Thursday, March 17, 2022

Avant-Gardes, Scenes, Industries, and Traditions in Jennifer Lena's "Banding Together"

I recently read Jennifer Lena's Banding Together: How Communities Create Genres in Popular Music, and although Lena is writing solely about music, it's not hard to think that her model might do a pretty good job describing other kinds of creative communities, potentially including tabletop rpgs.

Lena is a sociologist of culture, and a lot of her research focuses on popular music, especially rap. In Banding Together, she looked at the histories of 60 styles of music and looked for similarities in the ways the styles changed over time. Style here refers to a pretty specific community of musicians and fans; when many related styles coexist and follow after each other in a kind of family, they form what Lena calls a stream. So like, rock music would be considered a stream, while things like grunge, glam, garage, punk, and emo would be considered styles. Style and stream are categories that describe things that exist in the real world, but they have no existence of their own except as useful descriptors.

Lena observes that musical styles change over time in ways that are related to their popularity and access to resources, such as money, access to practice and performance space, and attention from fans, journalists, and academics. Her model suggests four main genre types that music styles can fit into - avant-garde, scene-based, industry-based, and traditional. Genre types are also descriptive categories, and she classifies each style as belonging to a single type at any given point in its history, and as I said, this classification is based on access to resources. 

A successful style might begin as an avant-garde, grow to become a scene, find commercial success in the industry, get taken up as a tradition, and eventually birth new avant-garde styles to either form a new stream or join an existing one. Less successful styles stop short of that in some way, and there are doubtless countless avant-garde styles that never become successful enough to form a scene.

What I find most interesting about Lena's model is her finding that each genre style has not only a predictable set of material conditions that go together - the size style, how it's organized, where its members can meet to practice and perform, how much attention it receives, what sources of money are available - but also a predictable set of cultural conditions - how codified the conventional ways of performing the style are, how style members use technology, how codified the ways of dressing and acting are, even what kinds of debates style members have with each other, a finding that was particularly interesting to me. Lena stops short of saying that the material causes the cultural, but she does observe that they tend to go together in predictable enough bundles that it was easy for her to identify four common bundles and call them genre types.

Really interested readers might enjoy Lena's whole book, but if you just want the primary model where she lays out the four genre types, that's in chapter 2, which I want to quote from some below. Lena's words appear in blue. I've removed all of her examples where she talks about rap, bluegrass, and bebop. But if you're like me, you'll be filling in rpg examples in your head as you read.

Avant-garde Genres

Music, like other forms of taste, changes slowly and incrementally. Nonetheless there are junctures when performers, fans, and commenters point to cumulative changes significant enough to distinguish it from earlier forms of music. Music performers always have some dissatisfaction with contemporary music or their place in it, and fans are looking for novelty, so there is a consistent, in inchoate, desire for change. Avant-garde genres are formed when music practitioners come together and share their concern over the state of music in their field of action and reinforce each other's desire to do something about it. Avant-garde genres are quite small, having no more than a dozen or so active participants who meet informally and irregularly, and are often conceived in spaces like coffee shops and basements. They attract virtually no press attention, performance conventions are not codified, and there is typically little consensus over how members should dress, talk, or describe themselves as a group.

Avant-garde circles are leaderless and fractious and consequently typically unravel in a matter of months from lack of recognition, or because a subset of the circle participants gain wider recognition. The objective of Avant-garde genres is to play informally together, share recorded music, and air complaints about the hegemonic music in the relevant stream of music. 

The genre ideal, and specifically the musical ideas that are central to it, may emerge from members taking lessons, carefully listening to records, and playing with different kinds of musicians. Alternatively, Avant-gardists may assert that prevailing musical styles have become predictable and emotionless and, flaunting the fact that they are not able to play instruments in conventional ways, make what others see as loud and hash sounds. In crafting music that is "new," Avant-gardists may combine elements of musics that have been treated as distinct. The desire to produce a new music drives the group to engage in experimental practices, including playing standard instruments in unconventional ways, creating new musical instruments, and modifying objects that heretofore have not been employed in the production of music. 

Such circles typically meet face-to-face, but this may be changing in the era of the Internet. Circle members need spaces to meet where they can freely discuss and cement their shared investment in musical innovation.

The experimental ethos of Avant-garde circles is often expressed through the idiosyncratic grooming, dress, demeanor, and argot of members, but these are not (yet) consolidated into a distinctive style.

In Avant-garde genres, circle members contribute resources, and they also get resources from others attracted to the musical experimentation. Partners contribute nurturance, financial support, and a home; other musicians and music industry people act as informal advisors and critics; buy supporting a new music, bar owners get customers on off nights. As a rule, Avant-garde members do not receive remuneration for their participation in music-related activities. They earn money for performing conventional styles of music and from nonperformance employment. Thus many Avant-gardists live with little recognition and many privations. These harsh conditions may retrospectively be romanticized as bohemian, but they contribute to the demise of many Avant-garde genres. The privations are exacerbated by the tendency of some Avant-garde musicians to consume quantities of drugs and alcohol.

The music and the people making it receive virtually no press coverage, which makes it exceedingly difficult for us to find accounts of Avant-garde genres that failed to progress to another genre form. Numerous appellations are given to the new music, which also contributes to the difficulty in identifying musics that do not survive the Avant-garde period.

Musics can remain in the Avant-garde period for a long time or may quickly transition into Scene-based genres. The key features of this transition are these: relatively stable aural and visible identifiers of the group emerge; artists begin to seek resources that allow them to perform their music for a larger public; and the group identifies a set of goals for action - actions or ideas that are seen to be solutions to the complaints the group has about status quo music.

Scene-based Genres

It appears that most Avant-garde genres wither or merge with other musical styles early on, and only a few begin to draw more substantial resources and a larger cluster of devotees and evolve into Scene-based genres. Scene-based genres are characterized by an intensely active, but moderately sized group of artists, audience members, and supporting organizations. For more than a decade the concept of "scene" has been used by scholars to refer to a community of spatially situated artists, fans, scene-focused record companies, and supporting small business people. Such local scenes may also be in communication with like scenes in distant locales whose members enjoy the same kind of music and lifestyle. In recent years, we have acknowledged the importance of virtual scenes composed of devotees who interact via the Internet. 

Scene-based genre members earn money from activities within the community, including music making, especially once they attract the attention of the local or specialty press. Much attention is paid to codifying performance conventions, and the dress, adornment, drugs, and argot of group members. Members are also concerned with distinguishing themselves from rival musics, especially those that share the same performance space or fans. Most Scene-based genres acquire a name for their group that is invented or announced in the Scene-based media.

Scene-based genres have a loose organizational form characterized by nested rings of groups characterized by varying levels of commitment to the community. At the center are clusters of those most responsible for the distinctive characteristics of the music, including many members of the Avant-garde genre. Then there is the ring of committed activists whose identity, and sometimes means of employment, are tied to the scene. Outside of this is the ring of fans that participate in the scene more or less regularly. The outer ring is made up of "tourists" who enjoy activities within the scene without identifying with it.

Stylistic innovations and charismatic leaders who promote them play a key role in developing the consensus around genre ideal. The consensus marks the transition from the Avant-garde to the Scene-based genre. Technological innovations can also change the balance among elements of the music during the Scene-based genre. The transition between Avant-garde and Scene-based genres marks the introduction of both technological and live performance conventions that in turn affect conventions in the recording studio later on. Social conventions, including styles of clothes and adornment, body type, argot, and "attitude," are codified in Scene-based genres. These allow fellow travelers to identify scene members.

Scenes, musical and otherwise, commonly emerge in so-called bohemian neighborhoods where rents are low, police supervision is lax, multiple opportunities for low-skill labor exist, concentrations of other artists are found, and residents tolerate diversity of all kinds. Such neighborhoods nurture the scene, and the lifestyle growing around it, by fostering constant interaction among scenesters without attracting unwanted attention from the wider community.

These neighborhoods include local businesses that support the Scene-based genre, including coffee shops, clubs, dance halls, record stores, churches, small recording studios, and independent record labels. Business entrepreneurs, often drawn from the ranks of scene participants, become music promoters, club owners, and band managers. Some found independent record companies, Scene-based fanzines, and Internet sites, while local newspapers, radio stations, and criminal elements arrive in the area to support the scene and to derive profits from it. 

Scene musicians and ancillary creative people are often not able to support themselves entirely from the music. They typically take low-skill service jobs in the community and also depend on money and other support from partners, family, and friends. As scenes develop, these neighborhoods draw both more casual scenesters and merchandisers of elements of the genre lifestyle, hastening the end of the intensely local genre form.

Genre-based media begin to develop in Scene-based genres. The strong and relatively coherent complaints of genre members against the status quo often attract attention from niche media, who provide the clearest, most nuanced and positive portrayals of the scene. These include fanzines, Internet sites, blogs, small-circulation magazines, and often the local free weekly entertainment guide. Collectively they serve to define, explain, promote, and critique the music and its associated lifestyle. Because these writers try to talk about the coalescing style, they have to find a name to describe its musical aesthetics. Thus begins the formulation of the collective memory about the history and founding heroes of the music.

In Scene-based genres stakeholders have only a few contacts with the world outside the scene, but those they do have are important in building the solidarity within the community. First, there is usually bitter antagonism between proponents of the new music and representatives of the status quo in the relevant field. Fighting against a shared antagonist often builds solidarity within Scene-based genres. Second, the operation of the scene in marginal facilities with opportunistic promoters means that scene participants are regularly exposed to what they identify as dangerous conditions, and they may be liable to arrest for violating ordinances concerning dancing, noise abatement, fire, and decency, as well as laws controlling liquor and drug use. Finally, symbols of inclusion/exclusion also serve to identify scene members to outsiders who may be alarmed, upset, or simply bemused. These three sources of censure all serve to build scene solidarity. As importantly, they typically lend the genre an oppositional political cast.

In addition to their musical complaints, Scene-based genre members will often critique large social injustices, although they may target their critique within the local environment. Lyrical content often incorporates aspects of this oppositional stance. Insertion of politics into the scene's identity is an indicator that the music has entered the mature phase of the Scene-based genre. An additional aspect of scene members' political identity project is that they begin to defend the borders of the group and differentiate between what are acceptable lifestyle choices and what are not.

Many Scene-based musics wither or merge into streams. For those styles that transition into an Industry-based genre, the key ingredient is that the scene attracts the attention of major music producers seeking to develop new music and new markets.

Industry-based Genres

Industry-based genres are so-named because their primary organizational form is the industrial corporation. Some of these are multinational in scope, but others are independent companies organized to compete directly with the multinationals. Along with industrial firms, the prime actors in these genres include singers and musicians who contract for their services, targeted audiences, and a wide array of ancillary service providers from song publishers to radio stations and retail outlets. Artists generate income from sales, licensing, merchandise, and product endorsements, and this often drives aesthetic decisions. Performance conventions are highly codified, driven by industry categories and the production tools that standardize sounds. The attire of performers is adapted for the mass market, and made widely available to fans, along with argot, adornment, or features of lifestyle that can be monetized.

The goal for members of Industry-based genres is to produce revenue by selling musical products to as many consumers as possible. There are several means employed to increase sales. Efforts are directed toward codifying, simplifying, and teaching the genre conventions. Tablature for guitars and other instruments and transcriptions of the lyrics are widely available, and musical teachers and mentors are in plentiful supply in most places. Firms train new artists to work within highly codified performance conventions, and record producers regularly coach songwriters and artists to make music that is simple and clearly within the style so it will appeal to the mass audience. 

Over the past century, technological innovations have also served to standardize and simplify the production of music in order to satisfy the needs of mass production. "Contact men" working for the firm conscript music critics and disc jockeys into promoting new works and new artists. Trade magazine-produced weekly charts of song sales help to guide industry decisions about the relative success of individual songs and whole musical styles. The otherwise highly competitive multinational conglomerates collectively fight the unauthorized use and distribution of their copyrighted music, and do whatever they can to frustrate the development of spin-off styles.

A common feature of the transition from the Scene-based to the Industry-based genre is the assertion of market dominance by major record corporations that gain control from the independent labels that had dominated the Scene-based genre. Enterprising independent label heads understandably seek to increase the visibility of their artists and the sales of their records, but insofar as they are successful, the major companies may buy out artist and label contracts. Sales success is a strong indicator of the presence of an Industry-based genre. Sales success is gauged according to codified performance conventions that are governed by industry categories, although they may sometimes be recognized as novel and added as a shelving designation, a type of sales chart, a division of a record company, and so forth.

Artists working in Industry-based genres earn their income exclusively from work performed for large organizations. However, it is a common misunderstanding that sales revenue is sufficient to provide artists with an extravagant lifestyle, or that record sales are the major source of income for artists working in such genres. In fact, industry-based genre artists profit more from merchandise sales, concert ticket sales, and performance royalties (from live and recorded performances of their songs).

In the process of absorption into multinational corporations and mass production systems, genre names become more clearly fixed. If a name emerged in the Scene-based period, producers and journalists may continue its use. Like the music, elements of dress, adornment, and lifestyle are exaggerated and mass-marketed to new fans of Industry-based genres. 

The financial resources and promotional expertise of major companies will often propel Industry-based genres into the national media. In most cases, national media coverage of the genre will be ill informed about the music, and will depict the musicians as the Pied Pipers of deviance. The danger of Industry-based genres is framed in three contradictory ways. Journalists may portray the genre lifestyle as innocent fun and feature its colorful surface aspects; they may spin the lifestyle as a danger to its fans; or they may claim a danger is posed to society by its "lawless, anti-social, and hedonistic fans." The media may also ignite a "moral panic" in which genre spokespeople, police, political authorities, religious leaders, parent groups, teachers, and moral pundits of all sorts provide the willing press with lurid quotes. Press coverage of these moral panics often highlights racist, classist, or sexist tropes. The added attention to the genre is likely to draw even more fans.

Despite the level of conflict that often accompanies the Industry-based genre, hard-core scene members often spend this period complaining that the sense of being oppositional and hip has been lost. The threat posed by the popularity of music created in the Industry-based genre encourages the hard-core scenesters to cleave to a reductionist notion of the genre ideal. Supporters of the Scene-based phase of the music are especially put off by the large number of "tourists" joining the ranks of the music's fan base in the Industry-based phase. New recruits argue over what constitutes authenticity in music, musicians, and signs of group affiliation, and committed older, longer-term fans and performers engage in a discourse about authenticity lost. This tension is sometimes divisive enough to propel some genre members into forming an Avant-garde genre, while the others create a Traditionalist genre.

Traditionalist Genres

Musical styles that have experienced the explosive Industry-based phase of development tend to suffer a crisis as their many casual fans find a new distraction, and a style's mass popularity wanes. Major record companies looking for "the next big thing" no longer promote the music, and the media see it as music to review rather than as a lifestyle that is the source of news. Resources shrink as players, performance space owners, and fans move on to other music interests. The massification of musical styles and growing friction between hard-core musicians and scenesters against outsiders fuels the fracturing of music into numerous distinct styles.

Traditionalist genres emerge when committed players, fans, and genre-supporting business people decry what they identify as the adulterating consequences of the commercial exploitation of the music in the Industry-based genre. They focus on purifying the music by eradicating the excesses of the Industry-based genre and reenacting a version of what the music was like in its Scene-based period. They seek to preserve the community's musical heritage and inculcate in a rising generation of devotees the performance techniques, history, and rituals of the style. Fans and organizations dedicated to perpetuating the music put great effort into constructing its history and highlighting exemplary performers who embody the collective memory of the genre they construct.

Traditionalist genres are discussed in academic or lay treatments of music, are performed at conferences and festivals, and rely on small-scale or non-profit organizations. The genre-oriented press publishes schedules of events, recounts recent events, prints articles on performance techniques, profiles both venerated and rising artists and groups, and review new and remastered records. Many archival music compilations are released, and a small industry is devoted to remastering and rereleasing old albums.

At the start of the Traditionalist genre, a scholarly literature emerges that strives to preserve, codify, and organize the field. Scholars and lay historians are often preoccupied with the quest for the true or authentic, complete history of a musical style, and this preservationist spirit is precisely what differentiates Traditionalist genres from other genre types. Musicians and promoters often play a key role in defining the field, particularly if they were active during the Scene-based form. The codification of a musical style's history and significance is the core activity of Traditionalist genre members.

Members of Traditionalist genres meet in clubs and at gatherings of musical associations, academic conferences, and festivals; they communicate at a distance through newsletters, academic journals, trade magazines, and discussion sites on the Internet. Traditionalist genres are populated by dedicated fans, semiprofessional and experienced musicians, and academics from a variety of disciplines. Academic classes in the music and its history often become available, but much instruction in musical techniques and genre lore is received via one-on-one interaction with established performers and other aficionados.

Performers and promoters commonly rely on employment outside the musical community. Festivals and tours often provide the greatest percentage of music-related income to Traditionalist performers, in combination with income from selling records, musical instruments, and music-related ephemera. Many fans sing, play an instrument, or act as promoters of events, so there is a less distinct division of labor among fan, artist, and industry than in Industry-based or fully developed Scene-based genres.

Members regularly travel to conferences and festivals, collect and display records and memorabilia, raise money for ailing artists, and build organizations dedicated to perpetuating the music. Festivals are extremely common among Traditionalist genres, and are critical to their momentum and cohesion. Festivals play a key role in codifying and legitimating a single genre ideal.

Members of Traditionalist genres tend to resemble one another in dress, adornment, and argot. They wear muted, somewhat stereotypic styles of the aging artist or academic and may often use verbal expressions seen by others as out-of-date. They may also resemble stereotypes of a Scene-based performer.

Committed Traditionalists expend a great deal of energy fighting with each other about the models they construct to represent their music and the canon of its iconic performers. They argue over which instruments and vocal stylings are appropriate, and they may even battle over the place and time when the music originated. The test of authenticity is often taken to be the race, class, educational attainment, and regional origins of performers. Even journalistic and academic accounts of Traditionalist genres engage in such demographic profiling. These outsiders often conflate stories of a musical style's origin with its present Traditionalist form, and these stereotypes influence tourists who want to know something about the musical style.

After the Tradition

Industry-based communities often disband with the drift of casual fans to new musical distractions and the consequent twilight of mass popularity. The crisis within the community is focused on the debate between the nascent Traditionalists, who seek to preserve the music performed in the Scene-based phase, and those who focus on continuing the aesthetic development characteristic of the Scene-based period and living out the creative spirit of the music through innovation and hybridization. This second group often forms a new Avant-garde genre. 

Avant-gardists revolt against the popularizing tendencies of the Industry-based genre, and those who write about them begin to use the evaluative discourse of art, evoking images of genius and creative quest. Some find inspiration in unusual meldings of music in cooperation with other creative artists working in other musical styles. The discourse of creative genius helps musicians to distance themselves from the demands of fans of the style from which they have hived off. Like all Avant-gardists, they must rely on sympathetic independent record companies, promoters, and venue owners. Avant-gardists also tend to distance themselves from Traditionalist artists and fans.


  1. Wow, "The crisis within the community is focused on the debate between the nascent Traditionalists, who seek to preserve the music performed in the Scene-based phase, and those who focus on continuing the aesthetic development characteristic of the Scene-based period and living out the creative spirit of the music through innovation and hybridization. This second group often forms a new Avant-garde genre." Boy this sure does sound familiar doesn't it?

    1. One thing that jumped out at me as I was reading is that "OSR" means both the same community at multiple points in time, and also, arguably, multiple different communities doing different things, all using the same name.

    2. It struck me as well - this is a lovely find Anne and a very useful way of categorizing/understanding the way I've been playing and writing about games for the past ten years.

  2. Thank you for sharing; music's not a subject I read much - illuminating and gives context to thoughts I can't articulate as well as this does.

    This would have been useful research for the aborted art project that brought me back to ttrpg and the OSR.

    1. I think one challenge in sociology of culture is figuring out which patterns are really specific to a certain genre or medium or time and place, and which can be applied more broadly.

      I also didn't start reading a book on music expecting to recognize aspects of my rpg communities!

      I'm sorry you weren't able to finish your art project at the time, but I'm glad you ended up here, however it happened.

  3. Gosh dang, was 2013~2019 the OSR's Industrial Phase? 'Cuz it's definitely got a lot of those Traditionalist traits now. :P

  4. I was browsing your blog and found this post. Funny thing is I also noticed the parallel.