2004-08-08»how famous do you want to be?»
So, I'm writing a piece on how technology helps independent musicians. I went to a house concert this evening, which is a small gig hosted in someone's home for a couple of dozen people, to see and support a well-loved act. I had a very good time. Unfortunately I stumbled into the gravity well of one of the Two Questions, the questions that plague me and prompt me to be very boring, online and off. Your turn to be bored.
Here are the Two Questions. The first is: "How deep a culture is geek culture?", but that's not the one keeping me up tonight. The second is: is "How many people do you need to be famous for?".
I know: they're not really up there with "What is dark matter?", are they? Don't blame me, I didn't pick them. They're the questions that, whether I've wanted to or not, I've been asking myself for years now.
The fame question appeared in 1997. We were futzing around doing an NTK Live in Soho, and Stew Lee turned up to watch. He was very impressed with all the cabling and the recording equipment and the laptops we were using, and asked how many people were listening to the show online. Standing next to the streaming server, I could answer him instantly: maybe twenty or so (there were probably about seventy people watching the show at the venue). He looked very disappointed, and probably a bit defensively, I found myself asking him The First Question. How many people do you need to be famous forn
I've been trying to work out the answer ever since: both personally, and, more generally, as question whose answer may be affected by the technologies we are creating.
There was a time, I think, in the industries where fame is important, that you had was famous, and not. You had big stars, and you had a thin line of people who had work, and you had failures, or people who felt like failures.
But now the drop-off on that curve seems to be less precipitous. It feels, stuck here, so close to the machinery of the Net, that there's a growing middle-class of fame - a whole world of people who aren't really famous, but could spend their days only talking to people who think they're fucking fantastic (or horrifyingly notorious).
The old "famous for fifteen people" joke isn't quite right. I imagine the majority of people have always been famous (or at least known fairly well liked) by that number. But there are plenty more people who are what Carl Steadman first identified as microcelebrities: famous for fifteen hundred people, say.
And fifteen hundred very thinly distributed people too. One person in every town in Britain likes your dumb online comic. That's enough to keep you in beers (or T-shirt sales) all year.
But is it enough? Is fame relative? The upper reaches of fame have disappeared beyond human ken - so does that mean that we're all humiliated by not being as popular as Madonna? Or is it a fixed constant? If you're liked by about-a-paleolithic-tribesworth, is that enough to keep the average person with a smile on their face?
Or has nothing changed at all? Do I spot more people in this middle-rank, just because as time goes on, the middle-rank becomes more obvious, as your tastes settle, and you slide out of the thrashing, heavily-marketted, teenage years - that Age of Heroes?
There was a time when the only people I knew were obscure nobodies (like me) and the famous people I saw on the television. But that's because I was young, and only knew other young people, very few of which has a chance at becoming well-known. Now I know a bunch of people, of all ages, some of whom are well-known in their fields. Is that what's filling in the middlespace to me? Am I just blending this with the usual "level playing field" Internet hype, and detecting an effect that isn't there?
You can tell I don't have any answers here. It's not even a very clear question. Am I talking about my own requirements? The range of particularly fame-driven people? The overall spread in a society?
I've spent less time chewing on this question recently, because I've mostly answered it for myself (short version: if you're reading this far, that's fame enough for me). But going to this house concert brought it all back.
Groovelily, the band I went to see, are in many ways, poster children for the middle of that fame curve. They're not a super-famous act, but they are deeply loved, with a "street team" of 300 volunteers who flyer and promote them in their towns, and a range of fans and casual supporters who'll let them play gigs of over two thousand in some venues, or twenty or so in my friend's house. Surrounded by an audience of their fans, they're happy and hardworking, and as far as I could see doing just fine financially.
A lot of their songs, though, speak of the hardness of that road: the envy of the success of peers. The self-doubt that eats at you when you don't get that break: that leap up the spike to the top of the curve. The emotional core of their songs described the state of that life as one of perserverance until you reach a glorious goal; the most self-referential of the musical archetypal song plots.
I'm mostly writing for this piece how the technology helps them, and other independent musicians, prosper at this level. Talking to them and others, it seems clear that the Net, and computers, and even more compact and flexible musical instruments have made that middle-rank a lot easier.
But talking to the band, I realised that the greatest stress on that life is the contrast between that middle-rank and the extreme nature of the ambitious dream that drives people in this industry.
Valerie, the band's lead singer, and I talked about what success meant, and in the end, I asked her whether a slow, even progression was enough - if Groovelily's audience and earnings continued going up, say 10% in real terms every year. Would that be alright? Or is success still the big break, the discontinuous act of God that turns you into a big name?
In the end, neither of us were sure that that was success, although it seemed more appealing the more we talked about it. But then we were both getting tired, and I was talking too much, just like now.
But it's such an infuriating hanging question!