Audiences Affect Artists Too: Rethinking “Participation”

Over the last twenty years we’ve seen a boom in research about “participatory culture” that tries, in part, to make sense of the many ways audiences engage popular culture. This work tends to start from the points of view of audience members. Recently (sometimes during my visits at MSR), I’ve been coming at this from the other side, asking what audiences look like from the points of view of culture creators. I’ve interviewed approximately forty musicians, managers, and label execs to get at how they understand their relationships and communication with audiences. You might have heard of some of them – they include people like Billy Bragg, Kristin Hersh, Lloyd Cole, and Richie Hawtin.

Last week I gave a keynote at Transforming Audiences 3, held at Westminster University in London. My talk was called “Biting and Feeding the Hands That Feed: Musician-Audience Interaction Online.” In it I identify several audience practices and hit briefly on the complex and contradictory ways musicians understand how audiences congregate, criticize, share, create, reach out, help, show interest, tell stories, and complete.

The upshot? When we focus on ‘participation’ from the audiences’ points of view, we only partially understand what ‘participation’ means. Audiences are not just participating in shared practices amongst themselves, they’re participating in the emotional and relational lives of creators in ways that can be powerful and generative, moving and hurtful, validating and at times difficult. Audiences participate not just in creativity, but in life. If audiences are people who listen, the artists become audiences to their audiences, and the meaning of the creative life changes as a consequence.

You can download a PDF of the talk here.