Review of RMA/BFE Study Day ‘Music and the Internet’

How can music and the Internet be studied? The one-day conference ‘Music and the Internet’, held at the University of Oxford, attempted to grapple with this question. The event was situated as a response to the article by Georgina Born and Christopher Haworth (2017), recently published in Music and Letters, which won the Westrup Prize. In this paper, they argue that research on music and the Internet “necessitates interdisciplinary approaches that integrate digital methods with both ethnography and history” (Born & Haworth 2018: 647).

Consequently, topics responding to the study day theme included streaming, the relationship of digital consumption to offline/residual media, virality, the social web, power, gender, and technology. Throughout the day, the focus shifted from streaming and technologies, through online Internet cultures, to non-Western cultures (especially the Global South). Questions of methodology were central: the delegation featured many younger scholars ‘raised on the Internet’, eager to investigate phenomena relating to their everyday web use, but without a clearly-defined set of tools in place to do so. Ethnomusicology offers several methods du jour, and my own emphasis finds many adequate approaches in popular musicology, but theoretical engagement with the web demands another inclusion to the expanding interdisciplinary toolbox of music studies.

The committee and the many local presenters indicate a strong community of DPhil researchers (especially Born’s supervisees) in and around the University of Oxford Music Faculty. Live tweeting during the event – including my first, barely competent attempt at it – allowed for multimediated consumption of conference materials themselves, opening another level of discourse and sharing on web-based music. I had a great time, learnt a lot, and left with innumerable questions as well as a renewed drive to study the topic: all hallmarks of a successful academic gathering, to my mind.

Panel One: The Politics of Platforms

Yngvar Kjus, an Associate Professor at the University of Oslo, opened the first panel of the day. His paper noted how Spotify’s marketing materials present a waterproof argument to both producer and consumer: fans can find and freely access music, and artists can directly connect with those fans while being paid for streams of their work. Following a history of frameworks of negotiation for recording technology, he pointed out an important public/private division between streaming services and digital download providers. The former services – most prominently exemplified by Spotify – afford publicness, through their connection to social networks, updates displaying current event-based (e.g., festive) playlists, and predominance of institutionally-curated playlist consumption. Digital download apps such as iTunes afford greater privacy, requiring only one-off connections to purchase from the centralised digital service before the user can return to their own private sphere of consumption.

Yngvar Knus provides streaming revenue statistics

University of Manchester doctoral researcher James Vail discussed the widespread resurgence in uses of cassette tape, focusing upon Japanese record labels which employ this residual media and new media in combination. Japanese audiences’ consumption practices are based firmly upon ownership and possession, separable concepts respectively capturing legal rights and individual, cultural practices. Web-based labels are important cultural intermediaries for Japanese listeners, who materialise online, international connections by using Bandcamp to sell cassette tapes. Importantly, this format cannot be unbundled as a commodity, in contrast to the playlisting practices of streaming services.

Thomas Hodgson, a teaching fellow at King’s College London, returned to the topic of Spotify. His paper investigated the design of Spotify’s recommendation algorithm, which translates human desire and behaviour into code to produce Discover Weekly playlists for every user. The way that Spotify returns data to artists affects their creative decision-making, which his colleague (and dope artist) Laura Misch calls the ‘tyranny of data’. I was particularly impressed by Bernhard Rieder’s tool to visualise Spotify artist networks. Hodgson observed that the unexpected ways new music affects us is often what excites us as listeners, yet Spotify’s tailored playlists, driven by neoliberal market logic to retain users, places value in predictability.

All panels throughout the day ran the papers consecutively, then used the remaining time for a discussion between the speakers and audience. While the 20+10-minute format is tried and tested, this emphasis upon communal dialogue suited the nascent research area of the study day, where there is still so much methodological work to be done.

Panel Two: Popular Music, Participatory Culture, and the Social Web

University of Cambridge Research Fellow Ross Cole probed the online vision of supermodernity exhibited by vaporwave. Drawing upon Jameson and de Certeau, he noted that vaporwave is a kind of modernist ‘enstrangement’ (Shklovsky). The genre’s ubiquitous use of gated reverb – the sound of an impossible space – mirrors both nostalgia for a lost 80s/90s childhood and disillusionment with the failure of an idealised, utopian, cyberspatial future. I was also interested (and am increasingly convinced) by Cole’s claim that vaporwave, with its fairly blatant Marxist critique of neoliberalism, is one of the most antiestablishment genres since punk. Forget not that vaporwave disseminates this critique on the very media it renounces.

Paula Harper, a PhD candidate at Columbia University, introduced the concept of ‘viral musicking’ (after Small), arguing that engagement with viral digital music objects is an important site of 21st-century musical practice. Ideas of music as infectious or contagious precede the Internet, as music has long been viewed as an invasive Other which can enter and upset normative bodies. However, researchers should pay closer attention to particular modes of contemporary participatory consumption such as viral dances and challenges, where black dance trends are monetised or rendered parodic by white authority figures.

Paula Harper gives us nyan cat (finally)

My own paper theorised an online hip-hop genre mainstream which has formed at the intersection of music streaming services, new media, and digital fandom practices. I noted how contemporary listeners, long since the ‘Golden Age’ of rap, increasingly listen across the whole gamut of rap music: on streaming services, every regional taste and international style is available, amassed in centralised search engines. In single hierarchies of prestige formed online (such as artist streaming statistics), political and cultural power is inherited through normative identity practices – here’s where we find ‘King Kendrick’. I suggested that shareable media may be trivialising radical politics to the point of hashtagging (is it woke to be #feminist?). Nonetheless, the creative possibilities of the web allows some adaptation to new emphases, beyond the U.S. and established anglophone styles (e.g. Bad Bunny), beyond cisgender artists (e.g. Kevin Abstract), and beyond major label control (e.g. Chance).

Roundtable: Methodological Issues and Innovation

Following a revitalising lunch break – thanks to the committee for providing vegan options – Oxford DPhil student Ed Spencer led a roundtable (roundchair?) with David Lewis, a researcher based at the University of Oxford e-Research Centre. (Ellis Jones, from the University of Oslo, was unfortunately unable to attend the conference and join the roundtable as planned.) Nonetheless, contributions from the floor (roundroom?) made for a lively debate on methodological issues. Spencer raised several key questions responding to the conference brief, each of which generated thoughtful discussion: should we study social web data? How? What is to be made of big and small data? What is the future of this research? Lewis provided several keen insights: on the ethical responsibilities of the researcher, he reminded attendees that “the web looks like a lot of different things to a lot of different people”. He also made the point that ethnomusicologists, popular music scholars, and others studying online materials are lucky – we’re spoilt (my wording) – compared to early music researchers, who would love value statements as clear and accessible as YouTube comments.

David Lewis and Ed Spencer, Ed gesturing with great fervour

Panel Three: Global Case Studies

The final panel of the day featured explicitly ethnomusicological perspectives. DPhil student Jaana Serres noted how the significant rise in Nigerian popular music exports has led to positive identification by Nigerians and those within the diaspora. In other words, it is ‘finally cool to be proud of Africa’. She detailed how Nigerian artists brand themselves and their work online, attracting corporate sponsors to sell products to consumers. This practice of biopolitical marketing has led to Nigerians increasingly listening to Nigerian pop music, attempts to circulate cultural materials through virality, and the emergence of ‘repats’: Nigerians who, in light of this development which ‘takes Africa to the world’, are immigrating from the US and the UK to Lagos.

Mike Levine, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, introduced (as something new to me, at least) the offline Internet used in Havana. Since 2008, Cubans have adopted a digital media delivery system named ‘paquete semanal’ (‘weekly package’), receiving USB drives loaded with gigabytes of media content which are distributed by a hierarchical network of paqueteros (creators and carriers). Notably, this practice is tolerated by the State despite its illegality. For many ‘urban tribes’ in Havana, the paquete is the primary medium of contact with non-Cuban media and content outside of state control. There appears to be a bidirectional relation between paqueteros and consumers, shaping musical preferences and sociocultural priorities, which results in a sonic shaping of what it means to be Cuban today.

Jasmin Irscheid, another member of the Oxford postgrad community, discussed secret, illegal raves in and around Tehran. As Sharia law is active in Iran and approval for music/dance events is difficult to obtain, these private yet political events take place in the so-called underground scene, where EDM is experienced as an escape from the strict regulations of public life. Irscheid quoted electronic musician Ash Koosha, who notes that live music in Iran is “not a casual event”. EDM is associated with substance consumption and the ‘diabolic powers’ of repetition, which affords trance, indulgence, and active experiences of embodiment. As such, EDM is socially stigmatised and labelled (after Becker) ‘deviant’ by Iranian authorities. The Internet is thus used both by state officials to criminalise or condemn musicians and by musicians and audiences to maintain musical collectivities within Iran.

Jasmin Irscheid introduces raves in Iran

Laudan Nooshin, Reader at City, University of London, continued the focus upon Iran in the present day. Her paper noted that the Internet provides an alternate public sphere of music sociality, allowing musicians to bypass state control. Nonetheless, power differentials (especially between women and men) in the offline world are replicated, even exacerbated, online. Iran’s social division between a male Muslim public sphere and a female private sphere has resulted in anxiety about Internet use for women performers. Although women instrumentalists are not banned, a notable internet presence may compromise the likelihood that they will get performance permits and be allowed to tour abroad. To maintain successful careers, therefore, female musicians report a pressure to stay on the right side of authorities, such that offline definitions of acceptable behaviour for women are mapped on to the Internet.

Keynote and Closing Remarks

Following a well-placed coffee break, with many thoughts and biscuits to digest, the keynote was given (in Georgina Born’s absence) by the University of Birmingham lecturer Christopher Haworth. Asking, ‘Can You Break The Internet?’, he examined the cluster of computer music genres in the lineage of Xenakis as well as network music/‘telematic’ performance. The Internet enables or transforms these two net-native musical worlds: it allows the distribution of Xenakian music, but performs different functions for network music, sending data rapidly enough to create the semblance that musicians in different locations are performing in real time. Telematic music, by relying upon private research networks rather than the public Internet, closes down the democratisation of music much vaunted by composers: listeners on the public Internet cannot actually access these performances.

Christopher Haworth borrows the sage words of Jen from The IT Crowd

Haworth drew from his co-authored article with Born, criticising the media theory literature for viewing the Internet purely as a communicative infrastructure. Instead, closer attention can be paid to the acts of its users, such as by addressing the emergence of vaporwave. It is effectively a genre about the Internet, drawing upon sonic and visual imagination of the early web, although it circulates more like a meme than a genre through its highly unified multimedia ecology: consider the visual similarities in a google image search for ‘vaporwave’.

The study day was well organised, stimulating, and highly collaborative. My thanks again to the organising committee. A few overarching trends and takeaways to conclude: Spotify is evidently the Titan of streaming services, casting a shadow over any discussion of digital music consumption; algorithms shaping digital behaviour reflect human biases (e.g. regarding gender) as they are written (for now) by humans; global case studies of Internet-mediated music urge us to consider issues of inequality, authoritarianism, and social mobility; the Internet affords many freedoms, but established power relations undoubtedly get mapped on to web-based structures. There is much to be done in the study of online music cultures, and some debates are only just starting, but I am grateful that they are.

 

Born, G. and Haworth, C. (2017) ‘From Microsound to Vaporwave: Internet-Mediated Musics, Online Methods, and Genre’, Music and Letters, 98(4), pp. 601–647.

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