Captain Beefheart, John Sundman, and Richard Prince

John Sundman writes ripping fictional yarns free of the help and hindrance of the established publishing industry. He has an eye for the technoparanoid flavoured with notes from Christian mythos.  Others have raved about his thriller Acts of the Apostles which is indeed a fun book; personally I like the experimental loops and hilarity of Cheap Complex Devices. It also helps that the tech sounds right, and no doubt his background as a tech writer (as well as fireman and peace corps volunteer) enriches the work.

Like most writers who are not also eccentric industrialists or aristocrats, and especially those without a current advance, Sundman is looking at ways to get paid to write, and his latest project got enough backers at kickstarter to get the go-ahead.

Which brings us to Captain Beefheart, aka Don Van Vliet. Captain Beefheart created a series of critically acclaimed and cultishly adored art-rock-wtf records in the sixties and seventies. If you need a more recent reference point – I did – he is Matt Groening’s favourite musician. I have a copy of Trout Mask Replica only because of a review written by Groening. It is a corker of a record but it sounds like a blues band being mugged by schizoaffective rabbits on the first listen.

Don, unfortunately but perhaps not surprisingly, could not make a living out of being a brilliant avant-garde rock musician, but he does make a living as an avant-garde painter. How does this work economically? The number of people buying fine art is if anything far smaller than that buying music, even avant-garde rock music. I suspect it is because Beefheart was in a no-mans land of niche popularity in a mass medium. An LP, CD or MP3 is cheap, with high production costs and low marginal costs. Each copy is also effectively identical, so supply is pretty expandable on demand. The result is low unit costs but also the need either move a lot of units, or make money another way (like gigs).

So Captain Beefheart took a similar career trajectory to Richard Prince – he moved from easily reproducible art to painting, which is the complete opposite of the cost scale. In the fine art world each piece is unique or in a strictly limited set (eg prints). The marginal cost of producing another self-portrait by Rembrandt is effectively infinite. The fine art world is therefore dominated by firstly a certain amount of zero-sum status pissing contest, and secondly and most relevantly a culture of collecting and patronage. It was more financially viable to find a few wealthy patrons than tens of thousands of casual followers.

If you look at Creation Science on kickstarter, it’s an attempt to tap both types of market. Contributions can range from a busker tip to full blown patronage, and according to Sundman the patron-style packages were not just wishful thinking. Personally I stumped up for the paperback, and here’s a toast to the success of Captain Johnny and his Magic Price Point.

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2 thoughts on “Captain Beefheart, John Sundman, and Richard Prince

  1. Hey Conflated,

    Thanks for your very nice post. As you know, Frank Zappa’s album “Uncle Meat” plays a role in the plot of my novel Acts of the Apostles. You may not know that Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart were long-time friends and closely associated in the 60’s. (I think that Captain Beefheart may even make an appearance in Acts, but frankly I don’t recall at the moment & am too lazy to look it up.)

    When I did the Kickstarter project for Creation Science, I was hoping for lots and lots of $5 backers, and I certainly was expecting that a much higher percentage of my backers would be in the lower end of the spectrum. As it turns out, however, the average pledge was about $67, the median about $30. There were lots of people who opted for the “Four books for $50 ” package, which is not a bad deal — especially since I pay postage. But there were also a surprising number of people who backed me for $100, $250, and in one case $1,000 because they believed in my writing and wanted to underwrite my efforts — as foundations do, as good old-fashioned patrons do.

    I hope you don’t mind my pointing out that although the Creation Science Kickstarter project is now closed to further pledges, I’m still taking orders for all my books (pre-orders for Creation Science ) on Wetmachine.

    I think the publishing industry is in the middle of a tectonic shift. People have been saying that for years and I’ve been skeptical, even as I have tried to find my own way as an “indie” publisher. But now I think it’s really happening. Should be an interesting year.

  2. Hey Johnno, of course you can mention your books here – flog away : )

    I don’t remember seeing Capt Beefheart in Acts, as I was vaguely on the lookout after all the Zappa references.

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