There is no race, there are no genders, there is no age, there are no infirmities … Utopia? No, the Internet.
1997 advertisement quoted in Baym 2015
In the last year, even as surveillance and privacy concerns peaked, music consumers migrated to streaming music services that live in the cloud in accelerating numbers.
YouTube views of ‘Gangnam Style’ as of 30 May 2018
current estimate of world population
According to author and educationalist Sir Ken Robinson, ‘it wasn’t until 2007 that the iPhone came out and has pretty much changed the way the planet works’.2 Of course it wasn’t just the iPhone: digital technology has pretty much changed how music works, and the planet remains in a state of not only technological but also social, aesthetic and commercial transition – though quite what it is a transition to is not so clear. Commentators speak freely of paradigm change, though they usually qualify this by emphasising the ways in which the new paradigm (whatever that may be) represents a continuation of pre-digital business by other means.
At one level it is quite easy to say what digital technology has meant for music. Sound – including musical sound – consists of patterns of vibrating air molecules that strike our eardrums and resonate within the ear: mathematicians represent them as continuous wave forms, and as such sound is analogue. In contrast, digital signals consist of a series of discrete numerical values, ultimately made up of 0s and 1s. Despite the difference, digital signals can replicate analogue ones in the same way that the dots of a newsprint photograph replicate the original: with photographs it is a matter of the dots being small enough, and with sound it is one of a sufficiently high sample rate. Digital recording involves measuring sound waves 44,100 times a second, and digital playback outputs numerical values at the same rate. In terms of human perception, the replication is good enough to have been the basis of the international recording industry for the last thirty-five years. And because replicating digital sounds means replicating numbers, there is no loss of quality in digital copies – unlike analogue technology, where the quality degrades every time you make a copy.
The 44,100 samples a second produce a lot of data, and in the early days of digital music this represented a challenge to processing power and storage space. Much of the early history of digital music is conditioned by various workarounds. In universities and research institutes music was generated in the digital domain – that is, through purely numerical operations – but it involved the use of mainframes and rarely worked in real time. MIDI (which goes back to 1983, the year after the introduction of the CD) was a standard for computer control of hardware devices such as synthesisers and drum machines: this offloaded the most computationally intensive part of the process onto dedicated hardware devices, so enabling real-time operation. Other approaches included techniques for compressing digital sound files, the most important being the MP3 format, which dates from the 1990s and was key to the development of download culture – the distribution of sound files through the Internet rather through physical carriers such as CDs.
It was rapid advances in both processing power and storage that made this possible, but analogue technologies continued to exert a ghostly influence. Recording media illustrate this. The analogue formats of shellac discs (78s, named after the speed at which the disc spun), LPs (vinyl discs allowing over twenty minutes of continuous playback on each side) and magnetic tape lie behind early digital media. DAT (Digital Audio Tape) recorders, introduced in the late 1980s, used the same magnetic tape as analogue tape recorders, but the sounds were coded in digital form. CDs retained the principle of the spinning disc, as indeed did the hard disc drives built into computers for generic data storage. These vestiges of analogue technology disappeared with the solid-state drive, which became standard in computers during the second decade of the present century, and by this time there had ceased to be any distinction between musical and generic data storage. A more radical development, around the same period, was the take-up of cloud computing, in which – just as with the earlier download culture – the physical storage medium disappeared. Of course the data are still held on physical devices, but these are relegated to server farms: out of sight, out of mind, rather like the mass export of European and American waste to India and China.
Analogue practices also retain a ghostly presence in the terminology of tracks and albums – terms derived from the physical media of the analogue era but still current today. The same applies to software. Early MIDI sequencers such as Cubase were based on the metaphor of the multi-track tape recorder, and the same remains the case with present-day applications based on digital sound: to use Ableton Live, Logic Pro or Sound Tools you lay down music in separate tracks and manipulate them on the model of the analogue mixing desk. Each also uses plug-ins that often replicate the appearance as well as the functionality of analogue sound-effect units. But running alongside these commercial products there has been, and continues to be, a variety of more abstract, experimental and flexible software for digital music creation – software that owes less to earlier analogue practices. The mainframe-based systems I referred to include the MUSIC-N series (where N stands for I, II, III etc.), which go back to the late 1950s, with Csound (1985) being a particularly influential member of the family: in essence these were specialised music programming languages with extensive libraries of functions and, as I said, not primarily designed for real-time use. At the other end of the spectrum are such programmes as Max/MSP, a visual programming language also dating from the 1980s and still in widespread use, or SuperCollider (1996), a programming environment specifically oriented to real-time synthesis.
I have sketched these basic elements of music hardware and software because they both embody basic principles of digital music and underlie many digital musicians’ working environment. But I said that at one level it is quite easy to say what digital technology has meant for music, and that is not the level on which this book focuses. As its title proclaims, it is a companion to music in digital culture. Its focus is not on technology but on the social, economic and aesthetic correlates of technology, and here too we can see both new paradigms and the continuation of existing business by other means. One important point to make at the outset is that technology does not simply determine what happens in culture: as Nancy Baym (2015) emphasises, it is the belief that technological changes inevitably result in particular social consequences that lies behind both the prophecies of doom and the equally unrealistic visions of utopia (such as the 1997 advertisement quoted in the epigraph) that new technologies – not just digital technology – have always prompted. At the same time, technologies may facilitate certain cultural developments while standing in the way of others. The best way to think about this is in terms of the cultural developments that particular technologies afford: this puts the emphasis on the choices that societies make in their use of technology. Rather than asking what a new technology does to society, Baym says, one should ask how people use it, what they use it for, and why.
From the Social to the Posthuman
You cannot understand how or why people have used technology to make and consume music without setting this into the context of widespread social changes linked to the development of the Internet (perhaps an even better candidate than the iPhone for the invention that pretty much changed the way the planet works). Originally the preserve of academia and the military, the origins of the Internet can be pushed back as far as the 1950s, but until the early 1990s it was purely a medium of textual communication. That includes email, invented in the 1960s but increasingly widely adopted from the 1980s, bulletin boards (where users could read and post messages), and also a rather arcane world of text-based role-playing games that developed out of the tabletop game Dungeons & Dragons and are the remote ancestors of today’s video games. However, Baym makes the important observation that these were less important as games than as ‘simply creative environments in which fictional rooms and landscapes served as spaces for social interaction’ (2015, 16), and that too prefigured things to come.
The Internet took on a more recognisable form in the early 1990s with the development of the World Wide Web: the first web browser appeared in 1991, bringing with it the familiar architecture of linked websites, blogs, wikis, and video or photo-sharing sites. As this implies, the World Wide Web was from the start a multimedia environment, and it was at this time that major computer manufacturers agreed a standard specification for the ‘Multimedia PC’ (including a dedicated sound card with audio mixing and synthesis capabilities): role-playing games were rapidly transformed into the graphically rich, explorable environments that we think of as virtual worlds. Web 2.0 (a term coined in 1999 by Darcy DiNucci) followed in the early 2000s. This was not a technical specification but rather a loosely defined design idea that revolved around interactivity and user content. Some see it as little more than marketing hype consequent upon the opening up of the Internet to commercial users in the second half of the 1990s, and – as we shall see – the idea of user-generated content lay at the heart of the commercial opportunities that a generation of entrepreneurs, most of them based in California’s Silicon Valley, saw in the Internet.
So what exactly were the social changes I referred to? Even before the World Wide Web there was a great deal of talk about the Internet’s capacity to afford the development of virtual communities. The classic text on this is Howard Rheingold’s The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, published in 1993 but largely based on his experiences from the mid-1980s as a member of the WELL (Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link), technically speaking a computer conferencing system that was based in the San Francisco Bay area but included members from much further afield. People used their real names – they were not role-playing – and the WELL accommodated a wide spread of activities: members pursued common interests (there were standing ‘public conferences’ dedicated to different topics from chess or desktop publishing to the Grateful Dead), discussed current issues, and in a spirit of altruism offered many kinds of mutual support, including financial. California was home to many real-world communes, as well as groups that saw themselves as communities but lacked a physical base, and among the latter were the Deadheads (the Grateful Dead fan community). Many joined the WELL, and in Rheinhold’s words they ‘seemed to know instinctively how to use the system to create a community around themselves’ (1993, 43). The entire enterprise was pervaded by a technological version of the utopian ethos characteristic of West Coast counterculture. The Internet was seen as offering the model of a better life.
During this period sociologists and anthropologists researching the Internet largely focused on the idea of virtual community and questions of the relationship between the virtual and the real. Such communities persist to this day, partly in the form of virtual worlds such as Second Life, where – in accordance with the principle of role-play – participants choose their own names and rarely divulge their real-world identity. That also applies to sites like reddit, in essence online discussion groups devoted to particular topics (the reddit equivalent to the WELL’s ‘public conferences’ are ‘subreddits’): here there is no element of role-playing, but anonymity creates a freedom to express views that may be flippant or outrageous in a way that would not happen if people were interacting under their real-world names. However, the World Wide Web and in particular Web 2.0 saw the Internet taking on a quite different sort of social role, in the form of the social networking sites (SNSs) that experienced massive growth in the years after the millennium. MySpace was the largest SNS from around 2004 to 2010, when it was overtaken by the now ubiquitous Facebook.
On Facebook you are yourself (though you may be dead: Facebook sites are not necessarily deleted when you are). The basis of Facebook’s architecture is the individual user, and the key action is friending. As well as your profile and photos, your personal pages include messages to or from your friends, and other friends’ comments on them. Anyone can see who your friends are and how many friends you (and your friends) have: an unstated principle behind Facebook is that you are defined by the people you know and the discussions you are part of. Internet diehards with roots in the old communality may see this as symptomatic of the egocentricity and narcissism of the millennial ‘Me generation’, other symptoms of which include celebrity culture and ‘possessive individualism’ – the idea so central to neoliberalism that, in Crawford Macpherson’s (2010, 3) words, the individual is ‘essentially the proprietor of his own person or capacities, owing nothing to society for them’. Yet it is a widely acknowledged condition of contemporary life that none of us have fixed, stable selves, but negotiate who we are through our interactions with others. This is sometimes described as ‘networked individualism’, described by Manuel Castells as ‘a social pattern’ through which ‘individuals build their networks, on-line and off-line, on the basis of their interests, values, affinities, and projects’ (2001, 131). We define ourselves through the networks we belong to.
The impact of this can be seen in how people use the Internet and reflects computer use more generally. In the days when office software companies created ‘turnkey solutions’ – integrated software suites that did everything – you might expect to organise your working life largely around one package. That is like what members of virtual communities like the WELL used to do. In some contexts people still do it. As a resident of Second Life you construct your online identity – that is what role-playing means – within the context of a single platform. If your musical interests focus strongly on mashup or remixing, then you may use sites like Mashstix.com or Indaba Music in much the same way: as explained by Maarten Michielse (2016, 2013), Mashstix.com is a community dedicated to the development of technical knowhow through mutual commentary, while Indaba Music serves similar ends through its regular remixing competitions. The social networking features built into YouTube, such as user channels, comments and messaging, mean that communities linked by a common interest can exist under its umbrella too.
But networked individualism gives rise to a very different way of living on the web. Facebook or Twitter (where users interact through 280-character ‘tweets’ and your worth is measured by the number of your followers) are the gateways to many people’s online presence, from which they navigate fluently across a wide range of different platforms. You might follow links to Instagram or YouTube, send and receive messages via WhatsApp, keep an eye on what’s trending on reddit, and possibly the other eye on the office clock. You multitask between these and other communication channels (texting, email, skyping, face-to-face contact), so integrating them into what Baym calls ‘one complex lifeworld’ (2015, 156). And both musicians and fans do the same, using a combination of general-purpose SNSs and music-specific sites. In a study of how bands use digital communication, Danijela Bogdanovic (2016, 442) speaks of ‘cross-platform interaction, whereby one’s Facebook profile features links to videos on YouTube or sound files on SoundCloud and Bandcamp, where Twitter updates are synced with Facebook status updates and so forth’; Justin Williams and Ross Wilson (2016, 594) detail the complex chain of inter-platform responses that may be set off by a fan clicking the ‘like’ button on a musician’s Facebook page. Other than video repositories such as YouTube and Vimeo, and audio repositories such as Soundcloud (which would logically have been the audio equivalent of YouTube but arrived too late), sites of particular importance to musicians and their fans include Reverbnation (aimed at musicians developing their career), Bandcamp (which enables musicians to sell their work directly to fans) and music streaming services such as Pandora and Spotify – of which more later. Each of these has at least some social networking features.
All this has many implications for music’s role in society. A century ago the consumption of music was strongly tied to place. You went to concerts, or heard (and perhaps participated in) music in pubs or clubs. That changed when radio, 78s and LPs turned living rooms into major sites of musical consumption. Portable record players, battery-powered radios and ghetto blasters took it out of doors, but music on the move remained the exception until the introduction in 1979 of the Sony Walkman – the miniaturised cassette player that inaugurated the concept of personal stereo. With its digital successors such as the iPod (2001) and iPhone (2007), music became ubiquitous, as closely integrated into everyday urban (or rural) life as a soundtrack is into a film, and this further weakened its already tenuous link to place. Concerts still happen, of course – it is an irony that in the digital age live music is almost the only sector of the music business where many musicians can make money – but fans attending an event may use Twitter or phone apps such as iGroups to exchange information or live stream content to fans across the world (Bennett 2012). Or they may use their phones to record and upload videos to YouTube, creating a permanent archive that fans can access in the future; that may detract from the concert experience, but in interviews fans invoke the same kind of altruism I mentioned in relation to the WELL, explaining that they are doing it for the benefit of the larger fan community (Lingel and Naaman 2011).
With the enhanced bandwidth of high-speed data networks and superfast broadband, the making of music has also become increasingly independent of place. Building on the largely standardised design of international recording studios, the so-called ‘Rocket Network’ was introduced in the mid-1990s to enable multi-sited real-time collaboration between musicians across the globe; this was driven in part by a utopian vision of world musicking, and it is telling that, when the business folded, Digidesign (the company behind Pro Tools) launched its own version, now targeted firmly at the professional market and priced accordingly (Théberge 2004, 776–9). Telematic performance, where musicians across the world play together in real time, is increasingly common: as early as 1998, Seiji Osawa conducted a performance of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ from Nagano, Japan, in which the Tokyo Opera Singers were joined by choruses in Berlin, Cape Town, Beijing, New York and Sydney, all electronically linked. And when laptop ensembles do the same (as in the 2012 performance of a composition by Roger Dannenberg that was hosted at Louisiana State University but involved seven other ensembles across two continents), the same kind of networking is happening at two levels: in the local coordination of the individual laptop players, and in the remote collaboration of the different ensembles (O’Brien 2016). These examples of telematic musicking all involved specific audience locations. But even that disappears when Avatar Orchestra Metaverse (www.avatarorchestra.org/) – a group of collaborating musicians scattered across Europe and North America – perform on Second Life before an audience of avatars, digital stand-ins for real-life individuals who may be anywhere in the world. Here it is not so much that the connection between music and place has disappeared as that place has been re-created in the digital domain – as is also the case in the virtual bars, clubs and other hangouts where ‘me-and-my-guitar’ singers give live performances. Quite what ‘live’ might mean in Second Life has been a topic of lively discussion among its virtual residents, and in Chapter 7 of this book Paul Sanden asks the same about digital performance more generally.
Pushing still harder at the boundaries of the real is Hatsune Miku, perhaps the definitive icon of music in digital culture. The eternally 16-year-old schoolgirl began as an advertising image for Yamaha’s Vocaloid voice synthesis software but developed into a virtual diva known through anime-style videos and holographic performances throughout Asia, North America and Europe. With her computer-generated voice and appearance – Louise Jackson and Mike Dines (2016, 107) speak of ‘a wardrobe that could easily be used as a postnuclear school uniform’ – she has been interpreted by Western commentators as a harbinger of posthuman culture, but is arguably better understood in terms of two specifically Japanese contexts. One, discussed by Jackson and Dines, is performance traditions such as the puppet theatre genre Bunraku, where issues of reality and illusion have long been thematised; the other is the system of ‘idols’ (real-world teenage performers whose lives and images are strictly controlled) and the corporate ‘offices’ that do the controlling. This creates a situation within which human performers are seen as hardly more human than Miku, and Rafal Zaborowski (2016, 123) quotes a fan saying that it is in Miku, rather than the flesh-and-blood products of the entertainment industry, that authenticity is to be found: ‘This is real. This is the real freedom of expression. Look at the idols, look at the girl groups. All fake.’
There are subcultural genres that have no existence in the offline world, found mainly on Bandcamp and sustained by online cultures of discourse on platforms such as reddit and Tumblr. The outstanding example of this is vaporwave, a retrofuturist, ironical, and sometimes downright whimsical audio-visual genre often seen as the first to exist purely online (a view complicated by Adam Harper in his contribution to this book). Its musical lexicon is a collage of sometimes pastiched or reconstructed jazz, muzak, ringtones and video game soundtracks, while its visual iconography combines classical statuary (perhaps via de Chirico), obsolete computer graphics and Japanese characters. As much an aesthetic as a style, vaporwave draws on the anonymity of reddit and Tumblr (often the music is not attributed to real-world individuals), and its online presence extends as far as the darknet, the region of the Internet that is inaccessible to standard browsers; traditionally associated with organised crime, the darknet is increasingly inhabited by everyday users worried about the inexorable spread of internet surveillance (Watson 2017). It is worth adding that its online-only nature makes vaporwave the first musical genre in history whose very existence is dependent on the server farms and other physical infrastructure of a communication system whose vulnerability to terrorism or cyber warfare is increasingly a source of public concern.
All this adds up to a radically changed environment for both the production and the consumption of music. It affects different traditions in different ways. Lawrence Kramer has complained how download sites such as iTunes and streaming services such as Spotify fragment the works of the Western classical tradition into individual sound files: called ‘songs’ (a jarring term when applied to sonatas, symphonies and other classical genres), these are divorced from the context of the multi-movement compositions of which they were intended as part – and indeed from any other kind of context, given that the lavish paratexts of LP covers and CD booklets were lost without trace in the transition from offline to online culture. Kramer argues that this represents a loss of the aesthetic distance definitive of classical music as a culture of canonical works. He also argues that it represents a loss of classical music’s audience, in the sense that ‘the figure of the human, the fiction of “man”, to which the music is addressed has become vestigial. Classical music, it turns out, is human, all too human’ (2013, 45).
At first blush this might sound simply reactionary. But Kramer’s purpose is less to deplore digital culture than to address an issue that confronts many traditions under conditions of technological or social change: the repurposing of cultural heritage within new circumstances. It might be said that Kramer is just being realistic when he acknowledges that the era of ‘the fully-fledged work, the supposedly timeless masterwork, was relatively brief and is now essentially over’ (2013, 43). Instead of the digital download, he suggests, classical music’s best hope may lie in turning itself back into the culture of performance as which it began, so recapturing some of its ritualistic value as something experienced socially, occasionally, no sooner heard than gone – something that lies at a remove from everyday life and so constitutes ‘an exceptional event’ (51).3 And he adds, ‘There could be worse fates’. As the opening chapter of a handbook to new audio-visual aesthetics, Kramer’s essay has a valedictory quality, its starting point the passing of a tradition overtaken by the force of history.
Kramer remarks of his reinvented classical concert culture that the music ‘would not only be “live”; it would re-mark its aliveness in a complex dialogue with the life of posthuman being’ (50). This links to his characterisation of classical music as ‘all too human’ and opens up an issue that extends far beyond the classical tradition. The integration of music into everyday life is gathering pace through streaming, algorithmic playlisting, and – perhaps the next big thing, if it hasn’t already arrived – recommendation systems based not on title, artist, or genre, but on affect. In Chapter 4 Sumanth Gopinath and Jason Stanyek describe facial recognition systems that diagnose your mood. Imagine an app that does this and streams music to reinforce positive and counteract negative mental states, amounting to a kind of personalised sonic therapy. (You can almost hear Alexa’s voice: ‘You’re sad! Just listen.’) Actually this would really be just an automated extension of what people do for themselves: Zaborowski (2016, 120) speaks of a Hatsune Miku fan who organises her MP3s into folders such as ‘cheerful’, ‘nostalgic’ or ‘calm’, deliberately using these categories ‘in accordance with the time of day, the day’s events, or her personal mood’. There are also existing apps like Brain.fm (‘an innovative non-invasive digital therapy application’ that styles itself ‘the future of music’4), which generates music specifically designed for mood regulation.
Here a historian might note a precedent in mid-eighteenth-century and earlier ideas of music’s capacity to both represent and affect emotions, the humours, and aspects of bodily function. The tradition with which Kramer is concerned goes back to the later eighteenth century and is the product of a new aesthetic system within which music took on the attributes of a fine art and was conceived as the creative expression of a unique artistic personality. That is a historically and geographically delimited conception of what music is that until quite recently dominated what might be called the ‘official’ musical culture of the historical West, but in reality coexisted with any number of different conceptions of music. By making music of all kinds accessible at the touch of a trackpad, the Internet has undermined that dominance and so reshaped the dynamics of musical culture. And in that way digital technology can be seen as a force for musical pluralism, not the vehicle of some inexorable, technologically determined advance towards Kramer’s ‘posthuman condition’ (as I said, technology does not simply determine what happens in culture).
There is also an issue of how far what Kramer describes is properly speaking posthuman at all. He speaks of earbuds – perhaps the signature human–machine interface of digital culture – as ‘prosthetic eardrums’ that take music into the body cavity and so ‘abolish the contemplative distance between the music and the listener’ (2013, 46). He is drawing on posthuman tropes of implantation and augmentation of the human condition through mechanical extension, but whether the use of earbuds amounts to a project to exceed or fundamentally transform the category of the human is debatable. (It’s like calling Hatsune Miku posthuman just because she is a hologram.) By contrast, the rapidly developing field of algorithmic composition – where creative agency is displaced to what is often the software equivalent of a black box – really does thrust music into a frontier zone where distinctions of human and machine become blurred or undecidable. Whose (or what’s) music is an algorithmic composition created through unsupervised machine learning? Does the question even make sense? As discussed by David Trippett in Chapter 9, posthumanism has become an established dimension of music in digital culture, taken up, explored or simply made fun of by an expanding cadre of musicians from Tod Machover to Daft Punk.
Digital Participation and Audio-Visual Style
I said that some see Web 2.0 as marketing hype linked to the idea of user-generated content, which is business-speak for what may otherwise be called digital participation. Second Life illustrates this: its developers, Linden Labs, created the platform, including the tools required to create digital objects, but everything that exists within the virtual world – trees, buildings, furniture, clothes, pianos with built-in music tracks, guitars with pyrotechnical facilities – has been created by its residents. Linden Labs give their users free access (you don’t have to pay to play), and in return users add value by transforming Second Life from a platform to a world – on the basis of which Linden Labs make money from premium subscriptions and sales of virtual land. For users this is participatory play (for a few, such as virtual land owner Ailin Graef, it is also a source of significant real-world income), while for Linden Labs it is user-generated content. Academic lawyer and public intellectual Lawrence Lessig (2008, 214–20) cites Second Life as an example of what he calls the hybrid economy, his new business model for the cultural industries. At the same time, such participation is key to the blurring between production and consumption that has prompted the term ‘prosumer’, and it is equally illustrated by people who create content on Second Life and by those who upload their photographs to Instagram, their audio tracks to Soundcloud, or their videos to YouTube. All of these are user-generated content.
It is above all YouTube that epitomises digital participatory culture – a culture of audio-visual creation and commentary where videos are shared within what Henry Jenkins, the pioneer theorist of internet-based participatory culture, calls ‘a gift economy where goods are circulated freely for shared benefit rather than sold for profit’ (2009, 119). Many internet communities have been characterised in such terms – the trail-blazing but illegal peer-to-peer downloading site Napster provides an obvious example (Giesler and Pohlmann 2003) – and in this way embody the spirit of altruism of which I have already spoken; it is only a tiny minority of YouTubers whose videos attract millions of views and who share some of the profits generated by the advertisements on the site. So why exactly do people post all this content to YouTube? Michael Strangelove (2010, 122) evades the question: ‘The answer to the question “why do you’Tube?” is as broad as the answer to the question “why do humans communicate?”’. Then who are these people? In Jenkins’s words, ‘YouTube has become the home port for lip-syncers, karaoke singers, trainspotters, birdwatchers, skateboarders, hip hoppers, small time wrestling federations, educators, third wave feminists, churches, proud parents, poetry slammers, gamers, fans, Ron Paul supporters, human rights activists, collectors, hobbyists’ (2009, 110). In short, anyone and everyone, provided of course that they have internet access (and the starting point for Shzr Ee Tan’s contribution to this book is that a sizeable proportion of the world’s population do not).
And what do the digital haves post? The question is unanswerable, but in the specific area of music it might encompass anything and everything from performance videos – whether for paying audiences in formal concert halls or the cameraphone in a teenager’s bedroom – to the innumerable parodied or reimagined versions of canonic music videos. Versions of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ encompass the entire lexicon of digital participation (Cook 2013). There are whole websites of anime versions, including versions drawing on specific anime series such as Neon Genesis Evangalion; there are versions drawing on the iconographies of Star Trek, Star Wars and Lost; versions based on games such as Nintendo’s Megaman, Final Fantasy and Lord of the Rings Online; versions featuring My Little Pony and Mount Rushmore. There are versions created using Mario Paint Composer, made out of Lego (there is a whole channel of Lego versions of Queen videos), or from obsolete digital equipment; versions by the Filipino comedy duo Moymoy Palaboy and the ‘manualist’ Gerry Philips; versions using puppets (not just the professionally made Muppets version); versions by the crew of HMS Campbeltown and by a team of BBC newscasters, with Fiona Bruce revealing an unsuspected side to her personality. Different versions are based on different performances by Queen, or on parodistic covers such as Kevin Barbare’s ‘Star Trek Fantasy’ or ‘Weird Al’ Jankovic’s ‘Bohemian Polka’, or on the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ episode from Wayne’s World. Different versions imitate, parody or simply air their knowledge of other different versions. The list goes on and on, though this paragraph cannot.
A key to this participatory culture lies in the ease with which digital media lend themselves to visual collage, sonic remixing, video mashup, and other expressions of what is sometimes called ‘redactive’ creativity – what John Hartley (2008, 112) defines as the production of ‘new material by a process of editing existing content’. This concept has to be understood against the traditional idea that creativity – or at any rate real creativity – subsists in absolute originality, creation ex nihilo. In reality such creativity is, if not a logical impossibility, then rare to the point of non-existence in cultural practices such as music (Boden 2004, 11; Cook 2018). Put simply, everything riffs off something else. And so the forms of redactive creation ubiquitous on YouTube follow in the traditions of quotation, direct or oblique reference, elaboration, variation, reinterpretation, paraphrase and parody that constitute the long history of music, as well as the shorter history of audio-visual media. Jenkins is at pains to stress that digital participation is a continuation by other means of the timeless practices of folk culture: ‘my grandmother was a remix artist’, he announces to his puzzled readers, before going on to explain that ‘she was a quilter. She would take bits of remaindered cloth from the local textile mills and use them to create something new. She was able to express herself meaningfully through the appropriation and recombination of borrowed materials’ (Jenkins et al. 2016, 7–8). That, Jenkins is saying, is what mashup artists, remixers and digital participants of all stripes do. And just as in the case of the old folk culture – including such mainly religious practices as shape-note singing – so the participatory practices of digital culture contribute to the maintenance of community and social relationships (including in religious and devotional contexts, as documented in Monique Ingalls’s chapter). As Strangelove writes, ‘We do not merely watch online video. We engage each other in relationships through amateur online video practices’ (2010, 133).
As compared to its analogue equivalents, digital technology has democratised audio-visual redaction in terms of both the necessary skills and financial outlay. Readily available and free (or illegally downloaded) software enables not only copying, editing and the layering of diverse elements – the basic elements of mashup and remix – but also audio filtering, stereo positioning, visual reframing, multiple windows, and a host of other manipulations. But as usual it is not just a matter of the technology. I can make the point in terms of internet memes, which may take the form of jokes, images or videos. (For a musical example think of Nyan Cat, which pairs the image of a cat in the form of a poptart by American illustrator Chris Torres with the digitally manipulated version of a song originally written for Hatsune Miku, and at the time of writing has had 160 million views.) Limor Shifman sees the key attribute of an internet meme as its ‘sparking of user-created derivatives articulated as parodies, remixes, or mashups’ (2014, 2). And, based on an analysis of outstandingly popular memes, she sets out a number of the qualities that are responsible for this. Those that are relevant to music include simplicity (shooting a video in a single take or against a plain white background makes it much easier to imitate); repetitiveness, which enhances memorability and encourages ‘active user involvement in remaking video memes’ (83); whimsicality, where an ambiguous, incomplete or simply weird video ‘invites people to fill in the gaps’ (88); and humour, particularly in such forms as playfulness (which may ‘lure user creativity by summoning viewers to take part in a game’) and incongruity, ‘an unexpected cognitive encounter between two incongruous elements’ (79). In Jenkins’s word, these qualities enhance the ‘spreadability’ of content (Jenkins et al. 2013).
Along with Tumblr and 4chan, reddit is the principal route through which internet memes spread on their way to Facebook and YouTube; ‘many popular subreddits’, Adrienne Massanari writes, ‘consist entirely of conversations inspired by user-created memes’ (2015, 96). So it is not surprising that the qualities Shifman sees as characteristic of memes are found more broadly in reddit. Massanari devotes a whole chapter of her book to reddit’s playfulness, describing it as ‘simultaneously inventive and repetitive’, and often involving ‘lateral leaps between seemingly unrelated topics’ (in other words, incongruity). ‘Puns’, she writes, ‘are near ubiquitous’ (97), and closely related to them is what she calls ‘the pile-on thread’: based around a digital artefact such as an image, the thread develops through successive individuals ‘remixing and playing off someone else’s posting by modifying the original object in some way’ (98). This is just the kind of redactive creativity we saw on YouTube, and it is at this point that Massanari makes a revealing observation: ‘these pile-on threads’, she says, ‘are reminiscent of the Surrealist game Exquisite Corpse’. She is referring to the high art version of the traditional parlour game Consequences, where each player writes or draws on a sheet of paper and folds it over, leaving visible just the end of what they have done, before passing it on to the next player, who in turn does the same. (Rules stipulate a fixed grammatical structure, or the drawing of a head, body and legs.) At the end you unfold the paper and see what you have got. It is in essence a method of producing incongruous, unforeseen juxtapositions – as illustrated by the name the Surrealists gave it, based on what supposedly emerged the first time they played it: ‘the exquisite corpse shall drink the new wine’.
The psychologist and creativity theorist David Feldman has spoken of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s ‘inordinately strong tendency towards certain forms of wordplay, particularly the juxtaposition of words and meanings, a ready flow of verbal doggerel, the transposition of syntactic and semantic rules, and a playful and mischievous orientation towards written language’ (1994, 53). He could have been talking about reddit, and indeed it is easy to imagine that if Mozart were alive today he would be an avid redditer. And Feldman goes on to suggest that all of these things have equivalents in Mozart’s music: he played with notes in the same way that he played with words. That is the connection I now want to make. Massanari’s invocation of Exquisite Corpse resonates with musicologist John Richardson’s (2012) invocation of the surreal as a key quality of contemporary audio-visual culture. As in Exquisite Corpse, techniques emblematic of historical Surrealism, such as collage and montage, work through the juxtaposition of incongruous elements releasing unpredictable, emergent meaning. This is the basic mechanism behind the puns so characteristic of reddit. It is also the basic mechanism behind mashup, where the musical or semantic incongruity between two beat-matched songs or videos opens up a sometimes bewildering connotational gulf, as objects or emotions that we normally keep in separate compartments of our life world are forced into intimate conjunction with one another; Richardson speaks of the ‘complicated and troubling ways’ in which mashups of death-metal and Britney Spears songs reveal ‘the artifice that has always existed in constructions of heavy metal rock and the brutal truths that lie under the sheen of girly pop’ (171). You see and hear each through the other, giving rise to new perceptions and revealing the familiar in an unfamiliar light.
There is a widespread perception that the qualities encoded in such terms as collage, montage, juxtaposition and emergence are central to what Richardson (2012, 289) refers to as ‘a digital sensibility’. Jean Burgess and Joshua Green speak of a ‘logic of cultural value’ embodied in YouTube videos, whose ‘edits are often jarring, and the audio is manipulated through quick cuts, changing speeds, and the introduction of alternative soundtracks’ (2009, 53). On the first page of her book Unruly Media Carol Vernallis speaks of ‘the media swirl’, with its ‘accelerating aesthetics, mingled media, and memes that cross to and fro’ as well as its ‘ever-present buzzing, switching, and staccato thinking’ – and she adds that across the range of contemporary audio-visual media it is generally YouTube that ‘feels like the driver’ (2013, 3, 15). And in this volume, composer Julio d’Escriván speaks of ‘the remix mentality that pervades our culture’, explaining it as a response to contemporary video editing expressed through what he calls the compositing together of blocks of sound into semantic networks that owe more to emotional topography than to traditional musical syntax. In these ways the practices of Hartley’s redaction give rise to a distinctive digital aesthetic that is shared across different platforms, media types and genres.
This aesthetic – you might almost call it a style – emerges from the triangulation of technological affordances, the conditions of spreadability, and the social practices of participation. Burgess speaks of ‘vernacular creativity’ (Burgess and Green 2009, 25), emphasising that it has always existed but that digital culture has increased its pervasiveness and visibility to the extent that it has become something essentially new. It is perhaps this dimension of digital culture that has done more than any amount of academic or ideological critique to undermine the aesthetic exceptionalism at the heart of the hierarchical, institutionalised traditions of Western artistic practice, and it is an illustration of how the combination of multiple, local acts of continuation by other means can amount in sum to paradigm change.
New Technology, New Business
Jenkins, who uses the word ‘paradigm’ with considerable freedom, has distinguished between the old ‘digital revolution paradigm’ and the new ‘convergence paradigm’ (2006, 6). The first assumed that new media would displace the old, he explains, the second that the new and the old would work together in complex ways; by ‘convergence’ Jenkins means that formerly autonomous media are increasingly coming together as information flows freely across them. (It’s like the networked way of living on the web I associated with SNSs.) But there is another major dimension to what Jenkins calls ‘convergence culture’ (the title of his 2006 book), which concerns the relationship between digital participants and what he calls Web 2.0 companies. Spreadable Media (2013), the book he co-authored with Sam Ford and Joshua Green, sets out ideas largely drawn from Convergence Culture, but now targeted at the business community. At the beginning of the book, the authors explain that it is motivated by ‘disappointment with the way some companies have reacted to the “convergence culture” our research has examined. Some companies continue to ignore the potentials of this participatory environment, using their legal authority to constrain rather than to enable grassroots participation or cutting themselves off from listening to the very audiences they wish to communicate with’ (Jenkins et al. 2013, xi). A key dimension, they explain, is the way such companies reduce the personal and social values and loyalties of their customers – such as the altruism inherent in gift economies – to the commodified concept of user-generated content, while at the same time using the courts to enforce the intellectual property rights that the law gives them.
In Convergence Culture Jenkins illustrates this through the examples of Star Wars and Harry Potter. In each case corporate rights holders (respectively LucasArts and Warner Bros) were suspicious of the activities of fanfiction writers and other digital participants to the extent of seeking to control or even close down their activities, and Jenkins comments that in these and other ways ‘the media companies have shown a remarkable willingness to antagonize their customers by taking legal actions against them in the face of all economic rationality’ (2006, 63–4). But the most extreme example must be the way in which the music industry responded to Napster and the demonstrable demand for online access to music by wholesale litigation against its customers: Mark Katz cites actions filed in September 2003 against a twelve-year old girl and a 66-year grandmother whose computer turned out to be incapable of downloading music files as particularly spectacular own goals (2004, 176).5 Underlying the industry’s panicked response to digital technology is something I mentioned near the beginning of this chapter: unlike analogue copies, digital copies are perfect.
At a few points in his 2006 book Jenkins contrasts American business practices with those of Japan, where media franchises ‘encourage various forms of participation and social interactions between consumers’; again, ‘Japanese anime has won worldwide success in part because Japanese media companies were tolerant of the kinds of grassroots activities that American media companies seem so determined to shut down’ (2006, 112, 160). But perhaps the best example came the year after his book was published, when Hatsune Miku went on sale. Yes, that’s right. You don’t simply buy Vocaloid software. You buy Miku, ‘your own personal musical idol … not just a picture on the software package but … a sixteen-year-old girl, 158 cm tall, weighing 42 kg, and with a passion for idol style and dance music’ (Zaborowski 2016, 115). And Miku comes with a Creative Commons-style licence that allows you to ‘noncommercially transform and recreate Hatsune Miku’s image, and create derivative works from it at no cost’ (116).
In short, as long you don’t sell it, you can freely upload your version of Miku to the manufacturer’s web space or to other video-sharing services such as YouTube or its Japanese equivalents. The business model is based on user-generated content – that’s what motivates people to buy the software – but in a form that acknowledges the motives and values underlying its users’ participation, and the importance of their retaining control over the fruits of their labour. In this way it illustrates Jenkins’s new business model for the cultural industries. Conversely, companies that do not understand their customers’ motives and values – that do not listen to their customers – risk alienating them and undermining their businesses. Again music provides a prime example. It is not that people stopped making money out of music, but that the established industry lost control over it. Through sticking inflexibly to the old business models and suing their customers, the major record companies lost out twice: first to Apple (whose iTunes download store appeared in 2003), and then again, with the advent of streaming, to Spotify (like Apple, a computer firm rather than a music firm: its two Swedish founders, now billionaires, came from information technology). To be sure, the record companies still make money from music: they work in partnership with Spotify. But they no longer call the shots.6
While digital fan culture lies at the heart of Jenkins’s work, his larger approach resonates with writers in other areas. Lessig is one: I have described both his ‘hybrid economy’ and Jenkins’s ‘convergence culture’ as embodying new business models for the cultural industries, and indeed they are closely related. Lessig also uses the term ‘remix’ culture to mean what Jenkins calls participatory culture, and his use of the term capitalises on long-running controversies – particularly in America – over the legality of sampling, the basic technology that underlies hip-hop and other forms of remix culture. A core claim of Lessig’s book Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy (2008) is that there is a glaring contradiction between the law’s attitude to practices of quotation and adaptation in literature and academia on the one hand – which simply could not operate without the principles of fair use that allow these practices – and in audio-visual media on the other, where judges have repeatedly insisted that there is no de minimis and that any unauthorised sampling is a crime. Other core claims are that the copying processes inherent in how computers work have had the result of extending copyright protection beyond anything pre-digital law-makers could ever have envisaged (99), and that the combined effect of the law and music industry litigation has been to ‘criminalize a generation of our kids’ (114). Lessig also speaks in very much the same way as Jenkins about the old folk culture in which redactive creativity was the norm, and in the American legal context this takes on a particular significance: the law’s draconian treatment of sampling is based on the US constitution and its early amendments, which date from the late eighteenth century, a time when redactive creativity was taken for granted. To invoke such provisions to criminalise redactive creativity in the digital domain betrays a simple lack of historical awareness.
The other obvious parallel to Jenkins’s convergence culture is what Aram Sinnreich, working in the specific context of music, calls ‘configurable culture’. For Sinnreich, the production and consumption of music has for the last two centuries been subject to the ‘modern framework’ that has governed Western music, from Kramer’s canon to the structure of its institutions. But in the digital age new technologies have opened up music to social negotiation and change, so undermining the old certainties and prompting ‘a fundamental crisis’ (2010, 88). Many aspects of Sinnreich’s configurable culture are shared with Lessig and Jenkins, and Sinnreich acknowledges this. But he sees them as underestimating the drastic disruption of previous models that configurable culture represents: even though certain aspects of it have existed for generations, he says, ‘the configurable media experiences of the present day clearly outnumber, overpower, and outpace any of these examples by orders of magnitude’, and so ‘I must disagree with any claims of continuity between past and present cultural practices’ (71, 74).
The new paradigm that Sinnreich is proclaiming extends way beyond expressive culture. There is a parallel with Vernallis, for whom today’s audio-visual media are conditioned by the conditions of life in a digital world where we are swamped by data streams, and where we constantly ‘retool and reconfigure our personalities and roles’ (2013, 286). More than that, ‘contemporary digital media present forms of space, time, and rhythm we haven’t seen before’, mirroring ‘work speedup, multitasking, and just-in-time labor’ (26). And a few lines later she puts these thoughts together: ‘I wonder if becoming more aware of the patterns of space, time, and rhythm in media and in work speedup might help us to adapt to social change’. But Sinnreich takes this thought to another level. Understanding configurable culture may give us ‘a roadmap for the emergence of new social forms and institutions in the networked age’, he says; it will ‘both prefigure and influence the decisions we will make about how to rebuild and reshape our social institutions’ (2010, 10–11, 8). The stakes could hardly be higher, for in the end ‘resolution of this crisis will help to determine the organizing principles of postindustrial society for years or perhaps for centuries to come’ (89).
Evidently the jury will be out on that claim for years or perhaps for centuries to come. Meanwhile musicians and the music business face more immediate problems. From an industry perspective, as Martin Scherzinger explains in Chapter 2, the golden age of the 1980s–90s – when people were replacing their LPs by CDs and digital remastering enabled record companies to monetise their back collections – was succeeded by a period of turmoil: critical factors include the exponential growth of Napster and other peer-to-peer download services, the explosion of what the industry called ‘piracy’, its litigation against customers, and the launching in 2003 of Apple’s iTunes Store. In the following year, as dreams of an online musical utopia were fading, Katz’s book Capturing Sound offered a balanced overview of the then current situation and a guardedly optimistic evaluation of future prospects. It is revealing to compare the future he envisaged with what actually happened. After excoriating the music industry’s strategy of litigation, he suggests that ‘file-sharing should actually be opened up’, and that ‘the industry could flourish were that to happen’ (2004, 177). Copyright, which began as a strictly limited period intended to enable entrepreneurs to recoup their investment but increasingly encroaches upon eternity, should be rolled back. The application of fair use should be extended. Instead of suing their customers, the industry should do what you are meant to do with customers – sell your products to them – and this could be done through download services charged per song, through subscription, or even a licensing system administered by internet service providers in return for a flat fee: that way, Katz observes, teenagers without credit cards – a key segment of the market – could actually pay for their music. And why would the music industry ever go along with this? Because they would make money.
As a vision of the future this was at best blurred. What arrived was not enhanced and industry-supported download services but rather streaming services. These offer subscriptions, as Katz suggested, and what is more, they provide access to huge music libraries for free if you are prepared to sit through the advertisements (and for a reasonable charge if you aren’t). On top of that, as described in K. E. Goldschmitt and Nick Seaver’s chapter, they have opened up a new world of both humanly curated and algorithmic recommendation. The Jeremiahs may warn of creeping posthumanism and algocracy – the spread of algorithmic decision making, from personalised insurance quotations to self-driving cars and now the music you listen to – but for the rest of us, what’s not to like? For many of the contributors to this volume (Scherzinger, Gopinath and Stanyek, Goldschmitt and Seaver, and Tan), the answer is something else that streaming services have brought to music: perhaps the most extreme version of the new business model that in recent years has become the norm for SNSs – a model that is nothing like what Lessig and Jenkins were talking about.
Yet that is only half the story. Google Spotify and you will find any number of musicians protesting about the derisory payments they receive, or threatening to pull their catalogues from the service (as Taylor Swift and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke did). Working out what artists make from Spotify is not straightforward, partly because of the complexities of the firm’s revenue model, and partly because Spotify’s figures are for what goes to the rights holder – generally the record company – whereas the proportion that goes to the artist is a matter of individual contract. But after allowing for all this, the data journalist David McCandless calculated in 2010 that, in order to earn the US government’s then monthly minimum wage of $1,160 from Spotify, you would need to have 4,053,110 plays per month. The Spotify site lists total historical plays of artists’ ten top tracks, and the examples of three female singers with very different profiles set these figures in context. Adele’s lifetime count currently stands at just under 3.5 billion, which on McCandless’s calculation corresponds to 72 years on the minimum wage – and then there are other streaming services, physical sales, live performance, and licensing income. She is making good money. But for Imogen Heap, who at the age of 40 maintains a significant presence on the British scene, the corresponding figure is two years (mainly because of a single song, ‘Hide and Seek’, released as long ago as 2005). And in the case of Áine Cahill – at 23 one of The Independent’s names to watch for 2018 – the figure reduces to about two weeks.11 Rough and ready as they may be, such figures suggest that Spotify’s ostensively successful monetisation of digital music – which resulted in a market value following flotation of some $30 billion – was achieved on the basis of a revenue model that puts even moderately successful up-and-coming artists (The Independent spoke of Cahill’s ‘breakthrough success’ in 2017) practically on a par with people who upload cat videos to YouTube. Once again it’s the story of monetising user-generated content. We have ended up with a situation in which most artists get practically nothing, while the corporate middlemen are bankrolled by the collection and sale of listeners’ personal data. Such a possibility never crossed Katz’s mind.
The Jeremiahs don’t have it all. If digital technology has created the conditions for surveillance and social oppression, it has also created means for resisting them: some are documented in Peter McMurray’s chapter on audio-visual witnessing and racial violence, while a timely reminder of the power of digital sound is the video of crying children at US Customs and Border Protection facilities that ended the policy of separating children from their parents.12 And in straightforwardly musical terms the benefits of digital technology for both producers and consumers are self-evident and celebrated by our contributors. The same applies to the opening up of new stylistic and generic possibilities, especially in terms of multimedia. The world’s music has never been so accessible, and classical music – in whatever form – is heard by more people around the world than ever before. The music generation apps developed within Google’s Magenta project are placing sophisticated machine learning algorithms into the hands of not only professional musicians like Andrew Huang but also – in the tradition of Laurie Spiegel’s ‘Music Mouse’ (1986) and David Zicarelli’s ‘OvalTune’ (1989) – the kind of people who under the classical music regime would never have thought themselves capable of creating music.13 Digital technologies also bring the pleasures (and pitfalls) of social participation to those who would otherwise be cut off from it, such as the housebound and bed-bound.
And who knows, they could even bring equity to the musical marketplace. The blogosphere is full of the potential of blockchain, the distributed database model that underlies bitcoin (discussed by Scherzinger in Chapter 11). In its most radical and much hyped form, blockchain promises a mode of revenue distribution that cuts out the middlemen and, together with smart (automated) contracts, could cost-effectively accommodate the modest but vital earnings of rank-and-file artists as well as the select company of the superstars. For all too understandable reasons Imogen Heap is actively campaigning in favour of it, and – as Jeremy Silver (2016) documents in a recent report – there are several such initiatives. But it’s the old story. The issue is not whether or not blockchain has the technological potential to provide a more equitable mechanism for paying musicians than the current system. Once again, technology is not the crunch issue. It is whether there is sufficient short-term economic incentive to mobilise those who are in a position to do something about it. Scherzinger is clearly not putting his money on that one – he frames his discussion firmly in the past tense – and no more am I.