proudly worn many. But I keep thinking that I didn't start playing music to be a T-shirt vendor. When it gets to the point that spending a year of your life writing and recording an album, creating the artwork, producing the CDs—when that has almost no value to anyone, then something must change.
The music industry is, like the country itself, made up of a small number of haves and a raging sea of have-nots. There are a few musicians that make tons of money. Record sales may be down for them too, but they still sell hundreds of thousands. There are a handful of bands in the middle class, who are not household names, but can make a decent living. And there are so many bands that are at the poverty level. Basic capitalism tells us that those bands are poor because they are not good enough—that they haven't put in the work, that they don't have anything special to offer. I'm not sure I believe that anymore.
I've argued before with friends about why almost every popular band declines in quality as their career goes on. That the earlier stuff is almost certainly better than the late stuff. I think it's not so much about running out of things to say, or of songs to write, as it is about success taking away the desperate need to tear yourself apart to make yourself good. After your basic needs are taken care of and you are secure in your success, you're more concerned with protecting what you have and not making any missteps. The fire goes away. It happened to one of my favorite bands ever, REM. Even though they made albums that changed my life and protected me from darkness, they declined so much that I didn't even bother listening to what they put out in the last decade. By the time they retired a few weeks ago it felt more like hearing that a respected older relative finally succumbed to death. You were sad they were gone, you loved them when they were vibrant and alert, but knew that nothing good was coming up for them.
My reaction to personal failure has always been to contract. To pull the precious things closer, put them in a smaller tent. The American way is to change what you're doing, to try to catch on with something that works better, or you end up literally starving.
At its worst, capitalism turns us all into beggars and whores. It's not enough to do the thing we believe in, we also have to figure out how it can make money. Maybe this early on in the lifetime of our species that's the kind of structure we need. Someday maybe we won't even think of work as work. It will just be the byproduct of what we do.
I think of the REM song "The One I Love" and its brutally simple lyrics. It starts out as a simple dedication to a lover, "This one goes out to the one I love," Michael Stipe sings. "This one goes out to the one I've left behind." Then it goes off the normal course of a love song, saying that what he's singing is just, "A simple prop to occupy my time." The listener is left to think at this point that either these words devalue the expression of love or that the honesty takes the meaning away from cliche into something more sincere. To me it always felt honest. Everyone is just a body experiencing the world in their own personal way, and even the most noble of pursuits is still just something to occupy your time. Loving someone is just something you do, like pollinating flowers, like starting a revolution.