Live Music Exchange Blog

More than a Feeling, More than Music: Diversity and Experience in Live Music – Fabian Holt


In our latest guest post Fabian Holt of Roskilde University considers the relationship between festivals and branding along with the management and control of diversity in musical and geographical spaces.

In addition to being a distinct field of production, live music is increasingly becoming a topic of conversation in placemarketing, tourism, urban and regional development, and in cultural and economic policy-making. The new and broader interest in live music as an element of larger agendas evolves from the history of culture-led economic growth strategies that first emerged in the face of industrial decline in the 1970s. These strategies first focused on transforming public parks and museums into more consumer-friendly spaces, but during the 1980s so-called ‘festivalization’ surfaced on the agenda, and live music is now part of that, particularly with an unprecedented number of music festivals, but also with the trend of arena building fronted by corporate concert promoters AEG and Live Nation.

As the ground for live music is broadening into new public discourses of culture, place, and economy, it is striking that live music is frequently used to create images of unity and particularly elusive images of enjoyable consumer experiences. This function of live music is precisely one of the reasons for its popularity, drawing from the transcendent power of music, but I wonder if the potentials of live music are overlooked if it is limited to simplistic marketing conceptions and disconnected from the diversity in the field. Consider two examples:

In Austin, Texas, city marketers have worked for over a decade to brand it as a live music city. Here, live music is conveyed as a feeling in the context of consumption and tourism, not as a particular kind of music. In fact, as scholar Caroline O’Meara has pointed out, this involves the exclusion of racial and ethnic difference with implications for the city’s African American communities.

Another example is the big rock festival in Roskilde, Denmark, that has grown into a kind of mass culture festival over the past ten years. The festival started to use the phrase ‘the orange feeling’ a few years ago, alluding to a vague but positive sense of transcendent ‘feeling.’ This is, in my judgment, a perfect example of how music festivals in an increasingly saturated market adopt corporate marketing strategies to strengthen their appeal to a broader consumer segment but still have to negotiate issues of difference and diversity.

The positive official images of live music events created in Austin and Roskilde, respectively, have distinct elements of the spatial event design pioneered by Disney World in the 1970s. They are working with strategies of theming through sonic or visual metaphors and with the design of positive experiences for various forms of consumer identification and social control. But they are not gated theme parks. Diversity still exists in Austin, and in the Roskilde Festival diversity is negotiated within the multitude of the event that is partially beyond the control of the festival management.

Out of a diverse range of music-making and musical performance in society, the unitary notions of live music primarily result from commodification and marketing within institutionalized discourses of the live music industry and cultural economy. There is a process in which musical performance gains exchange value (involving ticket sales) and meanings through marketing communication targeted toward particular types of consumers. And yet again, this process might conceal but does not eliminate musical and cultural diversity, particularly the deeper distinctions between art and entertainment within the broader cultural field. Differences are negotiated in contemporary urban music scenes and festivals. There will most likely be different conceptions of live music on the small and the large stages, in high and low-income neighborhoods.

The positive images of live music might have helped sustain interest, social and commercial, over the past decade, but in the further growth of the field it might also be important to think about diversity in live music. Not just in the sense of musical difference, but also in terms of the diverse range of events and venues. The social criticism that can and should be made is that it is problematic when these vague images start becoming not just popular but hegemonic and its proponents too ignorant of diversity.

The pioneer team behind Live Music Exchange has made an enormous contribution to an understanding of live music in historical, social, and economic contexts and to sharing this knowledge among various professionals in the field. By considering the diversity uncovered in the accounts of this team and their international colleagues around the world, one finds resources for further perspectives in cross-sector collaboration and research.

Live music is now central to research into cultural events, urban planning, and new media, and it is likely that a dialogue on the place of live music in these contexts will evolve both among live music specialists and into the respective fields of urban studies, policy studies, tourism studies, cultural industry studies, and media studies, to name a few important examples. In this exploration, I find inspiration and potential in recognizing the diversity of live music and conceptions thereof, while also appreciating the shared experience around the performance stages where musical experience gains a special energy from the particular social and material context. The cultural experience of live music is not just a feeling, but it is also about more than music.

Fabian Holt

Please note that this is a forum for discussion, dialogue, and debate, and posts and comments on this blog represent only the author, not Live Music Exchange as a whole, or any other hosting or associated institutions.


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