Activist listening

Towards a definition of listener responsibility in an era of mass participation

In a recent essay entitled ‘Making Burzum a Contested Space’, I attempted to plot a possible route out of the current political impasse within black metal, specifically in regards to our relationship to dangerous art. The argument was predicated on the not so novel postmodern idea that art has no definitive or correct interpretation, and is instead an intersection of multiple cultural streams, some contained within the artist’s psyche, some historically determined by artistic tools and techniques, some contained within the listener’s own interpretation of the piece, and some found at the intersection of all three.

The implication being that instead of agonising over the moral rightness or wrongness of an individual artist’s beliefs and actions, we must embrace the ambiguity that black metal offers us, and use it as an environment to experiment with a range of different political or moral ideas, some of which may even be impermissible in civil society. Although the argument is not without issues, I believe there is fruit to be had in focusing on listener responsibility toward art over listener expectations of artists’ behaviour.

There are two things that commonly go unsaid in more casual conversations on this topic. The first is the fact that creating music that reaches an audience often occurs by chance, and is actually profoundly easy (and getting easier). So the probability that fascists or known abusers are capable of creating works that resonate beyond a small minority that actively approve of their actions is actually pretty high.

The second point to unpack is defining exactly what we mean by “consuming art”. Which node out of the bundle of experiences and biological events we call our “self” is interacting with art? And likewise which node of the artist’s “self” goes into creating their work? And crucially, what mechanisms are at play behind the interaction between the two?

Once again, the difficult fact to reconcile ourselves to is that people are complex and multi-faceted. Those with morally reprehensible political beliefs, or those who have committed heinous acts are very rarely absolutely evil. They are still capable of works and actions that could be considered morally praiseworthy if taken in isolation. Equally, the audience, in positioning themselves as the moral arbiters in this scenario, are far from morally pure. That’s not to say that there’s a fascist or a murderer in each of us, but even if I could honestly lay claim to absolute moral purity, there is still a node of my being that intersects with that of a Varg Vikernes which explains my love of his music, despite being staunchly opposed to his views and actions.

So taking the idea that creating art is far easier than is usually acknowledged, and combining it with the fact that artistic consumption is not a purely moral activity, it’s worth considering the broader cultural context that these anxieties are currently playing out in. Although it doesn’t always feel like it, culture is moving forwards. The figure of the arrogant, swaggering, unaccountable rock star looks increasingly archaic in recent years, just as the audience’s patience with the misdemeanours or crimes of specific individuals is fast waning. Fans have also been given multiple platforms from which to express their distaste if a creative is seen to betray their trust through an ill-chosen comment or criminal act.

I would argue that this process, whilst painful, is necessary precisely because it is indicative of the collapse of an older order, one that cordoned off the creative process and placed it under the remit of an elite minority, thus stripping art of its communal dimension. Social and political theorist Isaiah Berlin argued that it was only with the rise of the Romantic movement in Europe toward the end of the 18th Century that our current understanding of the artist as a unique creative visionary became the norm. We see a similar trend across different artforms around this time. The segregation of the auteur, the maestro, the virtuoso, over there on the stage, and we, the audience, looking on, this is a very recent phenomenon.

The rise of composer centric music in the 18th Century was equally novel. Prior to this, music in Europe took place under two broadly distinctive environments: the strict and insular formalism of religious music, and the loose, informality of folk traditions. The latter was a pool of materials that existed in what we would today refer to as the “public domain”, where anyone was free to dip in, play, perform, and reinterpret pieces as they chose. Creativity, therefore, was a communal and entirely open-ended activity that allowed for no conception of ownership, and no segregation between a deified “creative” and their audience.

The absence of official documentation in the form of manuscripts or recording technology also meant that there was no definitive version of a particular work. It would therefore be incoherent to talk about separation of the artist from the artwork, because the term “artist” referred to large groups of individuals bound by common culture and traditions, and the “artwork” was understood to be a collection of folkways that anyone was free to interpret and adapt, with only limited technical or cultural mores shaping this process.

Capitalism as an ideology sustains itself by apportioning off elements of society and defining them as “private property”. Where initially this could have applied to land and the natural resources within it, it quickly spread to modes of production and technology, from there it was not too long before abstract ideas fell into private ownership, and terms such as “intellectual property” became common parlance in capitalist nations.

Capitalist ideologues were only too happy, therefore, to reinforce the concept of art as an elitist, and therefore uniquely valuable (read profitable) commodity. Everything from the rise of European secular classical music in the 18th Century, to the enshrinement of copyright law in the UK under the Statute of Anne in 1709, to the Romantic deification of creatives as uniquely gifted people whose art was characterised as an act of sheer individualist will, all were solidified with the rise of modern capitalism and the legal formalisation of intellectual property in copyright law.

Although the ravages that have shaken the creative industries in the 21st Century are indicative of a sea change in this regard, it’s probably far too early to declare the end of artistic ownership and the full democratisation of the creative sphere. Not least because the chief victims of the internet’s facilitation of accessibility, distribution, and transformative financial models have been the artists themselves.*

There is still a significant gulf between fan and artist, a gulf that is maintained by the managers of capital within the creative industries, whether this be a label boss, PR firm, or social media algorithm. But there is little doubt that this gulf is narrowing, making it all the more necessary for us to take another look at what this means for the act of consuming art, or indeed, artistic ownership itself.

It’s fairly obvious that even if the notoriously unjust financial models of streaming services were fixed, this would not result in a mirror image of the pre-modern folkways described above. For one thing, the recorded work is still considered a definitive version, and therefore falls under the legal and financial jurisdiction of the creator, however reprehensible that person might turn out to be.

I would therefore argue that we as listeners need to prepare for the coming shift, and understand the increasing power we now wield. By this I mean that we begin to change our understanding of what we think artists owe us, and by extension re-examine audience responsibilities toward the artistic process, and how art is understood and used in the public realm. To put it another way, we should make consumption itself an act of creation.

Elsewhere I have argued that micro-genres with a high creator to listener ratio such as dungeon synth are already undertaking this process, whereby an informal collection of musical conventions are re-arranged by different sets of individuals, large bodies of work are released in digital or cassette formats, and the artists themselves are mostly anonymous. All the while the churn of new works is high, and encourages greater back and forth between creator and audience. A happy side effect of this is the willingness of fans – who will likely have dungeon synth projects of their own – to part with their cash to support artists they like.

Even dungeon synth is still a long way from total informalisation however. Albums are still considered intellectual property, and there is still an inherent connection between the artist and their work. But from this we begin to see a way forward for our understanding of listener responsibility. So let’s apply it to a more traditionally hierarchical case study and see where it leads us. And almost at random, let’s pick…Morrisey.

The Smiths were a band with a vast amount of cultural capital within muso spheres. They profoundly influenced many people’s identity in early adulthood. They also have – although not exclusively – a broadly left leaning, progressive audience. Setting aside whether a consistent ideological line can be traced between The Smiths of the 1980s and Morrisey’s vocal support of hard right politics today, it is enough to say that many feel betrayed by his modern persona, and struggle to reconcile this with The Smiths they remember from their teenage years. Many have even gone so far as to sell off (or burn) their records, dispensing of any association with that part of their personality.

On the basis of the preceding account then, one way out of the cognitive trauma that such emotional disconnect can cause is to wrest the art of The Smiths from Morrisey the individual, and place it in the public domain, whereby a looser narrative of meaning can be woven together from the fabric of audience interpretations.

The obvious problem with this is the fact that the traditional infrastructure of ownership is still in place. Artists such as Morrisey, Marilyn Manson, or Varg Vikernes still have legal control over their body of work, and are financially compensated by our interaction with it. No matter how forcefully the audience pushes back and tries to claim ownership over the artistic realm, the tenets of private property push back with far greater (and fiscally motivated) force, and maintain that invisible wall between the artist as the romantic, deified figure, and we, the audience, as mere recipients of their gifts.

Has a socialist utopia, then, been the rather flat and predictable answer to this seemingly intractable problem all along? Must we seize the means of creativity and place it back into the public realm? Even if that were true, there are many who would still view the process of wresting artistic works from their creators as a violation. The creative process is often a deeply personal thing. To immediately offer its fruits up to an audience who are then free to carve it up as they choose, reappropriating elements for new works and disregarding artistic intent entirely, to many this will be too high a price to pay.

But I’d argue that in light of the dramatic changes wrought on the creative industries in the last twenty years, this process is precisely what we, the listener, must engage with. And arguably it has already begun. The exponential growth of fan led art and the ready exchange of content online has led to a decentralisation of cultural signifiers. To have legions of fans rallying around one or two monolithic institutions– a Metallica or a Kiss for example – is increasingly rare. Instead we see informal associations growing organically from a bundle of interrelated micro-genres, with artistic reverence expressed via a celebration of the plethora of grassroots generated content that grows out of these movements as opposed to worshipping individual artistic genius.  

Not all of this is positive however. Fans of popular sci-fi and fantasy franchises feel a sense of ownership over how creative materials are developed. But this is often expressed in hateful online discourse, and mired in sexist and racist attitudes. I’d argue that one reason for this is the fact that audiences still perceive themselves as customers, and artists as service providers. However emotional and personal our connection to art may be, the language we use to express this could easily be transferred to a corporation that had broken consumer trust somehow. When an artist embroils themselves in a scandal, it’s rare for an audience to undergo a self-examination of the role they played in building the image and meaning behind the art.

So rather than treating our interaction with art – particularly “dangerous” art such as black metal – as an anxiety inducing minefield with fascists lurking behind every EP, we should instead reorientate ourselves toward thinking about precisely what it means to engage with art. Are we passively absorbing aesthetic material because it makes us feel good? Or are we actively nurturing a number of possible interpretations, cultural mores, aesthetic traditions, and ideological positions? If it’s the latter, then surely it is the listener’s responsibility to frame the terms under which art is understood.  

My boy Nietzsche’s idea that there are no truths, only interpretations, is one of the central tenets of postmodernism. But as it applies to art, it is probably more instructive to view the present situation of definitive works and artistic dictatorship as anomalous. The communal model was a norm that predates modernism, and was fundamental in determining how people understood the creative process.

No single individual can claim ownership over techniques, forms, or methodologies, just as they cannot then dictate how their contributions to these cultural streams are then evolved, adapted, and understood by their peers. (This leaves open the question of how we understand quality within art, and whether art can even be understood in qualitative terms at all under this model. But this discussion will have to wait for another essay. One could possibly envisage a process of peer review that could mitigate any potential free-for-all.)

Given the social media facilitated trend toward audience interaction with the critical process, along with the ability to hold artists to account, it’s high time the listener became conscious of the fact that this also entails immense responsibilities when it comes to the ongoing evolution of how art itself is defined.

Such a thing is entirely consistent with the rightful condemnation of reprehensible figures, just as it allows room for ensuring that those artists we do love are fairly compensated for their work. So instead of listing our demands as consumers, and throwing in the towel when an artist crosses a personal boundary of good conduct, we should maybe seek to situate art in the public sphere once again, a sphere we are all responsible for maintaining.

*This is largely because the platform capitalism of social media apps forces the artist to be creator, promoter, distributer, and booking agent all at the same time. Although the infrastructure by which we distribute and consume creative artefacts is changing dramatically, they are still funnelled through traditional models of ownership and exploitation. For example, Spotify, in vying for a monopoly of the streaming market, is able to extract the maximum amount of profit from the music industry with limited financial risk, whilst Bandcamp is able to charge artists significant commissions on every sale made on their platform for the privilege of exposure and ease of access they offer fans.   

10 thoughts on “Activist listening

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  1. You seem to forget that the copyright laws were originally put in place to keep the artists (writers in the first place) from starving when they reached the old age and couldn’t earn a living anymore. The fact that those rights have become a commodity, pretty much like everything else, does not eliminate that original and still meaningful goal.

    On the other hand, I fail to see how the rising dungeon synth community you describe is a desirable future for music at large. With its tons of easy and mediocre music churning out full speed, it’s not very different from the myriad of dark ambient side projects or bedroom black metal bands that were in vogue some time ago.

    In my view, music needs criticism, canonical or outsider, in order to the appreciated on a higher level, and criticism brings about hierarchies, elitism and yes, deification of the artists, which is not exclusively a negative thing when it comes to upholding qualitative criteria.


    1. This is certainly not forgotten. Of course under the current system artists must be fairly compensated for their work, but increasingly copyright law no longer serves this purpose. However noble the original intentions behind it were, today it is increasingly being weaponised by the interests of capital to stifle the organic flow of ideas across online infrastructure.

      I agree that musically dungeon synth leaves a lot to be desired, but structurally it contains the kernel of a system that could provide an alternative to the obscene deification of artists that typified the late 20th century. This is true of many artforms that grew online from bedroom black metal, to mumble rap, to whatever the kids are doing on the TikToks these days. All are still in a germinal phase and yet to produce lasting works, but the shift in how their ideas play out in real time warrants examination.

      There is perhaps a middle ground between sincere respect for artists and their work whilst acknowledging where the limitations of this respect are, a middle ground which can only be achieved by emphasising the increasingly important role that communal habitats play in producing and distributing new artistic endeavours.

      Anyway, sorry for the meandering response, thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts, there’s plenty of food for thought in this.


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