Today I’d like to share some writings I did for school. My objective for this assignment was to research the production of a creative work from the world of popular culture, media, or the arts and discuss the specific social and organizational processes that lent shape to that product and brought it into being. I also looked at ways cultural products are reflections of the social and organizational contexts in which they are created, promoted and distributed to audiences.
How Ólafur Arnalds makes his music
In his own twitter profile, musician Ólafur Arnalds describes himself with only three words: “I make music”. But, the process of production, promotion and distribution of the music he makes is not as simple to explain. According to some measurements, the 25 years-old Icelandic can be considered a successful artist. In the last five years, he released seven albums; toured in Europe, America and Asia and was featured in many positive critic reviews. All while defying some long trusted industry methods. As his predecessors, Arnalds is subject to the context around him: music has always been appraised according to aesthetic and social conventions; all musicians depend on the technology available at their times; and, economic forces strongly influence commercialization of songs. But, context is not static. It is continually changing. Because Arnalds has been successfully adapting to new practices, he represents a great opportunity to examine how artists and organizations conciliate old and new rules.
Collaboration among artists, for example, as explored by professor David Grazian in his book “Mix it up”, is not a recent aspect of culture production. From philosophic ideas and the paintings of French Impressionists to American jazz and Sesame Street, creative people need to meet each other, exchange ideas and debate in order to start new movements (Grazian, 2010, p.100). In “Group Thinking”, Malcolm Gladwell demonstrates how innovations arise out from social interactions (Gladwell, 2002, 103). The cities with their diversity and dynamism are the ideal scenario for the required interaction to happen. They are home no only for a large population, but also for a diverse one. In an anonymous crowd, people feel encouraged to form urban subcultures where they can share an identity, collective consume culture and support each others creative process. The importance of collaboration hasn’t change (Arnolds’ list of collaborators includes other players, singers and even a choreographer). Today, Internet often plays the role of an urban site for these artists, providing an environment for them to work together, even when physically located very far from each other. As an example, the long distance collaboration with Janus Rasmussen was explained in the online music magazine “The Line of Best Fit”: “Their respective touring commitments mean that the pair often has to write and record by email.” Technology advancements are fundamental for this partnership that would be impossible otherwise.
Even more innovative is Ólafur Arnalds collaborations with his fans. He makes his songs available online for people to download it and use them in their own projects, as movies or video-clips (drawings and paintings inspired by the music are also encouraged). Arnalds asks fans to upload the result, then, he selects his favorites and promotes then, or makes them his official promotion material. Two cases were more successful: a fan from Argentina who used visual effects to create a video that shows smoke moving and changing color according to the song’s changes of mood and another fan from Hong Kong, who created an short animated film with Arnalds’ song as soundtrack. The fans interest in creating content is not an exception; in fact, in any kind of popular culture, creators are usually major popular culture consumers, whether inspired by music, movies or TV shows (Grazian, 2010, p.19). Internet (in the form if fan sites or services as You Tube, MySpace, Vimeo, etc) only made it easier to consume popular culture in a more interactive way. Grazian gives many examples of this phenomenon in “Mix it up”:
In addition to provide opportunities for online conversation, virtual scenes also provide distribution nodes for fan-produced content and drama, and opportunities for role-playing. Fan fiction sites invite participants to contribute their own stories based on the characters, settings, and themes from the Harry Potter series as well as The Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, Smallville, The West Wing, and practically any other pop cultural touchstone one can imagine (…) (Grazian, 2010, p.82)
In fact, Arnalds himself recognizes the influence he received in the form, for example, of movies, to the work he produces as a musician. All collaborative work among Ólafur, other artists, and his fans can exist only because of “taken-for-granted rules and agreed-upon assumptions that make social activity possible” (Grazian, 2010, p. 98). These rules are the cultural conventions and they allow artists to communicate with each other through the same language, system of musical theory, notation and terminology. Conventions, also guarantee the successful exchange of files through the Internet. Audience uses conventional descriptions to learn about new music before go to a concert or buy an album. But at the same time, cultural conventions can also create obstacles for more innovative cultural products to succeed. Musician and inventor Harry Partch, for example, was able to break many conventions when he created new instruments e and 43-note music scale, but he’s work has never became popular, since it is very difficult for people to appreciate such unfamiliar sounds. Even when traditional instruments and music system are used, other conventions must be considered: if the music produced does not fit a recognizable genre category, as classical or electronic, the audience tends to reject it (Grazian, 2010, p.99).
Ólafur tries do break the genre convention. The Internet database of songs and artists “AllMusic” holds entries for Ólafur Arnalds both as a Pop/Rock artist and as a Classical artist. The music website Tokafi could not find him a category either, his album was described by the author as “(…) a quiet dream of classical composition, electronic arrangements and romantic ‘melodicism’ and made it to the “Best Of” lists of some of the more important publications in contemporary music.” During another interview, this time for the Movie “Press Pause Play”, he acknowledges the consequences of not fitting in any labels: “The classical world says ‘You are not classical enough to be included in what we are doing’; and we get this, for example, from the radio, I’m too classical for the pop radio stations and I’m too pop for the classical stations, I’m nowhere, basically”.
This is not a small issue. The entire culture business in filled with uncertainty. Having a book published, a movie filmed or a record produced doesn’t mean they will reach their audiences. In “Processing Fads and Fashions”, author Paul M. Hirsch explains the importance of advertisement and the media cover of releases to ensure consumers will have access to new culture products: “The presence or absence of coverage, rather than its favorable or unfavorable interpretation, is the important variable here. Public awareness of the existence and availability of a new cultural product often is contingent on feature stories in newspaper and national magazines, review columns, and broadcast talk shows, and, for recordings, radio station air play (Hirsch, 1972, p. 647)”.
In order to be featured in those channels, an artist has to be successfully received by a particular type of audience, or as defined by Hirsch, the surrogate consumers, critics and journalists that pre-select what they consider promising products among everything that is produced by the industry. Their decisions of what should or should not get covered are based in what is usually expected by audiences of each music genre. That is the hard part for Arnalds and he is not alone. In “Kenna’s Dilemma: The Right —and Wrong— Way to Ask People What They Want”, Malcolm Gladwell describes how R&B fans often criticized musician Kenna for his bad R&B songs, while he was not even trying to compose for this genre (Gladwell, 2007, pp.148-152). Arnalds and Kenna don’t fit a specific category, because they break cultural conventions. As consequence, they can’t rely on radio stations (or surrogate consumer, as defined by Hirsch) to promote their work. As Grazian explains in “Mix it up”: Of course, the stability of cultural conventions eases the production of popular culture but ultimately limits its creative possibilities – that is, cultural conventions make culture conventional (Grazian, 2010, p. 98).
The solution found by Arnalds to deal with the lack of receptivity from radio stations is to, again, use Internet to create awareness of his work. For example, for his “Living Room Songs”, he decided to record one new song each day, in his living room, while filming it; and make the videos available online for download. The efficiency of word-of-mouth would finally give Arnalds independence from the surrogate consumers. As naïve as the idea may seem, it is potentially powerful. The power of Ólafur’s idea is the subject of Malcolm Gladwell’s book “The Tipping Point”. According to Gladwell, it only takes a few special people and a sticky message to make an idea spread as fast as an epidemic. Arnalds had a sticky message: he turned the very intimate process of making his songs public. And, according to Gladwell’s theory, only few people were required to make his videos reach the tipping point: The mavens, people very interested in finding new songs and sharing them; the connectors, people that could hear about the project and tell their friends, but happen to have a lot of friends; and finally, the sellers, people that are able to convince the more skeptical that is it worthy to give Arnalds a chance.
But, despite of fulfilling all requisites described by Gladwell, Arnalds attempt to have his message epidemically spread, by offering his recently recorded songs to fans free of any charge, would certainly have failed a few decades ago. Before high-speed Internet makes it possible for users to share huge amounts of files in few minutes, it was unlikely that any music company would allow an artist to give his music to fans. There were no reasons give up the higher possible profit from selling the record. And it wouldn’t matter how much Arnalds might have believed in the free distribution, he would have to conform to the economic rules in place at the time, once again, he is subject to the context. Everything changes when the record companies start to fear losing the battle against piracy. Now, the message is: if you like the songs, contribute to the artist by paying for the songs or going to live concerts. Even established bands, as the Radiohead, are trying to depend less on the selling of records.
Arnalds seems to understand that Pop Culture is created collectively, shaped by the social context and interpreted according to social conventions. In an interview for “The Guardian”, he talks about how economic context helped him sell more CDs in his home country during the 2008 financial crisis in Iceland: his CDs became cheaper in comparison to imported CDs. He’s also not bothered when people compare him to other Icelandic artists in a very conventional way: “Yes, it’s easy (to assume his music is similar to other artists from Iceland), but it’s good that it’s easy because it gives people an image of Icelandic music. If it wasn’t so easy, they’d probably have no image. Their success helped because it encouraged people to listen to me: oh, he’s from that place.” And finally, he says technology changes the way people have access to music and it reflex on the music itself, for example the length of pop song’s introductions: “Pop songs used to have quite long intros, because DJs would talk over the start; but now everything’s on YouTube or iTunes so songs start straight away”. Arnalds innovations reflect changes in the sociological realities around him; his songs, as other cultural objects, present the opportunity to learn more about society through an analyze that goes beyond the content and exams the long way they went before reaching the listeners’ hearts.
Grazian, David; Mix It Up: Popular Culture, Mass Media, and Society (2010).
Hirsch, Paul M.; “Processing Fads and Fashions: An Organization Set Analysis of Culture Industry Systems,” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 77 (1972).
Gladwell, Malcolm; The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (2002).
Gladwell, Malcolm; “Group Think,” The New Yorker (2 Dec. 2002).
Gladwell, Malcolm; Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2007).