The Future’s Bright, The Future’s Tiny – Why Small Is The New Big

So, I’m just back from Small Is Beautiful. One of my – if not my actual – favourite conference of the year, exploring the world of micro enterprise, self employment, creative, sustainable business engaging both the head and the heart – from why we care about our work to what’s the best software for invoicing. Invigorating, challenging, exciting, inspiring. Love it.

The Small Is Beautiful team curated a night of Pecha Kucha back in September. I spoke at it – tried to fit too many words in and at the time felt like a worthwhile experiment that hadn’t worked… but, listening now, it’s actually pretty good, even with the garbled speech! So, here’s the video, and the text of the talk. It’s about being small, why being small is actually advantageous within the current digital music economy, and exploring that idea through the lens of Walter Benjamin’s seminal text The Work Of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction. Here’s the video, followed by the text. Enjoy, and stay small 🙂


Pecha Kucha 22: Steve Lawson – Re-enchantment in the age of digitization from Inner Ear on Vimeo.

ReEnchantment In The Age Of Digitization.

In 1935, Walter Benjamin wrote The Work Of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction. He was simultaneously a brilliant philosopher and massive snob, But he highlighted two interesting things that happened when works of art could be ‘reproduced’ – they lost their ‘aura’ and it broke the relationship between art and ritual.

He had one BIG problem with reproduction – he saw  photography and audio recording and film as poor documents of ‘The Real Thing’, robbed of the glory of the concert hall and opera house (he doesn’t seem to have conceived of recordings as anything other than a document of a live performance, but nor had anyone else) Rather than seeing it as a transformative change into something entirely new, he saw it as an incremental one in which the values of the past were being watered down.

What did he mean by aura and ritual? He saw accessible, portable art as mundane – art at home is never going to compare to a visit to the opera house. If you can have a print of the Mono Lisa on your wall it becomes part of the every day. Or at least, a slightly iffy photograph of it does.

The ritual point is related – the ritual of art-in-an-art-venue is part of the aura – from ticket buying, to getting dressed, drinks in the bar, choosing your seat, the lighting, decor, venue, the journey to and from the venue. The carving out of time from your day to go to a thing. All part of the glorious ritual. That we still enjoy.

What he failed to predict was 65 years of modernist, capitalist responses to the question of how to bring ritual and aura back in in the age of mechanical reproduction. The re-enchantment of reproduceable art happened pretty swiftly.

Throughout the 20th century, the paraphernalia of the recording industry was made sacrosanct – studios became hallowed ground at a time when the sound of the room was as audible as the music recorded in it. When recording with a single mic, and arranging musicians in relation to it, you need an amazing space to stop the drums from sounding like they were recorded in a warehouse. As the studio emerged as an artistic medium of its own, the equipment used in studios became the new religious relics – mythological desks and preamps and tape machines. Not only for their sound but their performative qualities. After all, every mix was itself a performance before the age of automation.

When this re-ritualising collided with hyper modernity, it was manifest as ‘things that are expensive and massive are amazing! Things that are more massive and more expensive are more amazing.’ Hence stadium rock, albums that cost millions to make and years to record. The economics of bigness sat very well alongside western culture’s fetish of big things. And some amazing, enchanting art came out of it, for sure.

But the enchantment of big media required exclusivity, a control of the media around the work, and a way of limiting the supply of art. An expansion of choice might be good for culture, but it’s not great for people whose business relies on a monopoly. When the economic proposition around art practice is that you bank everything on the possibility of global success or bust, any quest for sustainability on a smaller scale is revolutionary.

Just as Benjamin failed to see the recorded media age as a distinct experience from the era of ‘singular artefact or performance’, so the shift from the physical scarcity of reproduced records to the age of digitization was wholly misunderstood by those with a vested economic and cultural interest in the industries around physical media.

In the physical media age, shopping became a ritual – from the world of 2nd hand vinyl (that paid nothing to artists for the resale of their work) to the heavily curated independent record shops where the proprietor would learn your taste and make recommendations. So, from the sacred space of the studio to the pre-sacrament preparation of vinyl records for playing on a stereo that cost as much as we could possibly afford, ritual and aura were reinvested into the process of discovering, buying and playing recorded works.

But the digital shift was seismic – recording equipment, digital cameras, video equipment, editing software – became orders of magnitude more affordable. Base recording costs are now a tenth of what they were 20 years ago for equivalent quality. But equally important was the disappearance of the costs surrounding distribution, and the stranglehold of the mediators – distribution, print journalism, radio, TV and record stores all became optional.

The explosion of creativity that accompanied the birth of music, photo and video distribution online threatened the prevailing cultural and economic norms in much the same way as they had in Benjamin’s day – as a ‘CD you can get for free’, digitized audio threatened those who saw their USP vanish in a wave of unlicensed digital audio uploaded and shared via file sharing protocols.

When everyone can release their music ‘on a level playing field’, and when the entire history of record music (supposedly) is available for free, what then for enchantment? How do we rescue music from the mundanity of the 10GB single click Bob Dylan back catalogue download? the aura of Enchantment there lies solely with nostalgia and reputation, not with any ritual around the manifestation of the work.

The answer, I’d suggest, is in the thing you can’t download. Relationship. A conversational economy has replaced a headline economy. Gratitude has become a currency, manifest between artists and their audience. The levelling of the playing field has created exponential growth in those involving themselves in art. The rungs of the ladder are no-longer controlled by industrial toll booths. Sure, people with money can still buy placement and access to massive audiences, but with that comes an estrangement from ones audience that often requires a reality TV tie-in to reinvest it with meaning. Watching X-Factor is the ritualising of nostalgic mediocrity.

Now, those of us who like things to be small, personal and local have the advantage. We no longer need to pretend to be huge to invest our work with meaning. At my scale, being friends with a large percentage of your listeners is both possible and advantageous. It allows us to re-enchant our art by making it the soundtrack to the story of our art practice. Music made as the soundtrack to a life making music, with the story of that life told by the maker. In a setting where people can talk back. Art made for less, in a space that favours smallness and where it is quite possible for us to support one another without having to start shops and sell CDs. Where your audience are your promo, where your story isn’t told by magazines but by you, in community. Where the rituals around performance can be personalised rather than homogenised and the glimpse into our process in the run up to a release invests our work with enough aura to compensate for the lack of stadium gigs. It doesn’t preclude bigger work, but it crucially doesn’t rely on scale to make art sustainable.

The future’s bright, the future’s tiny.

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