January 24

Three Conceptions of Listening Local

People talk about the idea of “listening local”  quite a bit these days.  But there are a lot of different rationales for listening local, and not all rationales are necessarily very good.  Different rationales for listening local can also lead to different ways of approaching listening local as well, so teasing apart these rationales may be important.  I discuss three different views as to why one should listen local.

The Local Sustenance Model:

The first conception of listening local is what we’ll call the “local sustenance” model.  According to this conception, there are many local musicians who need to be able to support themselves off of their music, and if residents of a city don’t contribute to the local music scene, these local musicians will not be able to do this.  This is probably the rationale most-invoked for listening local, but it’s problematic in a lot of ways.

First, there isn’t exactly a right to be able to support yourself off your own music.  Even your most progressive liberal would never support the existence of this sort of right.  I get that the idea is somewhat similar to the idea that workers should be paid a fair wage for their work – so, Wal-Mart employees should be paid a wage such that a sufficient percentage of their workers should be able to live without food-stamps.  But even a Wal-Mart employee is hired because the market demands their work – and they do the work that the market demands based on their supply of a fungible good.  A local citizen cannot just walk into a Wal-Mart and start restocking the home furnishings aisle, and demand from Wal-Mart that Wal-Mart pay them a living wage.  The standard progressive line, I take it, is that once a business hires an employee, they ought to respect a standard that meets minimum expectations as to what employment is supposed to supply a citizen of the United States.

Not only does this conception miss out on the idea of market demand, it also ignores the fact that being a musician isn’t so much a salaried position so much as an entrepreneurial one – something more akin to a small business.  So, there are many small businesses that will fail every year, and as it turns out, there is no right that a small business be able to stay in business, regardless of the product that they’re able to put out into the world.  If I decide to start a small business based on the sale of widgets, and nobody wants to buy widgets, I’d look like a bit of a loon if I demanded, as a right, that local citizens buy my widgets, because I have a right to run that small business.  Note, that this is true even if the widgets that I make are of a very high quality, and deserve to be recognized as very good widgets.

Another problem is that the local sustenance model really has nothing necessarily to do with listening local.  In fact, one could sustain a local musician by donating money to their activities without even listening to a single song of theirs.  The alleged right isn’t satisfied by listening – it’s satisfied by donating money, which may have some connection (but not necessarily) with listening.

Relatedly, and importantly, the local sustenance model doesn’t have anything to say about quality of music.  In fact, given the way that model is stated, it requires supporting local musicians who produce music that is not very good.  Anyone can invoke the right to be self-sufficient in the music that they make (and as a matter of fact, this is how it is usually invoked).  And as much as I think local music scenes are vital and important, it just is a fact that there are many local musicians who are not very good.  Note: This isn’t to say that there isn’t something good about everyone participating in music.  This also isn’t to say that there isn’t something good about virtually all of the music that is put out by local musicians.  But if the idea of listening local is to have any connection with the idea of quality (which I believe it is), the local sustenance model, in and of itself, is insufficient as a model.

Finally, people who cite the local sustenance model sometimes invoke the model by suggesting that the local music scene will die unless they are able to be self-supporting as musicians.  Just empirically, I think it’s pretty evident that this is false.

The Anti-Corporate Model:

A second conception, I think, springs from the idea that people should support local music because doing so is a way of fighting the influence of corporations on media.  This is probably the sentiment behind the idea of “indie” music.  Corporate music, it is suggested, is less authentic and less creative, because corporations filter musicians and artists through a lens of popularity that appeals to the lowest common denominator.  By supporting “indie” music, one supports music that is (according to the model) more creative and less controlled by corporate influence.  Also, corporations suck.  In contrast with the local sustenance model, this model invokes some colorable connection between supporting local music and quality of music, because it invokes a connection between “indie” and quality of music (i.e., it’s more creative and more authentic).

However, this model has significant problems as well.  For starters, at least as a conception of “listening local” it doesn’t exactly support listening to local music at all, since indie music includes a vast swath of music that is non-local, but nevertheless non-corporate.  A local citizen could buy indie music created by locals in Seoul, and nevertheless not support local listening.

Additionally, especially in 2016, it’s questionable that “indie” is any less inauthentic and uncreative in comparison to corporate music.  Indie musicians are susceptible to the same financial incentives as corporations are –  an indie musician’s business success is just as dependent on popular appeal.  Of course, indie musicians don’t have the same costs for doing business as corporate musicians do – so maybe financial incentives aren’t as oppressive on indie musicians.  But corporate musicians do have access to an investment of resources that is arguably useful to making substantively creative music.  (For instance, technology has a history of changing music in creative new ways – and technology generally requires money).

In any case, indie music is filtered in many of the same ways that corporate music is.  Hypemachine blogs, and other venues for accessing indie content, publish content by way of a filter that heavily discriminates against artists that either don’t have money to pay a PR representative or otherwise lack connections that can come with a blessed socio-economic status.  As it happens, Hypemachine blogs only open 2-3% of the e-mails that are sent to them by independent musicians, and they listen to an even smaller percentage of the music submitted in those e-mails.  These blogs, in turn, seek popular readership, and as a result, filter the submissions that they publish according to those demands.  The filter is different from the corporate filter, but it’s not clear that it’s any better.

The Listener Autonomy Model:

According to the listener autonomy model, there is a distinct value to be gained from listening to music that you have chosen for yourself, unmediated by the social influence and judgment of others.  Under the autonomy model, a listener listens to music because they have judged the music to be good or better in comparison to other pieces of music that they have heard.  Or at the very least, they can as listeners be viewed as more autonomous in comparison to a regime under which external influences play a significant role.

Why does the idea of listener autonomy favor listening local?  Because listening local is probably the best way to listen to music in such a way that is free of external influences.  Listening local best avoids the corporate and indie music filters, mentioned earlier.  There are relatively low bars to entry when it comes to a band seeking to play a local gig.  Additionally, as a rule (though not necessarily), local bands are not nearly as beholden to the financial incentives of indie musicians more generally.

Local listening, under this model, favors supporting local music, and not at the expense of quality music.  So long as local listeners are construed as having at least rudimentary skills in aesthetic judgment, they will make choices about what local music they listen to based on what local music is good.  As such, this model doesn’t suffer from the problems of the local sustenance model.  If music is not very good, a person who endorses listener autonomy will not support it, even if it’s local.  The autonomy model also doesn’t suffer from the problems of the anti-corporate model.  The autonomous listener avoids the corporate filter by listening local.  But he also avoids the indie filter, as his listening choices aren’t constrained by the indie music blogs.

The autonomy model also supports listening local (contra the local sustenance model), since becoming an autonomous listener requires actually listening to local music as opposed to merely providing financial support.  It also fairly supports local listening (contra the anti-corporate model), since it does not merely support non-corporate music, which can itself be non-local.  It supports local listening because local listening is the best way to listen to music free of any filter – whether it be indie or corporate.

Of course, there is no such thing as being a completely autonomous listener.  Nobody is saying that it’s possible to curate your own listening habits completely free of the effect of outside forces.  But it is possible to be more autonomous or less autonomous, and all things considered, it seems better to be more autonomous than not.  Additionally, nobody is saying that it’s a bad thing to listen to indie or corporate music either.  It’s just better to have access to a source of music that is comparatively free of external influence via the indie or corporate filter.

There is also a cost to obtaining autonomy.  The cost is that in order to find a set of local musicians that you support, you have to listen to a decent bit of local music that you don’t like.  This is a cost, in general, of doing leg-work, but nobody said that listening local is easy.  Then again, you can probably reap the benefits of listening local, and find musicians that you genuinely enjoy, without too much work.  Going to an open-mic on occasion, going to a local show once a month even.

So there you go.  Three conceptions of listening local.