Where tech aligns


Music’s hottest star is the monetization of meaning.

During college, I worked as an intern for a woman who was dating a guitarist in a relatively well-known punk band. This woman would often invite me to hang out with her at night, in the company of people decades older than me. On one of these nights, her boyfriend was talking about his band having played, years prior, the Lollapalooza festival. I informed him that my older brother’s friends had dubbed this festival – at that point a passé relic yet to be reborn in its current iteration – “lots of poor losers.”

Disparaging epithets such as this basically constitute a regional dialect in central Massachusetts, where I spent my childhood, and are not meant as serious insults. This guitarist, however, took this as a serious insult, and retorted: “Oh really? Because we called it making lots of money on merch.”

I realized that he thought I was making fun of his band, but was too shy and embarrassed to explain that (in my little world) this nickname was not directed at the famous, untouchable figures headlining this festival. Those people, or really any successful musicians, were gods to my peers. It was directed at the audience who attended it – the crowd with whom “we” identified.

Ironically, this guy’s retort seemed to reinforce precisely what the “poor losers” comment conjured: a great, muddied unwashed, standing in a field, wearing merch, waiting for the concert to start. Suckers who would pay for the privilege of having their bodies used as a walking billboard for a Gen X punk band who performed songs about the evils of corporate greed.

Selling the aesthetic

Previous to this conversation, my naïve understanding of “merch” was limited to concert shirts that were too expensive for me to buy (in fact, I thought the hawkers who ran merch stations were the ones who produced and solely profited from merch – perhaps because they always seemed so eager to sell it). After this exchange, I began to understand the mustache-twirl- ing motivation behind band merch, which I learned could garner more profits than ticket sales for some touring performers.

I came to think of merch as a cynic’s goldmine – a low-overhead racket designed by bands (and their management) to profit off the devotion of their fans. Let them eat this fifty-dollar scrap of band-branded cake.

Merch is categorically made up of everyday items inscribed with images and symbols meant to promote something. It is typically an item no one needs any more of, but that everyone buys anyway (t-shirts being the most recognizable archetype). Historically, many regard a selection of metal lapel buttons produced to commemorate the inauguration of George Washington in 1789 – one of which reads “long live the president,” heralding the genuflection merch is known for – as the first forms of merch. But an earlier and more enduring form of merch – the conceptual archetype – could be found in the ritual of the Holy Sacrament.

Merch, perhaps more than anything, is the symbolic consumption of that which is considered greater or higher. When Jesus asks the Apostles at the last supper to eat his body in the form of bread and drink his blood in the form of wine, he invites them to find symbolic meaning in these gestures: “Do this in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11.24).

This, and the codifying of the Eucharist as an enduring sacred ritual, brought symbolic consumption – particularly in relation to the exalted – into the realm of the aesthetic, where it has largely resided ever since. Of course, we must consume sustenance and oxygen to survive, but unlike any other species, our physical needs make up a mere fraction of what we consume in total. And it might be the ultimate project of humanity to finally discover the limits of our consumption – our point of symbolic satiety.

According to French philosopher Henri Lefebvre in his book Everyday Life in the Modern World, in a society, “glutted with aestheticism … consumption thus engulfs what was intended to give meaning and direction.” This means, essentially, that we can’t have something like a zero-waste environmental movement without that movement finding it necessary to produce promotional bags and t-shirts and coffee mugs.

These are consumer objects that no one needs more of and that, in their production and disposal, do absolutely nothing but create waste. Yet these baubles and shreds of fabric exist – and they do indeed exist: an unofficial Greta Thunberg-themed café recently opened in my neighborhood, selling Greta mugs and her own, official print book on climate – because there is, as yet, no point outside of or beyond our symbolic consumption. Our entire world has been created to live inside of it, and to produce endless consumables to lay at its altar.

But why do we wish to consume that which symbolizes our ultimate object of our desire, and why is that symbol so often represented by the form of another human? In philosopher Rene Girard’s theory of mimetic desire – which posits that our longings are never truly our own, and are always based on what we observe in others – desire itself has a shape: the triangle. This triangularity positions both the subject and the mediator – i.e., the one who models that which the subject desires – at its base, each pointing upward toward the apex: the object of desire. As Girard states in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: “The impulse toward the object is ultimately an impulse toward the mediator.”

What Girard does not state is that this impulse is often a devouring one, with the subject seeking to reach the object of their desire through a symbolic consumption of the mediator. In the pre-social media days of Lollapalooza, this hunger was perhaps less gnawing, and easily quelled by watching a band perform and purchasing a t-shirt (or, at the pinnacle, maybe getting a chance to hang out backstage – some kind of actual IRL contact with the celebrity in question).

The money’s in the merch

In contemporary times, musicians are expected to feed their fan bases with much more than a show and a t-shirt. They are treated, and expected to behave, like a busy, important friend who only has a few minutes to spare but is super excited to see you (their friend-fan) on their “live” and just dying to tell you all about their next merch drop.

In her book Playing to the Crowd, Nancy K. Baym traces this trajectory. She pinpoints the beginning of the sea change that occurred in the music industry in 1999, when slowing record sales left musicians and music execs scrambling, and the desire for a new economic modality began to emerge. She describes a 2009 European music trade show that she was invited to speak at, which introduced themes now understood to be the core tenets of influencer marketing, including: ‘connecting with’ and ‘serving’ audiences. ‘Monetizing’ lay just below the surface, the implied and sometimes explicit point of connection and servitude.

If musicians connect, the logic went, audiences will pay, and artists will make a living.” Obviously, the organizers of this trade show were “correct” in their predictions, in the literal sense. At what ultimate cost is still yet to be determined. By making the main product of the “new” music industry the musicians themselves – and, ultimately, their ability to create relational satisfaction with their fans – the industry now pushes musicians to become subservient to the personal desires of their fans in order to be successful.

While outwardly this presents musicians as the dominant power – the “stanned” within our ubiquitous stan culture – in reality, these creatives often become enmeshed in a toxic relational dynamic, versus an authentic connection with people who appreciate their craft and artistry. Contemporary pop psychology bemoans the narcissistic celebrity, yet rarely considers the fact that many fans so crave an idol to worship that they create a relational dynamic wherein the object of their devotion is made narcissistic by default. If you treat someone as though they are superior to you and never deviate from this dynamic, what choice are you giving them to treat you like an equal? And it is far easier to project your emotions – be they love or hate – onto someone else, versus putting in the work to become a person you yourself admire.

As this phenomenon has only increased over time, many recording artists must now also be interested in managing a community with the sole focus of viewing them as a star. For some, this is a dream come true: “I’ve arrived!” For others, it’s a nightmare with no relief: they are forced to interact with fans whose primary objective is to get “more” from them, be it more exclusives, more BTS, more storytimes, more lives, or, as always, more merch. There is an aspect of contemporary fame that re- sembles a subtle form of sex work, with performers “camming” in order to satisfy their communities. Some artists simply want to play music or make art with their peers, and let others enjoy it at a distance. Now, creativity is conflated not just with celebrity, but also with “community.” And because, in this time period, audiences writ large are believed to hold far greater moral virtue than the public figures they congregate around, musicians are at risk of being fame-shamed (or much worse) if they don’t offer enough access to their fans.

So, while merch can be, and has traditionally been, used to chum the waters – generating feed- ing-frenzy excitement and luring in new fans – it could also be used to keep fandoms satisfied: a new t-shirt drop might buy a musician a few weeks away from their social media. And as Baym states, “fans embrace their consumerism. This began in many ways with [P.T.] Barnum, who gave ‘a commodity focus to the artist/fan relationship, allowing the experience of fandom to be prolonged and intensified through personal investment in a set of fetishized objects’ peripheral to the music.”

“Peripheral to the music” is an interesting way to put it. In Baym’s words, “When we ask musicians to be direct, unique, and personal with their audiences, we ask them to redefine a relationship that has been structured in particular ways for decades. We ask them to do more work, work that requires relational, communicative, self-presentational, entrepreneurial, and technological skills that music work had not previously demanded.”

The artist as commodity

When musicians are forced to morph into online community moderators and lifestyle models, the parasocial floodgates open, leading to the success of people who have no exceptional artistic talent are excellent at doing what musicians must do to survive. Developing devoted communities through highly transactional relational styles and selling those communities all manner of goods: this is what has animated the influencer into both existence and significance. And while some may prefer the term “content creator,” influencers might but don’t necessarily have to have any artistic skill to create a following. They just have to know how to engage their followers.

In this way, their main talent is consumption, followed by social synthesis. The influencer makes their money by convincing followers – fans by any other name – to purchase the same dog food or slimming tea or fishing gear they allegedly use themselves. To do this, the most successful (or, for that matter, the least successful) influencers directly mimic the fandom stylings of musicians, creating cutesy nicknames for their fan communities.

Presenting themselves as busy and important artists who have just enough time to “hop on a live” and say hi (though, arguably, the extent of their creative output is found solely in posts and lives – they aren’t typically playing live shows or recording new music, until some Barnum-esque exec decides that they have enough of a following and “crossover appeal” to translate into mainstream entertainment). While “sponcon” is typically the influencer’s primary revenue stream, it could be argued that the biggest characteristic the influencer has copied from the recording artist is the deployment of merch.

To be an influencer is almost synonymous with having a line of merch, one that often bears the cutesy nickname of your followers in some way. While this is typically cited as a way to grow one’s “business octopus,” it would also stand to reason that if you are a famous and important person with fans, you would have to have merch to satisfy your fandom.

Therefore, even influencers with a moderate to negligible fan base create merch, with an “if you build it, they will come”-type “manifesting” mindset – merch is the magic object that allows these people to legitimize their identities as influencers. Along with print-on-demand merch sites that don’t require influencers to invest anything financial beyond hiring a designer to create a logo, this attitude has resulted in what is nothing less than a Cambrian explosion of merch. Everyone now offers merch.

But what does an influencer’s fandom actually do with the merch they purchase, and why do they want it in the first place? A concert t-shirt can serve as memorabilia of a fun experience. Influencer merch seems designed purely to signify the identity of the influencer – but that doesn’t tell the whole story of what John Fiske, author of “The Cultural Economy of Fandom,” calls “semiotic productivity.”

According to Fiske, “Semiotic productivity consists of the making of meanings of social identity and of social experience from the semiotic resources of the cultural commodity.” The busywork of the influencer fan is then to map their personal identity to that of the chosen influencer to such a degree that the merch they purchase directly reflects the similitude of values and traits shared by fan and influencer.

This harkens back to Jesus and the Apostles, wherein the influencer superfan consumes the merch of their idol in an attempt to align themselves directly with the identity of that influencer. Fans, in Fiske’s view, are creative meaning-makers, using merch as a conduit for executing an individual form of self-expression. But they are also mean- ing-leeches, sucking the identity-blood of their idols to enrich an anemic self-concept.

Because this self-concept is impoverished, it is also continually enriched by more, different, better, newer merch. This leads to the creation of limited-edition collectible merch items and limited-time merch drops, which diehard fans convince themselves are necessary to purchase to complete their “collection” – and which influencers and performers release as a way to monetize this codependency.

How is it that people came to view both influencers and their often-shoddy merch as something of value? Perhaps the answer can be found in the paradigm shift that ushered art into the realm of Modernism. In The Intangibilities of Form: Skill and Deskilling in Art after the Readymade (2007), John Roberts cites early-20th century French artist Marcel Duchamp’s importance “in his separation of artistic work from the conventional signs of artistic authorship.

In copying without copying and disinvesting artistic labor of ‘purposeless’ effort he eradicates the normative distinction between skill and deskilling in pre-modernist art.” Prior to Duchamp and his famous “readymade” sculptures – wherein existing manufactured objects like bicycle wheels and urinals are reconceived as art objects – the value of art was held in the level of skill of the artist, and artworks were evaluated based on their display of that skill. After Duchamp, skill became secondary to authorship. Like a magician with a magic wand, an artist could point to an object, and by dint of the primacy of authorship, that object became an artwork.

Obviously, this opened the floodgates for the definition of art to expand to include basically any object or event – and an artist divested of the need for skillfulness became anyone who assumed the role. After Duchamp, art was seen as a product of the mind versus the hand. In that sense, the ready-made could have given consumerism a run for its money – the so-called “dematerialization of the art world” seemed at one point to herald an overall move away from consumerism-motivated activities like collecting.

Instead, it created a persona-based value system (now often realized through “identity”) that prized the artist first and viewed their product as the receptacle to recognize their value. The main thing was and is now the artistic individual, coinciding with a general 20th-century cultural tendency (seen in the Hollywood star machine and in musical performers like Elvis and the Beatles) toward the deification of performers.

This is the creation, as it were, of celebrity fandom. This maps to what Roberts suggests changed art’s core meaning:

The use of the readymade conceals a nihilism – copying without copying – that destroys the very basis of conventional artistic labor. But, as Duchamp himself realized, this nihilism … transform[s] not only what the artist produces, but how he or she sees himself or herself as a maker of meaning. Author and authorship are remade through general social technique.

While we tend to think of the evolution from industrialism to digitization as the “reason” culture has become so inextricably entwined with and defined by phenomena like social media, what Roberts implies here is that significant perspectival changes in both art and the artist led to a shift in the meaning of art being tied more directly to social synthesis, which prizes meaning-making over the creation of distinctive works of art. From this point, the “social” has steadily been usurping the identity of art since the early 20th century.

I would posit that this has also influenced the all-around primacy of the social – found in podcasts, online communities, you name it – within contemporary culture. And merch (even the best merch) is not the artistic product so much as it is a social product. It’s symbolic code for the creator behind the curtain and also for the fanbase of that creator – the union of stan and stanned. Merch is an artistic product in quotation marks, of but not by the artist. Which is perhaps why so many physical and digital cultural products today carry the whiff of merch, even if they don’t fit the established category.

Should something be done to mitigate this merch hemorrhage we are now experiencing? Or should we simply embrace a decadent slide into an Orwellian Animal Farm world, wherein artists and fans switch roles so often they become indistinguishable, with artworks and merch following suit? NFTs – that bold new “art” frontier – are typically made by developer teams rather than actual artists, confusing the concept of art authorship even further. According to NFT creator and collector Derrick Li:

Digital collectible projects are made by developer teams, rather than artists. Oftentimes, these teams hire an illustrator to create the visual design for their product, but does that count as artwork? My answer might sound controversial, but I say no. Not every creation is a piece of artwork. Not every single illustration is a piece of artwork. I think it’s extremely important to differentiate digital collectibles that are NFTs from digital artworks that are minted as NFTs. People shouldn’t try to find artistic values or the essence of art in digital collectibles. It’s like expecting lychee to fall from an apple tree.

Setting boundaries

Creating new boundaries might be the name of the game going forward. Within the Duchamp-worshiping world of contemporary fine art, Li’s words constitute nothing less than a war cry, though to sensible ears they sound appropriate: let’s make art – be it visual, musical, or otherwise – a distinctive category that honors artistic product, distinct from both artistic identity and artistic merchandise. Let’s make a distinction between hoarding useless disposable items like collectible merch, and the collecting and general support of legitimate artworks. Boundaries, in the relational sense, also pop up in the ever-mounting fan demands described by Baym:

Where once organizations and media created many boundaries for their relations with audiences, it’s now musicians’ job to “draw the boundaries of what works and what doesn’t.” No one [addressed] the personal ramifications of this relational labor. No one [asked] what those relationships and interactions look like or mean to the musicians who are expected to live them.

Perhaps, instead of forcing musicians to set boundaries, fans themselves could evolve to value their favorite artists not through the lens of consumption but through that of creation, and recognize boundaries as integral to their creative process.

Perhaps, instead of forcing musicians to set boundaries, fans themselves could evolve to value their favorite artists not through the lens of consumption but through that of creation, and recognize boundaries as integral to their creative process.

I recently came upon a YouTube video featuring a series of clips of the Irish musician Hozier deflect- ing overly personal questions during interviews. The video is titled “hozier setting boundaries for 1 minute and 28 seconds,” and the image on the thumbnail features the musician with a crown and a sash that says “Boundaries” clumsily scrawled over his image, with the text “wow king nice boundaries” floating above the artist’s head. Rather than celebrate the luscious temptation of celebrity “access” – i.e., what the artist “gives” – this little video chose to highlight the allure of appropriate professional boundaries. I can’t imagine a serious artist not appreciating this.

Aimee Walleston is an essayist and cultural critic based in Brooklyn. She has contributed writing to Art in America, Real Life, and Mousse, among many other publications.

Lots more where that came from.