The Elsewhere Musician: Making Connections In A Fragmented World
Excerpted from Kyle Bylin's new collection of essays Promised Land: Youth Culture, Disruptive Startups, and the Social Music Revolution.
I was ten when I recorded “The Rockafeller Skank” by Fatboy Slim off the radio onto cassette tape. Twelve when the music video “The Real Slim Shady” by Eminem premiered on MTV’s Total Request Live. The idea that I could reach out and connect with the artists I liked didn’t exist yet or at least wasn’t familiar to me. MySpace didn’t catch on where I grew up — almost no one that I knew had it. Artists were perceived as unreachable. What you knew about them was based on the lyrics in their songs or maybe a brief interview segment in Rolling Stone. Even the concept of sending traditional fan mail was of no interest because there was no expectation that the artist would read or write back. It was the equivalent of trying to send your Christmas list to Santa at the North Pole.
In the truest form, I, along with everyone I knew, were passive consumers of music and thought nothing of tuning into the radio and not getting to choose what songs were playing. Waiting through a few terrible videos on MTV in order to hear something good was commonplace and seen as a way to pass the time. Today, that’s no longer the case. Music fans have set different expectations for artists and insist that they be met. While not everyone has interest in messaging their favorite artist, those that do anticipate a reply. Of course, no one sheds tears when old hats like Metallica or Def Leppard don’t reply, but fans of Making April or Owl City have become accustomed to the idea that they can reach out to these artists and make a real connection.
What does this mean for an artist? Think about it as the blurring of the line between the public artist and the private individual at a time when the boundary between home and studio has largely disappeared. On tour, thanks to advances in digital technologies, the ability to stay in touch with their fans has become delocalized for many artists so that it can be done at all hours from almost anywhere. Leisure time once spent doing creative things — when an artist could take time away from it all — has turned into work that ranges from learning how to market oneself online and off, to answering an endless barrage of messages from fans, bloggers, and managers, to trying to keep all of one’s profiles, blogs, and social-media tools relevant and up-to-date.
“It’s that the once disparate spheres have now collided and interpenetrated each other, creating a sense of ‘elsewhere’ at all times,” writes sociologist Dalton Conley in Elsewhere, U.S.A. He continues, “It is the plethora of economic opportunities created by technology that creates a dogging sense of loss, of needing to be elsewhere, doing something different.” Whether you equate elsewhere with the next social-networking site that seems to offer more promising opportunities or with the idea that instead of making more music you should be figuring out how to better market the music that you’ve already made, the message is clear — that what it means to be an artist in the twenty-first century is drastically different from what previous generations have experienced.
Another trend unique to the digital age is the collapse of the creativity timeline. What this refers to is the shrinking amount of time between albums — or any creative output for that matter — based not on the discretion of the artist but on the demands set forth by the changes in society. Prior to this turning point, it wasn’t unheard of to let two to three years pass between the time you released and toured an album and the time you started the process of creating and releasing another, which could take another year on top of that. Once completed, a wide variety of radio, print, video, and retail store promotions would be organized by your record label to promote it. Through these mass-media and retail outlets, your fan base would find out about your album and learn when and where they could purchase it.
By today’s standards, that mentality of how records ought to be released is suicidal at best. It’s not that fans are less loyal than they were before. In fact, the opposite is probably true now that a greater percentage of fans can be more actively involved and invested in an artist’s career. It’s that with the millions of bands and sheer abundance of music out there, such a lack of immediacy and communication with your fan base would be catastrophic. “For the first time in history, the more we are paid, the more hours we work,” Conley writes. “Paradoxically, perhaps, we do this now because among the luckiest of us the rewards for working are so great, they make the ‘opportunity cost’ of not working all the greater.” The result, he argues, is “that we no longer have leisure-class elites.”
It used to be that if you worked really hard as an artist and garnered a large enough following through blood, sweat, and tears — that if you did these things, played enough shows, and were patient enough — a record label might sign you. And, if you were able to consistently make music that people loved and albums that sold millions of copies, you could make music for a living. The remaining, more mundane details and business arrangements would be taken care of by your label, and one day, if you were successful enough, you might actually never have to make music ever again. As counterintuitive as that seems, becoming a top-tier artist meant that you could, in a sense, pursue other interests. But those dreams have come and gone faster than anyone could have anticipated.
Being a top-tier or middle-class artist in the digital age doesn’t mean just working harder or playing more shows than everyone else does. It means working much, much harder. For the music industry no longer holds out the promise for artists that signing to a record label means they will live solely off their musicianship. Artists today can survive doing what they love only as long as they are also willing to don other hats that they may not relish wearing. The impetus, says Conley, lies in the fact that when you start making more money, “the opportunity cost of not working feels greater and the pressure is all the more intense.” Not only are you expected to do more with less time — handling both the creative and business aspects of being an artist — but you also have a much smaller window in which to make new music and keep your audience engaged with what you produce.
What we’ve entered into, according to Scott Kirsner, author of Fans, Friends and Followers, is the era of digital creativity. “In this era,” he says, “artists have the tools to make anything they can envision, inexpensively . . . They can build teams and collaborate across great distances, bridging divides of language and culture. They can cultivate an audience and communicate with it regularly, carrying it . . . with them from one project to another.” This extraordinary opportunity, however, is not without great paradoxes. “Breaking out, somehow, is both more of a possibility than it has ever been — and harder than it has ever been,” Kirsner explains. “The attention of an individual audience member anywhere in the world is simultaneously easier to snare . . . and harder than ever to snare.”
This era of digital creativity has brought forth the opportunity for what researcher Leisa Reichelt calls “Ambient Intimacy,” which she says is “about being able to keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn’t usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible.” Where artists used to be able to define the level of involvement they had in the lives of their fans, they are now left trying to determine how much they’re willing to let fans get involved in their own lives. In a social world where, as Conley observes, “modernist distinctions like home–studio, work–leisure, public artist–private individual, and even self–other no longer hold fast,” many artists don’t know how to draw the line between where fan interaction starts and where it ends.
“Perhaps the most fundamental line that has been breached,” Conley argues, “is that between ‘self’ and ‘other.’ The interpenetration of the social world into our daily consciousness — our orientation to elsewhere — has the ultimate effect of colonizing and fragmenting not just our attentions but our very identities.” He continues, “The result is often a competing cacophony of multiple selves all jostling for pole position in our minds.” Somewhere in the middle, artists are caught, perhaps out of necessity, trying their best to navigate this constant stream of communication with their fans — trying to make connections in a fragmented world. All the while wrestling with questions: What if we’ve revealed too much about ourselves to fans? What if all of the mystery is gone?
Much of this has been made possible in less than a decade. The notion that a middle class of musicians could exist was but a dream not long ago, but with the convergence of the top-down corporate media of major labels and bottom-up participatory culture of the Internet, we are beginning to see these elsewhere musicians and singers emerge. Yet it is only in the last couple years that many of us have begun to wake up to the fact that we can no longer make decisions based on thinking of music as product. Instead, we must begin thinking about music as culture. For the fate of our music culture, now rests not only within the palm of our hands, but within those of future generations as well.
Originally published on Hypebot.com on November 12, 2009