What We've Done With the Great Gray Space

It's Lit

Depending on whom you ask, in 2016, we could be witnessing the doomsday of recorded music or the birth of music as a truly liberated artform. The meteoric rise of streaming services—and the persistent disruptivity of the internet in general—has forced the industry to evolve into something almost unrecognizable. The late pop titan David Bowie, in a firmly enthusiastic interview with BBC in 1999, predicted the internet’s widespread force. “I think the potential of what the internet is going to do to society, both good and bad, is unimaginable,” Bowie said. The immediacy of content available via the internet is certainly terrifying, both for label execs and for artists who are paid cents a month for thousands of plays. While greater availability radically democratizes people’s access to music, it can compromise the valuation of the music itself, and the ease of consumption can cut into the uniqueness of a person’s music library. Shelves of well-loved, weathered albums are largely giving way to an ever-shifting repertoire of digital tracks “available offline.”

On the flip side, those same streaming services give artists a potential immediate audience of billions. Bowie recognized, even prior to the ubiquity of the internet, the importance of the interface between creator and listener, stressing, “The piece of work is not finished until the audience come to it and add their own interpretation. What the piece of art is about is the gray space in the middle.” Bowie identified that space, in which the audience’s engagement with artist and art begins to control the work itself, as the 21st century’s artistic focus.

Music in particular was ripe for an evolution of this gray space, especially given how it was commercially consumed; before digital music, almost all popular music was produced by an artist, put through a slow process of mass-production, and distributed via physical channels. The “gray space” that Bowie mentioned, in that situation, remained somewhat static. The interface between art and audience lay in the tactile grip on the record, the LP’s mesmerizing spin on the turntable, and the communities that formed around those records. The digital redefinition of music lent itself to much more purposeful manipulation of that gray space. Digital music can appear in spaces it wasn’t seen before—places where the audience reigns, like social media feeds. And a digital file is much more ethereal and flexible than a physical disc; with the malleability of the physical medium comes the malleability of that theoretical gray space.

Some artists have simply filled that gray space with something earnest and personal. Media like Twitter and Snapchat allow for candid communication between artists and those consuming their music and grant listeners insight into the creative guts of a project. If you follow ScHoolboy Q on Snapchat, you’ll learn a lot about his relationship with his daughter. You’ll also witness 10-second clips of his late nights in the studio as he records the album he’ll release this year. Recently, Kanye West has taken gray space experimentation to its almost preposterous extreme, turning his Twitter feed into a ranting, angry, scandalous, introspective, defiantly hopeful tabloid’s paradise through the lead-up and release of his album “The Life of Pablo.” The almost unprecedentedly messy rollout of TLOP morphs those liminal zones between artist, art, and audience into something almost unintelligible, and the ensuing range of reactions—spanning everything from absolute hate to worry about mental disease—illustrates how in addition to the space that exists between art and audience, a space exists between artist and art. Once a piece is released, especially in the music world, it’s beyond an artist’s control. The stakes in this gray zone are high.

Like Kanye, some artists mold the gray area into something convoluted—take, for example, electronic artist Daniel Lopatin (a.k.a. Oneohtrix Point Never) and his release of 2015’s “Garden of Delete.” The way the album was originally introduced is too complicated to explain completely, but suffice it to say that it started with a goofy PDF and journeyed through everything from fictional metal bands to maddeningly cryptic blogspots to the story of an adolescent extraterrestrial. That last point, interestingly enough, seems to have its roots in Lopatin’s reconnection with his adolescence while opening for Nine Inch Nails. Lopatin morphed that gray space into something labyrinthine in itself, before the audience even made it to the “art” of his album. Discovering the relationship between artist, art, and audience is just as subtle, complex, and rewarding as listening to the album itself.

Bowie didn’t just predict these trends—he participated in them himself. The album art for “Blackstar,” released just before his death in January, is common-source; his audience can explore their relationship with the album themselves, manipulating it as they like. That gray space, a negative space not typically breached before the internet, has become our time’s most important artistic frontier.

—Staff writer Michael L. McGlathery can be reached at mlmcglathery@gmail.com.

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