Language is power. The idea is a well worn truism at this stage but there are times when it is important to remember it. Language can be used to dominate and to undermine, to keep something or someone in their place. The words we use and don’t use have connotations beyond their apparently essential “meaning”. In any fight for equal rights, from civil rights to feminism to the LGBT movement, one of the first things to be confronted is language. It’s also often one of the reasons for splits within these camps, as one side objects to a word or description or abbreviation and another doesn’t. They are slippery things, words.
After writing the column last week, one of the interesting comments on Twitter brought up the idea that the very way we talk about being an artist now has changed to reflect a more business-oriented endeavor. Social media – that ever-present straw man – is one of the root causes of this in that, with the technology readily available to spread one’s artistic message alone, the acts of promoting and publicising work is now often solely the artist’s concern. This hasn’t always been the case. But now that the DIY route is the default one (up to a point), the language of marketing, technology and company growth have taken over the conversation.
While it’s important to remember that there is nothing wrong with wanting to reach as many people as you can or being interested in the music business side of what you do, it’s the language we use to go about it that can become a problem. As with any semantic issue, it’s never going to be clear cut and everyone will come at certain words with different ideas and ideologies. To me, it’s essentially the difference between seeing your potential audience – even subconsciously – as people who you’re trying to have a conversation with, to affect and be effected by, and seeing them as people who are there to buy what you’re selling. It’s the difference between thinking about how you, as an artist, can make a deep impression or a wide impression. The difference between art as a way of life and a chosen career.
At many urban music festivals now, the line-up of artists is likely to be mirrored by a line-up of “industry experts” who will take part in panel talks and “discussions” during the festival. From SXSW to HWCH, these conferences usually focus on ways to navigate the increasingly fractured music industry. Take for example CMJ in New York last year. On day one of the festival, from bright and early on Tuesday morning, one could attend several dozen talks and panels with subjects like, “Gaining Online Traction: The Art Of Creating The Perfect Musician’s Website”, “Advanced PR Techniques For The Digital World” or “The Pedal To The Metal” which poses the question:
“Dedicated fans of heavy metal culture keep the scene thriving by supporting its artists and shows. What is the secret to this genre’s success and what can the rest of the music business learn from it?”
There are various levels of cerebral and cultural disconnect going on here. While you can view the apparent loyalty or dedication of metal fans – and that’s a deeply generalised term used from a perspective ignorant enough to mean almost nothing – as a successful business move in some cases, it’s the fact that these fans aren’t thought of as consumers but genuine participants in a culture that makes them interested and dedicated. Subcultures are powerful things, and many metal communities in particular are united by their feeling of being outsiders, of being ostracised or misunderstood. Like punk, these genres – used here in the widest terms – become like homes with families, where people are finally fitting in and feeling a part of something. You can’t sell that feeling. You can’t manufacture community like that. There are those who will be able to take advantage of its existence, but lifting it wholesale and applying it to other demographics (business speak, see?) is unimaginative, disrespectful and dishonest. In short, it’s business.
The original question could provoke interesting conversations about subcultures, about loyalty, about the way discourse takes place between artists and audiences. About art and inspiration. About depression, anger, expression, and community support. But it’s not being asked that way. It’s asking how these things can be co-opted and used to sell more product to other communities (demographics). This is a fundamental difference and a good example of the way business semantics are an increasingly dominating supposedly artistic discussions. In the world of journalism, a school that straddles art and business like few others, you need look no further than the word “advertorial” to get a sense for the impact the same dominance is having.
Websites like Hypebot attempt to teach artists ways of living within the established music industry. Sites like this are all about numbers, market penetration, infographics, industry launches, new digital platforms, etc. It’s an extreme example of the commodification of DIY music, where the aim appears to be to succeed within the existing industry as opposed to creating and sustaining your own outside of that. For many acts, there will be nothing at all wrong with this. Their aim will be to prove to labels that they have a fanbase and that they can move units. They’ll “make it” or “fail”. The problem is that it’s a one-sided conversation, where the alternatives are not considered and the artistic element is continually left to one side as something that is obvious, that will take care of itself. There’s always more bands and someone will always be predicting what is going to be “hot” next year or next month or tomorrow. It’s much easier to think about how successful an act might be in terms of products sold than how insightful, original or challenging they might be. In the business world, to use another clichéd truism, it’s all about the bottom line.
Marketing and technology are the two major influences on the music industry today in terms of the discussions we’re having. Maybe they always were. While it is of course no harm to be fluent in these kinds of areas, it seems important that artists should resist their semantics. Maintaining an artistic language will help keep these fields separate and understood as different disciplines with different impulses, practices and aims. It’s not “content”, it’s art. They’re not “consumers” or “end users”, they are people. They’re not “demographics”, they’re communities. It’s not a career choice, it’s your life, your heart and soul.