Monday, December 31, 2012

Reading Music Writing in the Digital Age

Maura Johnston, at the NPR Music Blog, recently wondered about the future of music writing in the digital age, where traditional combinations of generalist coverage and more in-depth "think pieces" are being jettisoned for "legions of sites that dive down cultist rabbit-holes and other sites that attempt to predict what the masses will want to read and share on social media like Twitter and Facebook." Most interesting to me were her insights about the ways that digital audiences engage with writing itself:
The most crucial difference between print and online media consumption boils down to the click. When reading a print publication with multiple stories, your eye could flick over a headline or catchy paragraph and be drawn in; the process of choosing to read something is fluid. Compare leafing through a paper to scanning a stack of headlines, deciding which ones compel you from their brief description, clicking, reading, then clicking back and going through the whole rigmarole again. (There's also a question of scale; the cascade of headlines coming from, say, Twitter or Facebook is magnitudes bigger than that in a typical daily.) "Most Popular" lists on some publications' sidebars allow for a quick way to dive into content, but they often become self-reinforcing, or reward topics that have a predictable payoff.
I'm not convinced that this distinction, between an older "fluid" reading and newer fragmented "back-and-forth" reading, is as stark as Johnston portrays; readers have engaged with the written word in diverse ways, much of which ignored the intentions of authors, long before the advent of social media--just look at 19th century scrapbooking, for example. Her overall point is not really about whether readers are engaging differently with music writing, however; it is that professional journalists are no longer the arbiters of culture that they once were and might need to rethink their role:
...From streaming albums to artist tweets to comments in the iTunes Store and beyond — and music writers become just another voice, shouting above the fray to be heard. Turning that chaos into a conversation that spans fans of all genres and artists, and that connects people in surprising ways, should be a goal among writers and editors in 2013.
Again, I see the point but am not entirely sure I'm convinced. It is true that social media has expanded readers' access to writing, commentary, and publications in ways that were not possible in the print age, unless you were willing to hang out at a university library for days and weeks, scouring the periodical stacks. (And some of us did). But I wonder whether music writing has ever had the power for listeners that Johnston ascribes to it. Music fans, for instance, were writing to and for each other, outside of conventional media coverage, long before social media; professional music writers have always been "just another voice" for them. Perhaps the issue is not simply one of institutionalized music writing yielding to the clamor of the crowd but rather of the changing quality, size, and scope of clamor from one decade to the next.

All this reminds of a book I should read by Jennifer Lena, called Banding Together: How Communities Create Genres in Popular Music. Sudhir Venkatesh offers an interview with Lena at the Freakonomics blog, where Lena argues that categories of taste and genre are not merely aesthetic but deeply social and contextual and that we need to pay more attention not just to artists and their works but also to the social, political, and economic players--including audiences and music journalists!--that have always defined music. It sounds pretty ethnomusicological to me (I should write about the frustratingly parallel universes of ethnomusicology and cultural sociology another time), but I will withhold comment until I've actually read it.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Reading and Not Reading

I love John Sayles' A Moment in the
 for many reasons.

Nice piece by Jennifer Howard in the Chronicle Review last week about the "growing body of investigations into the history of reading." For reception scholars, such growth may seem old news, but the piece, prompted by Leah Price's How to Do Things With Books in Victorian Britain, separates historical research on reading from more established research on the history of the book and reception theory, linking it to current debates on reading and technology and transnationalism. Howard offers a too-brief history of the field (though it name-drops my own favorites--Janice Radway, Robert Darnton, and Jonathan Rose), but her discussion of research methods and problems is quite good, ranging from the rare joys of marginalia to new efforts to aggregate historical evidence, such as the Reading Experience Database (RED).

Price offers the best line, actually: "'The history of reading,' Price says, 'really has to encompass the history of not reading.'" Absolutely true, that. (I am reminded of my own students' love for "art books," as well as this amusing review of Ronald Reagan's memoir). But we still haven't figured out how to talk about "reading" in its broadest sense without some awkwardness. In my own work on music, I have used the term "audiencing," which encompasses moments of encounter, as well as everything else that goes into one's attention to music: various kinds of meaning-making around performances and works, social practices of fans, and the diverse uses of music in daily life. Michael Broyles and other recent reviewers of Listening and Longing have rightly called me out on the clunkiness of the term, but I'm not sure how else to capture all that we do with music. Until our shared understanding of "reading" (or "listening" or "viewing") moves away from the narrow act of sensorily encountering a text, we are stuck with this sort of awkward explanation.

With a little pedantry, I'm sure that we can shift the tide! Try this line at your next party: "I just read the best book! Which, of course, included my enjoying the story, posting about it on Facebook, inadvertently repeating its phrasing in conversation, doodling an illustration of one of the characters while talking on phone, trying to re-flatten the cover after I dropped it, using it to hide a gift certificate I bought for my sister's birthday, and proudly displaying it on the shelf where I keep Absalom, Absalom! and Finnegan's Wake."

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Ardent Audience 2.0

There's nothing like a good revival.

Time to revive the blog. Sorry to have been absent for so long; blogging had become a bit of an albatross, especially when other professional writing and editing projects required my attention. I started the Ardent Audience blog two years ago, in January 2011, so please consider this its second phase. To mark that transition, I've given the page a new, clean look. I'm still going to focus on the world of historical audiences, but in the interest of time and sanity, I'm going to re-balance the mix of commentary and aggregated information. I hope that this move will enable me to continue to offer a place where one might learn more about the latest research, ideas, and debates in audience studies. 

Back soon with some new posts.