Thursday, September 28, 2006

Underground Economy

I received a package from Singapore today containing the new WTN cd 'Black Hearse'. I had just been commenting to a friend that this was a slightly frustrating project to work on and I expected to never see the finished product. Underground art, for all its sick & sleazy glory, is not entirely without its frustrations. Artists often trade total artistic freedom and integrity for grinding poverty and self-destruction. You see, the qualifying term "underground" generally implies "underpaid" and "underrated". I'm not complaining. That's just the way it is. That's also why those of us who devote ourselves to this bastard artform have such righteous bonds with one another. During the 70's, Greg Irons was cranking out amazing radical comix at a rate of $15-$20 per page. If he was lucky. Anyone who has ever sat under a lamp long into the night knows that this amounts to pennies-to-the-hour labor. But it's a labor of love and you get the job done.

I drew the cover art for 'Black Hearse' for $100 and 5 copies of the cd. I never keep track of how many hours I spend on each piece, but I devoted at least 40 hours to 'Black Hearse'. I generally charge much more than that, but this was a tiny D.I.Y. label in an underdeveloped nation that asked very nicely. And I have a total fucking weakness for asian zombies. The frustrating part of this project wasn't the pay. It was the poor communication, probably due to the language barrier, and the label owner insisting on getting more and more for his meager payment. I was asked if I would do the layout. No. Then I was asked if the label could keep the original. NO! Then, after what seemed like daily e-mails about the drawing's progress (I'm pretty slow...there are probably people reading this right now who are wondering why I'm not working on their art), I sent the art and didn't hear back for weeks. Nothing. No feedback on the drawing, no thanks, no time-line for the finished product. I also never got my 5 cd's even though I had heard recently that they were readily available in the States. That's the underground.

There's a lot to be frustrated about these days. I'm not talking about the Middle East and no-touch policies in strip bars. I'm talking about the seemingly endless glut of worthless bands and tired formulaic trends. Rip-off distros and labels. Crazy postage rates. Low show turn-out. Unenthusiastic crowds of hipster fucks sporting eye liner and mop-top haircuts. Myspace losers who start bands just to see how many "friends" they can get but never think about how they could use this networking tool to support worthy projects and artists. Old school dicks constantly raving about how great "the scene" was "back in the day." But perhaps here's some small modicum of hope...

After several months of anticipation, I'm finally holding the 'Black Hearse' cd in my hand. I am acutely aware of all the mistakes of my drawing. I see what could've been done better if I only had more time. I make mental notes of what WILL be better next time around. I see typos and broken english. And then it dawns on me. This gory grind band, whose crusty acronym stands for "War Torn Nation", hails from Singapore. Their pal contacts me in Portland, Oregon and asks if I would kindly draw something for the band's final cd. I spend hours alone in a dark basement. The art is sent to Singapore. It is approved and forwarded to our mutual friend in Holland who slaves over the computer for hours, designing an appropriate layout. He is not compensated for his time and much of his work will appear altered on the final product. The layout returns to Singapore and the finished product hits the streets of America several weeks later. What a labor of love! This thing has been around the world and back! It has been scrutinized by a crazy bunch of totally obsessed maniacs before even the first smug review can hit message boards. That's the underground I love! And, for the record, they sent me 10 copies of the cd. I was only owed 5.
Postscript:
I won't get paid a cent more if this thing sells 10,000,000 copies. But I urge you to pick this fucker up. Someday it will be a relic that reminds us that the underground was alive and well in 2006.

3 comments:

Chris F. said...

Hey Dennis! Bet you didn't expect me to be commenting here, but what you're describing hits close to home for me. I've met more amazing people in the last two decades in the underground music "scene" than I can ever hope to remember, people who were setting up gigs, booking tours, trading music, or just establishing friendships with people on the other side of the world long before Napster, Hotmail, eBay and MySpace made it a matter of just downloading mp3's or "approving" a new friend. Not that I'm knocking the internet; I've used and abused it and regrettably become pretty dependent on it since the late 90's, but I know that underground art and music would still be doing just fine without the www, and I guess that's exactly my point, which I think ties in pretty closely with what I take to be your point: that we do what we do out of love and from our hearts, not for instant gratification or a huge (or even not-so-huge) paycheck. I can think of very few things as humbling as meeting people who were harrassed by the KGB for being punks in Estonia in the 80's, or watching helplessly as El Paso's finest clubbed the shit out of a sixteen year old kid (I say "helplessly" because two other uniformed cowards held us back with shotguns while this was going on), again simply for being a punk in the 90's. What motivation is there for going on in the face of apathy and under-appreciation at best, and condemnation and physical violence at worst, if it's not coming from some place deep inside that absolutely needs to express itself, no matter if one person, ten people, or no people are ever even aware that it exists? Trends will come and go, and every form of expression will be exploited and quickly tossed aside by the mass-market meatgrinder, but those of us whose motives are simply to create something that is our own will never disappear. So thanks for reminding me of that, I feel a bit less jaded than I did a half-hour ago.

Anyhoo, hopefully this absolves me at least a little for not showing up to watch movies since what, last spring? I know, I know...

Anonymous said...

Except that Singapore is hardly "underdeveloped". It has Britain's GDP, a so-called first world oasis in a third world region. You should have charged more ;-)

Anonymous said...

That should read GDP per capita...