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

How has the increased intimacy between performers and audiences shifted the meaning and importance of authenticity on the one hand and mystique on the other as they relate to the nature of being a “rock star”?

Well of course one defining element of intimacy is that you are meant to be authentic. Mystique may lure you in but once you’re intimate, it has no place. That’s clearly in opposition to the traditional (ha!) view of the rock star, where they are meant to be at a distance and filled with mystery. So new media and the push toward intimacy push people away from mystique toward “authenticity.” But “authenticity” is a terribly problematic term, and in this context it’s always performed (and sometime highly crafted for public consumption) anyway. It’s not actually clear to me that the masses really yearn for “authenticity” so much as they want direct interaction and immediacy. They only want authenticity when someone behaves like their imagined version of them. And there seem to be plenty of cases where we still want mystique. Take Daft Punk or Banksy. The loss of mystique is something some artists are grateful for, they’re thrilled to leave the trope of the rock star in the past and get back to something more egalitarian. Others feel like the mystique protects the music, or them, and it’s a challenge to figure out how to present themselves in a way that, as one person put it, has “boundaries without the appearance of having boundaries.” 

There is a growing interest in the concept of the “anti-fan,” represented by a recent anthology around this topic. What can the study of “relational labor” contribute to our understanding of the concept?

You can’t talk about doing relational labor without talking about anti-fans because the act of going online to communicate with fans means that you are going to encounter anti-fans. I’d like to think that the shift this book offers from audience perspective to artist perspective helps us think more about what anti-fan practices do to the humans who create the work or being hated, how those people respond to it, and perhaps how communication platforms might be better designed to lessen its impacts. Some of the older musicians I talked to laughed it off, but others had a hard time with it, even some of the famous ones you might think wouldn’t care. In a theoretical sense, from the artists’ perspective, fans are just one set of the audience they have to relate to, and there are a lot of spots on the spectrum between fan and anti-fan and also a lot of people on axes that are totally orthogonal to that one. Though I love fan studies, I hope audience studies can be more attuned to other variants of audience as well and perhaps relational labor helps us see those different facets of audience more clearly, because they call for different modes of relating.

The ethical dimensions of fandom are a recurring theme across the book and you end with a direct statement, “All of us are audiences and all of us have a responsibility to think about the well-being of those who create what we use and cherish.” What are some concrete ways you feel that fans might shoulder this responsibility?

Thanks for asking that. When you center the experience of the artist you realize pretty quickly that, even at its best, relating to audiences is hard work that puts a person’s selfhood on the line in ways that are profoundly personal. Here are a few concrete suggestions. The don’ts: Don’t expect – let alone – demand personal responses to your messages. Don’t ask favors of them that you wouldn’t ask a stranger. Realize that disclosing personal topics to them may be upsetting to them and don’t expect them to be able to help you sort out your problems even if their work does. If you’re going to say things about them that aren’t nice, don’t tag them in it. And on the other side, do tell the artists you love that you appreciate them. Tell them what their work means to you. I was really surprised to hear from nearly everyone I talked to how much it meant to hear from people who had seen their show or really thought about a song. Fans often think the artists don’t care, but like everyone else, they want to know that their work makes a positive difference in people’s lives. And a crucial, ethical do: pay for the art you love and support the fundraising activities artists offer.

You also end the book with some statements about what audiences and performers should be able to expect from each other. What would need to change for the creative industries to fully embrace the potentials of this proposed social contract?

I think we’d have to get to a point where we start from the premise that the culture industries have value because people value culture, and that culture is above all about human relationships and social order. For the last several decades, the goal of the culture industries has been to make money and the rest has come after. If we were all starting with the question of how we build better culture and how we strengthen and support relationships and communities, then we could have healthier conversations about the “value” of creative work and treat everyone involved with more reverence.