Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Antidisestablishmentarianism (or Ani vs Thom vs John)

As I talked about here, I'm starting to really think about new models for developing and producing work, new ways of approaching this industry to do the work I want to do. Over the last couple of years, a lot of us have talked about the "rock band" model, which sounds very cool, of course, since it has "rock band" in the name. But what does that mean? And what could it mean for theatre. So let's break it down a little bit, by looking at three different models.

Ani DiFranco is kind of a gold standard in indie rock. (Okay, maybe not. Am I actually a point in my life where Ani DiFranco is not cool? Uh oh.) Buffalo-born, she started her own record label, now called Righteous Babe Records. The big name in the Righteous catalog is Ani DiFranco. Not that that's not cool, but there it is. It's her house and she runs it her own way, I imagine. Using her combo punk-hippie aesthetic (two great tastes that taste great together), she said, "Fuck the Man," and made her own kind of music. She's built up a fairly big following, has produced a lot of music and has a solid career. She's not a household name, or Grammy-nominated or anything (except for packaging...really, Grammys? Packaging?), but I don't think those things matter to her so much. I'm not as into her music as I was when I was 19, but I still have a warm place in my heart for her.

Thom Yorke and Radiohead are another band that's often name-checked in these discussions, mostly because of what they did with their album, In Rainbows. They released it themselves, as a digital download, independently. All well and good...except they followed it with a CD release, in order to reach a wider audience. They made the record without a label and then signed on, album in hand and millions of fans waiting, to release the hard copies. Not quite DIY...but close. And it was a huge success.

I'm a big fan of The Mountain Goats, which is one of those bands that's really just one guy, John Darnielle. He's straight-up indie music, some of it recorded in his basement, some in a studio. He's bounced around from small label to small label and, since 1991, released a pretty prodigious amount of music. He's also been a part of other bands, somewhat like Stephen Merritt. The Mountain Goats exist a little bit below the radar, like Ani, doing their thing, but not having their own label. John finds his home where he finds his home and does his own thing.

Three different artists, three very different styles, three different models. I see a lot of the indie movement as being like the Ani model: the central artists controlling the means of production. Young Jean Lee, to my mind, fits in more with the Radiohead model. She does her thing and then finds the appropriate place to partner with to get it out there: HERE, Soho Rep, the Kitchen. Personally, right now, I'm vibing on the Mountain Goats model, but I wonder where the indie labels of the theatre world are. Are there other models I'm overlooking?

10 comments:

Tony Adams said...

It may seem silly to asked, but have you looked at the early days of off-off, when it was only 4 spaces?

Tying it in with your post about Williams, I don't think it's coincidental that Fornes, Shepard, Chaikin and L. Wilson were all working, and doing their own thing before they blew up. (Fornes has said essentially that they weren't trying to break new ground, but just doing the plays they wanted to do and see.)

Their first plays were thrown up, not all were very good, but you can see the upswing in their work with each additional play. (and if you want to be super-nerdy, you can see where they rub off on each other in some of them.)

Most of them had almost a decade under their belt of producing, before they blew up. But they weren't waiting for permission either.

99 said...

All very true and quite an inspiration, but I'm also looking at what we lack that they had. The landscape, at least here in NYC, is quite different. The field is different. I don't know if we can dismantle all of the structures that have sprung up in the late 60s. How do we get those results in the face of what we have now?

Tony Adams said...

well, they were throwing things up in two cafe's and two churches right? They didn't really dismantle anything, though. Did they? They were just doing their thing.

99 said...

But even that's the point: finding those places, for one. And then finding game collaborators. I don't mean to make it sound like I'm just throwing roadblocks in the way or throwing up my hands and saying "It can't be done!" But the rules of the game have changed, in no small part because of what the folks like Shepard, Fornes, and L. Wilson achieved in places like Judson Church and Caffe Cino. And because New York in 2010 just doesn't look like New York in 1969. I think a lot of people head themselves into disaster by forging ahead as though it was the same New York you read about.

CultureFuture said...

I do have to point out that the Thom model does somewhat have to rely on the weight of their previous success, a previous success that was not DIY. The band takes great care to thank their record label. According to the infallible Wikipedia, it appears that Radiohead was first turned into something by an EMI representative (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radiohead).

Of course, the difference between rock and theater is that almost every single musician starts by "self-producing" -- live recordings at a local coffee shop or pub goes way back to the Beatles. But pub musicians don't typically make a good living that way -- that's where the Ani/John models diverge from the Thom model, because Thom needed a record label to turn his band into something he can survive on, whereas Ani/John managed to continue self-producing/working in independent producing circles without needing the labels.

That's not to say that the In Rainbows model isn't a good one for producing, just that it leads lots of people to dream of success that rarely, if ever, will come from using that model.

99 said...

CF- Good point on the Radiohead "model." I meant to make note of that, but in the rush of writing missed it. In a way, they're the model held out by the establishment: if you're popular enough, you get to do what you want, including step out of the system.

Tony Adams said...

Yeah, and I can't speak to New York. It happens all the time in Chicago. I know some folks might complain that it happens too much here. . .

99 said...

I don't mean to imply that it doesn't happen here; it obviously does. The question is what happens next, how to make it sustainable. And, in a way, it's more for me personally, not for the scene at large. Obviously just diving in and putting something up is a fine way to get started. But what's next?

Ian Thal said...

I also see a number of theatre companies that generate their own material alternately perform in their own spaces and, like rock bands, smaller theatres.

They tend to blur (or even ignore) the distinction between playwright and troupe that I think we're assuming here. Immediately coming to mind are Zuppa Theatre Company (formally Zuppa Circus) from Halifax, Nova Scotia; Great Small Works (New York/Boston.) My old group, Cosmic Spelunker Theater, also fit into that model as well, but I had no business sense at the time and it showed.

RLewis said...

Adding on to Tony, what these playwrights had was: Joe Cino, Al Carmines, Ellen Stewart, and Ralph Cooke.

It's about People, and they are the ones who made it happen for many, many playwrights. And they did it based on who showed up; not what they got in the mail.

Today's playwright has to find his/her People, and in addition to great scripts, give as much as you get. Successful relationships are two-way streets.