Cultural intermediaries and how artists get heard

Post by Dr George Musgrave (University of East Anglia) based on a presentation at a CREATe capacity building event hosted by the Centre for Competition Policy & University of East Anglia, Norwich

George Musgrave UEAHow do musicians get their work heard, and what role do those actors whom Bourdieu first labelled ‘cultural intermediaries’ – that is, middle-men who occupy that conceptual space between production and consumption, and are entrusted with “presentation and representation” – play in that quest?

At the beginning of this century, cultural theorists and musical commentators heralded and lauded in equal measure the birth of the digitalisation of music and what this meant for the future of intermediaries. As barriers to entry in the form of both recording costs and access to distribution avenues plummeted, and methods for artistic presentation multiplied beyond anything previously conceivable in the form firstly of Myspace, and then YouTube, Facebook and others, a powerful rhetoric emerged suggesting that intermediaries had died. Whilst some (notably Jurgen Habermas, Andrew Keen and others) mourned the death of middle-men, proposing it exemplified the banality of a contemporary culture free from crucial elites who might appropriately distinguish genius from triviality, others celebrated at the wake of the gatekeepers, ushering in a new democratised era where artists could finally communicate directly with their audiences free from the tyranny of bottlenecks predicated on nepotism. Finally, this Web 2.0 utopianism proclaimed, it was the case that all that mattered was the music.

However, my research into how musicians conceptualise their relationships with intermediaries – defined as journalists, bloggers, and radio DJs/producers – and the behavioural ramifications of these perceptions, paints an altogether different story. In the first instance, it emerged that musicians inherently acknowledge, rightly or wrongly, that the digital marketplace within which they are seeking to forge their artistic careers has rendered them indistinguishable via its abundance; that is, the competition to be heard is ferocious. Therefore, they adopt a style of collaborative creativity in order to align themselves with as many other artists as possible in the hope that they might be heard by intermediaries; a phenomenon exemplified in the prevalence of collaboration tracks not only amongst my case-study artists, but within urban music more generally. Digitalisation therefore necessitates an affiliatory approach to artistic practice in an attempt to mitigate a perceived inconsequentiality.

The question, in essence, is; why do musicians want to be heard by intermediaries at all? Their role as facilitators of success or failure within the context of their musical careers is wholly problematic to operationalise. However, my research suggests that intermediaries are crucial not only as a distributory mechanism, but even more importantly, as a distinguishing mechanism. They are a cultural symbol, to both current fans, potential fans, and other intermediaries/the music industry, that this is an artist to be taken seriously. They act as a symbol of credence within a marketplace proliferated with content, and within which artists are drowning in what Prof. Martin Kretschmer called ‘the noise of creative ambition’.

After all, as the Babel Objection states, when everyone speaks, no one can be heard. It appears that artists today seek to be heard not by making their voices louder, but by giving them more perceived credibility, and they achieve this by using cultural intermediaries. In this sense, intermediaries have not died; they are thriving and required – or are perceived to be by the artists at least.

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