In today’s post, Fabian Holt of Roskilde University presents a working paper on the evolution and organisational culture of mid-size venues in New York. Taking as his primary case study the Bowery Presents chain of venues, he traces the gentrification process back to the Fillmore auditoriums, described last week by Steve Waksman. Drawing parallels with Apple and Microsoft, his analysis ties changes in venues and audiences to narratives of ‘cool’ in modern business practice and consumer habits, along with their self-definition as distinctive and discerning.
Have Post-Fordist Narratives of Cool Changed the Music Business? – An Explorative Study of Cultural and Organisational Change in Live Music Clubs
Rock and roll had started in the clubs and the streets and the parks. Then it became a game of supply and demand. As the market price went up, the negotiations got heavier. It wasn’t just who had the better amps or piano or stage crew.
Bill Graham (Graham and Greenfield 1994, 354)
It is more difficult to get a club open and to keep it open once it’s licensed than it ever used to be.
Manager of a law firm representing over 50 clubs in New York City (Strauss 1996)
‘Cool’ is the front region of capitalism today for those who are seduced by its cultural appeal …
Jim McGuigan (2009, 1)
This working paper is written for the Live Music Exchange and is intended to present key elements of my research on live music venue culture to an audience that might want a quick overview and more emphasis of the business side. I encourage scholars to use my more formal academic publications on the topic for quotations and in-depth critique.
The paper evolves from my argument that rock music clubs in New York, but also in other cities, have experienced subtle and deep cultural and organisational changes over the past couple of decades within the broader social process of gentrification. I have presented this argument in an article that introduces a post-community perspective on mid-size New York rock venues (Holt 2013a), a book chapter that explores the international dimension of the process (Holt 2013b), and a journal article that focuses on gentrification (Holt, forthcoming). The bulk of this paper was written at an early stage in the research when I had done fieldwork for about two months, mostly in the form of participant-observation in the venues, but also about 25 formal interviews with professionals in business networks, and many more conversations with audiences in the venues.
The motivation for this paper is to give a short introduction to the core idea in a working paper style that allows for sharing thoughts on choices and experimentation in the research process. The paper also explores a new perspective on the process, namely the relation between social change and organisational culture. Whereas my previous work on this has focused on the role of gentrification, this paper introduces the idea that the development of an indie rock business has not only changed the structure of the rock music business but also involves wider cultural changes. In particular, the conclusion of this paper explores the idea that postindustrial notions of cool consumer and organisational culture have found their way into the indie music business. My argument is that this creates a context for consumers at the Bowery Presents chain of venues, even though the company itself does not narrate its own identity at this symbolic level with clear markers of life-style and class. In fact, the two main elements that create this association are the music programming (the consistent programming of music that is perceived to be cool, creative, and indie) and the location of the venues in areas associated with the emerging class of hip, creative professionals.
The epiphany that shaped my interpretation of the Bowery Presents originates in fieldwork in Manhattan rock clubs since 2010. I was puzzled for some time. The culture did not fit the description of it in the literature on clubs. Moreover, the established analytical strategies did not help explain the core dynamics. The literature on live music clubs focuses on small clubs, whereas the contemporary scene was dominated by more headliner-oriented mid-size venues. The literature, moreover, emphasized community experience, whereas the dominant commercial clubs emphasize the perfected concert performance in a consumer culture setting of optimised facilities and services. Above all, how could the scenario of an underground rock scene, much celebrated and mythologized, be so far from the contemporary realities? Had the underground simply disappeared or moved away from the centre? But, first and foremost, how could it be that scholars were not writing about this development? There was nothing to be found about mid-size venues, commercial concert clubs, or The Bowery Presents in books and journals of popular music studies. The questions I confronted require that theories of clubs and music scenes implement analytical perspectives on social change. This is necessary in order to account for how club culture changes over time.
There was another element of field epiphany. The club literature steered me to focus on the uniqueness of each club, but a key aspect of the process was that clubs were becoming less unique. The scene was moving away from the small club run by an idiosyncratic individual. Instead, the scene now has more generic designs and rational, industrial productions of scale. It was not immediately obvious, but through online ticket purchases I discovered that the some of the venues are owned by the same company. The Bowery Presents uses similar designs and exploits variations in audience capacity and neighbourhood markets through integrated management of the venues. To search for a unique culture in each club in conventional humanistic fashion would be a mistake and ignore the core dynamics. More specifically, a humanistic study of the venue experience would be unnecessarily fragmented if it ignored the business dimension that structures the production and experience. The social distance between management and audience, and among audiences, is greater than in DIY clubs because it is a consumer culture setting where agency is confined to roles of production and consumption.
As a consequence, I argue that the conventional community and performance study of small rock clubs in popular music studies need to be complemented by sociological inquiry into urban social change and organisational practices. The community approach introduced in the 1980s, and developed in the 1990s by scholars such as Sara Cohen, Barry Shank and Harry Berger, is based on the conception of music scenes as spaces of interconnected sites of socio-musical collectivity, often with a fan and neighbourhood community dimension. Much attention has been paid to the negotiation of cultural identity and locality. The commercial development of rock clubs and their shifting demographics accounts for an increasing integration with mainstream urban social life and consumer culture. The dominant medium sized rock clubs in Manhattan and also in other cities are now organised around the professional presentation of the artist, and with the concert venue as a consumer service space (as opposed to a utopian community space).
The gentrification process
The Bowery Presents opened its first club, the Mercury Lounge, in 1993 in a neighbourhood that was already in the process of gentrification. The Mercury Lounge has a garage feel in that patrons walk in on the street level to a small bar and then directly into a space with a concrete floor, low ceilings, and a low stage. There is nothing underground about it, however, and its potential “grittiness” (Zukin 2010) is tamed by renovations and painting, so it feels clean and orderly compared with CBGBs and other typical punk clubs of the pre-gentrified era. The audience culture is also significantly different from the era of punk, new wave and New York party culture on Lower Manhattan. Going to the Mercury Lounge or other venues of the Bowery Presents is a more rationally structured experience of going to see a band, starting early evening, with the atmosphere of a sober and disciplined audience, and a closing time around midnight. The experience is even more structured in the venues with headliner acts, where tickets have to be purchased online a month or more in advance.
The Mercury Lounge became a hotspot for the presentation of young rock artists. Here, the company developed relations with artists that would later grow artistically and commercially. To grow with the artists and maintain the relationship over the life of the artist’s career, the company opened new and larger clubs, ultimately creating a self-owned system of venues from small to large clubs. Throughout the process, the company’s strength has been to adapt to the tastes of the new urban middle-classes, develop relations with artists in this domain, and to achieve the perfection in the presentation of the artist in marketing and audiovisual production that is valued among the new urban audiences. This is an audience influenced by the new conditions of living that involve blurring boundaries of work and non-work, the need for higher income and career-making, and a greater sense of self-control as articulated in the practices of fitness clubs (Sassatelli 2010), more controlled sexuality, and the disappearance of long hair and tattoos. In short, what we have seen over the past two decades is a development of well-known practices in live music production, but at the same time a deeper cultural shift in the experience of rock concerts and their social values between audiences.
2. The new centrality of mid-size venues
The Bowery Presents has evolved from an independent into a semi-corporate company, especially after Jim Glancy joined the company in 2004. The corporate aspect is frequently mentioned and often with a sceptical view in DIY circles around New York, but it is complex.[i] I use the term semi-corporate because there are certainly corporate strategies at play, including marketing and branding, but the organisation presents many artists with a small market and operates relatively small venues. This area of activity requires more curatorial work on the music side, more listening and interaction with a larger number of artists and agents than if activities were limited to rock stars. Also, the company is relatively small and concentrated in one city, not a subsidiary of a larger organisation.
The following list shows the company’s clubs. When, in 2010, a New York Times rock critic called the company a ‘concert empire’ (Sisario 2010) it was also because of the increasing number of shows it started producing in large concert halls and arenas, including Madison Square Garden. Figure 1 gives a sense of the company’s expansion:
Name of venue Opening year Audience capacity[ii]
Mercury Lounge 1993 200
Bowery Ballroom 1997 700
Webster Hall 2004 1400
Terminal 5 2007 3300
Music Hall of Williamsburg 2007 550
Brooklyn Bowl (as partner) 2009 600
Figure 1. List of clubs owned by The Bowery Presents
I am primarily concerned with the mid-size venues that have become more central. In previous decades, smaller clubs were more central to the pre-gentrification era music scene that was characterized by more informal socializing and performance. With the emergence of an indie music business, the mid-size venues at 500-1500 capacity have become important. The Bowery’s mid-size venues share the same theatre architecture with high ceilings and balconies and the same vintage-style interior design with black wood floors and iron gates at the balconies. The concert product line and the customer service are managed with a fine-tuned business concept to reach maximum sales and customer satisfaction. The shows follow the same basic schedule with two opening acts and the main act finishing before midnight.
3. History and social change
When legendary rock clubs closed in Manhattan in the early 2000s there was talk about the end of an era, and the rise of the Brooklyn scene was apparent, but a critic could still gloss over the situation in 2006 with the following judgment: “There are no reliable statistics about the flux of the quantity of clubs over the years, but in general the ashes-to-ashes principle applies: when one closes, another opens” (Sisario 2006). The big change is not in the quantity of venues, but in their changing culture and economy within urban social geography. A new paradigm of the generic commercial concert club dominates in New York and other cities across America and Europe, as we shall see. The changes are not particular to New York, but the basic structure is more strongly articulated because of market competition in this city.
Some of the changes in the New York rock scene are part of familiar processes of urban social change. The development of concert venues in lower Manhattan is clearly related to the area’s gentrification, with a concentration of white middle-classes, and with the erosion of the neighbourhood’s uniqueness associated with small-scale local businesses, for instance (Zukin 2010). The rise of the new concert venues is also related to the familiar process of spatial differentiation by which less profitable activities are priced out and re-routed to more marginal areas of the city (Sassen 1991). The market-driven changes of the global city intensify sociospatial differentiation in such a way that different kinds of culture become more separated across city zones. Spaces for less profitable cultural forms such as music with a small market have moved away from Manhattan because of structural, systemic forces. In the narratives of the cultural scene, there is a sense of exodus from the Manhattan downtown and experimental scene of the past couple of decades to the Brooklyn scene around 2000. It started in the 1990s in Williamsburg just across the river and has moved further.
For an example of how cultural events and spaces can be understood in a process of change, let us turn to Lawrence Levine’s cultural history of Shakespeare in American theatre (Levine 1988). The book is exemplary because it draws attention to connections between core elements such as repertoire, ticket price, and class in the transformation of the stage show and of audience attitudes. It is also exemplary in the sense that some of the processes have been mirrored in other art forms. The popularisation involving more standardised and delocalised formulae, star performers, and a more centralised industry can also be found in the history of cabaret (Segel 1987), and with a more media-driven dynamic in country and rock music, for instance. The new concert venues present a form of industrialisation of the rock club, involving a move away from hedonistic nightlife and toward a middle-class concert aesthetic.
Another work of particular relevance to the methodical approach of this piece is Straw’s 1991 article on music scenes. Seeking to move beyond essentialist ideas of community and localism, the article introduces the term ‘scene’ in a cultural studies discourse. While the theoretical section is not developed into a formal framework and could be applied more systematically in empirical analysis, the conceptual metaphors suggest a useful way of thinking about music and urban space in the global media age. With key terms such as systems of articulation, migration, and logics of circulating commodities, the article draws attention to structural aspects, mediation, and movement across time and space.
4. Indications of Deeper Cultural Change
To suggest the change in clubs and their urban social environment, let us consider the following experience of a visit to the legendary CBGB rock club on the Lower East Side in the late 1980s. A self-designated “middle class suburban woman” named Carol who worked in a “computer-research lab” describes her first (and probably last!) visit to CBGB on the Lower East Side:
It was an interesting walk [from South Street Seaport] through Chinatown and the districts above CBGB. It was also sad. So many poor people walking in the streets. I wondered what stories they had to tell. We approached CBGB about a half hour before show time… How do I even begin to describe this place? Could this grey place with graffiti all over the outside be this famed club? … The club’s walls looked like the inside of a prehistoric cave – lumpy and scrawled upon. But Kathy and I decided to brave the elements and head to the back and down the stairs to the restroom (another funny term – if you rested there, heaven knows what you would pick up). I won’t describe some of the places graffiti was. We were afraid to flush the toilets for fear of flooding the basement and drowning! Mirrors on the walls? Oh my, yes, if you call slivers of glass pasted above the grimy sinks mirrors! (Haliski 1989, 79-80)
Such an outsider perspective would be unlikely in today’s Manhattan venues, which Carol might actually have enjoyed. She would most likely have enjoyed walking among affluent residents and stopping by an Apple store or a gourmet café before “show time”. She would be pleased to see that the rooms are cleaner. I’d like to avoid a simplistic gender generalization, but the dirty, subterranean rock clubs of previous decades were more male-dominated.
Carol only went to CBGB because one of her colleagues was playing in the band that night. In fact, the encounter with the urban social environment was unexpected. Today, she would have been on more neutral ground because she would not deviate from the dominant middle-class demographic of the new venues and because there is little if any sense of neighbourhood or community ownership. Carol would have been able to hear the band and go home before midnight. The only thing is this: her colleague’s band might not have played a show in Manhattan today. It might not have met the current market criteria.
5. The Differentiation of the Social and Aesthetic in Club History
The rock club developed in the social environment of urban nightlife in which music clubs have existed since at least the 1930s. Clubs for live entertainment emerged along with the popular cabaret and vaudeville. Although the boundaries with theatrical entertainment were fluid, as in the well-known examples of Café Society in Greenwich Village and the Cotton Club in Harlem, this era also saw the development of venues with distinct musical performances, notably blues and jazz clubs. The performance generally served as accompaniment to drinking and dancing, but the concert culture that developed in jazz in the 1930s gave the word club a new and more distinct aesthetic meaning. The social dimension was still important as this development culminated in the birth of modern jazz in Manhattan clubs of the 1940s. The social meaning can be traced back to the origins of the word. In the 1600s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word club took on the meanings of ‘combination’ and ‘association’ as well as the specific reference to “a meeting or assembly at a tavern, etc., for social intercourse”. In the late 1800s, the word started being used for a building when the assembly was organised regularly in the same space for profit and not for an association. The notion of the social club as a space for an audience with shared values and a sense of insidership has been strong in alternative and underground clubs but not in the commercial concert clubs that dominate contemporary music scenes. This stems from a general process of commodification.
In other words, the term club not only has different meanings but also evolved in different social configurations within complex social processes. The contemporary mid-size venues focus on professional concert artists. It is a venue for music consumption and less a place for socio-musical performance. Its heterotopian status has been eroded; it is less utopian, to speak to Foucault (1967/1994). Among the various urban spaces I played with for comparisons in my fieldwork dialogues, the cinema was the one that resonated most strongly with peoples’ perceptions. Why? First, the audience is together and experiences co-presence but does not exchange or express shared social values in the form of more social rituals. A collective audience identity is rarely claimed in terms of genre or community. As an audience member, there is a sense of being among a number of individuals interested in experiencing the same artist. Notions of venue brand identity replace notions of scene and community ownership.
The differentiation from the social is manifest in the more formal organisation of the performance into a clear division between audience and artist. This is a key implication of the shift from small to medium-sized clubs that present headliners. In the small clubs of the pre-gentrification era, the scene was characterised by more informal behaviour and social interaction. Today, it is more like going to the cinema to watch a perfected presentation, as at an exhibition or a media production.
The social context for this is the transformation of “gritty” subculture to “cool” mainstream in the gentrification process (Zukin 2010). The market process is the evolution of the indie music business. In these processes, the image of the live music club in rock culture not only migrates to a larger space, to the medium-size club, but is also transformed from a social place, a place with a social agenda and purpose beyond the music itself, to a destination and medium of live music experience.
6. From Fillmore to the Bowery Presents
In this section I want to suggest that the mid-size venues of the Bowery Presents and similar companies in other cities are not entirely new inventions of the gentrification era. While gentrification has affected fundamental dimensions, the concert culture of contemporary mid-size venues evolves from innovations in the late 1960s, particularly Bill Graham’s pioneer Fillmore venues in San Francisco where he first discovered an urban concert market for rock music and soon exported the model to Fillmore West in New York’s East Village.
Graham’s biography illustrates in rich detail the all-round skills required of a concert promoter. His success depended not only on skills in curation and contract negotiation but also in myriad challenges that often arose unexpectedly and required immediate action. Such is the condition of an urban concert promoter, but perhaps more so when the business was less established and rock culture less industrialized.
Graham’s contribution to the history of rock music promotion can be explained from the perspective of how he integrated a sense of new musical interests, the emergence of a rock market, with the business logic of a service facility. Graham has been credited for creating ‘the electric ballroom’ which involves a shift from the dancing crowd to the listening crowd. He worked to create more focus on the stage through light design, and he talked to artists about developing a professional performance attitude, with underlying models in popular entertainment. Graham told artists to bow and play encores to show respect and interest in fulfilling audience desires, for instance. Graham’s service experience and mentality was deeply embodied in him from working as a waiter for several years. “I had a waiter’s eye for space,” he writes, and describes his vision of Fillmore East in this way:
I wanted a clean, well-run theater. We fixed the lobby and the concession area. We updated everything. We screwed everything down real tight. I wanted it to look classy. So the when people came in off the street, they would rise up to a higher level. Like when someone walks into a spiffy restaurant. Automatically, their back gets straighter. They change to fit the room. (Graham and Greenfield 1992, 232)
Graham also did much to make artists feel special, but there were aspects of his service mentality that artists did not like. The fact remains that Graham focused the relation between artist and audience as well as the concert venue as a space with artistic and commercial standards.
By all accounts, the managers of the Bowery Presents do not talk to artists about their attitude. Many aspects and routines have become established since the 1960s. The Bowery Presents represents a further development. First of all, the Bowery Presents is not so much a one-man operation, and the managers maintain a distance rather than personalizing the company in the venue, on the street or in the media, unlike Graham who was all over the place. Second, the security and regulation of audience behaviour have become stricter, not just with the smoking ban and regarding drinking. There might be good reasons for this, but the audience is not allowed to stay outside on the street for a while after the show. Also, a frequent complaint online is that the security staff has a somewhat rigid attitude. Moreover, an illustrative example is a fan writing that he was not allowed to smoke pot at a reggae show, something that to him was odd because it used to be part of the performance culture in clubs. Third, the sense of ownership has changed dramatically from the late 1960s as sentiments of neighbourhood and community ownership have faded. Graham reports on an incident in Fillmore East where a group of activists and a few music journalists complained about the rising ticket prices. Some anti-capitalist activists wanted the music to be free and a group called the Motherfuckers wanted to have their own night at Fillmore for free, arguing that it should be a service for the local community on the Lower East Side. On these nights people “messed up the floor and peed on the walls and brought in their cooking utensils so it became like an overnight shelter for the homeless” (Graham and Greenfield 1994, 254). There followed a demo at a benefit for the Living Theater where someone stated on behalf of the crowd: “We know [Graham’s] a hard worker but capitalism must understand that the people will always rule”, and they opened the doors to the street to give everyone free access. Tense negotiations went on all night (ibid, 255-257). It would be unthinkable for the Bowery Presents to confront a similar situation on today’s Lower East Side. Their audiences would not be among the first to critique capitalism in music. They want high quality music and service, and none of them expressed frustration with prices for the show, in part because the prices are not high compared with many other things on the Lower East Side.
I have described the venue culture at the Bowery Presents in further detail elsewhere, but let me mention a few key points:
- A highly competitive and genre-regulated “product line” of artists playing new and original material, with core expertise in popular “indie” music, including roots music, generally excluding noise rock, and without the same culturally diverse bookings as other mid-size venues that have closed in the past decade;
- A group of venues that are branded but not as a chain or franchise, and with subtle genre differences in their music programming;
- The branding of the organisation in communications, logo and venue design focus on semi-specialist audiences.
7. Apple Vs. Microsoft? The Postindustrial Cool of Contemporary Indie Rock
The trajectory the Bowery Presents can be understood as an evolution within gentrification and the evolving indie rock business, but its cultural significance can also be cast in the perspective of postindustrial organisational culture.
The Bowery Presents grew not because it outperformed competitors with the same kind of music, but because it developed in a new niche area that eventually grew bigger. It focused on the indie rock of young artists in the mid-1990s before this music matured and gained mainstream popularity; before the artists could fill larger venues. In innovation terminology, this can be interpreted as a ‘disruptive development’ to companies with established models and without the ability to pick up on changing consumer demands. Such a company could be Live Nation in New York. To Live Nation’s local business, the indie rock business became disruptive in a way that parallels Clayton Christensen’s famous notion of “disruptive technology” and the process of how small companies are capable of innovating in small and experimental ways but eventually develop dominant models (Christensen 1997).
While such developments have conventionally been reviewed as a business and technology issue, certainly within the technology industry, they have increasingly become entangled in complex emotional and cultural issues in the postindustrial era with new spirits of capitalism where distinctions between work and non-work are eroding.
The complexity is illustrated in the Microsoft vs. Apple dichotomy that involves different consumer cultures, with social significance far beyond the IT industry. The relevant aspects can be pointed out in trying to develop an understanding of the relationship between the Bowery Presents and Live Nation in this perspective:
Developing a new niche market and exploiting it
Apple took a lead in creating and exploiting markets beyond the personal computer, especially the markets for digital music and mobile devices, while Microsoft continues to focus on an operating system, on Windows. In a very general sense, this parallels the role of the Bowery Presents in creating and exploiting the new market for indie rock, while Live Nation continues to focus on stars. This pertains to the above-mentioned aspect of disruption in the live music business because indie rock has become such big business, with large festivals, that it is a real a loss for Live Nation not to have a foot in this market. The indie rock business has developed into an area between independent and corporate music production, within new communication dynamics. The role and conception of niche markets have changed in the extended long tail of distribution and mass user participation (Anderson 2006/2008). There is a larger segment of niche artists with a relatively large audience, and internet users can easily consume this music independently of commercial radio and television, and in the process feel more distinguished because they are more active in finding and sharing music.
Optimizing the usability and overall aesthetic consumer experience
Apple is recognized for its simple but perfected designs that are easy to use and pleasant to look at. The interface can be used intuitively for an aesthetic experience rather than a mechanical and technical experience; it requires less thinking about the functional operations. This creates the sense of sensitivity in understanding consumer emotions and needs that can be paralleled, again in a very general sense, with the consumer experience at shows produced by the Bowery Presents. The musical aesthetic, the sound, the feel of the venue, and the overall timing and sense of control in the production creates a similar sense of perfection and convenience that allows the consumer to experience rather than to think about how to find a spot that is pleasant, with a view of the artist, and good sound. This is obviously more difficult to achieve in large venues, which are Live Nation’s speciality, but the Bowery Presents is widely recognized for having an edge in this respect.
Adopting an aura of postindustrial cool creativity and distinction
Ideology has become an increasingly important part of corporate identity in the postindustrial era. Corporations build public images of personality, ethics, and life-style, as reflected in corporate narratives of brand management and social responsibility. Apple has been developed as a life-style brand at least since its 1984 commercial that referenced George Orwell’s 1984 and was premièred with a large national audience during the Super Bowl half-time commercials. Apple has built its brand through its product design, packaging, and advertising campaigns. All of this has been very visual and therefore cannot be done in the same way when the product is music. The Bowery Presents has not really presented narratives of its identity and vision. Its use of visual brand communications is sparse. The logo is discreet with a non-intrusive feel in warm colours and round fonts with a retrospective edge (see Figure 2). The company’s identity is mainly created through the programming, as it has become an authority in indie music through consistently curating a large number of artists recognized for their high artistic quality and relevance in the culture.
Figure 2. The logo of the Bowery Presents (www.bowerypresents.com)
Apple, moreover, has gone so far in branding that it operates in the culture industry domain, but what is the ideology? To answer this question, let us consider Livingstone’s study of the “Get a Mac” campaign. This campaign evolves around the interaction between a casual, confident, and creative Mac user and a formal, frustrated, and fun-deprived PC user. These personalities are ascribed deeper ideological meanings. Concludes Livingstone: “Overall, Mac is found seemingly at ease in moving between less defined worlds of work and play, reflecting its adaptability in the flexible information economy, whereas PC appears to be stuck in the industrial paradigm that clearly differentiates what is labor and what is leisure” (Livingstone 2011, 221).
The Apple brand is not restricted to individual interactions with the products or commercials. It involves a broader culture. The semantic codes of the brand are deeply embedded in middle class culture so that the presence of its logo in a café or another public space will immediately create symbolic associations to particular demographics and distinctions. To give a sense of its penetration, Apple is the company in the world with the highest market value. It is also the brand that is routinely associated with contemporary popular indie rock world by musicians on and off stage and by audiences seeking distinction in taste by identifying with perfection and sophistication and indirectly distancing themselves from the image of standardized mass culture.
Another relevant point in Livingstone’s analysis is that class is obscured in a complex postindustrial discourse of individualism. It’s a discourse that emphasizes the young, hip, flexible, and self-directed lifestyle (ibid. 227).
My point is that Apple creates and embodies a broader postindustrial discourse context for indie rock and for the Bowery Presents, although it should be clear that the Bowery Presents and other semi-corporates in its indie music business network do not go as far as Apple in terms of symbolic statements. The postindustrial narrative of cool distinguishes itself socially in terms of class and historically in terms of innovation, creating a distance from images of utilitarian design, rigid mass culture, and large industrial organisations. The reality of Apple, of course, has long been mass consumption and corporate industrial organisation criticised for being overprized and limiting the freedom of the user.
Figure 3. The three partners of the Bowery Presents. Note the casual appearance without suits or corporate attitude. (Source: Sisario 2007)
The organisational culture of new capitalism has produced the narrative of small creative companies such as the tech startups in Silicon Valley, originating in a garage and going on to gain extraordinary commercial success over more stale, large organisations. This narrative is paralleled in the music industry in the specific context of digitisation. Major record labels have become widely associated with a lack of innovation. In the live music sector, the innovation narrative exists in rock festivals distinguishing themselves from “old” conceptions of counterculture (see, for example, Anderton 2011), but also festivals that expand to become mobile and touring events (festivals breaking the single annual event in one place include Coachella and a couple of EDM festivals, with Sonar being a prominent example). However, a promotion and venue management company such as the Bowery Presents also represents innovation in the live music business.
I have described the entrepreneurial agency of the company in the previous publications, and one prominent insider of the business and a long-time collaborator of Jim Glancy suggested that the entrepreneurialism motivated Glancy in 2004 to leave his post as president of Live Nation in New York to become a managing partner of the Bowery Presents. In less than twenty years, the Bowery Presents evolved from having only a small club to being the dominant rock concert promoter in Manhattan, while the world’s largest promoter Live Nation have been losing ground in the city. Live Nation’s mid-size venue Irving Plaza, for instance, has lost some of its momentum to the mid-size venues of the Bowery Presents.
To sum up very briefly, this paper has traced changes in the evolution of mid-size venues from the late 1960s and emphasized how gentrification affected the fundamental dimensions and the shift of emphasis in the rock scene from small underground clubs to mid-size concert venues. The paper further suggests that the history can be interpreted within a broader culture of postindustrial cool associated with middle class distinction, flexibility, and innovation in niche contexts. This larger symbolic narrative has been promoted by a dominant organisation of our time, the technology company Apple, but its deep layer has also affected perceptions of the relationship between music companies in the age of digital media and indie rock. This paper introduces the hypothesis and suggests some perspectives that require further examination. In particular, it might be worth investigating if and how contemporary forms of indie rock and pop have come to embody postindustrial, post-Fordist cool and how this relates to the forms of production (the increasing role of advertising in the economy of the music and how it creates a precarious cultural and economic condition for the musicians, and the economic pressure for more touring). There is also a need for examining the organisational culture in music companies in relation to the culture of their audiences. In my own research on festivals, I have noted examples of rock and electronic music festivals that have only existed for about a decade but have grown big and changed the dynamics of the festival field. Some of those festivals are positioning themselves through signifiers of postindustrial cool niche culture, indirectly framing other festivals as less innovative, less cool.
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[i] A prominent DIY promoter such as Todd Patrick has publicly criticised the Bowery Presents, but I witnessed sceptical attitudes among other people who preferred to remain anonymous.
[ii] These figures are my estimates. The company does not provide them, and there is no documentation provided when numbers are mentioned in the blogosphere and on Wikipedia, for instance.
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