On the transformation of everyday culture in an era of liquid modernity

Orchestral manoeuvres in the dark

In art, cultural industries, everyday life, marketing, media ecology, music on October 28, 2009 at 4:53 pm

If you are a fantastic cultural producer, what good is it if no-one hears, sees or gets to know about your work? The problem of structural support to the cultural industries is as much to do with supporting new forms of distribution and recommendation systems as it is to do with direct economic support to producers, or leveraging employment rules and state subsidies in useful ways, or due appreciation also to distinctly amateur forms of production.

That last note, about the importance of appreciating amateur forms of production, is essentially there as an inital reservation: Of course I’m in favour of an amateur-led wave of cultural production, better enabled by digital technology. Who isn’t? And of course it is great that tools and knowledge are more horizontally distributed now, favouring bazaar-like modes of organization over cathedral-like ones.

We have seen a lot of hype of the “pro-am” ideal in recent years, which is understandable given the reluctance within parts of the cultural and political establishment to see the renewed potential for bazaar-like organisational models during the last ten years. But it is not that simple. Within the decentralised, granular, molecular amateur world we also need catalysing forces that assist local cathedrals to rise. Centralisation, organisation, molar formations – essentially ways to empower one’s own, otherwise scattered activity. Turning the merely reactive, tactical, into a strategic advantage. Re-territiorialization.

The Pirate Bay and similar indexes and sites have been able to do this in a novel way, based on Net activism. They show how an element of centralisation always seems to crop up, sooner or later, into otherwise radically decentralised diagrams like p2p.

But the problem remains – unless you decide to start compiling your own rogue index, like the above site or, for that sake, Spotify or Google – how do you go about to make your music heard, to start making money? I am a bit wary of the strongly idealist image of the “pro-am” that think-tanks like Demos are endorsing. We should all be wary of romanticizing the amateur as a virtuous ideal in its own right. The fact is that most cultural production, especially music, requires relatively large material resources. OK, music might require much less than film, but quite a lot more compared to journalistic writing. People who praise the “amateur” roots of genres like hip-hop and techno seem to overlook the dedication that human beings put in to these expressions, where your art – quite literally – takes over your whole being. In terms of time, money and work, it truly is as serious as your life.

That progress would happen without such sacrifice is a contemporary, secular, neoliberal myth. To “make it” in the world of cultural production, you have to make sacrifices.

Hence, we shouldn’t think of a pair of polar opposites (amateur—professional) but rather imagine a diagonal slope, where every professional has once been an amateur. And the aim of our societal institutions (state and private interests) should be to help making this slope as frictionless as possible.

For those of us who care about pop music, there are major problems ahead when an established distribution apparatus is falling and another one comes in its place. It all boils down to two things that still do require financial muscle, regardless of what the Web 2.0 evangelists say: (1) the ability to uphold a mode of production that is not only restricted to afternoons and evenings, and (2) the ability to reach out to more people than only those closely concerned.

The Demos manifesto has an uncanny neo-liberal undertone. To be a committed “pro-am” requires that you have the luxury of having a job where you can plan your own time and afford to seriously invest in your hobby. Moreover, the “pro-am” ideal is a way to force every cultural creator into the neo-liberal project of unremittingly Advertising the Self.

Sure, really young people – who are in school or have not yet entered the labour market – can obviously shore up the reserves of free time as required. But is it sensible to rely only on the very young to carry the weight of a progressive popular culture?

As a musician colleague of mine says: The music labels who can do interesting things have stopped taking risks. They are betting on the lowest common denominator. Even the independent labels are now investing only in what they know will sell. Welcome to the 50s!

In the music and literary world, record labels and publishers still have a role to play – even more so with the present sea-change in distribution – as they lend some kind of ineffable authority to innovative cultural expression. If you make really odd music on your own, few will listen, while really odd music released on a credible label becomes just that: credible.

It is incredibly difficult – unless you are some kind of entrepreneurial mastermind, some kind of promotional maverick or one-man band in terms of pushing your stuff to the clubs and DJs – to have time to make music while maintaining a MySpace page in the hope that any wider audience would really start absorbing what you do, if you do not have a record label behind you, or happen to make extremely populist music.

Pop music now operates under the same conditions as art music, Swedish music critic Sofia Nyblom recently pointed out. The completely unregulated market that digitization has brought about has a dark, shadowy side where the digital frontier is biased towards a kind of “lone ranger who goes at it alone,” or as she writes: male entrepreneurs with sharp elbows.

The waves of love, affect and interest that we see on the Internet do not just appear out of a vacuum. They come about when people get inspired by someone who points them in a certain direction. Herein lies an authority that the most idealistic net-huggers seem to not fully recognize, or admit to themselves.

In the act of pointing to something – “here! Look here, this is quality!” – lies a certain degree of authority. It principally tends to be borne out of an editorial mission, or might very often simply be a marketing job. Search engines and indexes make things easier, of course. But as the situation is now, it is all too often the most driven producers who push, and the most driven consumers who seek out and download.

And Machiavellian, opportunist “lone rangers” hardly tend to make great poetry.

This, while the old distribution model is so impoverished that it only goes for the most safe, the most bland of bets. In addition to direct economic aid to producers, we should recognize the grave need that we see today, in terms of highlighting and sanctioning qualitative, interesting stuff. This is as much a challenge to the welfare state as it is to private investors.

This is a rewritten version of an article published in Swedish newspaper Göteborgs-Posten earlier this week.

  1. I think you’re on to something here… Perhaps you should be wary of talking about a “serious” mind-set — it conjures up images of earnest young men adhering to “correct procedures”. But maybe you’re referring more to seriousness in terms of commitment to music rather than celebrity-driven ephemera or laptop squigle hobbyism?
    Just noting this, cos…there’s nothing music journos love more than to shoot down anything vaguely muso with their tried and tested defence of the punk ethos. To suggest taht people are literally betting their life, and often failing, to get their music heard is often met with a cold shoulder from your ordinary music critic.

  2. Yeah, I know. I try to anticipate that all the time. That’s why I’m focusing on the infrastructure of music and not the formal aspects of the music itself. I’m not saying “serious music” in the article, but I would say I’m talking about a serious mindset. The juncture where mere hobbyism seizes to be that and begins to be about losing income that you would otherwise have. Moreover, it has in some ways always been like this. The Rolling Stones didn’t start off as some kind of flippant “hobby” project.
    I’m just really provoked by this casual approach to amateurism, that “hey, anyone can make music on a PC in their spare time!” Dedication and sacrifice is at the heart of cultural creation.
    But the “quality” of the actual music is always subjective, of course. (Although I would say that there are some qualities that can’t be reduced to subjective taste or even collective taste.)

  3. […] necessary sacrifices in my life in order to take a hobby to a professional level, without expecting some form of monetary compensation for […]

  4. […] attitude towards file-sharing and alternative forms of distribution, has led the industry to become more reluctant – according to industry representatives themselves, unable – to actively market more […]

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