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Supermusic Culture

Andy Arthurs

Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane

How committed are we to the music that we listen to? Our musical tastes shape our identity (and in turn are shaped by it), being partly formed from our “lived experience”  (Nattiez 1990), springing from our cultural environment and specific incidents. How then do we make sense of music that is streamed to us in no other way than is determined by a computer programmed radio playlist, or by the shuffle mode of an iPod?
Do we now consume music in the same way we buy and eat processed foods from a supermarket? That is to say, we often consume music that we have no idea where it came from, why it was made, or when it was produced– music created by people of which we have no knowledge, or where and when they lived. Does it matter? Is it not enough that is “sounds nice”?
This phenomenon could be called Supermusic Culture, having many parallels with supermarket foods. Music and food have many similarities and modern living has affected them both in terms of their origins and connections to their formation. The supermarket contains products – many delicious and seductive to taste, but whose ingredients are unknown to most who consume them. We grow less food ourselves than we used to, we physically play less music than we used to – the pendulum has , on the face of it, swung to consumption rather than active performance.
We constantly apply value judgements to our musical taste to determine good from bad, but John Carey, discussing his book What Good Are The Arts?, concluded that an appreciation of the arts does not make you a better person . He cites Pierre Bourdieu in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste(1979) as saying that our choice of art determines how people see us, and how we see other people. This is similar to the issues that Christopher Small discusses in his book Musicking, who says that when we make or attend an artistic event, we are saying “This is who we are”.
The Supermusic process started with Tom and Mary, when Thomas Edison first commodified Mary had a Little Lamb by making the first sound recording in 1877. Paul Théberge(2000) states that the line for a musician between musical performance and musical consumption is now substantially blurred, pointing out that much of the music we hear today ironically involves the consumption of technology in the making of it (samplers, preset sounds and programs).  Technology has given rise to the ability to substantially increase our musical sound palettes, by using it to create an ever-expanding range of tone colours and textures. Today, the sound of music is the dominant aural distinction between pieces which are often very similar in harmonic and rhythmic content. Thanks to the available technologies, and the explosion of digital sound technologies, we are now hooked on sound - a familiar recording can be spotted within seconds by identifying its sound.
From a producer’s point of view, these opportunities are mostly liberating but occasionally daunting. One can get stuck in an endless tweaking of a sound in a quest to “hit the spot”. And there is a temptation to do new things just because you can – a curse of postmodernism. As a producer of music (composer, singer-songwriter, studio producer, or DJ etc), it can be entirely clear what one’s intentions are and the motivation to create – certainly we need our own aesthetic guidelines in order not to put together just anything with anything merely for the sake of it. But sometimes the serendipitous collision of the sounds of one piece with another can be the impetus for the creation of a whole new song or work.
Why not so therefore for a listener? Perhaps, in fact, the untrained musician can more nimbly, and with less “baggage”, tolerate such things. This may be because listeners or audiences have grown to accept music as it enters their ears from the radio programme or the dance floor, without necessarily knowing anything of the intent of the producer or artist. This has the liberating effect of enabling listeners to layer their own meaning onto what sound they hear. That meaning may be extra-musical or it may be contained intrinsically within the hearing of the piece – probably both. A piece will fail to cause enjoyment for any of us if, although we have extra-musical connections to it, we just do not enjoy hearing the actual sound of it – leaving us with  noble sentiments badly expressed. Is it the same for a pleasant sounding piece that we know nothing about and to which we have no extra-musical connection? I would suggest not, for reasons I will explain below.
Even as recently as the early 1970s there were a only handful of well-equipped recording studios in the world and the independent studios, such as AIR, were just emerging. Come the digital revolution of the late 80s it became increasingly possible for previously prohibitively expensive recording technologies to be available to anyone with a moderate income – lawyers and doctors were amongst the first to afford it, but now, almost anyone who owns a computer has some access to a multitrack recoding facility. So until relatively recently, few of the recording and production processes were ever known to the buyer of most musical products. This meant that for the best part of half a century most consumers had accepted the sounds they heard coming from the speakers of radios, televisions, record players and hi-fi sets without knowing many of the processes that had gone into making them. It may then, have seemed a random scattering of musical information that promoted little educated musical understanding. Of course there are topical ways to organise this torrent of musical choices such as 60s pop, ambient, chart hits or even the iPod shuffle. This is supermusic culture,– we graze, we like, we listen – and mostly we move on. Perhaps occasionally we add something to our portfolio of musical tastes. As I sit hear completing this paper, my daughter is playing a random selection of songs from her iTunes library – not entirely random, given that she chose what to download in the first place, but the actual sequence of songs is unknown in advance.
On the face if it this paints a bleak picture of a population that has moved from active music-making to consuming it like a processed food, where few have any idea of its ingredients or nutritional value - and certainly not the production process - but nevertheless like the taste. I cannot accept that, as humans, we can have become so vacuous in such a short time and am convinced that we now glean meaning in different ways. If not, it would be very hard to justify the central role that music still plays in our lives, from toddlers to old folk. For instance Christenson, P.G. and Roberts, D.F. (1998) state “Music is prominent in adolescent lives: teenagers spend between 4 and 5 hours a day listening to music and watching music videos and name music listening as their preferred non-school activity.”
So although our patterns of engaging with music may have been altered radically, we nevertheless still need to laugh, cry, empathise – in fact generally interact with each other or within ourselves. We may leave the radio on in the background, connect to the net, plug in to our MP3 players or play computer games,. We do these these, but we are not these; we are still human. Or is this the digital immigrant speaking? Can it be understood entirely within a digital aesthetic, as Holtzman (1995) suggests  in his book Digital Mantras. I would suggest that whilst the mediation and dissemination methods have impacted upon our aesthetic views of the music, the meaning comes from usage of the music we listen to. Dillon (2001) states “It is clear that music has deep meaning for people and is linked with personal, social and group identity”.
Music is a mediascape to our lives and the Supermusic Culture exists within this. Kroker and Cook (1986) describe the mediascape as –“the electronic background of daily life that shapes, informs, and alters the relationship between people with matters of interaction and work: as the city, for example, provides a different background on which daily activities are carried out from the rural or small town setting.”   We often jump from one stylistic moment to another; a look at most people’s CD collections underlines the “portfolio” way most of us now lead our musical lives. Today we are immersed in diverse musical and sonic experiences, as we walk in and out of stores and shopping malls, wear personal stereos, tune in to our car radio, listen to surround sound hi-fis and download ringtones.
The Supermusic Culture is a culture of browsing, but not because we are not listening, but because we are using this mediascape as a springboard for our personal and social activities.  It is one important way that we connect to the world; yet, on the other hand, we use it to set us apart from the world, to define our similarities and differences  - both important in establishing our identity. Simon Frith (1998) stated “Identity is necessarily a matter of ritual: it describes one’s place in a dramatised pattern of relationships – one can never really express oneself “autonomously”. Self identity is cultural identity.”  
My classical music education assumed a culture, like the fish assumes it swims in water, ignoring or being oblivious to any identity issues. It was not until I was 40 years old, that my sister Jane Arthurs, a cultural theorist, persuaded me of this argument. But there are still many music graduates who emerge from the conservatoires and universities having learnt analysis in the way I did. And yet most of these graduates,paradoxically believe in a music theory that is different to their actual every day musical lived experience. The Western Classical analysis substantially removes the “I” from the equation in a quasi scientific/mathematical way, disregarding, I would suggest,  what really drives most of us to love music.
There are different ways to engage. The arts, as John Carey stated (above), are not good for us, that is not their function. But when something fits our conceptual patterns we consider that is good. We each connect to the music that matters to us. It helps define our identity – what makes us the same and what makes us different. We use it to define ourselves, to bond with our friends, to make bridges to strangers, to define difference with our enemies. To identify with the tribe can be a good thing, or a destructive thing. Wars can be built on this – but so can love.
So it probably does not matter whether we know the ingredients of a piece of music or not.  As an adult, it is easy to fall into the trap of feeling that the music my children listen to is patronising, shallow, fake, and cynically produced. But who am I to judge their music? By and large, they know if they smell a fake - they discard it. I have watched my 14 yr old daughter make such judgements. As a producer of this music it important to believe in the music you and your fellow musicians make. If you make music cynically, parodying, second-guessing the audience from a position of relative ignorance you are highly liable to come unstuck. School music is a big offender here – teachers who believe too much that they understand the musical tastes of their pupils, but in fact miss the mark because their lived experiences are so different to those that they teach. The way to achieve successful outcomes for both music teachers and recording producers is to engage with and respond to those who know their culture the best, ie those who live it.
This is a problem in an educational setting where there is the gamut of musical identities within a classroom. One solution I have been trying at my university is to create a quasi-theatrical event that allows each performer to create their own performance micro-climate. Together with director Mark Bromilow and video creator, Jen Muller, we have developed a kind of MTV approach, taking all styles away from their original natural presentational settings and creating this theatricalised event where each performance is autonomous, respected, but fits into a whole thematic presentation (somewhat like a concept album), with multicameras, multiscreens, staging and sophisticated lighting. Entitled escape, this resembles, not so much a solely musical event as a theatricalised and mediated club / MTV event. It is a response to the supermusic culture we live in. I am currently developing this further by researching new models for a 21st Century orchestra as a means to portray this diversity, creating an dramatic, immersive, versatile environment and a range of electronic instruments, together with amplified and effected strings.
This could be described as an inter-song presentational approach. But we must also consider intra-song presentation such as sampling music and mashups. The Wikipedia defines mashup as “a musical genre consisting of the combination of the parts of more than one song”.   Frith (1998) says “because all our experiences of time are now fragmented and multilinear, fragmented music is also realistic music; it represents experience grasped in moments.”
This can work from both a producer and a listener perspective. New meanings can be created by producer and listener (these are often liable to be different meanings). But there is a third player - the original owner of the sample grab, and they may feel a mashup compromises their work. These are issues to deal with, but beyond the scope of this paper. However, solutions, such as the Creative Commons concepts , must be investigated further as the status quo is increasingly unsustainable.

CONCLUSION

Supermusic Culture can be viewed in two ways; either as “content” like packets of musical product to be put up for consumption or as the ingredients from which we can bake meaning, dependent on who we are and how we perceive the world and conceive our environment. It would seem that the latter gives a far greater set of opportunities to use the music we hear to give us personal  social, group identity.
Using the analogy of supermarket food culture, we can view the items on the shelves as either interesting tastes, but culturally neutral products, or as a range of tastes that can become the basis of a great dinner party – allowing us to interact with each other, using the food as the a bonding agent. For both music and food, the “content” approach takes a position that the product is inert and ready-made, whereas the “ingredient” approach views the product as the scape on which we can enrich our lives. In music this takes place through the mediascape that accompanies our contemporary lives. This is partly based on our previous lived experience, but also allows, for instance, a fortuitous hearing of one piece of music juxtaposed with another to have the capacity to become a new stimulant for meaning.
And whilst it is vital to acknowledge the importance of an individuals’ intellectual property and moral rights, the chance to creatively use the opportunities the new technologies cannot, in a human world, be discounted or thrown away. I believe this knowledge could have  the power to influence the entertainment industry gate-keepers – who too often become gate-closers through the inappropriate use of the copyright laws. After all, if we applied the current rules of copyright to cooking, no-one could ever make a meal from bought ingredients.