Finding hidden gems has always been an obsession of music fanatics: stuffing eager faces into dusty crates, with two fingers grazing the record sleeves alternating to and fro, leafing through hundreds of records to grab some tantalizing faded cover art and bring that forgotten music to the light. When the needle hits the wax, the question arises for the music collector: To share or not to share?
Do we rush to have the song in another’s ears, hide it away for the perfect moment to surface or keep it tucked away forever? What if it’s shared to the wrong person? What if it finds its way to the internet? What if, God forbid, it gets to a place like TikTok or Youtube recommendations? Before long, everyone’s playlists and “Now Playing” are marked with that special sound you worked so hard to find, that secret gem you kept all to yourself. These are the anxieties of a gatekeeper.
It’s a perfectly normal consideration, rest assured. We might all have thought proudly to ourselves, I listened to them before they were cool, in response to a shared appreciation for an artist, slyly signaling that we are definitely not jumping on any bandwagon. We all desire to be just a tad bit original; we all have a little hipster inside of us that secretly delights at the discovery of an untouched piece of art that brings us the same level of enjoyment as any other. Because as much as we might like to think we are comfortable with the exposure and discourse of our favorite hidden gems, there will always be a time an album goes omitted in a discussion, a song so obscure yet so deliciously good it can’t even get extended playlist treatment, an artist we purposefully neglect to mention.
Gatekeeping is less an active campaign to silence the spread of music and more of an internal plea we all have in our minds — in one way or another, no matter how loud that plea is actually voiced, the desire to keep things dear to us safe will always ring true. As much as we cheer for the success of the artists that bring us so much joy, the transition from obscurity to popularity is one without its pitfalls for devoted fans. The Japanese funk band that hasn’t found its way through the Youtube waves yet, the bedroom pop artist you’re pretending wasn’t just reviewed by Pitchfork, the 15,000 monthly listener indie-folk artists you could have sworn was only 1,500 a month ago, as much as we’d like to champion around their success, there’s a small part of us unwilling to let that go. So where does this desire to gatekeep come from?
Discovery is inevitable, and it’s safe to say that gatekeepers understand that. If they have confidence in the quality of what they are attempting to gatekeep, whether that be a psychedelic pop artist from the ’70s that verges a little too hard on the abstract or an album only available on the deep reaches of Youtube, they also have the slight doubt in their mind that quality will inevitably translate into pedestrian attention marked by Spotify curated playlists and mainstream publication reviews. Gatekeeping is impossible, yet it prevails despite futile efforts. It’s not so much a tangible ability to control the spread of information — especially in our time where it spreads at such a rapid pace — but rather an empty attempt at control for comfort.
The question “to share or not to share” is not as hard for those who dig purely for their own enjoyment and pay no attention to any rise in popularity, or for those who truly don’t care for those who dig to truly expose, such as the label “Numero Group” with a model to revitalize and renew the music. Their project with Duster allowed new distribution of their music along with their newfound popularity, amongst other forgotten artists. They give them a second chance at success for their art, a second chance at exposure for their music to reach a wider audience.
As for communities like Rateyourmusic.com, the music side of TikTok, Discord servers devoted to the discussion of music, subreddits and private Facebook groups, the question remains a delicate one. Gatekeeping is still a very prevalent practice in Internet communities, but it’s hard to say if their influence of popularity reaches outside their own communities, or is contained to the bickering inside a comment box.
Despite the fact these are microclimates and niches amongst music communities, they speak to a very real approach to the division of artists amongst listeners. Surely, we can’t all be as perfect as an archive label, and surely, we aren’t as bad as Internet hoarders masquerading as collectors. But still, that inner hipster rests inside of us, and where does it come from? What is the obsession with “obscurify,” the engine that ranks how “obscure” your Spotify data is, and what is the delight of having our number hit 70%, 80%, 90%? 91%?
We gatekeep to prevent the music from being subject to analysis from others. In effect, when others listen to a piece of music, it changes as it gets passed around from ear to ear. No matter how hard we try, how hard we stay to our convictions, the seeds of doubt from Pitchfork reviews and YouTube replies and empty comments from friends will always be in the back of our minds. Gatekeeping is simply a prevention tactic until the very last moment before the pristine, delicate, perfect, untouched perception of the music we hold in our minds gets muddied by the subjection of others’ thoughts and feelings. It’s a method to stave off that second before the image of the music we hold so dear in our head, the absolute image of that music, is altered.
Even guilty pleasures are a part of this treatment. On one hand, we conceal our guilty pleasure songs and artists to save ourselves the shame and embarrassment of sharing such enjoyment, but on the other, is it not to also preserve our own image of that music in our head? Do we hide our pleasure at these songs to save them from the judgment of others? To conceal is to contain it in its most pure form to be enjoyed forever, on repeat: a rapture of sound at each click of that play triangle, free from outside scorn and meant just for you.
When we value the esoteric quality of the work more than the work itself, what we lose is that confidence in it. This, in turn, is possibly another reason why it’s gatekept so hard: because that perfect image of the work cannot be touched by a scathing critique or the idea that the work’s quality is dependent on its level of obscurity.
The virginal piece of music brought to light sacrifices the delight and pleasure of its obscurity. That’s why we gatekeep, but we also show: to feel the intimacy of introducing a friend to music never touched by their ears. Sharing music is a way of connection and communication. To share a hidden gem or an obscure piece of music special to us contains the same level of intimacy as sharing our favorite ’80s hits or our most listened to artists. The reason people gatekeep is because of this intimacy, or the fear of that intimacy.
Music is only as valuable as the enjoyment of another and only so far as the act of showing because the delight ends at the reveal. Catharsis is limited to traits outside the music: how niche it is, how popular it can become. The walls of purity break down for the gatekeeper at the knowledge of a work of music’s popularity, because music is meant to be shared, it’s meant to be distributed and listened to and enjoyed. The real outsiders are those missing out on the connection of shared listening.
Daily Arts Writer Conor Durkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.