Friday, May 23, 2014

Company Town, Company Culture: You Won't Get The Gig

I've watched the cultural merry-go-round churn many times by now. With few exceptions, each local scene's rise and fall follows a fairly consistent script...starting when people complain, "There's nothing happening. There's nothing to do here." Eventually, after a great deal of teeth grinding angst, a few like-minded souls stumble across each other via Craigslist, a local council meeting, the odd encounter at the grocery store.

Against all odds, these individuals begin hosting events -- art exhibits, improv nights, left-field plays, music shows, odd theme parties -- whatever goes against the grain. At first, the proceedings draw 10-12 people and the proverbial dog. Gradually, bit by bit, the handful of scene makers-in-training stumble on something. Maybe the local paper writes about it, maybe not. In time, though, a wider circle of non-initiates discovers the phenomenon, too: "Wow, there's something happening. There's something to do here."

Before long, the action coalesces around a handful of artists working in cheap spaces. Now others start taking notice. They've often arrived from somewhere else, so their agenda diverges from the local artist community that's sprung up, seemingly overnight. Bit by bit, the new arrivals start making their mark -- acquiring a space here, a gallery there -- as they go after grants to fund whatever their checkbooks can't cover. In time, they form a local art association or two, which invariably attracts a gravitational pull on that newfound grant money (which tends to favor established entities).

Gradually, the scene loses its original distinct character as the new arrivals go about their business. Alliances form, cemented by a flurry of secret handshakes exchanged back and forth. Gratitude and obedience replace creativity and innovation. Outsiders are subtly nudged to get in line, or risk getting frozen out. The action shifts toward established artists -- doesn't matter what field, really -- and the rising admission prices that accompany their latest visit to town. Audiences enable the behavior by plunking down the cash, over and over again.

This Blockbuster Mentality carries negative consequences for lesser-established artists, whose own attendance shrivels up and blows away. By this point, the original scene makers have either given up or greatly reduced their own involvement. When they show up at the newly-created arts associations' meetings, their input is begrudgingly tolerated, but there's precious little mutual respect, let alone the free flow of ideas needed to create genuine grass roots entertainment.
Even then, such proposals stand little chance of being enacted, due to the endless vetting process that the new in-group imposes. In any case, their priorities have less and less to do with anything artistic, and increasingly zero in on perpetuating themselves, plus the handful of associates whom they bother to inform of their activities. They begin charging fees for activities that used to be free, or cost a nominal admission price.

The priorities shift toward keeping the grant money coming in, even as the returns start to diminish or taper off...whether it's the local writing group's chapbooks that sit quietly gathering dust...or readings that stop happening as the handful of participants can't attract new blood...or the spaces that yawn downtown, hungry and empty, awaiting a new crop of scenemakers-in-training to occupy the hue and cry goes up: "There's nothing happening.  There's nothing to do here."

None of the issues I've just enumerated will shock anyone who's participated in local art scenes, really. Insularity is the name of the game, right? However, if we don't lay out the traps -- and how they operate -- people will fall into them, over and over again. While we can't stop the Blockbuster Mentality from overrunning every town, we can definitely give the rainmakers behind the curtain a really good run for their money. How do we do that?

The answer boils down to one word: Transparency. The more we know about who's doing what, the less vulnerable we become to the designs of this artistic in-group, or that one. That's how cliques of all stripes thrive, by treating the punters like mushrooms (as in, feed 'em shit and keep 'em in the dark). Put everything out in the open, and you've increased the chance that everybody's voices will be heard -- not just those of the in-group.

What got me thinking along these lines?  Well, my occasional co-conspirator on this blog, Chairman Ralph -- whose two-part interview with Michael Rogosin is posted here -- sent me a new song, "You Won't Get The Gig."  Seems that he and his wife went to a local audition, but didn't feel terribly welcome, so...surprise! He didn't get the part, it seems.

Of course, that happens at auditions, right? They're knee-deep in people, so the odds of you getting that art exhibit -- or singing gig -- or theatrical part -- are long enough already, especially when they've got so many old faves to accommodate already. Still, once I gave in, and checked out the song, I simply had to laugh, because it's spot on -- all the targets and present and correct.

Without further ado, we present it here, straight from the man's web page,

Does that song and this post ring true for you? Have you had any run-ins with a local art mafia (or do its exponents act like the real one, and deny all traces of it)? You be the judge. But what they say...or you won't get the gig.  --The Reckoner


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  2. Dear Reader:

    Now and again, we get someone who subscribes to the Shotgun Theory Of Marketing: "I shoot, so therefore, something will stick when it splatters against the wall."

    There are three problems with this theory, however:

    1. This isn't the Beauty School Desk.
    2. It tends to irritate the recipient (e.g., if you're a heavy metal band, don't call the country bar asking for a gig).
    3, Your constituency, such as it is, probably don't reside here. Move on, dear boy!

  3. Then's heartening to see that the patent medicine industry is alive and well, and keeping some people from cooking meth. The mind boggles.. --The Reckoner