Review: Exploring the Networked Worlds of Popular Music: Milieu Cultures

This review originally appeared in Popular Music 28:1 (2009), 120-22.

Exploring the Networked Worlds of Popular Music: Milieu Cultures. By Peter Webb. New York and Abingdon: Routledge, 2007. 277 pp. ISBN 0-415-95658-7

Many years of immersion in the challenging and idiosyncratic music scene of Bristol, UK have enabled Peter Webb to turn his empirical knowledge to theoretical ends: joining in the project to rethink the perennially thorny topic of subculture. On one level, this book is an account of how musicians carve out spaces for creativity beneath the radar of ‘mainstream’ popular music and navigate the economic aspects of the music industry. On another, it intervenes in the unresolved (and unresolvable?) debates over subcultural theory by proposing the concept of the ‘milieu culture’, which acknowledges the fluidity and interconnectedness of these formations and their grounding in a particular locality and time. Two case studies illuminate these theoretical reflections: the post-industrial neo-folk scene epitomised by the band Death in June and the dance, hip-hop and trip-hop scenes of Bristol itself.

Webb begins his theoretical exposition in the obvious place with a critique of UK scholar Dick Hebdige’s Subcultures, drawing on several UK theorists (David Muggleton, Peter J. Martin and Andy Bennett) to argue that subcultural studies ought to incorporate more ethnography and follow the contemporary sociological trend towards studying individuals’ social practice rather than structural analysis. Thus one problem with Hebdige is apparently that he very rarely used accounts of punk subculture from punks themselves, whereas a life history approach would have shown how those individuals identified with and oriented themselves within the subculture. Webb seeks to remedy this by introducing the ‘milieu’ – the overlapping levels of meaning which form an individual’s lifeworld – from the phenomenology of German scholar Jorg Durrschmidt. In the case of music, individuals’ milieux exist within the ‘field of cultural production’ described by French theorist Pierre Bourdieu and then within ‘dialectical relationships’ (from the sociology of the US theorist David Harvey) with other fields and milieux. The milieu – as Webb recognises – somewhat resembles Bourdieu’s own idea of the habitus: Webb provides the beginnings of an explanation for his favouring one term over another, although it is not clear which ‘different areas of understanding’ (p. 31) the milieu develops and the habitus does not.

For non-sociologists, Webb’s emphasis on fluidity and ethnography may be more valuable than the terminological nuances between milieu and habitus. The bulk of the book comprises the results of interviews (often quoted at length) with musicians, producers, DJs and label developers and Webb’s own familiarity with Bristol music-making. A discussion of the punk collective Crass and three contemporary dance labels in Bristol contributes to popular music studies’ theorisation of independent labels, and the emergence of a Bristol variant of hip-hop (the trip-hop of the groups Massive Attack and Tricky) is situated within analyses of hip-hop as a globally distributed, locally appropriated phenomenon. Musicians’ voices are perhaps heard most strongly in the final chapter on various Bristolians’ attempts to negotiate the opportunities and dangers of the ‘mainstream’ (the world of major record labels and profiteering clubland). While some (Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja) have established positions of strength and some others (the groups Kosheen) have encountered mainstream success since Webb conducted his research, still more have experienced and rejected the tensions caused by big-money contracts and settled on less lucrative ways to express their creativity.

Webb’s own positionality permeates the text – but only up to a point. The introduction declares an emphatic preference for the creative model of musicians Ian Curtis, Joe Strummer and Scott Walker, who ‘drew on art worlds and gave their audience points of access to otherwise unreachable material’ (p. 7). Hence his regret that a hip-hop ‘that contests stereotypes, politics and ideas’ has been ‘overtaken and dominated’ by a mainstreamed hip-hop celebrating consumerism, violence and emotionless sex (p. 129), and his praise for labels which promote ‘aesthetic reflexivity’ rather than encouraging consumption. The book wears its musical politics on its sleeve; but (surprisingly) it never says that much about the author’s own life history or milieu. True, we know he comes from a new town near Bristol and has gone to countless gigs and events there, but not what he felt about them or what significance the groups Crass and Death in June or Bristol dance have had to him. We are left to reconstruct his milieu ourselves.

A longer monograph – or a future one – might take Webb’s theoretical model to its conclusion by devoting more analysis to the wider context within which scenes like Bristol’s unfold. There would be ample room, for instance, to further theorise the state into his perspective, as suggested by a recurring aside in several musicians’ biographies: the fact that the groups Portishead, Sol Invictus and the Startled Insects all came together thanks to money or chance meetings afforded by the now-defunct enterprise allowance scheme. As Andy Keep, another of Webb’s interviewees, himself suggests, the often-chaotic life of a new band sits ill with the target-driven world of workfare reform. (There is the year-long ‘new deal for musicians’ for the moment.) However, the biggest shortcoming of the book has to be placed at the publisher’s door: the copy-editing has produced a casserole of repeated typos, missing apostrophes, oddly formatted references, and misspellings of well-known names (we twice encounter Wilfred ‘Thysiger’ and Ennio ‘Morricconne’, not to mention ‘Haille’ Selassie and ‘Sellassie’, a ‘John Genet’, an ‘Africa Bambatta’, and three separate references to ‘Eninem’). If Webb’s Bristol yields any further studies, it is to be hoped Routledge will produce them with the care they deserve.

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