Same Drugs No More

By Ella Harvey and Jordan Rosenthal-Kay

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Does anyone have facebook live? I’m about to premier [sic] a new music video on there in 10 minutes ok?” Chance the Rapper tweeted in early February. A prompt response came from @outhawindow: “WHO TF USES FACEBOOK IN 2017” Nonetheless, people navigated to Facebook and watched a clock countdown until the video’s release on Chance’s Live feed. The excitement was twofold. Fans were overjoyed simply because it was Chance that was dropping something. But there was a second excitement too: what could Chance do on Facebook live, or anyone for that matter?

Perhaps there was a feeling that Facebook Live could revive the platform from its moribund motivational-post-from-grandma wasteland. Further, using Facebook Live promised the opportunity to revolutionize the music video. Chance could have followed Swedish producer Klingande’s foray into the concept of a live music video – their bumpy, homespun video for “Something New” aired on Facebook Live some months before. Or he could have done something entirely new.

Ten minutes after the tweet, however, Chance treated his captive internet audience to a traditional, prerecorded video. He played “Same Drugs” on a piano, sitting on a vibrantly colored stage, accompanied by a large cat puppet in 80s attire.

Music publications responded with confusion, their expectations unmet. It “wasn’t live,” they said. Was this expectation predicated on Klingande’s video? The kind of video Klingande released wasn’t new – its only novel feature was its liveness.

New technologies change how artists are presented. We, the audience, expect artists to work within the parameters of the new platform. The advent of the music video is the canonical example: music videos airing on MTV changed the way we consumed music and who we expected arists to be; video killed the radio star. The style of performance in which artists trafficked became more elaborate. Further, a hit single required a hit video, subsequently making the top of the charts more exclusive.

Facebook Live lacks a clear design to which Chance can adhere. In one ad, Facebook told users “to go live when you see someone walking something that isn’t a dog.” Live streaming encountered its first transformation as it became a crucial tool cutting out the journalistic middleman by posting live updates of political events. People used it to capture racial violence, like the shooting of Philando Castile last July. Elizabeth Warren’s fiery speech at Boston Logan airport, after Trump’s first Muslim ban was instated, was circulated initially via Facebook Live. However, it’s not clear how Chance or any other artists are supposed to use it. Critics tip-toed around saying that he used it wrong because they likely realized there isn’t an established “correct” usage yet.

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Facebook has made clear that they don’t know what Facebook Live should be or how artists can use it. Chance initially wanted to release his video on Snapchat. Interestingly, despite his popularity, Snapchat refused, as did Twitter. These older platforms have established how they are supposed to be used. Snapchat told Chance that he could take a video of the video on his phone – platforms like Snapchat and Twitter understand how they’re used, and asked Chance to adhere to the structure of their platforms. Facebook Live ostensibly agreed because its use is ill-defined. Facebook Live lacks a design, or a script, which artists can break. 

It’s essential, then, to characterize how musicians are currently using Facebook Live to understand what it means for producers and consumers of music.

At its simplest, artists have used Facebook Live as a vehicle to perform. NPR now livestreams their “Tiny Desk Concerts.” Boiler Room, a livestreamed electronic music show that started on UStream, invites their global audience to underground shows by allowing them to join in on a live stream. Even private concerts, like Brooklyn’s Afropunk festival, have streamed via Facebook Live.

Artists have also used Facebook Live to stream less formal performances. Moby, for example, frequently livestreams himself toying with his piano. Brad Oberhofer sports goofy sunglasses and fiddles around on his guitar. Disclosure plays “kitchen mixes,” living DJing from their home and interacting with fans in the Facebook comments. Artists also use Facebook Live to simply “engage” or “connect” with their fans. Zedd and Alessia Cara sat down recently and just talked to fans through the comments section of the video.

All of this amounts to what Dr. Nancy Baym at Microsoft Research calls relational labor. Artists become required to engage with fans to maintain their level of success and ultimately keep afloat their label’s bottom line. Connecting and engaging are labor; by requiring artists to perform more labor to maintain the same level of success, we undervalue their work. Yet the language we’ve built around talking about engagement and artist authenticity masks this fact. Perhaps, Baym notes, this is because the skills involved in this labor are gendered female. The soft skills of relationship building and communicating are undervalued compared to masculine self-promotion. In this sense, tools like Facebook Live contribute to a patriarchal dynamic where certain expressions of labor have different market value.

In addition to the uncompensated labor that tools like Facebook Live force artists into providing, there is more work on the consumer’s behalf too. Facebook Live proliferates the social media content arms race: artists increasingly have to produce more and more content to stay relevant. Consequently, the audience is either required to perform or outsource the task of curation. Internal algorithms on platforms like Facebook play a role in sorting content. Increasingly, however, the task of consuming and characterizing artistic output has fallen on the critic. For example, the A.V. Club assembles curative content by linking to videos and posts through their Great Job, Internet! series.

Facebook Live is not a blank slate. Chance’s premiere of “Same Drugs” reveals some of the inherent constraints of the platform. “If different platforms make it easier or harder for users to upload preexisting videos or, in this case, for special categories of users to upload videos, that becomes part of the politics of the platform,” said Nick Seaver, Professor of Anthropology at Tufts. “You’ll see this on Twitter, with verified users – that gives them access to certain privileges [which] aren’t evenly distributed in spite of the metaphor of the platform being  ‘a stage for everyone to be a star on.’ There are still all sorts of structures and inequalities baked in.”

There are musicians for whom this is a boon. Facebook Live fosters demand for spontaneity, charisma, humor, charm – qualities that allow some to advance but also hold others back. Facebook Live presents an unfiltered view of artists who aren’t afforded the tools to post prerecorded content like Chance. Artists are subsequently expected to be both authentic and sociable. Outside of the demand that artists make their private lives public, there is an intrinsic risk associated with streaming live in terms of potential embarrassing/awkward moments.

Often, new technologies like Spotify and Facebook Live are labelled as democratizing. But technologies like Facebook Live place a novel set of demands on the artist. In doing so, they exclude a certain class of musicians. Those unable to use it to present themselves live, whether because of a disability or their inability to forfeit their time, then have a harder time becoming musicians. By making what it means to be an artist about more than music, Facebook Live compounds existing inequities between musicians.

Facebook Live creates a new kind of artist that is valued not only for their musical prowess, but also their character. People define technologies, but technologies define people. “There will be different kinds of celebrities and different kinds of music,” Professor Seaver suggests, “there’s no reason to think that music is stuck in the same spot.”

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