The Elsewhere Musician: Making Connections in a Fragmented World
Kyle Bylin, Associate Editor
I was ten when I recorded "The Rockafeller Skank" by Fatboy Slim off the radio onto cassette tape. Twelve when “The Real Slim Shady” by Eminem premiered on TRL. The idea that I could reach out and connect with the artists that I liked didn’t exist yet or at least wasn’t familiar to me. MySpace didn’t become popular 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 of the artist reading it or writing back. It was basically the equivalent of trying to actually 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 just not the case anymore. Music fans have set different expectations for artists and insist that they are met. While not everyone has interest in messaging their favorite artist, those that do, anticipate a reply back. Of course, no one is shedding tears when old hats like Metallica or Def Leppard don’t reply, but for Making April or Owl City, fans have come accustomed to the idea that they are able to reach out to these artists and make a real connection.
"the ability to stay in touch with their fans
has become delocalized for many artists..."
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, by and large, 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 — where an artist could take time away from it all — has turned into work that ranges from learning how to market themselves online and off, answering an endless barrage of messages from fans, bloggers, and managers, and trying to keep all of their 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.”1 Whether you liken elsewhere to the next social networking site that seems to have more promising opportunities or 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 will be 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 of 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 on album, before 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 when 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 transparency and communication with your fan base would lead to a catastrophe. “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 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.”2
"if you were successful enough, you may never
have to actually make music ever again."
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 rest of the more mundane details and business arrangements would be taken care of by your label, and one day, if you were successful enough, you may never have to actually 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 wanted to anticipate.
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. It means working much, much harder. For the promise of the music industry no longer grants an artist the ability to live off their music, but to survive doing what they love, as long as they are willing to do many things that they may not. The difference is that when you start making more money as an artist, “the opportunity cost of not working feels greater and the pressure is all the more intense.”3 Because, not only are you expected to do more with less time — handing both the creative and business aspects of being an artist — but you also have a much smaller window 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.”4 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.”5
With that, 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.”6 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 theirs. In a social world ‘where 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.
"trying to make connections in a fragmented world."
“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.”7 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 the 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, that, instead, we must being thinking about music as culture. For the fate of our music, our culture — its “connection to self-affirmation, health, cultural identity and spiritual truth”8 — now rests not only in the palm of our hands, but within that of future generations as well.
- 1. 2. 3. 7. Conley, D. (2009). Elsewhere, u.s.a. New York: Pantheon.
- 4. 5. Kirsner, S. (2009). Fans, friends and followers. CinemaTech Books.
- 6. Link
- 8. Link