Six AM Book Club: Playing to the Crowd by Nancy Baym

 

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Once or twice a week I get an email that I enthusiastically open. In fact, I open this email so eagerly you’d think the sender was a close friend or romantic interest.

I don’t know the sender personally, but I, like many others feel connected to Nick Cave by his turn of phrase and his willingness to offer honesty, encouragement and wisdom to his fans who take the time to ask him questions. In recent months, the singer-songwriter-author-musician-documentary maker, Nick Cave has started a collective newsletter, The Red Hand Files which exists simply to answer fan questions such as ‘are there times when your creativity disappears?’ Or ‘if you were a flower, which one would you be?’ Or even, ‘why do you want to talk to your fans and what do you hope to achieve by doing this?’

Nick Cave’s response to the latter question is: “When I started the Files I had a small idea that people were in need of more thoughtful discourse. I felt a similar need.”

I recently read Nancy Baym’s newest book Playing to the Crowd. The book discusses the relationships between musicians and their fans, and how the internet and social media has further shaped and complicated these relationships. I couldn’t help but think that Nick Cave is yet another example of a musician connecting with his fans using the internet in a new and exciting way.

Nancy Baym acknowledges that music is intimate – we add our own meanings and attachments to the songs we love and often, by extension to the musicians who create them. In the first part of Playing to the Crowd, we are given an overview of the role music has played in society over the course of history, first as a form of communication, and then in recent centuries as a form of industry. This introduction to the role of music in society helps us realise that musicians play primarily because they enjoy the act of music, the perceived financial benefits (of which, Nancy Baym points out are increasingly few and far between) and fame come second.

The second part of Playing to the Crowd is given over to examining audiences and fandom. Nancy Baym explains music fans with such vivid detail based on interviews with musicians who describe moments where their fans showed their dedication by crowdfunding tours or creating fan clubs that come with their own uniforms. What makes this chapter so special is that Nancy Baym weaves in her own stories of fandom in the 1980s and 1990s, taking part in fan clubs, making and distributing bootleg recordings of gigs and, following beloved bands on tour. By doing this, she vividly brings the fan experience to life. She also deftly weaves in the use of the early internet by fans and musicians alike. Nancy Baym highlights how fans of the Grateful Dead were the first to develop and use email lists in the 1970s to keep conversations about the group flowing. We are also taken to bulletin boards and fan websites where meanings of lyrics were fiercely debated amongst fans.

But Baym also describes how musicians themselves were making use of the early internet and social media platforms to connect with their fans in new ways. But she doesn’t shy away from the fact that some musicians were less than impressed with the sharing and remixing cultures that came to flourish online. Baym describes that although the internet offers newfound ways for fans and musicians to connect, this often blurs the boundaries for both parties. But in particular, it forces musicians to be strategic about how much they connect with their audiences and on how many digital estates. Social media can be a great promotional tool, but a terrible distraction.

Nancy Baym has put a lot of hard work into piecing together Playing to the Crowd. She has interviewed many musicians (most of whom are listed in the back of the book) to come up with as comprehensive a picture of the musician-fan relationship as possible. And this empathy for musicians and her fan-like enthusiasm is clearest in the conclusion, which could stand alone as an essay. She gives sage advice for fans, musicians and platform developers on how to stay human in the digital age.

How we used Playing to the Crowd in our syllabus

Part of our upcoming module, Understanding Digital Societies, introduces students to Erving Goffman and the presentation of self in everyday life. We started by giving students the basics: front stage, backstage, audiences. But we wanted to reiterate to students the context within which the presentation of self was written. It was a text written in a specific time – the mid-20th century – with specific social situations and settings in mind. We wanted to challenge students about taking this concept at face value, encouraging them to think about how the 21st Century context and settings muddy the theatrical analogy. Think about the last time you were on social media and you witnessed the awkwardness that comes when mutual friends from different contexts interact or comment on your post. These are situations that the presentation of self struggles to address in the social media age (some might argue that it may not necessarily be up to a 60-year-old text to seamlessly address contemporary phenomena).

In order to do this, we used Nancy Baym’s text where she describes audience fragmentation, how one actor communicates seamlessly to many audiences at the same time, with each audience feeling as though they have been appropriately addressed.

Audiences on social media include some of the people who show up at concerts, but also many others. A social media account may reach fans, friends, family peers, other music professionals, people who don’t know the artist or like the music but like the tweets, as well as people who hate the music or artist and take pleasure in being mean to them online. These platforms this complicate the notion that musicians have a singular audience and raises questions about what counts as an “audience” in the first place.”

– Nancy Baym, Playing to the Crowd, (2018) p. 158

Baym draws on Goffman’s later work, Forms of Talk to describe the various categories of audience based on their proximity and familiarity to the front stage actor. We saw this example as helping students to think past the basics of Goffman’s work.

Further questions

What I liked about Baym’s book were the places where it becomes autoethnographic, with memoir-like descriptions of her own interactions with musicians as a fan in both the 1980s and today. While Baym doesn’t shy away from the challenges facing musicians who choose to use social media to communicate with fans, I want to know more about the situations where musicians and their fans face adversity together. In particular, I think of Ariana Grande and her fans in Manchester, the Eagles of Death Metal and their fans in Paris and the musicians who played the Las Vegas festival. The fact that these terrible events of violence occur so regularly that they are easily recalled is deeply saddening. However, these events – often played out live on social media – must have lasting effects on both the musicians and their respective audiences. How do musicians relate to their shocked and injured fans when they too must be mourning and traumatised? A heavy question, but given the respect shown in Playing to the Crowd, it’s one that I would trust Nancy Baym to sensitively ask.

 

Further references

Baym, N. K. (2018). Playing to the Crowd: Musicians, Audiences, and the Intimate Work of Connection. New York: NYU Press.
Cave, N. (2018). The Red Hand Files [Blog]. Retrieved March 4, 2019, from https://www.theredhandfiles.com/
Goffman, E. (1959). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life(1 edition). New York N.Y.: Anchor.
Goffman, E. (1981). Forms of Talk. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.