Gatekeepers and intermediaries
There are many theories of gatekeeping from diverse disciplines: Management, journalism, information technology, social networks and communication theory. A brief overview of selected theories is given to provide a context for the later discussion on the international market context.
A gatekeeper controls access to information within a network. Conversely, the gated is an entity or individual who is subjected to a gatekeeping process. Delulius (2015) gives an excellent summary of gatekeeping theory starting with the “father of gatekeeping theory”, Kurt Lewin, who, according to Delulius, “approached gatekeeping as just one of many interrelated phenomena that together make up a social field” (Delulius, 2015, p. 4). Astor’s (2016, p. 33) summary of music industry contexts ranges from the more traditional approach where access to the industry was controlled by a select few who controlled the production and distribution channels (for example, the major record companies or broadcasting) to the post-punk DIY culture and rise of social media influencers where the traditional power bases are usurped.
Lewin (1947) identified the following components of gatekeeping: Force, channel and section. A force facilitates or constrains the gated. These forces can be positive or negative, and are not fixed and fluctuate. For example, someone who is considered valuable by a gatekeeper will most likely experience a positive force. On the other hand, someone who is out of fashion will most likely endure constraint by a gatekeeper, thereby representing a negative force. Forces can be determined by taste (aesthetic), market demand, policy or ideology. “A channel is defined by the obstacles an item will face: from discovery to use” (Delulius, 2015, p. 7). Each channel is defined by its sections. These are the points through which a decision is made where the gated is positively encouraged or negatively discouraged (constrained). These decision points are determined by gatekeepers. A section is defined by the points “at which decisions are made within a channel” (ibid., p. 6). “Decisions in each section are guided by force”. A gate is the point at which a force changes direction from being excluded from a channel or keeping within a channel (ibid., p. 6). In the music industry there are many channels through which a gatekeeper can determine whether a gated individual/entity can move. For the music entrepreneur, identification of these gatekeepers and channels is key. The following quote aptly describes the approach to planning done by music entrepreneurs with “hit lists” in the identification of and access to channels and gatekeepers. "People do their research before they even get to the conference. They already have a hit list of things they want to see and talk to, and they’ve already made connection to those people beforehand” (Interview 5,2018).
Shoemaker and Voss (2009) identify five levels of gatekeeping and their forces: “Individual”, “communication routines”, “organizational”, “social institutions” and a “social system” (ibid., Part II). While these five categories apply to journalism and the media industries, they can be seen to be in operation in the music industry, irrespective of whether it is a pre- or post-digital culture. These gate- keeping levels of force have been broadened to include small businesses and other actors in the music industry. The individual level concerns the characteristics of individual gatekeepers, their interpretations, opinions, aesthetics, experiences and expression through social media platforms or product choice. The communicative routines level concerns the repeated practices and routines of a particular profession, interest or lifestyle. These routines constitute the daily "grind” or codes of practice of a profession of repeated activity. The organisational level is an extension of the individual where the organisation becomes the equivalent of the individual. For example, a company is defined by its ethos, values and reputation, all of which have been developed internally through decision-making processes. The social institution level deals with the social forces that have an impact on organisations such as governments, lobby groups or advertising companies. The social system level deals with societal ethos and values which can have an (ideological, cultural, economic or political) impact on organisations’ decision-making.
Barzilair-Nahon (2008, p. 1501) applies her gatekeeping model to other types of social networks. These are particularly relevant to the role of digital music platforms with respect to the development of fans, audiences, the rise of independent labels and artists and new means of distribution. Barzilair-Nahon shows that due to social networks, gatekeeping is no longer one way but multidirectional, in which the gated can become a gatekeeper. Gatekeeping “salience” is based on four characteristics: The relationship between the gatekeeper and the gated, which can shift between being one way or through frequent exchanges; the production of information where the source of information between the gated and gatekeeper is interchangeable; alternatives for the gated which provide options to circumvent gatekeepers and/or gatekeeping mechanisms; and the power relationship between the gatekeeper and gated where the gated may have its own power in the relationship.
Nahon (2011) introduces “network fuzziness” to describe the unfixed nature of a network’s activities of inclusion and exclusion demonstrating a modern-day example of Lewin’s forces and channels. “Network fuzziness” is defined by the balance of power in networks, which is continually shifting between stakeholders, in particular between gatekeepers and the gated. This fuzziness is particularly apt when discussing the volatile nature of the music industry and the ability at any one time for a new phenomenon to become popular or “the rage”. Nahon (2011) outlines five factors that determine the “fuzziness” of inclusion in/exclusion from a network: Collective patterns of the gated which are continually shifting, increasing integration and interoperability between platforms and applications, dynamism between gatekeeper and gated roles (roles change across networks), interpretation of meaning of gated content (people reinterpret actions, moments to be applicable to their own contexts) and the holistic and interconnectedness of networks (Nahon, 2011, p. 766). These five factors and their transferability show the dynamism of a network’s identity due to the introduction and impact of new information into a network. Later in this chapter, it will be shown how this "fuzziness” operates at an international market event where simations and relationships are dynamic and open to change once new information or a new person is introduced into the network, such as a new act that creates excitement. The emergence of the playlist for streaming platforms exemplifies fuzziness of gatekeeping forces.
At the beginning of 2020 Spotify became the world’s largest music streaming service with 100 million premium subscribers (FIPP, 2020). However, with so many artists’ creative work now more readily retrieved, the born global notion that an artist can be successful by simply uploading onto streaming platforms such as Spotify is not guaranteed. Curated playlists, new platforms and influencers exemplify a seamless transition from the older gatekeeper such as A&R, publishers and broadcasters to the more modem type of gatekeeper. As the following interviewed manager says, it is still a lot of work to break through into these new domains.
There’s a new platform every day. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, those socials, Snapchat ... and then there's learning how to deal with iTunes and Apple and Spotify and how to get your music. A lot of the music that’s coming in here on Spotify and all those channels is not coming from here, it’s coming from there, from America and England. So you have to get your music onto those American track and playlists to get back into here. It’s quite a trip and there’s been a lot of complaints lately that there’s very few Australian songs in the top 40. And that’s because you can get streamed here but you need to get into this worldwide ... Because the radio stations are looking at the analytics ... it’s coming from America. So you’ve got to get onto those qualified play lists in America and England and things like that. It’s quite complicated.
(Interview 9, 2017)
The relationship between Spotify and the major labels is of particular interest here, with the major labels having shareholdings in Spotify (and other digital platforms). The following quote demonstrates the complex relationship between Spotify and the major labels, clearly showing it’s not a level playing field due to holding interests and challenges:
Tencent Holdings is the majority parent of Tencent Music Entertainment (TME); Tencent is leading a consortium, with TME as a named constituent, that is set to buy 10% (and potentially, eventually, 20%) in Universal Music Group; Universal Music Group still owns a stake (believed to equate to around 3.5%) in TME rival, Spotify; TME and Spotify own single-digit stakes in each other, thanks to a “stock swap” agreed in 2017; and UMG’s biggest rivals, Warner Music Group and Sony Music Entertainment, both own stakes in TME. Which, remember, is about to own a stake in Universal.
(Music Business Worldwide, 2020)
This complexity plays out in the following interview with a UK-based music rights consultant in which the shift from an older gatekeeping era dominated by the labels has led to a now more convoluted situation:
The relationship between the labels and the streaming services is very powerful in London. If you think in terms of Payola and what that used to be at radio, that’s now occurring undoubtedly on Spotify ... Although Spotify will love to say, “hey, we played an artist from Byron Bay the other day, we put him on the top of our global playlist, we promote talent from everywhere”. You look at them over a 6 month period, they’re pushing catalogue artists and artists signed to the majors ... That gives us a Payola power out of London that you don’t have. Sydney, Melbourne, Berlin even, Stockholm even. And that’s really bad for plurality and diversity, but it’s to our advantage ... I think at the moment Spotify is doing a big push around that Guardians of the Galaxy with all its 70s soundtrack. They’re just pushing out 70s hits. Again viewed across the year, yes, they played someone from Byron Bay, they played someone from Lithuania ... But their push is on their relationships with the big spenders at Universal, Sony and Warner. Who are here with direct lines to New York, in the way that you won’t find elsewhere.
(Interview 12, 2017)
Aggregators and digital music stores, combined with the newly established curators, have redefined the playing field for aspiring artists in seeking promotion on various platforms in competition with a swathe of new songs and artists. Attracting the attention of a playlist curator is crucial. In 2019, Spotify founder Daniel Ek stated that the number of daily uploads to Spotify is around 40,000 (Music Business Worldwide, 2019). In 2020 Soundcloud reported that while it has over 25 million creators, only 12 million of these creators get heard every month (Music:)ally, 2020). While the Internet is perceived as a leveller and egalitarian, these staggering and sobering statistics show that all the help, from influencing, representation, lobbying, channelling, marketing, etc., is crucial. Being “born global” is not enough; an entrepreneurial perspective is necessary in order to cut through the overcrowded landscape:
I think if you want to look at an example of this, it’s the New Music Friday playlist on Spotify which is quite a sought after premiere opportunity for artists internationally. It’s a playlist that’s updated every week, it’s updated on Friday. It makes a lot of traffic. So if your song is included on that playlist, it’s a good way to introduce your music to new people and to acquire some new fans and listeners. Spotify controls that editorially, but that list has been ... growing. I think it started as maybe a 20 or 30-song playlist, and I think the US version of the playlist has been well over 100 tracks. That’s 100 pieces of music that are brand new that they’ve selected, plus there are probably thousands of others every week that are submitted that aren’t included. The fact that that’s happening globally means that it’s very busy at home for Australians. You’ve got all this international music now that's flowing in without any kind of barrier. And in fact, it’s expected that it would have an international presence. That then I think makes it harder for local artists to get noticed both at home and abroad. So the challenge of... overcoming the noise and having those opportunities to present a story, that becomes a real challenge. I would say developing a sales story is becoming harder. It kind of follows on from the same principle, but getting spins and getting your playlist spins and getting your playlist count up which is now seen as a key performance indicator in the music industry as the number of plays you’ve had on something like Spotify, it’s harder when you’re coming from a smaller market.
(Interview 13, 2018)
Due to the Internet, traditional approaches to gatekeeping are being revised to include new actors such as curators, bloggers, influences and aggregators (Astor, 2016). If a gatekeeper controls information (Lewin, 1947), then it is implied that the gatekeeper is an arbitrator of power, deciding what is to be distributed or disseminated. If power underlies the role of the gatekeeper, what then is the role of the intermediary? Bourdieu’s definition of an intermediary is general and can also be seen to apply to gatekeepers: “All the occupations involving presentation and representation ... in all the institutions providing symbolic goods and services ... and in cultural production and organisation” (Bourdieu, 1984, p. 359).
Later in this chapter it will be seen that both the gatekeeper and cultural intermediary are present at international music industry events. Sometimes they are clearly separate, but at other times, the distinctions between their roles are more ambiguous. Hesmondhalgh (2006, p. 226) argues that too many use “cultural intermediary” wrongly, referring to Bourdieu’s (1984) initial use in reference to tas- temakers. For example: Fairchild (2014) mixes a range of roles and figures within the music industries into a “cultural intermediary” field, ranging across policy, industry, promotional, media. As such, there is a need to distinguish between the different roles and activities of those who actively shape public opinion, taste and related notions of innovations and style; produce “cultural jobs [that] directly create performances and texts” (Miller, 2014, p. 25); and perform brokering roles between different fields. This is of particular importance when looking at government export offices such as Sounds Australia at international industry events. Are they gatekeepers or intermediaries? Because export offices are “selling” their knowledge and providing access to networks at these international events which are attended by key stakeholders with control to markets, media and industry sectors, they also fit with Miller’s assertion that they are also gatekeepers: “determining who and what counts as cultural” (ibid., p. 26).
Maquire and Mathews (2012) see the intermediary as someone who
constructs] value, by framing how others (end consumers, as well as other market actors including other cultural intermediaries) engage with goods, affecting and effecting others’ orientations towards those goods as legitimate—with “goods” understood to include material products as well as services, ideas and behaviours.
(ibid., 2012, p. 552)
Whereas the original definition of the gatekeeper is someone who controls and decides on value, for our research the intermediary is seen as someone who facilitates or creates value.