small is possible: reconstructing local music

In +1/-1, books, carbon neutral, culture, Miraverse, music industry by Michael Tiemann

small is possible book coverI just read Lyle Estill’s manifesto small is possible, an account of how he and others in Pittsboro, North Carolina (population 2,500) discovered how to feed, fuel, heal, and govern itself as a community.

First off, the writing is simply first-rate. Lyle writes with humor, but also with a very keen eye to the forces and effects that operate on multiple levels. But unlike Alexis de Tocqueville or Michael Pollan or Malcolm Gladwell, he is not merely an observer, but a passionate actor as well. And because Lyle practices the teaching “be the change you want to see in the world,” he has learned to farm, write software, weld steel, wire buildings, extend credit, teach classes, pull permits, and make peace with hunters.

Not all these many careers have been successful: he tried and failed yoga. And he tells this story of how, at the peak of the Internet Boom, he had the opportunity to Make It Big and utterly failed to comprehend the potential, as he explains:

“When Scott came to me to explain the future, I yawned. We would sit around after hours with core employees and argue about the coming of the net.

One night, our sales manager, Skip, said “Travel. Let’s take travel. How do you buy your tickets right now?”

I thought of Lisa, the preacher’s wife turned travel agent, who matched up the itineraries of Tami and Lyle [who would later marry] like a marriage counselor scheduling appointments, and I answered Skip’s question honestly:

“The other night I came out of my bathroom and found my travel agent at the kitchen table cutting up a lime on the cutting board. She had let herself in, and had brought over a ox of Corona beer.

“I sat down, grabbed a beer, and she told me that tonight we were going to get clear on whether or not Tami and I were going to Belize or Jordan. Tami came home late from work, grabbed a beer and settled into the conversation.

“Are you telling me that one day I will replace that with a computer screen?”

Nevertheless, Lyle and Tami did travel, marry, have children, and yes, made it small. Which made them so much happier than if they had Made It Big. But back to the book and my interest in it…

The book is written in two parts: an introduction of the area and the colorful people who inhabit it, and then a series of essays about the many forms of sustainability he has observed or achieved. The chapters in the second part include:

  • Connecting Ourselves
  • Feeding Ourselves
  • Housing Ourselves
  • Financing Ourselves
  • Educating Ourselves
  • Entertaining Ourselves
  • Governing Ourselves

The section “Entertaining Ourselves” tells the story of the success of the Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival of Music & Dance, but against the background of so many other stories of sustainability that it really provides a great context for thinking about The Miraverse (and not just the fact that we are aiming to be carbon neutral).

Fundamentally, the Miraverse is all about creating an environment for authentic musical experience. Granted it will be an experience which can be recorded at 96kHz/24bit resolution, captured in 3G-SDI video, mixed, mastered, and produced with state of the art analog and digital equipment, etc., but one which, for the principals, is real, and their very act of presence and participation is essential to the creative outcome of the work. For this reason I consider it to be organic music—music that depends as much on context as it does on the creative seeds that are planted in that context.

Let me go a step further. I believe that by producing local music for local audiences, we will create that rare and valuable commodity that becomes valued the world over precisely because we are aiming to produce first for ourselves. As Walter Kolosky writes in Power, Passion and Beauty, one of the forces that killed the category of Jazz Fusion was that record producers kept watering it down in a misguided effort to make the product appeal to more people. To heck with that! We’re going to host music that actual people are passionate about, not music that fits some false formula of the lowest common denominator.

And a step further: we’re going to be more successful by working at small scale. Remember my blog posting about Linda Ronstadt? About how she loved the musical scene when artists played in and filled venues of 100-300 people, and how, when the format changed to Arena Rock, she stopped playing because the format itself was destructive to everything she valued? The reverb alone in a 20,000 seat arena destoys any intelligibility of lyric content, and the absurd levels of volume (many contract riders require delivering 120dB to the house mix position) are so extreme that the wall of noise drowns out any semblance of musical content as well.  (Not to mention the permanent hearing damage that invariably results, certainly an unintended consequence of this ridiculous practice.)

There are still a lot of questions to be answered about how we will make the Miraverse sustainable. But the book small is possible suggest one strong and common theme: community. And so we will continue to think sustainably, reach out to the community, and see whether small is possible for us, too.