Numerous memoirs, social-scientific studies, and anecdotal tales of passion and failure reveal cultural work to be a profoundly ambivalent affair. On one hand there are – at least superficially – numerous opportunities for self-expression and self-actualization compared to many other occupations. Work as a musician, sound engineer, animator, comedian, model, computer programmer, or graphic designer often affords a modicum of autonomy unavailable elsewhere. Beyond that, producing cultural objects seems – again, superficially – inherently meaningful in ways that garbage collecting or steel manufacturing do not. The flipside of this is of course exploitative internship practices, low wages, long hours, precarious employment, and what often amounts to a negative income (i.e. at the end of the day, you’re losing money in these occupations). Much of my recent research on work life in U.S. media industries builds on these observations in order to see how these opposites resolve themselves in the everyday experience of cultural work.
Now, the inherent “meaningfulness” of cultural work seems to stem from the fact that people in the music, film, or literary industries work and toil among the objects of our everyday leisure activities. Why wouldn’t you love playing video games as part of your programming job? Why wouldn’t you love being around music all day? Everyday? Perpetual, unrelenting, exposure to objects of sensorial excitement comprises an integral, though perhaps understudied, component of work within cultural industries.
What for the bulk of us, as consumers, comprises our most joyful aesthetic experiences constitutes the bulk of the material environment within cultural or “creative” firms. The sounds and images of our pleasure appear as someone else’s workaday world. Given working lives fully suffused by the objects of our joys as audience members and consumers (i.e. the culture in cultural industries), does this pleasure in aesthetics, sonorous or visual, carry over into the workplace, engendering positive relations between firm and employee? Or does culture in these cultural industries drift into the background, becoming nothing but an incessant flickering of frames or droning of sounds.
With this bundle of admittedly impressionistic questions, I’d like you all to contemplate the following recording from the hallways of a “full service creative space” in Los Angeles, CA. This company provides recording and rehearsal studios to a variety of musicians at various stages of their career. This recording represents the sonic backdrop for the employees. Listening to the clip, I think that you will find a bit of pleasure and a bit of dreary droning. You will hear thrashing hardcore punk blending with bluesy indie rock and then transforming into a group of Korean businessmen noodling over MIDI backing tracks.
Everyday the studio rents out eight rehearsal rooms to a wide variety of musician clients. Some of these clients, you might recognize from your own music collection, others you will never hear. Demanding divas with major label contracts and comically inept teenagers make use of the same spaces to hone their craft. Traversing the hallways while working here presents employees with an ever-shifting sonic topography, the volume of which seems not unlike the experience of a steel mill or manufacturing plant was for a previous generations of blue-collar employees. “After work my ears are ringing,” said one informant. “After a full day, I don’t want to listen to music. You’ll find me watching TV or reading,” said another. With that in mind, give this sonic walkthrough of my field site a listen.