What the Filk...?: An Interview with Sally Childs-Helton (Part Three)

Wizard Rock and Nerdcore are two different genres of fan music that sought to distinguish themselves from filk and which stressed performances rather than group sings as the primary mode of presentation. How has the filk community responded to these developments?



Some filkers, especially younger ones, are aware of and enjoy wizard rock (often called wrock, here represented by Harry and the Potters) and nerdcore and its franchise-oriented cousins (Trek rock, Dr. Who rock, Rocking Jay, etc.), while some are vaguely aware of the existence of this music but don’t actively seek it out.  Some nerdcore and franchise-oriented rock tunes do show up in the filk room as “found filk,” so filkers become aware this way.  One geek/nerd musician who is especially popular in the filk community is Jonathan Coulton, and several filk dealers carry his music, though he has no real affiliation with the community.  “Code Monkey” and “Re: Your Brains” (performed here at the PAX gaming festival) are highly popular.  Filkers have been writing about geek and nerd topics and media franchise characters for years, so it’s no surprise that when nerdcore, wrock, etc., began developing that some of the tunes would become “found filk.”


Nerdcore, wrock, etc. come out of a popular music model, most often rock, which differentiates them from filk, with its folk-based model (though rock has been in filk for a very long time).  These niche audience musics are often performed by professional and semi-professional bands or artists, and some of these musicians make most of their living playing music (which cannot be said of filkers, or professional musicians when wearing their filk hats).  Geek/Nerdcore musicians often perform on the indie band circuits and have large online followings.  Many of the franchise-oriented bands (wrock, Trek rock, etc.) perform at the larger commercial media cons and occasionally at fan-run SF/F cons.  Niche musicians may also have local and regional followings and perform in bars and clubs.  So the venues in which these geek/nerd/media musicians perform are not conducive to the filk room format so vital to filk, though geek/nerd/media and filk communities all sing along at concerts, as do fans at rock concerts.  Some filkers who are semi-professional or professional occasionally perform concerts at commercial cons, but there is no filk programming (workshops and panels) and no filk room for group sings.


One way that filk has attempted to engage younger musicians has been by inviting geek/nerd and media franchise musicians to perform at filk conventions.  In some cases, the groups have come in, performed, and left, treating it like any other gig.  In other cases, they have come, performed, and stayed to join the evening filk circles and other programming, and later become members of the community.  Some of the geek/nerd/franchise groups look at filkers as amateurs while others recognize like-minded musicians.  I had an interesting exchange with members of a Trek band at a convention where my band was a guest of honor.  We finished our concert, and were tearing down while the Trek band was setting up.  They said they really enjoyed our set and I said we were looking forward to theirs.  When I invited them to return for open filking later that night, I was told in no uncertain terms that they were not filkers, the implication being that they were “real” musicians and filkers were not.


Filkers are more aware of the geek/nerd/media franchise music community now than they were 5 or so years ago simply because filkers bring the music in as “found filk,” filk cons are inviting these musicians to perform, and their music is readily available online.  Filkers who are active in wider fandom are also attending commercial cons and hearing these groups in concert.  Concerts have been an important part of filk cons and some general SF/F cons for years, and these allow especially the more polished musicians to showcase their materials.  But the filk circle is still at the core of the filk community and culture.  The relationship between the filk and geek/nerd/franchise music communities continues to be defined, but I think it’s accurate to say that the filk community knows a lot more now about geek/nerd/franchise music than that community and its audiences know about filk.  Even though filk is considered by some as the grandmother of geek and nerd musics, the filk community exists at non-commercial, fan-run cons, and even though filk music is easily available online, filkers really don’t promote themselves beyond the community.  Filkers deeply value making music together in small groups more than they value winning large audiences and selling product.  Part of this may also be generational, which I’ll address later.    


 How has filk taken advantage of new systems of distribution, such as video-sharing on Youtube and Vimeo, musical downloads on i-Tunes, or podcasting?


Filkers, like many SF/F fans, were online from the beginning of the internet and today they inhabit every form of social media and use every contemporary form of music distribution.  Like many fen, they are early adopters and serious tech geeks.  Even though CDs are still selling well, many filkers are also releasing albums as downloads, though there is some discussion in the community about how much longer the CD platform will remain financially viable since most filkers hope to at least recoup the money they have put into an album.  Some are crowd-funding projects through KickStarter and similar platforms.  Others are offering live online concerts, and there are plenty of videos on YouTube and Vimeo, though they can be surprisingly hard to find only using “filk” as a search term.  Several filkers have professional sound studios in their homes and are releasing very high-quality albums.  Podcasts are available, and even SF/F publishers like Baen have done podcasts featuring filk and filkers.  As mentioned earlier, it seems that filkers use their command of technology to share music with the community; if other people find it, that’s wonderful, but the main motivation is to share the music rather than make a living from it.  I have heard from several Millennial filkers that they came across filk first through online performances, but again it was only by happenstance.


Some filkers have tried to reproduce the environment of the filk room using Skype and other real-time conferencing formats, but they have not been satisfactory.  The time lag is still too great to Skype someone into a house filk and be able to sing along or interact in ways expected in the filk room.  During my research several people noted how wonderful it would be if Skype-style technology could get fast enough to let filkers at a distance create a virtual filk room.  Online concerts have been more successful because people have different expectations; the performer knows he or she will hear laughter or applause a bit later than expected.  Technology exists that can let musicians at a distance perform together, but it takes computers beyond consumer-level product.  It’s going to be interesting to see what happens when this technology is supported by consumer-quality computers and other technology so that filkers will be able to hold “virtual filks” with greater success.     


Your scholarly writing documents what you describe as the generational politics of filk. What did you discover?


I think I’d call it more generational preferences and enculturation than politics.  Baby Boomers and to some extent Gen-Xers value their filk face-to-face, and are more likely to enjoy folk music, folk rock, and “classic” rock.  Millennials prefer newer genres of popular music, and are perfectly comfortable living much of their social lives online.  One Millennial child of Baby Boomer filkers said she didn’t enjoy the filk room because it was like walking into space that belonged to her parents’ generation.  The music wasn’t to her taste, many of the references in the songs--and jokes or remarks made between songs--were generationally specific, and things just moved slowly.  Her expectations as a Millennial were not being met, and she felt that she was invading space that was not generationally her own.  She didn’t feel unwelcome, but it simply wasn’t attractive and there were things she’d rather be doing with friends her own age.  When asked what music activities Millennials might enjoy most, she replied that maybe having a room set up where people could just come and jam and create together would be attractive.  My article “Folk Music in a Digital Age: The Importance of Face-to-Face Community Values in Filk Music,” published in the Journal of Fandom Studies, goes into more depth on this topic.  


Is there a risk that filk may die out as a cultural practice within fandom?


It depends on how you define “die out,” and “fandom.”  Filk is certainly evolving and changing, and it has changed dramatically from the early days of SF/F fans singing folk song revival songs at cons.  It has changed since it was documented almost 25 years ago in Textual Poachers.  It also depends on the parameters you put around fandom.  The biggest split I see is between fan-run cons and commercial cons, and how that has changed fannish music culture.  Unless commercial and franchise-based cons start making space for face-to-face fan-made music beyond concerts performed by professional and semi-professional musicians, then filk as we know it today may well disappear as Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers age out.  I say this because traditional filk circles are closely tied to fan-run cons, and these cons are starting to feel the pressure of staying viable as Baby Boomers age out of fandom and younger generations gravitate toward commercial cons.  So the “natural habitat” of the filker is becoming endangered, much like the natural habitat of some wild flora and fauna that is endangered by urban sprawl.  Then again, many species of flora and fauna have learned to live in suburban and even urban areas.  To carry this metaphor further, for a number of years now the symbol of filk has been the dandelion—it grows everywhere and keeps sprouting back up.


So I’m never going to say that filk, as it is currently practiced, may die out.  There are hints that people of all generations are starting to get tired of living so much of their lives online, and that they are finding the joys of face-to-face activities again.  There is technology on the horizon that may help filkers engage in virtual filk rooms that feel more genuinely like “the real thing.”  And filk, like all things, is going to keep evolving to meet the needs and tastes of each new generation.  It may be that as Boomers and Gen-Xers age out, the filk room will disappear and that fannish music will be identified as indie nerd and geek rock, performed at commercial cons.  Or individuals might write music that is very much like filk, and offer it up through YouTube or as live online concerts.  Or younger generations may decide that they want the experience of making and enjoying music in a face-to-face environment, where everybody contributes, and the filk room will enjoy a rebirth, though in a different incarnation.  Instead of a filk circle where everybody takes turns with other people supporting, it may be more like a musical “maker space” where people can jam and co-write lyrics and melodies and co-create arrangements.    


One thing I’d like to examine more broadly are activities (fannish or not) that people can pursue as individuals versus those that must be pursued in face-to-face groups, and how the balance between these activities is changing generationally.  Such research can be expanded to activities people can engage in through face-to-face groups versus online groups.  This will tell us a lot about how interests in various fannish creative activities is changing, and about filk as it is currently practiced and possible future directions.



What might be some steps that could be taken to revitalize filk for this next generation of fans?


We do have Millennials coming into filk, but there are many fewer of them than we would like.  The draw for them is the face-to-face community and the support they get as young creative people.  Millennials have told me that most of their peers have no idea filk exists because they go to larger commercial cons like GenCon where there is no filk.  But now that so much filk is available online, I think some Millennials are finding it and thinking it’s just more geek/nerd music, and they have no idea this music has been around for over 70 years and has an international community.  The Millennials who find filk now tend to be singer/songwriters, and already have “retro” sensibilities.  And they appreciate the support and sense of community they don’t find at the large commercial cons, where they may enjoy listening to geek/nerd groups, but there is no place for them to share their creativity.  It’s very easy for cosplayers to go to a commercial con and display their creativity by wearing a hall costume, but the lone singer/songwriter has no audience there.


We can continue to revitalize filk by making it easier for these young, lone singer/songwriters to find us online, and to encourage them to come join the community.  Some of them are going to be comfortable there, and some are going to feel like they’ve just entered a roomful of people old enough to be their parents or grandparents.  But when there are younger faces, they will be more likely to feel like they belong.  Some filk cons and general fan-run cons have been inviting younger performers to do concerts, sometimes as guests of honor, further signaling to younger generations that filk welcomes them, and is capable of change.  As more and more fans of all ages go to large commercial cons, it can’t hurt to ask for filk rooms, or even a concert room where more polished filkers can offer themed concerts (Dr. Who tunes, Star Wars songs, tunes about gaming).  Some filkers and cons are already doing this, but we need to do more to help the younger generations of fandom realize that there is a whole huge body of music out there they might enjoy.   

Sally Childs-Helton, Ph.D., is an ethnomusicologist, percussionist, and archivist; she holds the rank of Professor at Butler University.  Away from university duties, she is active as a musician and facilitator who conducts drumming and improvisation workshops; performs with her husband Barry, eclectic Celtic band Wild Mercy, and the Thin Air improvising quartet; and accompanies choruses, dance, and theater.  She has been active in the filk community since 1984, was inducted into the Filk Hall of Fame in 2003, and has won several Pegasus Awards for Excellence in Filking.  Her current music research interests include musical fandoms, generational aspects of fandoms, and artistic sign language as musical expression.