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Ken Vandermark: The Future of Improvised Music

DANIEL TAPPER: Is the music industry as we know it dying? Chicagoan Jazz prodigy Ken Vandermark argues that the death of the traditional industry is helping to revive the improvised Jazz scene:


At this point it feels like the entire systems of distribution (both for the music and the information about it) are in complete flux. Most of the musicians I know and/or work with discuss the current situation when we meet, and so far it's obvious to me that no one really has a clear picture of how the present situation is going to play out. What's evident, however, is that the 20th century models for recording, distribution, and journalism are finished.

A On the positive side, one of the main problems that faced musicians in regards to their work i.e. distribution, has been more or less eliminated. Anybody in anyplace and at anytime who has access to the Internet can hear or see pretty much anything for free. This has essentially removed the need for a middleman to help the musicians reach an audience. And the record labels are paying a price for these circumstances. On the negative side, because almost everything in recorded history can be found for free, an important source of income for the people involved in creating that history has also been eliminated. But what is to be done? How can you make the argument that illegal downloads or streaming is stealing from the music industry, when so much is available for free, legally, on the Internet? Both the musicians and the record labels are paying a price for these developments.

A What about the issue of putting the music into a critically informed environment? Music reviews have almost always been limited in scope and vision. People can now hear the music and see the performances on the Internet and make decisions without a journalistic intermediary. What is usually lost, however, is the greater issue of context. A real music journalist, who takes the responsibility of their job seriously, can provide crucial insight into the relationships that exist between various aesthetics and histories; their ongoing experiences, research, knowledge, and curiosity can put the analytical discourse about the art of music onto the platform that it deserves. I believe that this work is essential to a greater understanding of the art.

A A In my experience, the audience attendance and general international awareness of the music and musicians I am involved with has greatly increased in the last few years. A large reason for this has been because of the ongoing touring and performances, but there is absolutely no question that the access to music and information on the Internet has also improved the situation. Artists and listeners from places in the world that I've never visited are constantly getting in touch after hearing or seeing something of mine on the web.

A I think the major labels are done. They were far too slow in making an attempt to adjust to the cultural shifts that were happening right in front of them. It's hard to be sympathetic with their current crisis because a large reason for it is based on their corporate greed. I am sure, however, that the fans of real Jazz and creative Improvised Music will continue to be interested in owning documents of work by the artists they are passionate about, and small labels that are truly committed to the artists will still provide listeners with new recordings. No musician I know is excited about putting in the work necessary to make a great album just to have it available only as an mp3 download. Nearly every record label I've talked to has stated that they feel the CD format will be over within five years. And the question remains, will the revival of interest in the LP turn into a permanent return to vinyl as the preferred format?A

A A I believe that the Internet has made Improvised Music and Jazz more accessible on the whole. By making the recordings more readily available ita€™s given many more listeners a chance to hear the music and make their own decisions about it. This does not change the fact that uncompromising music of all kinds is most often non-commercial because to varying degrees it challenges the status quo, aesthetically and politically. These demands are put forward to the artist and listener, and as we know - too many people seem completely satisfied with the stance of the status quo. This particular equation precludes the commercial success of most artistic music.


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