Portishead, Twitter, and Resisting Digital Ideology

Portishead’s Geoff Barrow can hardly be considered a technophobe. As producer and multi-instrumentalist for the trio Portishead, Barrow has proven himself to be one of the foremost manipulators of digital sound of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Last week, however, Barrow crossed up the digerati by tweeting a series of statements about what people should and (mostly) should not expect from the band’s next album. With tongue almost but not quite planted in cheek, he wrote things such as:

There will be NO free downloads. There will be NO bonus tracks. There will be NO remixes. There will be NO hidden footage. There will be NO additional content. There will be NO corporate partners.

He did not, anywhere, say the band would not publicize the album. (Nor did he remotely specify when the album would be coming out.) He just seemed to be happily rejecting any number of PR tools and fan engagement techniques considered de rigueur by many online pundits and amateur commentators alike.

Some of these folks answered unkindly; a recurring mocking response, seen not only on Twitter but in comment sections on sites such as NME and Hypebot, was something to the effect of “There will be NO sales”—if nothing else an inaccurate retort, as Portishead has a devoted following and will have no trouble selling an album that follows a release as good as Third, their last one. Some immediately jumped to disparaging conclusions about Barrow’s age, such as the Hypebot visitor who said, “He’s lazy and old. Who cares,” or the Twitterer who said that he sounds like “a cranky old man.” Barrow is 39.

And, because “There will be NO Twitter” was also amongst his tweeted sentiments, there were those who couldn’t get past the idea that he was hypocritical by tweeting these comments. “He wrote to Twitter to say there will be no Twitter?” wrote a commenter on the Daily Swarm. “OH how contrarian. Gimme a break.”

A mere moment of reflection, however, will reveal that Twitter is of course the best place to go to tell people about your plans not to use Twitter for one reason or another. That’s not hypocrisy, it’s efficiency. Besides, he did not otherwise swear off Twitter. (In fact, just a few days later he tweeted to assure the world that his outburst never once noted that the next Portishead album is coming out any time soon, which many seemed to infer.)

If you take a second to read the whole thing (go here and scroll down to January 5) now that the heat of the moment has cooled, it’s pretty clear Barrow was having fun (“There will be NO fashion lines,” he wrote; “There will be NO tabloid pictures”). Some were clearly not amused, however—such as the Hypebot visitor who wrote, minus a certain amount of punctuation: “What a complete idiot. Portishead are an established band with a fanbase so it’s easy for them to do this He can go do one – i for one am deleting Portishead from my brain. What an arrogant tool”

While on the one hand I hesitate to legitimize spiteful and/or uninformed comments, on the other hand, until a sea change occurs in how most sites operate, such comments take an unfortunate center stage in online discussions all too often. And in this case, I think they are particularly instructive. They stand in for a general sort of combative, unreasoned attitude that has flourished not only online but in our overall culture for the better part of the last 10 years or so.

And it’s gotten kind of foolish by now, and exquisitely counterproductive.

I mean, look: the fact that a technician/musician as skilled and experienced as Geoff Barrow has found good reason to put the brakes on the Music 2.0 love—whether he even completely means it or not—should give all thoughtful people at least a little pause. “Pause” as in easing up on reactive mode.

And we might, while pausing, want to contemplate a number of pretty important questions that arise in the wake of this pretty unimportant kerfuffle. Such as:

* Since when did fan engagement efforts become an ideology, full of what must be done and what must not be done?

* What will happen if it turns out that social media is not the be-all and end-all of a musician’s existence?

* What are the chances that all the tweeting and “liking” and YouTubing and SoundClouding everyone’s been doing for the last couple of years is amounting by now to a lot of sound and fury which may, already, be signifying nothing?

* Why do fans feel so entitled to all sorts of extra goods and services from musicians when, apparently, so many of them don’t even want to pay for the music itself?

* Why do discussions of these issues so often turn vitriolic and childish?

* What if anything can we do to prevent us all from becoming ideologues rather than reasoned thinkers and commenters?

That last question is maybe the key to all of them. And who knows, maybe it’s too late—maybe we’re all ideologues by now: people bound in lockstep to ideologies rather than open to the clear-headed pursuit of reality.

Lord knows, maybe I’m one too. It’s like pod people, or the new Facebook profile: it just happens to you, you can’t stop it.

But I don’t want to be. And that’s the first step out of it, I should think. It’s okay to have ideas, it’s okay to have opinions. But check your facts. Curb your (aggressive) enthusiasm. Be open-minded. Give the other guy the benefit of the doubt. Be willing to admit you don’t know where the future is leading.

To be sure, Twitter is not a great platform for nuance or subtlety. It’s all about quips, basically. And daggers make the best points. Maybe this is why Barrow—for all his Twitterizing jollity day to day—didn’t see the platform as a meaningful part of his art. Maybe this is part of why he launched his salvo across the good ship internet. And he was no doubt unsurprised to find a few feathers ruffled in the process.

But those who felt ruffled seem by and large to have been reacting ideologically, overlooking that there might be actual reality to take into account. A perfect example is the Hypebot commenter who, in response to Barrow’s statements, wrote: “Portishead fans must be feeling really special right about now.” She was being ironic, of course; her point was that given everything Barrow said the band would not do, fans must be feeling ignored and unvalued.

It was a slick and sardonic tweet. But it was also sheer invention, disguised as knowing aside. A quick perusal of Twitter reveals that, on the contrary, Portishead fans were overwhelmingly happy with Barrow’s little outburst. Reactions included:

“Loving Geoff Barrow’s rant about the new Portishead Album.”

“Right there is why I love this band”

“Geoff Barrow is effing brilliant.”

“Geoff Barrow of Portishead is a fucking genius!!! Just US and the Music!!!”

Despite the commenter’s assertion, Portishead fans fully appreciated what he was trying to communicate with his cheeky tweets: let’s remember it’s about the music. Let’s remember that true artists are following their muses, not the whims of their “followers,” and certainly not the whims of followers who seem too often to believe they deserve everything they want right now while not seeming all that interested in actually paying anything for the privilege.

Maybe all Barrow was really doing was resisting digital ideology. Maybe that’s all any of us should be doing.

We are in the middle of a wildly interesting time in the history of music. To claim that anyone who wants to assess and discriminate when it comes to new technology is merely old and backward is to be an ideologue. To be more interested in Tweeting ridicule than examining reality is to be an ideologue.

The world has enough ideologues. What we need are more folks who remain quirky and individualistic, who seem to be using both their heads and their hearts, who resist both the pull of the mob and the illusory “logic” of the marketplace. We are dealing with music and human emotion, not coffee beans and pork bellies. More importantly, at the top of the game here, we are dealing with genuine artists, whom their fans—if real fans—have zero business directing or controlling.

8 thoughts on “Portishead, Twitter, and Resisting Digital Ideology”

  1. The sense of entitlement from fans sometimes amazes me. If they’re not insisting the music should be free they’re demanding the band forms a social media relationship with them and treats them as if they’re just a bit more special than everyone else.

    As for the use of Twitter, it’s an artist well outside the Fingertips usual realm but, I thought this bit on how Soulja Boy’s 2.5 million Twitter followers totally failed to transfer into actual sales of his latest album was interesting and relevant. http://bit.ly/gDWJDV


  2. Thank you Fingertips, once again, for managing to pull together a whole set of thoughts that have been nagging my brain for the last year or so, and putting them down coherently in one essay. So, so happy and relieved to find that I am not alone in my thinking, that there are others who have finally realised that pandering to the demands of audience is the surest and quickest way to destroy all art and validity in the musician’s oeuvre.
    Very happy to have read this article. If you are in need of another (small) voice to add to the growing number of artists and labels who are no longer willing to dance to the mob’s tune, you might be interested in checking out the front (and currently only) page on http://blancomusic.com
    We’ve been getting a lot of flack about it, and a lot of people asking when the ‘real’ website will be ready. Our answer is that it IS ready. This is all we’re willing to give.


  3. What it comes down to is that he wants me to buy his music with my hard-earned money. If he is serious (and if he is I find it kind of insulting for him to list all the features I WON’T get) then this sales job becomes much more difficult. And if he’s joking then he has done a poor job of it. Listing what he won’t do is comparable to having a waiter tell you he’ll bring you your food and refill your drink once but don’t expect him to laugh at your joke or go out of his way to earn that tip in any way.


    1. Wow, I look at this so differently. As I guess you can tell from the essay. I never think, with respect to a musician, “Prove to me why I should spend my money on you.” For me it’s a pull not a push– the music pulls the money right out of my pocket. (Or, it doesn’t.) In any case, no salesman will call. 🙂 And if Barrow thinks the musician’s job has gotten a bit mucked up with all the social media posturing and digital freebies currently expected of musicians, I think he is entitled to tell us he’s not going to do that stuff. Bonus points for him that he did it with a sense of humor.


  4. I see your point and I agree with you to an extent. I guess I should have said “to buy his music instead of someone else’s”. My music budget is limited to a fairly consistent size and there’s always more music I want to buy than I can buy.

    Part of the musician’s job has always been salesmanship. Whether it’s making a good appearance on late night TV or impressing the right aristocrat in 1800’s Europe or getting the villagers to give a traveling bard a meal in exchange for a night’s entertainment.

    Also, I’m just not impressed with what Tom Wolfe called “the Boho Dance” where the artist spends so much time telling you he’s not interested in what you think and he doesn’t really like you while at the same time watching for your reaction to his display.

    If he was trying to be funny I just didn’t get it.


  5. Great essay Jeremy. I like how you’re probing the murky spots where the entitlement issue clashes with other notions of what truly makes a long-term paying fan (ie love for the music and underlying respect for the artist making it). The comment from Sean is interesting. Of course there are competitive realities involved in music sales – obviously – but it reminds me of how some folks in this debate have adopted language and attitudes almost exclusively from the marketing world, as if we’re only talking about how to sell widgets and maximize brand impressions. It’s bizarre to me and I think a byproduct of an underlying feeling of defensiveness on the part of freeloaders (not saying you are, Sean) who deep down understand that the “free” ideology is inherently corrupt, yet can’t bring themselves to appear in any way sympathetic to the “old industry,” which to them is synonymous with paying for recordings. So there’s this overreaching for science and objectivity, neither of which can address the issue’s social core, and leads to an over reliance on business thought and techno-logic. The group think we get in return resembles major label cynicism far more than the indie idealism we assume the internet is delivering. Irony.

    You decide against buying music not because the musician exclusively has done an insufficient job at “convincing” you of its utility, but also because you don’t see its value or a reason to pay. You don’t think it’s “worth it” – for whatever reason. In today’s reality, it all says much more about the consumer than it does about the artist.


  6. This is a great article. As a Portishead fan and a musician about to start a marketing campaign for my new band. This gives me the need for pause for sure. With a band like mine we need social media to gain band exposure, but one thing is certain you have to have a balance. For me Geoff’s tweets are about a back to basics approach to music which you can do if you are established since people are clamoring for your new music. The industry is in a huge paradigm shift and for burgeoning bands it’s exciting and full or opportunities if you think about it, for established bands it has to feel a bit shaky as the current industry business model is failing. I support Geoff’s opinion as it’s interesting to see how established acts are seeing the industry right now. I will still buy their new album the day it comes out like I did with THIRD.


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