The sound of things to come

The future of music is debated at the TEDx conference in Suffolk.

The "future of music" is a beleaguered term. In recent years you would most likely find it lurking within much new music editorial, alongside a picture of the latest hyperbole-pumped group, destined for the predictable slump out of favour in six months time. It is as if music's future is pinned on short term hopes instead of long term solutions.

What might happen to music, how we might make, listen, and distribute it in the years to come, is not usually deemed a topic worthy of public discussion. Saturday's TEDx (the grassroots little brother of the philanthropic behemoth TED) conference at Snape Maltings in Suffolk, looked to approach the problem afresh.

Though it was an event that looked to compel the audience to ruminate on the possibilities of tomorrow, there were links to local past. Thomas Dolby, the LA-based, one-time synthpop star and digital music entrepreneur who chaired the day's proceedings, told of how his great, great grandfather Newson Garrett had built the Maltings at Snape in which the conference was taking place: later, his grandmother had been an assistant of Benjamin Britten's during the Aldeburgh Festival's first years. The parents of William Orbit, the English producer who was here interviewed by Dolby, retired to the Suffolk coastal town, and attended Britten's early concerts.

The conference's blue-sky, Silicon Valley-inspired evangelism jarred with the earthy, autumnal Suffolk setting, yet there was a common thread that connected the event with the Aldeburgh Festival project, begun by Britten and Peter Pears in 1948, which resulted in the creation of a permanent venue at the disused maltings in 1967 and the evolution of Aldeburgh Music. Britten's ideal was one of breaking down boundaries, eschewing the exclusivity of some avant-garde practice and moving away from the structures within classical music that deter people from exploring the more disciplined yet rewarding aspects of it.

It is a tradition carried on by Aldeburgh's Faster Than Sound team, who helped run the day, and a viewpoint most forcibly expressed by the Anglo-American conductor and infectious speaker, Benjamin Zander, who almost provoked an ovation with his pre-recorded speech that argued that classical music should be for everyone. One requirement of TEDx is that films of past TED lectures are shown. In an earlier film, a familiarly twitchy David Byrne discussed architecture's role in music making, taking in CBGB, Carnegie Hall and the iPod.

There was a lot of rhetoric about bringing people together to form a big, unified conversation, yet often the speakers were so narrowly stuck to promoting their own projects that they they resembled Gold Rush-era salespeople, there to ensure that their work be considered part of this unknown future. The composer/professor/inventor Tod Machover, introduced us to various fruits of his 25 years at the forward thinking MIT Media Lab in Boston, such as his hyperinstruments like the hyperbow (played by cellist Peter Gregson ahead of this weekend's Spheres and Splinters performance) and his robotic opera Death And The Powers, talking at a slamming pace. A besuited Martyn Ware rifled through the huge amount of impressive projects he has been working on, such as Breathing Trees, before an audacious - and quite funny - plug to come and see his reformed group, Heaven 17.

It was the young British loose cannons that distinguished TEDx from the slicker TED events. Sarah Nicolls showed off a deconstructed piano that she had made, complete with bicycle wheel, external strings and reverse keyboard. Tim Exile and Imogen Heap flew the flag for scatty English oratory as they paced the stage befuddledly during their respective talks, the former blowing more traditional minds with his inventions such as The Mouth, the latter explaining in great, meandering detail her internet-savvy approach, from auditioning session musicians online from a pool of fans, to getting her Twitter followers to write the press release for her last album.

Though there was plenty to chew over after the conference had finished, it was not quite the march forward into brave new territory that some might have expected. Many innovations smacked of the opportunism that we are fed daily: you couldn't help but be slightly disappointed that Ware was showing off the work that he had produced for the soft drink company, Fanta.

But that is the reality today - and what have creators of challenging music such as Ware always been but wheeler-dealers and hustlers? To bestow upon music a sense of dignified permanence is to fabricate its position. At the start of the day, over creeping, ambient noise, the opening speaker David Toop ambled through such territory elegantly, summing up the problem one faces when approaching a discussion of this kind. "Objects, images and writings can be preserved for centuries, for millennia, giving us a visible and tactile connection to the physical continuity of history," he said, revisiting his recently published book, Sinister Resonance. "Sounds, on the other hand, fade into air - ghosts to haunt tangible reality."

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Do the abusive messages sent to One Direction members reveal a darker side to fandom?

Incidents like this are often used to characterise all young female fans, but this isn’t about fandom. It’s harassment. 

One Direction’s Niall Horan is the internet’s favourite innocent blond goofball. He spends his days tweeting platitudes about golf and the weather, Snapchatting his reactions to whatever is on his TV, and thanking his fans for everything they’ve done for him. His social media presence is generally one of cheerful bemusement.

So, last night, the web went into maternal #ProtectNiall mode when he took to Twitter to highlight the darker side to fame.

A group of “fans” got hold of Niall’s number, and started frantically texting, WhatsApping and calling him. After two weeks of constant abusive messaging, despite requests to stop, Niall tries to use his platform to get them to stop.

Around the same time, screenshots of the supposed messages started to circle online. (I certainly can’t prove whether they’re real or not, but they first surfaced before Niall’s tweets and feel genuine.) The pattern that emerges seems to be one of frantic, attention-seeking messaging, extreme shock and surprise when he writes back, and, when Niall only requests that they stop messaging him and respect his privacy, the really nasty stuff starts. Messages range from “You invented cancer” to “If [your nephew] was my kid I’d sell it”; from “You’re so stupid and r*tarded” to “I hope your house blows up”.

Niall’s responses are extremely Niall in their politeness. “Why do I deserve to have a bad day?” he asks one. “You guys are bullies,” he tells them. “Go away please.”

As soon as the screenshots emerged, so did suspicions about the identity of the individuals in question. A set of five or six Twitter handles were circled by fan accounts, encouraging people to block and report the usernames to Twitter. Some of the owners of these accounts themselves claim to have been part of the conversations in question, to varying degrees. These account owners are seemingly women, under the age of 18, who have supposedly been involved in other recent One Direction harassment incidents.

One of those incidents came just days before Niall’s tweets. A person suspected to be a member of this group of “fans” got hold of another band member’s phone number: Louis Tomlinson’s. You can listen to a recording of the phone conversation between them that leaked online. After telling him her Twitter handle, Tomlinson asks the caller how she got his number. “You’re a fucking bitch and I hope your baby dies,” she says. Louis responds with a variation on the ancient proverb, “Lawyer up, asshole.” He seemingly tweeted about the incident later that day – and Niall retweeted him.

Fan accounts insist that the same Twitter users were also involved in hacking the iCloud of Anne Twist, Harry Styles’s mother, and leaking hundreds of photos of her son online.

The whole situation is a complicated mess. Parts of the messages feel as though they have been influenced by the style of accounts desperately trying to get the attention of celebrities on Twitter. If you look at the top reply to any tweet from a celebrity with millions of Twitter followers, the responses are calculated to shock the most in an attempt to get noticed. Maybe it’s a weird combination of sexual and violent imagery, or a sexist or racist slur. This is harassment itself, but its ubiquitousness can make it seem less offensive or extreme. Perhaps this kind of behaviour is easier to ignore on Twitter or Instagram – if you have millions of followers, you presumably can’t be notified every time one of them interacts with you online. When it moves into your private sphere, I can image it becomes more terrifying than annoying. Maybe these girls were simply swept up in the cultural moment, and failed to grasp the consquences of their behaviour.

Is it a damning indictment of the hysteria of teenage girls? The scary state of twenty-first century fandom? The problems of anonymity offered by the internet? It’s true that the internet has offered new ways for fans and celebrities to have a more direct connection with one another: for the most part, a mutually beneficial arrangement.

But the revelation of the internet has also been that it is a tool through which fundamentally human behaviours are expressed. Over the last few decades, we have learned that aggressive behaviour online is not limited to largely non-existent stereotypes of spotty virgins in their mothers’ basements, or teenage girls developing “dangerous” sexuality. Grown men and women, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons all do it. It’s also not a behaviour that is inherently connected to online spaces: children and teenagers might experiment with moral boundaries through cyberbullying, but they also might do it via anonymous notes in lockers or whispers in school corridors. People of all ages, professions and genders harass others.

The real problem is not celebrity culture or the concept of teenage fandom or social media. As Louis Tomlinson rightly identifies, it’s that our laws have failed to catch up. If we continue to treat harassment as harassment, in all spaces and by all perpetrators, we’ll have a better chance of minimising it.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.