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Music in the Age of Interconnected Production

Is the internet really the right place for sustainable creative exchange between artists and fans? A.G. Cook weighs in.

If Web 2.0 democratized the musical means of production, the rise of social media represents the second radical break in the way music is distributed and consumed. In her essay from the forthcoming Electronic Beats book, Laura Aha ponders the role of social networks in enabling creative exchange between fans and artists and the ethical implications of a globalized, interconnected music scene.

Charli XCX looks sleepy. “I just finished an all-nighter session. It’s half-past six in the morning right now.” She’s speaking to her fans through the shaky front lens of her phone in a behind-the-scenes announcement video to promote her latest album, how i’m feeling now. “Had some vodka,” she hiccups, before pulling down the shutters in her bedroom and going to bed in the next shot. It’s mid-May 2020. For almost two months, the music scene has come to a standstill in lockdown. Those who can afford it do yoga in their country house, those who can’t are streaming unpaid gigs from their living room and are probably considering a career change.

With five successful major-label albums and 3.7 million Instagram followers, Charli XCX doesn’t exactly belong to the second group. Still, laying low is not an option for her. “I have to be creative to be happy,” she told the “Angels,” as she lovingly calls her fans, in a public Zoom chat in early April. In the same videoconference, she announced her intention to produce a new album in six weeks, exclusively utilizing the tools available to her in quarantine.

Despite the isolation that she spent with her boyfriend and two friends in Los Angeles, the album was to be Charli XCX’s most collaborative project ever, produced with other artists and her fans. “I want to disclose the entire process,” she promised. “I’ll show you demos, acapellas, ask you for your opinion on lyrics, which songs I should release, and which artwork. You will help me make videos and get creative with me.”

As with her previous projects, Charli XCX worked on how I’m feeling now with her longtime collaborator, British producer A. G. Cook. During the entire time, the label boss at PC Music sat in his girlfriend’s parents’ house in Montana, 1,500 kilometers awayand struggled with the wifi connection. “I always had to go to the top floor to download all the files,” says Cook with a laugh in the Zoom interview from that very house in Montana. “I worked on the music in blocks, talked to Charli on FaceTime, or texted her video snippets.” All of this could be followed live on Charli’s socialsshe used her phone to record snippets of the Adlibs 100 gecs’ Dylan Brady sent her as voice messages via Instagram DM. Fans could witness her scribbling lyrics in a notebook, improvising melodies, and swearing into the cell phone camera when she recorded her vocal parts in the living room. A. G. Cook encouraged her to record her own vocals (which she’d never done before) and explained how to use the software via video chat.

The possibility of artistic collaboration free from the restrictions of physical spaces is not a new phenomenon. Due to COVID-19, however, it suddenly became a creative imperative and, as in the case of Charli XCXs, brought about new forms of collaboration. This kind of working process signals the end of a long process of democratizing the means of productionthe technological change from analog to digital studio technology paved the way for ever-cheaper music production. The arrival of the PC in almost every household and the subsequent increasing availability of inexpensive production software presented anyone with the opportunity to become a bedroom producer.

It is this phenomenon that inspired the name of A. G. Cook’s label PC Music. “I grew up with Garage Band, younger people today with Ableton. The computer has become so much part of our daily life that everyone on it becomes a co-creator.” For Cook, fans’ involvement in the creative process, as Charli XCX put it on how I’m feeling now, is “just the next logical step. She organized songwriting sessions with her fans on Instagram Live, held public votes on artwork options, and put together her video for the single “Forever” from 5,000 home-made home recording clips made by her fans.”

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This new approach to artist-fan collaboration quickly seeped into the musical mainstream tooAriana Grande and Justin Bieber’s “Stuck With You” music video won the 2020 VMAs in an entirely new category titled “Best Video From Home.” In the video, we see Ariana Grande cuddling with her dog in her bed, while Justin Bieber films himself with his wife while going for a walk, as well as hundreds of fans who had submitted their own home videos of themselves with their loved ones. The age of passive fans adoring their unreachable idol from afar is long gone. Today’s fan-active communities such “Charli’s Angels,” Lady Gaga’s “Little Monsters,” Grande’s “Arianators,” or Justin’s “Popular” feel more closely connected to their stars than ever before.

To what extent this actually applies to Charli XCX’s album production and if it was just a clever marketing strategy of the major-label behind how i’m feeling now remains to be seen. However, hardly anything has changed the relationship between fans and stars as lastingly as the development of social networksfans catapult songs into the charts via TikTok challenges with self-made dance videos or become direct sponsors of their stars on Patreon. It is difficult to foresee whether this development frees artists from the music-industrial constraints and promotes creative exchange, or whether it only puts them in a different dependency relationship to become an optimized product for their fans. One thing is certaintoday’s fans have more power than ever before because they are better networked with one another.

Today's fans have more power than ever before because they are better networked with one another.

When MySpace launched in 2003, the platform heralded a new age. For the first time, fans could network with like-minded people online, exchange ideas in groups, and discover new artists with just one click. Conversely, the ability to find target groups made the network attractive for musicians. So-called “MySpace bands” like Bullet For My Valentine, Arctic Monkeys, or Panic! At The Disco, musicians like Lily Allen and Kate Nash rose to fame through the platform. But MySpace and subsequently YouTube (2005) or Soundcloud (2007) not only ensured that existing bands could upload their music and market it themselves without a label, but the platforms also enabled creative exchange and networking across national borders. In their video “Internet Killed the Video Star,” which they uploaded to YouTube in 2006, the ClipBandits claimed to be the world’s first “web band” that had formed on YouTube without ever meeting in person or knowing the names of their bandmates. They wrote music “together” by playing their respective instruments and synchronizing YouTube videos with one another.

In addition to the formation of new collaborations or genres of their ownlike the emergence of “Cloud rap” in the early 2010splatforms such as Soundcloud also helped establish niche phenomena by allowing like-minded people to connect online. Without Soundcloud, A. G. Cook assumes that he probably would have never founded his label PC Music. 

Charli XCX
In 2012, the hyper-real post-internet sound between glossy pop and deconstructed club that made PC Music so iconic was still an unpopular fringe in a London scene where dubstep reigned supreme. However, Cook came across the late Scottish producer SOPHIE via Soundcloud and subsequently found more and more like-minded people in London via the platform. But despite all of their affinity for the internet, the first meeting between all early PC music artists took place in a Camden pub. “PC Music was already an online thing. But it got so important because we could meet in person and because we all felt like outsiders in the London scene. That welded us together. I don’t know if it would have been the same if we weren’t all physically in the same place,” recalls Cook.
In addition to the possibilities of digital networking, the rise of IRL experiences also contributed to the fact that local scenes became more globalized at the end of the noughties. At that time, “Generation Easyjet” was the slogan in SOPHIE’s Soundcloud profile, says A. G. Cooka sign of that time’s zeitgeist. The emergence of low-cost airlines made new connections possible for artists and fans alikea phenomenon that the author Tobias Rapp analyzed in “Lost and Sound – Berlin, Techno and the Easyjet Set,” published in 2009. Today this trend of the cheap jet-set seems to be declining. Thanks to the Fridays For Future movement, a shift in mindset has taken place in recent years, one which favors a radical transformation in the industry’s ecological footprint.

Whether international ravers will return to flying into cities across Europe just for a party weekend remains to be seenand from an environmental point of view, it’s no longer acceptable. Does this mean online collaborations like Charli XCX’s approach and live stream concerts in virtual rooms are the only meaningful future? Even if more and more is possible online, A. G. Cook is confident that musical collaboration will not work without contact IRL.

“I think the project with Charli’s album would not have been possible if we hadn’t worked so much together beforehand. It’s almost proof of how much we’ve worked together and how well we get on. There was a lot of dialogue on the tracks between my production and her vocals,” he says. In the digital production process, the lack of artistic dialogue and creative debate presented one of the most significant challengesThere was simply no physical space to play with ideas, exchange thoughts and discard them again.

“If you write to someone in the chat, ‘I don’t like this idea at all,’ it often sounds a lot harsher than it intended. When you’re in the same room, you can tweak the sound a little and develop a new idea. There is a kind of direct, human feedback that simply feels more fluid than just discussing in the chat.” According to Cook, it’s impossible to use live conferencing platforms like Zoom for jam sessions, because there are too many technological hurdles to work efficiently in a creative way. “You can only hear one desktop at a time,” for example.

I think Charli XCX's album would not have been possible if we hadn't worked so much together beforehand.

He also definitely sees room for improvement in terms of communication with fans for future projects. “People were very happy to watch the album develop and be involved in various ways,” says A. G. Cook. Including actual musical input from fans, however, was difficult. On the one hand, the six-week-long time frame was too short to collect and sift through all the material sent in. On the other hand, the involvement of other producers also creates other difficulties. “When working with a major label, I was careful about using material from strange people if I couldn’t understand exactly where it came from because of potential licensing issues. I also wanted to map the production chain precisely in the credits,” says Cook. Does the dream of artist-fan collaboration ultimately fail because of traditional music industry structures? A. G. Cook sees the problem more in the communication platforms themselves. He is skeptical about whether conventional social media platforms are suitable spaces for creative exchange since they represent the kind of “platform capitalism” described by Nick Srnicek, in which the central business model is the collection and utilization of user data.
On the other hand, A. G. Cook finds platforms like Discord (2015), an online communication service initially created for the gaming and e-sports sector, more promising. On Discord, people in groups can communicate mostly anonymously on various topics and shared interests. Like other channels that originated in the gaming world, Discord seems to have grown in importance to musicians since the outbreak of COVID-19. Artists like Oneohtrix Point Never or Arca already use Discord to exchange ideas with their fans. Arca’s mixtape MUTANTS VOL. 2: RIOT, which appeared on Bandcamp on September 4th, 2020, is “a collaborative release from members of the Mutants1000000 Discord community which was established in order to raise funds for organizations that support and uplift POC, queer, and trans lives.”
The focus here is obviously on community-building possibilities in new online spaces removed from traditional social media structures. With places like Discord, fans can participate more actively because the rooms are more exclusive. Arca only grants her fans exclusive access to a private Instagram channel and an invite-only Discord server to support them financially through Patreon. On the one hand, it creates a safe online space where her fans can exchange and network undisturbed. On the other hand, this space also functions as an innovative business model with which it makes itself (more) independent from classic structures of the music industry.
PC Music founder A.G. Cook

A. G. Cook used Discord to promote his album Apple by opening a Discord server called Apple Guild, where he organized a “Battle of the Bands.” Several hundreds of people registered and were given the task of covering a classic rock song. “We gave them parody names like ACPC, a private chat room as a practice room, and thus created 60 bands. We could see how complete strangers were sending and forth, creating logos and videos. It was really great to see what a kind of, let’s say, ‘fan content,’ came out of it!” The winning band, determined through internal voting solely among those involved, won a slot at the “Appleville” festival, which took place shortly afterward, sharing the bill with to Charli XCX, 100 gecs, and Cook himself.

If the line between fans and artists is becoming increasingly blurred, what does it mean to be an artist in 2020? For A. G. Cook, this question does not seem too relevant. PC Music has always questioned traditional constructs and hierarchies from the startincluding the concept of authorship. “The approach that several people work on a project is essential for me. In terms of authorship, there isn’t a singular ‘great creator’ but many people who play around with it.”

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In this context, artists like Holly Herndon and Mat Dryhurst have coined the term “interdependent music,” which aims to replace the romanticized concept of independent music. “We live in an economy that uses the goodwill associated with the term independence as a cover for unreasonable demands that threaten occupational security by crowding out institutions,” Dryhurst wrote in The Guardian in 2018. If platform capitalism should replace conventional label and sales models, then, according to Dryhurst, only artists who meet the playlist algorithms’ requirements will benefit anyway. New infrastructures are therefore needed, especially for more experimental artists. According to Dryhurst, “an artist who creates challenging works depends on resilient international networks of small labels, organizers, publications, and production services to make his vision possible. A vision of interdependence recognizes that individual freedoms only thrive in the presence of resilient networks and institutions.”
Collaborative practices can also function as acts of resistance. During his “Battle of the Bands”, A. G. Cook noticed a completely different way of communicating in alternative digital spaces such as Discord. “It was much warmer and more cordial than what we’re used to from traditional socials. People supported each other and took the project very seriously.” Cook suspects that this kind of creativity could also be related to people interacting under avatars rather than under their “real” identity. “If you look at the early days of the internet, people were using avatars on forums. Back then, everything was much more creative. Suddenly you presented yourself as an avatar through Facebook and Instagram. We feel compelled to document our real life. Maybe something in between would be good, a bit of role-playing, like the gamers on Twitch who play with their avatar but also talk about other things at the same time.”

We feel compelled to document our real life. Maybe something in between would be good, a bit of role-playing.

Cook sees gamified playfulness as an opportunity embodied by K-pop fans, who identify strongly with their community through aesthetic codes and role play and proudly show this on their socials. Because they are well networked and organized as a community, they can even form a potent force of resistance online. When Donald Trump held his first election campaign event in 2020 on June 19th (known as “Juneteenth” in the US as commemoration day for the end of slavery), K-Pop fans organized on TikTok, using colorful dance videos to promote reserving tickets for the rally online without any intention of attending. So despite the allegedly over a million reservation inquiries he boasted about, Donald Trump ultimately appeared in front of numerous empty seats.
“It’s nice to see this disruptive chaos. TikTok has already done a lot of good for the fan communities. In the current economic system, however, it remains a company,” says A. G. Cook. Where this development will lead to in the future is a political question as much as it is an economic one. “The music industry is very slow and seems to be set back completely by practically every change,” Cook says with a laugh, citing technical innovations such as the development of the CD or file sharing as examples. For him, what counts most is the creative potential he sees online in these new networked collaborations: “The quality of output by so many people with all the tools and the level of craftsmanship is accelerating in such a cool way. That makes me very optimistic. “

Laura Aha is a journalist and radio host based in Berlin.

Translated from German to English by Caroline Whiteley.

The Electronic Beats book is out on March 15th. You can pre-order a copy via Do you read me ?!

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Published February 01, 2021. Words by Laura Aha.