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

There has been some discussion in fandom studies of late about the need to trace multiple and alternative geneologies of fandom. What geneologies seemed important to you as you were writing this book?

One of the frustrating elements of the book was that I wanted to cite genealogies I couldn’t find. I wanted a straight up history of fandom. I wanted a guide to music fandom over the years. I wanted a geneology of fandom taking to the internet and what happened next. A collection of genealogies would have been amazing. I ended up having to cobble together my own version of these histories. I liked thinking with historical takes like Cavicci’s work on music fans in the 1800s, or Reagin and Rubenstein’s analyses. But I remain frustrated by the dominance of narrative media studies in fandom analysis and the general tendency to look toward one fandom rather than tracing the phenomena themselves throughout historical eras and considering how people worked with and against the technologies of the time to make their fandoms happen.

This book includes some extensive autobiographical sections where you discuss different moments in your own life as a music fan. What do you feel these first person accounts contributed to your analysis?

Originally I didn’t intend for that stuff to be in there, but when it came time to write the chapter where I trace the history of music fandom, and discuss how music fandom changed through the internet, I found that, because there weren’t the genealogies I wanted out there, I had to write that history myself. At that point I had a variety of examples but no narrative throughline to hold them together. I realized I was the best throughline I had because my lived experience as a fan whose life as a fan coincided with the internet’s quite well. So one thing the personal accounts contribute is narrative coherence for comparing music fandom in the age of difficult-to-penetrate cassette concert bootleg trading trees to the age of online community and unauthorized download sites. The autobiographical bits also make clear what my stakes are, which I think draws people in to the story I’m telling and helps them relate to it. Being autobiographical also became a way for me to address the stigmas around female fans and our sexuality in fandom. People like their scholars to be human, and I’ve had a lot of people just tell me they found those sections very moving. And I do think there is something that a personal telling, couched in citation and filled with ties to others’ experiences and insights, can convey about the affect of experience that is more challenging with other modes of writing.

You write, “Any position a musician assumes toward fans’ participatory practices sends relational messages about appropriate distances, roles and boundaries between them.” What are some of the ways that musicians have sought to find a balance between social connection and economic/artistic control?

One of the book’s central tenets is that one core dialectic in relational labor is between the desire to treat your audience as a participatory community and as a controllable market. People seek control by trying to enforce where and how people engage with them, by invoking the law and intellectual property rights (real or imagined), and by turning fans and their practices into datapoints they can manipulate through datafication. They seek participation by accepting audience autonomy and by letting them help in countless ways. One of my favorite examples of balance is Kristin Hersh, who controls by corralling her fans to her platforms but has been fan supported through subscription via her site since the late 1990s. I think the rub is that if you are working in capitalism, there are always going to be really strong tugs toward treating audiences as markets you are selling to even if you prefer participation, and if you have bought into the idea that creative work is something you, the creator, own and should control, then that is inevitably going to cause conflict between you and a participatory audience that feels a stake and wants to use it in their own ways.

What forms of audience engagement and participation created the most anxiety for the performers you interviewed? Why?

Nearly everyone I talked to regardless of sex had dealt with stalkers. While some took it in stride, it was quite upsetting for others. The hard part is that they can’t just go online and talk to an adoring audience, they have to deal with criticism, they have to deal with people who think it’s fun to be mean to them, they have to deal with harassment. That creates a lot of anxiety. But there’s a quieter, more pernicious anxiety, which is just keeping up with the learning curve it takes to know what sites people are using, what apps are in, what terms of use have changed, what algorithms seem to be doing now, what metrics – if any – matter, which topics they can safely discuss, and so on. Relationships take work even in the best of circumstances. Maintaining one with diverse crowds who want different things, and doing it in real time, in public, all the time, can be stressful even if you’re good at it and enjoy it.

How might the conflicts which arise around fans “gatekeeping” other fans fit within your model of relational labor?

One of the stressful things for some of the artists I talked with was that they saw fans create internal hierarchies and felt alienated by it. They didn’t like it, they wanted it to be easy for anyone to enter their fandom and they didn’t want any elitism or favoritism within it. And then they’d see how fans were treating one another - whether through gatekeeping or elitism or bullying - and know that if they were to intervene, they’d only make it worse, so they felt kind of agitated and helpless. Figuring out how, if at all, to confront and manage this as an artist is very much an issue of relational labor.