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Decline & Revolution
A native of Toronto, Canada, Ron Hawkins has been a musician for twenty-three years and a painter for five. His first gig was in a brothel. With his bands The Lowest Of The Low and The Rusty Nails, He's walked a line between mainstream and indie success that's allowed him to release nine discs and tour worldwide, "getting both drunk and paid."
You recently completed a solo album, Chemical Sounds, which includes a song titled "1-800-Radio," broadsiding the current state of radio in North America. Most people I know have given up on radio completely, but anyone who has ever been trapped in my car, an 11-year-old Saab with a broken tape deck and no CD player, describe the experience of trying to find something decent to listen to as a slowly unfolding form of modern torture. As an independent musician, can you describe the devolution of radio and what the industry was like for you before, and now after media super-consolidation?
Since I was a kid and into my teens, I remember thinking of the music industry as a fortress. It seemed as though access to a recording contract or a label that could get you on the radio was restricted to a small handful of people who had been scouted by an A&R department, which was akin to some secret society in my mind. I believe that payola and bribery were the norm in terms of getting acts heard nationwide.
Then a few things happened. Punk rock blew up, and it suddenly seemed like the DIY ethic would bust open the exclusivity of this relationship by a generation of artists who would A, not give a fuck about getting on the radio and then B, get on the radio. This sea change against the bloated classic rock scenario was a long time coming, but had an immediate affect on young bands and songwriters that were coming of age in the early eighties. It spurred me on in a huge way and inspired me to start writing my own songs.
Then the early nineties came, and the band I was in, Lowest Of The Low, was part of a wave in Toronto of bands that suddenly enjoyed the ability to manufacture their own CDs, and in so doing cut out some middlemen and get their work right to the audience they played for. As well, there was a generation of DJs and VJs willing to take a chance on these independent acts, at least at such stations as 102.1 [Toronto's CFNY, now "the Edge" ]. That door remained open for about five years as far as I can tell, and it created a sort of renaissance of grassroots music and the street and the industry enjoying a mutually beneficial, if somewhat tenuous, relationship.
Since then, we've witnessed a corporate merging of the many into the few, and nowadays with the Clear Channel phenomenon and fewer major labels, the door has again closed on independently made music. This is not a specifically music or art related trend of course. It's the logical extension of corporate capitalism and the modern trend of corporatism in general.
What are your feelings on file sharing? Have people stopped buying CDs?
The counterpoint to this problem seems to be the democratization of the arts through the internet. On one hand, it's a wonderfully democratic tool to raise awareness of independently made art. On the other hand, it gluts the senses, so that it is very difficult to wade through the miles of shit in order to get to the good stuff. Everyone can now make a disc in their bedroom. Some people shouldn't.
My thoughts on file sharing are similar to my thoughts on cassette taping back in the day. If people are music fans and have an awareness of the struggle it takes to be an artist and to build a life of making music, they will more than likely support those artists they love by buying their CDs. File sharing may be a way in, and a risk free way to check stuff out, but it's then up to word of mouth to make the music viable. I admit this may be a generational blind spot I have. It's been suggested to me that there is already a generation growing up never feeling the need to pay for music. I have no rebuttal to that.
I think--well, I know, people are walking away from record stores en masse, but that doesn't mean they've necessarily stopped buying CDs. Most of my friends buy on-line. And if we get to a day when people stop buying CDs because they've stopped being interested in music--literature, visual art, film, et cetera--then the culture is doomed anyhow.
How do you see the future playing out in the music industry?
I think these things are cyclical to some degree. There will always be energy from the street level for new art forms and new modes of getting that art to people. The need is there, so the demand will follow in some form. And the struggle to wrest control of that work from the hands of the artist to the corporate entity that shills it will go back and forth as well. I've seen it happen at least twice in my lifetime and expect to see it again. And as I said before, this is no different than the struggle that goes on between labor and corporate entities in all walks of life. The many are struggling for control of their labor from the hands of the few.
Some people in the United States describe our healthcare system as a form of lifestyle blackmail. As a Canadian, your healthcare is provided at no direct cost to you. As the father of an 18-month-old daughter with your partner Jill, and as an independent musician and artist, how would your life change if you had to shell out $1000 a month for health insurance?
Needless to say it would be much harder. Healthcare and education are two sectors of society that should be immune to exploitation. They should be birthrights of all people of a society. The fact that the wealthiest nation in history cannot--will not--provide free healthcare and education to its population sickens me. Socialized healthcare in Canada has been hard won and is by no means permanent. There are attempts at every turn to repeal it, to privatize it and to chip away at it's social foundation.
What are the implications for a society like the US, that treats its independent artists so harshly?
The implications are infinite, but I'd say, in the interest of being brief, irrelevancy, decline and revolution.
Ron's recently completed album, Chemical Sounds, is available at victimlesscapitalism.com. You can learn more about Ron, his music and his art at ronhawkins.com. He'll be playing at the Tralf in Buffalo Satuday, November 3rd at 8pm.
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