Zero Interference: Today’s Artist-Fan Relationship
“First and foremost, we have here a discourse that is authoritarian: one has to express oneself, one has to speak, communicate, cooperate, and so forth.” – Maurizio Lazzarato, Immaterial Labor, 1996
Truth or Dare: the personalization of the artist and fan relationship
The 1991 documentary Madonna: Truth or Dare was something of a turning point in the way in which artists connect with their fans. Before MTV’s The Real World and the subsequent explosion of the reality TV genre in the late-'90s, Truth or Dare was prescient of the confessional, tell-all, artist-to-fan, celebrity-to-audience communication that social media has solidified in the present day. In 2015, Madonna’s self-awareness as a celebrity is embodied in the video for her recent single Bitch I'm Madonna.1 The video follows the pop idol through a luxury hotel party and towards a rooftop club, replete with of the moment celebrity cameos, allusions to Madonna’s famous onstage kisses with Drake and Britney Spears, as well as performative partying. All of these instances serve the purpose of confronting viewers with the artist's collaborative approach in continually regenerating her status as an intergenerational superstar. Bitch I’m Madonna was also significant for being the first mainstream production from the artist SOPHIE, who was previously mainly associated with an underground scene of online, independent electronic pop music (and who also co-produced the track with Diplo).
Fans of SOPHIE took to the online PC Music Forum to discuss their thoughts on the video, the track, Madonna herself, and the significance of her collaboration with such a high profile pop star.2 Since emerging, artists such as SOPHIE—as well as those on the London net label PC Music—have sparked an ongoing debate in independent and underground electronic music communities on authenticity and dominant music cultures versus subcultures, as well as sincerity and fandom. These musicians’ disavowal of the lo-fi, analog warmth that has dominated independent music cultures and preference for a high-fidelity sheen familiar to mainstream dance music but also readily attainable with today’s home music production software has led to accusations of empty art school irony. The same question of authenticity and sincerity has also been raised at the unofficial PC Music Forum, in which fans discuss the collective and other artists. Some commentators go so far as to call this new tendency ‘bubblegum bass’. Initially, some even questioned whether the thread was set up by sincere fans, or whether it instead served as a cynical allusion to mainstream music fandom.
In fact, many on the PC Music Forum are producers of music themselves, or engage in productive forms of music consumption like the creation of mixes and the maintenance of SoundCloud pages. Toggling between the two platforms, these users encapsulate a microcosm of the Internet-facilitated convergence between fans and artists. In doing so, they break down binaries between the mainstream and the underground, dominant culture and counterculture, notions which have for decades pervaded discussions surrounding pop music.
The fan as a model for active consumption
New media scholar Abigail De Kosnik has pointed to the changing popular perception of the fan from an obsessive outsider (the origin of the word ‘fan’ derives from the Latin word ‘fanaticus’) to someone who participates in an active form of consumption that is increasingly prevalent in today’s digital economy. Fans do not just passively consume, they also produce; 3 fan labor includes the production of fanzines, fan fiction and mixes. In doing so, it actively contributes to the creation of tastes and subcultures.
Subcultural studies in the mid-to-late 20th century (perhaps, most famously that of cultural theorist Dick Hebdige) focused on the resistant nature of subcultural economies. These subcultures both borrow from and rebel against their ‘parent cultures’, or the cultures of the subcultural participant’s particular social class.4 As observed in Hebdige’s research on British working class subcultures, like the Teddy Boys, Mods or Punks, participants assert their rupture from the norm through the use of style, for instance their clothing, argot and musical tastes.5 Alongside the working class’s disillusionment with the economic establishment, these subcultures were concerned with a critique of cultural sameness and of individualism in the face of establishment conformism. This was the spirit that gave birth to the DIY ethos in music: it led to the idea of cutting out the major record label middleman to independently release records and cassettes, and of refusing to swallow only what was pushed onto consumers by mainstream corporations.
In the 1960s, resentment of a Fordist mass society—the dominant mode of post-war capitalism whose overly rationalized ethos created waged workers, mass production and subsequently mass consumption6 —began to take hold, and not only among the working class. In France, this disillusionment with these expansionist economic policies led to the events of May 1968. While initially a student revolt, it subsequently evolved into a workers’ movement that echoed other protest actions across the world.7 In the United States, the era's counterculture and hippies (who themselves were producers of self-published fanzines) preached individualism against mass society’s suit and tie ‘squares’.8
Not all anti-Fordist criticism was anti-capitalist. Surprisingly, business management literature of the '60s wholeheartedly adopted the critique of mass society bureaucracy and rationalized corporate structures, advocating for recognition of the worker’s individualism and a less top-down corporate hierarchy.9 A new wave of American ‘creative’ agencies led to changes in advertising strategies. They began to poke fun at utopian mass consumption rhetoric, such as DDB’s advertisements for Volkswagen, which took aim at the mindless consumerism that Detroit motor companies expected of the public, as well as their gimmicky Space Age designs and planned obsolescence. It has been observed that it is no coincidence that the Volkswagen Kombi van and ‘love bug’ Beetle became associated with hippie counterculture, given Volkswagen’s conscious and successful marketing as the non-conformist and anti-consumerist’s automobile brand.10 This sentiment carried over into the 1970s when Fordist capitalism showed its economic limitations with a recession caused by stagnant growth and rising inflation.11 In the ensuing years, individualism and autonomy went from countercultural resistance to the dominant capitalist doctrine, accelerated in the 1990s with new industries facilitated by the Internet and information technology developments, as well as the introduction of neoliberal economic policies that favored a flexible, casual workforce.12
The Internet has also seen an exponential expansion of fan activity, initially through chat boards and forums, and increasingly via mainstream social media outlets.13 These enthusiasts take to YouTube to create covers of songs, becoming music producers themselves, or upload mixes to SoundCloud. Today’s subcultures continue to make participation easier for the online amateur, with the popularity of genres such as ‘nightcore’ being an example. A nightcore edit consists of the simple gesture of taking a piece of pop music and speeding it up with audio software, increasing its tempo and pitch, in turn making it sound cute or kawaii. Amongst fans, new taste cultures are developed and communities are formed. Self-expression among likeminded individuals is the impetus for participating in fan communities; with resistance to the dominant market being what Sarah Thornton has termed a form of ‘subcultural capital’ (after Pierre Bourdieu’s term ‘cultural capital’).14 Due to the symbolic nature of subcultural capital, commercialization of fan activity is quite often shunned. As De Kosnik notes: “Because fans generally conceive of their activities as “resistive” to consumerism, they refuse to consider that their works […] might be deserving of compensation, either from official producers or from other consumers.”15
De Kosnik draws a link to fan labor and the 2005 observations of media theorist Tiziana Terranova, who noted that online communities exert a tendency towards unpaid labor. While Terranova initially focused on AOL volunteer chat room moderators, who work without pay for the pure pleasure and satisfaction of building online communities, De Kosnik adds the example of fans who maintain communities on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in their leisure time.16 Terranova’s contention with regard to online and digital labor is that while labor becomes visually subordinated and more ephemeral, it does not disappear entirely.17 In an Internet economy that is grounded in digital communication, the commodity might not necessarily be a material good in the traditional sense (for instance a car or a refrigerator), and yet it is still a commodity in the sense of the labor that has produced it. Here, Terranova seems to be essentially explaining the rising demand in services (for instance consumers using online services such as Facebook, in which user data is exchanged for use of the service, and later monetized by being sold to advertisers). These services turn the commodity into an ephemeral process, sometimes requiring the consumers to undertake a form of labor themselves in process-based consumption. As noted by De Kosnik, their free labor is the trade-off for the pleasure of communication and exchange, for participating in a community.18
The fan and immaterial labor
Terranova develops her notion of free labor by engaging the concept of immaterial labor, which was first introduced by sociologist and philosopher Maurizio Lazzarato in 1996. In his words, immaterial labor:
On the one hand, […] refers directly to the changes taking place in workers' labor processes in big companies in the industrial and tertiary sectors, where the skills involved in direct labor are increasingly skills involving cybernetics and computer control […] On the other hand, […] immaterial labor involves a series of activities that are not normally recognized as "work" — in other words, the kinds of activities involved in defining and fixing cultural and artistic standards, fashions, tastes, consumer norms, and, more strategically, public opinion.19
This shows, first of all, that immaterial labor relates to the increasing centrality of communications and information technologies in contemporary labor. Secondly, it pertains to activities that were previously thought of as leisure but which add value to products and drive the consumption cycle. Among these, we find fan labor: participating in forums, engaging with musicians through social media; creating mixes, YouTube covers, playlists, SoundCloud reposts, shares. The capitalist goal of this communication is the creation of cultural value, and the ideological imperative for us to continue to consume becomes our desire to communicate our subjectivities amongst our communities. With immaterial labor’s ever-increasing prominence, we are ideologically expected to continually convey our individual tastes. As Lazzarato puts it: “the new slogan of Western societies is that we should all "become subjects."”20
With the introduction of Apple Music earlier this year, the attention of music industry analysis has turned towards the centrality of streaming in contemporary music consumption. The increasingly dominant mode of consuming music is no longer that of ‘owning’ records but of renting streaming access. At present, we are seeing a focus on the fight for domination of the streaming market: primarily between the giant newcomer Apple, the more established streaming service from the far smaller company Spotify, and the repositioning towards monetized streaming of the previously artist-focused company SoundCloud. Less discussed, however, is Apple’s introduction of a service that is quite telling of the importance of engaged immaterial labor in the new music industry.
The Connect function of Apple Music introduces a social media platform in which artists can have a direct line of communication to fans, and fans to artists. While in its still early stage of development, Connect does not seem to have the sophistication of established social media services like Twitter and Instagram, or even SoundCloud, the very fact that it seems a necessary inclusion to a contemporary music streaming service highlights the communicative nature of contemporary music consumption.
Apple’s new service is designed to own the means of communication between artists and fans. Hence, this communication is increasingly essential: it allows the present day elite to extract rent, not only from users listening to music but also from their fandom. With our increased freedom to speak and become subjects comes the clause that this freedom is rented out to us by those who own the means of communication for their own capital accumulation. In this self-controlled consumption, we choose what to listen to and create our own communities but in doing so continue to make the decision to consume. The establishment wishes less and less to tell us what to communicate as fans, so long as we continue to do so by using their platforms.
Jared Davis is a writer and curator from Melbourne with an interest in experimental music, sound culture and the politics of music distribution.
1 Madonna, Bitch I’m Madonna, music video, 2015 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7hPMmzKs62w
3 De Kosnik, Abigail. "Fandom as Free Labor." In Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory, edited by Trebor Scholz, pp. 187-212. New York: Routledge, 2013.
4 Cohen, Phil. "Subcultural Conflict and Working-Class Community." In The Subcultures Reader, edited by Ken Gelder, pp. 86-93. Oxon: Routledge, 1972. Reprint, 2005: p. 91.
5 Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. 10 ed. London: Routledge, 1979. Reprint, 1997.
6 Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1990: p. 38.
7 Harvey, David. "Neoliberalism as Creative Destruction." The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 610 (2007): p. 24, p. 31.
8 Frank, Thomas. The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997: p. 12.
9 Boltanski, Luc and Ève Chiapello. The New Spirit of Capitalism. Translated by Gregory Elliott. London and New York: Verso, 2005. Originally published as Le nouvel esprit du capitalisme, 1999: pp. 75-76.
10 Frank, Thomas. The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997: p. 67.
11 Harvey, David. ‘Neoliberalism as Creative Destruction.’ The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 610, (2007): p. 27.
12 Boltanski, Luc and Ève Chiapello. The New Spirit of Capitalism. Translated by Gregory Elliott. London and New York: Verso, 2005. Originally published as Le nouvel esprit du capitalisme, 1999: p. 68.
13 De Kosnik, Abigail. "Fandom as Free Labor." In Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory, edited by Trebor Scholz, pp. 187-212. New York: Routledge, 2013: p. 188.
14 Thornton, Sarah. Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1996: p. 6.
15 De Kosnik, Abigail. "Fandom as Free Labor." In Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory, edited by Trebor Scholz, pp. 187-212. New York: Routledge, 2013: p. 199.
16 Ibid: p. 202.
17 Terranova, Tiziana. Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age. Ann Arbor, MI: Pluto Press, 2004: p. 90.
18 De Kosnik, Abigail. "Fandom as Free Labor." In Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory, edited by Trebor Scholz, pp. 187-212. New York: Routledge, 2013: p. 201.
19 Lazzarato, Maurizio. "Immaterial Labor." In Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics, edited by Michael Hardt and Paolo Virno, Theory out of Bounds, pp. 133-48. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996: p. 133.
20 Ibid: p. 135.