The fence between fans and artists are becoming ever easier to jump. From Taylor Swift sending her fans cheques and homemade paintings to TLC powering up a kickstarter full of personal pledges, I swear soon we’ll actually be able to look popstars directly in the eyes. But why exactly do the mysterious luminaries of music culture suddenly care so much more about each and every one of us?
Over in Somerset House in London right now, PJ Harvey has created Recording in Progress: an art piece which captures the conception of an album by constructing a studio to record in, with one way glass, located in the basement of the venue. Critics have described it as being a portrait of the artist “in real time”. “Real time” in this case, equals 45-minute arranged viewing periods for which fans pay £15 a pop.
The hope is that anyone, normal people, can glimpse the evidential magic that is art being made: the repetition of a chorus maybe, someone saying “what?” over the sound of a guitar being tuned, a person holding a large wire, PJ Harvey pontificating over drum tracks she will later decide to re-record. That’s a best case scenario. At worse, it’ll just be Harvey peeling an orange as she waits for a mixdown to export. But for all the lack of spectacle, you can imagine the profits are quite considerable, as crowd after crowd of ticket buyers are ushered in for their moment of voyeuristic fandom.
I’m not so cynical that I can’t see the artistic merit in what PJ Harvey is trying to achieve. I don’t wander round the Louvre like a used car salesman wondering how much everyone is raking it in. But judging from Adrian Searle’s bizarrely unmoved yet five-star rated Guardian review - “There is very little atmosphere here, as we approach the windows into the studio where Harvey and her producer and musicians maunder, yawn, record and re-record dubs and overlays, lyrics and riffs.” - it seems to leave the more honest onlookers feeling a little undercooked. Maybe this is what PJ Harvey intended to do - a perfect retaliation to the expectations of the modern music fan: “You want to see everything? Okay, fine, here’s everything. Fucking boring isn’t it?”
Thing is, it’s hard not to recognise the entrepreneurial merit in what she has done; taking what is traditionally a very costly and PR-barren time in an artist’s cycle and turning it into a month-long, ticketed, headline-courting, daily event, that - with additional tickets being announced to meet demand - is probably whipping up a tidy profit. It’s the tour that isn’t a tour, helping to fund the project and keeping her somewhere near the front page of every music website in the UK. But it wouldn’t have worked if nobody, her fans, had cared about coming.
It feels unfair to even teasingly bash PJ Harvey for this - after all, her exhibition does genuinely feel like an extension of her art. It furthers the growing and totally necessary trend of real artists finding routes outside the traditional industry to make art that makes money, so they can make more art. And it’s something that takes real nous to achieve without selling a large slice of your dignity to a mobile phone company or performing bondage fellatio on a Beats Pill in your next video.
Any artist with a brain right now is trying to restore some value to their art in a world where most people just want everything for free. However, as the ageing music industry at large continues to tip-toe around the elephant of progression that has been shitting on its living room floor for ten years, there is no real fluid framework to house all this forward-thinking artist-to-fan activity, and you end up with each different artist finding their value and cultivating their fanbase in totally different ways.
LA rapper Nipsey Hussle has wandered into a career path that works for him. After deciding to leave his major label home at Epic Records, he now gives all of his music away for free digitally. For the tactile world of things, he creates a special physical copy with a limited run. He priced his first mixtape at $100, and made 1,000 copies - they all sold out, and Jay Z bought 100 of them. Nipsey’s costed his latest record at $1,000, and so far he’s sold 60. A tidy profit for a self-releasing solo artist. The idea being that if all you want to do is listen to Nipsey in a flippant manner, go for it, it’s all online, but if you want to become part of his story, own his art, and contribute greatly to any future creations, then you need to invest, heavily.
What Nipsey Hussle is doing here is essentially a very black and white form of the same ethos that powers the music campaigns of Kickstarter. A recognition that the new capital in music is not necessarily in the faith and support of a label machine, or even your ranking on Google trends, but in the dedication and loyalty of your fans, especially your super fans. It’s what digital age business writer Nicholas Lovell dubbed “the curve”, an economic theory discussed in his book of the same name. Lovell argues that creators need to realise that some people will never ever pay you, and to those freeloaders your stuff will go for nothing, but there is a portion of your most dedicated followers that always will. So instead of expunging hot air about the masses that will always rip your shit, artists need to focus on and groom the few that would never dream of it. The type of people that would pay to watch PJ Harvey unpack a mic stand, do aerobics with TLC, or buy Nipsey Hussle’s physical copies; they are becoming the key.
Five years ago, it's would be hard to envisage how El-P and Killer Mike would have been pledged over $60,000 (which they are donating to charity) for a novelty cat based covers album. Titled Meow The Jewels the crowdfunded album is going to feature collaborators as far reaching as Portishead's Geoff Barrow to Lil Bub the internet cat, with two fans on the Kickstarter page donating $500 each just to have their own cat's meows included.
A video posted by thereallyrealelp (@thereallyrealelp) on Jan 23, 2015 at 5:57pm PST
It reflects changing times across the board, where the era of every consumer feeling like they can take anything they want for free and give nothing back is slowly fading away. As loads of tech sites reported last summer, after a nice long spell of flirtatious piracy a lot of us are now "going straight". Hell, I even bought a physical copy of D’Angelo’s album last week, such was the guilt I felt once I realised how damn good my torrent sounded. It's feels like a more loyal time of reconciliation now, where we buy the RTJ2 record en masse despite it being free to download, muddle our way through Thom Yorke’s bitTorrent instructions in spite of him basically giving it to us, younger audiences fork out for limited edition Zinepaks and yes, in some cases, we buy vinyl.
However, just because lots of artists are beginning to think outside of the box, doesn’t mean they can’t be corrupted just like the major label way of life that preceded them. Wu Tang’s Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, for example, is an absurd twist on this entire concept. The one-off album masquerades as fine art, sitting in it’s fancy silver nickel case locked away in the mountains of Marrakech like a gratuitous nuke in a Bond villain's hideout, while private buyers are vetted before they can toss in their million plus dollar bids. But with all interviews focusing on how much it’s worth rather than how it sounds, and featured artists that include the Barcelona football team, it feels almost entirely materialistic.
When I contacted Tarik Cilvaringz, the Wu producer who masterminded this grandiose concept, he couldn’t chat, because Forbes magazine have the rights to everything regarding the Wu Tang story in 2015. Which kind of validates the whole intention behind this album doesn’t it? When a band of artists commit their exclusive coverage to a finance, investment and business website that does its biggest traffic numbers when listing the world’s billionaires, it tells you something about the possible artistic intentions/or lack thereof. Dolla dolla bill y'all.
If you can say anything for Wu Tang, it’s that they are at least forward-thinking - someone will buy that record, and they will probably retire off it. Other artists are still only just coming round to this idea. Regardless of how many gushing social media posts you’ve seen containing the words “Björk” and “omg” in the last 48 hours, you shouldn’t forget that this is an artist who has been conducting a trial and error relationship with her fans for years. 24 months ago, Björk launched a Kickstarter that eventually had to be cancelled, such was the arid lack of enthusiasm it was met with. Of course, Björk had fans - she had 3 million sitting on Facebook alone. But it was an unwatered relationship that had become remarkably malnourished.
It was probably a learning curve for Björk, who in the build up to this album has gone so far as handwriting any major announcements for her followers. Her recognition of the near-infinite value of fans in the modern music landscape was evident when you compare how both her and Madonna reacted to their music being leaked last week. Madonna, a relic of the music industry’s golden era, reacted angrily, comparing the leak to “rape” and “terrorism”, and traced the offender to their home in Israel with a crack team of investigators. Up in Iceland, Björk accepted the leak as an element of being an artist in 2015, penned yet another heartfelt letter to fans which didn't even mention the piracy, and then simply released the album ahead of schedule. Her label have fairly described the 2 month early leak as a bit of a “nightmare”, but decided against pursuing prosecution. Björk is everywhere right now. No worries.
But as ever more unique and exclusive products become available in this wild terrain of music exchange, outwith the dated confines of the industry, where the cost and value of anything is going through a period of more improvisation than Scatman John in the 90s, I’m finding it hard to actually gauge what anything is worth anymore. Should I be paying $1,000 dollars for a Nipsey Hussle CD when I can get a special edition Run The Jewels deluxe vinyl for £30? Or should I just fuck the lot and spend my wages on 3 voicemails from TLC’s T-Boz?
You could say that the lack of a gauge is the whole point, and this new nascent marketplace is building itself on the foundations of “some suckers will buy anything”. But perhaps this is actually a movement away from music as an artform coming with anything like the standardised price tag and packaging that has defined the last century. How much an artist's output is worth is becoming irrelevant in the face of how much I really want what they are giving me, mutating the musician-to-fan landscape into a fluid realm that no longer necessarily orbits around £7.99 albums and gig tickets - instead becoming more about bespoke, special shit, that engages the fan, locks in a bond and cuts out the middle man. Our future investments in a musical artform - from conceptual exhibitions to cat covers to homemade mixtapes - are becoming less about “how much is this?” and more “how much do I fucking love this?”