collective ownership \\ auditory dysmorphia (rant – part 2)

In the previous instalment, guitar wizard Samuel Killick wondered aloud whether it is okay to love and cherish a work of art that was created by someone dear to you (friend, relative, mentor etc.), even if deep down you don’t truly believe that the product or project in question is objectively superb. He went so far as to describe feelings of guilt – like it could be unethical to enjoy something that may not be unquestionably brilliant. Make no mistake: we are here to discuss a moral issue, a matter of honesty and artistic integrity.

Now, look, I don’t know anything about anywhere. But in the handful of Sydney live music niches I inhabit, there seems to be a quiet anxiety – a faint suspicion – that the creative output of our friends, family, mentors or other ‘accessible’ (local) artists perhaps doesn’t really measure up to international standards of creativity. Whether this is the case or not (whole other topic) I’m inclined to think that it is this anxiety which underpins Samuel’s question: my dear friend’s sense of guilt is driven by doubt about the ‘absolute’ quality of any art produced within a stone’s throw of our doorstep.

There is far too much here to unpack in one rant and we’re going to hit some tangents, so I’ll just spell out what I really think. In a nutshell, I think that the emergence of Samuel’s artistic-ethical peril, in and of itself, highlights a broader tension that exists between collective ownership and auditory dysmorphia (at least in the sphere of live music, and therefore at the expense of our local performing musicians).

These are both terms that I’ve made up, of course: collective ownership (see part 1) is an idea I relate to the phenomena of overwhelmingly positive attachment some of us experience when encountering a work of art that was created by someone we perceive as close to us, geographically, personally and/or culturally. (Sound like fandom? Well, lacking prior research I’ll cautiously posit that fandom tends to be associated with a sense of unattainable desire or fantasy, whereas I imagine collective ownership to be characterised more by taking pride in the real-world achievements of people in one’s immediate vicinity.)

Auditory dysmorphia is a new one: this describes the notion that we as music listeners are led to qualify human musical performance against (often outrageously) unrealistic standards, as a side-effect of the commercialisation and industrialisation of music recordings. There’s a separate post coming eventually, but you already know what I’m getting at: we’re talking about the airbrushed magazine covers of the music world. As a side effect of easy and affordable access to unlimited recorded music, the typical consumer’s deep familiarity with bepedestaled studio recordings from abroad leads to the development of subconscious (and sometimes overt) biases against the rough edges of live performance – and by extension, against local performing musicians. (Aside: I don’t know whether this is this just ‘raising the bar’, or whether the bias is real problem, but either way it’s certainly a compounding factor in the ongoing market crisis that is Australian live music.)

Okay, so what am I getting at? Well, imagine you’re a local act who, despite all odds, manages to make a small dent and build a fanbase in the local scene. Maybe they’re mostly your friends and family or maybe not, but it doesn’t matter. Now imagine that those fans feel sort of guilty about enjoying your work, because it might not be as good as other stuff out there. How do you address that? If you don’t uproot and leave the city to prove yourself elsewhere – while broadcasting success back to home base – your local scene’s collective self-doubt will gradually chip away at your fanbase, causing your project to stagnate long before it has a chance to snowball.

So yes, the tension between auditory dysmorphia and collective ownership can have a problematic flow-on effect for performing musicians. I don’t have a solution for this, but maybe there are some things we can keep in mind which will help us all support our local scenes into the future: physical rooms will never sound like headphone speakers; recorded audio will never sound like the source, and vice-versa. Very often, superb live shows translate into unlistenable albums, and occasionally, a rather awful studio performance will translate into an amazing record. I think that the most important thing is to remember that every doorstep on earth has unbelievably beautiful music within a stone’s throw – humans will make sure of that. Take pride in your local music scene. And take pride in that pride, too.