Good news for those of you planning to rent a DVD of "Boraxo" next Thursday evening and suffer through Ron Reagan's performance as a Pakistani mule-driver attempting to rescue a digital goddess from a vast electronic desert...There's a better alternative of LIVE performance at the High Falls Cafe featuring Mark Donato as a singer-songwriter musically exploring the liquid labyrinth of life's existential jar of half-sour pickles, a performance sure to be fraught with around-the-corner perspectives and rhythmic wit... And isn't that what alternatives are all about?
Live music venues in the Catskill-Hudson Valley have dwindled in counter-pace to the expansion of cable TV channels, DVDs, video games and other forms of household entertainment. This is a notion that major marketers of recorded music should keep in mind as they try to figure out how to charge, fine or sue concert attendees for listening to music they own the "intellectual rights" to without giving them a taste. A vanishing community-based experience to be cherished, live performance insists tribally that it's not a reality show unless you're actually THERE yourself.
Radio, a traditionally vital medium for musicians seeking an audience for their labors, is currently an active battlefield in what some have termed a war of corporate aggression and others characterize a "majestic scam." Not one of the independent musicians I called was aware of the Copyright Royalty Board's decision in March which will inevitably close Internet Radio, an important source of exposure to musicians without mega-marketing machines behind them, to lesser known musical acts. The "per play" royalty rates due to be imposed on March 15th are poised to rewrite the Darwinism of the airwaves (or cablelines, if you will) to a Survival of the Richest shutdown of broadcasters with slim pockets.
Local independent musicians curious to discover how this decision, lobbied
successfully by its chief beneficiary, the SoundExchange organization, might
effect them can start here-
SoundExchange is a sprout of the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America), who recently beat out Haliburton as the "worst company in America" (http://consumerist.com/consumer/worst-company-in-america/) and joins massive "airwave-owners" like Clear Channel (which claims 110 million radio listeners to its over 1,000 stations) as historic devastators of the musical landscape, twisting it beyond the worst nightmares of the legislators Robert McChesney wrote about in his classic Telecommunications, Mass Media & Democracy: The Battle for the Control of U.S. Broadcasting, 1928-1935. It is, in essence, seizing control of all artist royalties from Internet radio (http://slashdot.org/articles/07/04/29/0335224.shtml) where, with the approval of federal agencies, the funds can be dispensed as their offspring SoundExchange sees fit, including forfeitures of uncollected artist royalties (http://www.boycott-riaa.com/article/23727).
One last-gasp hope of overturning the decision by the crony-stacked CRB is a public outcry loud enough to persuade Congress to support the Internet Radio Equality Act (http://www.savenetradio.org/). Although the public seems to be dozing through a tidal wave of new corporate rip-offs, there may still be a slim chance of fighting this facet of bigbrotherism simply because Congressman Jay Innslee (D-WA) and Representative Don Manzullo (R-Il) have already introduced a bill that would nullify the Copyright Royalty Board's decision. ( http://arstechnica.com/news.ars/post/20070502-internet-radio-royalty-hike-delayed-last-chance-to-petition-congress.html). Now, it could use a clamor to nudge the rest of the House.
Clamor? Washington columnist Donald Kaul would be shocked. Kaul recently discussed the 70-year-old Hampton Bays, N.Y. man discovered sitting in front of his switched-on TV set.
"Further examination revealed he'd been dead a year," Kaul wrote. "Damn me for an insensitive cynic, but I think that goes a long way toward explaining the popularity of American Idol..." It has been argued that television rendered the nation brain-dead years ago, creating a populace ill-informed by major corporate media except for the alternatives available through an internet system now under calculated and seriously consequential attack.
Mark Donato will, however, get some Hudson Valley radio exposure shortly as he is scheduled to be featured on Todd Mack's Off the Beat-N-Track program which spotlights independent artist on KZE (98.1 FM) Saturday nights between 9 and 11 pm. The station's programming offers a mainstream respite from the canned and paid-for playlists of other area broadcasters and a welcome window for Indy artists to air their wares.
Donato, who has been quietly resident in Olive with his wife and daughter since 2002, hails originally from the southwestern Pennsylvania town of Connellsville. His first step toward New York was a college stint in Pittsburgh, where he studied writing and psychology until a statistics course prompted retreat from the latter subject. "I don't think I read a lot before I went to college, so I used those years to catch up on my reading- which turned out to be a good thing," Donato observes. Also, having played drums in high school, Mark added gig playing to the studying and fiction-writing he was doing at the time.
"It was a group called Zone Bleu, led by a guy from Paris who was actually quite good," the softly spoken songwriter recalls. "He had a big, deep French-accented voice which the girls loved."
Still a bit surprised that music has become so large a part of his life, Donato didn't pick up guitar until he started writing lyrics at around age 22 and began playing his songs around Pittsburgh as a solo act when funding problems prompted him to leave graduate school.
"I always sang to my stereo, so I think I always wanted to sing," Mark notes in tones of self-discovery. "I always remembered all of the words to songs more than anyone else I knew, so I guess it's not surprising that I started writing lyric-type things."
Upon arrival in the Big Apple, Donato began playing drums in various bands, including Tom Adelman's The Oswalds and Mark Lerner's Flat old World. When Adelman left the former group around 1990, Donato "inherited" a bass player and a guitarist, recruited a new drummer and began playing his own tunes around city clubs with them as Canoeful of Strangers. His first CD, I'm Flapping and Other Favorites was released in 1996, sporting such intriguing titles as "Between Now and California," "An Expletive Or Two," "Ms. Breath and Mr. Go Away" and others. As suggested by the titles, the tunes were somewhere away from ordinary themes of the day.
This brings up the psychology of buying music and a factor you never hear in all of the debates about why CD sales have declined. How about 'indignation'? When the RIAA pushes its intellectual rights agenda on customers with the same vigor as Monsanto deals its 'terminator seeds' on hapless farmers, claiming that the sharing of music is to blame for its loss of business, it never looks in the mirror. There may be a level of fierce satisfaction in suing college kids for illegal downloads via Napster, Kazaa and the other file-sharing sites out there (www.eff.org/share) but their argument evaporates in the face of studies by Oberholzer of Harvard and Stumpf of UNC Chapel Hill- "The Effect of File Sharing on Record Sales- An Empirical Analysis" and others which demonstrates that these practices more than make up for lost sales by promoting other sales which wouldn't have happened had the listeners not caught a taste of an artist unfamiliar to them. CD sales dipped 5.4% further when Napster was shut down according to the sales tabulating company, Soundscan. One problem may be that the exposure of new Indy artists to wider groups of music fans who want to support what they feel is good music, are turning away from the mega-industry treadmill. A podcasting DJ reports that "I am constantly thanked by THEIR consumers for directing them to anything but the boybands and Britney Spears-knockoffs they spend so much money forcing down our throats." (You can extend the argument to I-pods, etc. but, according to The Economist, CDS still represent over 85% of music sales.)
The Internet is currently key to the discovery of new music and the big boys have been slow to pick up on its true value because it's been seen as a threat to their monopoly. Gone are the days of browsing well-stocked local "record shops." Despite the lingering presence of Woodstock area music on the world stage, since the closure of Rhythms music shop on Tinker Street, the closest outlet with an appreciable selection of CDs is a franchise store in Kingston. If you're feverish to get a copy of something you just heard, a finger-crossed trip to the mall is necessary where, as often as not, it'll have to be ordered- which of course requires another trip.
Customers have also become aware of how overpriced CDs are and how little of the take goes to the artists, mainstream though they may be, as compared to the Indy artist issuing his own albums and struggling by on much lower sales volumes but higher percentages from the profit. (http://www.bricklin.com/artistspaid.htm) Then there's sheer idiocy. For instance, it would be nice to slip a copy of Loreena McKinnett's An Ancient Muse into the computer to listen to as this is being written. McKennett creates superb 'writing music' but I'll not be buying another of her albums because, after plunking down $20 for this one, I discovered it wouldn't read in the computer's drive. I instantly regretted the rare violation of my own rule of never buying a product that carries an FBI warning. This, we might suppose, is to encourage the purchase of another copy of the album for the car because you can't make one. It certainly couldn't be to prevent a bootlegger from dubbing it because any pirate worth his salt can get around that in a blink. It's merely a slap in the face of the consumer. Good thinking, Verve (Universal), that'll surely boost sales.
As the Future of Music Coalition points out in their charter; "The Recording Industry Association of America is a special interest group that claims from time to time to lobby on behalf of musicians, but it is funded by, and represents the interests of, the major record companies- the same corporations traditionally known to be the primary exploiters of the musicians that the RIAA claims to represent." (http://www.futureofmusic.org/manifesto/) The five dominant music conglomerates which control most music sales and have been from uneasy to panicky about declining sales, are also careful not to consider the rising sales of the independent labels.
Derek Sivers, a one-time Woodstocker who founded CDBaby, the largest independent distributing house in the Pacific Northwest, has reported a 30% increase in sales during 2006. But the conglomerates that have been spreading so much cash to keep Indy artists off the airwaves don’t want to talk about that booming growth sector of the industry.
If, as Sivers suspects, this boom is reflected in the sales of other independents, "it provides one more powerful argument that the current decline in revenue for the major labels has nothing to do with ‘piracy’ and everything to do with competition working. As I have argued, (along with the good folks at Ars Technica), the decline of the CD market proves what many of us have said for years. The 1990s saw a number of factors that allowed the major labels to push out independents and dominate the market with their own outrageously priced and poorly produced products: consolidation in the music industry, the whole ‘studio system’ of pumping a few big stars to the exclusion of others, the consolidation in music outlets from mom-and-pop records stores to chains like Tower Records and retail giants like Wal-Mart that exclude indies and push the recordings promoted by major labels, and the consolidation of radio- which further killed indie exposure and allowed the labels to artificially pump their selected ‘hits’ through payola. All this created a cozy cartel that enjoyed monopoly profits."
Lost in the shuffle are countless working musicians who deserve a share of the public support that the conglomerate tastemakers are siphoning off to the select few acts they promote aggressively with the intention of fully exploiting the popularity trends they have molded. As meaningless as the "alternative" in the "Alternative Rock" category of contemporary music is any kind of "popular" music imposed by the hands that control the gates of musical exposure. When the "suits" of the industry boast that they can fabricate popularity at will and do, they have usurped one of the few dwindling powers the ‘non-elite’ masses have left to express their own views and identities. Closing these avenues of the arts to countercultural efforts is a corporate strategy which stifles diversity of creative expression to a degree that endangers freedom of thought itself. All the more reason to buy the music of independents and get out and support your local musician at live performances.
Artists like Mark Donato, who sell their albums through Internet-friendly outlets like CDBaby and their own websites, are making an impact for all the right reasons- not because the hype is strong but because the music is and, somehow, they have managed to be heard. Mark’s own website, for instance, offers some free MP3 downloads to whet your appetite. (http://www.markdonato.com/downloads.htm)
Since they frequently gesture more than evince or expound, it's not always obvious what Donato's songs are really about but, typically, their individual lines offer unexpected glimpses into common or idiosyncratic moments of life and situational existence carved into identifiable feelings, thoughts, observations, attitudes and pretenses. They each have a certain 'You think you know, but-' smirk and, in fact, its lead-off tune- "You Think You Know What It Means," (which some readers may know from its inclusion on the Woodstock Film Festival 2003 CD compilation along with music from the illustrious Karl Berger, Tony Rice, Peter Rowan, Slidin' Jerry Douglas and others) insists otherwise.
Leaning over the Alt-Rock fence from the folk side, the binding music sometimes strives to demonstrate that 'melodic punk hybrid' doesn't have to be an oxymoronic objective and guitar lines from gritty nips to flares of mellow zest are available to punctuate a point. As Donato's characters stride, interwoven and sometimes seemingly unrelated images unwind and stretch, dart across the flowing stream of melody and duck behind the next line, leaving us reaching to shape our own forms of logic and association.
Another brand new album called I Haven't Wasted All This Time Alone features the poignant "Infirmary Ball"; the pensively yearning and vaguely rural "Help Me Put Some Meat On These Bones"; the direly bouncy "Moods of Extreme Desire" (which declares that "If there's one thing that I can't abide/ It's this feeling that I'm satisfied"); "The Architect of Open Spaces," a prancing lyrical plea which found its title in an obituary, and other unusual compositions. This last mentioned title may offer a sliver of insight into Donato's poetic process and calls to mind an album project now in the works called "A History of the Boys and Girls." This was adopted from the projected title of a never-completed novel by mid-20th Century poet Delmore Schwartz, a semi-tragic figure honored by writers as divergent as Lou Reed and Saul Bellows.
"I just thought the title should have something attached to it," Donato explains. "The songs feel interconnected to me and this is the first time I'm sort of demanding of myself that I keep all of them on the same record."
The standard format of the popular Acoustic Thursday Night series includes sets by three musical acts and several wrap-up numbers from Kurt and Cheryl Henry- four performances for five bucks! Such a deal! Sharing the bill with Mark Donato on May 17th will be the accomplished and widely-traveled guitarist and prolific songwriter Sharon Klein and Gary Terbush, songwriting brother of the veteran Hudson Valley bluegrass band, the Bush Brothers, a title in use for decades which now carries a disclaimer- no, not related to Sam Bush or George Bush or any of those other contemporary growths.
A shorter version of this article appeared in the May 10th 2007 edition of the Woodstock Times.
Irv Yarg is an internationally published observer on cultural and political events who resides in the Hudson Valley area. His analysis of the recent and ongoing musical history of the region will be featured as a part of our coverage of the local scene.