Digital strains

Music has long been a source of inspiration and a way to find a community. But how are digital developments changing this experience?

Mar 28 · 5 min read

By Katie Harkin


At 32, I have been a self-employed musician within the literal gig economy for a decade. Should I wish to retrace the considerable ground I have covered, I could use a list of the tech companies trading in any year to jog my fuzzy touring memory. I joined my first band aged 15 via a posting on an online music forum. At 18, I formed my own band and later recruited a bass player over MSN Messenger. Before we had officially released any music, a Swedish promoter contacted us on Myspace and booked us to play our first gig outside of the UK. Skype has given me a vehicle to rehearse with remote band members. I met the friend who will be my next musical collaborator on Instagram.

Music is porous. It places us outside of our own time and space and allows us to access emotions we may not have directly experienced. Each of these platforms served as a portal: a mechanised extension of the connective potential of music, a symbiotic relationship that is constantly changing.

Before broadband, there were CDs. If I indulge in nostalgia, I am transported to the back of my parents’ car, opening just-purchased CD cases that had perhaps already shattered, shaking the detached teeth from the case’s centre wheel, searching the booklet for details of far-off lives that had reverberated into mine. Music has long been intertwined with youth culture and identity, and I certainly used it as cultural scaffolding for my still-forming sense of self. Anyone seeking that scaffolding now will find that it has become predominantly digital. When it comes to physical formats, the lightning is out of the jar, no matter how many vinyl box-sets and branded USB sticks the industry attempts to plug the breach with. Our connections to music can now be at once deeply personal, fully public and entirely immaterial.

I grew up in the safe suburbs of West Yorkshire, craving female and queer representation in popular culture. Even now, though, of all the songwriters registered with the Performing Right Society for Music in the UK in 2017, only 17% identified as female, with just 2% female-identifying songwriters in the north of England. The good news is that 40% of new members under the age of 20 identify as female. However, the glossy promise of our digital age remains something of a fallacy. Inequalities still exist when it comes to access to the internet and to the kind of creative education that helps develop the extraneous skills (such as copywriting and photography) that musicians now need to master to survive. Online content production is just the visible tip of the creative iceberg.

Building stronger connections?

The pallid monoculture of limited broadcasting is dead. The price we have paid for that is a lack of anonymity online. This environment creates new challenges for artistic development and the nurturing of creativity. Penny Andrews, a scholar and postdoctoral researcher, identifies the often-toxic online environment as a culture of “dissensus”. This may not be a dead-end for music’s connective possibilities, though. Andrews expects more campaigns to build a fanbase by using new platforms and serving micro niches for a track or two at a time, picking up the advertising around the tracks and other streams of income. As they said: “If fast fashion can turn out new looks in two weeks and get people to buy from their phone for next-day delivery and one-night wear, music can do that for a mood or a moment in your life. It doesn’t need to gain airplay and consensus to do that.”

Prospecting such digital seams has been rewarding for New York-based musician Mackenzie Scott, 27, who performs and releases music as Torres. “It’s important to me that I know how far my reach can extend, because the industry glitter comes and goes,” she said. “Asking fans to support me via Patreon and announcing house shows on Instagram have cleared some interesting channels of vulnerability between us that are downright heartening.”

As reception to this hyper-targeted approach to touring demonstrates, music has a unique and enduring ability to compel us to congregate. While religion and commerce struggle to physically unite us, with church attendances dwindling and mega-malls emptying worldwide, audiences for live music events continue to soar. According to UK Music, the total audience for live music events in the UK in 2017 was 29 million, up from 23 million in 2015.

While the way we consume music continues to evolve, the recorded music industry has failed to keep up with fans, leaving all but the most chartbusting musicians with no systems in place to support their work and sustain their careers. Streaming services have been criticised for low artist payments, male-dominated playlists and, by the music writer Liz Pelly, for their “ambition to turn all music into emotional wallpaper”. With the material challenges of music production in overcrowded cities ever escalating, artists are actively seeking online portals that challenge the discrimination and cultural biases of the built environment. The live music industry relies on the fact that we like to gather, but if it does not keep up with the cultural consensus for what this actually means in an evolving digital age, it will face the same challenges as recorded music. This is a mass migration.

Where do the portals lead us now? Knowing the alphabet allows me to navigate record stores, but the classes I sat through on the Dewey Decimal System do not help me on the internet. Now we can all be tour guides. In each generation, there are people who embrace an emblematic technological cut-off point; a bizarre badge of almost puritanical pride, dismissing as distraction that which provides solace to those seeking connection. Perhaps, rather than becoming like those who refused to learn how to program their VCR, or own a TV, or embrace social media, musicians and listeners should be swearing an oath of digital diligence. Maybe all we can hope to do is leave signposts as best we can, to be found by the next scrolling traveller in search of the sublime; the perfect song.

Katie Harkin is a musician and songwriter. Previously frontwoman of indie band Sky Larkin, she is now a touring member of various bands and a solo artist.

This article first appeared in the RSA Journal — Issue 4 2018–19

The award-winning RSA Journal is a quarterly publication for our Fellows, featuring the latest cutting-edge ideas from international writers alongside RSA news. A selection of articles have been reproduced here.


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