Marc Ribot is often described as a downtown NYC jazz luminary. Despite the cool reverence carried by the tag, it fails to adequately summarize his extraordinary genre-bending career. Having served the music industry for almost forty years, Ribot is associated with almost every notable act within our cultural purview today. He helped Tom Waits develop a circus-noir sound on the seminal Rain Dogs album. Other collaborations include Robert Plant, Allen Ginsburg, Allen Toussaint, Elvis Costello, T Bone Burnett, John Lurie and his Lounge Lizards—the list goes on and on.
Marc has released over twenty albums under his own name, exploring everything from the pioneering jazz of Albert Ayler, to the heart-breaking romp and sensuality of son cubano with Los Cubanos Postizos.
Ribot has also witnessed—over the last decade or so—a seismic shift in the way music is produced, distributed, and consumed. The surge of the digital domain has rendered copyright laws ineffective, resulting in a dissipation of musicians’ rights. Dedicated to fighting for economic justice in the digital domain, Ribot has been at the forefront of the battle to secure fair remunerations for content creators.
Guernica recently sat down with Marc to talk about the creative life of New York City, the exclusion of working-class voices in mainstream culture, and the fight to protect labor rights in the digital era.
—Farhad Mirza and Anna Calori for Guernica
Guernica: Take us through your early years as an aspiring musician in New York.
Marc Ribot: When I moved to New York in 1978, the first thing I thought about was cheap apartments, and I managed to find them for quite some time. This played a part in what enabled me to experiment with music and pursue my own style even when I was low on cash. Unfortunately, it is very hard for young musicians to find cheap apartments now, and hence, very hard for them to establish themselves.
At the time, I thought I was going to be a jazz musician. That didn’t exactly work out, for a lot of reasons. I mean, I tried but the people on the jazz scene didn’t like my playing so much, and I found out most of them really just played weddings for a living. Before that, when I was in Maine, I had assumed jazz was the music of freedom and rock music was simply a popularity contest. I discovered the opposite in New York. The jazz musicians there were all versed in the same repertoire, and everybody was trying to be George Benson. I wasn’t that well acquainted with the Loft and the avant-garde scene, so I started going to CBGB and started checking out the rock bands there. And there was a real creative energy there that drew me in.
Fred Frith was playing at CBGB at the time—so was Tom Cora and the Skeleton Crew. There were a lot of interesting things going on. What became known as the downtown scene was really a mixture of experimental trends in the rock world, the jazz world, and the so-called downtown classical world. So, I started listening to these people and found my own way through it.
Guernica: New York has the reputation of being a “tough” city, where only the best and the most dedicated thrive. On the surface of it, it seems like this city, with all its corresponding adversity (the extortionate rents, the thankless day jobs, the brutal competition) naturally selects the most hard working and talented musicians out there. You disagree with this theory?
Marc Ribot: Yes, let me put it as simply as I can: the romantic thing about hardship increasing creativity is absolute bullshit. In the 80s, when you didn’t need a ridiculous amount of money to get an apartment in New York, you had working-class people who could participate in the music scene. Venues paid. CBGB paid, at least in the beginning, and working-class musicians—even those with drug habits—managed to find work.
People complain about the record industry, but the record industry wasn’t always like this. It is collapsing now because nobody wants to pay for things they can easily enjoy for free. But the record industry used to pay people like me; and John Lurie and Tom Waits—we were all paid to make records. Right now, most people don’t get paid to make their first record. In fact, if you want to do that, you better be able to afford your own instruments, and afford to live to write the tunes and rehearse them, and afford to get a band together without pay, and then be able to afford to record together.
Of course, recording is a lot easier now than it was back then. You can accomplish a lot on your computer. Still, if it’s a small project with live instruments, you will have to cough up a lot of money to simply get in the game. It is no surprise then that we’re left with these familiar upper-middle class faces who sit and judge talent contests, trying to make you believe in a very exclusive and self-serving notion of social mobility. I have been on many rough circuits, but I could eat, sleep, and come home with enough money to pay my rent. I don’t think a lot of musicians get that opportunity now.
Guernica: Have these changes—barriers to participation and the increasing marginalization of working-class voices—changed your audience too?
Marc Ribot: First of all, when I work with different musicians, I work with very different kinds of audiences. When I played with Brother Jack McDuff, I played for an almost completely black working-class audience, and if you toured with him and you looked out of the tour bus, you would think the US was a black-majority country. I worked with him for only four months, but when I toured with him I played with one kind of audience, and when I played with Robert Plant, I played for another kind of audience.
You also have to realize that I started out playing a lot of counter-intuitive music: noise-oriented jazz or jazz-oriented noise—however you want to look at it. When I played with the Lounge Lizards, I had the impression that I was watching a professional-managerial mating ritual. More often than not, those who found an interest in what we did were already of a certain intellectual disposition. You know, as they say: working-class people do, the bourgeoisie own, but the professional-managerial class knows. And these people had to know what others didn’t. You couldn’t just know what everybody else knew. You couldn’t just know that music that was cool and easy to dance to was cool; you had to know why noise was cool. That was special, you know? I mean, we weren’t just doing something counter-intuitive; we were trying to push musical history forward, but the process was tied to all these other forces and phenomena. What made it interesting was that there were people from all kinds of backgrounds, who were driven by the desire to push musical history forward, and what made it sexy was that it served this function for these professional-managerial people to identify our culture.
So, I think it was mainly the professional-managerial class that took an interest in what we did. But still, you got a fairly mixed audience. There were people who didn’t have a lot of money but were intellectually radical and philosophically committed to the whole scene. Many of them then killed themselves with heroin.
What happened in New York during the 80s was that the authorities moved the police out of working-class areas, turning these areas into supermarkets for heroin. Maybe this was a conscious plan to drive out working-class people. Maybe they just didn’t care. I don’t know. It got dangerous. Nobody wants to raise their kids in an environment like that, so people started leaving. Suddenly, the buildings were all nice and empty, land prices dropped—perfect time to invest, right? When the big developers saw an opportunity for investment, the authorities mobilized the police again. Out went the dealers and in came the people with the money, who had different tastes.
Guernica: You were interviewed for a documentary in which you talked about the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and its impact on the creative life of the city. You felt compelled to devise a musical response to the attacks. Unsure whether such a feat could be accomplished, you termed it a “necessary failure.” What did you mean by that?
Marc Ribot: I think [Karlheinz] Stockhausen was right when he said that no work of art could ever compare to 9/11 as an aesthetic event. He wasn’t very tactful in saying it right at that moment, but you have to give him credit for it. Of course, it wasn’t just an aesthetic event—this was a real tragedy, and I think Stockhausen was sensitive to that. It was a moment in which my music was challenged by real-world events. And as a musician and citizen, I felt I needed to somehow respond to this destructive and world-changing event. But it seemed almost impossible to come up with something life affirming that could match the intensity of these attacks and their consequences.
In the week after 9/11, [John] Zorn organized various benefit shows in the downtown area. We also knew that some of the clubs there were in a financially precarious situation and risked closure under the circumstances they were in. I mean, the whole area was militarized. No cars could go in or out. Every semblance of daily life had been violently interrupted. A few days without business would have killed these places. We had to do something to keep things going. There was an urgency to make sense of a world that was unrecognizable. It all seemed futile, but it had to be done. We were bound to fail, but it was necessary to try.
Guernica: And did you feel that your music then had to become more political, more direct?
Marc Ribot: The points of contact between the real and the aesthetic are many, and they are complex. I am not sure if I am prepared to speak on any of them.
I have at times kept my political engagements separate from my music, yet I feel like one has to acknowledge in performance what is happening in the real world. I feel we’re engaged in a very literal fight to keep public spaces open. Between right-wing privatization and the very literal attacks by terrorists who want to shut down pluralistic societies, public spaces are faced with an uncertain future. What I took as guaranteed about public spaces is actually a political issue, and I know which side I am on. I am on the side of pluralistic societies, and I will do whatever I can—by the best means available and any means necessary—to protect spaces that encourage open communication between people.
Guernica: Your antipiracy activism has intensified over the last few years. What is the future of independent music in the age of the Internet?
Marc Ribot: You know, the “pirate sites” themselves are only part of the problem. This is often misunderstood because when you take these [antipiracy] positions, people think that you’re yelling at them to not use pirate sites. And that’s not really the issue at all. First of all, anything that’s based on yelling at consumers is doomed from the outset. In fact, I would say anything based on moralizing to anyone is doomed from the outset. But the real story is this (and the laws dealing with this are somewhat similar in the EU and the US): in most cases, the owner of a business is responsible for criminal acts that take place on the premises of work. If somebody is found selling drugs out of a bar, perhaps the first time around, the police arrest the dealer. The second time around, they are likely to arrest the owner. If not the second, then the third. Because the law says you have to run a clean business. You get my point?
Now, the largest corporations in the US, and some of the largest corporations in the world, thrive because of the illegal acts that take place on their premises. I am talking about Google and [its subsidiary] YouTube. They make money from selling ads, but they sell ads on infringed files. These are files that are posted without the consent of, and without paying, the people who created them. Normally, you’d be allowed to arrest someone who did that, just as you would our coke dealer from the previous example. I know Germany has been able to implement more stringent laws, but in the US and many other places in the European Union (EU), there are laws that give these corporations “a safe harbor,” meaning you can’t sue them for the damage they do to you by sharing your content for free.
The technology exists to prevent this. In fact, YouTube already has a software that prevents illegal files from being uploaded or viewed. This is the reason you can watch a video in the US but not in Germany. Thousands of artists already use this option. The problem is that in order to get it, you have to sign a contract and hand over the rights to your material to YouTube.
You see, these are corporate gangsters, and why are they getting away with it? Because some of them are worth 550 billion dollars; that’s why! They have bought the politicians. But is it hurting people? Is it hurting culture? Is it hurting musicians? Not just the musicians but the engineers, the road crews, the producers, the recording studios, the people who clean the studios? Of course, it is! It’s putting a lot of people out of work. If you care about working-class music—and if you believe our culture should reflect the diversity of experiences in our society—then you might want to care about these issues too. It’s as simple as that.
If you want to learn more about these issues, or get involved as an activist, visit c3action online.