Who’s on tour: the have’s or the have-not’s?

There is a theoretical caveat that I can take with my project on touring musicians. As media technology develops in late-capitalist society, some theorists argue that the experiences of everyday life become more mediated. This assessment seems too simplistic to me. Besides the increasing access to mediated cultural material, the circulation of music recordings via the Internet, for instance, what comes with technological development is people’s mobility across geographical boundaries.

The politics implicated in mobility, however, should be qualified here a bit. Some movement patterns are induced by labor migration. Working-class migrant workers belong to this category where movement is voluntary only to an extent and is mostly based on economic necessities. On the other end of the power spectrum are people who move or travel out of leisure, i.e. tourists. In other words, motivation of movement or the social requisites for mobility are tied to the socioeconomic positions of the individuals.

Where do musicians fit in? Are musicians migrant (presumably working-class) workers, or are they more or less music-making tourists? According to my observations so far, many indie touring musicians fall somewhere in between. As the structure of the music industry becomes more conglomerated, there are fewer musicians out there signed to major labels. Thus fewer and fewer musicians have the funds provided by their labels to tour. In this sense, touring is no longer a means to sell records, the profit-driven end from the perspective of the record companies. Then what does touring mean to musicians who tour and subsist out of their own pockets, oftentimes the savings from a day job? Sometimes if you get lucky, and if you’re popular enough, you barely break even from ticket and merchandise sales.

To musicians working at this level of the (amorphous) music industry, touring often means a personal aspiration, whether this serves the end of fulfilling the “rock star dream” or “getting my music heard by real people”, or making social network for fans and other musicians. I think, what compels musicians to get out there is precisely the personal, oftentimes intimate (especially if you’re really indie and low-budget) connections established in the live music setting.

I’m personally guilty of some of these motivations. And our Pinko Communoids tour of Taiwan this past summer was certainly not funded by a record label (our CDR was released by our own “label”). Our very costly trans-Pacific tour to East Asia was funded by student loans (another perk of being in grad school) and university funds, combined with the gracious financial assistance from our friends and families. [If you’re curious, here’s a list of people who made our trip possible, some of whom offered financial support while others emotional support.]

So – back to the beginning, music as heard in the postmodern, late-capitalist, Internet-mediated age is not just highly mediated and impersonal. Music can only be experienced in intimate, live music performances by indie-level musicians on tour. Sure, this dream is not lived out by everyone musician of all social positions. Not everyone can afford a tour around the world (living expenses) and being off from work.

The issue of class is looming though other forms of inequalities can intersect with socioeconomic positioning. Not everyone can feel safe on the road – as there are still lots of social spaces that are quite dangerous to gender (yes, this includes women, still!!), sexual and ethnic minorities. Trust me.
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This entry was originally posted on October 4, 2007 on Yellowbuzz.

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