Monday Musing: Listening Communities And DIY Culture

Posted on January 23, 2012


The critic stretches.

My last Monday Musing was on the topic of music scenes; this time it’s on a closely related theme. Just as there are social networks of musical production and consumption (a confusing multitude of inter-related networks), so there are networks of cultural practice that contextualise our listening. It’s apparent to anyone who takes an interest that certain sounds are associated with particular demographics. Take a random sampling of ten people who listen primarily to new-folk, another ten who listen mainly to hip-hop, and another ten who mostly listen to post-hardcore, and as much as we might want to pretend that it’s all about the sound in a world of post-modern eclecticism, you’ll be able to see a visual difference between the three groups. This is not to suggest that everyone who listens to music is tied in to some kind of tribalism, but to observe that we live in a world of great cultural complexity, of which both music and fashion are a part, and that the two things are not entirely disconnected.

Culture, for the purposes of this discussion, I’m treating as meaning that complex of social practices in relation to which individual subjects construct their identities. Music, clothing, food, movies, politics, sport, all the other arts, language and dialect, etiquette, the way people walk, and a bazillion other things are implicated, but it’s very hard to talk simultaneously about everything that human beings do; culture then, is the relation of these things to individual identity, and to the way that is shared among individuals. Or to put it more simply, as Wikipedia has it, ‘[t]he set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization, or group’. The principal difficulty with a reassuringly precise definition like that, is that it assumes an easy definition of ‘an institution, organization, or group’, and the reality as far as I can tell, is that cultures are, like the music scenes I discussed last time, overlapping, multi-levelled, constituted in various spaces and subject to continual change.

That being said, there are people who can say ‘I am English, because I speak English, live in England, listen to Chas and Dave and eat fish and chips’; or ‘I’m a punk because I dress in ripped clothes, spike my hair, believe in anarchism and listen to Crass’; or ‘I’m a duck, because I walk like a duck and quack like a duck’. In fact, people subscribe to multiple cultures, and construct their identities in complex ways, but one of the ways is in relation to music. This operates on the level of a subconscious alignment with a whole axis of culture that takes in a particular style of music (and whether that identification comes from a liking for the music or vice versa is a question for another time), and also on the conscious level of thinking ‘I’m a b-boy who listens to jungle’ or whatever (and those conscious identifications are by no means universally agreed).

But I need to come back to eclecticism now, because although it is far from significantly eroding cultural identifications, it is becoming a more important approach to culture, and one that is adopted by more people all the time. The practices of different cultures are far more accessible now than they used to be: lots of people listen to hip-hop and punk. People dress vintage and listen to metal. People who are covered in piercings and tattoos can be seen at classical concerts and poetry readings. Personally, I look like some kind of hippy/ metalhead, and I listen to everything, including bossanova and Frank Sinatra. Most people have eclectic tastes to some degree, and in fact it’s hard to see how you could go about not being eclectic: cultural specificity used to be based on exposure. In other words you ate and dressed like everyone you knew; you listened to the music that everyone listened to; you danced the way everyone danced; you used the same slang as everyone you knew, and didn’t even realise it was slang. You just were. And then, later, if you were a teddy boy, for example, that was because everyone you knew was a teddy boy; the rock ‘n’ roll you listened to was the only alternative you knew to the sweet dance tunes and sugary ballads they played on the Light Programme. There wasn’t a menu; nowadays, sure, we consciously or unconsciously attach ourselves to groups with whom we identify, for whatever reason, but it’s by no means certain how we’ll turn out. Culturally, you can get anything you want; you can’t have it all, and you can’t even choose autonomously what it is you’ll have, but you’ll have something, and it might well be anything, from anywhere in the world.

The reason I’m talking about eclecticism, is that I want to return to the notional ‘DIY music scene’ I discussed last time. Given that I’m interested in the cultural function of music (helping to constitute people’s self-identity), and the way musics relate to other cultural practices, I’m intrigued as to whether there is some kind of broad cultural current to which it can be related. To briefly re-cap, I identified, on a purely anecdotal basis, a music scene constituted around internet-savvy, DIY, independent artists, such as Zoe Keating, Amanda Palmer, Steve Lawson and Hope And Social, to pick some better known examples. I postulated that there is a scene around such artists, despite their disparate musical approaches, and that there are listeners whose interests lead them to follow an online buzz, and support independent artists. I’m still not sure whether this constitutes a full-blown scene, and if it does it is significantly constituted by the mutual support of the artists themselves, but I’m going to keep speculating based on my own subjective impressions. Some academic can do the research (and I’m sure someone already is).

So, DIY music: artists using digital music production technology to take control of the recording process, and using the internet to connect directly with listeners. Self-promotion, hard slog, but most importantly, autonomy. Unsurprisingly enough, most of these artists have very little time for the traditional music industry, and evince an ideological commitment to the independence of the creator, and their right to control every stage of the process by which their work gets made, distributed and (hopefully) remunerated. Other arts are also taking a similar route: a dear friend of mine is the painter Alison Jardine, who has succeeded in leveraging social media, and online retail, into the sort of sales that most visual artists would regard as adding up to ‘success’. (I’m sure there are online visual arts ‘big-names’ like the musical ones I gave earlier, but I don’t pay as much attention to the field). Digital publishing is in the process of exploding, although the territory is still up for grabs, given that text is not equivalent to music, and the experience of reading on an e-reader is far more removed from reading a paper book than listening to digital music is removed from listening to recorded music delivered in some other form. A lot of people are buying into the ideological implications of all this, and protest movements are globalising, having already been among the first to exploit new communications technologies as they have emerged. There are obvious parallels between the anti-globalisation protests and the movement to undermine major labels’ grip on musical culture.

The big question, clearly, is whether the things I’m describing in the paragraph above add up to Wikipedia’s ‘set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization, or group’. Is there an adequate sense of connection between the different elements of this culture? Obviously I’m talking about something other than simply ‘online’ culture: you could try to identify a web of cultural practices around nerdcore hip-hop and give that a specific cultural label, ‘geek culture’ or something (albeit that nerdcore is by no means universally appreciated by geeks). When I was talking about music scenes last time, I identified the extreme difficulty of making firm distinctions between them, or giving any of them definitive bounds. This is doubly true of cultural groupings (and it’s equally impossible to mark a solid boundary between a scene and a culture or subculture), since they spread their tendrils among so many different practices. Perhaps the whole morass of activity and value is just waiting for someone to bring a name to the party, so that people can explicitly identify themselves with it. That is probably the only useable measure of a culture: can any individuals be found who construct their identities in its terms, who feel themselves to be natives of it, in the same way they might be natives of a country. Is the whole thing wishful thinking on my part? Perhaps it’s just that I feel that I’m a native of this culture, and I desperately need to reify this chimera. Or does my identification, in fact, by definition, bring it into existence? Or going back to the importance of autonomy, is this the area where we see the beginnings of true cultural freedom, where every subject constructs its identity on its own terms, and becomes a native of its own country? Shucks, I guess I’m just a naive idealist. Whatever: until someone like Andrew Dubber does some real, disciplined research, and notwithstanding the fact the world is so fucked we may not get to see the denouement, the anecdotal evidence looks to me like grounds for optimism.