How Technology Has Transformed, And Complicated, Music Fandom: Interview With Nancy Baym.April 17, 2019
“Music has always been about building, sustaining, and reworking social relationships and institutions. No matter how commercialized it becomes, it can ‘never be just a product.’
This is one of the most incisive and intuitive statements that Nancy Baym makes in her new book Playing to the Crowd: Musicians, Audiences and the Intimate Work of Connection, which was published earlier this month by NYU Press.
As an art form, music’s fundamental value to its creators and listeners is grounded in emotional connection and fulfillment, which is arguably difficult to nail down with a price tag. Yet we also live in the age of $95 Kanye West hoodies, $250 floor tickets at Madison Square Garden and $1,200 tickets to Burning Man—where A-list celebs and quasi-monopolistic corporations alike are racing to extract maximum commercial value from these same, supposedly priceless connections.
To complicate matters even further, modern technology has warped the very nature and scale of those connections in the first place. With the rise of social media, artists’ financial success now depends increasingly on their ability to manage personal, intimate relationships with potential billions of audience members across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and dozens of other platforms. Doing this manual work of managing one-to-one intimacy at scale can be personally and financially draining—a fact that inspired Baym, who currently works as a Principal Researcher at Microsoft in Cambridge, MA, to coin the concept of “relational labor.”
That said, technology can also be a positive, disintermediating force, enabling more and more artists to exert full ownership over their revenue streams and communication channels with fans. They may be taking on all of the difficult, taxing work themselves, but ultimately reap all of the financial rewards.
In Playing to the Crowd, Baym presents an historical and timely narrative of how this ”relational labor” has changed with advancements in digital media and communication, featuring multiple firsthand interviews and case studies with artists as far-ranging as R.E.M., Amanda Palmer, Richie Hawtin, Zoë Keating and Billy Bragg. Importantly, all of these artists have vastly different business models, levels of tech-savviness and philosophies around fan communication, driving home one of Baym’s core arguments that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to nailing fan engagement in the digital age.
Rather, artists have the right to set their own boundaries and choose their own suite of technological tools for managing fan relationships, based on their own creative and financial goals—and platforms should arguably facilitate, rather than discourage, this autonomy. The diversity of tech strategies that artists have adopted in service of stronger emotional and commercial relations can serve as a valuable lesson for anyone in any industry trying to navigate the fast-paced world of social media and the complexities of the gig economy.
Baym generously took the time to chat with me over the phone about the key findings in her book, and how they might relate to recent developments in the music industry—from the sprawling playlist ecosystem on streaming platforms, to the musical ambitions of big-tech companies like Facebook and YouTube. An edited version of our conversation follows.
CHERIE HU: Identity is a crucial part of music fandom, but some would argue that technology has diluted music consumption’s role in identity formation, and vice versa. I’ve heard execs at industry conferences make complaints along the lines of “no one wears Metallica T-shirts anymore.” How do you think that music-identity relationship has changed, if at all, with technological advancement?
NANCY BAYM: I think there are more pop culture items on offer with which to identify than there used to be. For instance, one piece that often falls out of these conversations is gaming: there are so many people today who identify strongly with one gamer or another—especially online, thanks to sites like YouTube and Twitch. That dynamic and opportunity didn’t exist as much in the “age of the Metallica T-shirt.”
In general, the whole rise of brand culture has changed—to the point where wearing a T-shirt with a brand logo emblazoned on it is now much more common, and means something entirely different. The rise and popularity of Metallica preceded the generalization of brand identification. Metallica’s strategy for connecting with fans was so successful that everyone adopted it, and people are just wearing brand names all the time now. A rock band is just one possible piece in a suite of pop culture materials with which you can now identify.
That said, identification with musicians is still very much alive. I just saw Janelle Monae live in concert, and there was no question that the audience felt like she was speaking to them. There were clear moments when I was like, “yes, I am a Janelle Monae fan!” There was a sense of community and a sense that she was speaking on behalf of all of us, who share certain values, concerns and emotions. We definitely still project these things onto artists and claim them as touchstones of who we are, and who we are not.
One significant theme in your book is the notion of “authenticity,” and the roles that both artists and fans play in evaluating and communicating how personally and culturally “authentic” they really are. How does social media complicate that process?
For decades, the music industry has been carefully calculating and inventing entire notions of “authenticity” in order to drive sales—from white blues musicians in Chicago who couldn’t launch careers because tourists only wanted to hear “authentic” blues music played by black people, to city slickers essentially “inventing” the genre of country because rural populations were increasingly migrating to urban area and the industry had to come up with something to sell to them (read Richard Peterson’s Creating Country Music for more on that). In these two examples, what was considered “authentic” was tied directly to matching some kind of demographic categorization scheme.
Now with social media, there are so many more factors going into the question of what “counts” as authentic. If you’re a singer-songwriter who releases political protest songs, is it authentic “enough” that you live in East Village in New York City and go to protests in your neighborhood? Or are the people you really hang out with, and even your personal voting record, now on the line? Is it about these more personal matters, or just about the “type”?
Especially in the era of Instagram, authenticity seems to be much more about questions like, “Did the food you have for breakfast this morning match the ideology you sang about on your last record? How can you really have sympathy for poverty if you’re eating avocado toast?”
What impact do you think this hyper-specialized focus on artists’ personal matters has had on the nature of music fandom, compared to the types of fan engagement we saw in previous decades?
It’s one thing to identify with a distorted, partial sampling of an artist, or with an artist who’s just a vague stand-in for a lifestyle choice. It’s a completely different thing to identify with an artist when you’re in “engagement” with them all the time, day in and day out, sharing these mundane activities. In the latter situation, the space doesn’t seem quite as “empty,” in the sense of enabling fans to invest energy in filling in the blanks and imagining the artist the way they wanted to imagine them.
It’s like the difference between reading a book and then seeing the movie. Suddenly, the main character is played by an actor or actress who doesn’t look or speak at all like how you imagined them to—“that was not supposed to be a Scarlett Johansson role, that character was supposed to be Asian”—and now you can’t quite relate to that character or read that book in the same way again.
That said, sometimes bridging that mystique on social media can really enhance the fan experience, by signaling that the artist is “one of us.” Billy Bragg does this really well, in the sense that his open accessibility online makes people identify more with him.
One trend you discuss in your book is how social networks are increasingly ”organized around individuals rather than topics.” The user experience on streaming services like Spotify is similarly individualistic— giving tailored recommendations for the singular end user, with virtually no native social features. Do you think tech and culture will only get more and more individualistic over time, to the point of fan communication losing focus on wider “topics” or communities?
That’s a hard question to answer, considering that some of the most prevalent fandoms right now are happening on “in-between” sites like Twitter and Tumblr. Each of the individual users on those platforms has former their own curated network of other users to follow, but are also hooking into a wider fandom or topic like K-pop that thrives far beyond the platform.
I’ve written in the past about the concept of “networked collectivism”—the idea that people cluster into different groups across different platforms that are loosely connected to one another, rather than convening into one singular space to talk about a specific topic. We’re all individuals with our own networks, but are also part of groups of people who virtually “bump into” each other all over the place. I might see you first on Twitter, but then also see you on LinkedIn, and we have common acquaintances in both places. Then we might go to some kind of music policy event and meet in person, and then each of us might meet other people at that event whom we will later bump into in digital environments. It’s about clusters of people who are networked in between.
One interesting trend to watch is people trying to get away from hypervisibility—whether in open, public community spaces or on heavily-monitored social networks like Facebook and Twitter—and toward messaging and small-group platforms like WhatsApp.
Another core argument in your book is that while “the value of musical work has always resided in communication and connection,” today’s primary fan-communication platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) don’t actually foreground music in these connections. Instead, their algorithms simply reward more visual content that generates more views and clicks. I recently heard someone make a claim along these lines that “the music industry is the visibility industry.” Would you agree with that statement? Has visibility now taken full priority over sound in music marketing?
We are indeed in this really weird “metric moment” where something with bigger metrics is interpreted as better, which may or may not actually be the case. I recently interviewed someone who runs a Swedish independent record label and he told me, “We don’t even think of ourselves as a label anymore. We’re just trying to get attention.”
It’s amazing to me to see how so many careers, in music and beyond, have shifted such that it’s no longer enough to do the work. Now you have to do the work of making sure everyone is seeing that you’ve done the work. And now influencers like Celeste Barber—who has built an entire career out of mocking celebrity culture and representations of the female body on Instagram—are going on their own national tours, and competing with bands who have been touring for decades. Obviously I think music is very special, but it’s not like music alone has the only natural right to be the only content that thrives on these platforms.
As for the music industry being a visibility industry, part of me thinks that’s true and unique to our time. But what about MTV and music videos? What about every 50s pop star who was all about how they looked? What about Berry Gordy, who sent all of his artists to school to learn how to look presentable, behave properly and even eat the right way at a restaurant? This has always been an industry that prizes aesthetics and looks. When R.E.M. first broke, it was so weird to see a band that didn’t care what they looked like. That was such a radical stance up until that point.
How do you think the rise of mood and activity playlists on Spotify and similar platforms might impact the artist-fan relationship? While mood playlists do tend to generate more streams for a given track over a longer period of time, some people argue that they only exacerbate the distance between the artist and the listener—in terms of the listener not actively recognizing the artists on the playlist, let alone following them later on.
There are two parallel, or maybe orthogonal, tracks at play here that could cross at some point. As an artist, your money can come either from mass plays—e.g. you land on a playlist that generates a ton of streams, but it’s just part of a “soundtrack” use case and none of the listeners actually pay attention to you as an individual act, there’s no real fandom about that—or from a group of loyal fans who are really into you and will put out money for you beyond that one playlist stream.
The sweet spot is where you get on a playlist and spark enough interest such that some of those previously passive listeners move into that other category. But I don’t think any of the music streaming platforms at the moment really support the development of fandom. They support the discovery of an act, but they don’t support connecting fans to each other and letting them do their own thing.
One of the most illuminating parts of your book was the argument that full, open fan participation cannot easily coexist with complete artist ownership and control over their conversation and image. Interestingly, most of the dominant social media and streaming platforms today allow neither full participation nor full ownership to artists or fans. Could you elaborate on whether you see that participation-ownership duality resulting in a clear choice artists have to make, or in more of a blurry tension that artists constantly have to negotiate?
I see them as in constant tension with one another. In an environment with full participation, everyone plays an equal part and has an equal opportunity to contribute to the whole process of whatever is happening. With ownership, you’re saying, “this part of the process is mine and mine only, and you don’t get to participate in it.”
In some contexts, that ownership-first approach is totally legit. I don’t necessarily want other strangers to write my favorite songwriter’s songs. If we wanted all of our art to be crowdsourced, we’d have vastly different models from the ones around today. When we talk about “ownership,” we also have to differentiate between owning intellectual property and wanting to control the conversation, discourse and interpretation around that property, which is a different layer of ownership. In both cases, there is an inherent tension with the idea that everything is communal, or that everybody has a voice and can participate.
Both are desirable outcomes, in the sense that musicians want both control and a sense of connection and involvement in vibrant, participatory communities. That said, if you want to make money from that connection, at some point you have to draw a boundary and claim some part as yours to own, and tell fans and supporters to give you money for it.
Let’s talk more about business models. You argue in your book that the pay-what-you-want model for music is ingenious because it strikes a middle ground between this participatory versus controlling duality for artists: it “simultaneously acknowledges fans as customers, yet gives them room to transform their act of paying from transactional to participatory.” Yet, the music industry today seems to be funneling consumers more deeply into the $9.99/month streaming subscription model—which, to me, is the opposite of giving fans the choice of how much to pay. Why do you think pay-what-you-want hasn’t quite taken off in the mainstream music scene yet?
There are probably a lot of institutional forces in the music industry that are making it harder to move to those kinds of models. Platforms like BandCamp, Patreon and PledgeMusic are clearly showing that there are audience segments with enough disposable income and who are more than willing to pay a greater amount for cultural materials, and for the arts in general.
It’s a real shame that we haven’t figured out pay-what-you-want on one hand, and micropayments for smaller transactions on the other hand. YouTube had a tipping and donation feature (Fan Funding), but shut it down in 2017.
I think the reason micropayments in particular haven’t taken off in the U.S. is partly about cultural norms, and partly about technical and political quirks with local payment platforms. Flattr, a straight-out micropayment service co-founded by Peter Sunde (who also co-founded The Pirate Bay), was helping some bloggers in Europe make an additional $100,000 a year—but PayPal stopped working with Flattr in 2014, which significantly dampened the latter company’s traction in the U.S. There are a few major financial intermediaries like PayPal that can have a significant impact on startup growth. But nonetheless, micropayment models are still really underutilized and under-explored in the wider music business.
Facebook and YouTube have recently launched their own competitors to Patreon, enabling creators to charge their fans a monthly subscription fee for access to exclusive content and community-oriented features. What do you think about the viability of these new offerings—especially because they are owned by big-tech companies with vastly contrasting core products (that are largely free)?
Those platforms are certainly generating their own value from creators’ content anyways, so I think it’s great if they’re innovating and trying out new products, and building anything that funnels more money back to the creators themselves.
What makes me wary in general about these giant, multifunctional platforms is that they have other incentives at play, and we’ve seen shift their strategies a lot over the last few years alone. While sites like Patreon and PledgeMusic aren’t bulletproof and might go under eventually, they exist solely to serve creators. Whereas with the larger tech platforms, even though they’re building all of these features for musicians and creators, it’s easy to imagine them saying in a year or two, “Actually, this isn’t working so well for us, so we’re going to shut that down.” Then the creators involved lose all those people they had supposedly direct access to.
This goes back to the question of control versus participation. I don’t want to say that Facebook and YouTube are or are not good stewards of our participatory communities, but people ought to be asking more questions about who’s really running these subscriptions, and whether artists should really feel confident putting their eggs in that basket—even if those platforms have the audience numbers.
There was a lot of controversy last week around Chance the Rapper’s purchase of local news website Chicagoist. At the core of the debate is the realization that artists are increasingly owning their own media platforms—be that through maintaining an visual brand and speaking directly to fans through Instagram or through owning a streaming service (as Jay Z does with Tidal), in addition to owning an entire whole magazine or publication. What is your reaction to Chance the Rapper’s decision, and how do you understand the dynamics between the Internet and traditional media outlets when it comes to artists’ careers?
The artist-press relationship is a whole other layer of these nested hierarchies of tensions among artists, audiences and platforms. One of the great disruptions of social media has been a breakdown in the ability of traditional magazines and other media outlets to serve as gatekeepers to the flow of conversations. Artists are looking at the current landscape and thinking, “now I can control my own discourse.”
Yet at the same time, there’s an increasing reliance back on old networks and channels to be the ultimate voices of authority. More people are now aiming to perform well on social media in the hopes that they get “picked up” by traditional magazines and even TV. Many artists are looking to move “off” the Internet into book contracts and TV shows.
I think buying media outlets is an extreme way to handle that. But you can understand the news around Chance the Rapper and Chicagoist as someone who wants to control their own press—or you can also understand it as someone who sees communal resources and community media breaking down, and who wants to contribute to strengthening those civil resources. That’s a much less selfish interpretation in terms of Chance’s perspective that is less about control, and more about participation.”