Durham News: Opinion

Jesse James DeConto: Music fandom as moral obligation

Jesse James DeConto
Jesse James DeConto

This town’s not big enough for both Jason Kutchma and his allergies. So the spurs on his combat boots will soon jangle off into the Sundown, USA.

A few years ago, a friend of mine noticed “Jay” clanking around Brightleaf with his spurs and his pearl-snap unsnapped down below his chest, under his trim denim trucker jacket and his pompadour haircut.

“That guy’s a rock star,” my friend said.

Now, Jay and his wife Beth, the bassist in their punk band Red Collar, are doing maybe the most punk-rock thing possible: They’re leaving the house they own at the corner of Washington and Trinity and heading west to live in their tour van, they know not where, nor for how long, until they can find a place to settle. All Jay knows is that when he’s gone on tour out West with his solo folk songs, he can breathe. Here in Durham, he needs an inhaler in the middle of the night.

Not that long ago, we lost Andrea and Pete Connolly, aka Birds & Arrows, to the great frontier as well. The West beckons.

“It’s a really strange feeling right now,” Jay says. “Plenty of stress and anxiety and depression over leaving, but it’s a move that I know has to be made just like we knew it was right to come here in the first place.”

I think I speak for a lot of people when I say, I’ll be really sorry to see the Kutchmas go. They moved to Durham from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in 1997.

“I identified with the town quite a bit – a lot of edge and grit and raw, raw potential,” Jay says. “The arts and music scene was very eclectic, very encouraging. It’s a town very meaningful for us, one largely emblematic of our own participation and development in music and the arts.”

For the past 14 years, Beth has been a senior program officer at the UNC Center for Global Initiatives. She’s on the board of Carolina for Kibera and produced the documentary “Without a Fight” about soccer and social change in the Nairobi slum.

The Kutchmas were some of the first musicians I met in the local scene. Red Collar made punk music that felt like a party and a protest at the same time. Their name itself evoked the blood of the workers, a Communist uprising led by JKutchma, the Charis-marxist preacher. Eight years ago, I saw them play at The Club Is Open Festival, a week of shows in Chapel Hill and Carrboro to draw attention to hometown bands during the summer doldrums and to raise money for Carolina for Kibera.

Wearing a T-shirt that said, “CHOOSE LOCAL MUSIC,” JKutchma was his usual kinetic self on-stage – one of the most physical performers the Triangle has known – but he gave it a little extra that night, ad-libbing an impassioned sermon on how in the age of the mp3, it had become harder and harder for musicians to finance their work. It’s only gotten worse, with Pandora and Spotify gutting the market for CDs and with vinyl hampered by high overhead costs and infrastructure that can’t keep up even with the limited demand of a niche audience.

But Jay got my attention that night. It was a paradigm shift, really: He made me see music fandom as carrying a sort of moral obligation. Like most of us, I was born into a capitalist system, and so I just assumed that products and services would find their value in the free market. If people weren’t willing to pay for something, then it probably wasn’t worth paying for. Jay helped me to see that just because I could get music for free, it doesn’t mean I ought to.

That’s not to say I never consume free music. Sometimes I stream music. Sometimes I go to free shows. But I have to constantly ask myself – Do I want this artist or this band to keep making music? Do I want to hear more from them? If the answer is yes, then I have a duty to pay for their recordings and buy tickets to their shows. I’m just a writer and a musician, and I don’t have a lot of disposable income, but I try to give more on Kickstarter or Pledge Music campaigns than the “market” says an album is worth – at least 25, 35, 45 bucks.

My own band recently ran our own Kickstarter drive, and most of our pledges were $10 or $25. We could approximate a fair-market return for these smaller pledges – CDs, T-shirts, coffee mugs. But with a couple of pledges of $1,000 and $1,500, it was hard to pretend what we had here was a commercial exchange. Instead, we and our backers had to see the transaction as a revival of the concept of patronage, the way the arts have always been funded but for the capitalist blip of the 20th century. Many of our backers are associated with my sister and bandmate Katie DeConto’s Mercury Studio and The Makery, where she and others have given so much of their time to nurture local creativity. (If any of you is reading this, THANK YOU!) Patrons pay for art because they want it to exist, and they want to be associated with it, not because of any purely practical value it brings to their lives. Patronage is a good word, one we need to recover; I like to call it co-creation, because it invites our communities into the process of making art.

My own experiences and watching my friends navigate the arts economy have shaped my thinking on this, but JKutchma’s sermon back in 2008 at the Cat’s Cradle was the first tremor. And that reminds me: Jay’s three terrific Americana records with his band The Five Fifths came out before I started buying vinyl. It’s time to go find those LPs.

Jesse James DeConto is a writer and musician in Durham. Contact him via www.jessejamesdeconto.com.