Last week I wrote about the beginnings of Listen & Be Heard in New York City in the 1990’s. What developed there was the roots of what Listen & Be Heard became in Vallejo, CA. For those of you who might now be searching for a mate, let me suggest that you host a weekly open mic event and be very patient. Tony Mims showed up one Thursday night at Rafael’s, and we got married. He inspired me to make Listen & Be Heard more than an open mic event. I was already sending out a weekly e-mail with news about who we were featuring each week. He suggested we be more ambitious and print an actual newspaper that would be like an open mic in print for the arts community. We launched Listen & Be Heard Weekly with 100 copies of a tabloid sheet of paper folded in half, that Tony found distribution spots for around Vallejo. We grew to 6,000 copies a week of a 32 page paper distributed around the bay area at 300 hand picked locations.
I’ve been meditating on the forces at work in the world and how to use them instead of butting up against them, as we move forward into a new phase, once again, of Listen & Be Heard, the Network Phase. While Tony and I worked hard to make our fledgling publication useful and viable at the same time, the trend in publishing and advertising money was all heading toward the World Wide Web. Print costs were very high and ate up our limited budget. But we knew that in the City of Vallejo, the majority of people were still not on-line at all. There was no local radio station or TV station. The one newspaper for Vallejo is not really a local paper; most of its content comes from the AP Wire. A good chunk of their advertising comes from being part of a chain of newspapers. With this kind of set up for a city of 200,000 or so people, there is precious little opportunity to be heard, listened to, or even noticed at all.
We were attempting to fill the void of local reporting and coverage of arts events, knowing how important that function is to the vitality of arts and culture where we live. We were excluded from national ads and had to depend on local advertising. We thought that that made sense anyway. Ideally local merchants and arts organizations would buy into the concept of a locally produced paper distributed around the bay area that would promote their efforts to revitalize the downtown area. But the reality was that most of the arts organizations we served, in our guides and calendars and reviews and interviews that we published each week, cried poor when we approached them to advertise in the newspaper. I know that many organizations reaching this juncture turn to a not-for-profit status, and alternative funding sources like grants. But that route runs counter to our own personal ideal that it’s better to create something from the ground up with what you have around you, than to ask for anything.
By that time we were not only publishing the same content on the Web, we had opened Listen & Be Heard Poetry Cafe in downtown Vallejo. Even though the newspaper brought new people from around the bay area into our cafe every day, proof positive of our vision, it wasn’t enough business for us to carry the print costs alone. We finally made the decision to continue publishing exclusively on-line, which has continued as a weekly publication currently called Listen & Be Heard Network Arts News at http://www.listenandbeheard.net/artsnews.
On a personal level I was relieved of the worry about where the money for the printer was going to come from, and a whole lot of technical headaches related to print production, but I knew something valuable to the community was gone. While it’s easy to say that ‘everything is moving to the web,’ on a global scale the reality is that most people don’t even have a telephone, let alone access to the internet. Publishing on the web is simultaneously an important outlet for freedom of expression, and an exclusive outlet for people with access to the internet. There’s something else too though, besides the huge economic forces that impact our ability to make an independent income.
In a small city like Vallejo, even though it is one of the most diverse cities in the United States, there is still a fixed social structure. People like us, and maybe you, who don’t easily fit into any particular category, find a strong resistance to change of any kind; the definition of Art and Culture is very narrowly defined, exclusive and even self-serving. This type of thinking has the effect of stifling creativity and enthusiasm, and putting a homogenous face on something which in reality is so much more. Traditionally, artistic people in citified cultures, have gone to the big cities to be stimulated and supported by like-minded people and to find opportunities to thrive. Small cities and towns often, (not always) not only don’t offer much opportunity, they also can be as narrow-minded and as downright ignorant as big city dwellers who never get mud on their shoes. Personally I believe we should carry the flame from within wherever we go, and treat each person we meet with the dignity they prove themselves to deserve. At the same time I recognize the great power and comfort in community, and that regardless of where we live, it is our connections which enrich our lives. For those of us who have been called freaks, who often go in the other direction, who can’t always wait to be understood, we have to cast the net far and wide to gain some critical mass, or even find a little understanding.
Culture isn’t who made it into the top 40. Art isn’t what the critics say it is. It’s something none of us can do without, and that we all participate in, knowingly or unknowingly. It originates from the Soul and will wither if left untended. Creativity is the shaman, the visionary, within each of us, the land of dreams we visit each night, and return to again and again for a new way of understanding or seeing or even just coping. For those of you, of us, who will never align themselves, sell themselves, silence themselves it is vital to uphold an alternative structure for independence, and remember that we are not alone. For this reason, the focus of Listen & Be Heard Network is shifting from a local focus to an international focus on independent arts.
Next week I will talk more specifically about the nuts and bolts of an international network for independent arts. As always I welcome your comments. Please share them with our readers as well in the comment box below.
Wishing each of you Peace and Poetry