Written by: Jamie Osuna, Celine Pun, J Matteo Wharton, Ruby Marrujo
Do you even like Nirvana?
Nope. Not even a little.
I I mean, I don’t skip “Come As You Are” when it comes on the radio. But somehow I’m almost 100% certain that answer won’t suffice for the person assessing whether I’m worthy of wearing the Nirvana shirt I purchased from Forever 21 three years ago.
Friends of mine have developed strategies in order to combat the antagonizing questions of the music snobs who try to bring us shame for not appreciating their precious bands enough. I can learn from my best friend and address it before they even ask, or take notes from my coworker and memorize facts that’ll make me look less like a “poser.”
But why are strategies even necessary? What game are we playing that requires such well thought out defense?
The young gatekeepers of today face the adversity of being a part of a generation where music is at its most accessible, a fact that makes us question why those efforts are still conspicuous.
Although not an actual game, instances of gatekeeping can feel like an attack. Most people have had their fair share of interactions with pretentious people who take it into their own hands to put limitations on who gets access to their precious, untouchable indie movies or underground bands. But while continuing this age-old tradition of unprompted preservation, the young gatekeepers of today face the adversity of being a part of a generation where music is at its most accessible, a fact that makes us question why those efforts are still conspicuous.
This past year alone has shaped this data further, exemplifying COVID 19’s impact on music streaming; 24% of people subscribed to a new service after the first wave of the virus, more than a third of those being to a music streaming service.
And it seems like there’s no reason not to branch out musically, especially for this generation’s young adults who carry an extensive musical library at their fingertips. Research from 2019 by the Statista Research Department shows that younger generations listen to music far more than those older than them, which we can attribute to advancements in the digital world. Within the past five years, sales for physical music formatting have significantly dropped as more convenient music streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music started to gain popularity. This past year shaped this data further, exemplifying COVID 19’s impact on music streaming; 24% of people subscribed to a new service after the first wave of the virus, more than a third of those being to a music streaming service.
All of this data goes to show that gatekeeping should’ve been an ancient practice that died out the moment it had no influence over the power of illegal MP3 downloads or Pandora playlists. Yet in a survey we conducted this month, given to primarily college aged students in the Isla Vista and Los Angeles area, approximately 57% of respondents said they had been in a situation that they perceived to be gatekeeping. What was more surprising were the commonalities in the responder’s experiences. The respondents, majority female, spoke in detail about the straight, white hipster male wearing thrifted clothes and cuffed jeans (a common description amongst responses) when describing their experiences with gatekeeping. Many respondents stated that these experiences usually revolved around the Gatekeeper expressing pretension towards either an indie band, a “classic” band, or an underground artist, which for the most part shied the respondents away for fear of judgement.
From the survey responses, shared horror stories, and personal experience, a generalization can be made that in each of these gatekeeping interactions there are three roles: The Gatekeepee, who wants to interact with the music, The Gatekeeper, who tries to limit who interacts with it, and the music itself, which we can learn more about through The Musician who created it. Within each of these roles, there are complexities and motivations that deserve to be heard and understood in order to have a fair discourse about the inner workings and effects of gatekeeping.
It’s a pretty universal feeling to want to be a part of something. We’ve all experienced it at some point or another, being an outsider and wanting in. But if you’re always an outsider, and limitations are being set on your access to the group, you might find yourself questioning whether you even still want to be a part of it. This is the experience of The Gatekeepee. While not an official title, you may have still taken on the role of Gatekeepee without even knowing it. If you’ve ever wanted access to something, but someone from the ingroup ostracized you and made you feel bad for being on the inside — sorry to tell you, but you have been a Gatekeepee.
Brenda Galvan, a 21 year old 4th year student at UC Santa Barbara has definitely taken on this role a few times — not by choice. Growing up in dance then moving into the choir world, Galvan’s connection to music is strong and something that she has found herself turning to more as means of a coping mechanism during the pandemic. Pre-covid, Galvan even went to a concert on her own to see her favorite artist at the time, Troye Sivan, because no one else was available to join her. So for someone so adamant on experiencing music on her own accord, you would think Gatekeepers would have no effect on her listening.
However, this isn’t the case. Galvan spoke specifically on experiences she has when wearing her thrifted, authentic Aerosmith shirt. Having usually older people approach her with the loaded question, “Do you listen to them?” Galvan anticipates where the conversation is heading and protects herself by stating to them that she’s a fake fan.
“I will say that I don’t listen to them, and besides the classics, I don’t think I ever will,” Galvan said in regards to the band on her shirt. Galvan doesn’t let older generations influence her listening — but when they come by, she’s prepared with defense.
Like Galvan, many other people want to listen to music without facing the wrath of the Gatekeeper. In a response to our survey, an anonymous person spoke very candidly on gatekeeping in Isla Vista, specifically addressing certain crowds at live shows and certain organizations that have intentionally excluded them and their friends. According to this survey participant, friends of theirs have attempted to join the UCSB campus radio station, KCSB, as a radio show host, but felt heavy gatekeeping.
“Just because they don’t fit the stereotypical ideal of someone who is really into niche music, they are looked down upon and judged,” the participant said about their friends trying to be a part of the indie-rock driven station.
But gatekeeping doesn’t just occur in the indie or rock genre, Galvan has felt gatekept in the musical theater world. Galvan believes there is the underlying judgement or unspoken rule that if you haven’t actually seen the musical, you have less claim to the music; or if you haven’t seen the classics, there’s a question as to how authentic of a musical fan you are. These are the Gatekeepers who managed to push Galvan into doing more than her usual listening, to the point where she sat through Rent and The Phantom of the Opera just to combat the musical theater Gatekeepers.
“Music should make me happy, it shouldn’t feel like homework.” -Brenda Galvan
The Gatekeepee has only ever wanted to be a part of a community. Apparently, it hardly matters what community because Gatekeepers are everywhere in every genre. So what’s the commonality? What breeds the Gatekeeper and makes them so protective of an art form that can’t reciprocate their appreciation?
While we discovered that being a Gatekeepee is more common than we might even realize, I think we’re less cognitive of the times we act as the Gatekeeper. Sure, most of us don’t intentionally act to keep people out of the things we’re passionate about, but an unconscious judgement can sometimes slip out. We’re human, it makes sense that we can get defensive over things that matter to us. But when there’s people who are avid Gatekeepers, we can only wonder if the intention is completely innocent, or if there’s more to gain from the action.
A recovering Gatekeeper, Brando Ordonez, says that what matters to him and other more intense music appreciators is the effort in curiosity and listening that goes into discovering new music, regardless of the genre or obscurity of the artist. A 20 year old from the Whittier area, Ordonez grew up in a musical household where the musicianship of his father and brother found its way into his own life. While in high school, Ordonez found deep connections to the music he was listening to, feeling some sense of serenity in the transportive music of Kate Bush or just awe in Anna von Hauswolff’s hauntingly beautiful album Dead Magic, which at the time felt specific to himself.
“I had to learn to balance my expectations and attachment to what I was sharing since their meaning and importance is so specific to who I was at the time”, Ordonez said when asked if there had ever been people who didn’t appreciate music the way he felt they should. To Ordonez, gatekeeping was a product of the value he placed on these artists.
Not the only one to step up and admit they have been an initiator of these exasperating incidents, 18% of survey takers admitted to having been the Gatekeeper. One participant, acknowledging that gatekeeping is a damaging practice, explained that their own initiation of it stemmed from the fact that they had been a fan of the artist before their rise in fame. “The special feeling starts to go away when more people start listening to them”, the same participant further expressed. They also questioned why friends only started listening to the artist after gaining popularity rather than when they had first attempted to introduce them, understandably upsetting.
Another participant was honest enough to mention that while maybe not completely taking on the role as an active Gatekeeper, they do feel a sense of superiority to people who have ‘basic music tastes’, a fairly subjective group whose specific interests weren’t specified. “It feeds my superiority complex knowing that I appreciate someone’s music that not many other people know” responded another participant, sharing the same sentiment of enjoying the feeling of music precedence.
Ordonez attributes that “superiority complex” most people assume to Gatekeepers as security in knowing that no one else will know the same enjoyment as you in what you’re consuming and experiencing. When something is personal to you, you want to keep it that way. Ordonez has grown out of the gatekeeping practice, seeing how pretentious and limiting it can be, and now finds interest in how people discover new music, whether that be by means of himself or some Spotify algorithm.
The Gatekeeper is a complex person with a passion, who’s goal isn’t to personally criticize a specific person, but rather to hold onto a feeling and experience that has meant so much to them. So maybe we should show some grace to the Gatekeepers of the world — it’s a grey area that we’ve all crept into. But this empathy may not mend the potential harm brought to the music itself.
“I started to realize you can easily lose a bit of yourself if it becomes what solidifies your persona and time from treating it like it’s only your property.” -Brando Ordonez
The ultimate say in matters surrounding Gatekeeping should be whatever is getting gatekept. The musicians putting out their music are creators who have crafted something that has personal meaning, time, and effort put into it, something that they are willing to share with hope that someone will feel a connection to it. Musicians of the 21st century also face different challenges than musicians before them. The human attention span is currently at its lowest, lasting only 8 seconds. This means artists of any kind, who might already have struggles in finding resources to produce their art, will now face adversities trying to keep their content relevant. Musicians are doing the heavy work, so their opinion on gatekeeping should matter the most.
Dalton Magee, a member of the Ventura indie band The Rays Jam, has been playing guitar since he was four years old, and since then his love for music has only grown. Going from playing 104 shows in 2019 to only 3 in 2020, Magee and his bandmates had to stop their coastal tour due to COVID, but have been practicing and preparing for when the day comes that they can play a show again. Magee wants fans to not only come to their live shows when the opportunity arises again, but wants people to show their support by just sharing their music with others. However, Magee thinks he would find it funny if someone were to try and gatekeep his band’s music.
“That means people are listening to it. I would be happy because that would mean people are not perceiving my music as a passing notion, and they’re actually listening to it and having an opinion on it and enforcing that opinion on others,” Magee said. For Magee, gatekeeping would mean someone cares about their music in a deeper way than just a passive tune, it’s a compliment.
Jacob Pabalan, an Isla Vista musician, doesn’t share the same sentiments. Pabalan grew up surrounded by music and sees it as his life’s passion, something that he knows he’ll always prioritize and find fulfillment in. Also front man for the band Art Official but not wanting to speak on behalf of them, Pabalan has been focusing on his solo projects during COVID with more time to reflect on himself and less pressure from the sonic constraints of having to perform this music, giving him more space for introspection and stylistic range. Having put so much of himself into his art, Pabalan would be furious if someone were to gatekeep his music.
“My solo music is really my most pure form of expression, so if anyone gatekept that shit from anyone I’d be really pissed. Especially given rock’s roots in black culture — it’s not even mine to gatekeep!” -Pabalan said on the matter.
Pabalan sees gatekeeping as a two fold process that suppresses minority voices: first by societal biases that handicaps certain groups from voicing their perspectives by denying artistic resources, and second on an individual level where individuals either knowingly or unknowingly partake in those societal barriers to entry. Often manifesting itself through the lack of female/BIPOC/LGBTQ+ representation in the music scene, Pabalan sees gatekeeping as a blockade that keeps music art from being what it should be — interesting. For Pabalan, music is about creating connections between people, something that proves to be difficult when there’s a gatekeeper choosing who gets to be a part of it.
So gatekeeping isn’t so black and white. There’s always depth and context to people’s actions, and gatekeeping is no exception. While we want to pin the title of ‘Bad Guy’ to the Gatekeeper — because let’s face it, the title comes with an undertone of annoyance — it would be unfair because we’ve all been there. At some point we’ve all had a personal connection to something, and sharing that experience can make it feel less yours. But if it’s brought so much joy into your life, maybe it’s time to consider how much joy it can bring to someone else’s.
“That’s one of the great things about music. You can sing a song to 85,000 people and they’ll sing it back for 85,000 different reasons.”― Dave Grohl, lead singer of Foo Fighters and former drummer of Nirvana
Music is the melodic paragon of emotion — some sound that can say what you didn’t know how to and a tune that has the power to bring people together. Music is an experience that has the potential to be deeply personal but entirely relatable. So let’s help each other out and share in the wealth. Share that Spotify link on your Instagram story. Make a playlist for that friend you miss. Don’t question someone’s band tee. The world can use a little more inclusivity and the little steps matter, so start with a song.