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From Consumer to Producer: The Complexities of Musical Creation

Going through Alexander G. Weheliye’s Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity, I was floored by the last chapter of the book, specifically the section that concerned the Afro-German group called Advanced Chemistry (who, of course, I had never even heard of prior to reading the book). While the focus on the group’s conflict with the complexities of their own identity definitely intrigued me, I found myself totally consumed by how one of the group’s members, Torch, was drawn to hip-hop:

I still know exactly how it all began. “The Message” by Melle Mel was like a telegram for me and although I could not understand a single word, I recognized the fire burning in his words…The torch within me was ignited immediately. My whole life passed before me in a single night, seeing the path of history, my head swayed, nodded to the speed of the measure. (167)

The text also notes that “The Message” was only available to Torch, who was in Germany, due to the song’s presence on the global market, which introduces an interesting concept: what marks the evolution from consumer to producer.

With today’s social media, the evidence of musical consumerism is apparent everywhere, even in my own blogs. Looking at my own personal Facebook, at least 75% of my posts revolve around my consumption of music, through either videos, lyric posts, or pictures of physical records. In addition, straying away from the #Freedom’s Mixtape tag on my Tumblr takes through a stream of early-00 pop-punk lyrics and images. While this is definitely anecdotal evidence, just a quick look at a normal Feed on Facebook shows that people constantly post song lyrics and YouTube links to their favorite music videos or live performances. A brilliant example of this consumerist mentality can be seen in the “Like” feature of Facebook: want an easy conversation starter with cute indie girl that’s in your 8AM? Make sure that you “Like” Yo La Tengo, The Mountain Goats, and Grizzly Bear—maybe even Best Coast, that’s pretty mainstream. A person’s likes on Facebook are the new equivalent of band t-shirts: you’re shaping your public persona through the evidence of your musical consumption. Scott Seviour, Epic Records’ senior vice president for marketing emphasizes that “in this day and age, artist development is about how do you turn 10 Facebook likes into 100, into 1,000” (Sisario).

Pair this example of cultural consumerism on social media networks like Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook with the age-old idea that music is used as a form of expression. As shown through the constant use of songs and lyrics on social media networks, these practices seem to embody the idea that is emphasized so well in “Night Drive” by Jimmy Eat World: “now’s the right time for a good song; got something to say what I can’t.” More than ever before, users are using music on Facebook to mediate their thoughts and conversations. One of the general myths surrounding the idea of social media, according to Ben Ziegler, a social collaboration consultant, is the idea that “I’m on Facebook, I’m on Twitter, but I have nothing to say.” So, pressured by a medium that encourages constant activity and participation, many resort to mediating their own feelings and thoughts through some already created form: quotes from books and songs, pictures, videos, etc. While this is not always the case, I believe that it can be argued that this mediation, the instinct to “let the song say what I can’t” is one of the major flaws that comes out of the complex relationship between commodity and expressive culture.

So, when it comes down to it, many are resorting to imitating another voice instead of using their own (I know that I’m certainly guilty of it). While there is no strict evidence to suggest that creativity is being totally stifled by social media (many argue against that claim), I do believe that there is a danger in the typically one-sided consumerism of Facebook (which, I believe, is emphasized through the presence of conglomerates like Wal-Mart in the social media sphere). As shown through the now infamous study that suggests that Facebook users are lonelier than those who do not use social media, many are becoming dependent on the constant mediation of relationships and communication, and I do believe that this involves consumption and expression of music, as well.

Even while looking at the boom of Myspace, specifically Myspace Music, in the beginning of the social media craze, one can see that there was a huge population on both sides of the fence: while many established bands and artists were getting their exposure on Myspace, many up-and-coming artists also found their breakthrough moment through ease and accessibility of the platform; paired with the ease of programs like Audacity and GarageBand, small artists and bands were able to get their music into the world as well, making just as many waves as already-huge artists. However, following the waves of the social media revolution (and the practically-dead state of Myspace Music, which has been replaced by a number of platforms including SoundCloud, Bandcamp, Facebook, and many,manyothers), I argue that there is a definite saturation of the market. Now that everyone can (and, for the most part, has) put their music into the digital space with ease, it’s hard to get anyone to actually listen. If you’ve “Liked” a smaller artist on Facebook, you’ve probably seen numerous posts by them begging followers to share their music with their friends; even in these cases, consumerism is rearing its ugly head.

So now, we’re seeing somewhat-stagnant waters on the digital music scene. While platforms like SoundCloud have a tremendous amount of traffic and a lively community, it’s hard for anyone who isn’t “in the loop” to get their music playing in the ears of potential fans, which is a shame considering the possibilities involved in social media. Social media is now less about the discovery of a new frontier, but instead a race to see what companies can grab your attention first (and for how long). So, instead of eagerly making music to post on social networking sites, many potential artists just find themselves mediating their own interests and endeavors through the art that’s already been established by people who got into the game when the going was good. As shown through the trouble I had with the promotion and distribution of my own band, Miss Joshua Patricia Ray, it’s hard to get anyone to actually listen. For us, it definitely hindered our creative process. While there’s definitely an admirable quality in producing art-for-art’s-sake, those of us who lack the monetary or professional background can only do that for so long before reality calls once again, forcing us to reevaluate priorities.

So, creative catalysts like the one seen with Melle Mel and Advanced Chemistry are still out there, that’s for sure, but what happens to those of us who are looking to create on a smaller scale? I don’t really know the answer, so I’ll go ahead and keep playing air guitar to my favorite Reggie and the Full Effect records while watching old YouTube videos of my band.

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