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Arts

In this comparative case study, Antoine Boj confronts the media stratégies of independent and contemporary artists: Simili Gum and Graham Mushnik. What can their communication habits reveal?

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Author: Antoine Boj

Photo Credit: Léo Papin

Working in radio, i.e. the only medium that is fundamentally not visual, provides a daily reminder that images are everywhere. I didn’t have to work in this field to notice and accept that. I’m not even sure that I have a problem with it, I’m simply struck by its significance, its omnipresence, by how unavoidable it is in the daily life of a team whose job, in essence, is to work with sound.

And it’s not even that bad. When radio exposes itself in pictures, videos, on Youtube and social media, it doesn’t tend to put on a show. Watching a live video of Marina Rollman‘s spot on France Inter‘s “La Bande Originale” radio show is frankly no different than listening in replay. Scrolling through your Instagram feed and coming across a photo of the Radio Nova host David Blot and his Nova Club guest is more often than not purely informative. In both examples, there’s very little to no staging involved.

It’s as if this medium, aware of its vulnerability in a world of communication in which the image reigns supreme, deigned to conform to the requisite practices, but without going too far, mindful that its backbone is, after all, made of sound.

In music however (by which I mean in pop music), the same doesn’t quite apply. Since Elvis and his pelvis, vision and sound have been joined at the hip. And since it’s so easy to produce and distribute your own music nowadays, competition over images is more intense than ever. What’s more, in the age of Internet 2.0, much of what we see is less the result of chance than of clever algorithmic calculations which only allow the strong to prevail.

Of course, different artists are more or less engaged in this competition, depending on their age, popularity, financial means, origin, musical aesthetic, personality and many other factors. Still, I think I can safely say that nobody who wants to make music today can completely escape the influence of images.

Recently, I was struck by the similarity between two such examples, which at first glance may seem diametrically opposed. The first concerns the Belgian singer, Angèle. On 21 October, she released the video for her new single “Bruxelles je t’aime“, two months before the scheduled release of her album, Nonante-Cinq, on 10 December.

She’ll likely release more videos before the album launch to rekindle and stoke the impatience of her fans. This is precisely the same strategy that my friend’s hardcore metal band label has chosen to promote their next album, scheduled for late January: three videos before the release, plus another on the launch day.

Clearly, for the Belgian singer, this video is merely a small cog in a far more complex machinery. But still, from saccharine mainstream pop to the most extreme indie metal, approaches to visual communication are ostensibly identical.

Faced with the unrelenting presence of images and their widespread and standardised production (one that allows for the analogy between the two previous examples), how do musicians hoping to reach, or already at, a professional level position themselves?

Today, social media offers artists the possibility to stay afloat in an ocean of digital visual information that their (future) subscribers can bathe in every day, hour and minute. Is this a challenge musicians must accept if they intend to make a living from their art? In short, does being a musician today also mean being a social media manager? To consider the question, I decided to interview two artists with very different track records in this area.

The first is Samuel, alias Simili Gum, who’s 28 and lives in Paris. He writes and produces arty, psychedelic and crossbreeding rap, and hopes to make a career out of his music. The second artist is Axel, alias Graham Mushnik, 35 and based in Saint-Etienne. This composer and multi-instrumentalist performs with many groups that are influenced by retro psychedelic sounds, including Guess What and Derya Yıldırım & Grup Şimşek. He has a recognised status as a professional musician. Both agreed to speak with me over the phone about their relationship to image, communication and social media. The following emerged from our discussions.

ART OR TART

What initially struck me was the contrast between how the two artists viewed the tools of visual communication, and what role they assigned to them.

Before launching himself as Simili Gum, Samuel graduated with a Master’s in Visual Art from the Lyon School of Fine Arts. He was already producing music – ambient and experimental electronic sounds – alongside his studies.

In Art School, the works he presented were generally performance pieces, happenings; in other words, art forms that draw the gaze. Moreover, since the school encouraged dialogue between students from different sections, he was also influenced by other partly or wholly visual disciplines: graphic design, textile design and space design.

The Simili Gum project was therefore logically envisaged from the outset in terms of images as much as sound: “I’ve always had fairly strong opinions about the visual work of my musician friends. So when I started my project, it felt natural to take that on and be in charge of everything.

Samuel has taken on the role of artistic director for all the visual production linked to Simili Gum. Of course, he’s not alone at the helm. For instance, the ten videos published on YouTube since his début in 2018 were made with the help of a dedicated team, although he has always insisted on editing them himself.

In any case, he brings in others to help implement his personal visual aesthetic: a sort of dreamlike and distorted vision of the everyday, as if experienced through the chemical prism of psychoactive drugs. His visual creations coat reality with the fanciful atmosphere reminiscent of certain iconic music videos from the 90s, in particular those of Jamiroquai and director Michel Gondry.

This aesthetic is also found in his Instagram posts, crammed with emoji, special characters and a play with letter cases: “1nceę agåin,•gottrappęd“,”DévOuéàmonJ☀B️ 24/24?7/7?“,”essstarttt°m°rr°w. ✧˖electrowerkz londo,n! ;)))“. It shows the extent to which Samuel is attentive to every detail of his visual universe. “I find that you can have fun with just about any aspect of a project, and communication is part of that. I like it to reflect the overall artistic vision. And since my vision is to portray the everyday through a slightly distorted lens, my way of communicating is also a bit distorted.

Axel, in contrast, in no way considers visual communication as a part of his overarching artistic project. Unlike Samuel, who uses Instagram, Facebook and Twitter very regularly and takes care to adapt his content to each platform, Axel only has an Instagram page, which is not very active and is dedicated to his Catapulte Records label.

In his feed and his stories, you won’t ever come across a curated selection of his personal life. Meanwhile, Samuel doesn’t hesitate to show himself in almost all of his posts.

Even more noteworthy is that Catapulte’s Instagram page only exists thanks to one of Axel‘s friends, who kindly offered to create and manage the label’s profile, at least to announce record releases and band tours. It’s therefore purely utilitarian.

And even in other visual fields more traditionally associated with the artistic universe of a band or musician, like record covers and stage design, Axel is far less enterprising than Samuel. Nonetheless, he fully grasps the importance of imagery: “It’s something that defines me a bit. I’m really into music, but I don’t have a lot of visual inspiration. In a way it’s something I lack, but I’ve never tried to force it.

STAGE OR STAGING

But if he’s never tried to force it, maybe it’s also that he never felt the need. Axel has been immersed in music since childhood. His father Denis had a ’60s garage rock label, Larsen Recordz, and a band, The Slow Slushy Boys, with whom Axel toured during school holidays from the age of 13.

Later, after studying sound engineering, he went to Amsterdam and then moved to London in the late 2000s, where he stayed for eight years. That was where he started building a career in music: “I was really scraping along in London, just getting by with small gigs paid under the table in cash. After a while, I set myself up as a freelancer so that I could invoice some of my gigs and get more decent pay. But for quite a long time it was, ‘here’s 50 quid’, which I used to pay my rent.

It wasn’t easy going, and appearing on stage was the only way to get himself known. But then again, in 2010, the first year Axel finally made a living from his art, the iPhone was only 3 years old, Instagram had just been launched, and Facebook, although already very popular, was not quite inescapable yet.

He may have begun his career before the social media tsunami swept the world, but for Axel, this imperviousness to digital tools is not so much a generational reality as a lifestyle choice: “I have a lot of friends and family who aren’t urbanites, who live in the countryside and in small towns, places where digital technologies, smart objects and wi-fi are less important. All this, combined with political ideas that are a little alternative, lean strongly to the left and are wary of Big Tech, produces a kind of resistance to social media. For example, my parents, my sister, my five best friends, none of them have Facebook, let alone an Instagram account, and we communicate by phone and email.

And you won’t find a smartphone in Axel‘s pocket either, apart from on tour when he communicates via Whatsapp. So it’s hardly a surprise that he’s suffered at times from the inevitable and indiscreet intrusion of social media into his most successful group, Derya Yıldırım & Grup Şimşek. It’s also the only one of his bands to use these kinds of promotional tools. “At first, it bothered me that there were photos and videos of me that I didn’t even know about or couldn’t access. All of that seemed a little alienating. But now, I sometimes find it almost fun to glance over at my musician buddies’ Instagram feed. Even if I don’t want to rely on that in my personal approach, it no longer bothers me to know that some of my projects use Instagram and Facebook, and that it improves their visibility.

Conversely, for Samuel, social media was a real means of emancipation. Even though you might not guess from his music, it was Samuel‘s rediscovery of the artist Daniel Johnston that prompted him to launch Simili Gum, a much more personal project than what he had produced before under the influence of Aphex Twin or Boards of Canada.

Before, I was steeped in approaches and networks that intellectualised things a lot more, which I found a bit frustrating. I felt that something more natural was lacking in my self-expression. And little by little, I started realising that what I like when listening to something is knowing that there’s a person, a humanity, a clear world vision behind it.

Samuel aka Simili Gum © Léo Papin

Nevertheless, while Axel undoubtedly acquired confidence and good reflexes touring with his father’s band before continuing the adventure on his own, Samuel‘s beginnings were solitary. “I was basically this guy in his room making music all alone, I knew 10 people. I didn’t know how to get people to listen to my music“. He felt awkward and illegitimate in the face of the cultural structures that could have accompanied him: “I wasn’t comfortable, I didn’t feel legit enough to do that. I thought they’d just shut the door in my face“.

As a result, to build his brand and generate enough interest for the music world’s institutional channels to open up to him, Samuel relied heavily on imagery: “It’s probably the most powerful tool there is for promoting music. Especially today. So many people are working with sound that it’s a way to show them you exist. A way to do it at a different speed“.

TO EACH THEIR ROAD, TO EACH THEIR PATH

A different speed”. It’s not a trivial remark. In fact, it’s probably this question of timing that crystallises the many differences between Axel and Samuel‘s approaches.

The former has never been afraid to take his time: “With Guess What (a band that’s been around for 16 years), we started out by doing small gigs in bars and squats. We toured without earning any money. And then, little by little, very slowly, people began recognising the name and our records started circulating. In the end, just by doing gigs and releasing records, you can achieve the same results as with social media, only it takes more time.

As for Samuel, he’s far more prone to impatience, and even worry: “I’ve always felt a sort of precariousness and urgency to show things just to exist. And it was by showing these things, however far removed they were from the idea I had in mind, that opportunities opened up.”

Clearly, their ages (28 compared to 35) and lifestyles (Paris compared to Saint-Etienne) have a role to play in this contrast. But I think this article has shown that other, less generic and more individual parameters also play a part. And finally, rather than a dubious sociological conclusion about the behaviour of musicians when it comes to visual communication, this comparison seems rather more reassuring. Whether they embrace or reject it, musicians must at some point confront the challenge presented by imagery and the gaze.

But, whatever approach they choose, the best one will always be that which reflects who they are, what they like and what they seek. That’s Axel‘s view at least, and for once, Samuel agrees: “As long as people do it with passion, as long as it’s not something forced, then fine, if it’s something that comes from the heart.” And so, it seems that even in today’s utterly outrageous show-off society, it’s still heart, that good old heart, that finds its place at the centre of it all.

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The analysis of current musical genres is also done in audio with Faya, a podcast series examining the dance floors of the globe. Head here to listen to the first episode of our collaboration, focused on Polish club music.

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Antoine Boj is a producer at Radio Nova Lyon. His broadcast “LE RÉSERVOIR” gives the mic to figures of the underground musical scene of Lyon.

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