economics

Tribute to a Patron

indymedia screening at border social forum, 2006In this modern age of economic tightness and shifting paradigms of distribution and funding, cultural workers of all kinds have been somewhat adrift for awhile now. At this point in history and in my career, monetization and promotion is still an ongoing challenge.  Crowdsourcing such as Kickstarter seems promising. Grants are out there but have always been hit-or-miss, especially in the U.S. amidst its current anti-art climate. Today I want to just take a moment to tip my hat to one general model, and one specific instance of it: the small independent "record label" has been an important type of patron for musical and other artists for years. (The quotes are because both words are somewhat anachronistic, aren't they?) These little companies have been changing the landscape for decades in a variety of ways, and even as the "diy" way of doing things continues to grow in viability, there's still recently been, and will continue to be, an important role and need for the small, focused, dedicated outlets that nurture and curate the creations that are too under-the-radar or off-the-map for mass corporate attention.

In 1997 I found out about a new label starting up that seemed to be perfectly matched to my interests as a sample-based composer. It was called Illegal Art. At that first moment I actually suspected their initial call for submissions to be spam, or a prank, but they went on to be very important and a huge boon to me over the next decade and a half.  Now they're going on indefinite hiatus

IA specialized in music (or "audio art") made from found sonic materials. The first thing they put out was a compilation called Deconstructing Beck, which had a track of mine on it and which almost got us all sued by Beck's label, Geffen. (a few days ago was the 15th Anniversary of that disc's release.)  A couple of years later they released a CD of my work, Original, the first disc by a single artist that they ever put out.  I'd been ready to self-distribute, burning CD-Rs myself and stuffing them in envelopes, but they saved me from this and got my work into stores as far away as the Tower Records in Tokyo. Because of this first solo CD, and the closeness in aesthetic focus between Illegal Art and my website, Detritus, for some time I would hear the rumor that myself and Philo T.Farnsworth, the label's head, were the same person.  This amused both of us and we didn't spend a whole lot of energy trying to prove it was false.  Soon the label went on to publish a long list of other, amazing releases by artists far more accomplished and skilled than I, including Girl Talk, Steinski, Wobbly, and People Like Us.

Seven years ago, after a gradual turn from experimental music to socially-conscious filmmaking, I was just finishing up my first full-length documentary, On The Edge: The Femicide in Ciudad Juarez.  Philo was impressed enough with it that he decided to take a significant step outside of Illegal Art's usual wheelhouse, and offered to release the film on DVD. Once again, for something that I was going to just go small-scale and DIY on, suddenly Philo gave me the rare and pleasureable experience of seeing something I made show up in stores and on Amazon and get reviewed in magazines, without that being because of my own legwork - something I, like many artists, am pretty bad at and have trouble getting motivated to do. 

Illegal Art never had a lot of cash, and though they secured pretty good distribution deals, being an artist on their roster was not a huge financial windfall or star-making machine (Girl Talk is the exception, one HUGE star to come out of their stable.  However, a few months after my DVD came out, I was still getting mucho disrespect from festivals and other institutions, including one conference in Juarez itself that cared so little about my film that I had to put up my own hand-written posters at the last minute to advertise a screening there - see the above photo).

But there was a certain cachet to the label, and I was proud to be a part of it.  They never went on to put out any more DVDs, and I think mine was not a financial success, although they did do two pressings of the disc.  But the film is still available from their website, along with most of the rest of their catalog (and they're working on providing the older releases), on a pay-what-you-wish (even zero!) basis. I can't really begin to put into eloquent words how important it is, what a rare treat it is, as a creative person, to have someone else, someone that's not only an individual but a business, put trust and interest and work and money into something in a way that not only shows their approval, but that assists in getting that something further along and out into the world (and in a way that clearly is not exploitation, as so many other record labels or film distributors are gulity of).  

So: thank you, Philo. Thank you, Illegal Art. You've done well. Read more>>>

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