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Toward a Community Theory of Value
Haley Fohr posted about her recent experience on tour, or rather a tour cancelled midway through due to COVID - and I’m hoping it might mark the low point of this miserable epoch in music:
“Today I am flying home after contracting COVID-19 two weeks ago while on a European tour. My band, Circuit des Yeux, had 8 shows to play and we only made it to show four. I worked diligently with my management team, my booking agent, my tour manager, and the promoters of each show to firmly request audience members to wear masks… The mask requesting, asked through info graphics on social media and large posters put up at every show, was a failure. The audience at each show was about 20% masked. It was disheartening to say the least. There were other side effects to my mask requests that lingered in a dark way. I now have a handful of keyboard warriors and internet harassers. These people screen shot every single thing I post on instagram and have entire IG accounts doxxing my whereabouts. In these posts they explicitly call me very racist and derogatory terms. The promoters of these European shows and myself were also threatened with lawsuits, which as unrealistic as this may seem, is something that if brought to fruition would be even more detrimental to my financial instability as an artist.”
Haley spent 13 days sick and then waiting for a negative test just to be able to board a flight home.
The darkest part of this story, for me, is the lack of support for Haley’s request from her own audience. It is horrendous and even dangerous that Haley’s situation has attracted trolls from outside our community. But what has happened to the music community itself? In my personal understanding of rock and roll history, punk rock tore down the fourth wall, eliminating the barrier between performer and audience. That lack of divide is not without risk for both sides – punk has its share of riots to answer for - but it comes with the reward of collective responsibility for everything that transpires in the room.
Haley’s audience didn’t riot. They simply withdrew their responsibility.
What this brings to mind for me is the kind of one-way interaction we have all become accustomed to online. But I’m less interested in chasing ideas of digital passivity (often exaggerated, I suspect), than of digital value. How could an audience not see their own value in the evolving exchange taking place at a live gig? Or did they only see value in terms of the ticket price. They paid their money, and then felt they could do as they like – even if it meant making the performer sick – because that’s the only value they could imagine contributing to the show.
This wouldn’t surprise me because it mirrors the extractive relationship listeners have to online platforms providing them with music. Music is even free, if you want it, so long as you accept that structure to the exchange – the platform gets your time, attention and data, and you get music. It’s not even a purchase. It’s more a mining operation, with the listener as object.
Passivity is cultivated by this relationship, to be sure. But there is enough room for directed action within these platforms to create fan armies, for example. What there isn’t room for is any kind of value generated by actions of the user. All value goes to the platform. It’s like the ultimate capitalist dream of labor: work generates no value for the worker at all. Once we submit to data extraction, our value is measured simply by our time on the platform.
Cut to the venue. Time at a show might seem just like time on a platform: you enter, you get music, eventually you leave. And it might seem like there is no value generated by your activities while there, outside purchasing your ticket and perhaps add-ons like drinks and merch.
Lately, a number of performers have publicly complained about audience behavior at shows. Jack White is the latest to join a long list of artists trying to ban phones from venues – a gesture that might be dismissed as curmudgeonly from an analog-loving revivalist. But Mitski, who doesn’t seem to fetishize the 1920s like Jack White, also recently complained about people filming her shows rather than experiencing them. “When I’m on stage and look to you but you are gazing into a screen, it makes me feel as though those of us on stage are being taken from and consumed as content, instead of getting to share a moment with you,” she wrote on social media (in a now-deleted series of posts). And Adrianne Lenker of Big Thief posted a video simply to explain to her fans that, “When music is happening in a room, there’s a performer onstage playing and doing their craft; when you enter into that space, try to be mindful of what’s happening and pay attention.”
Pay attention… it’s not insignificant that the language we use for this activity engages the concept of value. The audience has more to do than simply enter the space – and they have more yet to pay than the price of a ticket.
Social media and streaming platforms know this very well. Indeed, the value of attention is so great for them, that they have largely done away with the ticket price. But then they strip the audience of the value of their own attention.
It’s a short step, I believe, from not feeling you own the value of your attention to not feeling a participant in any exchange with the performer, biological included. Hence no masks, even when Haley Fohr - and many others – have asked for them. This may not be about masking per se, hot a topic as that is during the pandemic. It may be more deeply and more permanently about that old Marxist concept: alienation.
If the value of our digital life online is in our attention, and that value is wholly taken from us by the platforms that profit from it, it follows that at present we are alienated from our attention in the same manner that workers are alienated from their labor in an industrial economy.
But what precisely is the value of attention, when it’s not in an extractive relationship that uses data collection to convert it to cash? How does one even identify attention in a physical environment like performance?
Like my fellow performers, I know its value, viscerally. However, it is rather mysterious. Adrianne Lenker, in her video message to fans, lit a candle and resorted to talk about “magic” in an effort to convey what attention does for a room. This isn’t the usual kind of term for labor and its value. There’s nothing concrete to point at, like industrial production. There aren’t even the results of artistic creation that one can see or hear. It’s felt, but not with fingertips.
So where and how to locate that value? Marx had, I believe, a similar quandary in locating the value of any labor. “Labor is creative of value,” wrote Jacques Rancière in a gloss on Marx’s Capital. “It does not have value.” The “labor theory of value” – the idea that value is a kind of repository of labor - is often misascribed to Marx, who made extensive use of this classical economic concept from Adam Smith and David Ricardo, but primarily to critique it. The “value theory of labor” is one clever way to identify what Marx was really after, in a memorable phrase coined by the British economist Diane Elson – which, if I understand it, expresses the idea that value determines the nature of labor in a capitalist economy, rather than the other way round.
If we apply that to our post-industrial, online economy where attention is the creator of value… then isn’t our attention, in fact, our labor?
That is to say: attention has value, and not just online. The performance space makes that clear. And if attention has value, then crucially, its value is not created by its extractors. It is created by us. And therefore belongs to us.
Now, how to measure that value offline, where data and algorithms don’t apply… Toward that end, I want to propose a “community theory of value.”
Attention, it seems to me, is what we each contribute to the value of a performance. It is what we bring to the exchange with a performer, and with one another, in a given room at a certain time. It cannot be pointed to, but its presence is registered nonetheless. Its value – to follow the logical turn by Diane Elson – determines the nature of the labor that we undertake together in that room. The labor of creating community.
That might sound rather theoretical, or even mystical. But its failure to materialize is very concrete. For example: in performers getting sick.
This isn’t just about masking up. This is about recognizing the value we create when we contribute to community. And about owning that value – not surrendering it to extractive corporations. Can we reclaim the value created by our own attention? Not because we “owe” it to anyone. Rather, for ourselves - and thereby for one another. Performers included.
A community theory of value would acknowledge the value of our attention. A value that doesn’t require data and algorithms to be realized. All it needs is other people, also paying attention.
Listening to: Tana, by the Nile Project
Cooking: Sorrel from my neighbor’s garden