Relating to Music and Music Fans: An Interview with Nancy Baym (Part I)

Nancy Baym has been one of the leaders in internet-focused research for several decades, starting with her foundational work on soap opera fans and online communities (Tune In, Log On, 1999), her exploration of social media (Personal Connections in the Digital Age, 2013), her anthology considering methodology and ethics in internet research (Internet Inquiry, 2013). Each of these books has had a major impact upon how we think about our identities and social relations in the digital era.

So, the release of a new Nancy Baym book, Playing to the Crowd: Musicians, Audiences, and The Intimate Work of Connection, is cause for excitement, and this book does not disappoint. Drawing on interviews with a wide array of different musicians, Baym traces the ways these performers forge relationships with their fans and followers, seeing this activity as relational labor. She situates the current configuration of performer-fan relationships in a larger social and economic history of popular music. What can fans reasonably expect from the stars whose music touches their life and where might performers legitimately draw the line in terms of creating intimacy with their audiences? The book is important to many fields. My focus here is on what it might contribute to fandom studies.

Let’s start with a term that is fundamental to your book, “relational labor.” What do you mean by this term? Can you place it into some context in terms of the current economic status of the creative industries and in terms of shifts in the nature of intimacy in everyday life?

Straight to the heart of the matter! I use the term to describe the ongoing, everyday work of building and maintaining quasi-personal connections with audiences. A lot of people working in creative – and other – industries feel pressure to connect and engage with crowds in some kind of alchemical effort to turn a sense of interpersonal connection into revenue and job security. Making a sustaining living as a professional musician or other kind of creative worker has always been precarious, but seeing interpersonal (rather than just parasocial) connections with mass audiences as a solution to that is distinct to this historical moment. I see this as stemming from the tremendous economic confusion the ever-evolving internet triggers combined with the increased use of interpersonal intimacy as a tool for economic objectives (rather than just a refuge from them) that has origins in the early 20th century. Into this chaos come social media that make continuous, ongoing, daily, mundane interaction not just possible but expected and relational labor seems like it makes perfect sense. I use “relational” to draw attention to the expectations of continuity that “relationship” implies, and “labor” to draw attention to the fact that even when pleasurable, this is a kind of work, and that the value extracted from this work may go not to the people doing the relating but to the platforms through which they relate or to others.

You’ve written now about both soap fans and music fans. What do you see as the primary similarities and differences between the two groups? What might your concept of “relational labor” contribute to our understanding of the fandoms which spring up around fictional media?

There are times and ways that being a music fan is a lot like being a fan of a soap opera, especially when the lives of musicians (real or imagined) become fodder for ongoing drama. In both cases, fans value a lot of the same things: collaborative interpretation, expertise, insight, collections of artifacts, personal encounters with celebrities, and so on. Both sets develop shared practices and in-group languages and literacies. Both are very critical. But there are so many differences. I think the biggest one is that without a storyline, especially an unfinished one, music fans often have much less to talk about. Once you’ve made sense of the most recent release and the tour is over, there’s often very little to say.  Talking about a story is much easier than talking about music. Fictional fandoms still require relational labor, though, even when the characters are not the ones in the relationship, and we see authors and actors engaging in relational labor all the time. Publishers want to know what kind of Twitter following prospective authors have. I think, for instance, about the way J.K. Rowling tweets. Sure, she doesn’t have to engage crowds like that, but she does. Harry Potter doesn’t, but she does, and it may have implications for Harry.  

As you trace the history of music, you suggest that it was the shift away from music as participatory which gave rise to the concept of fan in the first place. Explain.  How might we understand today’s participatory fandom as different from earlier forms of participation that operated around music?

 Historically (and in many places and events now) music was an activity people did together as part of ritual or communal events. You can think of religious rituals, parades, or laboring together in fields.  In these contexts, it didn’t make much sense to think of some people as audiences and others as musicians because the roles were more malleable and because the music was not the point of the event but part of it. Once music becomes a rarified activity that experts at work perform for paying people at leisure, the concepts of audience and fan start to make sense. And once those people are cut out of the interaction loop when mass media make the performers inaccessible, audiences turn to each other, continuing the communal ritual engagement, but without the musicians in the community.  Today’s participatory fandom is in some ways a continuation of the earlier order of participation, but maintains lines between ARTIST and FAN in ways that older participation did not. Fans may be doing all kinds of things to participate in the music process that they didn’t in the latter half of the twentieth century, but there is generally still a very clear boundary between who makes the music and who does not which, in the eyes of some ethnomusicologists, makes it still performative rather than participatory. 

As you note, music fans discovered the internet well before most musicians did. What are the consequences of having the performers enter a space already colonized by their audiences?

The fact that the fans were there first means that anyone who wants to approach the internet as a marketing tool needs to do it on fans’ terms. You see this in music, but you also see it across brands. The CVP of marketing of the company I work for, for example, often talks about serving our fans. By the time anyone seeking to use the internet to cultivate customers got there, audiences had already formed communities amongst themselves and set the norms for what those communities value. The valuing of relationship over distance, for instance, or the valuing of fan-creativity, or of the gift economy didn’t disappear when artists showed up, and they had to contend with them to relate to online audiences successfully. If you enter that space as a performer with a broadcast mentality that you are there to share information and sell your product, you’re seen as doing it wrong. You have to be ready to see the space as a social one where you may be the topic of activity but you are not the center of how it works or impose value systems on its practices.