Friday, July 27, 2012

The Importance Of Café Culture To The Arts

Recently I was engaged in a conversation about how musicians have to be paid for gigs. Having been a touring musician and still claiming to be in the fold, I could not agree more. The recent and shameful “play for exposure” scandal around the Olympics is a prime example of flat out abuse that artists suffer as a result of having hopes and dreams that are so obvious and transparent. These hopes and dreams give all artists a vulnerability which makes them eminently exploitable. The sheer number of artists these days is a factor as well, along with so many festivals and arts groups who are prepared to see musicians (again, by dint of numbers) as a source of revenue by setting up pay-to-play competitions for festival spots and/or other “opportunities.” (I address many of these artists’ predicaments in an article which will be published September 1rst by Penguin Eggs, Canada’s Folk Music Magazine.)

While café engagements are often done on an “audience donation” basis, I think it is important for us to make distinctions between the various types of gigs that go into the making of a strong music/arts scene. It behooves us in this consideration to try to not get hung up on the black and white “justice” that states that remuneration must be paid by anyone hiring musicians or else!

In my mind café-style gigs have their own importance. They create a “scene” which contributes in an entirely different way to the well-being of artists. Firstly, they provide a kind of less formal situation which allows the musician to “stretch,” to try out new material, or, in fact, try out an entirely different approach to their music. Secondly, and more importantly I think, the café gigs are also a crucible for creativity and a place where musicians talk to each other about their work, share a new tune, share approaches to their music, and, yes, gripe about the lack of good paying gigs. The more social function of a café is fundamental to the creation of a strong music “scene” in the sense of the music happening in a strong community and then gaining the strength to be exported to other markets.

I point to two examples…first, the Greenwich Village scene of the 1950’s and 60’s. In this era musicians and songwriters like Dylan, Van Ronk, Springsteen, Hendrix, together with comedians like Bill Cosby and Joan Rivers played the Café Wha??? and the Gaslight Café. These were called ”basket houses” and performers played for the “hat.” They used it as a place to work out the kinks in a routine or simply improve their craft so they could move up to real paying gigs like Gerde’s Folk City or the Bottom Line. And still after securing the paying gigs, “veteran’s” hung out in the cafés because it was a place to meet your fellows, check out the local gossip, and talk about that new recording. Can anyone deny that the music of this place and time did not then spread to the rest of the world? Were pass the hat gigs not a part of artist development?

The second scene I refer you to is the Austin, Texas, mélange of artists in which there developed the likes of Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker, Lyle Lovett, Ray Wylie Hubbard and so many more “Texas Songwriters.” Again, their scene ultimately spawned gigs all around the world for those who could claim to be a citizen of that particular music scene. Café-style gigs were important to the creative impulses of those involved, there’s just no getting around it.

And let’s not even go to Paris in the twenties….

It takes all kinds of levels of participation to make a viable arts scene. The cafés should not be lumped in with the obvious abuses of large organizations who could find their funding from sources other than the squeezing of artists.

On Gabriola we are fortunate to have both a café culture, and to also have establishments who can afford to pay real wages, and they do. We are truly blessed.

I urge my fellows to look at each gig on its own merits. There are no black and white answers in the arts but there are many, many shades of gray.

© Tim Harrison July/2012