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Friday, September 20, 2002

++ Rightsized

++ The timesheets, they are a-changin'.

My editors will doubtless be relieved. Not so my creditors, but then, they don't need to know about it. Artists awaiting feedback on the countless CDs piled on my desk will count their blessings. That goes double for my downstairs neighbors, who no longer have to endure my practice sessions every night — from here on out, I'm free to turn up the bass all day, every day, with no bother to anyone but my housemates' technophobic cats.

After three and a half years working at a dot-com (no, no, not Neumu — I mean my day job, at a Bay Area search and enterprise software company that shall remain nameless), I'm being laid off.

No condolences are necessary: I embrace my new demographic status as one of the 6.6% of Californians who are jobless. Believe me, I've been waiting for this for a long time.

It was great while it lasted. I arrived in California in 1998, a grad-school refugee (it sounds so much better than "dropout") and technology know-nothing. Like many of my co-workers, I stumbled into my job because my liberal arts training fit the company's need for "natural language" search experts. Little did we know at the time that we were merely data-entry monkeys with inflated titles and a handful of stock options. Nevertheless, I swallowed the Kool-Aid, worked the 12-hour days, proselytized for the company. I watched our stock skyrocket on its first day and craned my neck following its trajectory, enjoying a secret thrill at the thought that maybe, just maybe, I could actually afford a house in the Bay Area. Or at least a car that didn't require servicing every month.

++ It wasn't all bad: I made some friends, learned a skill or two, acquired a modicum of business acumen. Hell, through a roundabout set of circumstances, I even got to act in a television commercial for electric razors, thanks to the strange logic of "co-branding."

Actually, that episode — which I won't detail here — probably represented the breaking point of the whole experience. Through some ad-man shenanigans and my own naïvete, I ended up doing the whole thing pro bono — no fees, no residuals. (Two years later, with the commercial still running, it was bringing the company immeasurable benefits, judging from the number of people who told me they'd seen the ad. Guess my employers got their money's worth.) That experience made me slightly less sanguine, and a lot more wary of the people I'd assumed had my best interests at heart.

Our stock started sliding in April of 2000, and kept on going. Everyone talks about the way the bubble burst, but what that metaphor leaves out is the slow, pathetic pace of the fizzling, like a dying balloon farting out its last oxygen as it ricochets from wall to wall.

In December 2000, we went through our first round of layoffs. My own team was cut from 40 to 20 people, and I struggled to reconcile myself with the ethics of the decision. I still believed in people over profits, but I reasoned that no one would get to keep their jobs if someone didn't get cut. It made sense, but it didn't make me feel any better.

We went through more layoffs, more restructurings, quarter after quarter, regular as clockwork. The management implemented austerity plan after austerity plan, and proceeded to buy up companies that they swore would add to our value proposition and leverage something or other. "Added value" usually gave way to amnesia as the acquired company was folded in and never heard from again, aside from the downturned countenances of the unfamiliar new faces stalking the halls.

The last year and a half crawled by in a dull blur of fluorescent lighting and air-conditioned apathy. My rants to family and friends subsided as I came to accept the new shape of the world. I understood the inevitability that my useless, middle-management ass would soon be downsized — or "rightsized," as one linguistically dextrous executive liked to call it. Say what you will about executives, but they know how to obfuscate.

On September 11, 2001, I stayed home, feeling that the gravity of the day far eclipsed my duty to shareholders. (To be honest, I was also terrified, and neither BART nor the Bay Bridge seemed very appealing to me.) That day, as I checked my email and realized that project managers were going about their business, my contempt for the corporate life became complete. My values, I realized, were radically out of sync with its pursuit of "value," and I swore that I would refocus my efforts in pursuit of the things that mattered: art, compassion, joy.

++ And now, a little more than a year after that epiphany — a revelation that was a long time coming — I'm free. I'm luckier than many: I'm not desperate for a job. I've made myself a window of time to pursue writing, music, and curating. Not the most lucrative fields, but I'm tired of the pursuit of lucre. If they don't end up paying the bills, then I'll worry; for now, I've staked my claim on a tidy little parcel of freedom.

A few months ago, sitting at a gate at JFK, I eavesdropped on two recent college grads anxious about their employment prospects. They read aloud statistics from a newsweekly, each factoid more dour than the next. Finally I spoke up: "Hey, don't worry about it. I graduated into a recession, and look at me." I was no high-roller, and even then I saw the writing on the wall, but at least I was headed to Spain to write about a music festival.

I'm serious: I'm one of the lucky ones. I graduated into a recession in 1993, and having no serious hope of earning money with a BA in English, I poured coffee, traveled to Greece and Turkey, and went back to grad school. People only a few years younger than I, with similar backgrounds, were catapulted upon graduation into early adulthood, chasing down dollars because any other path seemed foolish at the time. Now, laid off, their expectations battered, they don't know what to do with themselves.

This is hardly a column about electronic music, except insofar as it explains that I'm going to have a lot more time to write about music now. But the subtext, if I were going to be so crude as to spell it out, is wrapped up in ideas of freedom, risk-taking, ethics, and aesthetics — values over which art and commerce often come to blows.

++ In a celebratory spirit, I was going to compile a list of top 10 songs to get laid off to, with Alice Cooper's "School's Out" (you know: "School's out for summer/ School's out forever") topping the list. But digging through a stack of new CDs, I found a better example. It's a mix CD from a hip-hop pioneer who schooled Cut Chemist and DJ Shadow alike; older than your average head, he looks more like a square white guy than one of the forebears of turntablism. But he's returned to the game, and instead of cashing in, he's tearing it up once again, without regard for copyright laws or pop appeal.

His CD, a set of classic hip-hop, funk, and soul produced for Solid Steel/BBC London, has found its way into circulation; it wears a bar code on its sleeve, but there's nothing legal about it — it's all about the music and the love of the form, which, in hip-hop's case, shapeshifts and shimmies right through early 20th-century copyright strictures. Too illegit to quit, you might say. The back of the CD spells it out: "Blame Steinski for everything." The name of his CD?

Nothing to Fear.


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