CULTURE: The Hype Machine

And we’re rolling — constant documentation makes one professional crank wonder if once-savoured acts of existence have been lost to the upload-and-unleash culture

Illustration: Amy Thompson

I once met a gal who declared, with a straight face, that she was entering her “non-documentation phase.” It came off, at first, as some absurd yuppie pre-occupation, spoken with the precise concision of a tweet and possibly conjured up over an afternoon of latte-fetching. Yet it was, despite all the varnish of pretence, a pretty bold move.

In the name of living in the present, could you remove yourself from all the digital jotting-down of your existence? That would mean taking away Facebook, Twitter, access to blogging sites, your favourite video-sharing site — even your always-at-hand camera phone. These acts of affirming your existence — posting photos and thoughts to various websites — have become a much-trumpeted part of the professional world. Post often to gain hits, and have Google’s algorithms work in your favour! Keep your profile fresh! Update or fade away!

Non-doc gal proffered a nice counterpoint to all that hype. Instead of existing in a state of constant updating — where you’re essentially always looking one step back to get one step ahead — why not be comfortable in the present? This thinking isn’t new — it’s boiled-down Zen philosophy and has been the base point of countless self-help manuals. Still, the idea takes on a new dimension when compared with the tides of the ground-level culture in Ottawa.

The club rats among us can appreciate that going to rock shows has changed. Where once the need to document was concealed (bootlegs, anyone?), now it’s promoted, out in the open, and in my sightlines. Heading out to see some upstart rock band at Zaphod’s used to mean leaning on the rail at your favourite spot in the bar and soaking up the sonics. Now it’s nearly impossible to focus for the line of bluish camera-phone screens in the way. In the dark room, your eye zooms inevitably to that bright screen reducing the band in front of you to a miniaturized, digitized form and thereby lessening the power of the live experience. It’s an old-fart tune, but I can’t help carrying on about the wisdom of the way things were. I mean, if you need to say   “I was there,” do it the old-fashioned way. Buy the T-shirt.

Lately, the recording of a performance has become the main event through a new outing called the Voicebox Sessions. It’s an idea that was started by Ottawa producer Dean Watson and director Craig Allen Conoley. They provide independent musicians with a three-day creative workshop session where they perform, record, mix, and master a song, which they then perform in a unique location scouted out in advance by Watson and Conoley. This performance is then made into a music video. The playing is not the thing; watching a video of it later is now The Thing.

Those videos make it onto online band pages; they get posted and otherwise shared in an effort to bring more attention to an obscure band in a crowded online universe. These are the happenings and hype creation of the new web world. We are all content producers, and we are all constant content consumers.

It’s an electronic rat race, yes, but I’m not actually down on technology. I just think that the Internet is interesting only when it connects online and offline lives. So if that video prompts you to head to the next club show or festival site, there’s a chance to experience the real deal. You see, there needs to be a place that still allows you to savour sound completely unmediated by social media, camera phones, and digital video. To me, the live show is one of the last bastions of a real experience and a break from the constant screen time required in most white-collar day jobs. There are things that turn the senses alight — a reverberating bass line, feedback from the amps, the smell of stale beer. It reconnects you with tiny fragments of reality. For good or for bad, that stuff can’t be edited out.

Read Sound Seekers, a report on the club scene by culture columnist Fateema Sayani, every Thursday at

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  • Craig Conoley

    Fateema makes some great points here! We are living in a culture of increased distraction, forced by the affluence of technology and the pressure for artists to be heard, seen and promoted through new channels of distribution, channels which seem less “real” and less authentic when populated with ever increasing commercial slop, bottom line ethics, bootlegging and piracy. It is very true that attendance is high is cyberspace and sparse in the real!

    Within this in mind, consumers have to look and digest content in new ways and in new arenas, having a profound effect on consumer behavior. With more people looking in their devices instead of at the world around them, how do artists making good content reconcile the need to be seen and heard while maintaining authenticity in the face of poor content, fast delivery and spoiled audiences!

    Fateema also points us to a much larger context in which all content creators are forced to reconsider their innards within the digital-scape. In this context, Blockbuster has gone bankrupt, making way for Netflix and Rogers to deliver content straight to your home. A new documentary entitled “PAGE ONE: INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES” examines the relationship between print and digital media and the potential suffocation of the former. Bands like Radiohead continue to offer their music free online. Within such a climate of change, we are seeing social networks like facebook, twitter, MySpace acting as mediator; the new telephone poles upon which artists staple their presence (videos, blogs etc) and hope people show up.

    I agree there is a profound sadness associated with the tangible disappearing, shoved aside by a thousand electronic screens displaying the many digital doppelgangers of an information age. I remind myself however that I am an artist living in the here and now, needing to eat and survive in this culture at this particular moment in time. Not to mention I’m an artist living in Ottawa which some may argue makes it just a little bit tougher!

    Passionate and educated on culture within a digital context, I continuously ask myself how I can navigate such change while offering something authentic to artists who are also starving and cannot afford to make a record, publish a book or fund a film. Recently I was denied funding from the city of Ottawa because not enough of my work had been seen in popular offline channels. It begs the questions; What happens when you wish to be heard and seen in a city with a complex for not being heard and seen and you cannot get the funding because you have not been heard or seen? Where do you turn? You could enter a non-documentation phase like the gal mentioned in the article and hope for the best, or you could embrace the changing culture and adapt. I would not even know of this article if Ottawa Magazine were not online.

    Instead of berating and resisting the wave of change, I must remind myself not to work against the forms but with the forms, for the reality of change is that fears of preservation repeat themselves on a timeline of technological innovation, riddled with alarmism and calls for justice, especially from those working within communication industries. I’m sure with the arrival of the printing press, the telephone, the television and the automobile; the bookbinder, telegraph operator, radio maker and bike manufacturer all had equal concerns.

    Having studied such tensions, Canadian sociologist Harold Innis, believed that if you trace the effects of communication media, you could even observe the rise and fall of empires and civilizations. He believed that Western civilization faced a profound crisis due to the rise of powerful communication media.

    “The overwhelming pressure of mechanization evident in the newspaper and the magazine, has led to the creation of vast monopolies of communication. Their entrenched positions involve a continuous, systematic, ruthless destruction of elements of permanence essential to cultural activity.” [4] (Innis, Harold. (1952) Changing Concepts of Time. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, p. 15.)

    To be heard, seen, promoted and survive within the monopolies of communication, it is hard to resist popular trends. Ask any local band not to promote their next local show online and see what they say? Ground level culture in Ottawa, and around the world, is having to adapt to new trends of representation, forced by the hand of technological innovation and consumer habit.

    For example….
    To buy the t-shirt to say you were there, people need to show up so the band can be paid to play the live event and afford the costs of making the t-shirts. For people to show up, the band has to promote the event. This applies to the traveling theater troupe of yesterday and the slam poet of today. Today’s flyers are videos, blogs and mp3’s and the local has expanded online to the world.

    In slight defense of The Voicebox Sessions, we do no offer the alternative to the live event. We do not hijack performances and create distractions for audiences…. We here at The VoiceBox Sessions understand that artists on the ground level are having to adapt to the new edicts of representation, especially if they want people to support their artistic passions. If we can offer an authentic connection between the creator and consumer, one that displays the authentic artist in a sea of commercial garbage, than we are doing something positive for the politics of representation within a local context. We are actually challenging the popular. It’s a shame that a service like ours is being discussed in a way that frames it as anti-real or challenging the real and the live! As filmmakers, it is in our very nature to document the live, not to rob reality but share it with others. We are even are faced with the same challenges that musicians face when it comes to representation. Working together with musicians in Ottawa we see ourselves as combating these forces together. Our mandate is first and foremost to create art and maybe in the process, help the artist gain exposure and get people interested and out to the shows.

    Clarke Macey, Queen’s University film professor, says it best in his examination of vernacular culture, “We have gained much wisdom from the experiment of modernity. As I see it, there is neither progress nor regress, just change.” (Mackey. Between The Lines.Random Acts of Culture: Reclaiming Art and Culture in the 21st Century.13.2010)

    Craig Allen Conoley
    Director – TheVoiceBoxSessions