on isolation and what comes next

Where do we go from here? That’s not quite the question, I guess, because of course the answer for now is nowhere—not to work, not to restaurants, not on tour, not anywhere with other people. So instead: What comes next?

Anything could be next. Our ears fill with the dissonant hum of wildly divergent, distinct futures opening up before us[1] while the days start to blend together in their sameness. The past 40 days feel like a strange joke, both familiar and foreign. Sure, modern life can feel textureless and gray, but at least there are distractions. Now that many of those distractions are inaccessible, we’re not quite bored: that word doesn’t capture the odd sensation of feeling that history is really, finally happening in front of you, but you have to experience it without leaving the house. You end the day feeling like anything could happen; you begin the next eating breakfast in a different room just for a change of pace. 

Isolation doesn’t necessarily shrink one’s sense of what’s possible, I don’t think. Rather, it expands that sense beyond coherence, temporarily untethering one’s view of the horizon from the enormous forces and minute decisions that shape mundane, routine existence. When your choices are suddenly limited, the variables that shape daily experience so radically restricted, the number of variables that there used to be can seem overwhelming. Finding a place to get dinner used to be the source of real decision anxiety for me; imagine what that might feel like after months of being limited to what’s in my fridge. Sure, I miss my friends, but right now the thought of going to a party makes me feel like my brain is leaking out of my ears.[2] 

Similarly, thinking about the social, political, or economic effects of this strange time can feel a bit like trying to hold water in a sieve. The variables seem infinite; anyone who claims otherwise is being willfully obtuse. Sure, the crisis lays bare the injustice of our healthcare system, the irresponsibility of the financial system, the excesses of the corporate world, and the inability or unwillingness of those in government to face up to powerful interests. But to know something is not necessarily to change it. It’s tempting to imagine that this moment might augur a swelling popular demand for welfare state expansion; that support for universal, free-at-the-point-of-service healthcare and debt forgiveness might become a litmus test for the bare minimum of a progressive political hopeful’s legislative ambition. It’s just as easy to see the country lurching rightward, or at least stubbornly clinging to the status quo, grasping whatever scraps of stability are still reminiscent of former tenuous comforts. How can you reckon with the absurdity of a moment that demands solidarity with the oppressed and mistreated around the world, from postage workers to Palestinians, while also making you covet your parents’ SodaStream?

Most importantly: even if I can’t get it all in view, I’m still lucky to find myself zooming out. Plenty of people don’t have that luxury during the pandemic. Many go their whole lives without this kind of prolonged chance to sit back, take stock, reassess. So much of life is instinctive, at best reactive. Bills are due, you’re burning daylight. Inertia muscles out intent; politically, socially, but also personally and emotionally. My bank account is steadily emptying, but my rent is cheap enough that $1200 Trump bucks buys me some time to think. Have I organized my life in a way that is worthwhile and meaningful, consistent with my values, both sustainable for the time being and nurturing of my hopes for the future? What precisely is the relationship between rethinking society and rethinking my place in it? 

This is the crucial task of the moment, I think: personally crucial for those who are able, and politically necessary for the sake of those who are not. It is and ought to be unsettling, this feeling of holding all possibilities for the future in our hand—on the one hand, a total reimagining of everything that grates against our sense of justice and equity; on the other, a defeated slump backwards into whatever tenuous security the old circumstances might have offered. The world is our oyster, so to speak, except we can’t leave the house long enough to pry open the shell. 

So what can we do in the meantime? What can I do to cultivate that sense of possibility in myself and others—as a musician who can’t tour, as a writer with no audience, as a person temporarily reduced to electronic pulse via group chats and Discord servers and Google Hangouts? I haven’t found an answer yet, and judging from a month’s worth of social media in isolation, it doesn’t seem like too many other people have either. Social distancing seems to have amplified the medium’s natural tendency towards optimism, our best selves imagined for others. Words like “wellness” and “mindfulness” ligner just off-screen in tasteful fonts, their tone at once ironic and sincere, framing vague gestures at communal endeavor in the form of naturally lit pictures of homemade bread, or tournament brackets between bands belonging to obtuse genres like “old school alternative.” Even Twitter seems less dour than usual. At our loneliest, our pleas for attention have a resigned tranquility. We share recipes and memes, and we wait. You can’t fault people for a lack of urgency when they can’t make plans. 

If I manage to incubate a little urgency in the coming months, I doubt it will be from watching or playing music live on Instagram. No shade against those who either begrudgingly or enthusiastically have turned to streaming shows, it’s just not for me. Personally, the balance between performance as an endeavor with inherent value—as a natural and necessary part of music as creative practice—and performance as an endeavor that derives value largely from the money it earns the performer has always been precarious at best. That might sound crazy; isn’t music essentially communal, meant to be shared? Don’t I have to eat? But it’s how I’ve always felt. After all, I’ve made lots of music in my life that I’ve only shown friends, and historically I’ve been more successful feeding myself by pouring drinks or data entry than by playing guitar. At my level, and hopefully at any level, the best part of a good show is always the feeling in the room, not settling up with the promoter. Taking the gig virtual tips that fraught scale to the point that I’m no longer interested.[3] It’s like trying to record guitar DI: for it to feel right, you’ve gotta be moving air around.

Of course, losing interest in something tends to make you wonder why you were interested in the first place. What about it drew you in, genuinely excited you, and what did you merely tolerate? Lots of my particular slice of the music world falls into the latter category, first and foremost being the depressing but understandable insistence of so many of my touring peers to talk about music as their “job” or their “career.” For me, going on tour is largely an effort to spend as little time as possible at something that might be considered my “job.” In fact, as far as I can see, the only reason to conceive of a cancelled tour as “lost labor” is because you need money, and without touring, many musicians’ only hope of getting money is to trigger the sympathy of the more fortunate among us, who often seem to believe that having a “job” is the only dependable sign that one doesn’t deserve to go hungry and die in the street. 

This is not to say that I’m averse to work. I actually work very hard on things, like music, that I think are worthwhile. Unfortunately for my bank account, the things I see as worthwhile are very rarely the things that our society’s conception of work—a combination of late-capitalist market logic and a protestant morality drained of all spiritual content[4]—has deemed valuable (i.e. worthy of compensation). I’d hoped that music might offer me a convenient way out of this dilemma, and I still do. I’ve found I’m willing to tolerate the caustic reduction of creative pursuits to “a job” if doing so allows me to make enough money to spend less time at worse jobs—and there was a brief moment when it seemed like that arrangement might work, at least for a few years. 

The current pandemic has more or less obliterated that possibility, at least in my field of vision. Blinking, rubbing my eyes, other possibilities come in and out of focus. I glimpse ways to organize a life. There are only so many hours in the day; if one wants to do creative things with a significant number of them, it’s hard to imagine doing so without stuffing that creativity into whatever work-shaped box other people recognize as commanding some amount of currency.[5] But as it does with so many other things, this moment gives us a chance to at least rethink the shape and contour of that box. 

Live music is an incredibly stupid business: notoriously exploitative of labor and talent, wasteful beyond imagination, a cesspool of abuse and assault, duct-taped into something resembling a functioning “industry” by the force of its largely unrealized or misdirected potential for human connection, communication, and meaning-making.[6] That is to say, it’s capitalism, but it can be pretty fun if you’re lucky.[7] Some of the people involved are well compensated and comfortable; most of the musicians I know slog through a bunch of bullshit most nights for 30-45 transcendent minutes, followed by the privilege of drinking a few free beers, gratefully hawking some reasonably-priced future landfill scraps to generous audience members, and walking away with maybe a few hundred dollars from the door. On the balance of things, I would have happily done it for years, and still might.[8]

But the possibility of a year or more of dark stages has knocked that balance loose, and right now it feels uncertain if it will ever recover. What emerges once we regain our footing is, if we want it to be, up to everyone who performs, works, facilitates, or listens in venues and non-traditional music spaces around this country and the world. What we choose to rebuild can be very different from what was knocked down, provided—just as in every part of our economy and society—we are not so eager to get back to boom times that we ignore the lessons of the bust.

Existentially, spiritually, rethinking live music should probably be the least of our ambition. My real hope for myself and my peers is a total reimagining of creative work as a lifestyle—its motivation, purpose and effect; its place in a just world; how to sustain and nurture it. Some days it feels unlikely that a successful conclusion to this effort would involve playing at, say, Live Nation-owned venues. Most days it doesn’t feel like an effort that will ever conclude.

There do appear to be avenues opening up, though. Streaming revenue is down, meanwhile fans broke Bandcamp’s website on their revenue share day last month; there are good things about streaming and bad things about Bandcamp, sure, but on the balance this feels like a good sign to me. Additionally, it seems increasingly likely that house shows and other non-traditional, unregulated venues will be the first to come back, if audiences are willing to attend. Hopefully some people will rediscover the radical potential of hosting music in spaces that don’t have to sell Anheuser-Busch products and report earnings to the IRS. Maybe a year off the road will lead some bands to reevaluate whether that 8pm opening slot and well-lit merch table is really worth a $150 guarantee and a 20% venue cut for “soft goods.” The pyramid scheme of buzz-band touring could well take a richly deserved hit. 

I don’t know if any of these things will happen, or if they’ll even seem desirable in a year. I certainly don’t know how to achieve them while protecting the short-term security of people who have staked their livelihoods on a creative economy they likely know on some level is as unjust as any other. But it’s hard to imagine that a few months off won’t provide the opportunity, if not provoke the necessity, of reflecting on injustice, in music and everywhere else. I hope to not waste that time.

***

[1] The capacity of the crisis to encourage and even nurture extreme conclusions was pretty apparent from the beginning. For example, it seems to me that the reason the Imperial College model of the pandemic was so widely cited, despite having a number of questionable assumptions that were apparent to many epidemiologists as soon as it was published, was that its grim predictions inevitably led readers to one of two extreme positions: either halting all labor, shutting down the economy, and effectively holding capital hostage; or, if one found that unacceptable, getting everyone back to work as quickly as possible, essentially embracing eugenics to keep the markets afloat. Though I have no quarrel with holding capital hostage, this is probably a false dichotomy, and it’s telling that models of the pandemic that didn’t encourage such starkly contrasting strategies didn’t command the nearly same bandwidth.

[2] Joking aside, I think there is just as much reason to be concerned about mental health problems once things get “back to normal” as there is to be concerned about those suffering mentally now—that is to say, plenty for both. It seems to me that those with depression and anxiety are likely to react as badly to the expectation to suddenly leave the house again as they may have to their inability to do so previously.

[3] That’s to say nothing of the less immediate but probably more pernicious effect of taking the gig digital, which is moving all “live” music under the purview of streaming services owned by one of three or so enormous tech companies—entities not known for being overly concerned with making sure creative endeavors are adequately compensated.

[4] “Work” as defined by society is meant to fulfill the worker, to give them a sense of purpose without which their life is meaningless. It is also, with the exception of the very lucky among us, meant to A) make enormous profits for other people, B) facilitate the vast corporate bureaucracy meant to obscure who is making this profit, or C) facilitate the shrinking private bureaucracy meant to make it as difficult as possible for those who can’t seem to do one of either A or B to ameliorate their suffering. These two conceptions of work seem inherently contradictory to me.

[5] This is more or less the usual difficulty one encounters trying to stand against the cultural hegemony of market logic. So often being “anti-capitalist” seems to mean defining oneself not in opposition to capitalism but rather as its negative formulation, i.e. reinforcing its logic. Put another way, Marxists seem to frame all sorts of activities—creative, emotional, reproductive, social, the list goes on—as labor, when to do so seems, instinctively at least to me, reductive, incoherent, and even soul-destroying.

[6] It ought to be said that the record industry is all these things but even less fun.

[7] “Lucky” in this context, and so many others, often means “male,” “white,” and/or “able to move in with your parents if something goes wrong.”

[8] The inequities of the music world can be a frustrating and sticky problem, and so I want to be clear about the fact that I would happily and freely continue to participate in the small club touring world, and that I don’t feel hard-done by it. In my probably unpopular opinion, lots of people’s complaints about how “unfair” the touring economy is tend to boil down to something along the lines of “it’s unfair that other bands are more popular than mine.” As a result, many other people justifiably roll their eyes at these exhortations to reform the industry. Ultimately, there will always be only a few popular bands and lots of unpopular bands; this imbalance has nothing to with the forces that concentrate power and wealth in other industries and everything to do with how consensus forms around taste (and with the fact that unfortunately most music is simply not very good). What needs addressing is not this imbalance, but rather whether or not there are avenues to carve out a creative life for yourself if you’re not one of the popular. That life does not need to include playing to hundreds of adoring fans, but it ought to offer security and dignity (as everyone’s life ought to, regardless of their choice in vocation). Ensuring those avenues exist clearly requires a more robust infrastructure for the arts, an infrastructure that, unlike the club circuit, is not driven by profit.

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