Self-awareness: where cultures go to die

Many elements align in the creation of a classic. Spontaneity – which could be characterised as a youthful ignorance of the conventions of one’s elders; that intangible guile that invigorates the young mind – is one such element. But the more I think about spontaneity, the more I change my mind about its significance, and our understanding of it. It’s tempting to argue that those musical landmarks that define the art of a generation are the result of happy accidents as much as they are talent. There’s a mysterious quality to art, the definition of which has bugged intellectuals for millennia. If talent and technical knowledge are the canvas and the brush, they must be coloured with the paint of artistic magic. The concrete definition of this ‘magic’ has not been forthcoming. The ethereal artistic will that seizes the chosen few and compels them to create. It burns all too briefly. But for some reason, over thirty years on, Metallica are still making music.

So the argument I originally had in mind would run thusly. Self-awareness kills spontaneity. Once an artist or a scene begins to self-identify as something, it kills the magic. With the hypothesis proposed, I would then test it against a few choice examples, before finally extolling the explanatory power of the theory. ‘Cynic was not as good Atheist, King ov Hell era Gorgoroth is a hammed-up version of black metal, Deafheaven’s a substandard hybrid of disparate influences thrown into a blender bereft of quality’…..and so on, each time comparing them to a superior-because-more-spontaneous iteration for each example.

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The above statements are true to greater or lesser degrees. But if you disagree with them another tedious diatribe from myself pointing out your intellectual shortcomings would be more time wasted. No, what’s more interesting is not whether self-awareness kills artistic expression, but whether we will ever be ignorantly spontaneous again.

The watchful gaze of the internet has wrought profound changes on the production and consumption of culture, and shows no signs of slowing down. Champions of the democratisation of culture argue that this bring fans and musicians closer together, regardless of geography. Detractors mourn the sheer extent of content saturation, and point to how easily instantaneous gratification has created the last word in disposable culture.

Both are right. For a new artist building a fanbase, there are many virtues and many vices to navigate in this strange new world. With so many free (or at least highly affordable) platforms to get your name out there, self-promotion morphs into branding, and branding smacks of the very demons the mavericks of the early internet swore to slay. Across different social media platforms and music streaming services we can all cultivate an international following.

These platforms allow us to do the job that record labels and managers once performed. And with savvy manipulation, the lucky few are in with a chance of becoming self-made stars. The pre-internet music industry had many ills. But the self-made branding that social media platforms encourage has facilitated a completely unexpected transformation on the creative process. However noble the intentions of an artist starting out in life, the need to spread the word across multiple platforms encourages content saturation. It cultivates a need to constantly remind the fanbase of one’s existence. For anyone that runs a page on Facebook, the constant prods to boost posts and update your page will be familiar. For end users, if you like enough bands, labels, promoters, venues, photographers, tastemakers, and meme pages on Facebook, then scrolling down your newsfeed becomes an endless conveyor belt of things you’re missing out on.

Contemporary music was never simply about listening to music and deciding if you liked it. Image, attitude, and philosophy have always played a key role. Music, like any product, needs to fit into a pre-existing stream of culture in order for consumers to make sense it. If it is offered without context, it is ignored (that’s how albums that were ‘ahead of their time’ come about). It therefore becomes inevitable that the constant pressure to brand eventually bleeds into the creative process itself, nurturing it into a pre-packaged product designed to appeal to a particular cultural stream. If this is starting to sound like a defence of record companies and producers of the pre-internet age, parasites of the old world, it’s not. The marketisation of culture is nothing new. What is new is collective engagement in creating the brand. The democratisation of music has turned the creator into the parasite.

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The exhilarating crucible of a scene’s inception

Through the Napster panic of the early 2000s and the many file sharing sites that followed in its wake, I was sceptical of voices heralding the death of music. The music itself seemed to be thriving. The only thing that was dying was the grip of traditional market forces on music. The internet had allowed us to return to a pre-capitalist model of making and consuming music; a baseline activity that we could all make and share. The obscenely rich and worshipped megastars were a thing of the past.

In principle this could work. But of course, the internet was quickly brought to heal by even more ruthless market forces in the form of Web 2.0. This new infrastructure allowed just enough participation from both the makers and consumers of content to feel like they were shaping the cultural zeitgeist, whilst ruling with an iron fist over the terms of cultural distribution. The genius and endurance of this system – much like the capitalist forces that created it – is its ability to absorb and repackage dissenting voices into harmless versions of themselves. Using the tools of the system – Facebook, Instagram, Spotify, Twitter – will inevitably lead one to play by their rules.

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A zero waste blogger. Addressing the symptom of the environmental crisis through supporting the cause

Of course, we shouldn’t play down the countless benefits of the technology itself. Instant access to music and culture worldwide is nothing short of revolutionary. But turning the creators of culture into the promoters of culture kills the muse. Worse, inferior artists who may be more tech savvy and better able to navigate these choppy online waters have the edge. The past was not better. But the seminal musical movements of yore often began from the grassroots up, with record companies playing catch up to monetise and eventually kill it. Now, those same market forces are ready and waiting to help you package and brand your own product through their pre-approved platforms, neutering the movement into an impotent version of itself from its inception.

One solution – which I believe many have already turned to – is rediscovering the power of the irreplaceable present. No amount of technology can recreate the feeling of being at the heart of a grassroots scene. Whether it’s as a musician, promoter, techie, or simply as a fan, we now realise the true value of these spaces as ways to escape digital media. They are unpredictable, spontaneous, untamed. Of course technology can and does work in harmony with local scenes the world over. But it must never be forgotten that they cannot replace physical attendance and participation in the real world, unshackled from slickly edited promotional videos and carefully planned branding.

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