The Arena Concert: Music, Mediation and Mass Entertainment

full name / name of organization: 
Benjamin Halligan / University of Salford, Greater Manchester
contact email: 
b.halligan@salford.ac.uk

The idea of live popular music as mass entertainment is one that presents an arresting series of challenges and remains mostly unexplored in contemporary academic writing. And yet, it would seem, arena concerts are coming to constitute the commercial future of popular music, and popular music is being shaped by this phenomena. We ask: what, then, is this phenomena? And what then are the challenges that have blocked a critical engagement with this phenomena?

Challenges to critical engagement would seem to arise, firstly, along class lines: the event is truly proletarian (at a time when the “alternative” of music festivals are increasingly, at times preposterously, bourgeois). Secondly, along technological lines: musicologists often seem ill at ease when dealing with new paradigms of mediation, although performance, liveness, authenticity and intimacy are all now reinvented through these vectors. Thirdly, along experiential lines: the event can be wearying as much as entertaining. At its miserable worst, and replicating the existence of battery hens for the fleeced gig-goers, the arena concert is the eminently avoidable for denizens of well-PA’d concert halls. Fourthly, in terms of traditional concepts of pop: the event has little or no “present”, so that nostalgia tours and reunions jostle with karaoke X-Factor contestants, stars negotiate between “keeping it real” and hard selling their celebrity, and the “live album” of that night is somehow also available to buy on that night. And, fifthly, in terms of celebrity: hysterical mass gatherings around sole focal points are always a matter for suspicion, and the traditionally oppositional nature of pop music is one that auto-engenders a distaste for such totalitarian-style mass entertainments, and its concomitant total consumer environment, on the part of its interpreters.

The post-digital landscape of popular music consumption is one in which, paradoxically, “liveness”, the experience, and authenticity have been returned to their prime positions - perhaps for the first time since their folk (Newport) and rock (Woodstock) heydays. The failures to secure “the product” across the 2000s (via anti-piracy software and corporate malware, judicial attacks on Napster and Pirate Bay, the locking of hardware, and reimagining questions of ownership) have rapidly led to albums being reduced to little more than giveaway promotional fodder. And popular music, post-MTV, is no longer an audio form: a nexus of image and news, celebrity and fandom, seeking to saturate all digital platforms, comes to constitute what is both popular and what is considered to be music. For bands and artists, managers (and even medics) are replaced by tour organisers. For young fans, the gig becomes the only complete way of buying into the music, and the experience of attending the gig is authenticated (and propagated) via social media, with the night itself commemorated via DVDs of the event (of a new subgenre of the arena concert film). For not so young fans, a plethora of artists of yesteryear are suddenly available, and live, and live, once again: a post-MP3 reformation.

The arena concert becomes the “real time” centre of a global digital network, and the gig-goer pays not only for an immersion in (and, indeed, role in) its spectacular nature, but also for a close encounter with the performers, in the contained space. This spectacular nature raises challenges that have yet to be fully technologically overcome, and has given rise to the reinvention of what the live concert actually means. One thinks of the autobiographical narratives that come into play, so that the gig is not just album-centred but life-centred (Alicia Keys revisiting the music of her childhood, Kylie Minogue reminiscing about illness and past gigs in the same cities), and not just a performance to attend, but a self-affirming event (Lady Gaga’s talk of her global constituency). The enormous canvas requires more - a “total” art. Hence the integration of the tropes and designs of the fashion show, the circus, theatre and dance, ritual and religion, the political rally and immersive video-gaming, which are offset by the ways in which (via giant video screens) intimate and often acoustic moments are achieved and shared (as with Keane and Coldplay). In this respect the arena concert has come to compete with outdoor gigs in stadia and at festivals in terms of remaking the live popular music experience for contemporary times, raising the stakes for festival headline acts to be ever bigger and starrier (as with U2, Radiohead and Beyonce).

This proposed volume will be the first such exploration of the stadium concert. It will test and define, intervene and assess, offer pre-histories, present histories and consider future directions, and will concern itself with designers, choreographers, mixers, musicians and bands, promoters, security, broadcasters, caterers, social media use and audiences. We invite proposals for academic chapters, interventions, interviews and more, and have secured informal interest from a major academic publisher. Proposals should be 400-500 words and emailed as a Word file (not a PDF) with minimal formatting, and with a biographical note and contact details included, to Benjamin Halligan (b.halligan@salford.ac.uk) by 23 July 2013. Informal inquiries prior very welcome.

The editorial team is:
Dr Robert Edgar, York St John University (The Music Documentary: Acid Rock to Electropop, Basics Film-Making volumes)
Dr Kirsty Fairclough-Isaacs, University of Salford (The Music Documentary)
Dr Benjamin Halligan, University of Salford (Michael Reeves, Mark E. Smith and The Fall, Reverberations, Resonances, The Music Documentary)
Dr Sunil Manghani, Winchester School of Art (Image Studies: Theory and Practice, Images: A Reader, Image Critique and the Fall of the Berlin Wall).

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