✏️ The notes ✏️
There are two things that I spend a lot of time thinking with regards to culture; how do ideas move through culture (how does something go from the edges to the mainstream), and how do cultures themselves change. I wrote quite a long essay a few weeks ago on how I believe ideas move through culture (in Letter 84), but beyond a few mentions, I’ve never really tried to articulate my thoughts on how overall cultures and subcultures can change.
You’ll have to forgive me a bit, as I’m going to use this space here to explore, rather than explain my thinking.
Let me start at the very beginning. Earlier this year, we (Initiative, where I work) launched a report that explored the current State of UK Culture. The idea was that we’d pull together a retrospective guide to the interesting and emerging subcultures that we believed would begin to have an impact on mainstream culture over the course of the next few years. Amongst others, we wrote about the emerging subculture that exists around nootropics and micro-dosing, we explored the female esports counterculture, we looked into the nascent culture of stay at home dads.
But there was one specific area that the team explored that piqued my interest. Audiophiles.
An audiophile is defined as someone who listens to more music than average and owns more expensive equipment than average. They’re clocking up more than 40 hours per week listening to music, and spend three times the average on audio equipment each year. They go to shops like Audio Gold in Crouch End, and Sounds of the Universe in Soho, and more than half of them see their record collection as a point of pride. They know what a rotary mixer is. They understand that a moving coil cartridge has nothing to do with a rifle, and that a valve amp needs to warm up.
There are a lot of these people among us here. In fact, you are probably one of these people. I think I can safely say that I am one of these people.
So my first thought was; are my team low-level trolling me? Turns out that they weren’t, and that the growth in this subculture was pretty huge.
In fact, a few weeks ago I was sat on the sofa feeling pretty zoned out after a particularly long day, when something throttled my attention. It was a Lucozade ad. It was all pretty standard, despite a big shift away from sports and into more general ‘endurance’ (although on this occasion I’ll spare you my adland strategist perspective). There was a young man learning to DJ, to his father’s annoyance. He’s practising for a big gig, and at the perfect moment, his father appears at the gig. Glorious. What a sunny story, told in less than thirty seconds. What grabbed my attention wasn’t the ad, but instead that the budding DJ was playing Bileo’s You Can Win. A rare-as-rocking-horse-shit soul single, repressed on Athens of the North a few years ago, and it’s stillhard to get hold of. A brilliant song, but a pretty leftfield choice from the creative department of the agency.
Then one morning I noticed that on CBeebies, the continuity presenters had two Technics 1210’s set up. Then I spotted a rotary mixer in a nightclub scene in a well-known British soap drama. And records for sale in Sainsburys.
It’s happened, I thought. The audiophile subculture has edged into the mainstream.
Then, my second thought was; I wonder what’s happening to the subculture as it grows and new people join it? As part of the report, we looked into those that were part of the growth of the subculture (so people who were new to it, rather than an established part of it). We used a tool called Recode, which helps us to understand the underlying drivers and motivations of people in different cultures – there are nine different dimensions, and they cover four broad areas; openness to change, group orientation, conservatism, and individualism. What I’d expected to see from the people flooding into the audiophile subculture was a bunch of people who were driven by a dedication and curiosity for finding new music, and a desire to share that experience with people.
I was totally wrong.
We found that the new entrants to the subculture were motivated by status and achievement. Two drivers that exist within the individualism segment of our research tool. When we dug into this more we found that it wasn’t all about the music at all, it was all about the bloody gear.
This genuinely upset me a bit. This was something that I truly cared about, and a subculture that I felt (relatively speaking) a part of, and yet there was this flood of people who didn’t share the same motivations, and instead wanted to buy into the subculture and use it as a means of showing off.
Audiophile culture had, as far as I was concerned, emerged from Richard Long and David Mancuso (which is almost certainly my naivety, but still). This insane desire to replicate as close as possible the sound of a live performance wasn’t just to show off, it was to create a moment of tribal togetherness – to recreate that primitive feeling of coming together over rhythm and emotion. To create shared moments of ecstasy. To heighten the state of consciousness of a group.
Yet here it was, being used to show off in expensive Zone Two duplex apartments.
Was I immune? Absolutely fucking not. The increase in availability and production (because of the increase in popularity) has increased the volume of stuff I buy. Artists who never would’ve released vinyl now do. There’s a burgeoning second-hand audio equipment market. Companies like Technics are producing new (and innovative) products for the first time in years. I feel the benefit, but yet I still question the values. I still can’t help but wonder how will these people change the culture that I feel I’m part of.
Does this influx of people change the core beliefs of the culture? Does it dilute the values? Or does the culture change the values of the new people? Do people become assimilated to the culture? Or does this create factions within a subculture? Will they kill it?
My hope is that people come in for the cultural cachet, but stay for the deeper sense of meaning and belonging. The experience of hearing really high-end audio equipment like four Klipschorn’s is pretty nice, but the fidelity of the equipment is a means, not an end. The feeling of near-celestial elation of being surrounded by people you care about, dancing in synchronicity to music that has soul… That feels as close to heaven as I think I’ll ever get.
I think it’s fascinating to look at other cultures where there’s either been a hostile takeover, or the culture has changed so dramatically that people have reneged their membership. Skinheads. Dada. Dubstep. The Labour Party. There are lots of examples across all sorts of cultures.
I’m not saying that the audiophile subculture is undergoing anything even near as extreme as the examples above, but I definitely think it’ll be interesting to see how the subculture evolves as it becomes bigger (if it’s growth continues, that is). The rise of cassette-only releases, invite-only parties, and limited run fanzines are a pretty good signal that there’s a tug of war going on.
I’ve started to realise that it’s very rare that a whole subculture and all of its constituents head towards the mainstream together. I’ve also realised that the idea of people within a culture ’selling out’ is ridiculous. If cultures ebb and flow and split and merge into different factions, the very idea of someone who’s a constituent of that culture ‘selling out’ is just evolution. However it’s important to make a distinction between someone within the culture ’selling out’ and someone from outside the culture appropriating it. One is a natural evolution, and one is cultural theft. Dada moved to a weird political place through exploration of its own value system, while skinhead culture was invaded by the far right with a very different agenda and set of values.
So this brings me back full circle what makes a culture attractive to people that are currently outside of that culture? Is it the desire to belong, or the desire to be seen to part of something that’s growing? I think we operate on two distinct levels when it comes to cultural affiliation; there’s who we are, and then who we want to be. The closer that a culture can align with both of those, the better the fit. I suppose life is about exploring different cultures and trying to find the best alignment you can. In my mind, that’s where a clear sense of purpose and belonging exist.