Sharp Insights into Indie Music Fandom

I recently read Wendy Fonarow’s book Empire of Dirt: The Aesthetics and Rituals of British Indie Music.

It’s easily one of the best audience ethnographies I have read, in part because she focuses both on the details of behavior — the microways in which audiences at indie gigs organize themselves — and offers a compelling macro-explanation of what’s going on here. The methodology is also impeccable – it is a true ethnography based on years immersed in the scene, making rigorous records, and analyzing in copious detail.

To briefly summarize, she argues that there are three audience zones at indie gigs. The people up front are focused on the band, they are close, there is a lot of bodily contact, it is supportive but rough, it is all about emotion. The people who hang out here are mostly young. In Zone 2 are people a bit older, not so enraptured they need to be up front, but still attending to the music. In the back — Zone 3 — are the professionals, the ones who’ve seen so many shows that it’s old hat and they’re more interested in seeing one another. She’s also got a pair of dead-on analyses of guest lists (the different kinds, how people manage asking for guest list tickets given all the face issues at stake) and placement of guest passes (short story: more in-crowd, more concealed).

Fonarow is an anthropologist, and she draws on theories of ritual and aesthetics to argue (and I don’t begin to do her argument justice) that essentially the indie gig is serving as a music-based trance-like coming-of-age ritual akin to drum-based rituals you see all the time in places like Africa. During the ritual transformation, fans come of age as they gradually start to become more protective of their bodies and practical about other life-responsibilities and move from the front of the stage (pure feeling) to the back of the room or leave altogether (adulthood).

At the time I read it I thought this analysis might be a bit over-analytic and theory-happy. But the more I think about it, the more I think she’s really pinpointed something in the essence of our engagement with the objects of our fandom and social scenes around them that is relevant far beyond pop music studies. I find it speaks to my own experience, and it helps me understand things about my own fandom.

There’s kind of a gap between people who do fan studies of tv shows and those who do fan studies of music. I wish they’d read each other more. For the tv crowd, this book’s a really good touchstone.

And it’s fun to read!

Comments (3) to “Sharp Insights into Indie Music Fandom”

  1. There’s kind of a gap between people who do fan studies of tv shows and those who do fan studies of music.

    This is very true – I know almost nothing about music fan studies, and it’s kind of a shame. (I must and shall check this book out!) The divide, I think, is echoed in fandom itself, which doesn’t help. There are a lot of tv/movie fans who don’t consider band/music fandom to even *be* fandom, in my experience. The organization of the fandoms are so very different, the expression of fandom love and fandom creativity so varied, that there’s not much shared experience there.

  2. Hi,

    I read about this book on the Guardian guide last week, it said out now, I wonder if you know of a UK issue coming soon or it is just this USA academic publication the only one available.


  3. It is available in a UK edition. Here is the link: