Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A digital trobairitz: musical chivalry in the cyberspace age

This post is the abstract for my paper at the Annual Conference of the Musicological Society of Australia in December 2012

Recent tectonic shifts in the economics of music (and by extension, its political economy) have generated unprecedented challenges: for the music industries; for those concerned with defining and applying musical intellectual property; for the technologies of the production and distribution of music, both live and recorded;  and for the artists themselves.  It is hard to believe that it has only been a decade since Napster first made headlines as a threat to the hegemony of the CD-based recording industry.  Ten years on, not only is the music CD in the last yards of its journey towards obsolescence, it is more-or-less accepted that the battle to control (and sell) the intellectual property of recorded music as a commodity has been lost.  Social media are rapidly challenging mainstream media as the conduit for distributing, accessing, discussing, marketing and discovering music and musicians.  Recorded music is now, to all intents and purposes, free.

Photo by Brian Adams, http://baphotos.com.
Marian Call is an Alaskan singer-songwriter who is one of a cohort of emerging musicians building a career and a creative oeuvre within these new realities.  Classically trained and university educated  (she is a composition graduate from Stanford), she writes and performs songs that span genres from medieval, classical, jazz, folk/acoustic and many others.  She eschews contracts and labels - her audience base is entirely self-generated through social media and a frenetic touring schedule.  On tour she prefers house concerts to traditional venues – she will typically crowdsource venues via Twitter in advance of a tour, and rely on her supporters and followers on social media to publicize the event locally.  She is currently (Oct. ’12) touring Europe on this basis – a major logistic collaboration between Call and her supporters that she describes as “like a barn-raising”. Audiences at concerts are encouraged, but not required, to make a donation; similarly, her music is freely streamed online, and payment for the recordings are essentially a matter of honour.

Essentially, Call’s artistic and business practice diminishes or removes the notion of music as a commodity, an object of transaction. Instead, the emphasis is placed on relationships, or community – she has critiques the description of her as an indie or independent artist, suggesting that a better term is an “interdependent” artist.  In this paper I argue that this shift from music as commercial commodity to music as community catalyst has profound implications not just for the business  models of music, but for its aesthetics and semantics.  Call’s authorial voice within her music speaks and sings to and with her audience on a number of levels – literally, in the case of “Good Morning Moon” in which she sourced the chorus in the song as sound files individually submitted by her supporters.  Her music has an authenticity of expression and an imaginative range that, I argue, stems from its basis in a communicative premise that is, at root, ethical in nature – a code of musical chivalry that underpins the virtual and actual encounters on her journey as a modern-day trobairitz.