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Music Sounds Better with You

Magazine Rack

What a mystery dubplate on NTS revealed about valuing music in the streaming era—and the power of community fetishism

By kkkkaitlyn

2024/02/14

Art by Rasmuss Svensson

The year was 2020, and things were unprecedentedly weird. I spent the majority of my time watching Nicholas Cage films with my flatmates, or walking in circles around the park with a friend who lived nearby. I watched a lot of DJs broadcasting from their bedrooms, which all seemed to be home to a large number of plants. Spotify’s algorithm recommended a track from Heaven or Las Vegas every other song, and YouTube served me the same “Intelligent Drum & Bass (1996)” mix after every video I watched. The frequency with which I listened to “Rain on Me” by Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande (my Spotify Wrapped Top Song of 2020, I’ll have you know!) seemed to do nothing to change this. 

Thankfully, there was some relief from the monotony. Every morning, I would tune into Charlie Bones’ morning show on the internet radio station NTS. Listeners would call in from all over the world, but it felt like they were right here in my living room, singing songs for Charlie’s “jukebox,” a segment where fans could request a song on the condition that they sing a few verses of it first. Recurring callers, including “Eggman,” “Maudlin Girl,” and someone simply called “Tim,” became voices I looked forward to hearing each week. I started group chats with friends so we could talk synchronously during the live broadcasts. Sometimes, I would jump in the NTS chat room with an anon username, joining hundreds of other listeners posting GIFs that danced on-screen in time with the music.

Charlie treated us to a wide range of musical delights, ranging from lesser-known Annie Lennox tracks to a UK Garage edit of “You Can Call Me Al. But there was one song he won’t stop playing. It stuck out partly because of how simple it was, consisting of little more than a pitched-up R&B vocal sample looping over a bed of frantic jungle drums: How many ways I love you. How many ways I love you. Quickly, before anybody knew where it came from, it became a fan favorite. Within a few weeks, other NTS DJs began playing the song on their broadcasts, and the chat room would light up every time: “This is the Charlie tune!!!!”

At first, Charlie was tight-lipped about the details of the release. But, eventually, he relented, letting listeners in on the identity of the track’s producer. As it turned out, the person behind the mysterious song was already an NTS darling in his own right: His name was Luke Blair—also known by the aliases Lukid and Refreshers—and he’d made the track by reworking an earlier release by Chicago drum n’ bass stalwart DJ 3D, which was in itself a rework of a 1993 Toni Braxton song by the same name. Close listeners and chat room fanatics realized that Blair himself had played the track on Charlie’s morning show, just days before the world turned upside down in February. (You can listen to that moment here, around the 2 hour, 5 minute mark). After weeks of speculation and countless spins of his self-described “dubplate,” Charlie announced on-air that the song, titled “How Many Ways (Refreshers Rework),” was available on Bandcamp as a pay-what-you-can download, with proceeds going to an education charity created in honor of Stephen Lawrence, a Black British teenager who’d been killed while waiting for the bus in London. 

The release immediately took over the Bandcamp homepage, where it could be seen being purchased multiple times a second, with some users donating upwards of 100£ for a single download. According to the now-private release page, the song raised 3000£ in five days. It remained in heavy rotation at the station for several months, closing out Bones’ New Year’s Eve special in the early hours of 2021. 

As I sit here in the early days of 2024, both figuratively and literally hundreds of miles away from those beloved morning listening sessions, I’m still struck by how “How Many Ways”felt like a crack in the matrix. Being stuck inside during the early 2020 lockdowns had made it clear that streaming’s algorithmic discovery and liner note-less album pages left a lot to be desired. But “How Many Ways” was proof that it still was possible to discover music outside of the stream, and that a song could have a financial and emotional value that was greater than 99 cents. In a way, it was a reminder of what discovering music used to feel like: Whether we were packing into a basement club with our friends, or chatting with a clerk at our local record store, our experience of music, and the meaning it gave us, used to revolve almost entirely around community and context.

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It’s this last point I dwell on: Marx posited that under industrial capitalism, consumer goods had become so abstracted from the workers who labored behind the scenes to produce them that it could appear as though they had appeared out of thin air, fully formed. He called this phenomenon “commodity fetishism,” alluding to the process whereby we ascribe value to objects on the basis of their inherent use value, rather than the human toil that goes into assembling them. 

Here, though, was a song that seemed to suggest a different pattern. The allure of “How Many Ways” was entirely about people, from the artists who contributed to the creation of the song, to the radio DJs who brought it to public, to the listeners who had banded together to uncover and celebrate the identity of its producers. I remember a flurry of activity in the NTS chat room one afternoon, when station mainstay Moxie played the track on her weekly Wednesday broadcast: “Has anyone figured out who made this track yet?” A quick dive through the YouTube comments on the Refreshers rework, as well as on the original DJ 3D dubplate, turns up a pile-on of fans proclaiming “Charlie Bones brought me here.” We’re no longer just fetishizing the artwork; we’re fetishizing the artwork as a gateway to a community.

I’ll call this the phenomenon of “community fetishism,” where value is ascribed more prominently to the community surrounding a piece of culture than the piece of culture itself. While there is nothing novel in the idea that fan communities can be economic drivers (see: Andy Warhol’s Factory, Bowie Bonds, and Fangirls), the hyper-social consumption of culture engendered by digital platforms has accelerated the rate at which these communities grow and accrue value. SoundCloud users are encouraged to like, comment on, and repost their favorite songs. Facebook is home to myriad music-related groups, ranging from invite-only communities for 90s trance aficionados to sprawling forums full of listeners attempting to identify un-Shazamable tracks. Spotify’s 2023 Wrapped campaign encouraged listeners to share their superfan status, and rewarded them for doing so with “personalized” video messages from their favorite artists. 

Listening to music is a social experience—even if in the internet age, the presence of others no longer needs to be physical. Sound is amplified when it is made by multiple people, and it hits deeper when it is heard in the presence of others. The ease with which we are able to share information online allows fans to discuss and dissect DJ mixes, music videos, and album announcements within minutes of their publication, turning strangers into internet friends even if you never learn their real name. Finding people and a sense of belonging through music is beautiful, and it feels increasingly meaningful in the face of increased technological mediation. I think back to those days in 2020, when I was alone in my flat but felt like I was surrounded by others, listening to Charlie Bones playing “How Many Ways” week after week. Our shared love of this song, this DJ, this chat room were our flares out to each other, and the universe. Being a fan doesn’t just signal what we like; it signals who we are. 

Of course, “How Many Ways'' isn't the only star in the night sky. Musicians continue to use digital tools in ways that defy the prosaic logic of algorithms, and listeners keep finding new ways to connect and myth-make through them. I think about Tony Price, a DJ, producer, and record label owner I became aware of from his meticulously curated Instagram feed, @maximumexposureinc, where gig posters seem to crop up as often as 1980s magazine covers. The music he releases on his imprint and as a recording artist sounds how it looks—distorted, nostalgic, infused with pop sensibility—and it seems like his audience, both on and offline, is congregating around how this music feels. The crew around NAFF Recordings, out of Montreal, is another example of this kind of hand-crafted and community-centric production. They appear together so often on the same Bandcamp releases and SoundCloud mixes that they’ve seemingly created an entire musical movement purely out of their extended collaborator network. 

These algorithm-subjugating tactics aren’t just reserved for musicians and record labels. There’s Lisbon-based DJ Joe Delon’s newsletter, which shows up time and time again in the musings of other storied selectors, and ex-Boiler Room, current CTM curator Michail Stangl’s Hyper Real Radio, a Telegram group surfacing new and notable releases from the depths of the underground. These hyperlinked, multi-disciplinary projects aren’t just creating new opportunities for music discovery beyond New Music Fridays and overstuffed festival posters; many of them have become communities in their own right.

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In a world where Pitchfork gets rolled into GQ and even the fate of existing distribution platforms seems uncertain, artists and culture workers are becoming increasingly privy to the value of the larger ecosystems in which they operate, ecosystems which they’re increasingly likely to be creating (and monetizing) themselves. “Creator” patronage tools like Patreon, Substack, and Discord allow culture makers to gather their supporters in one room, charging a sliding-scale entrance fee at the door. The companies that develop these tools call it “direct-to-fan marketing.” Kickstarter and Metalabel cofounder Yancey Strickler calls it the “dark forest of the Internet.” And while the so-called “balkanization” of online communities, to borrow a term popularized by Ruby Justice Thelot and Rue Yi, may feel like a welcome respite from the major social media platforms, we must acknowledge this assemblage of paywalled, interest-specific groups for what it is: community fetishism. Community fetishism abstracts what is being purchased away from an album or merch item, and towards access to the ecosystem of people out of which these artifacts emerged. 

It’s not just fans who fetishize these communities; brands and corporations do too, and they will do whatever they can to simulate them. When the grounds on which we create and consume are owned and data-mined by huge companies, the idiosyncrasies of taste get flattened into genreless playlists like Pollen and Lorem, which then double as “community based” customer acquisition strategies for platforms. Berghain shows up on Gossip Girl and the Duolingo TikTok account; Fred Again has a community Discord server run by venture capital-backed firm Levellr. Even NTS, the radio station that popularized “How Many Ways,” has divested a significant share of the company to Universal Music Group. The music quiets to background noise, leaving the cultural caché of its producers and listeners, and the producers and listeners themselves, as the primary drivers of value. Who you know becomes as important as what you know, and what you know is determined by who you know. Corporations fetishize these relationships and sell them back to us in monthly subscriptions, newsletters, podcasts, and paywalled chat rooms.

To tap into the power of community fetishism, cultural producers and corporations have increasingly begun relying on a tactic called “cloutbombing,” a term coined by artist Brad Troemel to describe the act of assembling a group of micro-celebrities in a single image or contributor list to promote a product, live event, or magazine issue. Gathering these people together serves as legibility of a “scene,” while drawing on the combined power of their individual fanbases to publicize the project. Not all cloutbombs are made equal: What makes the Marc Jacobs cloutbombs of today feel different from Ellen Degeneres’ 2014 Oscar selfie, or that famous 2003 Vanity Fair cover featuring Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, Lindsay Lohan, and Evan Rachel Wood, is that the people involved often have no certifiable relationship to one another. It looks like a community, but it’s really a carefully staged spectacle. 

Perfectly Imperfect, a newsletter bringing together culture and lifestyle recommendations from the likes of John Cale, Anna Delvey, Charli XCX, Michael Imperioli, and hundreds of other fringe personalities under the umbrella of an extended parasocial community, is a good example of this practice playing out beyond a photograph or promotional campaign. Unsurprisingly, the brand recently launched PI.FYI, a mobile app that hosts an enhanced archive search and the ability to share your own recommendations with other PI users. The niche facial serum and downtown restaurant suggestions are useful, but it’s the proximity to other tastemakers that makes these suggestions valuable.

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It’s worth underscoring that community fetishism and cloutbombing are neither good nor bad for culture. We can understand them, simply, as forces that are creeping into both popular and esoteric notions of what is culturally valuable, and how producers of culture can leverage them as part of their business. But they do raise their own challenges and questions: How do we determine if the fervor around a song stems from the enthusiasm of a real community, or the manufactured impression of one? What is the line between a fan community supporting an artist and controlling them? 

The answer, I’d argue, lies in the data. The unfettered generation and collection of data is what has allowed streaming and social platforms to quantify the experience of being a fan, reducing music discovery to algorithmic recommendation and listeners to passive consumers. Artists who play by the rules set by platforms are rewarded for doing so, writing songs that begin with a catchy chorus and posting Instagram carousels that start with a selfie to the top of our feeds. Playlist pop functions as a talisman of the platform economy in which it thrives, more valuable the more it is listened to, datafied down to the time of day when this listening occurs. 

The metaphorical dubplate, by contrast, is harder to make numerical sense of, propelled by a cloud of participatory gas that fuels chat room requests and pay-what-you-can donations. The mystery of “How Many Ways” is what made it special. Its emergence outside of the physics of digital music promotion is what made us pay attention. Though you can measure the track’s success in YouTube streams or Bandcamp purchases, the community around it came together despite this insistence on measuring and influencing our behavior, not because of it. 

Which brings us back to the basement venue, the record store—places where we are witnessed by our friends and neighbors, not by platforms, and where our discovery of music is mediated by the peer-to-peer recommendations of real people. At their best, these spaces are sustained by the communities they serve, who gather within them to attend live events, buy records, and drink beer. At worst, they end up bought by multinational corporations, a link in a never-ending chain of franchised, co-opted culture—of cloutbombs engineered for the purpose of generating more clicks.

It’s a slippery slope from one to the other, but we can create friction by leaning into the aspects of community fetishism that are irreducible to quantification. Finding new ways to signify value and new strategies to support creative work are all steps forward in imagining and creating more equitable cultural industries. The risk of corporate exploitation in any emergent model of cultural patronage is not to be ignored, but it has also been here for a while—if you don’t pay for the product, you are the product. Communities are commodities, but they’re also people, venues, radio stations, newsletters, chat rooms, and club nights. In resisting the urge to reduce music to data, we learn how many ways it can be valuable.

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