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More than just music: Glass Beach and the power of a platform

| Thursday, October 8, 2020

Mary O'Reilly | The Observer

The question of why we listen to music often goes unasked and unanswered. Without a doubt, some music fans would argue that a simple answer exists in plain sight: people listen to music for the music. We listen to music because something in our primate brains finds pleasure in melody and repetition. This answer is based in science, but I see it as heavily reductionist. The music itself is merely the beginning, and music has the potential to be so much more than tasty sound waves.

To start off, music is made by people. The heart of a songwriter gave birth to the lyrics of your favorite song. The lead singer took those lyrics and weaved them through their vocal chords, transmuting words into song. Someone sat down at a piano and wrangled with the discord in their mind to turn it into melody. You, the listener, are a person too. Your life experiences inform your inclination or aversion to music. Every other listener is also a person with their own life that commingles with music and creates poetry. 

Evidently, music is more than just a hit of dopamine; music is also the artists who create it and the listeners who integrate it into their lives. I call this the communal view of music, and it provides a satisfying alternative to the reductionist view.

Music, therefore, has three components when viewed through a communal lens — the music itself, the artist and the listeners. The artist has a great deal of control over whether the communal aspect of music is perceived amongst fans. Artists who see themselves as equals with their fans tend to manifest the communal view. Artists who treat themselves and their fans as commodities tend to obscure the possibility of higher-order pleasure in music.

One way that artists elevate the experience of music is by forming communities with their fans. These communities can take on many qualities, but I believe that the true community is oriented toward the common good. Several questions help me figure out whether a community meets this criterion. Do the artists engage with their fans? Do they treat their fans as equals? Does their music promote compassion, justice and inclusivity? Do they refuse to exploit others in order to promote their music? If the answer to all of these questions is yes, then a musical community likely supports equity and the good of all people.

The artist uses one key tool to promote the common good in their community — their platform. In simple terms, someone has a platform when people care about what they have to say. Artists often devote their platforms to self-promotion, but every once in a while, you come across an exception. I know one band in particular that consistently uses its platform to promote the common good. That band is Glass Beach.

Glass Beach is a post-emo rock band with one studio album, “the first glass beach album.” This masterpiece packs a musical career’s worth of talent into 60 minutes. Glass Beach explores themes such as abuse, devotion and queer identity while sampling an impressive variety of musical styles. I won’t dissect the album song-by-song, but if it means anything, everyone I know who has listened to Glass Beach is obsessed with them.

Glass Beach has four members: leader and vocalist “Classic” J McClendon, drummer William White, bassist Jonas Newhouse and lead guitarist Layne Smith. Fans have no shortage of opportunities to get acquainted with the members of Glass Beach; the band’s primary means of communication is their Twitter account, which has over 6,000 followers. 

Glass Beach retweets and responds to the majority of tweets that mention their handle. They solicit feedback through polls, respond to DMs and host livestreams. The band creates inside jokes and provides fans with an honest look into their lives. These interactions form a personal connection between the band and fans, making both groups feel valued. 

In addition to interacting with fans, Glass Beach uses their platform to promote other small artists. Glass Beach regularly tweets out new releases from their musical friends and hosts livestreams with them. As a result, Glass Beach has fostered a network of artists that enjoy and support each other’s music. This network was crucial at the height of the pandemic when many small artists found themselves without a source of revenue. Glass Beach has built strong bonds of solidarity by welcoming everyone, including other artists, into their community.

Like many of their friends, Glass Beach chafes under the high cost of living in America. The four members hold full-time jobs in addition to making music, so they recently launched a Patreon to ease their financial burden. Unlike most Patreon owners, Glass Beach refuses to give exclusive benefits to people who commit more money. The band members believe that it would be unfair to give special privileges to people who pledge higher amounts. After all, many dedicated fans simply cannot afford to donate on a monthly basis. Glass Beach needs to generate profit in order to survive under capitalism, but the band rebels against capitalism’s norms at every opportunity.

Finally, Glass Beach uses their platform to give voice to the voiceless. The band members have stated that Black Lives Matter. They participate in discussions with other musicians about racial justice. They loudly denounce the systems of oppression that perpetuate racism. The band actively promotes the LGBTQ+ community. They occasionally retweet links to crowdfunding pages for people who need to pay rent or get a vital surgery. Glass Beach uses their platform to actively oppose bigotry and promote compassion.

Glass Beach provides an exemplary model for other bands to build true communities. By using their platform to promote the common good, Glass Beach proves that the joys of music can extend beyond the music itself. The duties of a platform should not be viewed as restrictions. After all, the true community liberates all of its members through its devotion to justice and empathy. Members of a musical community laugh in the face of those who claim “there is no such thing as society.” The proof of society — at least in music — lies in the links of empathy between artist and fan, all grounded in a love for good music.

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