Wednesday, 3 April 2013

On 'Unauthorising popular music heritage', a forthcoming IJHS article by Les Roberts and Sara Cohen

There is a really exciting special ‘music heritage’ issue of the International Journal of Heritage Studies coming out soon(ish). A number of articles from the special issue are already available online. Of particular interest to this project is an article by Les Roberts  and Sara Cohen called ‘Unauthorising popular music heritage: outline of a critical framework’ .

Roberts and Cohen remind us that music heritage is about much more than the music. This is because music only exists ‘in and through its multiple and changing mediations’, an aspect of which are ‘heritage practices such as the construction of music exhibitions and museums, monuments and tours, collections and archives, books and films’ (p.2). For Roberts and Cohen, ‘the constellation of heritage practices that attach themselves to – and extract social, symbolic and economic capital from – popular cultural forms such as music’ are the key concern for the study of popular music heritage (p.2), an area of scholarship that is ‘still relatively undertheorised’ (p.3). By way of a focus on commemorative plaque schemes in England, Roberts and Cohen’s article draws on qualitative research undertaken as part of the European POPID project (the sister project of the ARC funded ‘Popular Music and Cultural Memory’ project to set ‘out a critical and analytical framework through which to explore popular music heritage … and the ways in which it is practised, discussed and understood’ (p.2).

Roberts and Cohen argue that is unhelpful to think about popular music heritage practice as official (top-down) or unofficial (bottom-up); this being a ‘rigid binarism’ that ‘could misleadingly imply a hierarchy of power and authenticity, such as a pejoratively official “canon” that threatens to overwrite or hegemonise what might be perceived in contrast as the organically homespun authority of vernacular memory’ (p.3). In an attempt to avoid this trap, Roberts and Cohen put forward a more nuanced critical framework that highlights three ‘fluid, shifting and closely interrelated’ ‘categories of discourse about popular music heritage …: officially authorised, self-authorised and unauthorised’ (p.3). Such a typology, they argue, enables an exploration of the dynamics of popular music heritage ‘as a situated, relational practice involving various, often contested negotiations of the musical past’ and the analysis of ‘the various ways in which popular music heritage is not simply practised but also authorised and ascribed with value, legitimacy and social and cultural capital’ (p.3). In this typology officially authorised popular music heritage (‘loosely termed “big H” Heritage’ (p.4)) tends to be that which is sanctioned by and/or substantially sponsored by government bodies. For my own project on DIY Institutions (archives and museums) my interest is primarily in Roberts and Cohen’s development of the other two categories which situate ‘heritage-as-praxis’ (p.4).
With self-authorised popular music heritage there tends to be limited ‘official government endorsement’ and an absence of the ‘gilt-edged symbolic capital’ that is attached to ‘prestigious public institutions’ (p.8). Rather, self-authorised sites, organisations and activities are ‘developed alongside their official counterparts’ by way of the music and media industries and ‘by musicians, audiences, entrepreneurs and organisations who participate in particular musical cultures’ (p.8). These ‘DIY, localised or vernacular popular music heritage discourses’ might not be ‘officially’ authorised, as such, but ‘claims to (or solicitations of) some form of official status may invariably play an important role in terms of marketing and publicity, or ensuring the sustainability and development of the heritage initiative or resource in question’ (p.8). Mechanisms through which self-authorised initiatives can build ‘more weight and authority’ include ‘the endorsement of celebrities or ambassadors’ (for example, as is the case with The ARChive of Contemporary Music  which has the support of high profile artists like David Bowie, Keith Richards and Paul Simon), ‘the ability to attract public funding’ (including, for example, local government or council funding such as that received by Tónlistarsafn Íslands), ‘or claim charitable status’ (such as the classical music oriented organisation Music Preserved) – all of which can ‘build the professional image’ of the initiative and further ‘blur the distinction between ideas of official and “unofficial”’ popular music heritage (p.10).
In addition, while these may represent a more ‘democratised’ (p.14) form of popular music heritage, Roberts and Cohen note that ‘with many self-authorised music heritage discourses, it is as much the personal musical heritage and history of individuals, such as [the founders of these initiatives], that is being memorialised as that which is claimed on behalf of a wider group or nation’ (p.10). This is certainly the case for many of the archives I have visited to-date in regards to their founding (though not necessarily their continued practice). Self-authorised popular music heritage practice therefore concerns, to some degree, the enactment of memory. As Roberts and Cohen put it, ‘One of the chief functions of self-authorising music heritage practices is, therefore, to furnish a means by which to give substance to the ritual and performative dimensions of cultural memory: the sites of popular music heritage as an (in)tangible place of pilgrimage’ and also ‘the experiential, affective and embodied contours of musical memory’ (p.12).

The third category in Roberts and Cohen’s typology is a variant ‘that does not demand authorisation’; that is ‘little “h” heritage’ in which the emphasis is on everyday practice, cultural bricolage, anti-heritage and individual and collective memory (p.14). A consideration of unauthorised popular music heritage questions the usefulness of ‘heritage’ as a ‘framework, critically and historiographically, to address the legacy of specific popular music histories’ (p. 15). This is heritage that ‘does not draw attention to itself; indeed, for the most part it gets by without even an awareness that it is heritage’ (p.17). Artist fan sites might fall under this category. In comparison, ‘“Big H” Heritage’ is ‘conspicuous heritage; heritage that draws attention to itself in order to exercise an instrumental function’ (p.18). The question being asked here is to what extent authorised, and even self-authorised, forms of popular music heritage are meaningful to individuals, to the audiences of popular music. As Roberts and Cohen conclude, ‘there exists a set of heritage practices that can provisionally be described as “unauthorised” but which are in all other respects not really conceived of as “heritage” at all. That is, they reflect processes of engagement with musical pasts that draw on as well as contribute to both established and emergent educational resources, and which appropriate that which went before as precursors to innovation and creativity not merely as emblems and relics of a memorialised past’ (pp.18-19).

Plenty of food for thought in this article! In particular I’m mulling over a couple of side questions posed by Roberts and Cohen in relation to self-authorised initiatives. They write:
If, for example, a ‘DIY heritage’ initiative, such as an online music archive or website … is successful in securing funding or drawn into collaboration with researchers and academics in the higher education sector, by what measure, and to what extent could it be (re)classified as an ‘official’ heritage discourse? Does this enable those involved to legitimately claim more authority than if it was the product of entirely self-resourced DIY endeavours? (p.11)

My immediate sense is that this is why it is important to think of these activities on a spectrum. Such thinking opens up rather than closes down our understanding of DIY endeavours, enabling the inclusion of what might be described, using Roberts and Cohen’s proposed framework, as the ‘unauthorised’ heritage initiatives of someone like Yashiv Cohen in Israel who founded a music history lecture series in Tel Aviv bars, to the self-authorised practices of organisations like the British Archive of Country Music  or Victorian Jazz Archive, to those that have built up such ‘weight and authority’ (p.10) that they verge on achieving a broader public acceptance comparable to that of ‘prestigious public institutions’ (p.8), an example of which might be The ARChive of Contemporary Music which has established a partnership with Columbia University (see here).

Roberts and Cohen, after posing the above questions, go on to say that:

These questions, while of some import, have less bearing than those which seek to address not what specific music heritage discourses may represent in terms of their perceived authenticity or official merit, but what it is they in fact do: the instrumentality and performativity of music heritage as a social and cultural practice. (p.11)

But, I wonder, isn’t ‘what it is they in fact do’ shaped by where they are situated on the spectrum of activity? I wonder if some of my head-shaking is because Roberts and Cohen, despite their best intentions, have been unable in this framework to break out of the official/unofficial binary. Is a (re)classification as authorised necessarily a (re)classification as ‘official’? Are authorised and official being used interchangeably here? Does authority necessarily equate to authenticity? Indeed, is talking about authenticity in this context clouding the issue at hand? This article is important because it raises these and so many other questions and in doing so takes us another step forward in understanding what is at stake in the preservation of popular music’s material past in places that sit outside yet alongside prestigious, government endorsed, legitimised heritage institutions.