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Your money or your life — payment and performance

February 19, 2008

ballad_seller.jpghighwayman.jpg

Splish, splash, I was raking in the cash…

Sunday night — Kevin Quain, Toronto’s resident jazz-folk-cabaret secret, is performing with his band at the Cameron House. Everything about the setting and performance feels much more adult than the kind of shows I’m used to attending: older, professional-looking people listen appreciatively. Violin and saxophone solos are earnestly applauded. There’s a good hour’s intermission between the band’s two sets for conversation and mature reflection. But here’s the really interesting difference: instead of having a cover charge at the door you get Kevin walking round with a jar and collecting money in person. He does this twice during the evening, as the band continues to play, and frequent reminders to “give generously” are dropped in between his songs. For a moment I feel strange about this, suddenly conscious of the fact that I’m part of a generation that’s developed very different attitudes towards payment and performance.

Two weeks earlier — Baby Dee, a singer whose act is coloured by a very different shades of cabaret, is playing at the Drake Underground as part of a continent-wide tour, before modestly-sized audiences. I overhear a woman respond to being asked to pay a cover charge on the door: “Twelve dollars? Are you kidding?”.

So what’s going on? I think these two examples illustrate two different performance conventions. The Baby Dee show was played to a slightly younger crowd, albeit at a much more plush venue — the kind of venue, in fact, probably frequented by younger people living slightly above their means. I was frankly disgusted that the kind of person who probably wouldn’t think twice about paying roughly the same amount for a drink at the Drake would object to giving $12 to see an artist who’s attempting to tour the whole of North America. I can certainly estimate that playing to the smallish audiences such as those at the Drake that night isn’t going to generate much cash other than the basic expenses needed to get from one city to the next; people of my generation and younger, quite accustomed to file-sharing technology and the imminent death of the music industry, are not disinterested in providing a living for the artists who entertain them.

But back at the Kevin Quain show: now, I think the Cameron House is just fine, nicely cheap and cheerful, but I can guess that to at least some of the older, more affluent crowd in attendance there, a weekly trip to the Cameron House is something like a bit of slumming. I wouldn’t usually be so fixed on the socio-economic status of an audience, but as I’ve mentioned, money-talk was quite a theme of the evening. Coming from the same generation as the person who didn’t want to pay $12 to see a touring artist, it’s little
wonder that it took me a few minutes’ thought to understand that what was going on was part of a far more traditional, now slightly archaic, performance tradition.

Basic Marxist theory (most of all, Theodor Adorno) will tell you that what we now know as pop music has its very origins in capitalist venture. But (and Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor’s recent book Faking It goes into this some way) the quest for this elusive but revered thing called authenticity has caused money to be something to a bit of a taboo in certain pop circles.

So, Kevin Quain’s much-voiced concern with being paid might well be genuine — who can actually earn a living from being a musician these days? — but it’s also very much part of his performance. As he collects money, the band play on. In a way, this visible cashing-in actually adds authenticity, giving the favourite folksy impression of vagabondage: the money you’re giving is all the musicians have to get from one place to the next. It also dramatises the relationship between performer and audience as one based on mutual dependency.  Just as the band is insisting that it depends on the audience to pay their rent, so the audience theatrically perform the idea that they need their entertainers in the same way that they need the companies who provide their water, electricity and health-care.

Such a performance convention is, for the most part, pre-pop.  It belongs to a time when the ballad-seller and the highway-man occupied the same hold on the public’s imagination, merged at times into one elusive traveling star.  It’s a folk convention, less certain and legitimate than the patronage method of bread-winning.  It exists in some corners of pop, perhaps grotesquely in the hip-hop habit of conspicuous materialism (though this is more about excess than basic need), and a direct line of ancestry could certainly be traced from the highwayman-dandy to the blinged-up rapper — going via Malcolm McLaren’s re-writing of the Sex Pistols, post-Rotten, as pawns in his Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle.

And don’t you believe that there’s anything remotely voluntary about these types of transaction.  Ask the  friend-of-a-friend in our party, visiting from England, who made the honest mistake of forgetting to tip at the bar (I sometimes forget, even now): the bar-man handed over the drinks and told her to “go to hell”.  This in itself was a performance.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 20, 2008 8:15 am

    Yes yes yes. I’ve been thinking about this recently. Do you have ACCESS?

    You’ll have to instruct me fully on the practice of tipping as soon as I arrive. I never tip anyone but apparently over on that side of the ocean, this sort of behaviour can get you a kicking, or at least a waiter wee-weeing in your coffee.

  2. Virginia permalink
    February 20, 2008 4:08 pm

    Please don’t tip the Starbucks boys, Jonny… unless it’s a tip on how to use less hair product.

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