Behind the Music Protests

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Ribot at last summer's JVC Jazz Festival. Photo: Getty Images

Hey, CBGB fans: This is how you protest a club's closing. When the venerable music venue Tonic abruptly shut its doors on April 13, owners John Scott and Melissa Caruso-Scott had to vacate the building by the next day. Instead, a motley crew of musicians, including the legendary guitarist Marc Ribot, showed up for an improvised concert that didn't stop even as hard hats began dismantling the stage. Ribot and fellow downtown eminence Rebecca Moore were cuffed and briefly jailed. Hours later, Ribot was the mouthpiece of a new group called Take It to the Bridge, a pissed-off but realistic and articulate advocate for displaced jazz and avant-garde musicians. They've got the ear of City Councilman Alan Gerson, and they're gaining traction. We talked to Ribot about the coalition, its goals, and the future of music in New York.

What's the coalition trying to do?
When CBGB closed, a tremendous amount of political energy was built up and then went nowhere. You remember the attention it got. Bloomberg announced his support. Richard Hell — Richard Hell! — got a Times op-ed. And then it was, "Oh, what can you do, private owner, private club." It seems that the will to preserve CBGB fell apart when it became clear they couldn't keep that private space. So this time, we channeled it into a political request: We need a place to replace Tonic, it needs to be in a central enough location to do what Tonic did, and large enough to fulfill its economic function. We also want our music to be recognized as a culturally and economically important part of New York City's heritage and future. We want NYC to start acting like the cultural capital it claims to be.

How will you go about it?
This was organized on a two-week notice. But this is just not to be done: Vienna and Paris don't chop down an opera house just because the property values are up and someone proposes a fifteen-story building in its place. We think it would be lovely if New York adopted a policy similar to other industrialized Western nations, which recognize culture as something to be protected, even if the market fails it.

So do you see a future Tonic as subsidized or even city-owned?
A lot of musicians are basically libertarian in their outlook and opposed to subsidies. The irony is, though, that the golden era of private club ownership was subsidized in a half-dozen ways. For example, CBGB existed in the context of stabilized rents, and the record labels that — imagine — used to invest in less-commercial acts to improve their reputation. These subsidies are now drying up. I couldn't afford to do any of my bands just in New York. The real venue for jazz and experimental music is European touring, where rooms are provided rent-free by the city or region.

Have you been reaching out to the private sector?
If the landlord, William F Gottlieb Incorporated, wants to donate the building — great. They have 75, we're just asking for one. But this is just a part of the program. We have to ask why the community is in crisis structurally.

Why is it?
The discrepancy in funding for different forms of music in the city. Why does the Lincoln Center get $75 million for renovation? The opera is not New York's contribution to the world culture. CBGB, and Tonic, is. If Europeans want to hear Mozart, there are great orchestras in Salzburg and Vienna. But, on any given night, New York jazz and avant-garde musicians are playing in every city in the world. This is important economically. It's a major factor in tourism. People come to New York to hear these musicians in their natural habitat. There needs to be that habitat.