Jonathan Coulton, repoproduction, and technological determinism

A recent story in the New York Times about the Jonathan Coulton phenomenon (remember – he’s the guy who posted a song a week on his blog for a year and so launched an infamous viral campaign interacting with fans who made videos for his songs, and who even recorded guitar solos for him to use) raises the spectre of how the internet has revised the rules of interaction between musicians and their listeners. I particularly like the second half of the article, where the author discusses the changing definition of what it means to be an artist in an online mediated regime of musical exchange:

Will the Internet change the type of person who becomes a musician or writer? It’s possible to see these online trends as Darwinian pressures that will inevitably produce a new breed — call it an Artist 2.0 — and mark the end of the artist as a sensitive, bohemian soul who shuns the spotlight. In “The Catcher in the Rye,” J. D. Salinger wrote about how reading a good book makes you want to call up the author and chat with him, which neatly predicted the modern online urge; but Salinger, a committed recluse, wouldn’t last a minute in this confessional new world. Neither would, say, Margo Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies, a singer who was initially so intimidated by a crowd that she would sit facing the back of the stage. What happens to art when people like that are chased away?

This resonates strongly with my own missives and misgivings on art in the age of digital recoproduction (or maybe it’s the age of repoproduction?).

But skim down the article a bit to get to this stuff – the first half of the piece is just more empty technological determinism such as we often see in conventional journalism:

In the past — way back in the mid-’90s, say — artists had only occasional contact with their fans. If a musician was feeling friendly, he might greet a few audience members at the bar after a show. Then the Internet swept in. Now fans think nothing of sending an e-mail message to their favorite singer — and they actually expect a personal reply…

The article goes on to credit the internet for its seemingly mystical ability to raise artists from obscurity to fame, arguing that “without the Internet, (Coulton’s) musical career might not exist at all.” Of course, this determinism grossly underemphasizes the basic characteristic of technology that explains why some musicians build profitable careers online while others do not: it’s what you make it. If Coulton is successful in building a profitable musical life online, it’s precisely because he is predisposed to a specific kind of marketing expertise that is appropriate for internet-mediated exchanges between himself and his listeners.

In simple terms – for whatever reason, this sort of musician is more comfortable or motivated working at his/her laptop for six hours a day than s/he would be pounding the pavement, harassing college radio programmers on the phone, postering, and getting friends of friends to submit reviews of his recordings to local music rags (how it was done – and still is done – in many localized music scenes). And then when a critical mass of indies take up this practice, it becomes just as mundane, routine, and enlurked by snake oil salesman as the old indie-major terrain used to be (and still is). The difference between people who successfully navigate one or the other network (or both networks), in my view, comes down to the simple calculus of which mode of communication they can tolerate better – yakking on the phone all day or clacking on their keyboard.

Anyway, I’m off to enjoy some much-needed sunshine in my still-musically-peripheral-city-despite-the-internet.

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