Are we postsocial?: On live music, technology and the immediate

On Wednesday I was at The Hub’s One Dayer conference. This was the final event in their ‘Joining the Dots’ funding and knowledge-sharing programme around live independent music and technology. This was a programme in which I have been lucky to play a small part over the last two years. The talks and provocations over the day helped me to crystallise a few thoughts I have been having about contemporary live music in recent years, primarily as a punter, but haven’t had the wherewithal to develop. These are those thoughts.

A Confession

First things first – cards on the table to say the unsayable:

Generally speaking, I don’t like live music. I don’t often find it a pleasant way of listening to music. The sound is invariably awful, crowds are annoying, it’s all wrapped up in a set of tedious and predictable social rituals (clapping, crowd interaction, silent reverence, encores, etc), and attending a gig is increasingly pricey – if you can even get your hands on a ticket in the first place, such is the marketing hype that usually precedes it. I find the invocation of the live performance as the most authentic way of experiencing music a conservative and irritating gesture. I can count the number truly great live performances I have attended on one hand. I would far rather listen to recordings, in my own time and on my own terms, and I genuinely feel that digital technologies offer just as much – if not greater – occasion for profound, engaging and surprising musical experiences.

So that’s that out of the way…

The live music revival

In many ways, my argument here stands a complement to and continuation of my comments regarding the ‘vinyl revival’ and the return to physical as a post-digital regression. But there are marked distinctions between these two trends. For one, live is now of central significance to the music industry, something which finds social, cultural and economic justification.

It is by now a commonplace to argue that the narrative of industry ‘crisis’ over the last 15 years is misdirected because it is based on a view of industry unjustifiably equated with the recorded sector; that live music has shown itself to be the valuable constant in maintaining artists’ livelihoods in a digital era; and that the sector has in fact grown in the same period to compensate for the trough in recorded sales. I do not need to rehearse this settlement, even if the picture is more complex.

At the One Dayer, conversation settled on two other arguments for the renewed importance of live in a digital era:

  • it offers a unique and unreplicable experience;
  • it affords opportunities to cross social boundaries and build communities.

Music is unique and singular; music is social and universal. Live music is universally singular: it allows us to transcend the everyday and experience the inimitable, together. Rhetorically, we’re in the realm of the divine here.

My own argument is this:

There is a regressive tendency to assume a vision of live music – particularly one modelled on the acoustic singer-songwriter – as ‘immediate’. In other words, it is the ‘most pure’, the ‘most real’ or even the ‘most human’ moment [for which read: ‘raw’, ‘stripped back’, ‘what it’s all about’] in music because, on the other hand, it is the ‘least mediated’ [im-mediate] moment. I think this is a false opposition for a start. But I think it’s a regressive one because it offers an impoverished binary politics of either complicity with or escape from the movement of technologised capital. It stands in the way of thinking and music-making that is adequate to our current time.

The deployment of the two statements above (‘music is unique’ and ‘music is social’) was interesting at the conference because both were repeatedly affirmed and repeatedly undermined, often within the space of a few minutes. Below I try and articulate some of these contradictions.

I. “MUSIC IS UNIQUE”

The first of these was uttered right at the start of the day in a keynote speech from Arts Council Chair Peter Bazalgette. Baz (as he was affectionately called) articulated a concern that, while it’s important to know and talk about all the ‘technology stuff’, the likes and the shares, the clickthroughs, the hacks and the streams, the danger is that we lose sight of what it’s all ‘really about’. Similarly, he acknowledged the contribution to GVA made by the music industry but, as befits his role, repeatedly reminded us of music’s power to affect us, to change us, to give comfort and to inspire. We argue for music’s economic impact because of its capacity to make life more meaningful, he reassured us, not the other way round.

Live is core to this: it is the scarcity of the one-off, ephemeral live music performance that endows it with meaning. The buzzword ‘experience’ is meant to indicate something not just disinterestedly observed, heard, acknowledged but something that is felt, cared about and invested in, something transformative.

But are we so sure that recorded music is infinitely repeatable? And are we so sure that live music is infinitely unique? Yes, the digital signal instructs the loudspeaker to vibrate in a perfectly identical way each time, while the flawed human always necessarily introduces variation and fluctuation. But let’s not reduce the experience of music to the passive absorption by audiences of mere playback (whether through headphones or with instruments): listeners are capable of meaning-creation too. And let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that human behaviour is not, to a certain extent, standardised, automated and reproduced – as in the training of muscle memory in instrumental practice, the musician who performs the same music night after night, or the endless audience rituals I mention above.

Hilariously, Bazalgette’s opening speech was followed by a ‘postcard from the future’ from MusicAlly’s Karim Fanous, in which the immersion and the feeling of live performance might, in fact, one day be precisely reproduced. The VR technologies of Oculus Rift and Google Cardboard, alongside haptic feedback bodysuits (and so on), were called on to gesture towards a future in which we can re-experience a gig, or share it with those not present. Fanous’ presentation had a tone of dystopian enthusiasm to it as he made the commercial implications of being able to say ‘I was there’ clear.

‘What if… – what if I could touch Jimi Hendrix as he played?’, he asked, breathlessly and ecstatically; ‘What if I could feel him? I would pay for that. I would pay for it’.

Call me old-fashioned,” quips the live music fan sardonically, “but why not just go to the gig?”

Perhaps, rather than restricting ’the most meaningful’ moment to the intangible, the ephemeral and the unrepeatable, we might want to look for it in the participatory encounter – that is: meaning is not that which escapes mediation, it is the moment of mediation itself.

II. “MUSIC IS SOCIAL”

Echoing, to a certain extent, my discomfort towards live music, Steve Lawson noted that venues are, for the most part, shit and will always pale in comparison to the personalised listening experience. In the predictable audience backlash (“no, some venues are great!”), the point to this provocation got somewhat lost. Previously, and refreshingly, he had been one of the very few in the room to remind us that music does not take place in a vacuum, and no-one necessarily has to care about your art, particularly not those who cannot afford to live comfortably, who suffer attacks on their existence due to punitive and unfairly distributed cuts, etc. Personally, I feel this is particularly refreshing with regard to the debate around the ‘Agent of Change’ principle, in which, amongst all the talk of whether venues or developers are responsible for noise pollution, scant attention is paid to the deplorable state of affordable and social housing in dense urban environments. In demanding the protection of our art, we also have to demand the protection of a society in which it thrives best.

In the context of this socially-situated perspective, the comment on venues simply served to suggest that the live music experience should not be viewed as a competitor to the recorded music experience, since it serves an entirely different function. Venues are places around which communities grow, they are embedded in scenes, they allow new social bonds to form. Later on in the day, Howard Monk bemoaned having to persuade certain artists to leave the small, darkened room in which they create their art, alone, and to engage with the wider scene.

While I’m sympathetic to this perspective, I am also concerned about the implicit slight on the recording, which is so frequently allied with an ‘iPod generation’ culture, facilitated by headphones, personalised playlists and curation (and so on), which is thought to be complicit in neoliberal strategies of individualisation. Mark Fisher has written of the ‘retreat into private OedIpod consumer bliss, a walling up against the social’. The music recording can so quickly become entangled in this narrative because of its necessary commodity-status. By contrast, the meaningfulness of a unique live experience is down to its resistance to commodification and its facilitation of genuine social ties or, at the very least, a feeling of togetherness.

I was struck, in this respect, by a presentation given by Josephine Hansom of YouthSight, a youth trends research company. As the cultural economy moves away from a reliance on mass sales of identical products towards the production of experiences (think Secret Cinema) and personalised goods (think 3D printing), marketing must move towards campaigns that enmesh brands in networks of associations in order to keep up. Based on work she carries out for a range of clients, Hansom argued that what was important to young people is a reciprocal relationship that doesn’t just lead to a sale but connects an experience to a broader issue. In five years’ time, she predicted, ‘brands will want to own the authentic experience and meaningful moments of live music’ (although she herself took a pragmatically ambivalent stance on the matter).

Scene and brand: protective social vs captive social

All I want to do here is to note the convergence between vocabularies of intrinsic value and economic value in the various appeals to live music’s sociality. The social simultaneously protects us from capitalistic structures of individualisation on the one hand (the ‘social scene’), and encaptures and enrols us more deeply within them on the other (the ‘social brand’). In search of the site of the unique – the ‘I was there’, the ‘I was a part of something’ – one tends to gather in physical space (but not exclusively), the other in online space (again, not exclusively). Together they form something like a technocratic Big Society of live music.

But I also want to sound two notes of caution on this reading.

  • The first ‘us’ (the scene: the protective social) may of course be constituted by a group wholly apart from the second ‘us’ (the brand: the captive social). They may, however, both be in the same room at the same time, watching the same band play: the brand can enter the scene; the scene can act like a brand. There is a risk, I think, in saying – as Lawson, an independent musician, did about Taylor Swift and Apple Music – ‘I don’t care about them, they are not part of my world’. The risk is of retreating in to an authentic community localism of the scene and deploying a strategy of dismissal towards those participating in the inauthentic, mediatised brand, turning ‘us’ into a ‘them’: too far gone, beyond help. While scenes are sometimes characterised as operating a politics of inclusion, they can also be radically exclusionary or parochial. When does a scene become a clique, or a silo, or a ghetto?
  • A second danger of opposing social scene with social brand is that we lose sight of a third term: the individual. Is there not something totalitarian in the injunction to ‘be social’, whatever its associations? In creative capitalism (according to Boltanski and Chiapello), work and play are no longer opposed: what matters is whether or not you are ‘active’, doing something. Activity is policed not by a manager but by anxiety: the worry that you are not doing enough and the feeling that you can’t switch off. In the pervasive discourse of the social, is there still room for the artist to exist in their small, darkened room, away from the scene? And contrary to critiques of neoliberalism, the isolated, alienated individual is nowhere near as valuable a commodity as the participatory, relational individual. As one panellist commented: while fans’ insatiable appetites represent an opportunity to develop relationships, at what point have we shared too much? When is it OK to say, ‘piss off, I need to be alone now’?

A post-social music industry?

This is the sense in which I think we might be post-social: in the same way that we are post-digital; in the same way that we are post-feminist. Not ‘after social’, not ‘having done with social’, but at a point where being social– and a particular type of sociality – becomes a pervasive, common-sense obligation. We must be networking and having conversations; we must be having our transcendent musical experiences together; we must be sharing them with each other – otherwise we’re doing it wrong. We are looked at askance.

But what is common both to the scene and the brand is a bounded, delimited vision of the social characterised by the participation of the few. This vision seeks to cultivate a community of those ‘in the know’. Whether it’s knowledge of a secret pop-up gig or of a discount voucher code, either way the accumulation of cultural capital promises privileged access to the unique, pure experience. Despite all the talk of ‘democratisation’, this is surely not a democratic ideal. The delimited social resists individualism at the same time that it distances itself from the undifferentiated mass, since both individualisation and massification can seemingly only offer distorted, manufactured, second-rate experiences. Isolation and non-differentiation are perceived as symptoms of alienation – an alienation particularly tied to the spread of technology.

And so, the technology itself is being disavowed and placed at a distance. Even though the discourse of the social spreads through technology (sharing, connecting, crowd-sourcing, democratising) and merges with the live music scene … ‘at the end of the day’ … ‘what it all comes down to’ … ‘what it’s really all about’ … is a vision of music in which the only way to be meaningful is to put the technology away and just be social.

Coda: on social demediation

The idea of the post-social is expressed nicely in a phenomenon I’ve started to notice recently which was in full effect at the conference. Amongst marketers (and those, like many independent musicians, for whom marketing is simply an everyday part of their lives), the word ‘media’ is starting to get dropped from the phrase ‘social media’; Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Soundcloud, etc. are no longer so many ‘social media channels’ but simply ‘socials’. As in ‘social remains an effective tool for musicians’; or ‘make sure to include a link to your socials’. Clearly, this indicates a professional shorthand, used so often that two words have simply become unwieldy. It’s possibly also a ‘young’ thing.

What’s going on here? Something has been done to the term ‘social media’: it has been divested of a word, in order to make it more efficient and robust. But at the same time, we also have to ask what this divestment is itself doing – what is it up to?

A particular word has been discarded: ‘media’. Perhaps it is too redolent of the archaic ‘new media’, or the conspiratorial ‘The Media’. Perhaps it also simply makes technology too conspicuous in its actions: ‘social’ is authentic and central; ‘media’ is inauthentic and peripheral. If, as Bazalgette implied, mediation is corrosive to meaning – then the post-social wants to present itself as demediated so that it can convince us it is all the more immediate.

In our critiques of the operations of the contemporary music industry, let’s make sure we are not looking in the wrong place. Music and technology are not essentially opposed. In the process of privileging the unique and the social, technology does not disappear – it simply becomes invisibilised. I am concerned that something good is getting lost along the way.

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