The Audience Invisible

I’ve been reading quite a few musicians’ memoirs recently. Music documentaries too. I’m not fussy about the genres or eras, I enjoyed the one about Ace Of Spades just as much as the doc about Trad Jazz in the 50s. Band politics tend to be the same regardless of fashion.

I’m not sure where this new, almost academic bent has emerged from. One could argue that a musician spending his downtime pouring over the in-fighting of past masters is distinctly unhealthy. But I say: forewarned is forearmed. Most bands suffer grizzly endings full of regrets and loose ends. I don’t want the band I’m in to go the same way and yet I am aware that it’s a distinct possibility. Essentially a band is a confusing hybrid of gang and marriage – the potential for disagreement and calamity is near limitless. Still, I have hope.

Morbidity aside, read any rock autobiography from the last century and you will find one single unifying factor, one simple point that unites these various partisan reminiscences. One great omission. One conspicuous absence.

The audience.

Memories are crystal clear when it comes to itemizing the drug cocktails and tour bus breakdowns, famous cross-overs and favoured studio tech-specs, but no one ever seems to have a clue who is actually buying the records. “This one sold half a million units but this one only sold two hundred thousand and now the label is getting fidgety…”

Who makes up these great hoards (or herds)? What is this faceless consumer hive? Dear Narrator, why are you not curious?

The only time we hear about the audience is when they don’t do their job – when they don’t show up in large enough numbers or if they start to disagree with a band’s creative direction. “Crazy fans” are featured (the ones that cross the line and get scary) and obsessive “super fans” who appear night after night are often retrospectively jeered at. Faceless groupies giving the bass player head in a venue toilet might get a humorous mention in the “before the great decline” chapter. But as cameos go, all the audience can hope for is an uncredited background appearance in heavy prosthetics.

A lot of artists moan about the digital age. That social media has cheapened the magic of rock and roll, that the new universality of self-marketing undermines what it is to be a creative, blah blah blah. And yet the same people also talk about how great it is that we can now bypass the middlemen and sell directly to our listeners, that we can cross networks and find new interested parties, that we can now even tap them for extra funding through crowd-sourcing sites, that we can spam them mercilessly through facebook. Oh brave new world…

These are not the victories. These are not the gifts of modernity. The great gift is that we can now see the audience. The house lights have been turned on. We are no longer in the dark, second-guessing what the market wants.

Having never been on a major label I have no experience of letting others do the boring jobs for me. I’ve always been DIY: first out of necessity and later out of ideology (and necessity). I cannot imagine not having a direct relationship with the audience, the very idea is utterly baffling to me.

Music has always been a discussion. It’s part of a great oral tradition stretching back countless generations, crossing cultures and continents – greater than history, greater than geography. Then in the Twentieth Century the record industry snipped the phone lines and suddenly this two way membrane turned into a one way loudhailer.

But now, if you want, you can build a respectable music career out of networks. No smoke and mirrors necessary, just conversations. I know the Bedlam Six audience. I’ve talked to them. Some of them now work with us as designers or promoters or unofficial advisers. When people reply to my tweets or post messages on facebook/youtube/etc I do a bit of digging, see who they are and where they come from. Not so that I can add it to some analytics programme or spreadsheet. I’m just interested. Why would anyone not be interested in this stuff? It’s fascinating. Fascinating because people are fascinating. When did audiences stop being people? Or do you just want to win the numbers game and a have a trillion likes?

There’s a wonderful moment towards the end of Carpet Burns, Tom Hingley‘s book about Inspiral Carpets. By this point the group has long since split up and he’s been touring on his own for a few years. Then they get back together for a clutch of shows in 2003. Up until now all the anecdotes have been from backstage or in the tour bus or in the studio – the impenetrable and unavoidable bubbles that outsiders rarely gain access to. There’s a certain “them and us” quality that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever been in a band. But he’s had some time away from the mainstream and been managing his own career. He’s become more hands on and altered his perspective:

“I looked out at the sea of faces immediately in front of us in the hall and had the weird realisation that a full five years of a solo career, which had involved me playing out to hundreds of concerts all over provincial venues, pubs and festivals, meant that, bar a few, I actually knew all of them.”

It’s an amazing feeling. The honest connection. Breaking down that absurd divide that says “some of us in this room are more important than others”. After all, why launch your art into a throng of anonymity, aimed indiscriminately at the strange detached naive adoration of nameless “fans” when you can actually connect with people?

Regardless of how big or small the crowd is, to have a relationship with an audience, to know them as well as be known by them, is pretty profound as sensations go. It is an option that too many artists deprive themselves of. To these poor fools I extend my deepest sympathies. Your cool will not keep you warm in the winter of your career.

1 thought on “The Audience Invisible”

  1. Xenaphon8 said:

    I love this article! I do the same thing when someone follows me on Twitter — I investigate them! Why did they follow me? Who are they? What are they interested in? I too find this social media craze a fascinating topic.

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