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13 January 2009

My Space Our Swamp

On the value of online music communities

Thomas Meadowcroft Image: Thomas Meadowcroft  
© Siegmar Zacharias

'New music has the chance, with online music communities, to be lifted out of the swamp, or to be buried deeper', writes Thomas Meadowcroft. He discusses the nature of online music communities in his article in the latest issue of the German-language music journal Positionen ('Über den Wert der Online-Musikgemeinschaften', Positionen 77). resonate presents here the English language version of the text. Thomas Meadowcroft's sound installation Monaro Eden is currently exhibited at the Queensland Art Gallery until 22 February as part of the exhibition Contemporary Australia: Optimism.

There are a few ways to react to the sheer volume of music, musicians and listeners exchanging goods online. We can view this largely unmappable exchange as a tragic loss of grand aesthetic narratives1 (i.e. collective agreement on which way history and aesthetics go), or we can view this as a happy loss. John Cage first celebrated the latter when picking up on the HCE emblem ('Here Comes Everybody') in his readings of James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake several decades ago – that is, with so many people on the globe, there is no longer a single course, nor a river, but rather 'a delta of music'.2 Now with online music communities, this thought may be virtually a reality.

We can also see that the internet is being reharnessed by the systems of power and profit and that, despite the abundance of exciting and challenging work being done by more people now than at any one time before, an official aesthetic narrative continues to unfold in our society, as dictated by the media, the music industry, the art market etc. Indeed, one feels that the delta Cage describes eventually leads to a swamp. The 'human swamp', as so beautifully coined by philosopher Paul Virilio,3 is the dystopic version of Cage's delta. It comes about by the self-realisation of individuals through creative act on a global scale – such a scale that the usual channels for art's dissemination and power for critique at a broader social level are blocked en masse. This leaves us stuck with our own art object under our own rock.

The Virilio model, of course, is depressing, and it is not our job to depress. Besides, swamps may not be conventionally pretty but they are biologically diverse. The Cage model, on the other hand, however wildly naive it may be about the viciousness and stupidity of global capitalist cultural logic, is nonetheless a profound challenge, because it asks us to reinvent the models and forms for dissemination now everybody has arrived. We should not lament the loss of the old revolutionary potential of art and its forums any more than we should accept its dumb commodification. What we need are more models and forms of dissemination for the creative act.

One of these potential new forms may be online music communities. A long time ago, people used to store their music on discs in shelves, and pull them out along with their pipe and listening ears. Now these discs are streamed all at once, on the web. New tracks are constantly being added to the collection by anyone who may care to participate.4 The collection is not overseen by any editorial board, and, for better or for worse, quality control and the idea of labels with particular aesthetic bents have been abandoned in favour of inclusion and the right to individual self-expression. Also, a long time ago, the only way listeners could be sociable with one another was to go to concerts or have a friend around for a listening session. Now, they can be sociable about music through online discussion forums. All of these activities make the promise of a community tantalising because now, in principle, one can make contact with anyone else in our swamp.

Then commodification steps in and channels the flow of exchange accordingly. Commodification requires a reordering of boundaries: it segments the space and makes property and product out of it. News Corp, for example, bought the online music community myspacemusic, and last.fm, in its turn, is bankrolled by a few nameless investment bankers – because when capital goes small, it also yields good results. Already, online communities such as these are at best profoundly compromised in a sense of political action, and yet they still foster change and exchange among people. This is a contradiction that, for the moment, should be embraced.

Online music communities are also compromised by their format. Internet medium is in its technical infancy, and one can be doubtful about whether all these communities make for a more intelligent forum than the local town hall, when so much discussion is nullified by trivial web conventions (smiley, mood, chat etc.). Furthermore, audio formats are restricted to stereo, and visual or other elements (e.g. the room acoustic) that are a key to a work's performance and understanding, rarely fit into community website formats. Still, what is powerful about online music communities is that they are great conductors of information. They make for a very useful information resource for discovering previously unheard music.

The problem with information, of course, is that it does not tell us how to process it. It gives us answers but it does not tell us the questions. This is why in our information age, there is a sort of collective feeling of dullness hanging over the social body. We are in search of questions. Apparently there was a time when mainstream media outlets used to attempt this search on our behalf, as a community service. Today, this civil duty aspect of journalism is unthinkable. Media outlets are incapable of sustaining an idea, let alone a series of questions, for longer than a couple of days. Now they just sporadically dictate. In turn, by its very structure and machinery, the media, online or otherwise, is obliged to trivialise debates in aesthetics. The Arts are portrayed either as something for specialists ('the experts'), a spiritual appendage to other serious pursuits sponsored by corporate bodies and poorly funded state institutions, or as an investment.

We can quickly see, then, the advantages and disadvantages of online music communities. The internet alone will not rescue us, and our search for meaningful questions mobilises us back into the real world. However, online music communities remind us to reinject the intensity of exchange, promised by these virtual spaces, back into more conventional communities, back into the troubled and very tangible social landscape in which we live. Online music communities are a valuable extension to the real social spaces where music making and music exchange happen, but they are not a substitute for these communities.

Obviously, as people interested in music, we are interested in forming communities. After all, despite our collective dream of perhaps one day sending music alone out into space (or worse, back to the archive), music is a social artform. It requires in some way, however modest, that individuals meet and interact with one another, regardless of whether that music is being produced or consumed. In terms of my own music production and consumption, I find myself increasingly moving in different types of communities and in different forums for music making. These communities have different intimacies and different agendas. They are in themselves not all new, and no single community, as exemplified above, will lift us out of the swamp. However, the movement between these communities might be of help, and might help to change us as individuals.

Recently, when chewing on the problem of music community, I have become particularly enamoured of the concept of the medieval village. Perhaps this is just a throwback to living in Europe too long, but the medieval village is in effect the space in which my electronic organ playing functions. The organ and Leslie speaker together weigh 120 kilograms, and I pull them out with the generous help of fellow musicians and wheel them to the concert. The concerts are all within a two-kilometre radius of my home in Berlin. My organ playing means nothing to people in the next town nor should it. There is probably an organ player in that village anyway. My playing is functional – depending on context, it is intended either for dancers, drinkers, punters and/or listeners – and has no need for higher cultural aspirations. In this sense I, too, as an individual am very much 'pre-enlightenment' in terms of self-realisation, when playing organ. I don't express myself. I just play the songs.

Returning, then, to the challenge presented by 'Here Comes Everybody', I see this latter pre-enlightenment moment of subjectivity, when playing organ, as deadly serious. I proposed earlier that we need more models and forms of dissemination for the creative act, but we need new ways of self-realisation in the creative act as well. In the creative act, we have very few alternatives to the romantic model of subjectivity and its self-realisation. In our culture, individuals and their expression make art objects. Anyone who has been to a new music concert and has seen a program booklet full of composers, the titles of their works and their biographies, can attest to the laborious nature of this process. In our culture, individuality matters – it is our crowning glory. Yet, as a basis for a community space, we can quickly see how, in our contemporary reality, that individuality, as it now stands, is absurd. It floods us with individuals who are meant to be on top of the creative pile. Even though Andy Warhol's 15 minutes of fame will alleviate the situation, it will not provide us with an alternative model for the self-realisation of individuals.

Obviously, there are also many medieval aspects to the new music community, as well as romantic ones. Its economy of scale is slowly grinding down, along with its larger cultural impact, to a medieval size. We can also see, in medieval terms, that there is a great love of fiefdoms in the new music community. New music has the chance, with online music communities, to be lifted out of the swamp, or to be buried deeper. In order to keep even its marginal place on the larger stylistic music map, we seem particularly obsessed with maintaining a grand aesthetic narrative, however simulated. We need styles, heroes and manifestos to keep up the morale. Unfortunately, in this way, the cultural pretensions behind new music are barely different to any other modern music style, scene or industry. The logic behind these pretensions needs to be re-examined and abandoned accordingly. Otherwise, the scene's cultural politics will remain weird: weird in that someone like John Cage once appeared with the HCE out of this community, and weird given the scene's apparent love for 'things new'.

Getting the politics right in the scene, though, means returning to the personal. After all, change in communities occurs through individuals and not through organisations. To embrace online music communities is a matter, funnily enough, of personal choice. The choice is to be reactionary or not. If you ignore the potential of virtual communities, you can be a real reactionary and not take part at all. If you disappear online in your pyjamas, and fail to reinject the intensity of exchange, promised by the internet, back into real social space, you become a virtual reactionary. And when it comes to those in the new music community who would just prefer to humbly continue disseminating work as if it were 'a message in a bottle',5 – this is no longer possible. Our waterways are filled with bottles. We need a practice of self-realisation, and community that completely transforms the idea of art as an individual's message.

Subjects discussed by this article:

Thomas Meadowcroft is an Australian freelance composer and musician living in Berlin. His sound installation Monaro Eden is currently exhibited at the Queensland Art Gallery until 22 February as part of the exhibition Contemporary Australia: Optimism. In November, he performed together with the Munich-based theatre group Hunger und Seide their new work Taxi – ein Triptychon der Gewalt in Munich, as part of the festival Starke Stücke.


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Online Vs. Offline

Hi Thomas

I think you have articulated many of the issues regarding the internet and new music that many musicians have pondered over since the turn of the century.

Personally, I think this online 'community' is turning around and becoming much more localised (in a geographic sense).  I get the feeling that as this artistic swamp grows and grows, online communities tend to become much more geographically local, at least in regards to pop music.  Over the last two years or so I have found that interest in local bands has been raised significantly due to their promotion on myspace etc. - as the amount of music accessible online increases, I believe that people generally search online for material in their own locality (or if not their own locality, a specific locality).  Whether this is happening in art music I'm not sure.

If this is true the seemingly 'global' media environment caused by the online world is conversely turning around and creating a much more 'local' media environment.  Perhaps over the next few decades we will see more musical trends reappear stylistic narratives based on culture and place (such as the ones you describe Cage critiscising).

But this is an aside from your article, in any case I'd be interested to hear what you think.

reply to Michael

Hi Michael,

I think your point that online music communities are creating focus back on local, geographically fixed scenes is a very good one and would be a good addition to the article. Although in principle it offers global coverage, myspacemusic, for exampe, has actually been great for uncovering what is going on around the block in the music scene and in turn feeds this scene. (In my experience, as you also point out in your comment, I have found this to be very much the case in the the local pop music scene as well as experimental music scenes). Whether, this translates to art or contemporary classical  music is difficult to say since I get the feeling this community in comparison is so specialised, and geographically spread (eg. a string quartet in London, a composer in Mexico, a festival in Belgium etc.).

Concerning your final point about the reemergence of narratives based on culture and place,  I am not quite sure what you mean. I believe these narratives to still be running and have always been running. Secondly, Cage is not criticising these narratives and I have misrepresented his ideas if you think that is what I have described in the article. The idea of the delta of music, the idea of 'here comes everybody' is to affirm and celebrate difference, inlcuding differences of culture and place.

New Music internet broadcasts

Re contemporary art music and the internet, I think that – as Thomas suggests – the situation is a bit different. Here it’s not really a matter of communities – which for me always implies something ongoing and indeed ‘local’, in some sense – so much as people with common interests who may come together as the audience at a particular concert or festival, but do so almost arbitrarily: they’re there primarily to interact individually with what they hear and see, and not with one another (though they may do that too). Internet broadcasts of new music may push this (anti-)social situation to an extreme, but what a fantastic resource they are!  If you like, you can sit in Sydney or wherever, and hear something like the Donaueschingen Festival live! Or conversely, you can be in Berlin and listen to New Music Up Late! One no longer has to sit around wondering; by the end of 2008, you could already have a fair idea of what happened during that year. So interesting times, and, Chinese proverbs notwithstanding, even for historians this is not a curse but a blessing.