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Document 2287539
This file is to be used only for a purpose specified by Palgrave Macmillan, such as checking proofs, preparing an index,
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Introduction: Listening
in on the 21st Century
Richard Randall and Richard Purcell
This anthology is the result of a scholarly collaboration we started in
2011. Thanks to the generosity of the Center for the Arts in Society
and the Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon
University we were able create Listening Spaces, an interdisciplinary
project to examine the variety of ways people listen to, consume, and
produce music in an increasingly digitized world. It was an attempt to
combine the methodological and analytical approaches of music theory,
musicology, and psychology with the historical materialism of cultural
studies. We also conceptualized our project as a way of bridging a
practitioner’s emphasis on musical performance with a humanities and
social science focus on the objects, cultures and politics human beings
create out of music-making. Our approach is not entirely new. This set
of concerns is broadly understood as the province of ethnomusicology, which attends to the above set of interlocking concerns with an
anthropological thrust. Since the early 1990s these concerns have also
been addressed within the field of sound studies, which, as Jonathan
Sterne writes “takes sound as its analytical point of departure or arrival”
(Sterne 2011, p. 2). While music is not the central focus of sound studies we were drawn to it precisely because it represented a way to conceptualize the study of music that truly embraced many mediating formats
and scholarly disciplines.
Making music the center of our project did expose us to some methodological and analytical challenges. The most significant was our
attempt to approach music without translating the “classical music
ideology” into the very materialist domain of musical inquiry we set out
to explore (Taylor 2007, pp. 4–6). The study of popular music within
cultural studies can fall into such traps and reify the political and market derived ideology behind the ideas of “genius” and “masterpiece”
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Richard Randall and Richard Purcell
(Taylor 2007, p. 4). We also acknowledge that with the rise of the
“Californian ideology” we have increasingly fetishized the devices,
software platforms, and other disruptive technological innovations
that are increasingly associated with music delivery (Barbrook and
Cameron 1995). In other words, given the unprecedented availability
of file formats, storage capabilities, mobile devices, and web-based
platforms geared towards music playback and production, it would be
easy to focus our inquiry on the objects geared towards delivering music.
At first glance, such an object-oriented approach makes sense because our
interactions with media are often the most recognizable kind of sonic
engagements. It is easy to conflate music’s elusive ‘objectness’ with the
reifications required for production, distribution, storage, commodification, and performance. Similarly, it is also tempting and perhaps disciplinarily convenient to reduce music and the associated experiences to
sound and psychoacoustics. The Listening Spaces project revealed to us
that even in our increasingly digital world, music remains not a thing,
but a lattice of affordances, experiences, and actions that are specific to
music. We began to focus on listening as a choice that is either made
by us or for us for reasons that span transgressive empowerment to
hegemonic oppression. Scholars such as Jacques Attali, Peter Szendy,
and Susan McClary have discussed that to listen to music is to make
real the promises and qualities it embodies. The project wove together
threads from a variety of disciplines and the resulting fabric revealed that
musical “listening spaces” are everywhere and each comprises a complex
of cultural, psychological, political, and economic meaning.
In order to approach these listening space we first needed to understand who or what is listening as well as how and why they are listening. Listening is not an idle activity. We are saddled with responsibilities
and, as Szendy tells us, rights as listeners (Szendy 2008, p. 4). Listening
expresses subjectivity as well as creates it. It also suggests or at least
necessitates a certain level of active attention, especially when it comes
to music. There is of course the “furniture music” of Satie or the smooth
arrangements that play to you while you shop. Style, composition and
intent aside, these background musics demand a listener to listen, but
at a different threshold of engagement. Yet they all are intended, to
borrow a phrase, as forms of accompaniment to activities that for all
intents and purposes we think about outside of the musical realm. But
what is music? We do not ask this as an empty rhetorical provocation.
Rather, taking seriously the activity of listening as accompaniment
requires that we become part of an ensemble with our bodies as literal
and figurative accompanying instruments.
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Here, we looked to Christopher Small’s term “musicking” as a guide
to understanding the potentially infinite array of activities that define
musical engagement (Small 1998). Central to Small’s argument is that
we move away from fetishizing the musical object, whether that be
the CD or the musical score, and instead appreciate the rich variety
of human musical activity, such as tapping on a table, listening to a
portable music player and singing lullabies to soothe a child to sleep.
Digital technology has come to mediate many of our intensely personal
and communal accompaniments with music. Many have gone from the
labor intensive, analog, tactile and at times intensely emotional experience of making a mixtape to dragging and dropping files onto playlists.
File-sharing has replaced handing over a piece of vinyl or even burning a CD. Impersonal machines and equations are doing what friends,
acquaintances, DJs and record-store owners once did: recommending
music for us to listen to and enjoy. When Small wrote Musicking: The
Meanings of Performing and Listening (1998) he could not have foreseen
the fundamental shift of music’s digital medium from binary codes on
a compact disk to discreet file formats on hard drives and servers. There
is, of course a very long history of physical formats and copyright to
look back on as a guide to our own digitized age. Yet, we also believe
that the digital age has presented a set of new activities and questions
to what musicking embodied as listening means.
We are reminded of Kate Crawford’s call to consider the ways we pay
attention online as “practices of listening” (Crawford 2009, p. 525).
Of course, when we use music online, whether through the variety of
commercially available streaming services, production tools or the files
on our physical drives we are obviously engaged in such a practice. Yet,
unlike a piece of sheet music, vinyl LP or cassette tape, these new musical objects are actively listening to us, too. Some of this functionality
is built into the networked devices and platforms we use. Dedicated
services like Spotify, Soundcloud, Google Music and many others are
designed to make sharing playlists, individual tracks and DJ sets easier.
These functions are also built into social media platforms that are not
dedicated to music sharing like Facebook, Google+, Twitter and Vine,
which make embedding music into web pages or feeds a very simple
affair. The corporations that design these proprietary services are also
listening in through the metadata we generate through our musicking
activities. And as Edward Snowden has also revealed to us: so is the U.S.
Government.
By now we also know that the information we both push and pull
through our mobile devices and into the Internet also creates a kind of
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Richard Randall and Richard Purcell
musical subjectivity; one that is an aggregate of all of our musicking and
listening metadata. In turn, algorithms summon this musical doppelganger in the form of banner ads, promoted tweets, and recommendations for purchases, Facebook friends, and YouTube videos – all of which
demand our musical attention even when or if we log off, or sleep
(Crary 2013). This is all to say that as we sought to think with the musically inclined subject positions Szendy and Small offer – listener and
musicker – we know that both have to jostle for ontological position
with the user; who at least in terms of the commercial Web, is beholden
to legally binding contracts and terms of service (not unlike those we
implicitly agree to when we purchased vinyl records, cassette tapes or
compact disks in the past) that clashes with the “rights” of the listener.
The mediation of music, of course, is one of the hallmarks of its
absorption into a capitalist economy. Invoking Debord’s idea of the
“spectacle,” we see how mediation steers and controls choice. Debord
writes “… the bureaucratic economy cannot leave the exploited masses
any significant margin of choice, since any other external choice
whether it concern food or music, is already a choice to destroy the
bureaucracy completely” (Debord 1983, section 64). When listeners
are empowered to choose freely, they are simultaneously empowered
to operate outside of bureaucratic systems that seek to control and
exploit them. In the case of digital technology, listening often has the
appearance of increased choices and empowerment, but at the cost of
increased mediation. The spectacle of digital technology lulls listeners into believing, for example, that Apple’s iTunes store represents an
expansion of choices about where to purchase music only to later learn
that Apple was systematically deleting non-iTunes-purchased music off
of your iPod every time it was connected to the service (Elder 2014).
The 21st-century perspectives of listening we are trying to capture in
this anthology are twofold. On one hand, we seek to better understand
how the increasing digital mediation of our musical experiences conflict
with and complement our earlier ways of listening. On the other hand,
we want to know how our current epistemological position can help us
interpret and understand our past practices.
There is no one right way to investigate the significance of listening
in the 21st century. This anthology reflects this by seeking a diversity
of voices and methods that find meaningful listening spaces in places
that we might not expect or have long forgotten about. 21st Century
Perspectives on Music, Technology, and Culture is a volume of critical
essays concerned with subjects at the confluence of music consumption, burgeoning technology, and contemporary culture. Essays within
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the collection frame that point of intersection by focusing variously
on issues of musical communities and the politics of media; taken as
a whole, these essays present a contemporary evaluation of the diverse
and changing structures of music delivery and affordance. While sound
reproduction and music making has relied on digital technology since
the early 20th century, the role of digital technology in how we listen
to and become acquainted with commercial music is a fairly recent
phenomena. Our anthology is a response to the increasing dominance
that digital technology and other delivery platforms have had on how
we buy and listen to music in the 21st century. We believe that the socalled digital turn has also changed the nature of what we understand
music to be.
Our anthology is an attempt to raise specific critiques of current
music practices as well as make more explicit the implicit historical
materialist critique at the heart of musicking. One way to see technologies such as social networks, streaming-music services, recommendation
algorithms, virtual cloud storage, and portable listening devices is an
increased democratization of where and how we can have musical experiences. While these technologies make music possible everywhere they
have also changed the nature of how music and musical activities are
commodified and their social meaning. This raises important ethical,
socio-political, and philosophical questions. For instance, how do we
define musical performance and labor in an age where so much music
and musical taste is freely shared online? What is the value of music
and musical performance and creation in such a context? What is the
fate of certain musical genres (Jazz, Classical, R&B, Hardcore, and Punk
for instance) when their respective audiences have become amorphous
(in the case of R&B) or seem to be disappearing (Classical and Jazz)
in an increasingly digital era? Does radio mean the same thing when
streaming music services like Spotify, YouTube, and Beats Music give
users more choice and control of what, where, and how they listen? Do
things like sound fidelity and detail mean much to listeners given the
dominance of compressed file formats like the MP3? How has corporate
media consolidation changed the relationship between music and
other media forms like cinema and literature? Has the shift away from
musical formats like the cassette tape, the transistor radio and vinyl
records fundamentally changed how we think of music? Does the trend
towards streaming and cloud-based music delivery services raise privacy
issues for consumers unforeseen in the history of music? We have collected essays engaging with these questions and others that the digital
turn in music has challenged us to answer. Some of them also address
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Richard Randall and Richard Purcell
how past musical practices can provide a guide for the present. Through
them we hope to construct a discussion of universal themes of modern
music practices.
Carleton Gholz’s “The Scream and Other Tales: Listening for Detroit
Radio History with the Vertical File” is one of two essays in this anthology that take up the relationship between radio and our 21st-century
listening practices. Using Susan Douglas’ canonical Listening In as a
starting point, Gholz’s contribution uses archival research and oral history to give us a sense of the way terrestrial radio stations shaped the
cultural and political imagination of the residents of Detroit, Michigan
from 1941 to the present. For Gholz, the archive containing the history
of Detroit radio is not only a resource but itself an object of analysis.
For a city so vital to American and world music, Gholz wonders why
the historical record of its most important radio stations are either
absent or in the case of urban contemporary radio station WJLB, which
recently located from downtown Detroit to the suburbs of Farmington
Hills, contained in “one manila file folder of photocopied promotional
materials going back only a few years.” WJBL, which was purchased
and relocated by its parent company Clear Channel, creates an occasion for Gholz to reflect on the longer history of Detroit radio and
its meaning for critics of media and culture. In the aftermath of the
Telecommunications Act of 1996, the rise of non-terrestrial radio and
Internet-based streaming services, Gholz contemplates what kind of
listening space radio is now. While stalwart station WJLB still features
live DJ late-night mixes, the rash of corporate consolidations in the
wake of the Telecommunications Act has atrophied Detroit terrestrial
radio options.
Kieran Curran’s essay, “‘On Tape’: Cassette Culture in Edinburgh and
Glasgow Now,” presents interviews with a local promoter, a band, an
independent label and a fan in both cities, the subject being the seeming resurrection of cassette-tape culture in the digital era. He provides an
ethnography undertaken in the two largest cities in Scotland (Edinburgh
and Glasgow) both of which have vibrant independent music scenes.
The questions Curran seeks to answer are: Why is this happening? What
issues arise out of the artifact of the “tape itself”? What is the appeal of
such an oft-derided format, especially in the context of the proliferation
of digital music? Are there unique sonic qualities that are preferable?
Is the physical form of the tape somehow more “authentic” feeling
than a digital download? He arrives at intriguing insights into the role
of the cassette tape in contemporary Scottish music-making, as well as
connecting with broader moves internationally back to analog modes
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of production and distribution – albeit one that is accompanied by the
parallel realization that digital reproduction and distribution must also
be incorporated.
In “Radio in Transit: Satellite Technology, Cars and the Evolution of
Musical Genres” Jeffrey Roessner takes up the radical transformation of
radio in the aftermath of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. While
the stirrings of satellite radio technology date back to the early 1980s it
was not until after a vigorous lobbying campaign that in 1997 the FCC
created two satellite digital audio radio licenses to XM Satellite Radio
and Sirius. Despite its relatively modest market share, Roessner argues
that since its inception music stations on Satellite Radio have marketed and structured themselves as a simulacra of the counter-cultural
freedom associated with 1960s car radio programming and culture. He
writes that satellite stations achieve this by offering Rock Icons as live
DJs as well as “radically challenging traditional musical genres…”, until
“the notion of genre itself disintegrates through the proliferation of
numerous micro-genres.” The effect of this breakdown in genre is to
give the illusion of capriciousness and discovery that terrestrial radio
offered. Roessner, like Gholz, ends his contribution wondering what
the future holds for Satellite Radio in an age of Internet-based music
streaming services that offer a more privatized and tailored listening
experience.
In “The Internet and the Death of Jazz: Race, Improvisation, and
the Crisis of Community,” Margret Grebowicz explores the effects of
social networking on the jazz scene and how identities of what “jazz is”
become inconsistent and uneven, in spite of the meta-level narratives
at work in Kickstarter and other initiatives that depend on the logic of
a unified, univocal social body. Mediated by these social technologies,
She proposes, the jazz scene constitutes an inoperative community
in Jean-Luc Nancy’s sense of the words, in which the “with”-ness
of being-with-others forecloses the “thing” that the community is.
In other words, in the era of social technologies there is no jazz community understood as a thing with particular, describable attributes,
but the “we” of jazz consists of social actors being with/against each
other in politically productive ways. She draws on Jean-Luc Nancy’s The
Inoperative Community and Jacques Derrida’s work on hospitality and
democracy to support this thesis.
Like many of the books contributors, Richard Purcell’s “A Brief
Consideration of the Hip-Hop Biopic” looks at the interaction between
the music and labor in the 21st century. Cinema, primarily through the
genre of the musical and biopic have created elaborate fantasies that
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present music and its related activities as un-alienated labor. Despite
the crisis in valuation peer-to-peer and music streaming services have
exposed in the late 20th and 21st century, films about musicians and
music continue to perpetuate these myths. Purcell’s essay argues that
hip-hop “biopics” are a valuable resource in tracing the complicated
relationship hip-hop culture – and the arts within neoliberalism – has
with creative labor. Most of his essay focuses on the first cycle of fictional films explicitly about hip-hop culture; with particular attention
paid to Edo Bertoglio’s Downtown 81 (1981), Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style
(1982) and Michael Schultz’s Krush Groove (1985). These films, more
than any of this early cycle, represent the shifting values that collectives
and creative labor have within hip-hop culture once the priorities of
high concept cinema transform cinema into more of a “listening space.”
Damon Krukowski has been involved as a musician in the industry for
over 25 years. In this time, he has seen unprecedented transformations
in how musicians are able to both make music and make money with
their music. His essay, “Love Streams,” details his personal experiences
coming to terms with the “new music industry” giants of Pandora and
Spotify. As a member of the band Galaxy 500, their music is played
frequently on these services, but they get almost no royalty money in
exchange. He goes on to say that these services are not record companies
and do not actually do anything to support the creation or distribution
of new music. Ironically, companies like Pandora and Spotify are not in
the music business. Rather, he argues, they exist to attract speculative
capital. The conclusion is that musicians cannot look towards these new
distribution powerhouses for any kind of meaningful support.
Richard Randall’s “A Case for Musical Privacy” positions streaming
music services as an unprecedented kind of listening space that has serious social and political economic ramifications. His work decodes the
importance of music in our lives and how we use music to construct,
support, and revise personal and social identities. He locates what
Fuchs and others call prosumption in Web 2.0 technologies in general
and streaming music services in particular. The connection between
prosumption and surveillance has been widely discussed in recent
years and Randall argues that listening is not passive but active, and
the choices we make in listening have the capacity to reveal important
and private personal information. Our naive attitudes about musical
listening and musical identities are due, Randall argues, to our misplaced belief that listening is material engagement. Instead, he asks us
to appreciate that music is not a thing, but a fundamental and critical
human activity. By focusing on the experience of the listener, Randall’s
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essay complements Krukowski’s essay to create a broader critique of
streaming music services.
Graham Hubbs’ “Digital Music and Public Goods” tackles the central
concern at the heart of music and music listening in the 21st century:
from where and how we acquire our music. Approaching these concerns
from the disciplines of ethics and political philosophy, Hubbs argues
that the discourse of piracy that we have traditionally used to describe
informal and more organized peer-to-peer networks is antiquated with
the ubiquity of digital file formats. This transformation of the musical
object into a “spaceless” object has forced us to reconsider older concepts of copyright and property rights. Hubbs suggests that this has led
to a “partial decommodification” of the music object and our various
attitudes concerning the legal status of digital music comes from the
fact that digital music lacks the “hallmark features” of private property.
Hubbs’ mediation on music format, storage, and property law leads him
to declare that music is in fact a public good, which explains why the
institutions and ideologies of private property are so poorly equipped to
deal with human music making.
Jonathan Sterne’s essay “The Preservation Paradox” juxtaposes the
power of digital storage and encoding of sound media against its fragility. While digital technology allows for unprecedented ease in the storage and collection of sound files, this power, he argues, is an illusion.
At issue is the all or nothing identity of digital files. While a damaged
vinyl record may play with some scratches and pops, the corrupted data
file will not. Digital data, he says, “have a more radical threshold of
intelligibility.” One moment they are intelligible, but once their decay
becomes palpable, the file is rendered entirely unreadable. In other
words, digital files do not age with any grace. “Where analog recordings
fade slowly into nothingness,” Sterne writes, “digital recordings fall off
a cliff from presence into absence.”
Kathy Newman begins “Headphones Are the New Walls: Music in
the Workplace in the Digital Age” by asking us “What kind of listening space is an office space?” If you happen to work in an open plan
workspace the likely answer is an incredibly noisy one. With the rise
of the New Economy and what Andrew Ross has termed “no collar”
work, there has been a rapid adoption of more efficient and humaneseeming workplace design. As Newman reminds us, sound is the
unruly, anarchic component in the open office plan and her essay
explores the multiplicity of ways corporations and workers themselves
attempt to strategically manage the office soundscape. Her analysis
of over a decade of sociological and organizational behavior research
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and mainstream journalistic press accounts of the effects of music at
work reveals that behind these strategies lies a similar desire to make
the workplace more humane in order to extract even more surplus
labor. The sonic self-care workers perform with digital audio players and
high-end noise cancelling headphones is just as problematic as the decisions made by management to pipe in Justin Bieber to increase typing
efficiency. Ultimately, Newman wonders if the battle over the corporate
office airwaves and the kinds of power and autonomy held by workers across the board is a potential opening for a shift in their class
consciousness.
Sumanth Gopinath has the unique distinction of being a “ring-tone
scholar” having studied the phenomena for a number of years and written the book, The Ringtone Dialectic. Gopinath’s essay “Researching the
Mobile Phone Ringtone: Towards and Beyond The Ringtone Dialectic”,
looks back on this program of research and how what was once a
$3 billion industry has faded away. He details the technological history of the “ringtone-as-listening space” and its political economy. The
ringtone is responsible, he claims, for creating what we now call the
“mobile entertainment industry.” An optimistic convergence between
mobile technologists and music industry brought claims of a new era
of mobile music. The ringtone became so ubiquitous in the mid-2000
that composers started to incorporate these sounds into their concert
music. These sounds, such as the Nokia Tune or the iPhone Marimba,
became part of our everyday experience. His essay details the remarkable decline of this once dominant industry with critical reference to
its cultural, political, and economic ramifications.
Music does not belong to any one discipline or practice. Our contributors represent a wide variety of intellectual and practical engagements with music. Each essay offers a unique voice that we hope will
connect with each contributor’s community and draw them into our
discussion. We hope not only to critique past and current practices, but
to also demonstrate that these issues are not the domain of any one
particular group of intellectuals or practitioners.
References
Barbrook, R. and Cameron, A. (1995). The Californian Ideology. Science as Culture
6.1, 44–72.
Crary, J. (2013). 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. New York: Verso Books.
Crawford, K. (2009). Following You: Disciplines of Listening in Social Media.
Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 23(4), 525–35.
Debord, G. (1983). The Society of the Spectacle. Detroit: Black and Red.
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Elder, J. (2014). Apple Deleted Rivals’ Songs from Users’ iPods. Online,
3 December. Available from: http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2014/12/03/appledeleted-rivals-songs-from-users-ipods/ (accessed 31 May 2015).
Small, C. (1998). Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening. Hanover:
University Press of New England.
Sterne, J. (Ed.) (2011). The Sound Studies Reader. New York: Routledge.
Szendy, P. (2008). Listening, A History of our Ears. Trans. Charlotte Mandell. New York:
Fordham University Press.
Taylor, T. D. (2007). Beyond Exoticism: Western Music and the World. Durham, NC:
Duke University Press.
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1
The Scream and Other Tales:
Listening for Detroit Radio History
with the Vertical File
Carleton Gholz
We sway the minds of our community and if we can’t
stand up for a principle, we don’t need to be on the air.
— Martha Jean the Queen (Brown, 1970)
While [sic] all the daily tales of defaulting cities, proposed increases in income taxes for city residents, cuts
in services and threatened layoffs, a little non-static
music really clears the clutter from the brain, thus permitting fresh perspectives to enter. Music can be much
more than a part of the décor in an airport waiting
room and its values go beyond its use as a substitute
for novocain [sic] at the dentist’s office.
— Ken Cockrel (Cockrel, 1975)
“They say radio is war. It may be a physical war, but
it’s not a mental war. What gets played here shouldn’t
be judged by what’s happening in New York or Los
Angeles,” [Mojo] says. “They should take a look at what’s
happening here in Detroit, at unemployment. They
should count the raggedy cars and the people walking
around at 3 a.m. with nowhere to go.”
— Electrifying Mojo (Borey, 1982)
In the E. Azalia Hackley Collection’s “Detroit Radio” subject file at the
Detroit Public Library, a handful of newspaper clippings describe a radio
strike held on then AM radio station WJLB. The Detroit Free Press, Detroit
News, and Michigan Chronicle picked up the story. The first week-long
walkout ended just before Christmas 1970 after then black program
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director Al Perkins had been fired. (Wittenberg, 1970) Detroit News writer
Brogan (1970a) quoted “disc jockey” Martha Jean as saying, “I’ve been
in radio 15 years … and I’m still not able to be an individual. … It’s
pathetic to have [to] take a black or white side but we’re fighting for
everybody in this radio industry. Black disc jockeys are insecure because
we have so few places to work.” Strikers asked for support from the
AFL-CIO (Wittenberg, 1970) in addition to existing representation by
the National Association of Television and Radio Announcers (NATRA)
(Brown, 1970). At one point the strikers, who were also supported by
the NAACP, moved their picket to WJLB’s Booth Broadcasting owner
John L. Booth’s home in the East Side Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe
Farms (Detroit News, 1970a). Though a Wayne County Judge declared
the picketing illegal (Brogan, 1970b), “sympathizers” eventually joined
strikers outside the station’s downtown studios in the Broderick Tower
with signs that read “Black management for a black community” and
“We don’t need a plantation station!” (Michigan Chronicle, 1970b) The
strikers initially “won” the strike, with Perkins reinstated and Norman
Miller hired as the first black general manager (Detroit News, 1970b). But
by January, black staff understood that promises had not been kept and
Miller was General Manager in name only.
That’s when the Queen screamed.
A Free Press writer wrote, “Startled listeners heard Martha Jean Steinberg,
a popular personality who conducts a program of music and phone conversation under the name of Martha Jean the Queen, gave [sic] a little
scream, and then all was silence” (Mackey, 1971). Another Free Press
reporter elaborated: “The scream brought a deluge of telephone calls
to Detroit police from concerned listeners who feared she [the Queen]
had been hurt” (Wendlend, 1971). Steinberg and several others locked
themselves into the on-air studios and held a sit-down strike. Another
clipping in the file, from the Detroit Free Press, shows a photo, taken by
Free Press photographer Dick Tripp, of Al Perkins reading a handwritten
note from behind the studio glass, the door blockaded with chairs (see
Figure 1.1).
Memory of this strike, as well as evidence that it ever happened, is
largely gone except within the dusty, yellowed, aging vertical file in an
archive established in 1943 and dedicated to blacks in the performing
arts. The legacy of the strike – what’s at stake in remembering it today –
is at the heart of this chapter. Here I make two related arguments. The
first follows radio scholar Newman’s (2000) position that post-war black
radio stations (in her research, Memphis station WDIA) provided “a new
space for entertainment, information, music, citizenship and ‘goodwill,’”
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Figure 1.1 Mackey, R. (1971) Employee Sit-In Silences Radio Station for 3 Hours. 12th January. Used by permission of Detroit
Free Press
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and, “led to the increased participation of Memphis African Americans
in the mainstream of commercial life of the region” (pp. 76 and 236).
Drawing from the Hackley vertical file, I will provide evidence that
WJLB participated in creating a similar place for black Detroiters’ entertainment, news, and, at times, protest, for over 70 years. At the same
time, I extend Newman’s argument by diachronically following the vertical file beyond the immediate post-war period into the 21st century.
The goal here is to, for the first time, set down an archival spine for an
integral history of Detroit black radio history. WJLB, its managers and
on-air talent, continue to struggle, as the Queen and her cohort did
forty plus years ago, over what exactly radio is as a space of listening not
only in Detroit but, through corporate ownership and online-streaming,
nationally and internationally. This chapter then presents a provisional
narrative that I hope will encourage future research, including my own,
on exactly what is at stake in recovering the cultural laboring of radio
in a city like Detroit.
Aural History
Why is this narrative of the classical network era to the convergence
era so ephemeral in Motown, the capital of 20th-century music? The
status of the Hackley Collection (HC) used in this chapter, within a
150-year-old, underfunded library, and the lack of archives within the
station itself, go to the heart of how we listen to our past and present. In
recent years, the City of Detroit’s economic struggles, including its cultural expressions, have become focal points for discussing the health of
the American dream. However, this discussion has rarely strayed from
the use of hackneyed factory metaphors, worn out success-and-failure
stories, and an ever-narrowing cast of characters. The result is that the
common sense understanding of Detroit’s musical and cultural legacy
tends to end in 1972 with the departure of Motown Records to Los
Angeles, if not even earlier in the aftermath of the rebellion of 1967.
In my larger research (2011), as well as my activism as Founder and
Executive Director of the Detroit Sound Conservancy, I provide an oral
history of Detroit’s post-Motown aural history and in the process make
available a new urban imaginary for judging the city’s well-being. To
do this I utilize archival research and interviews in order to recover
the life stories of a group of Detroiters in their struggle to change
and be changed by Detroit’s soundscape during the post-Motown era.
A diachronic study, my work starts by revisiting Detroit’s role in the
modern soundscape from musicians, dancers, promoters, and critics
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who experienced the city’s numerous ballrooms and clubs, listened
to its charismatic radio DJs, and produced its studio-driven sound.
However, I also pay special attention to the emergence of a new soundscape in the 1970s with a new set of heroes – club DJs – and an audience
that both reflected and resisted the racial, sexual, and class hierarchies
of the time. Detroiters experienced the impact of this subterranean
population in the ensuing years as the genres of disco, hip-hop, house,
and techno emerged and the city’s residents mixed together as they had
rarely done before or since. This chapter then is one piece of this larger
argument.
Arnold (2008) argues that the 1996 Telecommunications Act has not
increased diversity in ownership or encouraged “localism,” local programming “in the Public Interest.” He then argues that stations and the
Federal Communications Commission need to maintain better records so
that communication researchers can hold them accountable to “localism,” what Arnold summarizes as “local community standards” (p. 8).
This is just one consequence of Detroit’s sonic aporias. The other, broader
consequence, is the one already foregrounded by Barlow (1999) in
his ground-breaking, primary-source, work on black radio Voice Over.
Barlow contends that:
Especially since the late 1940s, when it emerged as African Americans’
most ubiquitous means of mass communication – surpassing the
black press – black radio has been a major force in constructing
and sustaining an African American public sphere. It has been the
coming-together site for issues and concerns of black culture: language, music, politics, fashion, gossip, race relations, personality,
and community are all part of that mix. Moreover, black radio has
been omnipresent on both sides of the color line, part of the shared
public memory that dates back to the 1920s and has deep roots in
the broader popular culture. (p. xi)
Despite Barlow’s confident claims, cultural spaces like radio continue to
be relegated to the background by those who claim, like Martelle (2012)
and Thompson (2001), to want to know what has gone wrong in Detroit
and what might happen to change it. By grounding my work in the
world’s oldest, still extant but largely undatabased, black performance
archive, and a selection from its 275,000 vertical file items (Minor, 2015),
I supplement those political-economic findings by dislodging Detroit
radio history from the nostalgia genre where it currently resides (Carson,
2000).
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Listening in Detroit
For Douglas (1999), radio splits open the struggles over 20th-century media
consumption and production, throwing early media scholars’ preoccupation with television into relief and allowing her readers to focus on
how radio interacted so significantly with the “American imagination”
(p. 20). Douglas’s history of that imaginative dialectic between radio
technology and its audiences maps well against Detroit’s regional radio
history. Conot (1974), for instance, points out that in the 1920s Detroit
had one of the first radio stations in WWJ (p. 226), while a college
media text by Hilmes (2014) remembers how populist demagogues like
Father Coughlin from the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak made national
news and directly impacted the way political voices made their way
onto their airwaves in the 1930s (pp. 141–5). And in the 1940s and
taking off in the 1950s, black DJs became strong personalities on the
air and streets of Detroit, including Martha Jean, whose early career is
mentioned by Douglas (1999). In the 1960s and 1970s, Carson (2006)
reminds his readers that Detroit stations like WABX were on the cutting
edge of FM free form radio. But Detroit also has some unique features.
Detroit’s radio frequencies share a border with Canada, reminding us
that the emergence of radio in the United States is a transnational and
global story. My own parents, who grew up north and east of Detroit in
the border city of Port Huron, remember hearing Motown Records in the
1960s not from black DJs in Detroit, but white DJs in Canada broadcasting
from the “Big 8” studios of CKLW (McNamara, 2004).
Perhaps most importantly, Detroit radio has a significant relationship
to black history and performance. As Barlow (1999) points out, Detroiter
Joe Louis’s rematch victory over Max Schmeling in 1938 caused “instant
jubilation” across the country when it was carried on radio nationally from New York City (pp. 49–50). But even without the help of the
Brown Bomber, the Detroit area had one of the first black-owned radio
stations, as Cintron (1982) describes, in WCHB in nearby Inkster and, as
documented by Smith (1999), a robust, politically motivated black civic
and cultural movement that produced, amongst other things, Motown
Records. As I have described before (2009) and document below, in the
1960s and 1970s, black program directors, general managers, and on-air
talent pushed owners for increased control over management decisions
as well as content of stations like WJLB. The result of that radio rebellion
was that in the 1980s and 1990s, black DJs were key in disseminating
and establishing the sonic signature of contemporary electronic music
including disco, house, techno, and hip hop.
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This makes WJLB a compelling point of entry for an understanding
of Detroit as a radio-powered listening space. White-owned yet long
associated with the cultivation of a black audience, WJLB’s extended
story, from the early years of broadcasting to our contemporary convergence era, as glimpsed by the vertical file, serves as a rich site to engage
the larger history of Detroit radio and provide a counterpoint to larger
national stories and other regional archives.
1941–1967: “Designed for the Future”
According to Detroit Free Press (1941b), on March 10, 1941 Governor
Van Wagoner would join owner John Booth to commemorate WJLB’s
new studios. The paper reported the name of New York “acoustical consultant” Sidney Wolf and quoted Booth: “Our broadcasting studios,” he
said, “were designed for the future. We will keep abreast of the latest
radio developments.” It would eventually broadcast at 1400 AM.
As Woodford (1965), Brevard (2001), and Minor (2015) discuss, the
E. Azalia Hackley Collection was founded in 1943 by a gift from the
Detroit Musicians’ Association and named after E. Azalia Hackley, a vocalist, music teacher, and cultural activist from an earlier generation in
Detroit. Clippings from before the founding of the collection deemed
relevant to the new black-focused Hackley Collection were brought over
from the Music and Drama Department’s own vertical file. According to
these early clippings, WJLB first began its life as WMBC in 1926. From
the start, it was an independent radio station in a pre-network era that
as part of its regular programming sought out immigrant populations
who had come to Detroit for industrial jobs during World War I. Booth
Broadcasting, which took over the station in 1940, was founded in
Detroit by John Booth in 1939 but had roots in his father Ralph Herman
Booth’s 19th-century newspaper empire. The elder Booth was one of
Detroit’s most influential citizens. Along with his brother George, he
was part of the early ownership history of the Detroit News as well as
a founder of the Detroit Institute of Arts. He also helped establish the
Cranbrook Educational Community north of Detroit in Bloomfield
Hills. The company would eventually expand beyond Detroit, purchasing radio stations throughout Michigan, as well as Ohio and Indiana.
According to a promotional brochure, “The Booth American Story”
(HC, 1981f), “The sum of these 12 Booth stations is a Great Lakes
broadcasting market of more than 10 million people, greater than either
New York or Los Angeles. But its roots are precisely responsive programming
and community service in each of the seven metropolitan areas.”
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Two interesting moments in these early clippings stand out. The first
is the new owners’ early struggles with the initial ethnic programming
of the station. John L. Booth, Sr. bought the station in 1940 and named
it after himself in 1941, when the station changed its call sign and
moved into the then Eaton, now Broderick, Tower that still stands on
Grand Circus Park in downtown Detroit. The tower has recently been
renovated into luxury apartments and the original studios destroyed.
Originally an AM station, a Free Press clipping (Detroit Free Press, 1941a)
states that WJLB began broadcasting on FM the same year, and, according to notes and research by Cintron (1982), beginning with “its first
broadcast program oriented toward the Detroit metropolitan black
community in 1941, the ‘Interracial Goodwill Hour,’ hosted by Edward
R. Baker.” WJLB then was a truly modern station, with cutting edge facilities and a progressive programming attitude indebted to the early days
of broadcasting and government regulations, like the Communications
Act of 1934 described by Hilmes (2014), which attempted to reform
early radio’s commercial paradigm. But struggles over management and
the programming mission arose from the start. In 1943, a year marked
by major race riots in Detroit, the station’s WMBC-era commitment to
foreign language broadcasts began to be phased out (Detroit Free Press,
1943) even as the company was taken to court. The company was temporarily banned for canceling programs which had been broadcasting
since the 1930s (Detroit Free Press, 1948). The suits were closed by the
spring of 1948 (HC, 1948).
The second harbinger moment from the early clippings is the issue
of automation. By the 1950s, Booth Broadcasting was applying for television station licenses in multiple cities in Michigan including Detroit
and imagining how new computer-based technologies could help
increase efficiency in its radio operations (HC, 1952). In the fall of 1960,
staff announcers at the AM WJLB and sister FM station WMZK could see
the writing on the wall. A contract between the American Federation of
Television and Radio Artists, a part of the ALF-CIO, and the owners of
Booth Broadcasting was coming to an end with layoffs of announcers
to be replaced by “automated equipment” imminent (HC, 1960d). Local
newspapers later elaborated that the strike was over “alleged speedup
practices and automation” (HC, 1960c). An article the next day revealed
a further issue: seven announcers had been fired without severance pay
(HC, 1960b). A Detroit Free Press staff writer described the scene:
It wasn’t impressive to look at. Just an L-shaped arrangement of gray
cabinets, a couple of feet higher than a man, with dials and wheels
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on them. There was a series of clicks, wheels turned, lights blinked
and whirring sounds came out. Those men, keeping close watch,
tossed out such words as “programming … spotter … memory tape …
relays. The scene was station WJLB offices, high in a downtown
Detroit building. (Arnold, 1960, p. 16-A)
AFTRA was called in. Booth sued the Union (Kirk, 1960). Weeks later,
the strike was still on (HC, 1960a). The culmination of the strike is absent
from the Hackley file, but the specter of automation would continue
to haunt the station. Nevertheless, the strike did not seem to affect the
station’s bottom line or long-term prospects. In 1962, journalist Osgood
described WJLB as “among the top five independent stations in the
nation in commercial sales – and has for four years running” (Osgood,
1962). Programming and automation may have caused corporate hiccups for WJLB in its early years but, according to the file, by the birth
of the top 40 era, the station had solidified itself as key outlets for
entertainment and news.
1967–1981: From “Playing it Cool” to the “Sophisticated
Black Adult”
The Hackley file contains a full-page advertisement from the Detroit
Free Press in 1966 highlighting the black staff of WJLB. The “Tigeradio
1400” staff featured “Frantic” Ernie Durham, “Joltin’” Joe Howard, Jack
Surrell, Tom Reed, Jan Forman, “Senator” Bristoe Bryant, Norman
Miller, and George White (Detroit Free Press, 1966). In this ad, the station highlights that “Polish, German and Greek are still spoken nightly,
and Sunday has a generous portion of religious programs” (HC, 1966).
But in the summer of 1967, a rebellion broke on Detroit’s west side just
a mile north of Motown Records and Detroit’s New Center area, then
the home of General Motors. The Detroit News reported that the Queen
“has put in many hours on the air urging her listeners to ‘play it cool’
and preserve law and order” though it also reported that then white
General Manager, Tom Warner, “had received some abusive calls from
more militant listeners because of its ‘cool it’ policy” (Detroit News, 1967).
In 1968, WJLB dropped its non-black ethnic programming completely
(HC, 1981c). Whether this happened because of pressure from black
staff or listeners is not clear from the archive. But by 1970, the Queen
and others at the station were no longer “playing it cool.”
The “scream” strike would end in January 1971 (Wendlend, 1971).
The Queen was to host a call-in show with Police Commissioner John
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Nichols – who would later run for Mayor – that would be called “Buzz
the Fuzz” (HC, 1971a) but was still on strike when the first broadcast
was to take place (HC, 1971b). By the next week, the strike was over,
and Nichols took calls while the Queen moderated (Kohn, 1971). WJLB
was not the only station plagued with labor strife during this period.
According to the clippings, there was an earlier strike at WGPR in
February of 1969 (Griffin, 1969) and in 1970, the National Association
of Black Media Producers (NABMP) had accused local broadcasters,
except for WCHB, WJLB, WGPR, and (Canadian) CKLW, of failing to
comply with the Communications Act of 1934 (Ingram, 1970). Local
radio and TV stations denied the accusation (Peterson, 1970).
What is most compelling about this post-Rebellion period in the
clippings file is the sense that these years in Detroit, especially for black
audiences, were not merely a time of tumult and strife but also political and cultural emergence. Detroit was entering a postcolonial period,
soon to be solidified when Coleman A. Young became the first black
mayor of the city of Detroit in early 1974. Simultaneously, WCHB and
WJLB had been joined by WGPR and as evidenced by the clippings in
the file, competition for the city’s black audience was robust. By 1973,
Free Press writer Watson could confidently say, “[Black radio]’s an institution that will probably be around as long as some folks season their
string beans with hamhocks and others use salt” (Watson, 1973). This
would include programs dedicated to “serious Black music” (Michigan
Chronicle, 1974). During this era, young DJs like Donnie Simpson
would become teen hosts of local shows. He had started as a “Teen
Reporter” at WJLB in 1970 (Michigan Chronicle, 1970a) and would later
become a national radio personality (Michigan Chronicle, 1989b). By
1977, John L. Booth II took over “administrative responsibility” for
the station and in February 1979 moved the station to new studios on
the 20th floor of the City National Bank Building, also known as the
Penobscot (HC, 1981c). According to one clipping, the station was so
independent of major label influence and other radio networks that by
1979, major record labels like MCA were wondering if there had been
local payola involved (Griffin, 1979). WJLB had clearly entered its own
postcolonial period under Booth II and re-ingratiated itself to the local
community.
By 1980, internal marketing materials describe the Monday through
Saturday lineup at WJLB as “Contemporary music and news and special features geared to the sophisticated black adult.” On Sunday, that
sophisticated programming turned towards “Gospel/spiritual music,
church services, community affairs, and public service programming”
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(HC, 1980b). That same year, the station was financially confident
enough to raise money for local children as a promotional device.
Norman Miller, less than a decade earlier the subject of a station
sit-down strike, was now ensconced internally as management and
externally as its public persona. In a letter penned at the beginning of
a brochure for a “night with the stars,” Miller made sure to highlight
the connection between WJLB’s values and the community. “All of the
WJLB family extends a warm, heartfelt thanks to you for your participation. But more important than our thanks and appreciation is that of
the young people whose lives you have touched” (HC, 1980a). Miller’s
note preceded John Booth II and Mayor Young’s proclamation, as well
as ads from national companies like Motown Records, A&M Records,
CBS Records, as well as local companies like Simpson’s Wholesale
record shop in Detroit and Ami Distributor’s Corp. in nearby Livonia.
The “air staff” or “Super Stokers” during this moment were listed as
J. Michael McKay, John Edwards, Martha Jean, Claude Young, Lynn
Tolliver, and Reuben Yabuku.
The station’s apparent stability and success did not come without at
times sporadic and drastic personnel changes and ongoing struggles
over labor amongst other larger industrial and technological changes
in radio. On December 1, 1980, WJLB went to 97.9 FM (HC, 1981c). By
May 1981, new DJs had been added to the mix, including Keith Bell and
Claude Young. Martha Jean moved to the noon hour (HC, 1981g). The
station emphasized its “efforts to meet the needs and interests of Detroit
metropolitan black community,” including religious programs overseen
by the Queen, editorials by Jim Ingrim and Carl Rowan, a talk show by
Sid McCoy, and even a show called “Labor Looks at the Issues,” “hosted
by Tom Turner, President of the Detroit chapter of the AFL-CIO” (HC,
1981c). But the Queen’s regular noon slot was eventually moved to a far
less inspiring 5 am–6 am slot. Cintron (1982) marks this key moment in
the history of the station:
This adjustment signals an overall change in the station’s concept
of programming. In addition to rearranging its program schedule
and highlighting other disc jockeys such as Claude Young, Keith
Bell, and John Edwards, WJLB has begun to play the softer less brash
Rhythm and Blues records interspersing them occasionally with cuts
that are familiar to or accepted by black audiences but are performed
by white artists such as movie theme song “Arthur.” These alterations in the stations [sic] overall concept of music programming
are based on information gathered by the stations [sic] in-house
researchers.
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Cintron continues, by hand, on the back of her notes:
[WJLB] has its own music researchers on staff to compliment the program director, and though the station acknowledges the data provided
by Arbitron and other similar service it has its own market researchers and other personnel who do nothing but call and survey listeners.
The result is a computerized play list where each record is dictated.
This computerization is quite unique. Most black radio stations in
Detroit rely solely on the research and creativity of the program
director and the input of the respective disc jockeys.
The 1980s census reported what many knew already: Detroit’s black
population had soared. Marketing material from the Hackley file attests
to the influence of black audiences in the “Greater Detroit” area which,
according to market maps, spread beyond Detroit’s Wayne County
into Oakland and Macomb counties to the north, and Livingston and
Washtenaw counties to the west.
Reach! To get it all in Metro Detroit you need “The Market within the
Market – that 63% Black Detroit – the WJLB FM 98 Listener! Latest
1980 U.S Census figures show Detroit’s Black population to be more
than 758,939 strong. You don’t have Metro Detroit covered if you
don’t have the powerful reach of Detroit’s Black Contemporary station –
WJLB FM 98. (HC, 1981e)
Additional marketing sheets discussed the station’s “award winning
news” (HC, 1981d) and perhaps most importantly included coverage
maps showing how WJLB competed successfully against competitors
like the disco-oriented WLBS out of Mt. Clemens (HC, 1981b), the
jazz-focused WJZZ (HC, 1981a), and R&B-oriented WGPR (HC, 1981b).
By 1981, the station could confidently print flyers that put their top
40 records on one side (Al Jarreau’s “We’re In This Love Together” was
number 1) with a Nefertiti silhouette on the back advertising a benefit
for the Afro-American Museum of Detroit (1981h). As the Hackley folder
witnesses, the struggles of stations like WJLB in the 1960s and 1970s
made this black cultural appeal possible. Marketing demographics and
on-air personalities had made it necessary.
1982–1999: “Strong Songs”
And then there was Mojo.
There are not many radio DJs, from WJLB or any other local station,
who have their own vertical biography file in the Hackley Collection.
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One of them is the piano playing dee jay Jack Surrell who performed
and curated records in Detroit from the early 1950s through the 1960s.
He did a tour on WJLB in the mid-1960s and died in 2003 (May, 2003).
Another is the Queen herself who, after leaving WJLB, would start her
own radio station in Detroit – WQBH – and broadcast through the 1990s,
dying in early 2000 (Kiska and Hurt, 2000). But the mysterious Charles
“Electrifying Mojo” Johnson’s file seems singular in noticing journalists’
attempts to understand what draws radio audiences to their chosen,
ethereal, heroes. Included in the clippings is the extended profile by
then Free Press writer W. Kim Heron while Mojo was still at WGPR in the
fall of 1981 (Heron, 1981), numerous clippings by Jim McPharlin including a short piece announcing his imminent move to WJLB in the summer
of 1982 (McFarlin, 1982), a feature from Detroit’s then main “alternative
paper” the Metro Times (Borey, 1982), a Michigan State University law
student’s fan dedication to Mojo (Wofsy, 1983), and consistent checkins on Mojo’s job status deep in to the 1990s by Michigan Chronicle
writer Steve Holsey.
Mojo’s moment at WJLB had been precipitated by transitions in local
programming. WDRQ went on the air in early 1982 with a focus on
“continuous music” and directly challenged WJLB for leading ratings.
A number of clippings from the file foreground the battle in the market. In
1982, Norman Miller was replaced as General Manager on WJLB by Verna
Green. Michigan Chronicle writer Nina Eman drew attention to Green’s lack
of experience. “Asked about Ms. Green’s lack of broadcast credentials (she
has none), Ms. [Carol] Prince [“WJLB representative”] replied that the new
station manager ‘was selected primarily for her management ability. We
needed an organizational specialist’” (Eman, 1982). Throughout Detroit,
radio stations were changing formats and call signs. Patrick Gilbert of the
Detroit Monitor attempted to describe all the shifts, summarizing WJLB’s
“personality emphasis, 1982; shift from black to urban progressive with
frequency shift from 1400 AM, 1980” (Gilbert, 1982). James Alexander
joined the staff as program director in the fall and in November of 1982,
Green and WJLB cancelled all church services on Sunday (Walker-Tyson,
1982). By 1983 the station was playing more music. Local newspapers
played up the competition in their pages (McFarlin, 1983).
The rise of new stations like WDRQ as well as continuing competition from WLBS pushed WJLB to buy out its on-air competition from
WGPR. What was significant about Mojo was that he was touching a
black audience but also, local journalists noted, a “crossover” audience
of suburban whites. As Free Press writer Gary Graff reminded his readers,
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“It was the area’s black oriented stations that took the new music styles
first, and it was the Electrifying Mojo – first at WGPR-FM and now at
WJLB-FM – who exposed commercial radio to white acts like the B-52s,
Talking Heads and Lene Lovich while the album rockers stuck with Led
Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, et al.” (Graff, 1983).
By 1985 WJLB was using a new slogan declaring itself the home of
“strong songs” and accompanying this language with the image of black
male bodybuilders flexing on TV advertisements in response to WDRQ
(McFarlin, 1985). But the competition switched formats and Mojo was
sent packing at the peak of his powers. In 1988, morning talk personality John Mason from WJLB had become the most popular on-air “deejay” for Michigan Chronicle readers behind Rosetta Hines from WJZZ and
Clarence “Foody” Rome at WGPR. Writer Steve Holsey noted though
the irony that Mojo still came in fourth.
It is interesting to note that Mojo, who left radio in ’87, still managed
to get enough votes to secure fourth place. Detroiter Nazrine White,
wrote, “Mojo is missing from the airwaves but he will never be
forgotten.” She added, “I miss the Prince songs!” (Holsey, 1988)
In 1989, Mason would win the survey, receiving a plaque from Holsey
(Michigan Chronicle, 1989a). Just a few years later, Holsey would comment on Mojo’s departure from another local station in 1992, stating
that Mojo “is unique, an oasis in the desert of basic radio sameness”
(Holsey, 1992). Mojo would continue to DJ on and off at a number of
local stations through the 1990s before vanishing from the Mothership
in which he claimed to have been brought. Like the Queen before him,
Mojo had mixed entertainment with a powerful appeal to the imagination, and for a few years WJLB had been a willing collaborative outlet.
But as the archive notes, the story of black radio in Detroit has always
been a search for talent and the tension between that talent and the
bottom lines of market share. Despite his extensive fan base, Mojo was
not immune to those forces.
2000–Present: “Long Memories”
The Hackley archive breaks off in the late 1990s with only a few clippings
from the 2000s. By January 1995, the Michigan Chronicle could proudly
report to its readers that WJLB had beaten out WJR as the “No. 1 radio station in the Detroit radio market with adults 12-plus” (Michigan Chronicle,
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1995). In 1997, WCHB moved from jazz to “urban,” hiring a number of
ex-WJLB jocks including Electrifying Mojo and Billy T (Garner, 1997).
Verna Green would eventually be promoted to general manager for both
WMXD and WJLB (Michigan Chronicle, 1997). The file then jumps to
2002. The gap is telling. After the Telecommunications Act in 1996,
Booth merged with another company and then, after over fifty years,
sold WJLB. The station would change a handful of times before eventually landing with Clear Channel in 1999. A few years later, the archive
picks up again with an article about the station’s relationship with
Eminem. Like Berry Gordy before him, the rapper had realized that to
make it in Detroit during the 1990s required that one make it on WJLB.
At one point in Eminem’s movie 8 Mile, Eminem re-enacts this moment
from his own career when he approached WJLB with his music.
Johnathon “DJ Bushman” Dunnings remembered the moment for local
journalist John Smyntek. “Cinema verite? Not precisely. Those with
long memories will remember that just after the time in which the film
is set, WJLB was picketed by local rappers for not playing any of their
recordings” (Smyntek, 2002). The Act caused major corporate shifts for
local radio and, at the same time, and as I have noted elsewhere, left
Detroit’s “Golden Era” rappers off the air (Gholz, 2009). Eminem’s success allowed a certain amount of nostalgia in his breakout film but the
silence in the archive speaks to a more uncomfortable truth.
Epilogue: Insomnia in Detroit
I was in Ann Arbor standing on the corner of Stadium and University
(1972). It’s where Discount Records used to be. I had just started
working at this Rock and Roll radio station, WAAM. I went to Discount
Records to pick up some music. When I came out, for a moment in
time, I was locked into the scenery. I was thinking about what the
mission of radio should be. I saw all of these different cultures, ethnicities passing by me. I was just standing on the corner watching
them. Old people, young people, black people, white people, Native
Americans – people from the whole world. I was thinking about how
radio stations fight for market share. They look at radio through this
narrow prism. I thought about how we might look at things differently. I also thought about the multi-layers of peer pressure and how
people are confined to their own little prisons by the people they
hang around with and the people they want to please or people
they don’t wish to offend in any way. They say to the group, “What
would you like for me to do? What would you like to listen to so I’ll
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be pleasing in your sight? You like to go here?” This is where I like to
go. You like this music? Okay, this is the music I like.” That is them
in the daytime, but at night, people don’t have the pressure of their
peers. They are forced to be themselves and to take on their own
adventures. (The Electrifying Mojo – Patricola, 2005)
It was cold and damp at 2 am when I started to drive to Farmington Hills.
“Dinero,” a young grad from Easter Michigan University let us in. From
2 to 3 am there had been pre-recorded mixes by DJ Fingers, but from
3 to 5 am there would be Club Insomnia. Marketed as “Two Hours that
Will House Your Body,” Insomnia has been going on for over ten years.
The DJs on this night are DaNeil Mitchell, Reggie “Hotmix” Harrell,
and, the only paid member of the group, Kim “The Spin Doctor” James.
Harrell remembers making “pause button mixes” as early as 1978 and
sending 30 minute mixes to the Electrifying Mojo to play on his show
in the early 1980s. James’ position is “The Mix Show Coordinator” for
two Clear Channel stations in Detroit (WJLB and WXMD FM). His first
gig was at Henry Ford Community College in 1982. He was paid $50.
Missing tonight is regular resident DJ Cent who plays for the queer
ballroom community in Detroit (Bailey, 2013, p. 125). It has been over
25 years since the Electrifying Mojo was on WJLB but on-air DJs who
mix their records live on the air still exist. Barely.
In 2009, WJLB moved from its art deco Penobscot Building studios to
a western suburb of Detroit called Farmington Hills. After over a decade
of consolidation and deregulation within the radio industry, WJLB had
been bought and moved by Clear Channel, the station’s owner since
1999. In Detroit, Clear Channel owns a number of stations which they
consolidated into an anonymous, three story, brown office building
across from an old farmer’s cemetery on Haggerty Road just south of
13 Mile. In 2010, as I completed work on my dissertation dedicated to
Detroit’s music industry after the departure of Motown from Detroit in
1972, I made inquiries to find out what had happened to the internal
archive of the station. Was there, for instance, a file cabinet dedicated
to the station filled with audio tape recordings of old shows, videos of
events, or perhaps even an archivist whose job it was to take care of
the history of the station so someone like me could hear the history
of WJLB? The answer was no. I was asked to come to the station and
was handed one manila file folder of photocopied advertising research
and promotional materials that focused largely on the previous decade.
There was nothing to listen to. Everything, I was led to believe, had
been thrown away in the move out of the Penobscot.
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This experience, among others, pushed me in 2012 to form the Detroit
Sound Conservancy (DSC). After a decade of involvement documenting
Detroit music history, first as a journalist and fan, later as an academic
and media scholar, I realized that the archive itself was a significant
story in the telling – or non-telling – of Detroit’s place within modernity. I realized that the basic documents to tell that story had been
relegated, sometimes literally, to the dustbin. The existence of a journalistic trail of clippings from over 70 years of activism by the Hackley
Collection made the episodic story above possible. But they are not
enough. Clear Channel may not need the cultural memory of its Detroit
holdings, but Detroiters do. We need to hear the Queen’s scream –
as well as her invocations to reach out across the airwaves. We need to
hear how Claude “Rocker” Young, Sr. got his name, and how his son,
years later, channeled those experiences into a new soundscape during
the early 1990s. In personal correspondence with former DJ Reuben
Yabuku, current marketing executive Lee Robinson, and former General
Manager Verna Green, it is clear that there are serious holes in the vertical file that I hope to address in the future. Some of these materials,
like the early-morning mixes of the Club Insomnia DJs, exist online via
Soundcloud. Most still lie in basements, shoeboxes, and milk-crates,
or, at the bottom of trash heaps, resulting in a history of Detroit, especially in the era before widespread home taping and cassette use, that
is largely mute. Why would Ken Cockrel in 1975, then City Council
member, and activist take the time to discuss radio? How did music
allow his imagination to think through alternative futures? Based on
the archive that exists publically for researchers, the answer is difficult
to reconstruct. In part, that’s why I donated a compilation tape of the
Electrifying Mojo from my personal collection in 2014 to the DSC to be
added to our archive and posted on our website. As of this writing, it has
received over 7,000 plays (Detroit Sound Conservancy, 2014).
A final note: posting radio shows so that they are, once again, audible,
is just part of the activism that lies ahead for groups like the DSC and
researchers such as myself. In addition, we must struggle with the archive
and not just see it as a transparent window onto the past. An off-handed
remark in the Hackley file highlights the conundrum. In the archive there
is a Master’s Thesis by former Wayne State Mass Communication masters
graduate Esperanza Cintron (the only known copy in World Cat) as well
as notes developed for the thesis, with hand-written edits by the author.
In her notes, Cintron presents her take on the Queen’s aural signature:
The Queen’s style is a cross between Dear Abby, Prophet Jones, and
Wolfman Jack. She gives advice, prays, preaches, and has played
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songs that are guaranteed to make any normal teenager wiggle.
A native of Memphis, Tennessee, Ms. Steinberg relies heavy on her
husky somewhat diluted southern drawl and an occasional bit of black
dialect thrown in for good measure.” (Cintron, 1982)
The newspaper columnist Dear Abby and rock ‘n’ roll radio wildman
Wolfman Jack will likely be familiar to readers. But Prophet Jones was a
regional voice with tremendous influence during the time leading up to
the rebellion. He is largely unknown outside of Detroit and rarely discussed in Detroit histories. According to historian Tim Retzloff, Jones’s
popularity as well as his ambivalent sexuality was much discussed and
talked about at the time (Retzloff, 2002). The complete absence of Jones
from the Hackley vertical file then – or for that matter DJ Cent – is a
significant aporia in the collection and points to the need to queer
Detroit’s media histories. Following Retzloff as well as self-proclaimed
archival queer Charles Morris (Morris, 2006), I remind the reader that
archival work is an active practice and the story I offer here is meant to
create the grounds for and call into being such work. In Detroit, at least,
we need to read such creative research so that we might still tune in to
such “fresh ideas” on the radio.
References
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Arnold, J. (2008) The Telecommunications Act of 1996 and Diversity: The
Effects of Television Broadcasting “in the Public Interest.” Journal of Mass
Communications, 2 (2), pp. 1–29.
Bailey, M. (2013) Butch Queens Up in Pumps: Gender, Performance, and Ballroom
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Barlow, W. (1999) Voice Over: The Making of Black Radio. Philadelphia, PA: Temple
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Borey, S. (1982) Mojo Takes Off. Metro Times. October 28–November 11.
Brevard, L. (2001) A Biography of E. Azalia Hackley, 1867–1922. Lewiston, NY:
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Cockrel, K. (1975) Cockrel’s Comment. Michigan Chronicle. November 8.
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Detroit Free Press. (1941a) FM Broadcasts Begun by WJLB. May 12.
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Graff, G. (1983) Blend of Black and White Catches On. Detroit Free Press. July 24.
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Kohn, H. (1971) Nichols’ Show Biz Debut ‘Buzz the Fuzz’ a Big Hit. Detroit Free
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Mackey, R. (1971) Employee Sit-In Silences Radio Station for 3 Hours. Detroit Free
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McFarlin, J. (1982) A New Pad for the Electrifying Mojo. Detroit News. August 27.
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Michigan Chronicle. (1970b) Staffers Continue Picketing at WJLB-Radio. December 19.
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Michigan Chronicle. (1989b) Simpson to Host Countdown Show. June 10.
Michigan Chronicle. (1995) Dynamic Duo: WJLB and WMXD. January 25–31.
Michigan Chronicle. (1997) Hot News from WMXD and WJLB. August 13–19.
Minor, R. (2015) Preserving the Black Performance for Posterity. Michigan History.
May/June, pp. 50–5.
Morris, C. (2006) Archival Queer. Rhetoric & Public Affairs, 9 (1), pp. 145–51.
Newman, K. (2000) The Forgotten Fifteen Million: Black Radio, the “Negro
Market” and the Civil Rights Movement. Radical History Review, pp. 115–35.
Osgood, D. (1962) 26th Year Is Marked by WJLB. April 15.
Patricola, V. (2005) The Electrifying Mojo. DEQ: Detroit Electronic Quarterly, 3 (Fall).
Peterson, B. (1970) Stations Reply to Charges by Blacks. Detroit Free Press. April 30.
Retzloff, T. (2002) Seer or Queer? Postwar Fascination with Detroit’s Prophet
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Smith, S. (1999) Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Motown.
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Smyntek, J. (2002) WJLB, Film Both Benefit From Friendship. Detroit Free Press.
November 3.
Sommers, C. (2015). Message to C. Gholz, January 9.
Thompson, H. (2001) Whose Detroit? Politics, Labor, and Race in a Modern American
City. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Walker-Tyson, J. (1982) WJLB drops broadcasts of all religious services. Detroit
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Watson, S. (1973) Broadcasting to the Blacks in Detroit’s Melting Pot: Why
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Wendlend, M. (1971) Pact Puts WJLB Back on Air. Detroit News. January 12.
Wittenberg, H. (1970) WJLB’s Striking Blacks Go after Union Backing. December 16.
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2
‘On Tape’1: Cassette Culture in
Edinburgh and Glasgow Now
Kieran Curran
Introduction
The following piece is based around my interest in exploring the peculiarity of cassettes making a comeback in the present historical context.
Related to this is the fact that engagement with and usage of tapes is
an aspect of particular sorts of DIY2/experimental music scenes. I chose
to approach this subject through a focus on scenes in Glasgow and in
Edinburgh; it is based and organised around interviews and observation.
Throughout 2013, I spoke with fans, musicians, promoters, record label
runners, and all manner of other interrelated permutations of these categories. Underlying these conversations and observations was a sense of
why (on a micro level) was the use of tape as a format for releasing music
still residually popular amongst independent musicians in the city
where I live (Edinburgh) and where I often travel to for gigs (Glasgow).
‘There will never be any peace...’
It is 11 April 2014 at a small venue just south of the city centre of
Edinburgh, The Wee Red Bar. Set within the main quadrangle of what was
the formerly autonomous Edinburgh College of Art (now a constituent
part of the much larger institution the University of Edinburgh), it is a
long-standing location for DIY gigs of variegated genres – dub reggae,
indie pop, electro, avant-garde noise amongst others. Tonight, there are
about 70 people in attendance (including myself and my friend Lilly)
to see a gig headlined by the Flower-Corsano Duo, a venerated noise-rock
combo whose sets consist of extensive improvisations between drummer Chris Corsano and guitarist Mick Flower. Opening tonight are a band
(scratch that: perhaps entity is a better word) called Acrid Lactations,
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based in the Kinning Park area of Glasgow. Their 20-minute set is a
composite mesh of buzzing, broken keyboards, trumpet skronk and
squeak, signal processed feedback, the clanging of found objects, and
the mainly abstract, non-verbal vocalising of its two members – Stuart
Arnott and Susan Fitzpatrick. Yet the spectacle of improv noise-making
is cut through towards the end of the set, when Susan walks into the
crowd (The Wee Red has no stage as such, and the audience are at eye
level with performers) and begins to repeatedly sing an improvised (but
tuneful) lyric in a parodic, neo-soul voice:
There will never be any peace,
Until God is seated at the conference table…
Susan throws in intermittent ‘whoos’ and ‘come ons’ into the mix,
exhorting the rather stereotypically composed noise music crowd (mainly
darkly clad in jeans and shirts, mainly wearing plaid shirts, mainly in
their late 20s/early 30s and male) to join in. They look on detachedly,
awkwardly, and slightly sullen; predictably, they don’t get involved. The
humourous intervention of the popular cultural sphere into a scene akin
to Chris Atton’s popular avant-garde (Atton, 2012) exposed some of the
generic taboos (i.e. an almost fanatical devotion to no melody!) that
improvised music has. Yet the experience of their live performance –
and the sense of tension, of incipient laughter, and of the genuinely
unexpected – was palpable.
I had spoken to Stuart and Susan about cassette culture in Glasgow
months prior to this, and Stuart’s record label Total Vermin has been
an aesthetically astute user of cassettes as a medium of release. Why
(and, indeed, how) would you commemorate the idiosyncrasy of their
performance in a live context? And why would you particularly wish to
do so on tape? What was the appeal of cassettes to those engaged in the
DIY improvised music world?
Background
The cassette was invented in 1964, and its success as a format3
was boosted by the later development of the Sony Walkman – the
first mass-produced, incredibly popular, personalised music playing
device. As the predominant medium4 for listening to music in the
1980s and 1990s, the Walkman occupies somewhat of a nostalgic
place in the collective memories of people of a certain age (such
as myself) – soundtracking growing up, and walking to school in
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temporal increments of magnetic tape, referred by some cultural critics as a potentially liberating micro-narrative of personal experience
(Chambers, 1990). Despite its initial transgressive status – as a device
which encouraged a public, mobile demonstration of private music
listening experience – the legacy of the Walkman is alive in the vast
proliferation of phones and MP3 players, most of which allow personally curated mixes to be easily accessed and played. Such listening
practice is now surely the norm:
Most human beings adjust, because they must, to altered, even radically altered conditions. This is already marked in the first generation of such shifts. By the second and third generations the initially
enforced conditions are likely to have become if not the new social
norms – for at many levels of intensity the conditions may still be
resented – at least the new social perspective, its everyday common
sense. (Williams, 1983, p. 187)
Tape culture also occupied a key space in 1980s independent music.
Snatch Tapes and Statutory Tapes (particularly their ‘Rising from the
Red Sand’ compilations) produced collections which were contemporary documentations of fiercely, aggressively avant-garde industrial
music in the early part of the decade. The C86 tape – curated and
released by the NME in 1986 – was an apocryphal moment in indie
pop history, presented a series of songs by bands such as Bogshed,
The Wedding Present and Glasgow’s own The Pastels which became
emblematic of a certain ‘shambling’, lo-fi pop ethic. And in their
respective variegated, eclectic ways, Olympia, WA’s K Records, Ohio’s
Siltbreeze and the Dunedin label Xpressway were iconic indies who
released a high percentage of their output on tape. Regardless of these
non-commercial victories, sales of tapes bottomed out in the mid2000s, with various newspaper articles in the UK proclaiming the death
of the cassette in 2007.5
Nostalgia Retro Object Aura
The creation of an International Cassette Store Day in September 2013
seemed to suggest a media zeitgeist moment, and was accompanied by
some quite idealistic sentiment. Jen Long – one of the originators of
the initiative, and head of her own tape label Kissability – stated that,
unlike Record Store Day, her event was “less about supporting shops
and more about celebrating the cassette format that has been making
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a comeback for a while” (Long, 2013). This apparently ‘inaugural’ event
was somewhat controversial, as Glasgow’s Volcanic Tongue record
shop had initiated an (admittedly non-international) event akin to
this in 2012. Of course, the unveiling of a cassette store day was not
welcomed unequivocally. For instance, some message board comments
on a Guardian newspaper article contained a modicum of vituperative,
keyboard warrior rage. They also proposed an alternative method of
marking the day:
Cassettes were utter shit ... Cassette store day should involve a mass
smashing of the pieces of shit which are left in circulation, it would
be carthartic [sic] for me, I know that much.
In one of my first interviews for this essay, Ali Robertson – one half of
Edinburgh improv group Usurper, and mainstay of long-standing tape/
CD-r label and promoter Giant Tank – found the resurgence of interest
in tapes to be a bit odd:
I know a lot of younger folk are putting stuff out on tape, and I find
that a bit peculiar. Somebody of my age6 has the nostalgia of dubbing
tapes, or taping songs off the radio, and the next generation don’t
have that ... I wonder: is it just a fashion thing? I spoke to my mate
and said I’m doing this interview about tape culture, and he said: ‘just
say you want your album put in Urban Outfitters’.
For Robertson, there was a potential sense of ‘cool capitalism‘s’ exploitative tendencies at work – based on an uncanny ability to transform
apparently oppositional, or anti-establishment elements of a historic
counter-culture into a heroic ability to maximise profit margins
(McGuigan, 2009). In the era of dictaphone tape necklaces and ethically dubious, over-priced t-shirts emblazoned with the BASF logo, Ali
Robertson showed a jadedness with regard to the consistent process of
extracting surplus value out of anything and everything:
We’re living through these times of just trying to squeeze every last
bit of monetary worth out of stuff. And that’s like that shit – ‘Tapes,
hey! Let’s see if we can milk this!’
Yet aside from the cynical outlook, Paul Etherington – a long-standing
fixture of the Edinburgh indie scene as a fan and sometime DJ –
identified a core impulse motivating the tape buyer, gleaned from his
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experience of decades of going to gigs – that of scarcity, and of perceived
uniqueness:
I think its basically the culture of owning something which is ‘when
it’s gone it’s gone’. It all comes down to the limited edition thing.
And the only things that are really, truly limited edition now are
probably vinyl records, which are expensive to do with runs and
everything. CDs are easy to put in your computer and burn. With
a cassette – you can’t easily replicate that for someone else … [and]
the cost barrier is much lower than it is for vinyl ... you can buy a
set of blank tapes and make them yourself ... And my experience as
a buyer is that the cassettes go so quickly – you’ve got to get in there
sharpish.
Similarly, Ali spoke of this appeal as a seller of tapes after gigs and at
record fairs; their novelty and rarity value make them easier to market:
A CD is harder to sell than a tape. Not everyone has a tape to
tape deck in their house these days (laughter breaks out), whereas
everybody has a CD burner. So why would you want one of those?
Why not take advantage of this incipient demand? Perhaps unconsciously aware of soon-to-recur fashions, Unpop was set up in 2009 as a
quarterly club night in Edinburgh’s Wee Red Bar by myself, Adam Neil
and Amy Baggott. With its roots in the Indiesoc of Edinburgh University,
the goal was to put together a night devoted to various strips of indie
pop – without too much of a consciously retro aesthetic. We decided to
make mixtapes for the early comers to our night, serving as a mix of good
tunes that we were into at a given time, and as an artefact or memento of
the night. Nostalgia partially informed this for us – all of us had, at one
point or another, regularly taped songs off the radio (in Adam’s case, cultivating an extensive, personal archive of the legendary BBC radio DJ John
Peel’s show), or curated our own mixtapes for ourselves or for friends.
We bought our tapes from Tapeline, a company based in Leeds and
a core component part of the contemporary resurgence of tapes. These
folk seemed to supply a vast number of the tapes to independent artists
and labels around the UK and Ireland. Adam – the organisational driving force behind Unpop – has had many dealings with the company.
Our mixes were given away for free at the beginning of the night, were
limited in number (largely due to the painstaking logistics of home
taping) and were not available to stream or to buy online. I found that
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their appeal to the club-goers who came along was mainly down to their
status as an object – they looked nice, had unique artwork hand-drawn
by Amy, and the tapes were in different colours (not just monochrome).
It is fair to say that very few of Unpop’s audience actually listened to
the things, yet there was definitely a distinct difference in the ritual of
listening for those who chose to do so. As Adam put it:
The medium is important. You listen to a tape very differently than
you would listen to a CD or a vinyl record. And people want a physical thing – they’re sick, in some ways, of ‘clicking’ music, and too
much music on your hard disk.
In the age of wholesale streaming of music, the importance of a physical
presence is underlined by indie pop label Soft Power,7 run by the husband and wife team of Graeme and Bek Galloway, based in Livingston
near Edinburgh. In quite idealistic terms, Graeme described to me
the manifesto of Soft Power when we met up in the basement of an
unnameable Rose Street pub in Edinburgh:
The premise of Soft Power is that we release music that we love. We
don’t really care whether it sells one copy or five hundred copies, but
we release physical product. The real thing with us whether it’s vinyl
or whether it’s tape is that the buyer of the music gets something that
is tactile. Something they can buy, and hold and love and cherish. As
opposed to buying and paying for a download, enjoying the music
and loving the music but not actually having something that you
can have in thirty years’ time.
The aesthetic dimension to their label is – unsurprisingly perhaps,
given the devotion to producing memorable objects – crucial. Graeme
describes the process of sleeve design for a particular band, Dublin’s
September Girls:
That was their first release and it was an interesting process because
they wanted to use completely sustainable materials, They spent two
weeks trying to find the right kind of paper because the girls were
really adamant and we were into that. They gave us the artwork, and it
was really beautiful and we wanted to make them something special.
Graeme and Bek’s relationship in its early stages was bound up with
tape culture, and sending compilations to each other through the post;
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the roots of the couple’s relationship lie in exchanging mixtapes with
each other through the Royal Mail in the 1980s):
We used to do mixtapes for each other, and when we were courting
we used to send each other tapes – she used to live in Bournemouth
and I lived in Scotland.
The physical manifestation that is the musical object holds a specific
appeal for Stuart Arnott (referenced in the introduction to this piece),
but – in contrast with Graeme’s perspective – incorporates a reluctance
towards being sentimentally attached to it:
It’s a physical object you interact with, and there’s a mechanical
process that’s reproducing the sound. So you do have a more solid
relationship with it. It does sound romantic, but I don’t feel like it’s
sentimental. I do know people who have tattoos of cassette tapes,
and that’s undeniably sentimental.
This leads into ideas of the appeal of the specific object of the cassette
itself. Good Press is a comic book/’zine shop and small gallery space,
situated in one part of the iconic Mono store in the Merchant City area
of Glasgow city centre. They also sell a small quantity of cassettes. The
gallery hosted an exhibition called ‘A History Of’, which invited attendees to make their own mix tapes in the space itself, and to add their
own specific art-work (or not, depending on taste). It was a success, and
somehow timely. A core of what I spoke about with Matt and Jess was
to do with the cassette and cassette sleeve design as objects:
M: They’ve got a spine – that’s a designer’s standpoint – but there are
more surfaces on it to look at, it’s like the gatefold record. The thing
I instantly think of with a tape is like collage as well – it’s that you see
the artwork would be cut and paste and you’d see a dirty line on it. It
feels appealing in the same way a record feels appealing.
J: CDs suffer from the mass produced nature of CDs. If someone
makes a CD they’ll sit next to all your other CDs in the kitchen with
stuff from HMV.
Tapes thus represent a specific ‘feel’ and have a uniqueness; important,
given their contemporary currency as more niche, rarefied objects,
and despite their (ultimately) mass produced nature. Yet retrospection,
romanticism and nostalgia did not figure in Matt and Jess’s take on their
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appeal. Matt spoke of his lack of interest in nostalgia, and hinted at the
unpopularity of tapes amongst others:
I do remember having tapes, but I don’t put that nostalgia down
for me personally. I like tapes because of what they look like but
I would imagine that nostalgia is prevalent for a lot of people. But
let’s say tapes carry on being popular – some people aren’t gonna
have that.
Adam Todd of Edinburgh indie pop band The Spook School had regular exposure to ‘tapes being played in our Dad’s car’, but ‘never really
made mixtapes, or had mixtapes made for me by friends’ – his predominant mode of music consumption was through compact disc. Yet
the cheapness, portability and ease of tape recording technology was a
core aspect of their early music – as well as the unique and appealing
sound of live drums, or overdriven, lo-fi, ‘in the red’ guitar recorded
to tape. Of course, tapes can present problems as music carriers –
finicky tape players ‘eating’ cassettes,8 their deterioration in sound
quality over time, and the almost auto-destruction of poorly made
tapes snapping or unfurling. Yet this was certainly a constituent part
of its appeal. David Keenan – a critical historian of early Industrial and
Noise music (England’s Hidden Reverse), regular contributor to The Wire
and record store/label owner (Glasgow’s Volcanic Tongue) – noted the
specific utility of the format of the cassette for noise music. Cassettes
are unpredictable as they are, and manifestly different sonically with
every play:
Noise music can make actually play of accidentals ... pop music, or
indie music, does not embrace accidentals – it’s very very deliberate.
But the cassette is perfect for noise music – the medium sounds like
the music it was being used for.
When talking with Ali Robertson, I brought up the point of the combination of idealism and craftiness involved in tape production, and the
practical nature of the cheapness of the format (a point I’ll return to later):
I wouldn’t say that tape is the perfect format for everything I’ve ever
recorded. I put stuff on tape and I hear the nice warm hiss ... but that
drowns out the miniscule click sounds I’m making ... so sometimes
it’s gotta be a CD. I was going to say ‘sometimes it’s gotta be vinyl’ –
no times has it gotta be vinyl. It’s just too expensive.
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Many of the conversations I had referred to the appeal of the object –
Keenan referred to cassettes having a ‘nice cigarette box size’, and
Xpressway cassettes as embodying ‘pure aura’. Ali Robertson commented on liking ‘the feel of it’, Graeme to the fact that their tapes have
‘got to look great’. It seems that the specificity of the format underlines
the excitement of the quest to amass a collection of meaningful objects –
even leading to a conception of an imaginary past. Walter Benjamin’s
dissection of the quasi-mystical motives for collecting neatly connects
with this:
The most profound enchantment for the collector is the locking of
individual items within a magic circle in which they are fixed as the
final thrill, the thrill of acquisition, passes over them ... as he holds
them in his hands, he seems to be seeing through them into their
distant past as though inspired. (Benjamin, 2000, p. 62)
Modernism Postmodernism Salvage
For others – such as Zully Adler,9 an American artist in his early 20s,
recently based in Glasgow as a postgraduate student, and head of the label
Goaty Tapes – the effect of the contemporary resurgence interest in tapes
would be economically minimal. Still, initiatives such as Cassette Store
Day could ultimately benefit so-called ‘mom ‘n’ pop’ record stores:
A tape is just a tape, it’s a commodity, and Urban Outfitters has every
right to sell them as anywhere else … if that’s gonna bring in an extra
couple hundred extra dollars, by all means ... but at the end of the
day, who’s really making money on Cassette Store Day? It’s that indie
record store that’s on the precipice of bankruptcy as it is.
Zully was also somewhat critical of the notion that the whole enterprise
was necessarily imbued with youthful nostalgia for an imagined past:
I think that when we consider older, outmoded technologies we
assume that any relationship to them is going to hinge on nostalgia.
But at this point, so many technologies have come and gone, and
when they’ve gone they haven’t really gone. They haven’t been completely devalorised; they’ve just been devalued – they still exist, they
can still be used; we encounter them. So it wouldn’t be a nostalgic
thing. Most of the people who are coming to tapes now are people
like me and you, who aren’t really old enough to have used them
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and revisit them, and the ones who are old enough have used them
straight through, pretty continuously.
The sense of a continuity in being interested in tapes was something
which David Keenan identified when I conversed with him on the topic.
He was emphatic in underlining the consistent embrace of tape as both
a musical instrument and as a format for releasing music in the often
transnationally collaborative avant-garde/noise world. He also pointed
to the importance of the record as an object:
People want something in their hands that they can hold, they want
a relationship with the artist again – and I think that’s why that’s
come back. But again, historically, noise and avant-garde underground music have never stopped using cassettes. We’ve stocked cassettes in our shop from day one ... cassettes have never gone away,
and they never will, because they have something specific to them
that is impossible to replicate using any other medium.
Total Vermin – the aforementioned label run by Stuart Arnott – exemplifies what Keenan refers to here. Operating since the mid-2000s, they have
released approximately 80 tapes, mainly in the sphere of avant-garde, DIY
noise-making – these days, their recordings are primarily sold online, and
secondarily at the merch table at shows. Arnott has also released runs
of CD-rs. The music is generally atonal, somewhat abrasive, but with a
playful, subversive and self-deprecating sensibility that is shared with Ali
Robertson’s Usurper (indeed, they have frequently collaborated artistically). An example of this is I procured from Stuart – Total Vermin #70,
credited to the absurdist (yet somehow timely) pseudonym ‘Lovely
Mr Honkey and the Acrid Lactations Jubilee Chorus’. It is a work presented
with handmade, slyly subversive art work and neo-dadaist liner notes:
Syntactic pegs afloat in a semantic void
A hand among the pinks and marigolds
The mutagenesis of the Booboisie
Stuart, when based in Manchester, felt a sense of definite crossover between
generic categories/scenes (something he feels is the case within Glasgow,
as a medium-sized city), and the embrace of tapes felt like an uncontrived:
A lot of pals also put stuff out on cassettes, sourced from Tapeline ...
there was quite a wide range of things happening. Noise, psychedelic
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stuff, indie. And it didn’t even seem to be a decision that had to be
made at that point. Everyone listened to tapes anyway ... My friend
Sophie was in a band called Hot Pants Romance, and they put out
their first stuff on tape ... and I ‘engineered’ that tape, asking the
band to move closer or further away from the built-in microphone
to achieve balance!
David Keenan refers to the pioneering capabilities inherent in broken
technology, which points also to the hidden possibilities inherent in
apparently obsolete technology:
Where technology is at its best is where it becomes broken, where it
becomes fucked up, where it stops working the way it is supposed to –
when it reverses, almost … you can see how Jimi Hendrix – this great
modernist – of how he privileged feedback. Feedback was the absolute terror of the jobbing musician, of the session hack ... Hendrix
elevated this to one of the central building blocks of his entire music.
Throbbing Gristle even moreso – they made the mistake the central
way they built a language up. Modernism has always done that.
Keenan’s perspective ties in to an extent with Brian Winston’s identification of the machinations of the media technology industry, serving to restrict ‘the radical potential of the latest development and, at
the same, bringing the exploiters of the previous “new thing” into
the fold’ (Winston, 1998, p. 13). If radical possibilities have been
discarded by the mainstream, then why can’t the underground seize
upon these?
A belief in the specific possibility of modernist artistic expression
is one which Keenan sees as something which can be bound up with
refusal; it dovetails with the idea of the sense of the past being a site
of unfulfilled promise, an antidote to a retromaniac, inattentive present (Reynolds, 2010), or as a space in which hauntological ghosts
and spectres abound (Fisher, 2014). Tapes are also potentially a site for
salvagepunk détournment; a reappropriation and revision of what is
apparently detritus (Calder Williams, 2011). Whether this is true or not
is, of course, up for debate. Yet, in the context of my interviews here –
particularly with those on the indiepop side of the spectrum – I felt a
palpable impulse towards homage and recreation. Unpop, The Spook
School and Paul Etherington’s taste in music is not one of a modernist project to ‘make it new’, but both consciously and unconsciously
refers to past genre forms and aesthetics (Jameson, 1990). Our mixtapes
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are – to some extent, at least – periodic odes to the likes of C86, or to
K Records’ International Pop Underground compilations. This is not
to say that innovation is absent, but rather that the motivating factor isn’t formalist progression; perhaps a neat summation would be
Paul’s remark on the construction of mixtapes: ‘There’s a craft to it, of
stitching it together’. This stitching together of older reference points
is reflected in other aesthetics, in a broader sense – the cassette version
of Deerhunter’s latest album Monomania, for instance, is quite closely
indebted to the graphic design style of Atlantic Records’ cassettes from
the 1980s.
Outsider Internet Economics
A sense emerged of a definite connection between the embrace of cassettes and an engagement with a certain form of ‘outsider’ culture. Zully
Adler identified the appeal of an ‘eccentric’ home-recorded aesthetic in
terms of his Goaty Tapes label:
I’ve definitely put out my fair share of power electronics, and extremely
abstract improvised music ... but I would say the core of the tapes that
I’ve released revolves around more eccentric takes on popular genres ...
The bands that I usually release – there are all sorts of tag-lines for
them – you know, loners, outsiders. And of course these people aren’t
loners or outsiders – I talk to them pretty regularly. The point being
something attracts me to people working in these intimate settings,
and the domestic qualities of the sound that can be transmitted
through the music.
Paul Etherington referred to the appeal of the format as an identification
with being ‘in with the out crowd’ – looking at something which has
apparently been broadly (or popularly) dismissed or derided and essentially rolling with it. David Keenan saw great significance and poignance in the specific situatedness of DIY home recordings, particularly in
terms of challenging, abrasive noise music:
You don’t go into this neutral space that is specifically designed
for making music. A lot of these guys did make sound and records
in their bedrooms. And there’s something compulsive about that,
there’s something diaristic about it as well. And I’ve often found that
a lot of the great industrial music – it’s not like a performance, but
some kind of super personal hermetic broadcast from the other side
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of lonely ... There’s something very sad and moving about a lot of
industrial noise music. I find it emotional – very emotional.
Separating off from conventional diktats of acceptability brings forth a
clandestine felt freedom in the act of creation. Tapes are also away from
an assembly line form of production and – due to the often handmade,
idiosyncratic nature of their production – become singular avatars of
folk art. Keenan again:
I think of Noise music as pop music’s night-time ... [the cassette]
was looked down upon. And so you’re able to get away with more
on cassette, ‘cos cassettes weren’t really policed ... you could do it at
home, you could cut out any of the industry that was surrounding
music at this point ... It flew in the face of the assembly line view
of music. Each cassette began as folk art that were different every
single time.
This is an interesting point. Cultural sociologist Nick Prior states that
‘the DIY ethic so cherished by punk rockers is no longer an activist
ideology, but a systematic, structural condition of the production of
music itself’ (Prior, 2010, p. 404). In practical terms, a recording industry in which a vast amount of money is only really spent on a minute
quantity of mega-stars at already huge levels of popularity, the DIY
model – incorporating, for example, savvy use of relatively cheap home
recording equipment, strategic employment of (small) label backing
and exploiting music streaming (e.g. Spotify) or downloading sites (e.g.
Bandcamp) – makes a lot of sense. One may nowadays be much more
liberated from the strictures of the ‘assembly line’, and can engage in
choices which leads music to be disseminated in a myriad of formats –
including tape. In essence, the oft-acknowledged impetus for punk has
opened up possibilities for many non-punk musicians.
Related to this, I raised the issue with Zully that I felt that part of the
appeal of tapes was down to their niche nature and inaccessibility – few
people have tape players anymore, and the obscurity may be attractive.
Zully disagreed with the idea that the difficulty in playing the format
(nowadays) is what lends it its appeal:
I don’t think it’s the inaccessibility of the medium itself that draws
people to it. I think the medium is more of a conduit, it’s not an end
in itself ... it’s everything around the tape that gets people going ...
I get asked all the time: ‘why tapes?’ And I don’t ever have a good
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answer, because there’s no one good answer. There’s a constellation
of less good answers, that make you deal with it.
Adler welcomes the democratic engagement which the internet can
offer with transnational music scenes with refreshing candour, and
doesn’t seek to mystify this process by which music is now disseminated: ‘It’s not exclusive anymore – you can google my name and buy
it for six bucks.’ The necessity of somewhat elitist gate-keepers (aka
obscure misanthropes in record shops) to culture is less apparent, and
this seems a good thing. There is the additional necessity for DIY musicians and labels to promote their endeavours through email lists, social
media, disseminating online flyers as opposed to the physical etc. For
instance, Volcanic Tongue operates a successful, well-liked and wellcurated online shop; Unpop has forged connections to other indie pop
scenes locally and internationally through networking via all sorts of
digital avenues. A laptop computer can serve as the means of producing, distributing and promoting music (Toop, 2004). In addition, the
website of Good Press serves to foster and grow their DIY, cross-media
endeavours – photographic documentation is actively included online,
increasing the appeal of their work:
J: I feel like there’s a lot of people that have worked with Good Press
online, where it’s gone from ‘Yeah we’ll stock books’, and then you
find stuff out about their cultures. You can find a lot about it and get
interested in it.
M: Our online shop and our website is really key to us, We’re keen
on it. When we set up the press we wanted to make sure there are
photographs of everything we do online. There’s nothing worse than
coming across a website where there’s no pictures.
Yet, despite this, in most of my conversations, there was a desire amongst
those interested in cassettes to at least partially disengage from the
processes of ever-expanding, ever-present internet communication and
exchanges of music. In a context where much of a person’s work is
conducted at a computer, this renunciation or resistance is at least
meaningful. David Keenan asserted in our conversation: ‘I am definitely
pre-internet’. Unpop only distributes mixtapes to the first few people
who turn up to the night. Stuart Arnott only puts up short clips of Total
Vermin’s music to be heard on their website – to hear the whole thing, you
need to buy it at a gig or pay up through Paypal; all of these gestures seek
to interrupt the contemporary sense of near immediate, instantaneous
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access to anything. Stuart is attracted to the idea of tape inaccessibility.
Additionally, there is a specifically political dimension to this, over
intellectual property and ethics:
I upload clips of the tapes to Soundcloud, but I’d really like to not
do that ... there are political reasons why I choose to do that ...
No matter where you host it, somebody is making money from it.
Even if you get the most ethical host possible for your files, are you
happy for them to take your money and spend it? ... Essentially,
somebody is still making money off my work, and the artist’s
work. And you lose control of the dissemination of it ... there’s
nothing to stop someone downloading my work and re-uploading
it somewhere else.
The sinister elements of file sharing and distribution is also something
Arnott is cognisant of (the area is clearly ripe for intensive monetary
exploitation, i.e. in the notable, recent case of Megaupload mogul’s
Kim Dotcom ostentatious, gangster-esque wealth). Sites of dubious
legality can often be tied in with odious industries of a different
nature:
If someone uploads it to a file sharing site, and that sites makes most
of their money from advertising pornography. If someone visits that
site to download my work, then the people who are profiting from
that are pornographers.
Tapes, unlike CD-rs, resist an easy transfer to digital formats, and
thus can exist (to a degree) outwith the darker recesses of the internet.
The paralysing nature of near-infinite choice also plays a role –
Ali Robertson called attention to this, even in his physical music
collection:
I’ve got thousands of CDs and tapes and records, and I’m thinking
‘I don’t know what to put on’. I’m living in a library here. And it’s a
sense of too much choice – and the internet is just too much choice
isn’t it? I cannae deal with the overload – I quite like getting things
at a slow pace, receiving things.
Robertson also identified the importance of slower exposure to culture
as a means of attempting to wholly absorb music and ideas – speed of
life being one of the core experiences of late capitalism (Noys, 2014).
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In referring to the significance of the underground magazine Bananafish
on the development of his musical tastes:
I’d read about it, obsess about it, 3 years later I would find one thing ...
and just devote all my time to this one thing for ages, and really get
to know it. Whereas now I meet people who are like *beep* – I know
it, *beep* – give me something else.
However, in conversation, Ali doesn’t suggest that more omnivorous and
rapid consumers of music have lost the ability to assimilate music – it
is more an example of a different way of listening. By contrast, David
Keenan’s extolling of the virtues of the quest to find new music and culture
feels a sort of jeremiad in miniature – but an intensely compelling one:
Part of the fun thing about cassettes was the effort you had to put in
to put together knowledge – it was initiatory (Keenan’s emphasis) on
a genuine level. You had to write away to these unknown addresses,
you had to order through catalogues … Every discovery was a massive thrill; it was a massive commitment ... it was life-changing.
Googling something and reading a wikipedia entry does not make
you an expert, and has no initiatory effect whatsoever.
There was also a bizarre partiality at work in the process of seeking
out tapes in the past. Rather than encountering music which can be
quickly – if perfunctorily, in Keenan’s view – ‘learned about’ online in
a few minutes, bootleg tapes were for many years a crucial medium for
hearing albums in advance of their official release, as well as live performances which would have otherwise not been circulated. Ali Robertson
relates the experience of finding an advance copy of In Utero by Nirvana:
I remember going to Dunfermline10 and buying bootleg tapes of the
songs that were going to be on In Utero … but they would get the song
titles wrong: ‘Serve the Servants’ became ‘Suss a Sundown’.
In contrast to referencing the vast collective consciousness of the web,
experiences like Ali’s point back to an era where misinformation and
mistakes were part and parcel of encountering new music; thus, the
correct title is brilliantly warped into a sort of absurd, Scottish neologistic phrase. In some ways, these sorts of mistakes signpost interesting
misinterpretations and their attendant possibilities, rather than positing
a perspective of dry, fact-mongering rationality.
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Vinyl’s Cheaper (and more Democratic) Cousin
Cost has been – and continues to be – a key factor in the appeal of
tapes. Paul Etherington delineated this well, in terms of the dichotomy
between cassette and vinyl consumption:
I think there’s an element of elitism with vinyl ... vinyl’s quite a
privileged medium, where you need a big chunky record player to
play it on, the equipment is more unwieldy ... The cassette has been
maligned so much, and the record purist will be down on it because
they can buy the vinyl, they’ve got the choice – they have 20 quid
for a new record, and the space to store it ... The cassette has been
the entry-level that gets people listening to music. Yes, vinyl is better
quality. But cassettes are something that you can cheaply own and
play without all these other barriers to entry ... the vinyl thing is very
much a ‘purist’ thing.
Paul’s remarks point to an element of economic and cultural capital distinction of the vinyl collector versus the tape collector – money, storage
space and more specific technological know-how act to remove certain
players from the game. Paul identified perhaps a global, transnational
aspect to the cassette’s appeal – Awesome Tapes from Africa are an example of this, as well as the vibrant consumption of tapes in Syria, India
and Malaysia (amongst other nations): ‘There’s a universality to the
cassette – it’s a worldwide phenomenon ... people don’t care about the
sound quality – they just love the songs and they want to hear them.’
Love of the song over what is perceived to be normative standards of
fidelity suggest an unlikely connection between the indie pop sphere
and non-Western musics.
Jess from Good Press suggested that simple economic logic would
continue to contribute to a demand for tapes:
You’re always going to get bands putting out tape, because of the
simple fact that putting out your own record is way too expensive,
putting out fifty tapes is not.
This sentiment was echoed across all of the interviews for this piece.
Soft Power’s attachment to the tape format has, as earlier stated, an aesthetic and a romantic dimension to it. But it is also definitely pragmatic,
due to the relatively cheap production costs in comparison to vinyl,
especially on limited runs – and thus more profitable for the bands
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and label. Based on his experience of making mixtapes when younger,
Graeme stated that:
I had a really good technical understanding of tapes, so we kind of
held on to that. You can actually manufacture them for less than a
quid … [and] if you can retail them for two or three pounds, you
can maybe make about 100 pounds on a tape release. But the chasm
between that and vinyl ... The reason 7 inches are not popular right
now, is that to get a vinyl out you’ll be spending anything from
£850 and £1200 that depends whether you do three hundred or five
hundred and another colour and that. That’s why we did five tape
releases in a row to try and make some money to bridge that gap.
Tapes thus point to a sense of sustainability in an economic sense – they
are, as Ali Robertson put it ‘relatively ethical’ as a physical medium for
music.11 Some of Soft Power’s bands have experienced a sense of upward
mobility in the indie pop context – after early releases on the label,
The Spook School and September Girls are now releasing professionally
pressed CD and vinyl records on a bigger independent label, London’s
Fortuna Pop. There is a freedom associated with groups operating outside of a major label context; bands do not necessarily move up or down
in a hierarchical context, but sideways. Basically, this could be said to be
down to love over money; or – put another way – those who are accorded
the higher fulfilment that the ‘psychic wage’ of an artist are thus less
materially compensated with actual wages. Zully Adler raised this point
in relation to favourite bands of his within the American underground –
their working lives are embedded with a degree of free agency:
I don’t want to sound utopian here ... but their musical project is one
that isn’t tethered directly to the imperatives of making money. There
are things they want to do and there are different ways they want to do
it. Sometimes they can cash in a little bit, and sometimes they won’t –
whether the timing’s not right, and whether they just don’t feel like it.
A perceived degree of casualness imbued the bands that wanted to
release their work with Goaty Tapes, as well as an absence of auxiliary
label staff getting in the way – a situation which Adler found liberating,
enabling design experiments to take hold:
I came to tapes from a print-making background, and from loving
music ... making the covers for tapes was always really fun for me.
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And I would experiment with different print methods, and making
weird designs. And because everybody had such a casual attitude
about the enterprise, I had complete creative freedom. I don’t have
to put the name of the band on the spine if it doesn’t suit me that
night, and people kind of vibe with it.
None of the people (apart from David Keenan) I spoke to who work with
tapes and work in what you could broadly term ‘the music industries’
do so for their living wage – all have other day jobs. Adam Todd is a fulltime student as well as a musician – he also performs stand-up comedy.
Adam Neil works in a bar, as well as promoting Unpop; Ali Robertson
was a long-term member of staff at the now-defunct Edinburgh record
shop Avalanche. Thus, ‘amateur’ pragmatism is a core characteristic
of tapes appeal – tapes are relatively popular for Arnott, they sell.
Robertson’s goal is always to ‘break even’, after having had negative
experiences of losing heavy amounts of money by self-financing tours to
the US. There is also the option of seeking state subsidy, even in times of
apparent widespread austerity. However, this brings about its own problems, as Robertson identifies, management speak does not necessarily
come fluently to artists:
We’re trying to do a tour in the States ... So we’re looking into what
sorts of funding are available. And you know, it’s all about ‘Career
Development’. The language used is always about a return on your
investment, and its impact on your career. Well, it’s not really a
career ... ‘What return do you expect on this?’ ‘Smiles from the
audience, hopefully.’
Andrew Ross refers to this as part of a relatively recent, specific
commodification/marketisation of the arts, with work in the newly
coined ‘creative industries’ bound up with neoliberal values of the
go-getting entrepreneur:
Leave your safety gear at the door; only the most spunky, agile, and
dauntless will prevail. This narrative is little more than an updated
version of social Darwinism, but when phrased seductively, it is
sufficiently appealing to those who are up for the game. (Ross, 2009,
p. 45)
Precarious conditions underline this reconception of art as a driver of
GDP and gentrification, whilst often failing to ensure a modicum of
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living standards for practitioners. It frees artists from the rigidity of the
division of labour – ‘In a communist society, there are no painters but at
most people who engage in painting among other activities’ (Marx and
Engels, 1973, p. 71) – yet, bleakly, minus the egalitarian organisation of
society, and added market competition.
Conclusion
There is a certain romance to tapes – they are finite, as human beings
are, and like us are material entities. They soundtrack memories,
embodied in an object, and even in compiling mixes are examples of
music-making in the Cageian sense of the organisation. Through trading and the economic exchange, they have historically brought people
together – and continue to do so. The people I spoke with in Glasgow
and Edinburgh alike spoke of the value of the isolated moment – in terms
of mixtape making, songwriting, determining the order and sequence
of a cassette, the pleasure of experimenting with artwork; all actions
which form part of ‘constellation’ (to borrow Zully’s term) of reasons to
find use value in tapes. David Toop’s reflections on his early forays into
compiling mixes of work from the BBC sound archives in the 1970s have
some resonance here:
Working from a position of no power, no influence, no money, no
support, working with abject means, this accumulation of extraordinary sound and personal experiment used cassettes to build ways
of unlearning and resounding, reaching out to a new listening
world.
Though by no means now technologically limited to tape, the perception of limited (or no) means is one which still binds together many
of those interested in tape on a grassroots level. And the concept of
personal experiment – even if not necessarily related to a perceived
avant-garde project – obviously still holds.
Yet – in its encapsulation of the wilfulness inherent in the idea of
embracing cassette as a medium for music release in the early part of the
21st century – I thought I’d conclude with a joke from Ali Robertson on
the residual appeal of the form:
The reason cassettes are here? People who listen to noise and experimental music are the contrariest fuckers out there. Who else would
listen to this shit?
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Notes
1. The title ‘On Tape’ references the eponymous cult indie pop hit of 1988 by
The Pooh Sticks.
2. Do-It-Yourself is a term bound up with perceived independence and
‘self-sufficiency’ within cultural production, and often has connotations
of authenticity and opposition to the mainstream. This is perhaps surprising, given the term’s parallel, non-musical history as the British synonym
of ‘home improvement’. Two key philosophical implications inhere in the
concept. On the one hand, it can serve to propagate the image of an isolated,
neoliberal subject toiling at home in isolation whilst dreaming of making it
big due to her individual effort (or exceptionalism) – work all day and make
your magnum opus at night. Yet, contrastingly, there are other, more utopian connotations, of active local and trans-global collaboration and creative freedom – ‘DIY culture has always promoted the maxims of anti-elitism
and, with new technology, they are truer than ever’ (Spencer, 2008, p. 332).
Alas, this does not mean they are owed a living (paraphrasing Crass), and
practitioners of this milieu often enjoy scant remuneration.
3. The commercial high-water mark of the cassette is way back in 1988
(1.4 billion units sold), reminding us of the relatively recent period of its
market dominance.
4. To clarify, a myriad of devices (essentially modelled on the Walkman’s template) by a vast array of different electronics companies reinforced and
proliferated this medium of personalised listening.
5. Interestingly, for a brief period before the explosion in digital downloading,
sales of cassette were larger than sales of vinyl.
6. Ali is in his mid-30s.
7. Soft Power tape releases are often accompanied by an MP3 download code,
allowing for a listening space to be constructed digitally, whilst the cassette
can function purely as an ornament.
8. Memorably referenced by the hip-hop artist Nas on his classic 1994 LP
Illmatic: ‘Never put me in your box if your shit eats tapes.’ Related to this,
a professor of music I spoke to about the format pointed out that ‘the key
technology [for tapes] was actually the pencil you inserted in a tape’s hole
to turn loose tapes back to order’.
9. In the often oppositional positioning of ‘Edinburgh vs Glasgow’ within
everyday Scottish culture, the sedateness of Edinburgh’s more ‘middle class’
music scene is juxtaposed with Glasgow’s more edgy, vibrant expressive
world. As Ali Robertson commented in our interview: ‘we live in Tartan
Disneyland right here ... in Glasgow, because they don’t attract as many
tourists, they don’t have to market themselves as “shortbread city”’. On this
note, it seems fitting to state that Zully and I conducted this conversation
sitting in a dingy doorway on a rainy autumn’s evening on Renfield Lane –
sandwiched between two key venues in Glasgow’s DIY music scene (Stereo
and The Old Hairdresser’s, respectively).
10. A medium-sized town in Fife (north of the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh),
nowadays acting as a sort of commuter belt area for the city of Edinburgh;
has produced notable pop bands such as Big Country in the past, and
Miracle Strip in the present.
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11. Music sociologist Kyle Devine has written fascinatingly on the ethical implications of forms of musical dissemination on the environment in a forthcoming article for Popular Music entitled ‘Decomposed – A Political Ecology
of Music’.
Bibliography
Atton, C. (2012) Listening to ‘Difficult Albums’: Specialist Music Fans and the
‘Popular Avant-garde’. Popular Music, 31:3.
Benjamin, W. (2000) Illuminations. London: Verso.
Calder Williams, E. (2011) Combined and Uneven Apocalypse. London: Zero Books.
Chambers, I. (1990) A Miniature History of the Walkman. New Formations: A Journal
of Culture/Theory/Politics, No. 11, pp. 1–4.
Devine, K. (2015) Decomposed – A Political Ecology of Music. Popular Music.
Forthcoming.
Fisher, M. (2014) Ghosts of my Past. London: Zero Books.
Jameson, F. (1990) Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London:
Verso Books.
Long, J. (2013) Why We’ve Created Cassette Store Day and Why It’s Not Just
Hipster Nonsense. NM. Available at: http://www.nme.com/blogs/nme-blogs/
why-weve-created-cassette-store-day-and-why-its-not-just-hipster-nonsense
Marx, K. and Engels, F. (1973) On Literature and Art. L. Baxandall and S. Morawski
(Editors). St Louis/Milwaukee: Telos Press.
McGuigan, J. (2009) Cool Capitalism. London: Pluto.
Michaels, S. (2013) Inaugural International Cassette Store Day Announced for
September. The Guardian. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/music/2013/
jul/16/international-cassette-store-day-announced-september-2013
Noys, B. (2014) Malign Velocities – Accelerationism and Capitalism. London: Zero
Books.
Prior, N. (2010) The Rise of the New Amateurs – Popular Music, Digital
Technology, and the Fate of Cultural Production. In L. Grindstaff, J. R. Hall and
L. Ming-Cheng (eds.), The Handbook of Cultural Sociology, 398–407. London:
Routledge.
Reynolds, S. (2010) Retromania. London: Faber & Faber.
Ross, A. (2009) Nice Work if You Can Get It. New York: NYU Press.
Spencer, A. (2008) DIY – The Rise of Lo-Fi Culture. London: Marion Boyars.
Toop, D. (2004) Ocean of Sound. London: Serpent’s Tail.
Toop, D. (2014) Tape Manipulation – The Blank Cassette as Aural Dreamcatcher.
The Wire, Issue 363.
Williams, R. (1983) Towards 2000. London: Chatto & Windus.
Winston, B. (1998) Media, Technology and Society – A History: From the Telegraph to
the Internet. London: Routledge.
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3
Radio in Transit: Satellite
Technology, Cars, and the
Evolution of Musical Genres
Jeffrey Roessner
In George Lucas’s classic 1973 film American Graffiti, a major plotline
involves a recent high-school graduate, Curt (Richard Dreyfuss), on a quest
to locate an attractive blond woman (Suzanne Somers) he has only
glimpsed, in passing, in her ethereal white T-bird. Representing escape
from the impending pressures of adulthood, career, and responsibility,
the woman can only be reached, he ultimately decides, through that
signal beacon of youthful fantasy: the radio. Indeed, radio saturates this
film in its celebration of 1950s cruising culture, with every nomadic
teen in an automobile tuned to the same station, listening to the same
deejay (Wolfman Jack) spin the soundtrack to their late adolescence.
It’s not surprising, then, that Curt decides to seek salvation at the radio
station itself, where he can have his personal request for the woman
beamed through the air. In this narrative arc, American Graffiti weds desire
and technology, uniting the wish for transcendence with the thrill of
early rock ’n’ roll. In so doing, it establishes radio as a communal force
that bonds an irresolute generation, with the deejay as savant, hidden
in his lair, conjuring dreams for a subterranean, mobile culture that
primarily exists at night, in a car, at the fringes of the adult world.
That potent mythology of a radio-equipped automobile as a vehicle for
deliverance still grips the contemporary cultural imagination – though
technology has significantly changed listening practices. Just as the
AM Top-40 format of the 1950s ultimately stagnated and gave way
to free-form FM in the mid-60s, so today the hyper-commercialized,
demographic-driven FM platform itself is under assault by newer modes
of delivery. Satellite radio and online streaming services provide attractive
alternatives to the restricted playlists and narrow-casting of over-the-air
radio. To be sure, FM still reaches a vast audience. But satellite radio in
particular – in the form of SiriusXM – has carved out its market share
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by promising a sense of freedom and spontaneity to listeners. Offering
expanded playlists that challenge rigid boundaries of genre and format,
satellite radio downplays musical subgenres in favor of a proliferation of
micro-genres, signaling an important change in the way audiences are
constructed and served. And perhaps most important, satellite boasts
a human presence with the return of the deejay, spinning songs and
providing context for what’s played. Such tactics at once evoke and
commodify nostalgia for earlier radio practices, even as they build new
audiences. Ultimately, it is in the attempt to recover a 1960s aesthetic
of audio serendipity that satellite radio recuperates the automobile as
a vital listening space and sells the sounds of freedom, power, and
independence.
***
Contemporary listening spaces are generally premised on the fan’s ability to define his or her own playlists for private enjoyment. From online
services such as Spotify to the ultra-portable MP3 player, for example,
listeners now choose what they want to hear, when they want to hear it,
with technology individualizing the audio experience and breaking down
most spatial constraints. This is a privatized contemporary experience:
ultra-portability and the ubiquitous white earbuds – or more recently,
the bulkier, 1970s-throwback “cans” that attempt both to mark a rejection of Apple’s iPod and to signal another level of consumer indulgence,
with the priciest headphones easily costing hundreds of dollars.
Regardless of the style or price of headphone, though, the delivery system
ensures sonic isolation. Seemingly no locale is an inappropriate listening space while you’re consuming your music privately: walking on the
street, riding the bus, lounging in a cafe, or even dining.
Given this contemporary context, the car may seem a ridiculously
antiquated vehicle in which to deliver music. The automobile is bulky
and at least a semi-public space if you’re playing the radio with the
windows down or sharing the car with other passengers (Bull, 2003,
p. 367). And with radio, there’s always the sense that no matter how
alone you feel, there are others out there tuned in, partaking of the
same auditory communion. How different that experience is from what
is offered by the slim, ever-shrinking and highly portable MP3 player or
smart phone. With the move toward privatizing even the most public
of spaces, it is no surprise that automobile makers now boast multiple
ways of playing a personal music collection in the car. If you want to
ditch your clunky CDs and their perennially lost and broken cases,
you’ve got plenty of options: from plug-and-play technology for your
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iPod to Bluetooth connectivity for your phone, you never have to be
without a vast amount of your music – even on the road.
Within the context of the rush toward personalization, over-the-air
radio – although it remains the dominant mode of music delivery in
automobiles – has shown signs of slipping. A 2013 survey by Arbitron
and Edison Research revealed that AM/FM radio was used “Almost All of
the Time” or “Most of the Time” by 58 percent of listeners, while the CD
player claimed 15 percent, the iPod/MP3 player 11 percent, and Satellite
Radio 10 percent (Palenchar, 2013).1 So the AM/FM hegemony continues, but perhaps only for a time: the erosion of its audience is clear.
A full 21 percent of automobile listeners are predominantly using
devices that did not exist before the turn of the century, and their numbers continue to grow: regarding online listening in general, no matter
the location, the percentage of users for one month in 2013 “hit 45 percent in the latest survey, or an estimated 120 million Americans. That’s
up from the previous year’s 39 percent, 2009’s 27 percent, and 2003’s
17 percent” (Palenchar, 2013).2 The ultimate consequences of new
technology for listening are, of course, subject to debate (Calem, 2013).
How diminished will AM/FM be? Can satellite survive the onslaught
by streaming services, scrambling for a spot aboard the infotainment
centers of newer automobiles? Will monolithic corporations like Clear
Channel maintain a presence by successfully streaming over-the-air
content? Though such questions hang over the future of the industry,
what’s happening now is evident: the rise of alternative delivery systems represents a direct threat to over-the-air radio, as those stations
have been rendered artistically impotent by slick formats, corporate
monopolization, and rigid, demographically defined playlists.3
With these consumer trends in mind, we can read the history of satellite radio, in its broadcast practices and marketing, as an alternative both
to traditional AM/FM programming and to streaming services such as
Spotify and Pandora. Emerging in the early 2000s, and aimed squarely
at audiences in the United States, satellite radio exploited emerging digital technology to reach listeners seeking more diverse audio choices in
their cars (Parker, 2008).4 Technology aside, the opportunity for a satellite radio market arose in large part from the 1996 Telecommunications
Act, which loosened regulations on how many over-the-air stations a
company could own in a market. While previously a company could own
no more than forty stations nationwide, and no more than two FM and
two AM stations in a given market, the 1996 Act removed the national
restriction and allowed ownership of eight stations in a larger market,
and between five and seven in a smaller one (Polgreen, 1999, p. 9).
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By 1999, the law had resulted in dramatic changes: “Of the 4992 stations in the 268 ranked markets almost half” were controlled “by a
‘superduopoly,’ that is, they [were] owned by a company that [had]
three or more stations in the market” (Polgreen, 1999, p. 9). The result
of such consolidated ownership was a staggering decrease in radio diversity. By the early 2000s, for example, radio giant Clear Channel had
“acquired more than 1,200 stations in the United States, which took in
more than $3 billion, or 20% of the industry dollar volume, in 2001”
(Garofalo, 2007, p. 14). Noting that radio has always had to balance
commercial interests with audience desires, Lydia Polgreen argues that,
nonetheless, “it used to be the case that if listeners didn’t like what they
heard on a station, if it was monotonous and repetitive, they could tune
away. Now there is just less choice out there” (1999, p. 10). In fact, that
very lack of choice set the stage for the birth of satellite radio, predicated
on delivering more options than could be found on the increasingly
squeezed bandwidth and playlists of over-the-air stations run by media
conglomerates.
Initially satellite radio services were operated by two companies on two
competing systems: Sirus and XM receivers. Despite various attempts to
differentiate themselves, and in the context of serious fiscal challenges,
both systems functioned as largely commercial-free subscription services in opposition to over-the-air radio. Merging into one company in
2008, SiriusXM in its current iteration now must also distinguish itself
from the increasing competition of online services striving to generate
ever-more-personalized playlists from vast catalogs of music (Bruno and
Tucker, 2008). From its inception, then, satellite radio has been branded
and marketed against the backdrop of other delivery platforms. Indeed,
such pressures for market share illuminate the approach satellite has
taken to everything from genre and format construction to audience
identification and presenting, or deejaying, itself.
Given the rapid evolution of contemporary listening habits, satellite radio makes a major bid for subscribers by exposing the fact that
over-the-air radio, with its constricted playlists, might not reflect the
identities of some listeners. As David Hendy (2000) notes, “If it is true
that through radio we hear what we are, it is also true that to some extent
we are what we hear” (p. 214). He goes on to suggest the ways that radio
“may exaggerate or even distort certain tastes, or notions of identity,
rather than simply reflecting them” (p. 215). The situation leaves listeners with several options: agree that the identity offered by a station
represents them (“I only listen to Froggy 99.7”), channel surf to maintain
the sense of autonomy (“No single station can capture me”), or seek an
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alternate technology for delivering music. In a recent essay, Eric Weisbard
(2014) argues against those who would unfairly malign the narrowness of over-the-air formats. He suggests that because of flexibility and
innovation over time, “The format system has provided a stable means
for groups left on the margins of public discourse to sing and feel things
together.” Consequently, to disparage radio formatting is not to disparage
a “style” of music, but the popular audience that a format constructs.
Or put another way, complaining about radio format is actually a thinly
disguised complaint about undiscriminating listeners. Weisbard is surely
correct to point out the flexible and genre-crossing nature of many radio
formats and their complex, evolving appeal; however, his argument
doesn’t explain the steady growth of online and satellite listening. Clearly,
a significant portion of listeners are indicating that over-the-air radio does
not speak adequately to their identities. Moreover, when we consider the
number of genres and formats that are simply unavailable on commercial
radio, we must question how many marginalized groups are being served.
Through the sheer volume of channels, satellite radio complicates
standard genre and format equations used by FM to construct audiences.5
The Sirius All Access package for listening in your car currently offers 74
channels classified as “music” and divided into nine broad categories.6 The
list of music genres, followed by the number of channels featuring each,
includes: Rock (29), Pop (twelve), Jazz/Standards (8), Country (7), Dance/
Electronica (6), R&B (4), Hip-Hop (3), Christian (3), and Classical (2).
(See Figure 3.1.)
In addition, multiple channels feature music but are not listed under
that category: a host of channels labeled “More,” “Talk & Entertainment,”
and “Latino” represent music stations aimed at particular listening audiences defined by national or ethnic identity (“Canadian” and “Latino”)
or by age (“Kids”). Satellite radio complicates the genre equation here
through its system of classification, indicating that it is more important
that you are Canadian, say, than that you like alternative music (the
Canadian indie rock channel Iceberg is listed under “More”), just as it is
crucial to keep adults from accidentally winding their way to the Disney
channel in search of “real” rather than kids’ music (the Disney channel
is presented as “Talk and Entertainment”). We might note the piquant
irony of kids’ music being called “entertainment,” as opposed to ... what,
the serious rock listened to by parents? The categorization here replicates
a classic generational divide, recalling the dismissal of rock and roll itself
as noise: still today, it seems, this kid-stuff isn’t worth calling music.7
The biggest complication to genre from satellite radio, however, comes
from the sheer volume of channels classified under various headings.
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Classical (2)
Christian (3) 3%
4%
Hip-Hop (3)
4%
R&B (4)
5%
Dance/Electronica (6)
8%
Rock (29)
39%
Country (7)
10%
Jazz/Standards (8)
11%
Pop (12)
16%
Figure 3.1 SiriusXM Channels by Genre
Data source: SiriusXM.com.
With over twice as many “stations” as its nearest competitor, rock itself –
at 29 – claims by far the largest share of broadcast space. Such domination of the soundscape is no surprise given rock’s ubiquity.8 But in this
context, the umbrella genres may be deployed less to find what we do
like than to quickly identify what we don’t want. You might not enjoy
all of the stations presented in the name of rock, but at certain times
you surely know that you don’t want to hear jazz, classical, or – God forbid – Christian. From the other point of view, very little seems to hold
the rock channels together under any positive stylistic definition of
the genre. If listeners gravitate toward the “Jam” or “The Coffeehouse”
channels, are they likely to tune in to “Elvis Radio,” “1st Wave,” or
“Liquid Metal”? Not very often, one supposes. The listings under rock
demonstrate the unstable and contradictory nature both of individual
genres, and of the concept of genre as a whole. The motley assortment
of styles and audiences are so distinct that the broad generic category
becomes relatively useless in defining style or taste.
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The 29 satellite rock channels, for example, do not function as sub-genres
with a common root. It would be difficult to create a hierarchized history
of rock that would show these niche genres developing out of their
common parent in any logical or rational way. Such complication partly
has to do with the ever-expanding definition of rock, which has come
to mean essentially almost any variety of contemporary popular music
except country, rap, or in some cases – depending on how you slice it –
pop. In this context, it may be more helpful to think of many of the
satellite channels as representing micro-genres that have a rhizomatic
relationship to broader, and deceptively stable, genre categories such as
jazz, country, or rock. In their work A Thousand Plateaus, Gilles Deleuze
and Felix Guattari (1987) define the rhizome in contrast to the root and
branches ideation of history, which implies linear historical development that can be traced back to an original root and logically assembled
into a coherent evolutionary pattern (p. 5). In contrast, the rhizome –
botanically – spreads horizontally underground from nodes, sending
out shoots and forming root systems for entirely new plants. The rhizome thus evokes multiplicity, an excess that spills over boundaries and
disrupts linear, causal history, invoking many points of entry and exit
from the system and undermining any notion of an originary moment.9
Deleuze and Guattari specifically link the rhizome to music, which they
argue has “always sent out lines of flight, like so many ‘transformational
multiplicities,’ even overturning the very codes that structure or arborify it; that is why musical form, right down to its ruptures and proliferations, is comparable to a weed, a rhizome” (pp. 11–12). A new history
of music – in this age of technology – must confront these opposing
tendencies: the forces that would “arborify” styles, or domesticate and
stabilize them, and the explosion of styles and labeling that overturns
those essentialized codes.
Offering listeners a multiplicity of choices, satellite radio invokes a rhizomatic model of musical propagation, one represented in far more overwhelming detail on the internet. For example, in his data-visualization
of popular music at EveryNoise.com, engineer and “data alchemist”
Glenn McDonald has employed an algorithm to identify 1306 genres of
popular music (Fitzpatrick, 2014; McDonald, n.d.). McDonald presents
these genres in a dizzying scatter-plot of titles arrayed across the screen,
with no apparent causal relationship. Rather than being organized
around branch-lines that suggest clear relationships and an evolutionary pattern, the micro-genres (from Neue Deutsche Harte and Liquid
Funk to Dirty Texas Rap) cluster around stylistic tendencies roughly
oriented toward quadrants of the viewing screen. And the micro-genres
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represented cut across seemingly sensible boundaries: for example, if
you follow the pattern to the British Invasion page, you are confronted
with a visualization that includes many American bands – illustrating
Deleuze and Guattari’s contention that “any point of a rhizome can be
connected to anything other, and must be” (p. 7). The proliferation of categories on satellite radio and in the online environment work in tandem
here to redeploy genre categories in a media-saturated culture.10
As for satellite radio in particular, it is not just that it presents fuzzy
or questionable genre and format boundaries, but that it offers multiple, competing definitions of music categories simultaneously. Indeed,
the sheer number of channels allows SiriusXM to exploit overlapping
categories with little concern for the coherence of its approach to genre
or format.11 The listener’s affiliative identity with a channel might be
based on any number of different, and differently constructed, appeals.
Dialing across the digital spectrum, we see that categories by style of
music certainly do exist. But so do categories based on age, ethnicity,
nationality, location, and era (the time-period in which the music was
released). Six of the first ten channels on the SiriusXM dial walk us logically up the decades: the ’50s on 5, the ’60s on 6, etc. The Disney channel
is aimed at children, the Latino stations at an ethnic population, and
“New Wave” at an audience with a fondness for a particular historical
period (the 1980s) of popular music. Not only do we ostensibly have
music for all people, but all kinds of genres and formats for all kinds of people.12 To discern what you want to listen to requires negotiation of conflicting constructions of self that are also, of course, subject to change:
this afternoon, are you looking for music with a particular mood, a
particular sense of national or ethnic character, or do you want to return
nostalgically to a time in your life or, indeed, to an “imaginary” time
before you were born? The listener decides how to register his or her
identity through navigating the multitude of genres, formats, and shows.
As listeners personalize their music consumption, even in their cars,
it is telling that one of the most compelling iPod functions is shuffle
play. Even when enjoying our own collection of MP3s, we still seem
to crave the spontaneity and surprise that come from hearing a longneglected album track or the random digital juxtaposition of distinct
bands and genres. Similarly, online services Pandora and Spotify allow
users to construct playlists based on song preferences or subscribe to
the playlists put together by others or by computer algorithm. Their
success lies in giving fans easy access to new music that they might not
have heard before – but that nonetheless falls within a spectrum of taste
suggested by their listening habits. These services offer what we might
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call “controlled serendipity,” or surprise that is not too surprising. The
object is to deliver music that fits a certain mood or preference without
exceeding certain defined parameters. While perhaps delivering unfamiliar artists or songs to the listener, the streaming services clearly aim
to avoid jarring contrasts that would call attention to themselves.
So how does satellite radio attempt to carve out its market as an answer
to the limitations of both over-the-air broadcasts and streaming services?
Along with the sheer number of channels, formats, and genres it delivers, satellite radio features a large and eclectic playlist. Little Steven’s
Underground Garage, for example, was built on a “selected playlist of
4,000 songs to illustrate the history of rock ’n’ roll” (Pham, 2012). Such
depth of catalog allows for juxtapositions, both between and within
channels, that listeners would be hard-pressed to find on over-the-air
broadcasts. In a randomly selected one-hour period (December 15, 2014,
from 9:00 to 10:00 am), for example, the Underground Garage played
Bananarama, The Beatles, The Wolfmen, and Sweet.13 The variety is more
limited on channels featuring more restricted formats (e.g., the ’80s on
8), of course, but many do consistently deliver surprising song and artist
choices. In that same hour, Deep Tracks offered selections by The Grateful
Dead, Queen, Genesis, and Ry Cooder; The Loft featured Jerry Lee Lewis,
Hall and Oates, and Rufus Wainwright; and even 1st Wave – fairly limited
to its era – stretched listener’s ears a bit with a mélange of Devo, David
Bowie, and The Smiths. Reflecting on the depth of catalog that allows
for such playlists, Little Steven himself says he “always thought that
the depository of our entire musical history will end up on SiriusXM”
(Pham, 2012). That expansive approach helps deliver a sense of surprise
for listeners that is one of SiriusXM’s main appeals.
If satellite radio competed simply on the sheer size of playlist, though,
that would not provide a competitive edge against streaming services.
So along with marketing its versatile approach to audiences and playlists, satellite radio exposes another weakness of other platforms: the
fate of presenters. Except for the yuck-a-minute morning shows featuring multiple hosts, over-the-air radio generally has turned the deejay
into an endangered species. Describing this marginalization of traditional programmers and presenters, Hendy (2000) notes that a “small
handful” of radio staff now “simply manage[s] the ‘intake’ and repackaging of satellite-delivered syndicated material, and ensure[s] that the
various pre-recorded items … are continually re-arranged and updated
in a predetermined pattern of ‘spontaneity’ transmitted automatically,
with or without a presenter in the studio” (p. 112). Within this rigid
format, spontaneity arrives in quotation marks because it has become
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a carefully contrived effect, essentially functioning as a simulacrum of
real surprise and the delight of hearing something unexpected. And of
course, deejays are entirely absent from streaming services.
Hendy’s observations are evidenced in the rise of “Jack” stations (and
subsequent offshoots and imitators such as “Bob” and “Hank”), which –
to be fair – can employ human or computer-driven playlists three or
four times the size of traditional stations (1200 versus 300–400 songs)
(Davidovich and Silver, 2005). Their marketing angle is the supposedly
radical juxtaposition of songs and styles – Bob stations, for example,
annoyingly repeat ads promising that “Bob plays anything.” The stations at once anthropomorphize their algorithm by giving it a supposedly quirky personality with an average-Joe name, and, bizarrely, suggest
that their synthetic “deejay” has thus been freed to “play anything.”
What is the implication here? That a human deejay would present a
more constricted, more predictable playlist? In making such pseudospontaneity its calling card, the “Bob” stations use a computer program
to very slightly exceed the rigid temporal, stylistic, and musical boundaries of other pop music stations aimed at similar demographics – and
then claim that the strategy makes them somehow radical. Only a
listener with the most inflexible notion of radio would find these stations – which lean solely on hits and heavily on the 1980s – surprising
(Davidovich and Silver, 2005). Yet marketers persist in their attempt to
convince listeners that they can somehow recover the serendipity of earlier, free-format FM radio through technology, with no more messy issues
of the presenter’s “taste” interfering. In a sense, of course, this tactic precisely mirrors that employed by online streaming services, which employ
their proprietary formulas for individualizing music consumption.14
Amidst the variety of attempts to narrow-cast, satellite responds to
both FM and streaming music services through the welcome return of
the deejay. Whether you are tuning in to any one of the many shows
hosted by celebrity presenters, enjoying the philosophical and historical
musings of Little Steven or one of his hosts on the Underground Garage,
or enduring the patter of the jocks on Disney – you can often find an
actual person spinning tunes and talking to you. A trip across the digital spectrum reveals shows by Tom Petty, Mojo Nixon, Bernie Taupin,
Bob Dylan, Cousin Brucie, and more, along with the regular spate of
non-celebrity hosts. And these hosts frequently distinguish themselves
through their level of personal engagement. Discussing “Little Steven’s
Underground Garage,” the two-hour syndicated FM show from which
the Underground Garage channel emerged, Ann Johnson (2010) notes
“the abundance of historical and musical details about the artists and
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songs. In an average two-hour episode, Van Zandt offers over thirty minutes of commentary” (p. 583). Featuring wry observations, jokes, and artful
selection of songs, the Tom Petty show “Buried Treasures,” in fact, became
so popular that it now has its own dedicated channel. Such developments suggest a return to the idea that a radio show has a distinctive
character and that you might be tempted to make time to listen. This
presenter-driven programming is also a revolt against the car radio as
background noise, there to provide a steady stream of fairly predictable sonic wallpaper for your life. The re-emergence of the deejay as
a distinctive character functions as part of satellite’s anti-commercial
aesthetic: not beholden to a single, restricted demographic profile and
the advertisers who want to reach it, SiriusXM has the luxury to offer
spontaneous talk by presenters.
Revitalizing the presenter, moving toward openness in format, and
destabilizing genre categories, satellite radio evokes a clear historical
echo. At its advent in the late 1950s, Top-40 AM radio aimed squarely
at the burgeoning teen pop market. By the mid-1960s, however, the
once-radical Top-40 format had worn itself thin, with its frenzied patter
by clock-obsessed deejays and relentless spinning of a narrow range of
hits (Douglas, 1999, p. 254). In that context, FM intervened with a radical alternative: deejays who were able to set their playlists, often full of
album tracks too long and too obscure for AM stations, and who could
spend air-time talking to listeners about mature subjects. In a sense,
as the counter-culture came of age, so did its taste for both music and
political/social commentary. While young teens still followed the manic
hijinks of Top-40 stations, their slightly older brothers and sisters were
awakening to a darker reality, involving issues of war, lack of civil rights,
and women’s inequality (Fisher, 2007, pp. 134–5). In this sense, FM delivered the soundtrack to the countercultural revolution – and of course,
it didn’t hurt that FM was far superior to AM in sound quality as well.
In contemporary culture, satellite radio hearkens back to that era of
revolution as it breaks with FM formatting. As in the 1960s, it is a new
mode of delivery – this time in the form of satellite broadcast – that has
allowed for radical shifts in radio practice. With the means to deliver
not just one channel but literally hundreds, SiriusXM has the ability to
multicast to reach relatively diverse audiences. In this sense the goal of
satellite radio is diametrically opposed to commercial radio: rather than
trying to reach a narrowly defined audience with a single channel, try to
reach as many audiences as you can with as many channels as you can
broadcast. Replicating the great moment of freedom at the emergence
of FM in the 1960s, satellite radio thus promises an escape both from
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commerce and from the seemingly inflexible boundaries of over-the-air
radio. In part, then, along with its aura of innovation, SiriusXM grounds
its appeal in nostalgia for the lost values of freedom and serendipity
associated with radio’s past.
Such investment in nostalgia brings contradictions, of course. It is
true that satellite broadcast largely does away with what many consider
the most annoying feature of over-the-air radio: commercials. But listeners have to pay for the privilege of expanding their music horizons
and for maintaining the illusion of anti-commercialism. In this respect,
SiriusXM has, paradoxically, commodified the anti-consumer aesthetic
that drove 1960s free-form FM. The fact that listeners have to pay for
something – music on the radio – that has traditionally been free is
concealed in automatic monthly payments, minimizing reminders that
you actually spend money to avoid advertising. The need to pay for the
service also means that the audience does have economic boundaries:
if SiriusXM doesn’t run many ads, the company nonetheless has a clear
marketing strategy aimed at particular audiences. Given the playlists and
the price-tag, the satellite audience must include a large contingent of
affluent baby boomers willing to pay for the experience of commercialfree radio that caters extensively to their tastes, whether it be for sports,
comedy, talk radio, or the many rock channels that focus on music from
their era. These listeners are slightly older, slightly wealthier consumers on whom over-the-air stations don’t necessarily focus anyway. The
musical side of satellite radio includes restrictions as well, as the microgenres and eclectic formats certainly aren’t without boundaries: aside
perhaps from the Latino channels, SiriusXM hardly offers anything
that we would call world music, for example. Finally, and perhaps most
problematic, satellite radio works in tandem with FM conglomerates
such as Clear Channel to decrease the presence of local culture on
the air. If the audience is national or global, what’s lost is the sense of
addressing a local community, with its distinctive attractions, politics,
economy, and climate.15 Even operating within such contradictions
and constraints, however, satellite broadcasting has proved remarkably
successful, particularly in the automobile.
The listening space provided by the contemporary automobile, of
course, cannot be considered aside from its general technological evolution. Simply as a means of personal transportation, today’s car offers
an increasingly safe and predictable experience. The rear-view cameras,
airbags, automatic breaking sensors, and ultra-quiet interiors insulate
drivers not only from physical danger and general annoyances but also
from many of the sensations and pleasures traditionally associated with
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motoring. This separation from the environment will likely find its
ultimate expression in self-driving automobiles, which – given programming to assess the risks of various roadway scenarios – may ultimately
even threaten to take ethical decisions away from drivers (Lin, 2013). It
is within this context that listening and being entertained while driving
assume crucial roles, both for marketers and consumers.
Although many of the physical and psychological associations of driving itself – such as mobility, freedom, adventure – are being constricted,
these qualities are simultaneously being reconstituted as an aesthetic
experience of the interior space of the automobile.16 Karin Bijsterveld
(2010), for example, offers a compelling analysis of the car’s sonic space,
engineered precisely to distinguish brands and convey specific emotional resonance to consumers (p. 202). In its current design, she argues,
the automobile functions as a sanctuary from the assaults of the everyday world and provides a personal acoustic cocoon: in so doing, the car
may provide a “last bastion of privacy” as it affords you “control over
your acoustic environment” (p. 191). And such auditory privacy and
control not only defines the interior space of the car, but also constitutes an experience of “personally possessed time” for harried or bored
drivers/listeners (Bull, 2003, p. 365). For satellite radio subscribers, the
wide swath of channels undergirds this sense of power, since they get
to choose, fairly specifically, the type of programming and music that
serves their needs in the moment.
Still, along with recuperating a sense of control and privacy, satellite
radio simultaneously proffers a space of imaginative freedom and exploration. While driving the car itself has become a more regimented and
controlled experience, the options for listening re-open possibilities for
discovery. Describing the appeal of satellite programming, deejay Jim
Ladd – a refugee from over-the-air FM – sings the praise of “free form”
presenting on SiriusXM: “What was once a creative and rebellious art
form has become a boring, repetitive machine. Rock is supposed to be
fun. It’s supposed to be unpredictable. And it’s supposed to be a little dangerous. And SiriusXM is re-revolutionizing rock radio by giving me more
freedom than I’ve ever had” (Pham, 2012). Ladd here succinctly captures
the emotional charge packaged in a car equipped with satellite radio:
it is fun, unpredictable, and slightly dangerous, infused with a sense of
freedom and revolution. Such qualities emerge partly in SiriusXM’s challenge to other platforms: the reinvention of genres and formats, the extensive playlists, the deejays supplying context, humor, and deep passion for
the music – these elements, and the emotional connections they invoke,
allow both the car and the radio to hearken back to a more radical past.
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At this historical moment, SiriusXM has staked its claim to an alternative idea of what radio could be. So far, it has been successful in
recruiting new subscribers and has begun aggressively maneuvering
into that other, older domain of radio: the home itself. But radio in all
its forms faces a murky future. Will a significant number of listeners
remain willing to pay for the satellite experience? How will satellite
radio fare as the technology for using streaming services in the car
becomes more common? How big is the audience that doesn’t necessary want to have its taste endlessly confirmed by algorithm-defined
playlists? Answers to those questions will only emerge as new listening
platforms and habits spread. For now, satellite is banking on its success
mixing deejays, deep playlists, and freer formatting. The consequence
of such innovative programming has been the birth of the hybrid
techno-automobile as a listening space. In its current configuration,
equipped with SiriusXm radio, the car not only conjures speed, power,
autonomy, and sex, but also the fortuitous joy of discovered music. By
wedding the car’s promise of travel and freedom to a sonic landscape,
satellite radio sells both a nostalgic recovery of what’s been heard
before and the promise of surprising new delights ahead, just a little
further down the road.
Notes
1. A more recent study of automobile listening puts the SiriusXM audience at
18 percent, versus 67 percent for broadcast radio (Hill, 2014).
2. A recent Edison Research and Triton Digital study further revealed that “In
2014, 26% of mobile phone users have connected devices to a vehicle, either
physically or via Bluetooth, up from 21% in 2013” (Webster, 2014).
3. The most ominous sign for AM/FM broadcasters surely must be what’s happening with the next generation of listeners. A recent Edison study – based on
one-day audio diaries – reports that teenagers aged 13–17 spend on average
64 minutes per day listening to streaming audio programs, versus 54 minutes
per day on over-the-air or streaming AM/FM radio (Hill, 2014).
4. In 2014, the chief financial officer of SiriusXM, David Frear, ruled out expansion to European or other world markets given the prohibitive start-up costs
as well as the lack of the larger, comparatively more homogenous culture of
the United States (Forrester, 2014).
5. For a thorough treatment of genre issues and an insightful survey of the
critical literature, see Fabian Holt’s Genres in Popular Music (2007).
6. The list reflects content on Siriusxm.com as of October 8, 2014. For the purposes of this study, I have used SiriusXM radio and the All Access package.
Satellite broadcasts are also available on two other models of radio – Sirius
and XM – but the differences between the music offerings are slight. And
of course, other listening packages are available with fewer channels; however, I am interested in the categorization of the broadest number of music
channels, which the All Access package offers.
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7. A further irony: the “Party” category, with eleven channels, exists only
online. One imagines thousands of house parties hosted by a whole underground of urban, tech-savvy young people, with no cars, raving through
the night, listening to the classics, oldies, punk – everything that has been
shoveled into this format.
8. See Taylor and Morin’s Pew study “Forty Years after Woodstock, a Gentler
Generation Gap” (2009), which reports that rock is the favorite genre of
every age group in the U.S. except those over 65.
9. As Deleuze and Guattari make clear, a fragmented system can nonetheless
appeal to a larger sense of an organic – perhaps circular or spiral – whole,
while a true multiplicity “has neither subject nor object, only determinations, magnitudes, and dimensions that cannot increase in number without
the multiplicity changing in nature (the laws of combination therefore
increase in number as the multiplicity grows)” (1987, p. 8).
10. Fabian Holt places these developments in a larger philosophical context
when he contends that “The erosion of cultural hierarchies and the massive
increase in the circulation of cultural products have created new forms of
categorical complexity and given rise to critical reactions against the large
philosophical systems of Western modernity” (2007, p. 6).
11. In Simon Frith’s discussion of genre function, he notes the competing and
sometimes contradictory work done by genre as employed by artists, record
companies, record stores, radio stations, music writers, and fans – in other
words, those who are playing, selling, and listening to music (1996, pp.
88–9). In the case of satellite radio, we can see the complication of broad
genre distinctions as an attempt to serve those fans/audiences who were
unhappily affiliated with industry offerings. More cynically, we might see
satellite as largely catering to the tastes of older audiences (particularly
rockers) in whom the contemporary music scene has lost interest.
12. I don’t want to suggest that such proliferation of categories is a new development, but rather that technology has allowed it to happen in a novel way
for a broader spectrum of listeners. Frith, for example, notes how music publishers in the early 20th century employed multiple, sometimes non-musical
characteristics in defining an array of labels for types of songs (1996, p. 76).
13. This and all subsequent playlist data comes from dogstarradio.com, the
primary site for cataloging what gets played on satellite radio.
14. Pandora (n.d.) touts its Music Genome Project, “the most sophisticated
taxonomy of musical information ever collected,” in which every song is
coded for a host of qualities by live human beings. Does it really matter? This
classification system still aims to hit the same target as a digital analysis: a
playlist following a particular pattern of mood, tempo, emotional sonority,
instrumental style, etc. The premise of all such systems is ultimately convergence – how can musical data be sliced so thin that I hear more of what
I already know I like? An alternative approach, generally found left of the
dial, if at all, might raise the issue of divergence: how do I discover something
genuinely different, which exceeds the bounds of my declared tastes?
15. Bill McKibben presents this argument against the flattening effect of satellite
radio – as opposed to the multitude of local cultures represented through
online radio broadcasts: “Just like the Clear Channel stations, it [satellite]
surrenders the thing that makes radio so magical: connection to a community” (2007, p. 134).
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16. For a critical reading of this development, see Michael Bull’s overview of
the theory that technological products of the culture industry replace “the
subject’s sense of the social, community or the sense of place” (2003, p. 363).
References
Bijsterveld, K. (2010) Acoustic Cocooning: How the Car Became a Place to
Unwind. Senses & Society 5 (2), pp. 189–211.
Bruno, A. and Tucker, K. (2008) Now Comes the Hard Part. Billboard 120 (32),
9 September, p. 6.
Bull, M. (2003) Soundscapes of the Car: A Critical Study of Automobile
Habitation. In: Bull, M. and Black, L. (eds.), The Auditory Culture Reader. Oxford:
Berg, pp. 357–74.
Calem, R. (2013) The Future of Car Radio. I³ IT is Innovation, 22 October (online).
Available from: http://www.ce.org/i3/Features/2013/September-October/TheFuture-of-Car-Radio.aspx (accessed 11 December 2014).
Davidovich, J. and Silver, M. (2005) Attack of Jack Radio. U.S. News & World
Report. 139 (14), 17 October (online). Available from: Academic Search Complete
(accessed 24 November 2014).
Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1987) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia.
Trans. B. Massumi. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Douglas, S. J. (1999) Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination. New York:
Random House.
Fisher, M. (2007) Something in the Air: Radio, Rock, and the Revolution that Shaped
a Generation. New York: Random House.
Fitzpatrick, R. (2014) From Charred Death to Deep Filthstep: The 1,264 Genres
that Make Modern Music. The Guardian, 4 September (online). Available from:
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2014).
Forrester, C. (2014) Sirius-XM Rules Out International Expansion. Advanced
Television, 4 June (online). Available from: http://advanced-television.com/2014/
06/04/sirius-xm-rules-out-international-expansion/ (accessed 15 May 2015).
Frith, S. (1996) Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music. Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press.
Garofalo, R. (2007) Pop Goes to War, 2001–2004: U.S. Popular Music After 9/11.
In: Ritter, J. and Daughtry, M. (eds.), Music in the Post-9/11 World. New York:
Routledge, pp. 3–26.
Hendy, D. (2000) Radio in the Global Age. Cambridge: Polity.
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Hill, B. (2015) Streaming Audio Now Bigger than AM/FM for Teens: New Edison
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everynoise.com/engenremap.html (accessed 25 November 2014).
McKibben, B. (2007) Radio Free Everywhere. The Atlantic, December, pp. 130–5.
Palenchar, J. (2013) Survey: Online Radio Use in Car Still Growing. Twice, 22
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4
The Internet and the Death
of Jazz: Race, Improvisation,
and the Crisis of Community
Margret Grebowicz
In his landmark 1994 study Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of
Improvisation, Paul Berliner describes American jazz as a community
cutting across “boundaries defined by age, class, vocation, and ethnicity.” This includes the core of the community, those players focused
on playing only jazz professionally, as well as more peripheral groups,
like professional musicians who play not only jazz but also other genres professionally, semi-professional players with day jobs (“weekend
warriors”), and jazz fans. “It is their abiding love for the music that
binds this diverse population together” (Berliner, 1994, p. 36). Twenty
years later, jazz community can no longer be described in such unified
terms. Many contemporary musicians and fans are unified around the
idea that jazz-the-artform is dead. Perhaps not dead and buried, but
at least stuffed in the taxidermic sense, museified in a sort of jazz diorama. No example illustrates this better than that of the International
Thelonious Monk Competition, held every year for a different instrument. A running joke in the scene is that if Thelonious Monk were
alive today, he would stand no chance of winning the Monk piano
competition, because the music, which was once black, avant-garde
music like Monk’s, has become demographically white, aesthetically
white-washed, more subject than ever to commercial pressures, and
controlled by conservatories.
There is no question that jazz is in trouble, and the point of this
chapter is not to restate the obvious. The precise cause of that trouble is difficult to isolate and even the exact shape of it is not so easy
to describe. Esperanza Spalding’s Grammy for Best New Artist, for
instance, was for some a reason to celebrate, a sign that the public has
finally embraced jazz. For others, it meant merely that her music is in
fact commercial, and the awards have once again gone to the sellouts,
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while the real jazz players and composers, the ones who challenge us
aesthetically, intellectually, and sometimes even politically, continue
to wallow in un-Grammied obscurity. For a good dose of the latter,
one need only to check in daily with the anonymous blogger who
goes by the name “jazzistheworst,” and whose dark, ironic tweets have
become a staple of jokes among jazz musicians on social media, like
“#FightingForScraps” and “The average age of the Newport Jazz Fest
audience is ‘deceased’” (Twitter/jazzistheworst 2015). The author of
the blog is a jazz musician, judging by the amount of insider information, and it is interesting to note that musicians love circulating these
tweets and blog entries. In the hands of the players themselves, the
pronouncement that jazz is in fact “the worst” has become something
like a form of resistance, precisely when the music itself has ceased to
be resistant enough.
Many deaths of jazz have been announced at the hands of the
Internet. Most famously, the Internet means the death of record labels.
Anyone can self-produce a record, which means the loss of the old meritocratic weeding out mechanism that labels ostensibly provided. Jazz is
also dead because artists can no longer count on record sales for a sizeable portion of their income. This affects everyone, from bandleaders
to side musicians. Incomes are falling steadily, causing more and more
players to look for work teaching privately and trying to get university
positions, many of which take them away from urban areas, which are
the only places to gig. Heated debates about the deaths and rebirths of
jazz take place on Facebook, the very place where musicians announce
their gigs. But technologies are themselves non-innocent. They do not
merely reflect these debates and conversations back to us, but bring to
the table their own, built-in imaginaries of community by definition.
Thus, as jazz musicians talk to each other about the scene, the fact that
they do it as a mode of belonging to social networks matters to the question of what is said. In what follows, I attempt to map the effects of this
on jazz with special attention to the online debates about race in the
contemporary scene. My working hypothesis: that the modes of sociality created by the Internet shape what counts as being-in-community
today, which in turn affects the relational aspects of improvisation. This
chapter is not a critique of online jazz communities, but of the effects
of Internet and social media more generally on this particular form of
music today, down to the playing itself. To understand the gentrification of jazz1 we must look beyond economic factors and the backdrop
of American race politics, and more closely at exactly how the Internet
shapes social “life.”
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Black American Music and Stuff White People Like
Social media conversations about jazz appear divisive and inflammatory. But what counts as agreement and division becomes less obvious with a closer look. For example, rather than alienating people,
Jazzistheworst.blogspot.com has engendered a sort of community
moment, all of us sharing a laugh at our own expense, a brief reprieve
from the alienation and frustration that otherwise marks the jazz musician’s daily experience. A few years before, the YouTube video “Jazz
Robots” (2010) went jazz-viral, satirizing the common (and exclusive)
lingo jazz musicians continue to use. It was literally a joke that only
players could understand. Among the most notorious attempts to
stabilize jazz identity on the Internet is the ongoing attempt to race
the genre: is jazz today the music of black Americans (as it was “originally”), white Americans (as the music school graduation stats seem to
indicate), white Europeans (who famously provide the best audiences
and funding for jazz), or some happy postracial collective of all of the
above? Blogging, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube provide the stage for
this controversy.
One notable example is the Nicholas Payton/Wynton Marsalis blog
debate about the relationship between the names “jazz” and “black
American music” (or “#bam” as Payton calls it). Marsalis has been sort
of appointed by Ken Burns (and, some would argue, self-appointed)
to be the ambassador of jazz, but specifically of jazz understood as
rooted in “the tradition.” As artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center,
he has consistently failed to represent the music as living and changing, excluding jazz that departs from the tradition in significant ways
from his version of the canon. He is famous and celebrated for this
by the public at large, but many jazz musicians blame him for the
museification of the music and thus for ever-smaller audiences and
interest from young people. The typical audience for a Jazz at Lincoln
Center concert is elderly, white, and wealthy – a definite sign that
jazz is dead, many would argue. Nicholas Payton (2014), on the other
hand, describes himself as a black postmodern musician and refuses
to use the word “jazz” because of its racist, colonial history. From his
website:
The #BAM movement created by Nicholas states the revolutionary,
yet evident, idea that music of the Black American diaspora is more
similar than dissimilar. Black American Music speaks of his and all
music descending from the Black American experience, including
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spirituals, gospel, blues, so-called jazz and soul…. Hailed as The Savior
of Archaic Pop, Payton is rooted in tradition, yet isn’t stuck there.
Both Marsalis and Payton hail from New Orleans and play the trumpet. At stake in the online disagreement between them is not only the
nature and future of jazz, but the nature and future of blackness and
the consumption of black culture by white audiences. And although
they remain in a sort of public dispute, many would claim that Payton
and Marsalis are not at all very different from each other, both carrying
on the authority of the black jazz trumpet player, a figure onto which
so many fantasies have been projected, and both in fact “stuck” in the
tradition. Jazzistheworst (2014) writes that, like Miles Davis, Payton has
managed to alienate white audiences:
Historically, Miles Davis did a great job of alienating the audience by
refusing to acknowledge their very existence; playing with his back
to them. Today it’s a little harder to maintain that distance while
giving Jazz fans access to your life and opinions via social media. I’d
like to praise Nicholas Payton for doing a fantastic job at alienating
the audience while maintaining an online presence with his blog. By
renaming Jazz into “Black American Music”, he’s alienated a whopping 85% of the audience; who are white. He also does this brilliantly
by accusing anyone and everyone of being racist, while maintaining
white people have never added anything through the entire course
of Music history. I know for this reason I can’t wait for his upcoming
album “Fuck white people” to drop in late 2015. But chasing after blackness has had the opposite effect, drawing white
audiences more powerfully than ever. On stuffwhitepeoplelike.com
(2008), for instance, we learn that white people like “Black music that
Black people don’t listen to anymore,” the worst of which is Jazz,
followed by The Blues (deftly capitalized by the authors) and old school
hip-hop.
Historically speaking, the music that white people have kept on life
support for the longest period of time is Jazz. Every few months,
a white person will put on some Jazz and pour themselves a glass
of wine or scotch and tell themselves how nice it is. Then they will
get bored and watch television or write emails to other white people
about how nice it was to listen to Jazz at home. “Last night, I poured
myself a glass of Shiraz and put Charlie Parker on the Bose. It was
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so relaxing, I wish I had a fireplace.” Listing this activity as one of
your favorites is a sure fire way to make progress towards a romantic
relationship with a white person.
Then there’s the issue of the players themselves. The future of jazz is
arguably bright white: today’s young players are mainly white men
with music degrees. They leave relatively sheltered upper-middle-class
suburban childhoods all over America and move to New York City,
many with trust funds, to attend very expensive music schools. The
film Whiplash (2014) received passionate criticism in jazz circles for
being unrepresentative because its protagonist is precisely a young
white man studying jazz drumming at a New York City conservatory,
surrounded by other white male students and dreaming of following in
the footsteps of celebrated, white big band drummer, Buddy Rich. Many
objected to how disconnected the students’ learning process was from
jazz reality, which is black, small group, and avant garde, but arguably
(completely bypassing the drama between the student and his sadistic
teacher, as well as the absurd footage of the protagonist’s practice sessions), Whiplash depicts today’s jazz conservatory culture, the first stage
in the ongoing gentrification of jazz, pretty accurately.
But there are fifty shades of white, as one discovers watching the
satirical YouTube video series called “Hans Groiner Plays Monk” (2007)
in which the white, Jewish jazz pianist Larry Goldings dresses up as an
Austrian pianist, who is so offended by the music of Thelonious Monk
that he reharmonizes it, thereby removing everything that makes the
music gritty, challenging, and rhythmically strange. Reharmonizing
standards is a common practice in contemporary jazz, and almost every
new record that comes out includes arrangements of known tunes. The
videos, which went jazz-viral a few years ago, position the American
jazz player (the implicit viewer) as somehow less white than the clownish, platinum blond European on display. The implication is that even
though jazz musicians and audiences are overwhelmingly white, with
Goldings himself as a great example, at least they’re not this white.
There is always someone whiter than the white American jazz musician,
namely the foreigner, usually European or perhaps Asian, both groups
that currently heavily populate the conservatories.
Melancholy longing for a lost blackness, a longing whose correlate
is an aversive paranoia about whiteness, especially one’s own, is ironically becoming deeper the more we participate in the very technologies
which mark this particular neoliberal late capitalist moment. Many
white musicians are arguably even more focused on the blackness of jazz
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than Wynton and Payton are, blogging about the need to check out the
tradition and to learn about its roots, whether those be in Africa or the
black church.2 Meanwhile what is emerging in response to this is a sort
of safe, gentrified version of black music, which continues to fulfill white
fantasies of blackness. For example, Banana Republic chose three musicians of color for their 2009 vimeo ad campaign “City Stories,” which
was ostensibly supposed to show urban blackness, appeal to young people, and offer proof that jazz is still hip. They strategically chose three
people of color, Esperanza Spalding, Miguel Zenon, and David Sanchez,
but all three are light skinned, mixed race people. They are not too
black, a point underscored by their being dressed in the whitest, most
suburban clothes in the world, namely Banana Republic. And there are
several other stories of avant-garde black music completely missing from
the conversation, ones not as easily linkable to New Orleans, gospel,
commercial funk, R &B, and what counts as black music today: Ornette
Coleman, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Sun Ra, George Lewis, and Anthony
Braxton are just the first and most immediate names to come to mind.
Perhaps because it is historically too connected to the white avant garde,
and thus to European art, this African American art music tradition is
consistently excluded from today’s debates about jazz and race.
Rather than settling any of these issues in the present chapter, I am
interested in why we desire to settle them today, perhaps even more
strongly than in the past. I suspect this desire is symptomatic of the
panic around social life that is connected to Internet technology.
In other words, the race conversation is about a lot more than just race.
An expression of a desire for a common ancestry, it is also about community (musicians of all races agreeing that the music is “really” black,
for example) and thus a shared project, or common values. But for jazz,
this crisis of community has special consequences, if Berliner is right
that “for almost a century the jazz community has functioned as a large
educational system for producing, preserving, and transmitting musical knowledge,” from apprenticeships to jam sessions to the culture of
sitting in and finally to professional affiliations (Berliner, 1994, p. 37).
Furthermore, since the social is so operative in small group improvised
music, anxiety around social life necessarily affects the music itself at
the most basic level, the level of the playing.
Alone Together: Reprise
What exactly is a community? Crises of community are nothing new.
French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy describes community as divided
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into two levels, the level of the imaginary and that of the actual labor
of community. On the level of the imaginary, all communities are in a
sense lost, and striving for greater unification.
The lost, or broken community can be exemplified in all kinds of
ways, by all kinds of paradigms: the natural family, the Athenian city,
the Roman Republic, the first Christian community, corporations,
communes, or brotherhoods – always it is a matter of a lost age in
which community was woven of tight, harmonious, and infrangible
bonds and in which above all it played back to itself, through its
institutions, its rituals, and its symbols, the representation, indeed the
living offering, of its own immanent unity, intimacy, and autonomy.
(Nancy, 1991, p. 9)
That lost age never existed, but the longing for it is built deeply into
Western social imaginaries. Today’s crisis in jazz echoes something like
this, playing back to itself Berliner’s fantasy of a brotherhood unified by
love (if not for each other, then for the music). Alongside the imaginary,
we remain engaged in the labor of community, the logic of which must
be understood otherwise, he argues. Nancy’s notion of “inoperative
community” shows that community is not an entity, but a being-with,
a movement of unworking and incompletion. Community can never
be anything but incompletion, because only incompletion allows for
singularities to be-with each other, rather than being alone. “It is not
a matter of making, producing, or instituting a community; nor is it a
matter of venerating or fearing within it a sacred power – it is a matter
of incompleting its sharing. Sharing is always incomplete or it is beyond
completion and incompletion. For a complete sharing implies the disappearance of what is shared” (Nancy, 1991, p. 35, emphasis mine).
Community is always and by definition open to rearticulation.
If Nancy is right that sharing implies the impossibility of completion, we can begin to see how the fantasy of community manifested in
today’s social networking culture actually works against the possibility
of being-with. Sherri Turkle’s critique of social media, Alone Together:
Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (2012), by
some happy coincidence named after one of the best-loved standards
for musicians to call at jam sessions, describes technologically mediated
relationships as relationships “the way we want them,” reminding us
that real relationships are unstable, destabilizing, unpredictable, and
often painful. In other words, love hurts, but not on the Internet. She
argues that contemporary technology reveals, speaks to, and produces
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fear of intimacy and what she calls “fatigue with the difficulties of life
with people” (Turkle, 2012, p. 10).
While Turkle focuses on how technology constructs a particular
experience of other people (“the way we want them”), Jonathan Crary’s
book 24/7 (2014) zeroes in on the experience of time in late capitalism, offering a different spin on exactly how the Internet forecloses
the possibility of community. The 24/7 non-time of capitalism necessarily interferes with any possibility of being-with one another. As the
Internet appears to create conditions of sharing finally free of the pesky
constraints of human time and human life cycles, simply because anyone can virtually reach out and touch someone anywhere and at any
time, these technologies actually impede the possibility of authentic
relation, creating instead conditions of radical individualism and the
breakdown of the experience of time in common. “Self-fashioning is the
work we are all given, and we dutifully comply with the prescription
continually to reinvent ourselves and manage our intricate identities”
(Crary, 2014, p. 72). We are told that without an online presence, we
will disappear, professionally and socially, a threat which, taken to its
logical end, results in a society of people hungry for social co-existence,
terrified of ceasing to be “in common” with each other, but stuck in a
cycle of compulsive self-fashioning, thereby working against the work
of being-with. If it may be said that there is a mode of being-with that
characterizes Facebook, it is a contradiction: what we share is an incapacity to share, as we share the mania for fashioning ourselves. Crary
adds to this what he calls 24/7 temporality, the time of late capitalism,
“a switched-on universe for which no off-switch exists.”
Of course, no individual can ever be shopping, gaming, working, blogging, downloading, or texting 24/7. However, since no moment, place,
or situation now exists in which one can not shop, consume, or exploit
networked resources, there is a relentless incursion of the non-time of
24/7 into every aspect of social or personal life. There are, for example,
almost no circumstances now that can not be recorded or archived as
digital imagery or information…. One inhabits a world in which longstanding notions of shared experience atrophy, and yet one never
actually attains the gratifications or rewards promised by the most
recent technological options. In spite of the omnipresent proclamations of compatibility, even harmonization, between human time
and the temporalities of networked systems, the lived realities of this
relationship are disjunctions, fractures, and continual disequilibrium.
(Crary, 2014, pp. 30–1)
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To be clear, the issue is not that there is some substratum of authentic existence underneath the facades that appear in social networking.
Crary is not calling for a return to some more natural, pretechnological
existence. But there are aspects of being alive which actively frustrate
the logic of Internet circulation, and it is those aspects of being alive that
are necessary for intersubjective experience in general, and specifically
for the intersubjectivity that improvisation requires.
Strangers in the Night: Improvisation and Visibility
Why is “Jazz Robots” funny? Is it because robots can’t improvise, and
so we laugh at them? Or is it because everyone sounds the same these
days and thus, to quote Kraftwerk, “we are the robots” and the joke is
on us? Turkle reminds us that “we insert robots into every narrative
of human frailty. People make too many demands; robot demands
would be of a more manageable sort. People disappoint, robots will
not” (Turkle, 2012, p. 10). Once again, in contrast to Turkle, Crary’s
critique has different consequences for jazz than the more obvious
point that improvising requires a degree of vulnerability that we ascribe
only to humans (correctly or not). His point is that such vulnerability
is the result of interaction, of being-with. In fact, one of the strengths
of Crary’s critique is that it doesn’t commit him to any claims about
what it is to be human, or how exactly humans are not robots. We do
not fail at sociality because of the atrophying of some human quality
or other, but because of the atrophying of social life itself, a slow death
that results specifically from 24/7 visibility.
To extend this to jazz, the constant surveillance introduced by social
technologies is anathema to the way jazz has historically existed in
sites of non-visibility, from the darkness of nightclubs, to the deliberate
opacity and inaccessibility of the avant garde. This non-visibility was
historically overtly related to questions of race, in ways that may be
more productive for debates in the scene today than the well-rehearsed
refrain about African origins. Returning to the (as we have seen, contested) figure of the black jazz trumpeter, when Miles Davis famously
performed with his back to audiences, it was not only an aesthetic or
technical choice – because, as every performer knows, it is much more
comfortable and intimate to perform facing one’s rhythm section than
with one’s back to it – but also a political one. In contrast to images
of Louis Armstrong, which indulged white expectations of a certain
minstrel-show like, highly visible blackness, Miles literally turned away
from the white gaze. He became an icon, of course, but the blackness he
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presents is qualitatively different from that presented by images of black
musicians prior to the 1940s. This change is inextricably bound to the
shift in the music from commodifiable dance music for the enjoyment
of white audiences to the coolness and intellectualism of bebop and
much of what came afterwards.
But the more elusive sense in which visibility and jazz do not mix is
really at the heart of my critique: 24/7 visibility is directly incompatible with improvisation. By “improvisation,” I do not mean the jazz
language that one learns in school and then deploys at jam sessions.
I mean that nameless, elusive thing that sometimes, if rarely, comes
about during improvising with people. That thing (?) has many names,
but for the sake of simplicity I will follow the French philosophers in
calling it “the event.” Jean-Francois Lyotard writes that what characterizes an event, the event-ality of events, is not the sense that something
big or important is happening, but that everything is suspended and we
are left wondering “is it happening?” It is this quality of suspension that
is fundamentally incommensurable with visibility and nameability, and
is thus incompatible with the Internet. The is it happening?, suspended
interminably in question form, is also what makes improvisation irreducibly relational. From this perspective, improvising with others is less
a matter of aesthetics, and more a matter of ethics.
A popular misconception about improvisation is that it results in
something unique and completely new. To the contrary, Jacques Derrida
(1982) shows that improvisation can take place only in conditions of
repetition and recognizability:
It’s not easy to improvise, it’s the most difficult thing to do. Even
when one improvises in front of a camera or microphone, one ventriloquizes or leaves another to speak in one’s place the schemas and
languages that are already there. There are already a great number of
prescriptions that are prescribed in our memory and in our culture.
All the names are already preprogrammed. It’s already the names that
inhibit our ability to ever really improvise. One can’t say whatever
one wants, one is obliged more or less to reproduce the stereotypical
discourse.
Because improvisation is possible only by means of the repetition of
preexisting language, there is no true self of the soloist to access at that
moment. Derrida (1982) continues, “And there, where there is improvisation I am not able to see myself. I am blind to myself…. It’s for others to see. The one who is improvised here, no, I won’t ever see him.”
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The true self of the improviser is accessible only to other, and not to
herself. Improvisation thus creates something not subject to circulation
and exchange, not by creating something absolutely unique in time
and space, or something proper to the player (“self-expression”), but
something recalcitrant and not subject to disciplinary control. And it
is the essential recalcitrance of the improvising self that makes improvisation
an experience of sharing, or of the necessary incompleteness that constitutes
community. I am at that very moment precisely not able to see myself,
and from this follows the possibility of being-with others.
Finally, it is not only the self that becomes recalcitrant, but also the
environment. Environmental theorist Timothy Morton writes about
improvisation as a form of what he calls “the ecological thought,”
ecological because it overflows reality, imagines different worlds, and
is ruled by the uncanny encounter with strange strangers. In both
cases, the point is that something happens which frustrates vision and
comprehension, exceeds it, and places us somewhere strange. When
improvisation happens, we are not at home. Far from providing an
experience of presence, or truth, or authenticity, much less anything
like self-expression or “be here now,” improvisation is the fundamental
breakdown of the self, the ground, and the world. Morton links this
to what he calls “the poetics of anywhere” (Morton, 2010, p. 50). The
closer we look at our location – the here – the more we realize that it is
shot through with the possibility of being anywhere, and the more we
seek to know the stranger, the stranger they appear.
Concluding Remarks
Thus, the death of jazz at the hands of the Internet won’t have been
about the economic shifts that result from filesharing, and the whitening of jazz won’t have been merely the latest example of how white
America steals the best of black culture. Internet sociality, an atrophied
sociality that forecloses the interstitial nature of being-with and thus
precludes community, is at the heart of the present ostensibly postracial
moment. To eulogize jazz by focusing solely on changes in the market
is to treat the music as if it remained intact through these social and
economic shifts. But it does not remain intact. The deep relationality of jazz suffers when the social becomes atrophied, compromised,
shallow. Contemporary technologies effect a cultural shift away from
investment in non-visibility, incompleteness, opacity, and recalcitrance.
Because of this we face a much more serious crisis of community than
one gathers from blogs and tweets bemoaning dissensus in the scene or
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the loss of black roots, or (usually) both. The more serious crisis is the
one faced by improvisation itself, and the real danger to jazz is not that
it might die, but its zombie apocalypse, the undeath of jazz, its continued taxidermic, museified, nonliving existence, presented in today’s
music market as the real deal.
Notes
1. I thank Mark Ferber for this phrase.
2. See for instance Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson’s (2015) response to Whiplash
on his blog “Do The Math,” currently very popular with musicians.
Bibliography
Banana Republic. (2009) City Stories (online). Available from: http://vimeo.com/
19938906 (accessed January 1, 2015).
Berliner, Paul F. (1994) Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation. Chicago, IL:
University of Chicago Press.
Crary, J. (2014) 24/7. New York: Verso Books.
Derrida, J. (1982) Unpublished Interview (1982) (online). Available from: http://
www.derridathemovie.com/readings.html (accessed January 1, 2015).
Groiner, Hans (2007) Hans Groiner: The Music of Thelonious Monk, vol. 1
(online). Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=51bsCRv6kI0
(accessed January 1, 2015).
Iverson, E. (2015) The Drum Thing, or a Brief History of Whiplash, or ‘I’m
Generalizing Here’ (online). Available from: http://dothemath.typepad.com/
dtm/the-drum-thing.html (accessed March 13, 2015).
Jazzistheworst. (2014) How to Become a Successful Jazz Musician in 2015 (online).
Available from: http://jazzistheworst.blogspot.com/2014/12/how-to-becomesuccessful-jazz-musician.html (accessed March 14, 2015).
Jazzistheworst. (2015) (Online). Available from: http://twitter/jazzistheworst
(accessed March 13, 2015).
Jazz Robots. (2010) Two jazz musicians talk about their recent gig (online).
Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c1fWJKaUZ_4 (accessed
January 1, 2015).
Morton, T. (2010) The Ecological Thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Nancy, J.-L. (1991) The Inoperative Community. Trans. Peter Connon et al.
Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Payton, Nicholas (2014) (Online). Available at: http://www.nicholaspayton.com/
(accessed January 15, 2014).
Stuffwhitepeoplelike. (2008) #116 Black Music That Black People Don’t Listen To
Anymore (online). Available from: http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/2008/11/18/
116-black-music-that-black-people-dont-listen-to-anymore/ (accessed March 10,
2015).
Turkle, Sherry. (2012.) Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology
and Less from Each Other. New York: Basic Books.
Whiplash (2014). Directed by Damian Chazelle.
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5
A Brief Consideration of the
Hip-Hop Biopic
Richard Purcell
Introduction
From the beginning, the moving image and narrative film have played
an integral if still under-theorized role in both documenting and creating hip-hop culture; enough so that I think an argument can be made
that it is a forgotten “fifth” element of hip-hop (Rose 1994, Chang
2006). Cinema, primarily through genres like the musical and subgenres
like the biopic construct fantasies about creativity and labor that many
hip-hop films invoke (Altman 1989, Feuer 1993, Dyer 2002, Cohan 2005,
Knight 2002, Custen 1992, Bingham 2010, Berger 2014). Elements of
these genres can be found throughout the history of hip-hop films and
I will especially focus on the biopic to draw attention to the way these
films – like much of hip-hop culture – demonstrates its complicated relationship to creative labor. As a genre, the biopic (or biographical film) is
a creature of the Hollywood studio system. It is a genre that enjoyed an
incredible amount of popularity after World War II with an emphasis on
narratives of upward social mobility and self-reflexivity about the studio
system itself (Vidal 2014, Bingham 2010, Custen 1992). For the purposes
of this essay I am interested in a particularly self-reflexive version of the
biopic that emerged out the Hollywood musical after WWII. As Rick
Altman writes, films like Jolson Sings Again (1949), Singing in the Rain
(1952) and The Band Wagon (1953) purposefully foreground the cinematic means and materials of production – the actual stars, cinematic
conventions and technologies of the studio system – in order to reaffirm
Hollywood’s ability to “more convincingly” reproduce the creative self
(Altman 1989, p. 252). This moebus strip of authenticity, bent between
the cinematic image, musical performance and the industrial forms of
entertainment are at the heart of these films. Instead of petering out with
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the studio system or the genre of the musical artist biopics have only
proliferated in the post studio system era; enough so that we must wonder if they double as biographies of the neoclassical studio system itself
(Bingham 2010, Berger 2014, Connor 2015). This is to suggest that the
prevalence of the artist biopic within the history of hip-hop films seems
a useful way into understanding how artists and the culture industry
imagine creative musical labor – especially as it pertains to race – that
can be both radical and conservative (Feuer 1993).
I am far from the first to focus on the relationship between hip-hop
and creative labor. This essay builds on and hopes to add to the work
already done by Tricia Rose and Robin D.G. Kelley, who still remain the
most important touchstones on the relationship between hip-hop and
what we now talk about as creative labor (Rose 1994, Judy 1994b, Kelley
1996 and 1998, Boyd 1997, Watkins 1998, Neal 2001). Where Ross’s book
and Kelley’s essay are wide-ranging and look at multiple areas where
race, “play-labor” (Kelley 1998, p. 197) and political economy intersect
I will focus on a small part of hip-hop’s relationship to these matters:
filmic representations of hip-hop, artistry and labor. Most of this essay
will focus on the first cycle of loosely conceived biopics about hip-hop
culture; with particular attention paid to two independent films: Edo
Bertoglio’s Downtown 81 (1981) and Charles Ahearn’s Wild Style (1982) as
well as one studio feature, Michael Schultz’s Krush Groove (1985), which
was produced and distributed by Warner Brothers. These films represent
the shifting values that art, authenticity and creative labor have within
hip-hop culture; especially once the priorities of high concept cinema
transform commercial filmmaking into a delivery system for commercial
music and other goods (Wyatt 1994, Prince 2002). By way of a coda I will
bringing these concerns into more contemporary hip-hop films, the rise
of the sharing economy and the crisis of musical valuation.
What Is Hip-Hop Cinema?
Perhaps the first and of course most difficult question to answer is: what
is hip-hop? More often than not this is less a concern about the universally recognized as the “four elements” of hip-hop performance: mcing,
turntablism, graffiti and breakdancing. Instead it is about finding a central aesthetic or ideological core to what began as a predominately black
and Latino youth culture. For some, hip-hop culture has and continues
to play a central role in imagining some continuity between the Civil
Rights, the various “power” movement of the 60s and 70s and a youthcentered cultural movement like Hip-hop (Chang 2005, Kitwana 2002,
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Rose 1994, Dyson 2007, Forman 2002, Watkins 2005). At the same time,
others have chronicled the long, fraught history hip-hop artists have
with the free market and neoliberal rhetoric of late-capitalism, which at
times flies in the face of more radical liberatory rhetoric (Charnas 2010,
Neal 2001, Smith 2012, Spence 2011). These bigger questions about race,
aesthetics, ideology and political economy have long been and continue
to be a part of the important work of black cinema studies. Surprisingly,
despite the scholarly attention given to the films of Spike Lee, the
incredibly profitable and influential urban cycle of black cinema in the
early to mid-1990s, the crossover of rappers into A-list televisual and
feature film entertainment and the role of music videos in marketing
what Jeff Chang has accurately called hip-hop as lifestyle, there is still
surprisingly little media studies scholarship on the explicit relationship
between hip-hop culture and cinema (Monteyne 2013, Watkins 1998,
Chang 2006 among others).
Like the general discipline of film studies in its nascent decades, black
cinema studies was also invested in a multiplicity of historical and analytic pursuits. If one looks through the foundational book length works
of academic black cinema studies the contents run the gambit of cinema studies concerns: historical and archival work, ideological analysis
of commercial and Blaxploitation cinema, world film and the rise of
independent cinema (Guerrero 1993, Diawara 1992, Bobo 1998, Bogel
2001, Reid 1993, Smith 1997, Cripps 1978, hooks 1996, Yearwood 1982,
Rhines 1996. Of paramount importance throughout all these works are
the politics of representation since American cinema, which emerged
alongside the legacies of black-face minstrelsy throughout the American
arts, has long perpetuated racist stereotypes about black humanity
(Diawara 1993). It is not as if hip-hop has not crossed paths with the
pioneering work done in black cinema studies over the last four decades.
But given the intellectual and political priorities of black cinema studies hip-hop has been both a blessing and curse to the politics of black
representation and aesthetics (Judy 1994a).
Although films about hip-hop are absent from early black cinema studies scholarship Spike Lee was the cypher through which hip-hop appeared
(hooks 1996, Diawara 1993, Reid 1993, Guerrero 1993, Massoud 2003,
Watkins 1998). Lee provides an important if oblique connection to hiphop in early black cinema studies yet is often represented as a starting
point to sketch the outlines of what has come to be known as hip-hop
cinema. The best example of this also appears in one of the most foundational works of black cinema studies: S. Craig Watkins’ Representing:
Hip-Hop Culture and the Production of Black Cinema (1998). Watkins focuses
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on a span of films that runs from Lee’s first feature film, She’s Gotta Have
It (1986) to the premier of the Hughes Brothers’ feature Menace II Society
(1993). In explaining his periodization, Watkins tells us that from
1986 to 1993, “black youth began to mobilize around the resources of
the popular media in ways that are simultaneously visible, complex,
problematic, and commercially viable” (Watkins, 1998, p. 67). Perhaps
most important to Watkins are “the possibilities of collective and symbolic action, especially from the social margins of society” (Watkins, 1998,
p. 67). Clearly, Watkins wants to draw hip-hop into the possibility of collective and symbolic political action that was explicit in the new black
realism. When Watkins begins to describe what is particularly “hiphop” about the films of Lee and Singleton, he reverts to a discourse that
reveals his anxiety about the relationship hip-hop has to the powerful
forces of corporate commodification (Watkins 1998, p. 171). Hip-hop,
primarily through gangsta rap music, becomes a style used and nurtured
by movie studios to market films like Boyz n the Hood. Watkins is not
alone in grappling with how to define the aesthetic and conventions of
hip-hop cinema. More contemporary critics have also struggled to define
hip-hop cinematic tropes that, as Jeff Chang writes, reflect “the cultural
ideals hip-hop was founded on” (Chang, 2006, p. 306).
That Watkins and others have shied away from making any genre
claims is to their credit. Genre, as Watkins writes, is a “difficult term to
sustain analytically … because the boundaries are so fluid” (Watkins,
1998, p. 170). Yet, beyond his passing mention of Michael Schultz’s
Krush Groove (1985), there is little attention paid to the important cycle
of films that falls slightly before and within the period Watkins covers; a span that runs from independently produced Wild Style to the
Def Pictures/New Line Cinema produced Tougher than Leather (1988).
All of these films are centered on the elements or performers rooted in
the elements of hip-hop culture. The most significant genre question
these early hip-hop films raise has to do with the biological category
of race. Besides Schultz’s Krush Groove none of these more generically
identifiable commercial films are directed by African Americans. Here
we can see the conflicted relationship between black cinema studies
scholarship and hip-hop cinema as many of these early hip-hop films
are arguably teen-exploitation films that attempt to capitalize on the
incredible popularity of rap music and break dancing in the mid-1980s
(Watkins 1998). Watkins’ elision of these teen films returns us to questions having to do with political economy and its relationship to the
politics of representation within commercial entertainment. If the possibilities of collective and symbolic political action is fundamental to
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both black cinema and hip-hop then the films of Lee, Singleton and the
Hughes Brothers engage these politics in a way that are either absent or
politically ambivalent in either more mainstream or independent films
produced and directed by non-black people.
Kimberly Monteyne’s Hip-Hop on Film: Performance, Culture, Urban Space
and Genre Transformation in the 1980s (2013) attempts to address this
reading of early hip-hop films by arguing that they have both absorbed
and radically changed the long-standing conventions of the classical
Hollywood musical. Taking a more semantic/syntactic approach to
genre, Monteyne shows that these earlier, more generically stable films
are infused with a similar interest in the politics of representation and
political economy that Watkins finds in the films of Lee and Singleton.
In fact, she suggests that proper attention to hip-hop cinema as a genre
has been overshadowed by importance of “New Black Realism” of the
late-1980s and 1990s (Monteyne 2013, p. 4). Early hip-hop films reliably
feature the presence of at least some, if not all, of hip-hop’s four elements,
the use of diegetic musical performance and a narrative culminating
in romance as well as a final production number (Monteyne 2013,
pp. 5–6). However, while following the “prescribed generic film musical
structures and patterns,” hip-hop cinema transforms the rather conservative ideological elements of the Hollywood musical by presenting
a positive, multiethnic and racial representation of American inner city
life during the 1980s (Monteyne 2013, p. 6). While Monteyne’s very
formalist generic approach rescues these earlier films from the dustbin
of cinematic studies history, hip-hop films raise lingering methodological concerns having to do with genre study, the institutional formation
of black cinema studies as well as larger, epistemological and aesthetic
questions about hip-hop itself.
While I cannot delve into all of these concerns here, for my purpose the
most significant has to do with using commercial film as the organizing
principle through which to gauge the relationship between hip-hop, cinema and questions of black political economy. Despite Watkins’ hesitance
to use strict genre identification or Monteyne’s strong adherence to the
conventions of the classical Hollywood musical starting the narrative of
hip-hop cinema within the history of commercial film ignores the more
unruly and ambiguous roots of what we might call hip-hop cinema. A
strong case can be made that Gary Weis’ 1979 documentary about South
Bronx gang life 80 Blocks from Tiffany’s, Manfred Kirchheimer’s cinema
verite homage to subway graffiti Stations of the Elevated (1981) along with
Tony Silver’s graffiti classic Style Wars (1983), Edo Bertoglio’s Downtown 81
(1981/2000) and most importantly Wild Style (1982) connect the history
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of hip-hop to the cinematic legacies of non-narrative, avant garde filmmaking as well as the fraught cultural politics of the downtown New York
arts scene in the late 1970s and 1980s; an aesthetic and political context
which the more well-known Wild Style emerges from. These films also
suggest that the origins of hip-hop’s cultural and racial politics also lie
outside of rap music, which had yet to become a global phenomenon.
Weis, Kirchheimer and Silver’s respective films benefited from networks of
documentary film distribution and production that shielded them from
the pressures of the market place. To a certain extent so did Downtown
81 and Wild Style. At the same time they were both produced within
an alternative art community that openly grappled with its ambivalent
relationship to the commercial art and film market.
Cinema, Collectivism and Street Art
Despite the growing commodification of alternative culture and political conservatism of the 1980s, Julie Ault suggests that it was also the
golden age of political art and art collectives (Ault 2002). Some of
these groups had their roots in the politicized social formations of
the past and present – Maoism, Third Worldism, anarchism amongst
others (Moore 2007). At the same time collectives are emblematic of
artistic labor itself, which given the institutional, economic and legal
circumstances of art making makes such collective endeavors a necessity. While noise, Punk and No Wave music were a critical expressive
medium in emergent performance and exhibition scene in the Lower
East Side, hip-hop was primarily represented through graffiti art and
artists. Hip-hop also had a small but important relationship to the
underground No Wave/New Cinema and video movement in the late
1970s and early 1980s. While not a collective, the No Wave movement was an underground music, film and contemporary art scene
that emerged on the Lower East Side during the late 1970s through the
mid-1980s (Yokobosky 1996). For both its symbolic as well as stylistic
value it should be of little surprise that the artists closely associated
with the politics of street art would also play central roles in the cinema
produced out of this moment.
Both Wild Style and Downtown 81 were conceived and shot in the
midst of the No Wave boom of the late 1970s and 80s. The embrace of
vernacular and pop art mediums and the democratization of recording
technology that defined the aesthetics of the alternative art scene was
equally important within No Wave cinema. These films, like the other
elements of the No-Wave/Punk and collectivist arts scene rejected the
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academic formalism of the gallery arts scene as well as the conventions
of classical and New Hollywood commercial cinema (Yokobosky 1996).
They were also emblematic of the way artistic collectives structured and
were used to represent expressive life in New York City during the 1970s
and 80s. Two of the most important were Colab (Collaborative Projects)
and the Bronx based, Colab affiliated exhibition space Fashion Moda. In
June of 1980, months before the production began on Downtown 81 or
Wild Style Colab and Fashion Moda produced one of the most important
exhibitions of neo-Expressionist, Pop Art and graffiti: the Times Square
Show (1980), which most notably – for this essay at least – showcased the
art work of Jean Michel Basquiat and renowned Fabulous Five graffiti
artists Lee Quinones and Fred Braithwaite; all three of whom would be
the featured stars in Downtown 81 and Wild Style.
The Times Square Show itself was the culmination of about a decade
of important developments throughout New York City’s art world that
was also intertwined with New Cinema and the Punk scene in the late
1970s. An important precursor to the Times Square Show was an early
Colab exhibition, the Real Estate Show, which opened on January 1,
1980. As Alan Moore describes it, the Real Estate Show had its roots
in the anger many Tribeca artists felt in being gentrified out of their
neighborhood (Moore, 2007, p. 328). It also led to the creation of a
number of more politicized artist collectives that would necessarily split
their time between art, social advocacy and the necessary commercial
side of selling art (Moore 2007 and Ault 2002). This model of advocacy,
community involvement and commercial art informed the creation of
Fashion Moda as well, which was founded in 1978 by Stefan Eins and
co-managed with Joe Lewis. Enis and Lewis would exhibit some of the
late 20th century’s most important neo-expressionist artists as well as
serve as an avenue to connect local graffiti writers, rappers, DJs and
break dancers to the burgeoning Lower East Side alterative art community (Castleman 1982, Chalfant and Cooper 1984, Chalfant and
Jenkins 2014). Just as important, Moda, like some Lower East Side art
collectives, fostered community art projects that included local artists
collaborating with residents. One project in particular, spearheaded by
John Ahearn (the twin brother of Wild Style director Charlie Ahearn)
and Rigoberto Torres, was a series of incredibly popular if controversial
sculpture murals of South Bronx residents that appeared on the side of
tenement buildings between 1981 and 1985 (Kwon 2002). Even if Moda
or the Ahearn–Torres murals were not part of the same ideologically
informed politics of some of its contemporary collectives it nonetheless
showed the intimate if still complicated relationship between artists, the
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neighborhoods they resided in and the gallery space, which had become
a mechanism to “show the community to itself” (Kwon, 2002, p. 306).
Between the premier of the Times Square Show in June of 1980, the
principal shooting of Downtown 81 in December 1980 and the first
run of Wild Style in 1982 the “alternative art” network in New York
City went through an era-defining expansion. Times Square Show was
the catalyst in a three-year run of exhibitions that embodied both the
politicized spirit and commercial growth of the alternative art community in the early 1980s. This spate of artists-run exhibitions, at least for
a time, succeeded in obscuring the commodity status of the art itself.
In 1981, former Colab member Diego Cortez curated the New York/New
Wave show at P.S. 1 in Queens, Charas hosted the 9th Street Survival Show
and perhaps most famously was the opening of The Fun Gallery, a small
gallery directed by underground film actress Patti Astor. Looking back
on the proliferation of galleries and collectives that emerged out of
Colab and the Times Square Show, Alan Moore writes that along with the
intentional celebration of populist and vernacular art there was a strategic “reaction against government funded alternative art and, at least
initially an appropriation of the idea of the gallery fraught with selfconsciousness and humor” (Moore, 2007, p. 330). Even the respective
locations of the Times Square Show, New York/New Wave and other popup galleries and performance art spaces either parodied the traditional
business style of SOHO and mid-town galleries or were in buildings
and neighborhoods that did not conform to the exhibition aesthetic.
Especially in the case of the Times Square Show, these strategies of
exhibition – works mounted at the Times Square Show lacked title or the
names of the artists – opened up the gallery experience for populations
that would not otherwise visit.
The Times Square Show also featured the work of an unprecedented
number of women and artists of color. Like much of the show professional trained artists like Candice Hill Montgomery intermingled with
graffiti writers who in some instances were displaying their work in a gallery for the first time (Thompson 2010 and Lippard 1990). Nonetheless,
many of these shows, despite being conceptualized and exhibited as
critique were “conceived in the commercial terms of the art world”
(Moore 2007, p. 330, Lippard 1990, Thompson 2010, Goldstein 1980).
As Margo Thompson observes, the ambivalence these artist-run collectives felt toward “entrenched art market practices” did not mean
they could “afford to turn their backs on their benefactors completely”
(Thompson 2010). Given the centrifugal force that art collectives and
the music scene exerted, it comes as little surprise that No Wave cinema
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also expressed an ambivalent politics towards the market as well. There
was a current of political critique of American governmental policy
in films like Scott and Beth B’s Black Box and G-Men and others like
Rome 78 parodied the conventions of the classical Hollywood epic.
Simultaneously, films as diverse as Underground USA (1980), Smithereens
(1981) and They Eat Scum (1979) exhibited a level of self-awareness that
the Punk and No Wave movements were becoming increasingly commodified. By the late 1970s and early 80s No Wave cinema, like the
gallery arts scene, had reached a crossroads. Many of these films would
invoke the conventions of the artist biopic in order to provide a powerful commentary on the art-world “vacuum” being created by the forces
of gentrification and more commercialized galleries (Hoberman 1979).
Yet, the black, Latino and Asian people who made up a significant part
of the Lower East Side’s population were either absent or primarily
relegated to mise en scène.
Downtown 81, Wild Style and (at) Work
This is what makes Wild Style as well as Downtown 81 such unique works
in the No Wave oeuvre. Both feature protagonists of color and in the
case of Wild Style has a primarily black and Latino cast. If one of the
central elements of the collectivist art community was an attempt to
“show the community to itself” more often than not this was a solipsistic affair; exhibiting the worst aspect of the “symbiotic” relationships
within the No Wave music, cinema and arts scene. (Hoberman 1979)
Wild Style and to a certain extent Downtown 81 are perhaps two of the
few No Wave films that breaks from this mold. This does not mean
Wild Style and Downtown 81 are exempt from this solipsism since both
were produced, directed and, in the case of Downtown 81, starred key
figures in the No Wave arts community. It also means that these early
filmic instances of hip-hop are preoccupied, albeit in different ways,
with the conflicts that many within the downtown arts scene grappled
with: gentrification, the commodification of the alternative arts community as well as the complex relationship these artists had with the
predominately black, Latino and Asian neighborhoods they lived in.
Downtown 81 fits the more playful but still self-reflexive and critical
attributes of late No Wave/New Cinema films. Although shot in the
winter of 1980, the film, written by Glenn O’Brien, directed by Edo
Bertogilo and starring a yet to be famous Jean Michel Basquiat, would
not see the cinematic light of day until 1999. Downtown 81 was produced and financed by Marisol, a French fashion designer and the Italian
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publishing conglomerate Rizzoli to showcase the emergent New Wave/
No Wave scene. The film’s very loose, quixotic plot revolves around
Basquiat (playing a fictional version of himself), a post-Punk flaneur
who wonders around the Lower East Side attempting to sell a painting
in order to pay rent. Basquiat’s travels bring him into contact with some
of the then well-known No Wave artists and musicians – who for the
most part play themselves. We see Basquiat fall into – and by the end
of the film – out of love with a famous Italian fashion model named
Beatrice, hitting up walls with some of his most iconic SAMO pieces,
attempting to track down his band’s stolen equipment and visit famous
No Wave haunts like the Mudd Clubb and the Peppermint Lounge. The
film itself is interspersed with both diegetic and non-narrative musical performances by Tuxedomoon, DNA, The Plastics, hip-hoppers like
Kool Kyle, and the funk fusion band Kid Creole and the Coconuts.
As a No Wave showcase, Downtown 81 reveals the dynamic aesthetic
ethos of the New York arts scene. No Wave and Post-Punk musicians
intermingle the hip-hoppers, fashion models, scene mavens, painters
and sculptors. At the same time O’Brien and Bertoglio turn this showcase into a comedic but critical look at the means of artistic production.
Keeping with the nature of No Wave cinema the film’s insider look into
No Wave uses Hollywood’s Golden Age musical biopic as a parodic
device. After World War II Hollywood musicals began to foreground and
undercut what Rick Altman called “the conventions of the show musical syntax only in order to reaffirm them all the more convincingly”
(Altman 1987, p. 252). This inevitably led to a revival of the musical
through, in part, a return of the artist biopic, which guaranteed the
“authenticity of screen biographies … through the paradoxical technique of foregrounding the very technology that supposedly distances
the filmed stage star” (Altman, 1987, p. 253). Where the function of
the biopic would be to legitimate the myth-making technologies and
talents of the Hollywood studio system Downtown 81 does the exact
opposite. The film constantly returns the viewer to scenes focused on
the frustrations and failure of artistic labor, most of which is centered
on Basquiat’s semi-autobiographical early trials and tribulations. He
endures homelessness, unwanted or in some cases unfulfilled sexual
advances, which are intimately tied to commerce and the semi-celebrity
of the art world. When he is finally paid for his painting it is in the form
of a check, which of course he cannot cash because he does not have a
checking account (Figure 5.1a).
Basquiat is not the only “character” who laments the impossible conditions of creative labor. One of the most explicit scenes of lament is
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a comedic, direct address by musician and painter Walter Steding who
exposes the long, alienating production chain of creative labor. He
describes dragging music equipment to shows, dealing with cheap club
owners, self-important music journalists and eventually duplicitous
record labels. Steding, breaking the cinema fourth wall, tells us that “the
club owner sees you up on stage having fun and says ‘you’re having up
there why should I pay you’ … they do it every time.” The scene ends
with a medium, bird’s-eye view (Figure 5.1b) of Steding, head down on
a desk muttering “never again, never again, never again....” Yet, at the
very end of the scene two of his bandmates appear, cajoling Steding
to get ready for band practice. Like a lot of the uncompensated performances we see in the film, Downtown 81 invites us to knowingly laugh
and pity Steding’s despair. Basquiat’s monetary frustrations are finally
alleviated at the end not by the benefactors of the art world, a recognition of his talents or by the wealth and celebrity of his supermodel love
interest but by a cinematic deus ex machina. After leaving the Mudd
Club Basquiat encounters a homeless woman, played by Debbie Harry,
who turns out to be his fairy godmother and grants Basquiat a suitcase
bursting with cash. The film ends with Basquiat redistributing some of
his new-found wealth to some of the homeless on the Lower East Side,
paying cash for a Cadillac Eldorado and driving along the Lower East
Side as the film fades to the credits.
Hip-hop has a strangely ambiguous place in Downtown 81’s biopic
nihilism about artistic labor. Within the mise en scène we see Basquiat
perform iconic SAMO pieces on buildings and coffee-table books as
well as interact with Lee Quinones and Fab 5 Freddy as they paint a
building. That early scene immediately segues to Basquiat and Fab 5
Freddy entering a basement to dance while Kool Kyle raps. When the
credits role we are treated to “Beat-Bop”, a Basquiat produced rap track
(a)
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Figure 5.1 Basquiat’s art gets him a check he can’t cash while Steding’s brings
despair and little compensation in Bertogilo’s Downtown 81 (1981)
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with Rammellzee and K-Rob on vocals. Beyond these traces however,
the film’s energies are primarily directed toward the more well-known
No Wave musical personalities. Naturally it is hard in the 21st century
to separate Basquiat out from the contemporary effort to claim Basquiat
as hip-hop. As Franklin Sirmans writes, Basquiat’s early works were an
attack on the subject matter “common to rappers and emcees who were
then making hip-hop” (Sirmans, 2005, p. 95). Yet there was and still is
an equally forceful and at times troubling attempt, spurred by critics and
to a certain extent by the artist, to distance him from the authenticating
discourse of race and the “street.” While the talk or recognition of race
is absent from Downtown 81, the DIY, legitimizing power that street art
bestowed to the No Wave scene is not. In this sense hip-hop works to
confer authenticity and monetary value within a film and No Wave
scene that always lurked on the margins.
Throughout Wild Style Ahearn and co-producer Fab 5 Freddy present the
South Bronx as a vibrant aesthetic rival to Downtown 81’s playfully jaded
Lower East Side. Ahern began to produce and secure funding for Wild Style
in the immediate months after the Times Square Show. Given the parallel
production dates of Downtown 81 and Wild Style we can see how both films
were an extension of the momentum generated by the growing alternative
art network and No Wave cinema. Like Downtown 81, Wild Style’s loose
narrative, use of non-professional actors in semi-autobiographical roles
and knowing use of conventional film genres invoked many of the characteristics of No Wave cinema. Wild Style was not Charlie Ahearn’s first
feature-length film. Ahearn, one of the founding figures of Colab as well
as the New Cinema exhibition collective, produced longer form films like
The Brooklyn Bridge at Pearl Street (1977), Twins (1980) and perhaps more
importantly his super-8 homage to Bruce Lee, The Deadly Art of Survival,
which starred African American martial arts legend Nathan Ingram and
featured the graffiti art of Lee Quinones in 1978. Quinones returns in Wild
Style, this time playing “Zoro” a principled, yet mysterious graffiti artist
who struggles to avoid the encroaching limelight that is being shone on
graffiti art from downtown art studios. Ahearn and Fab Five Freddy structure Wild Style in a very similar fashion as Downtown 81. Zoro and Phade
(played by Fab 5 Freddy) lead us on a journey from the South Bronx to
Manhattan’s Lower East Side and Brooklyn as the film showcases already
famous graffiti writers like Lady Pink, Phase, and Zephyr, uptown rap stars
and breakdance crews like Grand Master Flash, The Fantastic Freaks, Busy B
and The Rock Steady Crew. We run into familiar No Wave gallery owners and
scene stalwarts like Glenn O’Brien playing Neal, a stuffy art critic and Patti
Astor as Virginia, a journalist who is pursuing a story on Zoro.
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Where Downtown 81 leaves us with an ambivalent impression of
where hip-hop fits in its parodic attack on unalienated artistic labor,
Wild Style does not. Wild Style uses the self-reflexivity of the biopic to
reassert a more explicitly decentralized vision of artistic production
centered on hip-hop culture, which culminates with the Amphitheater
scene at the end of the film. At the same time it is hard not to read
the dramatic force of the film – centered on Raymond/Zoro’s fraught
relationship between the unalienated but illegal nature of street art and
the hopes of being compensated for doing “graffiti on canvas” for the
downtown gallery scene – as the place where Wild Style returns us to the
ambivalence and concerns with creative labor (Figure 5.2a). While Wild
Style is set in the late 1970s the film’s opening shot already conveys a
sense of nostalgia about graffiti art. As the film fades in we see a mural
with the phrase “Graffiti 1990” in block letters and eventually our main
character Zoro begins his slow decent into what we soon find out is a
train yard. Barely noticeable near the top of the camera frame we see the
phrase “For Old Times” hovering over Zoro (Figure 5.2b). Long before
Wild Style was put into production public graffiti was a threatened form
of art. Beginning with the consolidation of New York City’s public
transportation system into the Metropolitan Transit Authority in 1969
and continuing into the first official war on graffiti initiated by Mayor
John Lindsay, a drastic transformation in how New York City’s public
sphere was taking place. This expansion of the city’s bureaucracy in part
allowed for the surveillance, discipline and punishment of graffiti writers through heightened criminalization and prosecution. Criminalizing
graffiti coincides with the emergence in New York City’s political
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Figure 5.2 The opening shots of Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style establish nostalgia
for graffiti’s past. Later, Zoro grapples its “post-graffiti” present
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discourse of “quality of life” issues, which began in the 1970s around
the surveillance and crack down on graffiti writing and was intimately
connected to the gentrification of the Lower East Side.
New York’s City Hall was not the only threat to the public nature of
graffiti art in the late 1970s and early 80s. There is little question that
graffiti artists crystallized the radical and political potentiality of street
art through their willful appropriation of public spaces, existence outside of market forces and state authority. The styles associated with
graffiti writing would define some of the most well-known artists and
highly valued art works to emerge out of the alternative art world.
While graffiti transformed the expectations of public art (Schwartzman
1985), graffiti’s lack of broad gallery success and “institutional ratification” has obscured its historical significance to the history of the
collective arts (Moore, 2007, p. 330). Instead, the history of graffiti art
has been told through its evolution into commercial art (Adams et al.
2006). Despite the incredible celebrity and success of Keith Herring and
Basquiat the move of graffiti into the gallery space called into question
its inherently public and political nature. The same year Wild Style made
its debut in the United States the first “Post-Graffiti” symposium was
held at the Sidney Janis Gallery in 1983 featuring the work of many of
the graffiti artists that appear in Wild Style. Wild Style imagines hip-hop
as a collective, symbolically brought together by Zoro’s art, and the film
itself, which was shot without a city permit, is itself a radical act of collective public art brought together by Ahearn. Yet, we also leave the film
with Zoro’s dilemma unresolved, although history would prove that the
space for politicized public art, already shrinking by the time Wild Style
was released, would quickly evaporate in New York City.
Post-Graffiti
It did not very take long for commercial films to quickly follow the
success of Wild Style. Canon Pictures released a cycle of “hip-hop” films
including Breakin’ and Breakin’ II: Electric Boogaloo (1984) and Rappin
(1985). Warner Brothers added to this early 1980s cycle when they
released Stan Lathan’s Beat Street (1984) and Krush Groove (1985). Krush
Groove’s importance in this corpus of early films cannot be overestimated.
While it only grossed $4 million domestically compared to the $36 million Breakin’ earned the year before, Krush Groove was released just as rap
music began to dominate conceptions of what defined hip-hop culture.
The historic viability of music and, in particular, American music, as a
tradable and easily consumable market commodity on a global scale
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explains why rap won out over the ambivalent cultural legitimacy of
graffiti as well as what was incorrectly understood as the faddish nature
of breakdancing. The growing dominance of rap music was tied as
much to its undeniable aesthetic novelty as it was to the serendipity
of rap’s emergence during the consolidation of corporate media and
entertainment companies on a global scale. For the film industry this
same period of the 1970s and 80s brought a renewed interest in creating
marketing synergy around their products. Movie soundtracks, 12-inch
singles, pay for play, music videos and other forays into music and radio
allowed Hollywood studios to extend the pop culture presence of their
films (Wyatt 1994).
In retrospect Schultz’s Krush Groove was positioned between two
burgeoning corporate cultures. The first is the triumph of Hollywood
high-concept blockbuster cinema as well as the simultaneous corporate
codification of music as the face of hip-hop culture. Krush Groove is
for all intents and purposes a biopic, albeit a semi-fictional one about
Russell Simmons and Def Jam Recordings’ grass roots emergence into
what is now a multi-billion dollar media and music company. Like most
early hip-hop films, Krush Groove stars many of the early 1980s most visible hip-hop cultural icons: Run DMC, The Beastie Boys, Dr. Jeckel and
Mr. Hyde, L.L. Cool J and the Fat Boys. Krush Groove’s cast is noteworthy
because, not unlike Studio era films, it primarily features musical acts
signed to Def-Jam Recordings. The most prescient feature of Schultz’s
film was the absence of the other “elements” of hip-hop culture, which
in spite of the popularity of breakdancing and the fine arts legitimacy
of graffiti art, gave viewers a glimpse of hip-hop’s music dominated
future. While exalting the value of self-expression, family loyalty and
grass-roots, multiracial entrepreneurship, Krush Groove reveals that the
image, the voice, as well as the family are absorbed within the horizontal organization of the multimedia corporation; versus the decentralized if still fraught organization of creative labor in Downtown 81
and Wild Style. In the credit sequence we can see the way Krush Grove
constructs a visual space that reflects an already commodified listening space. The credits combine extreme long shots, slow tracks and
pans that cut between distinctive tourist landmarks like the Manhattan
Bridge, United Nations and Empire State Building but perhaps less than
recognizable buildings above 125th Street in Harlem (Figure 5.3). The
images in these shots straddle the line between the recognizable and
nondescript, public and the private spaces that give us a rather generic
representation of Manhattan’s skyline. To many this is New York City,
or what Manhattan has been turned into after the enormous changes in
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the public sphere through slum clearance programs and the restructuring of Midtown and the Lower East Side by the state and private capital in the 1970s and 80s. Media campaigns like Mayor Edward Koch’s
“I Love New York,” were devised to bring private capital investment
back into New York City during the immense fiscal and social crisis it
endured throughout the 1970s and into the 80s.
The next scene cuts to an interior shot of a recording studio where
Run-DMC are recording their 1985, hit “King of Rock” (Figure 5.4a).
This self-reflexive moment in the studio is the beginning of a series of
scenes that blurs the line between the non-diegetic soundtrack music
and the diegetic production of Run-DMC’s song. Non-diegetic music is
assumed to be a finished product of post-production yet the supposedly
spontaneous musical performance by Run-DMC is in fact lip-synched
as we can hear postproduction effects like echoes and multi-tracked
ad-libs. As the scene unfolds, Run-DMC’s studio “rehearsal” becomes the
soundtrack for the film, leaping between diegetic and non-diegetic realms
of signification and reception. Like the already corporatized version of
Manhattan’s skyline in the credit sequence, Run-DMC’s lip-synched
Figure 5.3 The credit sequence of Michael Schultz’s Krush Groove are filled with
iconic images of Manhattan, like this shot of the United Nations as well as the
postmodern 1 United Nations Plaza
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performance of “King of Rock” is a ready-made musical commodity.
Not only do we see their studio performance get pressed into vinyl LPs
for distribution (Figure 5.4b) but this sequence which ends with RunDMC performing “King of Rock” at The Dixie nightclub for audience
consumption (Figure 5.4c).
Borrowing from the generic conventions of the Hollywood musical,
the biopic and the high-concept film, Krush Groove, Breakin’ and Beat
Street drag these commercially produced narratives of entertainment
from the Hollywood studio era into the cutting edge realm of hip-hop
culture. The focus on music generates sonically post-produced spaces
for consumption. Krush Groove does this with sound and image, but also
through its story’s conflation of familial obligation with corporate structuring and success. Within the context of Manhattan’s gentrification
the cinematic production of a similarly corporatized space is troubling
indeed. Even the Harry Belafonte produced Beat Street, which is an
attempt to take the breadth of hip-hop culture and its early associations with black and Latino youth activism seriously, ends where Krush
Groove begins; by positioning hip-hop’s musical performance as an
already post-produced product that obscures the labor that went into
it. It is fitting that in Beat Street we symbolically see the death of graffiti
when rival graffiti artists Ramon and Spit die violently while fighting
over their subway art. While Beat Street does not necessarily demonize
graffiti writing, Ramon’s character is constantly dissuaded from graffiti
writing and told to “be a man,” by giving up his life of writing in favor
of something that will support his family in the South Bronx.
After Krush Groove the terrain of hip-hop culture and cinema changes
drastically. By the late 1980s a new relationship was forged between
smaller record labels and larger entertainment conglomerates. Small
labels were able to keep their independence but were ultimately absorbed
by larger media corporations. This restructuring allowed for the emergence of niche marketing in both the music and film industry. It is in
the 1990s that rap music videos as well as films influenced by hip-hop
and starring hip-hop artists really began to flourish. Music videos, as
Tricia Rose writes, were an avenue for artists to “animate hip-hop cultural styles and aesthetics” (Rose 1994, p. 9). The same could be said
for the feature-length films made in the late 1980s and 1990s. Directors
like Spike Lee, Ernest Dickerson, John Singleton, Hype Williams, the
Hughes Brothers, Reginald Hudlin and many others who grew up with
hip-hop drew from its style and music in the early 1990s films like Boyz
n the Hood (1991), Menace II Society (1993), New Jack City (1991), Dead
Presidents (1995) and Juice (1992). One of the most unique genres to
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Figure 5.4 The “assembly” line of musical post-production in Michael Schultz’s Krush Groove (1985)
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emerge in the late 1990s were self-financed, straight to video films by
artists like Master P and Jay-Z like I’m Bout It (1997) Da Last Don (1998),
and Streets Is Watching (1998), a trend that has extended well into the
21st century. Instead of producing a soundtrack to support a film these
self-financed, low budget, independent movies are feature length films
that support album releases. To a certain extent these films are highly
evolved forms of the musical commodity, an interesting reversal of the
high concept strategy as well as the authenticating discourse of the
biopic. While these films extend the aura of the artist into the cinematic
realm, it is the album that is the seat of authority, not the revelations of
unalienated labor and value that the biopic offers.
With the 2009 release of Notorious, George Tillman’s take on the life
and tragic death of Christopher Wallace, we see a return of the conventional musical biopic in hip-hop cinema. Adapted from Cheo Hodari
Coker’s biography, Notorious follows many of the generic narrative and
visual conventions found in recent 21st century biopics – particularly
those about musicians. Christopher Wallace was one of the most talented and complex figures in rap music yet Notorious is an incredibly
conventional genre film, released at the tail end of Hollywood’s biopics boom that featured 8-Mile (2002) Walk the Line (2005), Ray (2004),
50-Cent’s Get Rich or Die Trying and Craig Brewer’s Hustle and Flow
(2005). Like Krush Groove, Notorious presents a grass-roots narrative of
Bad Boy Records as a conflation of familial obligation with corporate
structure and success. Tillman’s biopic indulges in some nostalgic
images of unalienated hip-hop labor in the mise en scène but most
forcefully invokes the conventions of the self-reflexive biopic though
its direct homage to Krush Groove. We especially see this in an early
montage sequence where Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace, like
Run-DMC in Krush Groove, gives us a spontaneous studio performance of
one of B.I.G.’s biggest hits “Juicy.” Like its Krush Groove source material
the studio version of “Juicy” ends up providing the soundtrack for the
“assembly” line of artistic and industrial labor (Figures 5.5a and b) that
ends with the release of Notorious B.I.G’s first album, Ready to Die, in a
lavish album release party that fills a cavernous music club.
There are subtle but important differences between the Notorious and
Krush Groove sequences that suggest how Tillman’s film and more contemporary biopics in general figure creative labor differently. In Krush
Groove, it is stage performance and radio play that legitimate RunDMC’s status as hit-makers. While the music has already gone through
the process of post-production the film still presents them as well as
their single as laboring entities. For Notorious, Tillman went for a bit
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more sonic verimisilitude within the diegesis (for instance, there is no
lip-synching in the studio scene). Notorious B.I.G. does take the stage at
the end of this sequence but not to perform a song. Instead he ascends
to be crowned “King of Brooklyn” by his manager Sean “Puffy” Combs
and in one of the last shots of this sequence we find him on his throne
taking in the revelers and fans around him. The same assembly line of
production does not end with traditional stage performance but instead
with scenography. Notorious B.I.G., unlike Run-DMC, does not have to
legitimate himself through performing “Juicy.” We are in an era where
intimacy with music, cinema and the biographical self are a function of
networked instantaneity (Sheehan 2014). In Notorious this is reflected
in the cigar smoking image of Notorious B.I.G. that ends this sequence.
There is a tacit understanding here that the artist’s body is always present and at work; an object of both consumption and production even
in leisurely repose (Figure 5.5c).
Coda: The Artist Is (Ever) Present
There has been growing backlash against the corporate cooptation of concepts that for all intents and purposes have long been associated with the
arts. Since the late 1990s economists and sociologists have turned their
interest to creativity as well as the revolutionary rearrangement of corporate workplaces and management styles around collectivism. The aspect
that most of us experience is the centrality of Web 2.0 in providing a
platform to create affect and aggregate our life practices in order to generate surplus value. All of these significant changes to culture and political
economy can and have been categorized under the socioeconomic and
political conditions of neoliberalism. As Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello
point out, we must acknowledge the role that the post-68 emphasis on
blurring the line between the aesthetics and politics had on the rise of
this “new spirit of capitalism”; one that celebrates the sort of deviance
and eccentricity that we usually associate with artistic avant gardes
(Boltanski and Chiapello 2007). Perhaps it goes without saying that the
present revival of collectivism and those who champion its profit-driven
virtues have excised – or perhaps have little idea of – the radical roots
of these concepts. Those artists, scholars and cultural critics who have
responded to this commodification have not. For every work of willful
historical amnesia there are plenty that recall the relationship between
collectivism, radical anti-capitalism and the arts. This history has been
critical in understanding how the “dark matter” of our collective surplus
labor has long been a part of the new economy (Sholette 2011).
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(c)
Figure 5.5 George Tillman’s “assembly line” homage to Krush Grove ends with a different kind of performance for the artistic self
in Notorious (2009)
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In a broader sense I hope to add to the current scholarly interest in collectivism as well as address what I see as the absence of hip-hop culture
in this recent scholarship, especially amongst scholars that have sought
to draw connections between collectivism, labor and music (Stahl 2013).
Collectives, like in much of the art world, are also a critical part of hiphop. Some of these represent themselves along lines that invoke the more
politically radical roots of some versions of collectivism. More often than
not the number of collectives in hip-hop represent a wide array of selforganized entities invoking anything from geographic locations, criminal,
anarchic, post-secular, agrarian, labor unions to more vertical modes of
corporate organization. It is precisely because of these contradictions,
which of course are not generalizable throughout the history of hip-hop
nor its discreet artistic elements, that I feel hip-hop has much to offer
our contemporary interest in collectivism, music, artistic labor. Hip-hop –
perhaps along with Punk and No Wave – is one of the few musical and
more generally speaking artistic movements that put collectives and the
myths of unalienated artistic labor in the forefront of its art. I suspect that
what complicates hip-hop’s inclusion in our more contemporary discussions of collectivism and creative labor has much to do with two important elements within hip-hop. The first is what many perceive as hip-hop’s
hyper-entrepreneurial ethos, which in some respects runs counter to the
anti-capitalist politics underlying the history of collectivism in the arts
(Kelley 1998 and Neal 2001). Secondly, as Okwui Enwezor writes, the history of collectivism in the arts was, in part, a challenge to modernism’s
fetishization of the work of art as “the unique object of individual creativity” (Enwezor 2007, p. 223). Again, hip-hop, but especially rap music,
derives an incredible amount of legitimacy and authenticity of the author
over and against the political and aesthetic legacies the aura surrounding
both carries. There should be little surprise that hip-hop artists have held
on so tightly to the author function; especially given the long American
history of love and theft between African American artists and mainstream
American popular culture. The importance of the author is rooted in a
very important socio-political context for black and Latino artists, many
of whom had been long written out of the neoliberal political and cultural
economy beyond their existence as surplus labor. This point is not without
it complications either. The kind of ethnographic realism that has been
long conferred to rap music (and hip-hop in general) has led to versions of
black authenticity that have standardized blackness within the cinematic
and musical marketplace.
In this essay I have been less interested in making any definitive
claims about genre or cycle within cinema then using a discussion of
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genre as a way to illuminate the relationship between race, culture,
capitalism and the processes of subject making in the late 20th and
21st centuries. The artist biopic, I believe, can be useful in this regard.
If we contextualize these films within the aesthetic conventions of hiphop culture we find that this genre long stood in plain sight. The crucial
relationship that biographical authenticity – feigned or otherwise – has
to the aesthetics, politics and (problematically) successful commercial
marketing of hip-hop can be seen as early as Downtown 81. The authenticating power of urban representation of blackness becomes much more
the case once rap music becomes the dominant face of hip-hop culture.
It goes without saying that the bios plays a central role to the kinds of
narratives found in hip-hop music. The same can be said about the way
hip-hop and its artists have been represented as well as chosen to represent themselves cinematically. Unlike the biopics produced during the
height of the studio era these post-studio system films are either portraits of flawed genius or vexed creative labor, with the two often being
synonymous with one another. However, like the post-World War II
musical biopic, these tragic geniuses find moral redemption as well as
renewed commercial success through the production of the musical
and cinematic commodity. Focused as they are on entertainers and
entertainment, the 21st century biopic is as much an indication of our
cultural obsession with artistry and celebrity as it is a genre through
which we can see the continued evolution of the post-studio system.
Downtown 81 and Wild Style (1982) suggest the importance hip-hop
and No Wave have in helping us chart a cinematic history of our 21st
century concerns over the exploitative deployment of creativity within
neoliberalism. Many of these early films represent hip-hop’s early relationship with New York City’s downtown pop and high-art culture,
which as of late stands in as the ideal image of artist experimentation
and freedom. In the last few years hip-hop has become nostalgic for this
supposed past. We need only to look at Jay-Z’s “performance art” film
“Picasso Baby”; a direct homage to Marina Abramovic, Basquiat and
Picasso. Or we can point to Wu-Tang Clan’s decision to release one fineart “gallery” copy of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin to see that for many
established hip-hop musicians, the system (and figures) of monetary
and aesthetic value found in high-art gallery culture, is seen as a corrective to the radical devaluation of the labor put into music making.
What I hope has become clear is that this nostalgia is not well placed.
In fact we can see Wild Style’s own sense of nostalgia about the artistic
past and uncertainty about the present and future in the very first shot
of the film.
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If, as Giles Deleuze suggests, a visit to the factory “with its rigid discipline” has become “ideal entertainment” in the late 20th century these
early films both critique and reify the development of the corporate
musical commodity in the late 20th century (Deleuze 1995, p. 72). Is
cinema the ideal avenue for such a critique? I think the late works of
Deleuze provide us with a possible answer to the use of cinema. Found
throughout his interviews and occasional essays from the late 1970s
to 80s we can see Deleuze’s mixture of concern and hope over the rise
of television and video. His most extensive and lucid comments on
the role of cinema in an age of newer media come in “Letter to Serge
Daney”, his introduction to Daney’s Cine-Journal (Daney 1986). Cinema,
Deleuze tells us, is a unique precisely because it has the potential to create a “supplement” to nature by either beautifying or spiritualizing it
(Deleuze 1986, p. 73). Before we accuse Deleuze of returning us to the
romanticist aesthetics of Sir Philip Sidney, Deleuze reminds us of the
important intellectual and historical function this supplement provides.
The cinematic image preserves events but they are “always out of step
with things, because cinematic time isn’t a time that flows on but one
that endures and coexists with other times” (Deleuze 1986, p. 74). The
aesthetic dimension of cinema reveals this coexistence to us and it is
there that a change in human thinking can hopefully take place, where
new paths of possibility open up for imagining human existence.
Wild Style, Krush Groove and finally more contemporary biopics like
Notorious demonstrate a variety of paths that force us to reconsider the
history of the biopic. It would be easy to read these hip-hop films as
remedying the historic absence of African Americans in the biopic genre
or appropriating the syntax and vocabulary of biopic in order to subvert
them (Bingham 2010, p. 176). Instead of these politics of representation
I suggest that given the staggering level of post-studio media consolidation and high-concept cinema in the 21st century, hip-hop’s biopics
reveal something about how we conceptualize the creative subject in
the late 20th and 21st century. Films like Downtown 81 and Wild Style
complicate the redemptive narrative of the biopic. I wonder if this has
something to do with how they were produced. Both Downtown 81 and
Wild Style have ties to and in part use the screen to imagine a decentralized, at times criminal collective artistic labor that is in constant
tension with forces of commodification (Moore 2007 and Yokobosky
1996). Despite my claim that hip-hop confers a sense of authenticity
and value to this collectivist vision, these films are surprisingly silent
on race, which was the case with much of the No Wave cinema. On the
other hand, the post-studio turn of Beat Street, Krush Grove and Notorious
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provide the viewer with a fantasy of black political and collective action
within the market place but in the process elides the profoundly violent
and criminal contradictions of race, labor and advanced capitalism that
hip-hop often willfully foregrounds.
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Filmography
Beat Street. (1984) Film. Directed by Stan Lathan. [DVD] USA: MGM Home
Entertainment.
Boyz n the Hood (1991). Film. Directed by John Singleton. [DVD] USA: Sony
Pictures Home Entertainment.
Breakin’. (1984) Film. Directed by Joel Silberg. [DVD] USA: MGM Home
Entertainment.
Breakin’ II. (1984) Film. Directed by Sam Firstenberg. [DVD]: MGM Home
Entertainment.
Da Last Don. (1998) Film. Directed by Master P and Michael Martin. [DVD] USA:
No Limit Films.
Dead Presidents. (1995). Film. Directed by Albert and Allen Hughes. [DVD] USA:
Hollywood Pictures Home Entertainment.
Downtown 81. (1981/2000) Film. Directed by Edo Bertoglio. [DVD] USA: Zeitgeist
Films.
8-Mile. (2002). Film. Directed by Curtis Hanson. [DVD] USA: Universal Studios.
80 Blocks from Tiffany’s. (1979) Film. Directed by Gary Weis. [VHS] USA: Above
Average Productions.
Get Rich or Die Trying (2005). Film. Directed by Jim Sheridan. [DVD] USA:
Paramount Pictures.
Hustle and Flow. (2005). Film. Directed by Craig Brewer. [DVD] USA: Warner Brothers.
I’m Bout It. (1997) Film. Directed by Moon Jones and Master P. [DVD] USA: No
Limit Films.
Jolson Sings Again. (1949) Film. Directed by Henry Levin. [DVD] USA: Sony
Pictures Home Entertainment.
Juice. (1992). Film. Directed by Ernest Dickerson. [DVD] USA: Warner Brothers
Home Entertainment.
Krush Groove. (1985) Film. Directed by Michael Schultz. [DVD] USA: Warner
Home Video.
Menace II Society. (1993) Film. Directed by Albert and Allen Hughes. [DVD] USA:
New Line Home Cinema.
New Jack City. (1991). Film. Directed by Mario Van Peebles. [DVD] USA: Warner
Home Video.
Notorious. (2009). Film. Directed by George Tillman. [DVD] USA: Fox Searchlight.
Rappin. (1985) Film. Directed by Joel Silberg. [DVD] USA: MGM Home Entertainment.
Ray (2004). Film. Directed by Taylor Hackford. [DVD] USA: Universal Studios.
She’s Gotta Have It. (1986) Film. Directed by Spike Lee. [DVD] USA: MGM.
Singing in the Rain. (1952) Film. Directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen.
[DVD] USA: Warner Home Video.
Smithereens. (1981) Film. Directed by Susan Seidleman. [DVD] USA: Blue Underground.
Stations of the Elevated. (1981) Film. Directed by Manfred Kirchheimer. [VHS] USA:
First Run Features.
Streets Is Watching. (1998) Film. Directed by Abdul Malik Abbot. [DVD] USA:
Roc-A-Fella Films.
Style Wars. (1983) Film. Directed by Tony Silver. [DVD] USA: Public Art Films.
The Band Wagon. (1953) Film. Directed by Richard Schickel and Vincente
Minnelli. [DVD] USA: Warner Home Video.
The Brooklyn Bridge at Pearl Street (1978?). Film. Directed by Charlie Ahearn.
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The Deadly Art of Survival (1979). Film. Directed by Charlie Ahearn. [DVD] USA:
BRINKDVD.
They Eat Scum. (1979) Film. Directed by Nick Zedd.
Tougher than Leather. (1988) Film. Directed by Rick Rubin. [VHS] USA: New Line
Home Cinema.
Twins (1980). Film. Directed by Charlie Ahearn.
Underground U.S.A. (1980) Film. Directed by Eric Mitchell.
Walk the Line (2005). Film. Directed by James Mangold. [DVD] USA: 20th
Century Fox.
Wild Style. (1982) Film. Directed by Charlie Ahearn. [DVD] USA: Rhino Films.
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6
Love Streams1
Damon Krukowski
Making Cents
I’m sure each generation of musicians feels they’ve lived through a time
of tremendous change, but the shifts I’ve witnessed in my relatively
short music career – from morphing formats to dissolving business
models – do seem extraordinary. The first album I made was originally
released on LP only, in 1988 – and my next will likely only be pressed
on LP again. But in between, the music industry seems to have done
everything it could to screw up that simple model of exchange; today it
is no longer possible for most of us to earn even a modest wage through
our recordings.
Not that I am naively nostalgic for the old days – we weren’t paid for
that first album, either. (The record label we were signed to at the time,
Rough Trade, declared bankruptcy before cutting us even one royalty
check.) But the ways in which musicians are screwed have changed
qualitatively, from individualized swindles to systemic ones. And with
those changes, a potential end-run around the industry’s problems
seems less and less possible, even for bands who have managed to hold
on to 100 percent of their rights and royalties, as we have.
Consider Pandora and Spotify, the streaming music services that are
becoming ever more integrated into our daily listening habits. My BMI
royalty check arrived recently, reporting songwriting earnings from the
first quarter of 2012, and I was glad to see that our music is being listened
to via these services. Galaxie 500’s “Tugboat”, for example, was played
7,800 times on Pandora that quarter, for which its three songwriters
were paid a collective total of 21 cents, or seven cents each. Spotify pays
better: For the 5,960 times “Tugboat” was played there, Galaxie 500’s
songwriters went collectively into triple digits: $1.05 (35 cents each).
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To put this into perspective: Since we own our own recordings, by
my calculation it would take songwriting royalties for roughly 312,000
plays on Pandora to earn us the profit of one – one – LP sale. (On Spotify,
one LP is equivalent to 47,680 plays.)
Or to put it in historical perspective: The “Tugboat” 7-inch single,
Galaxie 500’s very first release, cost us $980.22 for 1,000 copies –
including shipping! (Naomi kept the receipts) – or 98 cents each. I no
longer remember what we sold them for, but obviously it was easy to
turn at least a couple bucks’ profit on each. Which means we earned
more from every one of those 7-inch singles we sold than from the
song’s recent 13,760 plays on Pandora and Spotify. Here’s yet another
way to look at it: Pressing 1,000 singles in 1988 gave us the earning
potential of more than 13 million streams in 2012. (And people say the
internet is a bonanza for young bands...)
To be fair, because we are singer-songwriters, and because we own all
of our rights, these streaming services end up paying us a second royalty,
each for a different reason and each through a different channel. Pandora
is considered “non-terrestrial radio,” and consequently must pay the
musicians who play on the recordings it streams, as well as the songwriters. These musicians’ royalties are collected by SoundExchange, a
non-profit organization created by the government when satellite radio
came into existence. SoundExchange doesn’t break our earnings down
by service per song, but it does tell us that last quarter, Pandora paid a
total of $64.17 for use of the entire Galaxie 500 catalogue. We have 64
Galaxie 500 recordings registered with them, so that averages neatly to
one dollar per track, or another 33 cents for each member of the trio.
Pandora in fact considers this additional musicians’ royalty an extraordinary financial burden, and they are aggressively lobbying for a
new law – it is now a bill before the U.S. Congress – designed to relieve
them of it. You can read all about it in a series of helpful blog posts by
Ben Sisario of The New York Times,2 or if you prefer your propaganda
unmediated, you can listen to Pandora founder Tim Westergren’s own
explanation of the Orwellian Internet Radio Fairness Act.3
As for Spotify, since it is not considered radio, either of this world
or any other, they have a different additional royalty to pay. Like
any non-broadcast use of recordings, they require a license from the
rights-holder They negotiate this individually with each record label,
at terms not made public. I’m happy to make ours public, however: It
is the going “indie” rate of $0.005 per play. (Actually, when I do the
math, that rate seems to truly pay out at $0.004611 – I hope someone
got a bonus for saving the company four-hundredths of a cent on each
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stream!) We didn’t negotiate this, exactly; for a band-owned label like
ours, it’s take it or leave it. We took it, which means for 5,960 plays of
“Tugboat”, Spotify theoretically owes our record label $29.80.
I say theoretically, because in practice Spotify’s $0.004611 rate turns
out to have a lot of small, invisible print attached to it. It seems this rate
is adjusted for each stream, according to an algorithm (not shared by
Spotify, at least not with us) that factors in variables such as frequency of
play, the outlet that channeled the play to Spotify, the type of subscription held by the user, and so on. What’s more, try as I might through
the documents available to us, I cannot get the number of plays Spotify
reports to our record label to equal the number of plays reported by BMI.
Bottom line: The payments actually received by our label from Spotify
for streams of “Tugboat” in that same quarter, as best I can figure: $9.18.
“Well, that’s still not bad,” you might say. (I’m not sure who would
really say that, but let’s presume someone might.) After all, these are
immaterial goods – it costs us nothing to have our music on these services: no pressing, no printing, no shipping, no file space to save a paper
receipt for 25 years. All true. But immaterial goods turn out to generate
equally immaterial income.
Which gets to the heart of the problem. When I started making records,
the model of economic exchange was exceedingly simple: make something, price it for more than it costs to manufacture, and sell it if you can.
It was industrial capitalism, on a 7-inch scale. The model now seems closer
to financial speculation. Pandora and Spotify are not selling goods; they
are selling access, a piece of the action. Sign on, and we’ll all benefit. (I’m
struck by the way that even crowd-sourcing mimics this “investment”
model of contemporary capitalism: You buy in to what doesn’t yet exist.)
But here’s the rub: Pandora and Spotify are not earning any income
from their services, either. In the first quarter of 2012, Pandora – the
same company that paid Galaxie 500 a total of $1.21 for their use of
“Tugboat” – reported a net loss of more than $20 million. As for Spotify,
their latest annual report revealed a loss in 2011 of $56 million.
Leaving aside why these companies are bothering to chisel hundredths
of a cent from already ridiculously low “royalties,” or paying lobbyists to work a bill through Congress that would lower those rates even
further – let’s instead ask a question they themselves might consider
relevant: Why are they in business at all?
The answer is capital, which is what Pandora and Spotify have and
what they generate. These aren’t record companies; they don’t make
records, or anything else – apparently not even income. They exist to
attract speculative capital. And for those who have a claim to ownership
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of that capital, they are earning millions – in 2012, Pandora’s executives
sold $63 million of personal stock in the company. Or as Spotify’s CEO
Daniel Ek has put it, “The question of when we’ll be profitable actually
feels irrelevant. Our focus is all on growth. That is priority one, two,
three, four and five.”4
Growth of the music business? I think not. Daniel Ek means growth of
his company, that is, its capitalization. Which is the closest I can come
to understanding the fundamental change I’ve witnessed in the music
industry, from my first LP in 1988 to the one I am working on now. In
between, the sale of recorded music has become irrelevant to the dominant business models I have to contend with as a working musician.
Indeed, music itself seems to be irrelevant to these businesses – it is just
another form of information, the same as any other that might entice
us to click a link.
As businesses, Pandora and Spotify are divorced from music. To me,
it’s a short logical step to observe that they are doing nothing for the
business of music – except undermining the simple cottage industry of
pressing ideas onto vinyl, and selling them for more than they cost to
manufacture. I am no Luddite – I am not smashing iPhones or sabotaging software. In fact, I subscribe to Spotify for $9.99 a month (the
equivalent of 680,462 annual plays of “Tugboat”) because I love music,
and the access it gives me to music of all kinds is incredible.
But I have simply stopped looking to these business models to do anything for me financially as a musician. As for sharing our music without
a business model of any kind, that’s exactly how I got into this – we
called it punk rock. Which is why we are streaming all of our recordings,
completely free, on the Bandcamp sites we set up for Galaxie 500 and
Damon & Naomi.
Which leads to the following modest proposal.
Free Music
The last thing I expected to see crop up in accounts of WikiLeaks whistleblower Bradley Manning‘s ongoing trial was mention of our petty
problems in the music business.
But lo and behold, when the defense called an expert to testify on the
relationship between WikiLeaks and the traditional media – in order to
introduce the idea that the controversial site might deserve protection of
free speech, just like the newspapers that published its revelations – the
witness began by comparing the current situation in journalism to “what
we saw in music in the early 2000s.” Yochai Benkler, professor of law at
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Harvard and author of an influential paper about journalism called “A Free
Irresponsible Press: Wikileaks and the Battle over the Soul of the Networked
Fourth Estate” argues that, in the 21st century, the function of the press
has expanded beyond 20th-century media outlets of print, radio, and television, to a “cluster of practices and technologies and organizations that
fill that role,” which he calls “the network Fourth Estate” (Benkler, 2011).
The court transcript itself is evidence for what Benkler is describing:
It’s provided not by the state, nor by a traditional media outlet, but
by the non-profit Freedom of the Press Foundation, which has raised
more than $100,000 through crowdsourcing to pay for a stenographer.
Manning is on trial in a military court, which is not required to keep a
record of the proceedings, so Freedom of the Press Foundation is posting full transcripts from the trial, which are being released under an
Attribution 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.
Follow that link to Creative Commons, and you’ll find yourself
enmeshed with music yet again: The Freedom of the Press Foundation is
using a license developed with music so much in mind that one of its
three terms is the right “to Remix.” Indeed, diligent readers of Pitchfork
might remember that, among others, Nine Inch Nails used a Creative
Commons license instead of Copyright for their 2008 album Ghosts I-IV
(it didn’t help reviewer Tom Breihan like it any better, though). How did
musicians and music fans end up entangled with momentous problems
like the leaking of government secrets, freedom of the press, and the
potential prosecution of whistleblowers as traitors?
As Benkler indicates in his testimony, music was the canary in the
digital coal mine. In its original free, peer-to-peer form, Napster lasted
only two years, from June 1999 to July 2001, but left a changed industry
in its wake, and all the many legal and financial and creative ideas since
cannot turn back the century. But if music preceded movies, television,
books, and journalism down the rabbit hole of peer-to-peer exchange,
Benkler reminds us that it wasn’t the first industry to be shaken by fast
and cheap digital communication. That distinction belongs to software,
which lost its original way of doing business even earlier.
In his article, Benkler looks to developments in the software industry to point the way for journalism in its new, networked form, and it
might serve the music business to do the same. As Benkler puts it, “The
defining characteristic of the Net was the decentralization of physical
and human capital that it enabled.” In programming, that decentralization led not only to the creation of open-source software, but to its rapid
development in ways that centralized, hierarchical businesses could not
necessarily match. Their solution? Software companies developed ways
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of using and complementing open-source material, rather than playing
whack-a-mole and trying to shut it down. As Benkler puts it, what has
emerged in computing is a “collaboration across the boundary between
traditional organizational models and new networked models.”
Though many have tried, we haven’t really seen this strategy employed
in the realm of music. Instead, what seems to have emerged most
powerfully for the industry is cooperation between major labels – the
epitome of centralized, hierarchical business models – and the computing industry (Apple, Spotify, Pandora). What’s missing from that is the
very element that Benkler identifies as the defining characteristic of the
Net: decentralized physical and human capital, that is, musicians and
music fans. Somehow, we keep being left out of the equation.
As others have commented – most recently Thom Yorke and Nigel
Godrich – these new models are adept at wringing profits from existing
music catalogs, but they don’t do much, if anything, for the financing of
new recordings. And it doesn’t take an MBA to see how that doesn’t bode
well for the future of the industry. But it must be said: Major labels don’t
exactly have a great track record for planning ahead. (Is it something about
the personalities drawn to work in our moment-to-moment world of music?
If you get a thrill from Jonathan Richman’s “one-two-three-four-five-six!”
are you more likely to be someone who saves carefully for retirement, or
someone who hopes they die before they get old?)
What might be keeping the music industry from developing successful new networked models is the centralized holding of a majority of
existing music rights in the hands of a very few. Apple, Spotify, Pandora,
and all those to come in their wake have only to negotiate with the
major labels before launching products that the rest of us have to
accept or reject. Using Benkler’s terminology, the “networked models”
in music have been relegated to a put-up-or-shut-up role, while the
“traditional organizational models” explore their options with partners
from outside music altogether.
A true 21st-century partnership for the music business would include
musicians and music fans in a far more substantive role. “Creating
these collaborations is feasible but not trivial,” Benkler acknowledges –
there are entrenched interests that resist open-source sharing, and on the
networked side there might be resistance to cooperating with what can
seem like the enemy. But he points out the advantages to both sides:
The major incumbents will continue to play an important role as
highly visible, relatively closed organizations capable of delivering
much wider attention to any given revelation, and to carry on their
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operations under relatively controlled conditions. The networked
entrants, not individually, but as a network of diverse individuals
and organizations, will have an agility, scope, and diversity of sources
and pathways such that they will, collectively, be able to collect and
capture information on a global scale that would be impossible for
any single traditional organization to replicate by itself.
Benkler is addressing journalism in this statement, but it is easy to map
the players in music onto this scenario. The “major incumbents” know
who they are. The “network of diverse individuals and organizations”
is the rest of us, and our collective abilities in music are tremendous.
Musicians and fans shouldn’t trade those abilities for anything less than
transforming the industry in their own image, because if there is to be
a 21st-century music business, it will be a networked one.
One way we could start is to collectively acknowledge that nobody
can really claim digital streams as exclusive property. So let them flow
freely – from everyone, fans included – instead of only from companies
that have cut deals with the copyright holders. Services like Spotify
might continue to operate as they are, with their pittance of revenue
sharing, but they would have to compete in an open market of free
streaming by musicians and fans. What I am envisioning is something
like what has developed for music posting via YouTube, but allowed
to proliferate throughout the network, without corporate control over
context or quality. Perhaps that kind of competition would spark newly
cooperative ideas, and take us away from the antagonistic relationship
between much of the music business on one hand, and the network of
musicians and fans on the other. The century is still young.
Notes
1. This essay is adapted from articles originally written for and published by the
music website Pitchfork.com in 2012 and 2013. Reproduced with permission.
2. http://mediadecoder.blogs.nytimes.com/author/ben-sisario/?_r=0
3. https://web.archive.org/web/20130308075714/http://www.pandora.com/
static/ads/irfa/irfa.html
4. https://www.dittomusic.com/blog/spotify-founder-states-that-profitability-isabsolutely-not-a-priority
Reference
Benkler, Y. (2011). Free Irresponsible Press: Wikileaks and the Battle over the Soul
of the Networked Fourth Estate, Harvard Civil Rights–Civil Liberties Law Review,
46, 311–97.
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7
A Case for Musical Privacy
Richard Randall
Singin’ right to me I can hear the melody
The story is there for the takin’
Drivin’ over Kanan, singin’ to my soul
There’s people out there turnin’ music into gold
John Stewart, “Gold”
If I didn’t love you, I’d hate you
I’m playing your stereogram
Singles remind me of kisses
Albums remind me of plans
Squeeze, “If I didn’t love you”
“Every song has a story. What’s yours?” read the subject of an email sent to
me by the streaming-music service Spotify (2014a). The email continues:
Spotify
#thatsongwhen
Find a song, tell your story, share with the world.
Nothing triggers a memory quite like a song. You know, that song
when weekend mornings meant sugary cereal and cartoons. Or that
song when you did everything to win the heart of your playground
crush ... So we’re asking – what songs take you back to a special
moment?
Here are some of the songs you played most in 2014:
Give Out by Sharon Van Etten
Serpents by Sharon Van Etten
Leonard by Sharon Van Etten
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Does one of them spark a good story? We’d love to hear it.
Or explore other stories in the gallery.
When I saw this list of songs, I knew exactly when I was listening to
them, where I was, how I felt, what was going on in my life, and how
these songs made me feel. These experiences came back in vivid detail.
I probably listened to the song “Give Out” over a hundred times during this period on my MP3 player, on my computer, and apparently on
Spotify. When I saw Spotify’s request that I share why with them and “the
world,” I was taken aback. The time in question was emotionally charged
and challenging. I felt fragile and disoriented. The song was an anchor
for me. It was a point of reference and a constant companion. The song
made me feel I wasn’t alone in a way that was safe, private, and confidential. To me, sharing the details of this experience would be on par
with sharing a private conversation with a therapist or a trusted friend.
While this story might seem melodramatic, I share it to highlight
the personal and intimate relationship we have with music. Listening
to music is an important part of our lives and our listening habits say a
lot about who we are, how we feel, and what we believe. Over the past
ten years we have seen an unprecedented transformation in how we
are able to discover and listen to music. Online streaming-music services such as Spotify and Pandora comprise a complex of technologic,
economic, and critical human issues. Some of these issues are common
to streaming-media services in general (e.g. YouTube, Netflix, Hulu)
and the Internet, while others are unique to music services. This essay
examines streaming-music services (SMuS) from the perspective of the
listener. Listening to music online is drastically different from offline
listening largely because the economics of online listening create a new
model of the “audience commodity” and raise critical privacy issues.
The economics of SMuS have been discussed largely as to whether or not
artists are fairly compensated for their music or how SMuS represent a
new business model for the industry. However, in the context of SMuS,
listening becomes a transaction whereby a user’s selection labor is converted into a commodity that has exchange-value. Moreover, this essay
explores how selection labor reveals personal information we make
freely available anytime we make a choice that is recorded by a second
party. This essay works to raise awareness of the kinds of transactions
we are engaging in and risks we are exposed to when we listen to music
online and frames musical identities as something worthy of protection.
In order to discuss streaming music services it is important to
understand some background and issues of online digital capitalization.
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Web 2.0 describes a set of online technologies and practices in which
users are encouraged and empowered to generate and share content and
make on-demand, selective choices about media consumption (O’Reilly
2007). A large part of the political economy of Web 2.0 can be summarized by the free labor (Terranova 2000) duality of prosumption and surveillance (Fuchs 2012). Prosumption is the combined activity of content
production and consumption (Ritzer and Jurgenson 2010). As a form
of capitalism, prosumption describes how social networking sites such
as Facebook and Twitter work: a Twitter user, for example, produces
tweets for others to consume and this user consumes tweets produced
by others. The mitigating service, in this case Twitter, is free to the user.
In order to make money, however, the service must sell something to
someone. The content each user creates is surveilled, aggregated, analyzed, and sold to third parties often for the purposes of advertising in a
practice called “behavioral targeting ” (Anderson 2014). In other words,
the product Twitter sells is both the labor of the user (in the form of
content created to attract and retain other users) and the user (who
receives targeted advertisements). Andrejevic writes that “[t]he value
accruing to the privatization of network resources is, at least in part,
dependent upon the ability to extract productive data from its users –
data that can serve as a resource for advertisers, employers, political
campaigns, and policing” (2012, p. 160).
Sharing personal information is common on online social networks
such as Twitter and Facebook. A social network is “an Internet community where individuals interact, often through profiles that (re)present
their public persona (and their networks of connections) to others”
(Acquisti and Gross 2006, p. 37). When we participate in these networks,
we have a reasonable understanding of how what we share can be and
will be used.1 For example, sharing information about a recent vacation will both keep friends and family appraised of your activities and
generate targeted advertisements for future travel opportunities. Social
networks, search engines, and free email services collect and analyze
data ostensibly in order to connect goods and services with consumers
who are most likely to purchase them.2 The information generated by
our online activity in terms of both content and behavior falls into the
category of “Big Data.” Big Data describes data sets that are so large and
complex that they resist traditional methods of analysis. It is a $50 billion
industry characterized by algorithmic “mining” techniques that search
for otherwise obscured patterns in human-generated information (Kelly
2014). The goal is often to establish correlations between various factors that allow the assertion of probable behaviors of individuals and
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groups. Depending on the analytic goals, Big Data can be used to identify a person as a potential product buyer (behavioral targeting), medical
risk, or terrorist threat. The main ethical issue with Big Data is that digital prosumers never know how their data will be used. In his critique of
Big Data analytics, Acquisti asks us to:
Imagine a world in which the collection and analysis of individual
health data allow researchers to discover the causes of rare diseases
and the cures for common ones. Now, consider the same world, but
imagine that employers are able to predict job candidates’ future
health conditions from a few data points extracted from the candidates’ social network profiles – and then, imagine those employers
making hiring decisions based on those predictions, without any
candidate’s consent or even awareness. (2014, p. 76)
Prosumers often acquiesce to data collection by believing that potential
benefits outweigh risks. We will get better user experiences, access to
goods and services we want, and be shielded from things we don’t want.
But Acquisti writes that “[t]he metaphor of a ‘blank check’ has been
used to describe the uncertainty associated with privacy costs: disclosing personal information is like signing a blank check, which may never
be cashed in – or perhaps cashed in at some unpredictable moment in
time with an indeterminably low, or high, amount to pay ” (2014, p. 84).
A 2014 New York Times article highlights the issue succinctly. A suicide
prevention group released an app that allowed Twitter users to monitor
the feeds of anyone they follow for key terms that may indicate that a
user is a suicide risk.
A week after the app was introduced on its website, more than 4,000
people had activated it, the Samaritans said, and those users were following nearly 1.9 million Twitter accounts, with no notification to
those being monitored. But just about as quickly, the group faced an
outcry from people who said the app, called Samaritans Radar, could
identify and prey on the emotionally vulnerable – the very people
the app was created to protect. (Singer 2014a)
The risks of such a surveillance technology were many. For example,
stalkers could use the app to identify vulnerable moments of victims
and employers could make hiring decisions based on amateur psychiatric diagnoses. As one health-care professional pointed out, “you can
have sophisticated employment consultants who will do the vetting on
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people’s psychiatric states, derived from some cockamamie algorithm,
on your Twitter account” (Singer 2014a). The well-meaning app was
withdrawn once it was clear that its possible nefarious implementation
was beyond the control of both the creators and the users being monitored. This example highlights the fact that digital users rarely know
when or how they are at risk. The Samaritan Radar case is important and
unique because the analytic results and means for obtaining them were
explicit and designed to be collected and used by the public. It was a
transparent transgression that met with immediate condemnation. For
proprietary services such as Twitter, Facebook, or Google, however, user
agreements are vague, temporary, and voluminous. We are never fully
aware of what information is being extracted or how it is or will be used.
We are signing a blank check.
For streaming media services (SMeS), how users interact with technology and consume and produce content is somewhat different. While
some SMeS, such as YouTube, Soundcloud, MySpace, or Vimeo, allow
users to prosume, other services, such as Spotify and Netflix, do not and
focus on consumption. Netflix users, for example, do not upload their
own content. Revenue is generated by subscriptions to the service
(Netflix) or general advertising (Hulu). The service, therefore, functions
more like traditional cable or broadcast media. For a SMuS like Spotify or
Pandora, users can upload media so long as they can provide evidence
of ownership and agree to the service’s terms of use. Still, this is similar
to traditional broadcast radio where an individual can send their own
recording to a radio station DJ or program manager for them to consider including in their rotation. Radio station playlists and programs
are intrinsically connected to advertising revenue. The type of music
played at a particular time correlates with likely audience demographics
determined by surveys. These correlations are used to set advertising
rates and sales strategies. This is a classic model of the “audience commodity” described by Dallas Smythe (McGuigan and Manzerolle 2013.
For Smythe, the raison d’être of radio and TV stations was to create and
tailor programming in order to develop and retain an audience. The
audience becomes a commodity that is sold to advertisers.
There is a crucial difference between broadcast radio and SMuS, however.3 In the latter, the traditional “push” design of broadcast radio is
replaced with a “pull’’ design where users are able to initiate the delivery
of specific songs and playlists (Trecordi and Verticale 2000; Kendall and
Kendall 1999). A detailed explanation of push vs pull is beyond the
scope of this essay, but it is important to point out that the bidirectional
information flow of pull not only facilitated the “on demand” media
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revolution, but also of Web 2.0, itself. With the ability for users to make
requests and initiate delivery, content providers such as Pandora do not
have to create programming for users in the hopes that they will be
able to sell their attention to an advertiser. Instead, users create their
own programming from a library. The catch is that in all pull technologies, the gateway application, for example Pandora, is also a surveillance
device that directly monitors and records each user’s behavior.
Online streaming media services have realized that such choices
represented a set of collectable and analyzable behaviors that not only
allowed providers to refine their own recommendation algorithms and
marketing strategies, but also to package and resell these behaviors to
third parties. Numerous scholars have critiqued the labor implications
of user-generated content and prosumption (Scholz 2012). But the political economic issues associated with making choices about listening and
watching are more subtle. Consuming media has usually been framed as
a leisure activity or unproductive labor, that is, labor that does not produce a good with exchange value. However, in the case of SMuS, where
listening requires input from a user, behavior resembles something like
the subjective immaterial labor that underpins cognitive capitalism
(Fuchs 2011). Cognitive capitalism holds that ideas and thoughts can
be commodities with use and exchange value. “There is currently extensive global competition to attract the best brains,” writes Larsen, and
“[k]nowledge becomes a strategic force of production and an important
commodity” (2014, p. 161).
Related to this is selection power and selection labor. In his book
Human Information Retrieval, Julian Warner posits that selection power
is “the human ability to make informed choices between objects or
representations of objects” (2010, p. 17). Warner is referring to how recommendation algorithms model human behavior. In SMuS, algorithmic
recommendation is a crucial part of the listening experience. Given
a user’s choice of two songs, for example, an algorithm will choose a
third song that it thinks the user will like. It is important for the algorithm to be correct because that will improve the quality of the user’s
experience and keep them using the service. The user can affirm or
deny the selection (e.g. thumbs up or thumbs down), which provides the
algorithm with additional information so as to make better decisions in
the future. In the case of recommendation, the results of an information retrieval algorithm, at best, will represent the selection power of an
individual or group of individuals. It is a property of human consciousness and represents a variety of human experiences and desires. Selection
power is produced by selection labor, which can be understood as the
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mental work of memorization and recall (Warner 2010, pp. 27 and 31).
Psychologically speaking, selection labor would necessarily represent
both tacit and explicit knowledge and is therefore only partially explicable. Selection labor can be construed as a code for a wide variety of
human experiences. When transformed into selection power, these
experiences produce outcomes that are desirable for a person, but often
not easily predicted by machine. In order for these “selection machines”
to do what people do, they observe, record, and analyze behaviors of
the users themselves. It is an interesting twist on the free labor issue.
User input is used to build algorithms that enhance the service’s user
experience by creating a better product. These algorithms are shadowy
versions of our experiences and knowledge expressed as selections we
actively, but often intuitively, make. The question is: how important is
this musical experience and knowledge?
Music is often considered entertainment or, as neuroscientist Steven
Pinker (1997) has said, “auditory cheesecake,” but we know that it is
much more. As a species we have always exhibited distinctly musical
behaviors (Mithen 2005). We sing and dance, and we do these activities
alone and in groups. We have an innate desire to be musical. As a human
universal, music is arguably central to the development and survival
of our species. Archeologist Steven Mithen writes that before there
was a spoken language, there was an advanced communication system
involving complex and holistic vocalizations that enabled our ancestors
to hunt, reproduce, and socialize (2005). It is from this system that both
language and music were borne. Given an opportunity to fade away in
the shadow of language’s formidable ability to communicate thoughts
and ideas, music held its ground. The question is: why? One answer is
that music allowed us to do things that were important to us, and for
which language was not particularly well suited. Language, while great
for organizing a hunt, perhaps falls short in expressing the exuberance
that comes with its successful conclusion. The importance of music in
our lives has not changed over the millennia, even if the way we engage
with it has.
Erik Clarke writes that “music affords dancing, worship, coordinated
working, persuasion, emotional catharsis, marching, foot-tapping, and
a myriad other activities of a perfectly tangible kind” (2005, p. 38).
Challenging ideas that listening and musical experiences are passive,
Joel Krueger argues that music is something we are always seeking.
Music, Krueger writes, “is a crucial tool for cultivating and regulating
our social life. Without music, our life – including our ability to sensitively relate to and communicate with others – would indeed change
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dramatically” (2011). These are claims that online social networks
would love to make. The music industry never has to create a demand
for what it sells, as we will never stop wanting and needing to be musical.
They only need to convince us that the product they’re selling and the
way we access it is what we want.
The materialization of music by means of notation and recording has
had a profound influence and effect over musical practice, especially in
capitalist economies. Jacques Attali writes that “music, an immaterial
pleasure turned commodity, now heralds a society of the sign, of the
immaterial up for sale, of social relation unified in money” (1985, p. 4).
He argues that material physical formats such as LPs, CDs, musical scores,
and piano rolls, allow us to exercise political and financial control over
what music is and how it can be used. “Wherever there is music,” he
says, “there is money” (Attali 1985, p. 3).
Streaming music services eschew the notion of materiality altogether.
In its place is the notion of “service.” These services mediate our access
to music and in doing so are situated in a position to observe how listeners behave. By moving to a service model, companies like Pandora,
Spotify, and Rdio provide access to a limited catalog when you want it,
where you want it. No need to manage an MP3 collection or purchase
and download music. It is pitched as a radio where a user gets to choose
the songs. These services have been widely criticized in recent years for
the small amount of royalties musicians actually make compared to
how frequently their songs get played (Krukowski, Chapter 6 in this
volume). The fact is, these services do not seem to make money. They
have relied on ads and subscriptions to generate revenue and not one
SMuS operating in 2013 made a profit.
When we listen to music on a SMuS, we make choices about what
we want to hear. These choices reflect who we are, how we feel, what
we believe. Our musical tastes have developed over years of personal
reflection and social interactions. We have learned how to use music to
make ourselves feel better and to create social bonds. Christopher Small
coins the term “musicking” as a verb that describes a diverse collection
of activities that comprise musical engagement (Small 1998). Small proposes that being musical involves not just performing and creating, but
also listening and sharing. Listening is not a capricious activity. In fact,
listening preferences develop over time and reflect important individual
characteristics and social choices that represent who we are.
Natasha Singer’s article “Listen to Pandora, and It Listens Back”
describes a new solution to an old problem: how can SMuS make money
from our desire to be musical (2014b). One solution is to commodify
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our musical identity as it is defined by the choices we make when we
listen to music online. This is important because most of us don’t think
about our musical identity, how important it is, or how much personal
information it potentially represents. Singer relays Pandora’s stance that
such data collection and analysis will be used for behaviorally targeted
advertising similar to practices of Twitter and Facebook. She quotes a
Pandora scientist who says, “we have [analysis] down to the individual
level, to the specific person who is using Pandora ... [w]e take all of these
signals and look at correlations that lead us to come up with magical
insights about somebody” (2014b). Singer writes:
People’s music, movie or book choices may reveal much more than
commercial likes and dislikes. Certain product or cultural preferences
can give glimpses into consumers’ political beliefs, religious faith,
sexual orientation or other intimate issues. That means many organizations now are not merely collecting details about where we go and
what we buy, but are also making inferences about who we are. (2014b)
There is considerable evidence to support Singer’s claim. Music psychologists have long found clear evidence that what we listen to can
accurately predict specific personal demographic details and emotional
states. We listen to music for a variety of reasons and how, when, and to
what we listen can reveal a lot about who we are, how we feel, our values, and our beliefs. MacDonald et al. (2002) contend that music “plays
a fundamental role in the development, negotiation, and maintenance
of our personal lives” (2002, p. 462). Research also indicates that for
young people music is an important “badge of identity” that promotes
development and maintenance of social groups (Hargraves et al. 2002).
The “sense of self” is a complex psychological construct that develops
over time and is subject to constant revision and modulation. Music
plays a significant role in this development.
A study by North and Hargrave (2007) found numerous correlations
between subjects’ musical preference and lifestyle details including
moral and political beliefs, and attitudes about relationships and criminal
behavior. Rentfrow and Gosling (2011) found that musical preference
is the most common topic of conversation when two people are trying
to get to know each other and that people are able to form very accurate assessments of the personality of others based only on knowing
their musical preferences. Rawlings and Ciancarelli (1997) were able to
show clear and distinct associations between gender and personality
types (scales measuring extraversion and openness) and musical styles.
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Numerous studies explore and find strong connections between listeners’ emotional states and musical preferences (Juslin and Sloboda 2010).
Moreover, Greasley and Lamont (2006) show that the more important
music is to a listener, the stronger these associations are. While results
like these are somewhat intuitive, it is unclear whether or not the average SMuS listener is aware that such associations are possible. The case
for musical privacy hinges on listeners’ appreciation and valuation of
their musical identities and how they can prevent personal information
from either being collected against their wishes or being used in ways
they do not want. It is reasonable to expect that loss of a loved one, for
example, may influence the music you listen to. It is also reasonable to
expect that you should be allowed to mourn in private, if you so wish.
Pandora’s Privacy Policy is vague about how it uses “Listening Activity”
information. The relevant section reads:
When you use the Service, we keep track of your listening activity,
which may include the number and title of songs you have listened
to, the songs that you like (thumb up) or dislike (thumb down), the
stations you create or listen to, the number of songs you skip, and
how long you listen to a station. (Pandora 2013)
It does not say that your listening history will be subject to algorithms
and classifiers in an attempt to create personality profiles that can be
sold and used for reasons you never intended. Nor does Pandora say
what they will do with this data, or if personal identities are protected.
Spotify is more detailed and explains what they collect and what they
do with it.
When you use the Service, we automatically collect certain information, including: (i) information about your type of subscription and
your interactions with the Service, including with songs, playlists, other
Spotify users, Third Party Applications and advertising, products and
services which are offered, linked to or made available on the Service.
To personalise your experience, we may share some information we have collected about you with providers of Third Party
Applications, such as high-level geographic information, your
musical preferences, settings and technical data. However, we take
precautions to prohibit Third Party Application providers from
attempting to identify you by using the information we provide
to them or by collecting additional information without your
consent. (Spotify 2014b)
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While this is more reassuring, Spotify is later very clear that they reserve
the right to sell your information.
Consumers have the right to clearly understand how their musical
identities are being used. More importantly, we have the right to opt out
of data collection. While our musical identities may not seem as important as social security numbers, health records, or banking information,
they nevertheless deserve protection. As companies like Pandora and
Spotify work to extract, bundle, and sell our information, we need to be
aware of what’s at stake.
In her analysis of the Jamaican Street Dance, Mann invokes two key
concepts: cultural intimacy and the exilic space. Cultural intimacy, Mann
writes, “arises from practices that embody both self-knowledge and selfrepresentation, wherein the self is collectively defined. This intimacy
allows marginalized people to affirm as positive the shared traits, situations, and actions that are designated negative by broader society” (Mann,
forthcoming, p. 4). Cultural intimacy is a set of traits that simultaneously
creates closeness within a marginalized group and distance between this
group and powerful outsiders who pose a threat to the group (Mann,
forthcoming, p. 4). The exilic space allows cultural intimacy by protecting the group from being observed and allowing members to act openly
in a way that promotes intimacy. Mann examines how “increased visibility on globally networked media platforms can harm marginalized
communities and their ability to celebrate their identities through various performance practices” (Mann, forthcoming, p. 4). She goes on to
say, “marginalized people need the power to exclude as much as the
power to include” (Mann, forthcoming, p. 4).
I argue that opacity of privacy protections in SMuS creates significant
ambiguity as to what kind of space online listening really is. In the
most dangerous scenario, SMuS listeners might believe they are in an
exilic space and act openly and inclusively as members of a marginalized group. Greater care needs to be taken to ensure that listeners are
aware their behaviors are subject to hegemonic observation with possible damaging consequences. We need to reframe online listening as
prosumption, meaning that listeners are generating content as they
consume content. This content has exchange-value in that it can be sold,
but more importantly this content has the capacity to reveal highly
personal and identifying information.
Furthermore, making choices about what we listen to is a form of
commodifiable labor for which listeners are not compensated. It is
the conversion of “leisure time” into “work time” as our personal
experiences become products that have use-value (in that they refine
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algorithms) and exchange-value (in that they can be sold directly or
indirectly to third parties). Listeners become estranged laborers as they
are separated from the products they create. Listening to music has
become synonymous with consumption largely because we have let ourselves believe that music is a good produced by labor and has a value
associated with this labor. It becomes intrinsically connected to formats
that reinforce this quality of a private good. Much has been said about
how digital formats recast music as a public good by imbuing qualities
of non-excludability and non-rivalry. But to confuse music with its
medium of transmission (formats or services) is a fallacy of misplaced
concreteness and avoids critical humanistic issues. In the case of music
we have to resist treating listening as an exercise in material engagement, embrace Small’s musicking, and appreciate that music is not a
thing, but a fundamental and critical human activity.
Notes
1. Significant work has been done in the last ten years to raise public awareness
about the implications of sharing information on social networks. In addition, there are frequent stories of people experiencing negative repercussions
(e.g. losing a job, being suspended from school) due to comments they have
posted online. This highlights an important aspect of prosumptive privacy,
which is that users can opt not to produce content they feel would put them
at risk.
2. There are other reasons as well, such as optimizing a service to enhance user
experience and satisfaction.
3. It is important to recognize that broadcast radio can stream their content
online. In my argument, I am making a clear distinction between any form
of media delivery that is essentially push versus those that are pull. Streaming
music services as I am discussing them are therefore defined by a user’s ability
to initiate content delivery.
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8
Digital Music and Public Goods
Graham Hubbs
Introduction
In the summer of 2000 – which, for purposes of historical orientation,
predated the release of both iTunes and the iPod – the file-sharing service
Napster found itself in Federal Court accused of contributing to copyright infringement. Lawyers representing the United States recording
industry asserted that Napster had “deliberately buil[t] a business based
almost exclusively on piracy” (Menn 2003, p. 234). This characterization of file-sharing as “piracy” implies that a person who downloaded a
digital music file from Napster had thereby committed an act of theft.
Napster in its original guise has long since passed, but the idea that
peer-to-peer file-sharing is theft lingers on. It can function as a background assumption in debates over the copying of music that is digitally
encoded in data files, to which I will refer hereafter simply as “digital
music.” Consider the following exchange in 2012 between Emily White
and David Lowery. White, who was born in 1991, asserts that she has
ripped thousands of songs from friends’ CDs and hard drives but that
she has not illegally downloaded any of this music. Although White is
concerned about musicians failing to be paid as a result of this sort of
music exchange, she seems to think that her file-ripping is not a sort of
theft (White 2012). Lowery, who was playing guitar in the band Cracker
when White was born, disagrees. He argues that from the artist’s point
of view, it does not matter whether songs are copied from an online filesharing service or offline from a disk drive or CD; either way, the artist
fails to be fairly compensated, and the result is a form of theft (Lowery
2012). Although White and Lowery disagree on the appropriateness of
sharing files with people one knows, both presume that obtaining files
via a peer-to-peer network from a stranger is tantamount to theft.
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The view shared by White and Lowery here is primarily ethical, not
legal. Lowery is clear about this: he describes downloading decisions as
“personal ethical issues,” and he characterizes the sharing of music files
as a “social injustice” perpetuated against musicians. He does not accuse
White of deliberately committing this injustice; rather, he characterizes
her as a young person confused by two competing worldviews. One,
which he endorses, sees the unauthorized replication of music files as
infringing on the rights of musicians to reap the fruits of their artistic
labors. He calls the other the “Free Culture movement,” a phrase he adopts
from Lawrence Lessig without, somewhat ironically, citation.1 According
to Lowery, this worldview seeks to undo the principles that underlie the
first view “simply because it is technologically possible for corporations
or individuals to exploit artists [sic] work without their permission on
a massive scale and globally” (Lowery 2012). Lowery thinks that those
who stand to benefit from the use of this technology are advocating a
shift in morals, one which, in his view, is wrong.
Lowery suggests that many are confused or even brainwashed by the
“Free Culture” mentality and therefore do not see the wrong in copying digital music. Describing the state of affairs back in the Napster and
immediate post-Napster era, Steve Jobs has a different explanation:
“We believe that 80% of people stealing stuff don’t want to be, there’s
just no legal alternative” (Issacson 2011, p. 396, quoting Langer 2003).
According to this diagnosis, those in the early 2000s who downloaded
music from peer-to-peer file-sharing services believed that what they
were doing was a form of theft, which they did not want to perform yet
were compelled to do so anyway. This characterizes the typical Napster
user as motivated by the following trio of desires: the desire for the track
she wants to download, the desire to pay either little or nothing for the
track, and the desire not to perform an act of theft. Although she believes
that downloading music from Napster is theft, her other two desires win
out, for there is no way to satisfy all three of her desires simultaneously.
One way to think of iTunes – and Jobs appears to have thought of it this
way – is as providing a means to satisfy all three desires at once.
These are not the only views one might hold regarding the motives
behind peer-to-peer file sharing, nor do they necessarily exclude one
another. White would appear to fit Jobs’s description quite well: she
wants a lot of music, she does not want to pay much or anything for it,
and she does not want to steal. She thinks that obtaining music from
peer-to-peer networks is stealing, so she does not acquire music this
way; she thinks copying files from friends is not stealing, so she goes
about doing so. This is all compatible with the “Free Culture” desire to
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get music without having to pay (much) for it. Perhaps it is necessary to
add Lowery’s idea to Jobs’s to get a full explanation of White’s behavior;
perhaps Jobs’s account is sufficient on its own; perhaps some further
alternative does better. Whatever the case, Lowery, Jobs, and White herself all agree that had White assembled her music library via peer-to-peer
networks, her activity would have constituted a massive heist.
The goal of this essay is to critique this apparently shared assumption.
Before proceeding, however, it is worth noting that the very idea of
assembling a private music library can seem antiquated given the rise
of streaming music services such as Pandora, Spotify, and Apple Music.
White, Lowery, and Jobs all seem to think that for an individual to have
access to a vast musical library, she would need to possess a private,
potentially unnetworked device containing the music files. Streaming
music services make such a library available without having to own the
relevant files. One suspects that most of the music White spent hours
ripping is now available to her via these streaming services;it would
be unsurprising if someone five year’s White’s junior found her hours
of ripping an old-fashioned waste of time. Mark Mulligan sees the rise
of streaming music services as the third phase of digital music, the
successor to the first phase of “piracy networks” such as Napster and
the subsequent phase of download stores such as Apple’s iTunes Store
(Mulligan 2014).2 I will address this third phase at the end of this essay,
but my focus here will be on the inclination to characterize the networks
of the first phase, which have persisted through the other two phases
into the present day, by use of the concept piracy.3 I will argue that
the concept theft does not readily apply to digital music that can be
obtained from a peer-to-peer network. Such music lacks the hallmark
features of private property, so it lacks the features that one would
expect something stealable to have.
Instead, I will argue, digital music has the hallmark features of what
economists call a public good, for digital music in a peer-to-peer network
is neither a rivalrous nor an excludable good. It lacks these features
because it is, in a sense, spaceless. To be sure, digital music is embodied
in what a philosopher would describe as a medium-sized object, such as
a disk drive, which takes up space. This embodiment, however, does not
preclude a stranger from copying the drive’s music even as its possessor
listens to it, if the drive’s files are accessible via a peer-to-peer network.
The embodiment is thus practically immaterial. Put another way, digital
music in peer-to-peer networks practically occupies no objective space,
which I intend literally to mean the space inhabited by medium-sized
objects. Descriptions such as these carry an air of paradox, for they
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suggest that such music is a spaceless object or exists in an objectless
space. What these descriptions are tracking, I hope to show, is the possibility of conceiving of this music as a public good. This in turn affects
the normative space in which digital music exists: because this music
lacks the hallmark features of private property, the norms that govern
the legitimate uses of bits of property do not straightforwardly apply to
it. To the extent that listeners find themselves operating with and in
these (non-)spaces, it affects their interactions with music.
A few framing remarks are in order before proceeding to the main
argument. In claiming that digitally networked music files are spaceless,
I do not mean to deny the obvious: to obtain these files in the normal
way, one’s fingers must type on a keyboard so that two computers
interact with one another, which requires a variety of spatial alterations.
All manner of spatial changes can cause the download to fail: either
computer may be turned off, or either may be destroyed, or the wires
involved in the process may be severed, etc. Practical spacelessness is thus
possible only if a number of medium-sized objects – computers, wires,
etc. – are functioning properly. This does not alter the fact that when
they are functioning properly, the music in them has the hallmark features of a public good, features that distinguish such music from music
embodied spatial objects such as, for example, vinyl records or cassette
tapes. Jacques Attali discusses the latter sort of music as existing within
a network of “repetition,” which allows for the commodification of
music (Attali 1985, esp. ch. 4); my argument is that this commodification depends on a spatiality that, since the rise of Napster, is no longer
a necessary feature of recorded music. Put in Attali’s idiom, my claim is
that Napster popularized a new form of repetition, spaceless repetition,
one of whose effects has been the partial decommodification of music.4
The point about space and spacelessness I have just made is rather
blunt, which suits the sort of charge it is intended to preclude. There
are, however, much more subtle complaints one might make against my
talk of spacelessness. Following the work of Jonathan Sterne, one might
argue that I am paying insufficient attention to the spatial constraints
that have caused the predominant music-file format, the MP3, to have
its distinguishing characteristics (Sterne 2012). Alternatively, one might
draw on Matthew Kirschenbaum’s work to argue that the spacelessness
I discuss is more superficial than practical and that my focus on it
obfuscates important technological details underpinning peer-to-peer
file sharing (Kirschenbaum 2008). The only adequate response to these
and related complaints is the essay’s argument itself; I leave it to the
reader to decide its success in the end. I should say up front, though,
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that my discussion is meant to capture the way listeners with rudimentary technological skills and knowledge interact with digital music files.
The value of Sterne’s and Kirschenbaum’s work is, in no small part, to
reveal aspects of those interactions to which such listeners may be blind
or deaf; my topic pertains to those aspects that are transparent to these
listeners. It is my hope, then, that what I offer here will be compatible
with the different sort of project that Sterne, Kirschenbaum, and others
have pursued.
I should also say at the outset that in characterizing digital music as
a public good, I do not intend to advance a legal or ethical position
regarding digital file-sharing. I do not aim to exonerate, legally or ethically, those who have assembled digital music libraries via peer-to-peer
networks. I also am not giving a psychological account of the motives
that lead people to share or to copy digital music files. The point of my
analysis is simply to highlight those features of digital music relevant to
the application of concepts such as property and theft. I will argue that,
somewhat paradoxically, the very fact that digital music in peer-to-peer
networks lacks the hallmark features of private property can explain the
attitude that obtaining such music is theft. Less paradoxically, it can
also explain why all digital songs, both networked and non-networked,
might come to seem like public goods. This last line of thought, I believe,
poses a serious challenge for coherently conceiving of digital music as a
private good. If we stop treating digital music as a private good, however,
we will need to revise the way we think about compensating musicians
for their work. If we want listening spaces to exist, then those who create them should be able to make a living doing so. For musicians this
requires establishing institutions that allow them to live off of their
craft.5 If the central argument of this paper is correct, then in the postNapster age we should not be surprised if traditional institutions of
private property fail in this regard. I will conclude with some remarks
on alternative institutions that may preserve listening spaces.
Public Goods
The immediate forebears of public goods are the mid-20th century economists Paul Samuelson and Richard Musgrave. It is common to regard
Samuelson’s work in the 1950s as the foundation of the modern theory
of public goods, but it is a paper by Musgrave that supplies what has
come to be the textbook definition of the concept.6 Musgrave defines
public goods in terms of the following two characteristics: “[t]he first
is the characteristic of non-rivalness in consumption, i.e., the existence
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of a beneficial consumption externality. The second is the characteristic
of non-excludability from consumption. The two are distinct features
and need not coincide. Each plays a different role” (Musgrave 1969,
p. 126).7 To say that a good is non-rivalrous is to say that one person’s
use of that good at a time does not thereby preclude another’s use of
it at the same time. Rivalrous goods do not have this characteristic.
Shovels, for example, are rivalrous: if I am using a shovel, you cannot, at that moment, use it as well. The music one hears at a concert,
by contrast, is non-rivalrous, for my listening to the music does not
thereby prevent you from listening to it at the same time. Although
the music at a concert is non-rivalrous, it may be excludable; that is, it
may be possible to require payment for someone to listen to the music. If
the concert is indoors, for example, it may be possible to require that
audience members pay an entrance fee, thereby excluding those who are
unable to do so. Goods such as these that are non-rivalrous yet excludable
are often called toll goods (Ostrom and Ostrom 1977, p. 168). If a good
is both non-rivalrous and non-excludable, it is a public good. Abundant
natural resources, such as the oxygen in the air, are examples of such
goods. This oxygen – at least, if we conceive of it as a mass and not as
a collection of individual molecules – is not rivalrous: if we occupy a
common space, your breathing the oxygen in the air does not thereby
preclude me from also breathing it as well. Because it is impossible for
someone to control the oxygen in such a way that he could force us
to pay for its use, it is also non-excludable. Its possession of these two
features makes it a public good.
If one looks up ‘public good’ in an introductory economics textbook,
one will find something along the lines of the characterization just presented.8 If instead one looks at the scholarly literature on public goods,
all that is to be found is chaos. Garrett Cullity shows that “the only thing
definitions of public goods seem to have in common is their involving some subset of the seven features [that Cullity calls] ‘Jointness in
Supply’, ‘Nonexcludability’, ‘Jointness in Consumption’, ‘Nonrivalness’,
‘Compulsoriness’, ‘Equality’, and ‘Indivisibility’” (Cullity 1995, p. 33).
This diversity of definitions is perhaps unsurprising given the variety
of concerns that arise over goods that readily fit under the head ‘public
good’. Compare, for example, depletable natural resources and national
security, both of which are common examples of public goods. A depletable natural resource – for example, the lumber of a forest – may start off
non-rivalrous due to its initial abundance but may later be so depleted
that it becomes rivalrous (or, worse, non-existent). The worry here is
that the resource will suffer the fate of what Garrett Hardin famously
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describes as the “tragedy of the commons” (Hardin 1968). The worry
about public goods such as national security is not this; rather, it is the
problem of funding the good. If a nation’s armed services were funded
exclusively through voluntary contributions, a member of that nation
could enjoy the security brought by these forces without contributing to their maintenance. Because a person may enjoy a good such as
this without having to pay for a share of it, the good gives rise to, as
James Buchanan puts it, the “spectre of the free rider” (Buchanan 1964,
p. 220).9 A standard solution to the tragedy of the commons is to institutionalize excludability, either through usage fees or quotas; a common
solution to the free-rider problem is the development and maintenance
of collective-funding institutions, such as a tax system. It should be obvious that concerns about free-riding are relevant to the present discussion –
we will address these in Section 4 after we have carefully characterized
networked digital music. To develop that characterization with the
needed precision, we must first clarify how exactly we will understand
rivalry and excludability throughout this essay. I beg the reader’s pardon
if this clarificatory process seems tediously didactic.
First, for present purposes, to say that a good is rivalrous is not to
presuppose that it exists within a system of private property. Return to
the shovel: even in a system in which all goods are publicly held, only
one person can use a shovel at a time. The same is not obviously true
of excludability; if we define the concept in terms of payment for use, we
seem to presuppose that the goods in question are bits of private property. For present purposes, let us explicitly reject this presupposition and
define excludability so that its application conditions need not include
the existence of private property. On this definition, a good is excludable
if a person can act on it in such a way that prevents others from easily
being able to use the good. This concept does not admit of rigid definition, for the notion easily being able to use is context-relative (as is, we
might note, the economist’s preferred notion of prohibitively costly). To
say that a shovel is excludable, then, is for present purposes to say that
it is the sort of thing that one person can act on – for example, by putting it under lock and key – so as to prevent another from easily using it.
Saying just this makes no presuppositions about private property.
Unlike public good, the concept private good can only be properly
applied within a system of private property. Unlike public goods, private
goods can be bought and sold, and when one buys a private good, part of
what one buys is the right to exclude others from use of that good. Return
as ever to the shovel: suppose you buy it from me and take it home. Your
purchase does not alter its rivalrousness – again, this is a non-economic
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property of the shovel, and the shovel remains, as ever, only usable by
one person at a time. It likewise remains an excludable good, although
who can legitimately do the excluding has changed. Once I have sold
the shovel, I no longer can legitimately force someone to pay me should
she wish to use it; that is now your prerogative. When you hand me
money for the shovel, I give away something beyond the mere physical
object: I also give you the right to exclude others from its use.
In talking of legitimacy and rights, we move from considering the shovel
as a brute physical object to one that exists within a specific normative
space – here, a space defined by the institution of private property. For simple tools, such as shovels, this move can be easily tracked by contrasting the
capacity to exclude from the right to exclude. Suppose I put a shovel that
I own under lock and key in an attempt to exclude you from it; suppose
that you beat me, take the key, and make off with the shovel. Should this
happen, it shows that I did not have the capacity to exclude you from the
shovel, but it does not follow that I lacked the right to exclude you. This
right to exclude, which can obtain even in the absence of the capacity to
exclude, is, arguably, the fundamental norm of private property.10
For a normative space that includes the institution of copyright, however, this simple distinction between capacity to exclude and right to
exclude will not suffice to demarcate legitimate from illegitimate uses of
property. If a bit of private property is copyrighted, then its owner has,
at best, a limited right to exclude others from its use. This limited right
is perhaps most clearly explicated by distinguishing a bit of copyrighted
material from its physical manifestation. Focus presently on books,
where the distinction is conspicuous. The copyrighted material is, to a
first approximation, the series and organization of letters, numbers, and
punctuation marks in the book. The pages and ink that are comprised
by the book are its physical manifestation. Should someone buy a copyrighted book, type a copy of it mark for mark on her computer, print
what she has typed, and then sell the resulting printing, she would do
so without right and therefore violate the copyright. By contrast, she
may have the right to sell the physical book she has purchased; this is
commonly known as the right of first sale.11 If she has this, then she
has the right to exclude others from use of the physical object, but she
does not have the right to exclude others from the series and organization of letters, numbers, and punctuation marks printed on the object’s
pages. That right – which, put positively, is the right to profit from the
organization of language – belongs to the copyright holder.
Let us momentarily set any further thoughts about copyright to the
side: we will come back to the topic in due course.12 Instead, let us
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now return to rivalrousness and excludability. Note that library books,
though they may be legally borrowed for free, are nevertheless rivalrous
and excludable objects. That they are rivalrous should be obvious; if
I have checked out a book, you cannot read it (unless you read over
my shoulder). They are excludable for the same reason that shovels are
excludable – either can be put under lock and key. Again, an object is
excludable if it is possible for someone to prevent another from easily
using it; clearly, books do not lose this property once they enter a
library. Although library books are available for the public to read freely,
they are not, in the sense that is presently operative, public goods.
With these remarks and distinctions in place, let us now turn to our
discussion of digital music.
Space and Old Musical Media
There is an active philosophical literature on the ontology of music,
which attends to the differences between musical compositions, performances of those compositions, experiences of those performances, and
related features of music.13 I shall have nothing to say here about which
of these is ‘really’ music. For present purposes, we will define a given piece
of recorded music as a specific range of sounds produced by speakers, an
amplifier, and a frequency mixer all functioning normally. This definition is hedged by the terms ‘range’ and ‘normally’ to acknowledge that
a piece of music may be played louder or softer, with more or less bass or
treble, on better or worse speakers, and still be the same music, in virtue
of what is common between the diverse sounds produced. Conceived of
this way, music is essentially diachronic: it unfolds through time.
While music itself is essentially diachronic, it can be, literally, embodied in a variety of static media. Vinyl records embody music in etchings in the vinyl; cassette tapes embody music in arrangements of ferric
oxide; compact discs embody music in a series of polycarbonate bumps.
In each of these instances, there is a broader medium in which the
music is embodied: the whole vinyl record, the whole reel of cassette
tape, the whole compact disc. Each of these is a medium-sized physical
body, capable of being carried, thrown, hidden, etc. All of these objects
are, qua medium-sized physical bodies, rivalrous. For ease of presentation, focus just on vinyl records; also, let ‘album’ designate a collection
of music embodied in any media, and let ‘record’ designate vinyl discs.
A record is rivalrous for the same reason that any medium-sized physical body is rivalrous: if I have the record in my possession, you cannot
play it (or, for that matter, do anything else with it). Although this
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musical embodiment qua object is rivalrous, its proper use – that is, its
being played on a phonograph –produces a good that, depending on
the circumstances, can be non-rivalrous. If the music is played through
headphones, then only the headphone-wearer can listen to it, so it is
rivalrous. If, alternatively, it is played through loudspeakers that sit near
a window that opens onto a public street, then it is non-rivalrous.
So far we have considered the record as an object, and we have considered the music it produces when it is played. Neither of these, however, is the most important way (at least in the context of the present
discussion) to conceive of a given musical record, or for that matter
any other physical manifestation of an album. Because the music is
embodied in an excludable and rivalrous object, the person who owns
the record may possess a capacity to listen to the music that others
lack. Consider a record I own that you do not. I can listen to its music
whenever I want, as long as I have ready access to a phonograph. You
cannot do the same unless you get the record. Should I sell my record,
I will thereby exchange the ability to listen to its songs whenever I want
for the money I receive. As goes the record, so goes this ability – unless,
of course, I make a copy of the music on the record. With the advent of
domestic cassette recorders, it became possible to make a new embodiment of a given bit of music and thereby keep the unlimited ability to
listen to it even after selling the original object of embodiment.14 With
cassettes, the copies tended to be subpar, but the advent of the domestic
compact disc writer allowed one to make copies that to the average
listener were acoustically indistinguishable from their source. These
copies were new musical embodiments, possessed of all the properties
described above: they were, qua objects, rivalrous and excludable, their
proper use produced goods that might be rivalrous and excludable (if
played on headphones) or not (if played in public on loudspeakers), and
in their non-use they contained the possibility of the music recorded on
them. The physical embodiment of the music in a medium-sized body
resulted in a replication of all of these features.
Consider these features now exclusively from the perspective of a person who wants to own a given album she does not presently have. Let the
year be 1998. If she goes to a store to get the album, she will find herself
excluded; she will either need to pay for the album, or she will need to
steal it, in which case she risks getting caught for theft. She can avoid
both paying and being caught stealing if she either borrows and copies
a friend’s copy or arranges for the friend to make a copy. (To be sure,
this might violate copyright; again, we will come to this in due course.)
There are two things presently worth noting about copying the album.
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First, whether she or her friend makes the copy, the result will be a
medium-sized object containing the music and possessed of all the metaphysical properties listed above. Second, whether she or her friend makes
the copy, while the copy is being made the friend must forfeit the rivalrous good of being able to listen to the album whenever he wants. This is
clearest if the friend lends the album, but even if he makes the copy for
her, he cannot, while he is making the copy, use the album as he pleases.
Should he choose, for example, to listen to tracks in something other than
their original order, he will not be making a copy of the album. The album
cannot be copied without tacitly acknowledging its rivalrousness or its
excludability, so it has the necessary features of a bit of private property.
Spacelessness and Digital Music
None of this holds for digital music that is available in a peer-to-peer network; such music is neither rivalrous nor excludable. Since the advent of
Napster, one need not acquire a medium-sized object in order to acquire
the ability to listen to a song or an album one does not have. Should one
acquire a bit of digital music from a peer-to-peer network, what one has
acquired is, as stated in this essay’s introduction, spaceless, a spaceless
copy of a spaceless original.15 The spacelessness of the original allows it
to be accessed without depriving its owner of the capacity to listen to it
while it is accessed. This spacelessness makes the object non-rivalrous.
It does not follow that the object is necessarily thereby non-excludable;
one can imagine any number of ways of devising network ‘tollbooths’
to require payment for access. Peer-to-peer sharing networks, however,
have no such tollbooths, so the files available in these networks are not
excludable. These files thus have the characteristic features of public
goods, not of private property, so any music encoded in them likewise
has the characteristic features of a public good.
With these points in mind, consider anew our character from the
previous section, now a decade on in a world with music files available
through peer-to-peer networks. She will be excluded from these files if
she lacks Internet access, but let us suppose this is not an issue. Suppose
that she joins a peer-to-peer file-sharing group online, searches for a
song she wants, and finds it. She encounters no rivalry if she seeks to
copy the file; indeed, it is possible that the person whose file she is copying is at that moment listening to the music encoded in it. She is not
excluded from the file; she can easily obtain it without payment. For
her, the file is like the oxygen in the air, a non-rivalrous, non-excludable
good. For her, it is a public good, not a bit of private property.
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The very fact that digital music in peer-to-peer networks lacks the hallmark features of private property can, somewhat paradoxically, explain
the attitude shared by White, Lowery, and Jobs that obtaining such
music is theft. It obviously can explain the opposite idea, that obtaining such music is not theft: if the music is not a private good, then it
cannot be stolen. The fact that it is neither rivalrous nor excludable,
however, is at confusing odds with the more familiar idea of recorded
music embodied in a medium-sized object. As noted above, to obtain
the listening potential of the music embodied in such an object, one
must negotiate its rivalrousness and excludability; within an economic
and legal system of private property, this thus requires interacting with
a bit of private property. To interact legitimately with a bit of private
property that one does not own, one must, with the owner’s permission,
temporarily deprive the owner of acting on his right to exclusion. When
a person downloads music from a peer-to-peer network, however, she
ignores any concerns of exclusion, for, again, music in a peer-to-peer
network is not excludable. When music is embodied, the only way to
ignore this right is to violate it, which can make any such ignoring seem
like a violation, that is, like theft. It is thus that the non-excludability
and non-rivalrousness of music in a peer-to-peer network can make it
seem like obtaining such music is theft.
It is perhaps more conceptually coherent, however, to run the inference
in the opposite direction. If a song is readily available in a peer-to-peer
network, then the potentiality of that song in any embodiment may be
considered a public good. To see why, it will help to mark a distinction
commonly drawn by analytic philosophers between type and token.
A type is an abstract object; a token is the physical manifestation of
some specific type. A recorded song, for example, is a type, and its tokens
are the musical events of it being played. Now rivalrous and excludable do
not apply to types per se; these concepts do not apply to abstract objects.
Nevertheless, we can use phrases such as ‘rivalrous type’ and ‘excludable
type’ to refer to types whose tokens are rivalrous and/or excludable.
Prior to the existence of digital music, the capacity to generate a songtoken of recorded music was necessarily embodied in a medium-sized
object, which, as we saw above, is necessarily rivalrous and excludable. Song-types and album-types were thus necessarily rivalrous and
excludable. This is no longer true for song-types and album-types whose
token-potentials – that is, whose digital files – are available in peer-topeer networks. These song-types and album-types are not necessarily
rivalrous and excludable, because their tokens can be generated from
files that are, per the argument above, public goods. This by itself does
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not show that these types are public-good types; it only shows that
they are not necessarily private-good types. If, however, a given songtoken can be generated for free and without depriving anyone else
of being able, at that very moment, to generate the token, it would
seem accurate to conceive of the relevant type as a public-good type.
If this is correct, then it would be correspondingly accurate to consider
song-potentialities embodied in, for example, CDs as public goods. The
physical discs themselves may still be rivalrous and excludable, but the
potentialities they embody are not limited by this fact.
This shift in rivalrousness and excludability is, I think, a shift in kind,
not degree. If it is not already clear, it is the existence of digital music in
peer-to-peer networks, not merely the encoding of music in computer
files, that marks this change in kind. Were there no digital networks,
the encoding of music in computer files would not alter the rivalrousness
or excludability of music. The files would not be spaceless; accessing
them would require interacting with disk drives qua medium-sized,
and so rivalrous and excludable, objects. Once the files are available
in a network, however, their physical embodiment does not effectively
limit their accessibility. Copying the files does not require interacting
with their embodiments as medium-sized physical objects. To think
nevertheless of these files as rivalrous and excludable is either confused
or metaphorical: digital music just isn’t made of the stuff of normal
private property.
Normative Consequences: Copyright and Compensation
after Property
This last fact has not, however, prevented digital music from being
legally classified as private property. In the United States, a digital music
file is subject to the same principles of copyright that govern the use
of records, cassettes, and CDs.16 Such a file is to be treated as excludable, but not generally; it cannot be legitimately used as the basis of a
copy, so the file owner does not have the right to exclude others from –
that is, to grant others access to – copies made from it. In short, it is
to be treated as if it were music embodied in a medium-sized object,
subject to the familiar rules and restrictions that apply to such objects.
I will not argue that this is conceptually incoherent, although the label
‘copyright’, understood literally in terms of its etymology, is not a perfect description of the relevant restriction as it applies to digital music.
Taken literally, copyright is the right to make copies; what is restricted
here, as noted above, is the right to grant access to the basis of a potential
copy. There should be no mystery why the literal notion of copyright
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has been extended to cover this somewhat different case. The goal is to
prevent individuals from obtaining unrestricted access to a bit of musical potential – that is, to a given song-type – without compensating
those involved in the production and distribution of the music. One
might conceive of such compensation as a matter of “social justice” for
musicians, as Lowery does, but this is not necessary; a cynical record
label might want to enforce this extended notion of copyright simply in
an effort not to lose profits. Whatever the precise motive, the goal is to
prevent the public from having free and easy access to digital music.17
But if this access cannot, in fact, be effectively controlled via the extension of copyright law, and if we think artists should still be compensated
for making music, it may be best to stop thinking about music in terms
of private property altogether. As long as digital music is non-rivalrous
and non-excludable, we should not be surprised if it proves difficult
to fund through the private sale of individual albums and songs. Such
funding requires people to ignore how different digital music is from
medium-sized objects; indeed, it is remarkable how successful iTunes
was in the 21st century’s first decade at habituating people to treat nonrivalrous, non-excludable goods as if they were rivalrous and excludable.
The power of Apple is mighty, and I have no basis for suggesting that
the model of the iTunes store – which, to return to Mulligan’s multiphase schema, is the exemplar of the second phase of digital music –
will run its course. If, however, a large enough segment of the population
comes to treat digital music as it is, non-rivalrous and non-excludable,
then means of funding that are sensitive to the public nature of the
good will need to be developed. It is of no use here to complain that
this depends too heavily on the charity of the listeners; it is just as
problematic to depend on listeners to buy something that they can
get for free. Apple has managed to get listeners to do this and thus has
delayed, perhaps indefinitely, the widespread acknowledgement of the
non-rivalrous, non-excludable character of digital music. But brute facts
have a way of being recalcitrant to false beliefs – the Earth was spinning
around the sun for millennia before Copernicus took note.
If we stop pretending that the record is still the center of the musical
universe and understand digital music as a public good, we can frame
the funding challenge for music as a version of the free-rider problem.
Consider the problem as a spectrum of possibilities. In the limiting
case, no one pays anything for recorded music, which, in turn, vastly
diminishes the quantity and quality of new music being produced. Let
the other end of the spectrum be what presently happens. Many musicians are able to earn livings off of recorded music, but many more
would be able to if they received compensation for their music that is
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freely distributed in peer-to-peer networks. In the limiting case, universal free riding leads to the elimination of the public good of new digital
music; the result is parallel to the worst tragedy of the commons. As
we move away from the limit, the problem is, as Cullity puts it, one
of “objectionable preferential treatment”: “[t]he benefits only exist
because others who seek them take it upon themselves to contribute
to their production: in taking them [the free-rider] arrogates to herself
a privilege – the free enjoyment of benefits – while depending on the
renunciation of that privilege by others” (Cullity 1995, pp. 22–3). One
possible solution to this problem, as noted earlier, is to establish and
to maintain a collective-funding institution, such as a tax system. The
case for a music-funding tax would be strong were music a universal and
compulsory good, as is national security. National security is universal
in that, if one member of a nation enjoys it, all others necessarily do as
well; to say it is compulsory is to say that it is impossible to opt out of
the good while still remaining within the relevant nation.18 Because people can (and do) choose not to enjoy the good of digital music, coercive
taxation seems an inappropriate means for funding its production. The
challenge, then, is to find a way to institutionalize music funding that
moves beyond the model of the digital record store without coercing
the participation of those who do not enjoy the good.
One solution is a voluntary collective-funding scheme, in which
money is voluntarily pooled to produce a project without guarantee
of reciprocal benefit. There are already models for this, for example,
Kickstarter. Frannie Kelley describes Kickstarter as providing a forum for
“Internet-based crowd sourcing,” which she characterizes as follows: “[it]
works sort of like a bake sale. You pay a little bit more than that cupcake’s
market value, and when your friends ask where you got it, you tell them
the gym needs a new roof and the 11th grade is raising money to fix it.
Album sales are less than half what they were 10 years ago. Your local
musician needs a new roof” (Kelley 2012). This analogy misses the mark,
but it does so in instructive ways. At a bake sale, a person gives money –
albeit, more than the market would demand – for an excludable, rivalrous good, knowing that the profits will contribute to building what,
for the students, when they are in the gym, is a non-excludable, nonrivalrous good. A Kickstarter project need not and often does not involve
any initial exchange of private good for money; rather, each contributor
promises to pay her promised share if the total pledge goal is reached.
The initial economic exchange thus need not involve the donor receiving any private good in exchange for the donation. More importantly,
the analogy also fails to capture accurately the relation between the
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donated monies and what they fund. It is correct in noting that, like the
monies raised from selling cupcakes, Kickstarter donations are contributions to a future public good. It is mistaken, however, in depicting the
roof as something that belongs to the artist; the roof is the music, and it
belongs, as do all other non-rivalrous, non-excludable goods, at once to
no one and to everyone. In spite of its confused analogy, Kelley’s remarks
helpfully point out a natural solution to some of the problems created by
the non-rivalrousness and non-excludability of digital music. If we think
of digital music as a public good, then funding it through quasi-public
means such as Kickstarter is not only to be expected – it is fitting. Some
sort of public model seems a natural solution to the problem, and so it
should not be surprising to see Kickstarter filling this void.
Another natural solution, at least for these early decades of the
Internet era, is to fund musicians through a hybrid advertising/subscription service. This model fits well with third-phase digital music delivery
services, such as that offered by Spotify. Spotify subscribers can select
either a free account, in which case they are subjected to occasional
advertisements in their streams, or an advertisement-free account for
which they pay a monthly fee (Spotify AB, 2015). Listeners choose the
songs they listen to, and artists are compensated according to the
number of times their songs are played. This hybrid model generates
an excludable good that allows free riders to ride, though not for free –
those who do not pay with money pay instead with the time that they
are subjected to the advertisements. The model has the potential to deal
effectively with free riders who, as it were, take their music ride on the
streaming service, but if the same ride can be taken freely somewhere
else, the problem of free riding persists. At present, the ride can be taken
somewhere else: first-phase delivery systems persist, and one may turn
to them instead of using a streaming service to obtain the music one
wants. As long as this is so, digital music will be a public good, poorly
suited to be governed by the institution of private property.
Notes
1. See Lessig (2004), which, appropriately, is available online for free. It should
be noted that both my use of ‘free’ in the last sentence and Lowery’s use
throughout his exchange with White is commercial: it denotes the freedom
one enjoys when one gets something without paying anything. This is not
the only use of ‘free’ relevant to the present discussion, and it is not the
one that primarily concerns Lessig. Lessig is interested in freedom of activity, which need not be understood in commercial terms. Richard Stallman,
whose work on open-source software is an inspiration for Lessig’s writing
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(Lessig 2004, p. xv), marks this distinction by contrasting the freedom of free
speech, which is not necessarily commercial, from that of free beer, which is
(Stallman 2002, pp. 43, 59).
Mulligan wonders whether 2014 marks the transition to a fourth phase,
characterized by curated music services such as Beats Listen. I set aside
discussion of this fourth phase, if indeed it be one.
I shall italicize terms to refer to concepts per se.
For a close historical study of the commodification of music in early
20th-century United States, see Suisman 2009.
As with public good, I take the concept institution from economics. The slogan
typically attached to this concept is that institutions are “the rules of the
game” (see, e.g., North 1990, p. 3, and Searle 2005, pp. 9–10). The idea
is that institutions are constituted by norms that govern a given domain.
Institutions may be legal or illegal: for example, the institution of human
trafficking is the illegal application of the institution of private property to
the domain of persons. My claim here will be that the institution of private
property is not well suited to govern the domain of digital music. I discuss
institutions at greater length in Hubbs, 2014, pp. 67–68.
For the claim that Samuelson’s work is the foundation of the modern theory
of public goods, see Cullity (1995, p. 33), Musgrave (1983, p. 141), and
Pickhardt (2006, p. 439). For the argument that Musgrave is the source of
our contemporary definition, see Pickhardt (2006, pp. 447–8).
Musgrave offers this as a definition of “social goods,” which replaces his earlier talk of “social wants” (cf. Musgrave 1959, p. 8). “Public good” becomes
the dominant term over the course of the 1970s.
Cf. Krugman and Wells (2012, ch. 17).
Buchanan appears to be one of the first to use the phrase ‘free rider’ in print,
but the problem has long been a concern of those who write about public
goods. Consider, for example, the following passage from 1896 by Knut
Wicksell, whose work exerted a major influence on Musgrave: “If the individual is to spend his money for private and public uses so that his satisfaction is
maximized, he will obviously pay nothing whatsoever for public purposes ...
Whether he pays much or little will affect the scope of public services so
slightly, that for all practical purposes he himself will not notice it at all”
(Wicksell 1958 [1896], p. 81).
See, for example, the central role that the related concept of just transfer plays
in Robert Nozick’s “Justice as Entitlement” theory (Nozick 1974, ch. 7.1).
In the United States, this right was established by Bobbs-Merrill Co. v. Straus,
210 U.S. 339 (1908). The case there concerned whether Bobbs-Merrill, a publisher, could set the price that a merchant could sell its publications to the
public even after the merchant had purchased the publications. The Court
ruled that copyright protection does not extend to the resale of publications;
rather, it only pertains to the first sale.
Although we will return to the topic, nothing will be said here about the
justification of copyright law. For a recent review of some of the central
arguments on the matter, see Falgoust (2014).
See, for example, Bicknell (2009), Davies (1994), Dodd (2007), Gracyk and
Kania (2011), Hamilton (2007), Kivy (2002), Levinson (1997), Ridley (2004),
and Stock (2007).
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14. For more on the disruptive effects of tape recorders, see Attali (1985, pp. 96 ff).
15. Perhaps more accurately, this practical spacelessness is a perceived spacelessness. Again, I do not mean to deny that spatial considerations play an
important role in determining the size and quality of digital music files.
16. The precedent here is established in Mai Systems Corp. v. Peak Computer, Inc.,
991 F.2d 511 (9th Cir. 1993). On the relevance of this case to digital music,
see Fantaci (2002, pp. 657–8).
17. For more on the application of copyright to digital music, see Vaidhyanathan
(2001, ch. 5).
18. The importance of these features to public goods and free riding are
discussed throughout Cullity (1995).
References
Attali, Jacques. (1985) Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Trans. by Brian Massumi.
Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Bicknell, Jeanette. (2009) Why Music Moves Us. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Buchanan, James. (1964) What Should Economists Do? Southern Economic Journal
30: 213–22.
Cullity, Garrett. (1995) Moral Free Riding. Philosophy and Public Affairs 24: 3–34.
Davies, Stephen. (1994) Musical Meaning and Expression. Ithaca, NY: Cornell
University Press.
Dodd, Julian. (2007) Works of Music: An Essay in Ontology. Oxford: Oxford
University Press.
Falgoust, Michael. (2014). The Incentives Argument Revisited: A Millean Account
of Copyright. The Southern Journal of Philosophy 52: 163–83.
Fantaci, Matthew James. (2002) Digital Dilemma: Could the Digital Millennium
Copyright Act Have Inadvertently Exempted Napster and Its Progeny From
Liability? Louisiana Law Review 67: 643–71.
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Philosophy and Music. New York: Routledge.
Hamilton, Andy. (2007) Aesthetics and Music. New York: Continuum.
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Hubbs, Graham. (2014) Transparency, Corruption, and Democratic Institutions.
Les ateliers de l’éthique / The Ethics Forum 9(1): 65–83.
Issacson, Walter. (2011) Steve Jobs. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Kelley, Frannie. (2012) Crowd Funding for Musicians Isn’t the Future; It’s the Present.
Available at: http://www.npr.org/blogs/therecord/2012/09/25/161702900/crowdfunding-for-musicians-isnt-the-future-its-the-present (accessed 11 May 2015).
Kirschenbaum, Matthew. (2008) Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination.
Cambridge, MA: MIT University Press.
Kivy, Peter. (2002). Introduction to a Philosophy of Music. Oxford: Oxford University
Press.
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Worth Publishers.
Langer, Andy. (2003) The God of Music. Esquire, July.
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Levinson, Jerrold. (1997) Music in the Moment. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
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New York: Crown Business.
Mulligan, Mark. (2014). Digital Ascendency: The Future Music Forum Keynote.
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Public Expenditure’: What are We Left With? Journal of the History of Economic
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Stock, Kathlee (ed.). (2007) Philosophers on Music: Experience, Meaning, and Work.
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Music. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Vaidhyanathan, Siva. (2001) Copyrights and Copywrongs: The Rise of Intellectual
Property and How it Threatens Creativity. New York: New York University Press.
White, Emily. (2012) I Never Owned Any Music to Begin With. Available at:
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9
The Preservation Paradox
Jonathan Sterne
The Preservation Paradox
Perhaps it is historians’ special way of shaking a fist at the image of their
own mortality, but every generation must lament that its artifacts, its
milieu, will largely be lost to history. One can find countless laments
in the early days of recording about what might have been had we
just been able to get Lincoln’s voice on a cylinder, or the speeches of
some other great leader. But one can just as easily turn to one’s own
professional journals, such as the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and
Television. Here is Phillip M. Taylor, a historian at Leeds, making the case
for “preserving our contemporary communications heritage” in 1995:
In 2095, when history students look back to our century as we now
look back to the nineteenth, they will read that the twentieth century was indeed different from all that went before it by virtue of the
enormous explosion in media and communications technologies. …
But when they come to examine the primary sources for this period,
they will alas find only a ramshackle patchwork of surviving evidence
because we currently lack the foresight, let alone the imagination,
to preserve our contemporary media and communications heritage.
By not addressing the issue now, we are relegating our future history to
relative obscurity and our future historians to sampling and guesswork.
(Taylor 1996, p. 420)
Later in the piece Taylor writes that “even the [British] National Film and
Television Archive was only able to preserve just over 25 per cent of the
total broadcast output of ITV and Channel 4 in 1993–94. That means
75 per cent lost for posterity … only a fragment of our contemporary
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record” (Taylor 1996, p. 424). Taylor’s suppositions are relatively straightforward. We live in a world saturated with media. In some cases, they
define contemporary experience. Yet if the goal of history is to reconstruct the lost experience of the past, then if most of the past is lost,
there is no hope of recovering that lost experience. The logic seems
impeccable, so long as one believe that history is about reconstituting
lost experience in its fullness and that the route to this lofty goal is best
taken through an archive that approaches some ideal of completeness.
Our lives are awash in documents that will be rinsed away long before
the historians of 2095 come to examine them. I will disagree with Taylor
below, but let us hold on to his assumptions for a moment longer.
As it goes for media in general, so it goes for sound recordings, and
digital sound recordings in particular. Consider the following broad
categories of issues in the preservation of digital music “documents”
encountered by archivists: (Lee 2000) digital music documents exist in
varying formats, which may correspond to scores, to audio recordings, or
“control formats” like MIDI or MAX/MSP algorithms that are essentially
performance instructions for computers. The storage media themselves
are unstable. Even if an old hard drive or disc were properly preserved, its
“readability” is an open question given the wide range of software and
operating systems in use at any given time. Even then, issues of intelligibility arise: much of what makes digital audio work today relies upon
some kind of “metadata,” whether we are talking about the names of
songs and albums in CDDB, or the information on preferred tracks
and takes in a multitrack recording. As in the case of Van IJzendoorn,
the Dutch recording enthusiast who lost the notebook indicating placement of songs on long reels of tape (see Bijsterveld and Jacobs 2009),
the collection itself is at best laborious to use without a guide. Even that
analogy is inexact, since without metadata, digital files may simply be
unplayable, or even impossible to identify as sound files: it would be as
if Van IJzendoorn not only lost his notebook, but forgot what his audio
tapes actually were. Even if all of the technocultural considerations were
covered, the archivist would still be confronted with the usual set of
archival problems: is the document worth keeping; is it representative
or special in some way; and is it worth elevating as an exemplar of some
aspect of the past? For an obsessive collector or hobbyist this is perhaps
less of an issue than for an institution with limited space and budget and
the need for some kind of guiding collections policy.
One can only imagine the lamenting historian’s horror at this state of
affairs: the world is populated with an unprecedented number of recordings, yet they exist in countless different formats and with seemingly
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endless preservation problems. It’s cruel: we have made recordings more
portable and easier to store than ever before, but in so doing we have also
made them more ephemeral. Most of them will be lost to posterity, and
despite the efforts of archivists, there is really not much we can do about it.
But of course, there is more than one way to think about forgetting.
Here is Friedrich Nietzsche, who offers a very different perspective on
the matter from Taylor’s:
The person who cannot set himself down on the crest of the moment,
forgetting everything from the past, who is not capable of standing
on a single point, like a goddess of victory, without dizziness or
fear, will never know what happiness is. … A person who wanted
to feel utterly and only historically would be like someone who
was forced to abstain from sleep or like the beast that is to continue
its life only from rumination to constantly repeated rumination.
(Nietzsche 1957)
Nietzsche was writing against what he felt to be a paralyzing historicism
that dominated German scholarship in his lifetime. While he is probably not the first or best stop for political or aesthetic advice, Nietzsche
does offer a useful reminder that forgetting is also an important part of
living. It is perhaps too much to say that historians ought to be happy
about forgetting, but in order to do their work, and in order for archives
to make sense, in order for a document like a recording to have any
historical value, a great deal of forgetting must happen first.
Forgetting is both personal and collective. It is sometimes unconscious and sometimes willful. Nietzsche ties it to life, Marc Augé (2004)
ties it to death and Paul Ricoeur (2004) ties it to forgiveness. The term
is broad and unwieldy, but for the purposes of this paper, we may think
of the collective forgetting that makes a given recording historical,
meaningful or valuable as that which subtends Taylor’s drive toward
the impossible task of preserving everything. From the point of view
inside archival institutions, selection and memory are willful acts that
define the nature and range of objects available in a given collection.
But outside the institution, the reality is considerably more messy. Lost
master tapes of famous recordings, stacks of unsold compact discs taken
to a landfill, or for that matter a poorly documented file on someone’s
hard drive are all small moments that may not in themselves constitute
a form of willful forgetting, but that certainly in the aggregate lead to
forgetting nonetheless. Why are some recordings available to us today
and others are not? The answer has much to do with will and selection
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choice, but it also has much to do with broader cultural attitudes about
recordings and the sound they contain.
Countless writers have commented that recording in one way or
another destroyed sound’s ephemeral qualities. Sound itself, they write,
was rendered durable and repeatable by Edison. Thanks to recording,
sound exists in the memories of machines and surfaces as well as the
memories of people. Certainly, this is one of the almost magical powers
of recording. As Bijsterveld and Jacobs (2009) remind us, it has been a
selling point for new recording technologies at different times. And certainly, the possibility of preservation opens up the fantasy of cheating
time – and death – through an unbroken chain of preservation. But the
fantasy that we can commune with the voices of the dead, that what is
recorded today will be preserved forever, is just that: a fantasy. Sound
recording marks an extension of ephemerality, not its undoing. The
same could be said of any form of recording, whether we are talking
about ancient tablets, dusty account files in a file cabinet, tape backups
of the university’s mainframe or the CD-R I burned yesterday. Most
records available today are simply waiting to become lost records.
More and more of my friends – whether or not they are serious about
music – are unloading their collections of CDs and LPs, preferring instead
to keep their collections readily available on hard drives. In making this
simple move, while retaining the music for themselves in the near term,
they make it much less likely that any part of their collections will outlive them, given the short lifespan of hard drives. What will happen
when this comes to pass and their collections either fade away or disappear rapidly? If it happens too soon, they will recognize their loss and
perhaps seek to replace the missing music. But the lack of durability also
means that their collections are less likely to outlive them, and therefore
will not recirculate through various kinds of used markets or through
others’ collections. In turn, they will never make it into archives. This
process is less a simple kind of forgetting, like forgetting where one
left one’s car keys; it is more properly a forgetting of forgetting. Our
descendants won’t even know what is missing.
In important ways, the “forgetting of forgetting” already structures
the history of recording. The preciousness that characterizes all recording is perhaps most apparent in surviving early examples of phonography. Originally used to describe early printed books, especially those
from before 1500, media archivists have expanded the term “incunabulum” to include early examples of any recording medium. In the case
of sound recordings, an incunabulum is any recording from before 1900
(Smart 1980, p. 424). Relatively few recordings from this period exist,
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and those that do are treated like treasures by archivists. James R. Smart,
Library of Congress Archivist puts it thus in a 1980 article:
They are historic documents in sound which, more than any photograph or paragraph, illustrate nineteenth-century performance styles
in music, in vaudeville routines, in dramatic readings. They teach us,
more than any book can, just what our ancestors enjoyed in popular
music, what appealed to their sense of the ridiculous or their sense
of the dramatic. (Smart 1980, p. 424).
Smart’s point here is that old recordings, when they are preserved and
properly curated, become living documents of history in the present,
a point he makes even more emphatically elsewhere in his essay. Even
though no playable recordings exist from the first ten years of sound
recording’s history, he writes that
we now have a large and priceless heritage of recordings reaching
back a full ninety years. When one considers that many early performers were already fifty years old when they recorded, then it can
be realized that we have the means of studying the styles and techniques taught as far back as the Civil War. Gladstone and Tennyson,
both contemporaries of Abraham Lincoln, are represented on now
nearly worn-out recordings, but Pope Leo XIII, born 169 years ago
[counting back from 1980], can be heard on two good recordings.
(Smart 1980, p. 422)
For Smart, the rarity of early recordings is paired with the rarity of
memory itself. He partakes of an ideology of transparency that has been
widely criticized by sound scholars, myself included, and yet it is
undeniable that one of the reasons people find recordings precious
is because they offer some kind of access to lost or otherwise inaccessible moments (Williams 1980; Altman 1992; Lastra 2000; Auslander
1999; Sterne 2003). The curated recording is a hedge against mortality,
the fragility of memory, and the ever-receding substance of history. The
interplay between a bit of access and large sections of inaccessibility are
precisely what makes the past intriguing, mysterious, and potentially
revelatory. Thus, the idea that recordings can provide access to the past
requires two important prior conditions: (1) as Smart himself argues,
it presupposes that certain recordings will be elevated to the status of
official historical documents and curated in an appropriate fashion; and
(2) in order for that process to occur, there must be an essential rarity of
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recordings from the period. Most recordings must become lost recordings before any recordings can be elevated as historical documents.
Given the wide range of recordings made, the only way for a recording
to become rare is if most of the recordings like it are lost.
It may seem odd to think that most of the recordings ever made must
be lost before any of them can be found and made into historical documents. But in fact the vast majority of recordings in history are lost. For
all the grandiloquence about messages to future generations and hearing
the voices of the dead, most recordings have (and I would argue, are
still) treated by their makers, owners and users as ephemera, as items to
be used for a while and then to be disposed of. This has been a fundamental condition of recording throughout its history. As D.L. LeMahieu
wrote of the gramophone in Britain, “popular records became almost as
transitory in the market-place as the ephemeral sounds which they preserved. … Within a few generations, records produced by the thousands
and millions became rare items. Many were lost altogether” (LeMahieu
1988, p. 89).
Sound recording did as much to promote ephemerality as it did to
promote permanence in the auditory life of a culture. Inasmuch as we
can claim it promoted permanence, sound recording also helped to
accelerate the pace of fashion and turnover in popular music. “Songs
which a few generations before might have remained popular for
decades now rose and fell within a year, or even months” (LeMahieu
1988, p. 89). The fundamental classification of recordings as ephemera
continues down to the present day, as record collections are routinely
mistreated, disposed of, and occasionally recirculated (Keil and Feld
1996; Straw 2000).
In this way, sound recordings became quite typical modern commodities, and the fluctuation of their commercial and historical value
depends on their mass disposal and disappearance. Michael Thompson’s
very interesting book Rubbish Theory chronicles the life-cycles of similar
modern commodities. Thompson argues that mass-produced ephemera
begin their lives at a relatively stable level of economic value which
diminishes over time as they lose the luster of newness and become
increasingly common and available. This loss in value eventually results
in the object becoming worthless, at which point most of the objects in
question are thrown out. Once the object becomes relatively rare –
through this process of devaluation and disposal – it can again begin
to accrue value for collectors through its oddity or rarity. Thompson is
interested in old houses, Victorian keepsakes, consumer packaging, and
a whole range of odds and ends because of the relationship between
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their symbolic and economic value (Thompson 1979). His thesis applies
equally well to the ebb and flow of cultural value for sound recordings, which were often treated poorly by their owners to begin with,
and even when cherished, analog recordings could be worn out and
destroyed simply through loving use. Either way, for all the talk of permanence, the careers of individual recordings followed the pattern of
ephemera for most of the technology’s history.
Scarcity is a fundamental condition of possibility for historicity, but
that scarcity has to be created from a condition of abundance. When
history is not struggling with loss, it must struggle with plenitude. That
is to say, many recordings must be lost in order for a few recordings to
be “found.” And plenitude is on the minds of many archivists today
because on first blush, it would seem that we have denser saturation
than ever before in the history of sound recording. Over 40,000 albums
are released each year, worldwide, and in a given month over 1.5 billion
music files are exchanged on the internet. With digital recording, one
would think that recording is more plentiful than ever, that in a certain
sense it is harder than ever to “lose” recordings. Instead, their ubiquity
became the main point of interest: as MP3s became popular in 1999
and 2000, writers began to put forward the idea of the internet as a
“celestial jukebox” where every recording ever made would be available
to anyone, anytime and anywhere (see, e.g., Brown 2000). While this
imaginary plenitude of recordings continues to be a selling point for
online MP3 services, it also raises new issues of selectivity and indexing.
After all, no single person can listen to even a meaningful fraction of
everything ever recorded.
Consider the case of an illegal recording genre like mashups.1 A mashup
is made by combining two or more recordings and beat-matching them
in such a way that they “work” together as a new kind of song. Strictly
speaking, mashups are illegal because they are made without any kind
of permission or sample clearance. Many of them are anonymous and
circulate through file sharing services that are of themselves of controversial legality in some countries. Although such recordings are available
in abundance and for free, I know of no legitimate archival institution
that has begun the process of collecting them despite the fact that many
music libraries and sound archives – including national archives – now
understand the importance of preserving popular music (a key basis for
the kinds of cultural memory explored by van Dijck, 2009).
In many cases, current selection and collection policies would actively
prevent archival institutions like the U.S. Library of Congress from collective and cataloging mashups. Thus, an important popular cultural
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formation of the current decade will remain largely undocumented.
Eventually, many of the currently popular mashups will move out of
circulation and perhaps even disappear from most of their owners’ collections if they are not cared for and backed up. A few dedicated collectors will no doubt keep meticulously organized collections and perhaps,
a few decades hence, one such collection will find its way to a major
archival institution that exists in a world of more enlightened intellectual property laws. This person’s idiosyncratic collection will thus
become an important historical resource for anyone interested in what
mashups might tell them about the first decade of the 2000s. If this
story sounds strange or speculative, consider that the condescension
of legitimate archival institutions toward popular culture in the early
part of the 20th century meant that they collected nothing for decades.
Highly idiosyncratic collections, like the Warshaw Collection at the
Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington
D.C., have since come to play important roles in current historiography,
despite the fact that the collections themselves had no clear logic of
acquisition beyond the collectors’ idiosyncratic tastes.
Thus, in many ways, the reaction to digital sound recording is a replay
of attitudes that emerged a century ago, in the earliest ages of recording.
People hail the possibility for keeping, cataloguing and making available all of the world’s music, all of the world’s recorded sound, at the
same time they lament the passing of time and the decline of music
of the available material into obscurity. These laments often go hand
in hand with practices that actually hasten the disappearance of the
music itself. In drawing parallels between the turn of the 20th century
and our own moment, in deliberately blurring the two periods, Mike
Featherstone writes of “an expanding consumer culture and the genesis
of world cities that leads to the globalization of culture and the increase
in the volume of cultural production and reproduction beyond our
capacity to recover the various cultural objects, images and fragments
into a framework through which we can make sense of it” (Featherstone
2000, p. 163). For Featherstone, the torrents of media ultimately point
to “the failure of subjective culture to deal adequately with the problem
of selectivity... ” (Featherstone 2000, p. 162). “If everything can poten
tially be of significance should not part of the archive fever be to record
and document everything, as it could one day be useful? The problem
then becomes, not what to put into the archive, but what one dare leave
out” (Featherstone 2000, p. 170).
Featherstone describes the crux of the problem for collector cultures:
there’s too much to collect and not enough of a sense of, or agreement
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about, what should be collected. Current criteria for archival selection are quite underdeveloped. For instance, the National Library
of Australia’s Guidelines for the Preservation of Digital Heritage are
woefully vague, suggesting simply that institutions should preserve
materials based on the material’s value in “supporting the mission of
the organization taking preservation responsibility”; that since future
costs of preservation are unpredictable, it would be “irresponsible” to
refuse materials that are difficult to preserve; and that some exemplary
ephemera should be included with materials that have clear, obvious
importance at the present moment (National Library of Australia 2003).
The problem with this approach, as with all archival selection, is that it is
not future-proof in any meaningful way. The values that guide archival
collecting today may be irrelevant to future users of the same material –
certainly this has been the case in the past. When you add the seemingly endless permutations of recording formats, software updates
and reference-quality standards, even the most basic decisions about
preservation become incredibly complex.
Perhaps, by accident – or at least by becoming less stable than their
analog predecessors – digital recording formats are less aides-memoir than
aides-oubliez. They will help us forget. While such a proposition would
horrify Taylor, there are other ways to consider the proposition given that
more recordings now exist – by far – than at any other time in human history. In his essay “Forgetting is a Feature, Not a Bug,” Liam Bannon argues
that with the massive proliferation of information occasioned by digital
technologies, design must be oriented toward forgetting as well as remembering (Bannon 2006). Though his examples are banal: the self-destructing
tape of spy movies, “digital shelters” that jam electronic signals and
“sweeper” technologies that would indicate whether a recording device
is present, his larger point is that the overemphasis on memory is actually debilitating. He is not alone. In 2005, the artist group monochrom
held a “Magnetism Party” to performatively delete data from hard drives,
room cards, audio and video cassettes, floppy discs, drivers’ licenses, etc.
The performance was a critique of information overload, but as Melanie
Swalwell points out, it was merely an extreme version of a more basic
bureaucratic imperative to delete. She gives the example of calling records
managers of a regional offices of the New Zealand Customs Department in
search of a now-defunct system for importing drivers’ licenses (the system
was important for her research on the history of the game industry). The
managers responded, quite with some delight in their voices, that the system was lost to history, because “they don’t have to keep anything longer
than seven years” (Swalwell 2007, p. 261).
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Considering digital technologies primarily in terms of preservation
also often begs the question of what exactly is being preserved. Perhaps
alluding to personal photography and recordings, Bannon writes that
“the issue of what is being preserved when we do make some form of
record of an event is also open to question, as usually it is the personal
experience of being there that is valued, not simply the visual or aural
signal captured by the machine” (Bannon 2006, p. 12). Certainly, a
good deal of audio recording (if not most) is now about “the recording
itself” and not preserving an external event, but this distinction fades a
bit as we telescope forward to the recording’s life in an archive at some
future date. Materials in archives live on as evidence, meaning that for
historians, they tend to point toward things outside themselves, and
thus even the totally self-contained recording that was never meant as
a representation of a live event (as much recorded music now is) comes
to represent some aspect of “being there” in the history. This is exactly
why Taylor is so worried about the loss of television broadcasts: without
the mediatic dimension of everyday life, without its flow, Taylor worries
that future historians will not be able to accurately capture the sense of
“being here” in the present.
We can already see this process at work in the preservation of early
digital games. Swalwell describes the problems facing the curation of
“Malzek,” a 1981 arcade game:
this game still cannot be played as it was intended: no one has seen it
working for 20 years, no one knows the correct colours, collisions are
not working, and there is no sound. Anyone can download a copy of
this (sort of) mass-produced digital work, but in this case redundancy
does not ensure the survival of the game. (Swalwell 2007, p. 264)
The same conditions apply to digital audio. Not only will metadata be
lost, so too may be aspects of the files themselves. Archival specialists
also expect that preserving digital sound recordings will require more in
resources than preserving their analog counterparts. The added expenses
come not from storage itself (since digital storage continues to become
cheaper), but rather all the things that come with digital storage:
duplication and backup, the need to maintain proper equipment and
expertise for “reading” the digital files in whatever format they exist –
and all other aspects of infrastructure and maintenance (Russell 1999).
Though there are really no data upon which we can rely with absolute certainty, estimates for the durability of digital media are relatively
low. Unused hard drives fail within a few years and CD-R lifespan is the
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subject of a broad international debate. Even optimistic industry estimates for the lifespan of compact discs are relatively short by archival
standards. A public relations piece for Roxio (a company that makes
software for burning CDs and DVDs) estimates the lifespan of a compact
disc at 70 to 200 years (Starrett 2000). A 1996 report by Yale preservation
librarian Paul Conway argues that there is a general decline in durability of recorded media over the history of recorded text (Conway 2005).
Though he is primarily concerned with written documents, the same
reasoning applies to recording: a Berliner zinc or shellac disc will likely
be playable long after a compact disc.
Apart from the physical issues associated with decay of digital media,
there are a variety of other forces that work against any kind of preservation. Foremost among these is Digital Rights Management (DRM), a
generic name for antipiracy algorithms built into digital files. DRM can
limit the number of copies that can be made of a file, or the range of
media on which a file can be played (for instance, some compact discs
are now released with DRM that will make them unplayable on computers). This is especially problematic for preservation because all archived
sound recordings are, sooner or later, “reformatted” because of the
speed with which recordings undergo physical decay (Brylawski 2002).
DRM that prevents copying and transfer to new formats will effectively
render it impossible to recover or preserve digital files beyond the lifespans of their original formats, and beyond the lifespans of the companies that control the DRM embedded in the recordings. The lifespan of
a recording with DRM is on the order of years, and perhaps decades, not
centuries (Gillespie 2007).
Although digital technology allows for unprecedented ease in the
transfer and stockpiling of recordings, the current condition of plenitude is something of an illusion. If early recordings were destined to
become lost recordings, digital recordings move in the same directions
but they do so more quickly and more fitfully. For while a damaged disc
or magnetic tape may yield a little information – it may be possible to
hear an old recording through waves of hiss or crackles of a needle as
it passes through damaged grooves – digital data have a more radical
threshold of intelligibility. One moment they are intelligible, but once
their decay becomes palpable, the file is rendered entirely unreadable.
In other words, digital files do not age with any grace. Where analog
recordings fade slowly into nothingness, digital recordings fall off a cliff
from presence into absence.
We can go a step further to argue that the very thing that makes
digital recordings so convivial, so portable and so easily stored is their
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relative ephemerality. It would be wrong to compare digital media
with their analog counterparts to argue that digital “dematerializes”
recorded sound. On the contrary, the materiality of digital storage is
what makes it fragile and ephemeral. The fading ink on the CD-R, the
fading magnetic pattern on the surface of a hard drive are banal chemical and physical processes, and not at all related to the “discontinuity”
or “disembodiment” attributed to digital audio in other texts (Evans
2005; Sterne 2006).
So what should we make of a future where most digital recordings
will be lost, damaged, unplayable, or separated from their metadata,
hopelessly swimming in a potentially infinite universe of meaning? We
could follow Taylor’s lament and shed some tears for a future that will
never be able to reconstruct the fullness of the present we inhabit. But
how much history really does that? The conceit behind Taylor’s account
is that the historian is merely a poorer ethnographer, an ethnographer
whose subjects cannot talk back. But Taylor confuses a fantasy of historical writing with its reality. History deals in fragments, with traces,
and whereas the fundamental condition for the ethnographer is some
kind of copresence, the fundamental condition for the historian is
absence. Most of human history is only available for present analysis
in extremely skewed and partial form. We make use of the traces left
behind, interpreting them, imposing our own frameworks and questions, and making them speak to our present. As with Bas Jansen’s
(2009) account of the mix tape, the referent of historical recordings are
not the actual selves behind them so much as what he calls the “whatit-was-like.” Our fate will be no different for the future, and whatever
recordings do survive will be part of that history-writing process. They
will be open to interpretation and subjected to questions and frameworks we cannot imagine and of which we might not approve – or
know to approve. But the future does not need our consent or approval.
This is not an abdication of the responsibility to preserve or to remember. It is only an acknowledgement that history, and indeed all forms of
memory are first predicated on forgetting.
Acknowledgements
Thanks to Jeremy Morris for the title suggestion and important research
assistance, to the volume editors for their helpful suggestions, and
to Carrie Rentschler for a much-needed read. Additional thanks to
Matthew Noble-Olson for help with final edits.
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Note
1. This discussion is based on a personal conversation with Samuel Brylawski,
former head of the Recorded Sound Division at the Library of Congress
and Mark Katz, “The Second Digital Revolution in Music,” Music Library
Association Meeting (Pittsburgh, 2007).
References
Altman, R. (ed.) (1992) Sound Theory/Sound Practice. New York: Routledge.
Augé, M. (2004) Oblivion. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Auslander, P. (1999) Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture. New York:
Routledge.
Bannon, L. J. (2006) Forgetting as a Feature, Not a Bug: The Duality of Memory
and Implications for Ubiquitous Computing. CoDesign (2)1: 3–15.
Bijsterveld, K. and Jacobs, A. (2009) Storing Sound Souvenirs: The Multi-sited
Domestication of the Tape Recorder. In Bijsterveld, K. and van Dijck, J. (eds.),
Sound Souvenirs: Audio Technologies, Memory and Cultural Practices. Amsterdam:
Amsterdam University Press.
Brown, J. (2000) The Jukebox Manifesto, Salon.com, 13 November. Available
from: http://www.salon.com/tech/feature/2000/11/13/jukebox/ (accessed
December 12, 2005).
Brylawski, S. (2002) Preservation of Digitally Recorded Sound, Building a
National Strategy for Preservation: Issues in Digital Media Archiving, ed.
Council on Library and Information Resources and the Library of Congress.
Washington, D.C.: Council on Library and Information Resources and the
Library of Congress.
Conway, P. (2005), Preservation in the Digital World, Report. Available from:
http://www.clir.org/pubs/reports/conway2/ (accessed December 12, 2005).
Evans, A. (2005) Sound Ideas: Music, Machines and Experience. Minneapolis, MN:
University of Minnesota Press.
Featherstone, M. (2000) Archiving Cultures, British Journal of Sociology (51)1: 161–84.
Gillespie, T. (2007) Wired Shut: Copyright and the Shape of Digital Culture.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Jansen, B. (2009). Tape Cassettes and Former Selves: How Mix Tapes Mediate
Memories. In Bijsterveld, K. and van Dijck, J. (eds.), Sound Souvenirs: Audio
Technologies, Memory and Cultural Practices. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University
Press.
Katz, M. (2007) The Second Digital Revolution in Music, Music Library Association
Meeting. Pittsburgh.
Keil, C. and Feld, S. (1996) Music Grooves. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Lastra, J. (2000) Sound Technology and American Cinema: Perception, Representation,
Modernity. New York: Columbia University Press.
Lee, B. (2000) Issues Surrounding the Preservation of Digital Music Documents,
Archivaria 50: 193–204.
LeMahieu, D. L. (1988) A Culture for Democracy: Mass Communication and the
Cultivated Mind in Britain between the Wars. New York: Oxford University Press.
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National Library of Australia (2003) Guidelines for the Preservation of Digital
Heritage, UNESCO Information Society Division.
Nietzsche, F. W. (1957) The Use and Abuse of History, The Library of Liberal Arts.
2nd rev. edn. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill.
Ricoeur, P. (2004) Memory, History, Forgetting. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago
Press.
Russell, K. (1999) Why Can’t We Preserve Everything? St. Pancras: Cedars Project.
Smart, J. R. (1980) Emile Berliner and Nineteenth-Century Disc Recordings.
Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress (37)3–4: 422–40.
Starrett, B. (2000) Do Compact Discs Degrade?, Roxio Newsletter. Available
from: http://www.roxio.com/en/support/discs/dodiscsdegrade.html (accessed
December 12, 2005).
Sterne, J. (2003) The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Durham, NC:
Duke University Press.
Sterne, J. (2006) The Death and Life of Digital Audio. Interdisciplinary Science
Review (31)4: 338–48.
Straw, W. (2000) Exhausted Commodities: The Material Culture of Music,
Canadian Journal of Communication (25)1: 175–85.
Swalwell, M. (2007) The Remembering and the Forgetting of Early Digital Games:
From Novelty to Detritus and Back Again. Journal of Visual Culture (6)2: 255–73.
Taylor, P. M. (1996). The Case for Preserving Our Contemporary Communications
Heritage, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television (16)3: 419–24.
Thompson, M. (1979) Rubbish Theory: The Creation and Destruction of Value. New
York: Oxford University Press.
Van Dijck, J. (2009) Remembering Songs through Telling Stories: Pop Music as a
Resource for Memory. In Bijsterveld, K. and van Dijck, J. (eds.), Sound Souvenirs:
Audio Technologies, Memory and Cultural Practices. Amsterdam: Amsterdam
University Press.
Williams, A. (1980) Is Sound Recording Like a Language? Yale French Studies
(60)1: 51–66.
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10
Headphones are the New Walls:
Music in the Workplace in the
Digital Age
Kathy Newman
What kind of listening space is an office space? In Mike Judge’s cult classic, Office Space (1999), a lowly worker named Milton Waddam (Stephen
Root) is trying to listen to the radio in his shabby cubicle. The film’s
handsome anti-hero, Peter (Ron Livingston), is bothered by the sound.
Peter:
Milton:
Peter:
Milton:
Peter:
Milton:
Milton? Hi. Uh... Could you turn that down just a little bit?
But I was told that I could listen to the radio at a reasonable
volume from 9:00 to 11:00.
Yeah. I know you’re allowed to. I was just thinkin’ maybe like
a personal favor, you know.
Well, I-I-I told Bill if Sandra’s going to listen to her headphones
while she’s filing, then I should be able to listen to the radio
while I’m collating, so I don’t see….ok….why I should have to
turn down the radio. Yeah. All right. Ok. I enjoy listening at a
reasonable volume...” (Milton turns the radio down)
Thanks Milton.
… from 9:00 to 11:00.
Office Space, one of the great satires of the modern day workplace, uses
humor to highlight the serious annoyances that most workers face every
day: egocentric bosses, meaningless memos, rude co-workers, equipment
that doesn’t work, and slackers who get promoted. Not everyone goes
insane, but, in Office Space, Milton Waddam, with his thick, coke bottle
glasses and strange, monotone voice, is the ultimate wounded whitecollar worker. He has had his stapler confiscated, his desk moved and his
radio turned off so many times he is ready to set the company on fire.
But when it comes to being driven mad at the office, Milton’s real
life counter parts might not be far behind. Modern-day office workers,
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even well-paid managers, are chafing under the latest trends in office
management and design: the open plan office. Unexpectedly, one way
we can measure their suffering is by assessing the state of music listening in the modern-day workplace. In the now dominant “open plan”
workplace, office workers listen to music via headphones, not just
because they want to, but, because, in order to maintain their personal
space and their sanity, they have to. As one software engineer put it,
“Headphones are the new walls” (Tierney 2012).
In this chapter I look at the last decade of research on the effects of music
at work, as well as the ways in which human resource writers/bloggers
and mainstream journalists have used and reported on this research.
I argue that while much of the literature seems to be about music, as
well as what music-listening practices are best for employees, that most
of the findings are more genuinely concerned with what is best for the
corporate bottom line. In other words, journalistic accounts of listening
to music at work are really about control, or lack thereof, on the part of
the modern-day office worker. Questions like, “Is listening to music at
work good for workers, psychologically?” And “Is listening to music at
work good for workers in terms of increased or improved productivity?”
are really questions about how much privacy, autonomy and control are
possessed by modern-day workers—including relatively well paid and
elite workers on the cutting edge of a new economy.
Ultimately, these are questions about power, economy, and class identity. As the economist Michael Zweig has argued, at least 62 percent of
Americans can be considered working class on the basis that they lack
autonomy, power, and control in the workplace. As more and more
knowledge workers are moved to “open plan” workplaces, in which
even cubicles are dismantled in favor of an open arrangement of desks
and computers without walls or dividers, I am left wondering if now
even relatively well-paid professional/managerial workers are losing a
crucial share of workplace autonomy, and, possibly, even their class
status, in the digital age (Zweig 2011).
The History of Whistling While You Work
In the 1990s Marek Korczynski was a professor of sociology at the
University of Nottingham with an important book in the field called
Social Theory at Work. As a sociologist who was interested in both labor
and culture, Korczynski began to notice that very little popular music
had lyrics that talked about work – even though most of us spend most
of our waking hours on the job. This curiosity spurred him on, and
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today Korczynski is both the founder of, as well as the most prolific
contributor to, a small but growing field of scholarship that looks at
how music and work intersect (Korczynski et al. 2006; Korczynski and
Pickering 2013; Korczynski 2014).
Korczynski and his colleagues argue that music and work have been
intertwined features of human experience for centuries. Korczynski shows
that in pre-industrial times work songs were closely associated with a
number of kinds of workers, from weavers to farmers, wagon drivers,
miners, sailors, peddlers, cobblers and tailors. Korczynski explains that
singing helped workers to keep time in the fields, but also at the loom,
and even on the bow of a ship. There were two kinds of sea shanties,
he explains, “one suited for the hauling of ropes and setting of sails,”
and one for working on the ship’s machinery. Each kind of sea shanty
had a different rhythm that was matched to a distinct kind of work.
Korczynski argues that music and work formed a dialectical bond of
what he calls mutual constitution, with the rhythm and pace of one
informing the rhythm and pace of the other” (Korczynski 2003).
While Korczynski believes that work and music were dialectically
related, he leaves open the possibility that there was ambivalence in
the meanings made by these pre-industrial works songs. Were these
songs of consolation, or songs of recognition? Did they help to ease
the burden of work, or did they connect workers to a deeper consciousness of their labor? Perhaps, Korczynski suggests, work songs blended
work and play in a way that “did not treat them as binary opposites.”
Perhaps these work songs helped those who sang them to create a “map
of their world” which “allowed a melodious transport from the material demands of labour while at the same time acknowledging these
demands.” As Korczynski sees it, work and play were more integrated
during this time period, and there was “pleasure within and through
hardship” (Korczynski 2003).
At the same time, this dialectal relationship between work and play
was relatively fleeting, because, as Korczynski argues, leisure and work
were forced to endure a “big split” under industrial capitalism, for two
reasons. The first was the urbanization and proletarianization of previously rural workers, as the ways in which the pace of labor was now
more often determined by machines and managers than the rhythm
of a song. Singing, whistling and talking soon became offenses punishable by fines or worse. Under the dictates of the efficiency dogma that
became known as Taylorism, there was the “increasing repression of …
singing, drinking or chatting on the job.” The split between work and
play became part of the common sense of the era, as Teddy Roosevelt
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opined, “When you play, play hard. When you work, don’t play at all.”
But as the century progressed Marxist critics like Theodor Adorno lambasted such ideas, arguing that, “Work while you work, play while you
play – this is a basic rule of repressive self-discipline” (Korczynski 2003;
Adorno 2005).
Korczynski argues that the second aspect of industrialization that
divided music from its connection to work was the commodification of
music. From the player piano, to sheet music for sale, to the gramophone, and the radio, music increasingly became something workers
bought rather than something workers made for themselves. While
much research has been done in cultural studies and cultural history to
show that working-class cultural producers were integrated into the market during this period, as performers, songwriters, inventors and entrepreneurs, it is certainly true that the commodification of music eroded,
if not eliminated, centuries of organically produced folk song traditions.
At the same time, there is much evidence to suggest that the
20th-century workplace was not entirely devoid of music. Granted – it
was rarely music made by the workers themselves, but, increasingly
in both Britain and the US, factory managers piped in radio programs
designed specifically for the tastes of factory workers. In the US the infamous company Muzak, which was established in 1934, began charging
companies for the right to pipe in Muzak’s own special brand of easy
listening – pop songs that were rearranged, without vocals, and heavy
on the strings. “Only sanitized instrumental arrangements were used,
because the absence of lyrics made the music less likely to intrude upon
conscious thought” (Owen, 2006).
In England the BBC produced a radio show, Music While You Work,
which was broadcast three times a day and which featured “light” music,
dance music, etc. According to industrial research from the period, the
music was not supposed to provide workers with a rhythm by which
they could pace their work. Rather, the music was supposed to function
“as a means of creating a spirit of cheerfulness and gaiety.” Music While
You Work was supposed to relieve workers, especially women who were
entering into factory labor as never before, from the monotony and
boredom of the factory’s “repetitive tasks.” But the workers were not
supposed to be too interested in the music that played while they work.
“In 1942, the song ‘Deep in the Heart of Texas’ was banned from the
program because it contained a participatory handclapping section that
tempted laborers to stop work and join in” (Le Roux 2005).
In the 1930s and 1940s there was also a rise in labor union choruses. Unions like the ILGWU used worker choruses for new member
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recruitment, member entertainment, and member education. An hourlong song cycle called My Name is Mary Brown, written in the late 1940s
by the Northeast choir directors of the ILGWU, was used to accompany
a slide show and later an animated short. The song cycle retained a
radicalism we don’t normally associate with the 1950s, including a song
called “This is a Strike.” Ironically, perhaps, the ILGWU chorus members
sang just about everywhere EXCEPT the factory floor. The Eastern PA
chorus performed all over the region, at “ethnic and civic clubs, churches,
political events … garment factory parties, hospitals, and community
agencies” (Wolensky et al. 2002).
In the first half of the twentieth century most of the management
literature about music in the workplace was focused on working-class
men and women – workers who labored in fields and in factories.
A famous study was performed in 1972 that found that upbeat, happy
music helped factory workers to work more efficiently by boosting their
overall mood. But gradually the question began to shift to white-collar
workplaces, as human resource managers wanted to know: is playing
background music good for office workers? (Fox and Embrey 1972).
The Justin Bieber Effect
In the fall of 2014 a group of researchers in England conducted a study
that showed that pop music in general, and Justin Bieber in particular,
boosted work performance – particularly processing speed – for workers
performing a range of repetitive office tasks. “Listening to Jessie J or
Justin Bieber could also improve your speed, with 58 percent of participants completing data entry tasks faster while listening to pop songs.”
Surprisingly, perhaps, the study also found that “dance music, such
as David Guetta,” improved the workers’ proofreading/spell-checking
speed. Journalists of all stripes went nuts for this story, telling their readers/viewers that if they listened to Justin Bieber they could “improve
their careers,” which is not exactly what the study promised. But the
study did show that office workers performed more quickly, and, even
more accurately, with “Baby, Baby” playing in the background. “The
increase in levels of productivity when music is playing is striking,”
said Paul Clements, Director of Public Performance Sales, PRS for Music
(Zolfagharifard 2014).
Of course Public Performance Sales is the company that commissioned
the study – and it is a company that sells background music services
to workplaces. But Mindlab International, which conducted the study,
stands by its research. The 21st century thus far has been a golden
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age for “effects of music” research. Studies have shown that music can
improve cardiovascular functioning, help cancer patients to feel more
hopeful, bring about “positive emotions,” and even “stimulate movement” in stroke patients. Music lessons for young people can improve
their verbal memory and improve their ability to process sound as they
age. In some cases even listening to particular composers, such as
Vivaldi, can make listeners more alert and improve their verbal fluency
(Morreale 2013).
And, according to dozens of additional studies (and not just those
bankrolled by music companies), music is also good for us when we
work. Music, the studies show, makes us feel happier, and, when we feel
happier we are more productive. Music can also calm us while we work,
or, more precisely, “lower our perception of tension.” Finally, music,
and, especially music we like, can increase our dopamine flow, which,
according to one researcher, improves our ability to focus (Lesiuk 2005).
Some of these studies claim that one kind of music in particular is
best for listening to while working. Classical music has been frequently
highlighted as a productivity booster. A famous study on Mozart and
task work, now called “The Mozart Effect,” found that children and the
elderly performed tasks better when they listened to Mozart, but the
study’s findings have been difficult to duplicate. Another study found
that radiologists performed better and faster when Baroque music was
piped into their offices while on the job. Ironically, perhaps, this study
was motivated by an attempt to look at “environmental factors” that
could improve the work environment, “given the increased workload
of today’s radiologists.” In other words, while hospitals could have
chosen to relieve the burden of overwork on their radiologists, instead,
Baroque music was seen as a more cost effective solution to the problem
(American Roentgen Ray Society 2009; Rauscher et al. 1993).1
In some cases the benefits of music are more subtle. One 1993 study
showed that workers listening to music in a major key reported higher
levels of satisfaction than workers listening to music in a minor key.
Other studies have shown that “familiar” music is the best music to
stimulate a worker’s intense focus on the job, while, at the same time,
other studies show that music with lyrics can be distracting, especially
when it comes to retaining or learning new information (Blood and
Ferris 1993; Ciotti 2014).
But for whom is music in the workplace most beneficial? Most
researchers argue that music in the workplace is a boon for workplace efficiency, as opposed to (simply) a boon for the workers themselves. As Dr. David Lewis, chairman of Mindlab International, which
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conducted the 2014 study, explained: “Music is an incredibly powerful management tool in increasing the efficiency of a workforce….
It can exert a highly beneficial influence over employee morale and
motivation, helping enhance output and even boosting a company’s
bottom line.” So where does the benefit of music lie? Is music good for
boosting our mood? Or is it good for boosting the boss’s bottom line?
(Flanagan 2014).
There is some alternative research that suggests that listening to music
at work can be harmful to employee efficiency. Researchers in Cardiff,
England found that study participants who were asked to memorize
a list of letters of the alphabet in a particular order performed worse
at this task if they were listening to music. The authors of the study,
Perham and Vizard, argued that the implications of the study might be
greatest for students, who are trying to learn steps in a math problem
or trying to memorize elements in the periodic table. Other similar
research shows that music at work can be more distracting for introverts
(Perham and Vizard 2011).
There is one kind of music in the workplace that everyone agrees is
terrible: co-workers singing out loud. Countless online forums, chat
rooms and discussion sites relay tales of co-workers who sing – as well
as burp, fart, sigh, tap, sneeze and eat – in a loud, annoying way. One
writer complained about a female co-worker who talked loudly on the
phone, and worse. “If she’s not on the phone, she’s always talking
loudly with other coworkers. If she isn’t playing with her coworkers, she
sings out loud by herself. She even dances from time to time.” Another
writer’s co-worker actually whistles at work: “[m]y co-worker is a great
whistler (can’t take that away from him), but he must think it’s his job
to entertain the masses because his booming singing voice (vibrato
and all) and his loud whistling is a karaoke audience’s dream … and
co-worker’s nightmare (Yelp conversation 2015; Green 2011).
In the end, most of the research on music in the workplace suggests
that when workers have the power to choose what they listen to they
are more satisfied, and, indeed, at times, more productive. Music that
workers do not choose for themselves, such as company provided
soundtracks, or the singing of annoying office mates, produce employee
dissatisfaction, and even rancor. One of the leading researchers on
music at work in the present day, Anneli Haake, agrees with this finding: “The key is control … When people choose to listen there can be
positive effects – it can be relaxing and help manage other distractions
such as noise. But when it’s imposed, they can find it annoying and
stressful,” she says (Haake 2011).
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iPod, Therefore I Am
Sound theorist and cultural studies scholar Michael Bull has argued
that the iPod, the most ubiquitous of the personal listening devices
(PLD), has given office workers greater control and autonomy on the
job. Using questionnaires returned to him from a variety of newspapers,
including The Guardian and The New York Times, Bull found that iPods
improved both the mood and productivity of their owners. iPod wrote
about how they used their iPods to keep distractions to a minimum –
as their iPod headphones became a kind of “do not disturb” sign for
busybody co-workers (Bull 2010).
Bull argues that while smart phones connect us to the world, our
iPods connect us to ourselves. As one iPod user in Bull’s study explained,
“I feel almost cut off from society if I don’t have my mobile, whereas
I feel like I’m cut off from a part of myself if I don’t have my iPod.”
Another user claimed to feel an “unprecedented level of emotion control” while using the iPod. Another user went so far as to claim that the
iPod “keeps me from feeling oppressed by being constantly surrounded
by other human beings.” This is a pretty astonishing claim: how many
devices can claim to liberate us from oppression? (Bull 2010).
Ironically, perhaps, while many employers accept the idea that it is
good for their workers to listen to music of their own choosing, employers do not like the iPod. The most commonly cited employer concern
about the iPod is safety. There are thousands of articles and reports,
including company policy statements and human resource newsletters,
which raise concerns about iPods and worker safety. One such article suggested that listening to an iPod at 50 percent of its total volume is safe on
the job. However, if the work environment itself is noisy, exceeding 85 dB
(equivalent to the sound of city traffic from inside your car), “then the
worker is required to protect their hearing, and they’d be causing hearing
loss if they substituted protection for another sound source” (Main 2011).
The second biggest employer concern when it comes to iPods is about
how employees respond (or do not respond) to others when they are
wearing headphones. Employers frequently make complaints like this
one: “I find it very frustrating when you approach an employee’s desk
and because they are listening to the iPod, they don’t even know that
you are standing there.” Ironically, perhaps, other workers, even those
in non-supervisory roles, have also been known to express disdain for
their co-workers who use iPods. One office worker commented that
every worker should forego the iPod and “do an honest day of work
and be proud of it.” Another commented: “If you are paying people to
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work they should not use their iPod on work time. We work, then play.”
This comment echoes the “work while you work” and “play while you
play” dicta that Adorno called “a basic rule of repressive self-discipline”
(Bruce 2008; Adorno 2005).
While employers often complain about PDLs and headphones, office
workers defend them vigorously, as one human resource consultant
found when he asked commenters to weigh in. The pro-iPod contingent
argued that such devices were crucial to their mental health. One office
worker suggested that if someone took his company’s iPod privileges,
that someone “[m]ay as well send the little men in white coats, because
I am off to the funny farm.” Another worker claimed that, “radio has
saved my sanity.” Another worker claimed that the iPod was best for the
safety of her co-workers: “If I were not able to listen to classical music at
work I would probably kill some of my co-workers. They are constantly
talking about their personal lives, which I am not interested in. I use the
iPod to block them out” (Bruce 2008).
Much of the writing on the pros and cons of iPods at work represents
the fight as a generational one. “Digital natives,” especially workers born
the decade before the new millennium, argued Pew Research Center’s
Lee Rainey in 2006, have grown up with technology and not only want
to work with multiple inputs and stimuli – including music – they
expect to. Rainey gives the example of a father/son pair who symbolize
the difference between digital natives and old fogeys: David Cintz, 22,
who attended Cal State, and his father who worked for Hewlett Packard,
each has his own level of comfort with technology. The 22-year-old
explained the differences between himself and his dad. “He can kick
my butt on programming, but I’m the one who works all the time with
two monitors on, listening to an internet radio station, with multiple
IM screens on, or having online phone conversations simultaneously,”
notes the younger Cintz. “I’m the one living in the digital world,
plugged into more devices. For him, it’s work. For me, it’s lifestyle”
(Raine 2006).
“We Need More Walls, Not Fewer”
Ironically, perhaps, even some digital natives are chafing under the
strain of the most dominant office trend since the Great Recession of
2008: the open plan office. This trend involves dismantling the much
hated cubicle walls, and replacing them with rows upon rows of open
desks and monitors, so that every workplace looks like a stock fund trading floor – and is about as loud, as well. While many human resource
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managers are still skeptical about the iPod, over the last ten years, as the
“open plan” office has become both trendy and cost-effective, employers have been increasingly permissive about headphones in the workplace. Because, indeed, for many workers, headphones now constitute
the only privacy they have.
Take this widely publicized Washington Post article titled: “Google Got
it Wrong: How the Open Office Is Destroying the Workplace.” In this
piece Lindsey Kaufman, a senior ad writer who once had a private office,
wrote how she felt downgraded and humiliated when her advertising
firm moved to an open plan office in Tribeca and she was forced to work
at a long desk surrounded by at least a dozen other people. After enduring her first day of a co-worker she described as an “air horn,” as well
as the constant noise of background music, co-workers talking, laughing, and yelling, she barely made it until quitting time: “At day’s end,
I bid adieu to the 12 pairs of eyes I felt judging my 5:04 p.m. departure
time. I beelined to the Beats store to purchase their best noise-cancelling
headphones in an unmistakably visible neon blue.” She ended her
screed against the open office with a plea for “more walls, not fewer”
(Kaufman 2014).
The open plan office is likely here to stay. As Lindsay Kaufman pointed
out, a report by the International Facility Management Association
found that more than 70 percent of companies now use an open office
layout for their employees. Open office plans have been implemented at
tech giants like Apple and Google, but even some hospitals and schools
are moving towards the redesign. Facebook recently bought a 56-acre
office park for $400 million, and has widely publicized the fact that
Frank Gehry has designed its new headquarters, which includes a single
room that is supposed to house 2,800 engineers, set to be finished in
2016, as well as a space for 2,000 Facebook employees in Seattle. And,
if open offices have allowed companies to shrink their square footage
overall, the open office trend has been a boon for office furniture and
design sales. A recent defender of the open office plan, Blake Zalcberg,
who wrote “It’s Time to Stop the War against the Open Office Plan”
in The Huffington Post, is the CEO of an office and school furniture
manufacturer (Bishop 2015; Zalcberg 2015).
As workplace historians have noted, the open office trend is an old
trend that has been made new. The white-collar offices of the early 20th
century were also made up of many individuals desks arranged in large,
open rooms. Most consider the first modern office space to be Frank
Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Administration building for Larkin soap, which
was built in 1905 when Wright was only 35 years old. It included a large
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atrium of open floor space with desks and people crammed together,
surrounded by six stories of inner walls and a skylight. Worker silence
was expected and aphorisms were carved into the walls such as, “Honest
labor needs no master” (BBC 2013).
While Facebook is moving forward with its plans for the largest open
office in the world, for the last year most business journalists have
lambasted the open office plan as the enemy of worker morale and productivity. Dozens of articles have been written attacking the open plan
office, with headlines like, “Why the Open Office Plan Needs to Die”
(Forbes), “Open-Plan Offices Can Be Bad for your Health (The Guardian),
and “The Open Office Trap” (The New Yorker). Why are open offices
under attack? As white-collar workers have moved from individual
offices, to cubicles, to the open office, they have lost hundreds of square
feet of personal space. One expert claims that in the 1970s employers
budgeted 500–700 square feet per employee, usually in the form of an
individual office. The decline since the 1970s has been precipitous;
according to Corenet Global, in 2010 the typical employee had 225
square feet of personal space, while in 2013 it was estimated to have
shrunk to 150 square feet (Vincent 2010).
Open offices are supposed to increase communication between
employees and make collaboration more effortless. Ironically, however,
as employees have been turning to iPods and headphones as a way of
coping with their loss of personal space, the communication flow in
the open office is even worse than communication during the cubicle
era. One worker explains that, “as a creative person I love to collaborate
but I love solitude equally as much because distractions for me are very
counter productive.” Another worker complains about the “curse” of
the headphones: “Because everyone is trying to focus and crank out
their work in peace, we have become long rows of people wearing headphones all day – the exact opposite of the vibrant, collaborative space
the open-office layout was meant to promote (Fast Company Staff 2013).
When I surveyed what human resource managers thought about headphones and iPods, it looked on the surface like a fight between employers, who wanted to ban iPods, and employees, who begged for them.
But the open plan office has shifted the terrain of struggle. As Lindsay
Kaufman’s story suggests, most employers would be happy to let their
workers spend $169.99 on a pair of Beats headphones rather than invest
in cubicle walls, or, even more costly, walls made of wood and plaster.
There are some companies that have nearly abandoned the office
concept all together. How many workers are expected to set up shop
in Starbucks, or in their own homes, and at what cost? What are
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companies saving as they no longer have to install landlines, telephone
systems, and receptionists? What costs are workers picking up the new
economy? And, most importantly, how much control have white-collar
workers ceded in the process?
The End of the Professional Managerial Class?
When I started this project I thought I was merely investigating the
latest research about the benefits of music in the workplace. I thought
of myself as trying to extend the wonderful work of Marek Korczynski
and his colleagues, to show how music and work were intertwined in
the white-collar office of the present day. But I quickly discovered that
the subject of music and work led me to something else: the subject
of power and class. As one modern-day worker complained to the Fast
Company staff: “[The open office] was designed by psychopathic sadistic
elitists that have their own office (Fast Company Staff 2013).
Psychotic, sadistic elitists. That’s certainly one way to define the capitalist class. How do we define other class groupings in the United States? If
we ask economist Michael Zweig, he will tell us that the working class
is defined by its lack of autonomy and power. In his book The Working
Class Majority, Zweig argues that when we use the variables of power
and autonomy, as opposed to salary or lifestyle, we will see that the
majority of Americans – those who work as white-collar bank tellers,
call-center workers, and cashiers; blue-collar machinists, construction
workers, and assembly-line workers; pink-collar secretaries, nurses, and
home-health-care workers – skilled and unskilled – are working class.
Zweig argues that increasingly we should add university adjuncts, lowpaid public defenders, teachers who are forced to use scripted curricula,
and even doctors that serve low-income communities to the ranks of
the working class (Barron 2015).
If we use the variables of power and autonomy, where do white-collar
workers who have been forced to work in open plan offices fit into our
class categories? Surely Lisa Kaufman, the senior copywriter who wrote
about her open plan office, is not working class? And what about Dafna
Sarnoff, an American Express VP who recently went to work at a smaller
tech and marketing company called Yodle? After years with nice perks
and even nicer offices, she wondered if she would be given an office
when she got to Yodle, and, indeed, she was not. Is it fair to ask: has
Dafna Sarnoff experienced downward mobility? (Barron 2015).
While it might be too extreme to argue that white-collar workers in
an open plan office are working class, it is crucial that we look at what
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kinds of power and autonomy workers have forfeited since the 2008
recession. Ironically, perhaps, it is the workers who are most central to
the new economy – technology and information workers – who are most
likely to be working under the panoptic glare of the open-plan office.
Though these workers were once safe inside their own offices with walls
and doors, or, for a time, out of view behind a cubicle, today the typical white-collar worker, even those who make six figures, are forced to
create more metaphorical space between themselves and their nattering,
farting, burping, yelling coughing, sneezing, eating, slurping co-workers.
To create this virtual space they need high-end noise-cancelling headphones – which they have to buy for themselves. What workers are listening to on those headphones suddenly seems far less important than
the fact that those headphones have become their only shield – their
only source of a privacy in a corporate culture gone nearly mad.
Note
1. The “Mozart effect,” a term coined by French researcher Alfred Tomatis in his
1991 book Pourquoi Mozart? was popularized further by a study published in
Nature in 1993.
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11
Researching the Mobile Phone
Ringtone: Towards and Beyond
The Ringtone Dialectic
Sumanth Gopinath
It is a somewhat perverse exercise to write a large book about a very
small thing. In The Ringtone Dialectic, I did just that: I investigated the
cellphone ringtone, the 30-second or shorter sound (typically, a musical
one) that alerts you to an incoming call on your phone (Gopinath, 2013,
hereafter RD). The ringtone, however, not only acts as a functional signal but also allows you to customize that signal, permitting you to display your musical taste (or clever irony) to passers-by, to provide a little
musical or sonic “treat” to yourself to compensate for the fact that you’re
perpetually available to your social and employment network (Licoppe,
2008), or to simply differentiate your cellphone from other cellphones
crowding the soundscape that you inhabit. As a popular commodity,
however, the ringtone collectively became something much bigger than
its miniscule constituent components. Common on mobile phones starting in the late 1990s, the customization of ringtones became a novelty
fad popular among children and teenagers (among others), and once
firms got into the business of selling versions of popular songs the
ringtone ballooned into a multibillion dollar industry – at one point
allegedly providing as much as 10 percent of total global music industry
revenue (roughly $3 billion out of $32 billion in 2003). The ringtone
is, of course, yesterday’s news: it began attracting significant attention
in Europe and East Asia in the late 1990s and in the US by the early
2000s, and by the second decade of the new millennium it was said to
be “dead” (Anonymous, 2010; RD, pp. xiii–xiv, 3). Today, ringtones provide relatively little income to firms still trying to sell them: by the end
of 2012, all ringtones, ringback tones, and other mobile music products
(including music videos, full-length digital audio downloads, and other
music products purchased through phone-specific portals) amounted
to $166.9 million, down more than 80 percent from its peak of nearly
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$1 billion in 2008 in the US, and the decline appears to be continuing
apace (Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), 2013).1 By
the time I began studying the ringtone in 2004 it had yet to peak as an
economic and cultural phenomenon; by the time the book was published in the fall of 2013, the ringtone was a residual phenomenon, long
replaced by the app economy that is now inextricable from everyday
smartphone and tablet computer use worldwide.
The task of scholarship, however, should not necessarily be merely
to follow and dissect popular trends – certainly not exclusively, at any
rate. Rather, it should illuminate both the unfamiliar and the exceedingly familiar; it should aim to explain history not only as it actually was
(“wie es eigentlich gewesen” in the 19th-century German historian Leopold
Ranke’s famous and problematic dictum2) and attempt to bring it to life
(“to make the stone stony,” in Russian formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky’s
words3); it should also recognize that facts are never mere facts, but
always exist within a conceptual framework, whether explicitly articulated or implicitly present. As a now-outdated fad, the ringtone is, like
all recently outmoded fashion items, “the most radical anti-aphrodisiac
imaginable,” in the words of the Marxist critic Walter Benjamin (1999, p.
64; RD, p. 49). The ringtone’s very condition is one of uncool – or, better,
of forgettable unimportance – and this allows us, I think, a certain distance from which we might attempt to understand what it actually was
and how we might conceptualize it. Now unviable as an economic entity,
the ringtone arguably becomes far more viable as an object of historical
and cultural inquiry.4 In what follows, I’ll provide a brief description of
how I came to research the ringtone and ringtone industry, of the facts
that characterize the ringtone and its industry, of my conceptual framework for interpreting those facts (which involves a blend of different
forms of Marxist cultural, economic, and political theory), and of some
of the more surprising findings that resulted from the course of my study.
While in graduate school in music theory at Yale University, I participated in a research group led by the Marxist cultural studies scholar
Michael Denning; the group, called The Working Group on Culture
and Globalization, chose its research projects collaboratively from year
to year, and for its first year (fall 2003–spring 2004) we decided that
we should undertake a collective project on the cultural dimensions of
the “commodity chain” of a single commodity – in other words, looking at the commodity in terms of its entire lifespan, from resource
extraction to various stages of production to distribution (transport and
warehousing) to marketing and sales and finally disposal (Hopkins and
Wallerstein, 1977; Gereffi and Korzeniewicz, 1994; Bair, 2009). We had
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not decided upon the commodity to investigate, however, and sometime
in the spring of 2004 I found myself sitting alone in a computer lab trying to think of a commodity particularly worthy of examination, when
two undergraduate students walked in, a young woman and a young
man. The woman’s cellphone rang with a familiar tune that I couldn’t
place and that sounded like the following example.5 (See Figure 11.1.)
The man said, “Nice ringtone.” She replied, “Do you know what it is?” He answered, “Yeah, it’s the ‘Cantina Band’ from Star Wars.” I saw that
they were flirting over her cellphone’s ringtone – a word I hadn’t even
heard before – and I realized that this was a significant social phenomenon, that the cellphone could be our group’s commodity, and that for
my contribution I would study the ringtone. We ended up giving a group
panel presentation of several short, 10-minute papers, which we gave
at the Cultural Studies Association conference in Boston in early May
of that year. The panel was very well received, and later that summer
I wrote a long essay on ringtones that I published in First Monday in
2005 and that became the basis of the book (Gopinath, 2005).
The primary argument of that essay and the book focuses on a simple
factual transformation in the ringtone’s very structure. All ringtones
are digital files of some kind, but the content of those files has varied
quite drastically since the inauguration of the customizable ringtone in
the late 1990s. Early ringtones were very simple: they played a single
melodic line, performed by a rather primitive synthesizer. This type
of ringtone is called a monophonic ringtone – and monophonic here is
much more literal than in its music-theoretical sense, in that it means
that only a single sound (rather than a single line or melody) may be
produced at any one time. Within a few years, phones began to play
more complex synthesizer files, in which more than one sound could
be produced at the same time; instead of a single beeping melody or
sound effect, phones could present synthesized arrangements of whole
bands or other musical ensembles, much in the way that many digital
keyboard synthesizers or software programs can do. This type of ringtone is called a polyphonic ringtone. By the early to mid-2000s, higherend phones were using digital sound files. Initially these were very
low-grade files, but in their structure they were essentially the same
Figure 11.1 Mystery ringtone, spring 2004, Yale University
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as the widely available MP3 files that are currently the most common
media format for listening to recorded music. Today, the only thing that
distinguishes any MP3 (or comparable file) from a ringtone is where it
is located within a mobile phone’s file directory and the fact that some
phones still do not allow ringtones to be longer than 30 or 40 seconds.
(Some phones require that ringtones receive a separate file format
extension – such as .m4r on the iPhone, a renaming of the standard
.m4a for AAC digital files.)
This simple series of changes had enormous consequences for the
ringtone industry’s development. Chief among these were economic.
When the ringtone was a monophonic or polyphonic synthesizer-file
adaptation of a pre-existing musical selection, which was by far the
most common type of ringtone (as opposed to originally composed
ringtones), copyright law understood them to be arrangements of those
songs, and hence they were treated like cover songs. This meant that the
selection’s or song’s composer (and the company publishing it) received a
certain, relatively nominal fee from the companies selling the ringtones
(between 8.5 and 10 cents per ringtone sold). In contrast, a ringtone
made of a digital sound file not only used a pre-owned song or composition, but also had to license the recording of that song or composition, and hence had to obtain and pay for that recording from a record
label. The heyday of monophonic and polyphonic ringtones typically
involved smaller companies that jumped into the nascent ringtones
market before larger music-business firms thought to do so, and these
firms helped to make up the emergent mobile entertainment industry –
with such companies also selling other digital products for phones, like
phone “wallpaper” (which could customize the display screen of one’s
cellphone). The major recording industry labels – like BMG, Universal,
Sony/Columbia, Warner, EMI, etc. – were not pleased with this state of
affairs as they were cut out of the lion’s share of profits (which instead
went to mobile entertainment firms), but they knew that if ringtones
became sound files, the legal situation would favor them much more
and allow them to squeeze out smaller companies or competitor firms of
a much larger size. (In an example of the latter, the Japanese instrument
company Yamaha was involved in selling high-quality polyphonic ringtones and became one of the largest ringtone sales firms in the world
in the early to mid-2000s.) Phone manufacturers sought to improve the
quality of their ringtones and thus a process of technological convergence took place, in which the upgrading of phones’ ringtone formats
was motivated by phone handset design engineers’ desires to improve
phone performance and by pressure from the recording industry. By the
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mid- to late 2000s, firms partnering with or owned by the major record
labels were the dominant players in the mobile entertainment industry.
Thanks in part to the major labels’ oligopoly control of the sound-file
ringtone market, this involved a major hike in the price of ringtones:
whereas polyphonic ringtones might cost $.99 or $1.99, sound file
ringtones were upwards of $2.99 – far more than the full-length digital
sound files (the same product!) that were locked into a price point of
$0.99 by sales portals like the iTunes store (RD, pp. 19–26).
Small wonder, then, that recording industry spokespersons began to
announce that ringtones might actually reverse their industry’s declining
fortunes, which had allegedly suffered on account of unauthorized filesharing. (Others argued that the industry was bloated and flooding the
market with substandard products, and that filesharing was a necessary
corrective to this situation.) But as overpriced products, sales of sound
file ringtones were essentially the result of what technology journalists
called a “walled garden”: a mobile phone operating system and file
directory that were extremely difficult to access by ordinary consumers,
hence making it nearly impossible for them to upload their own digital
sound files onto their phones and bypass the entire ringtone industry
altogether. Companies like Xingtone developed inexpensive software
packages that allowed phone users to upload music from compact discs
and digital sound files on their computers without having to pay extra
for each individual ringtone. Moreover, starting in 2007 with the advent
of Apple’s iPhone and other smartphones, which spurred the ongoing
convergence between the telephone and Internet networks, it became
easier to exchange and access files on cellphones, and online blogs and
reporters conspired to teach consumers how to avoid paying for ringtones. It wasn’t long before ringtone industry profits began to dwindle,
and after receiving additional setbacks on account of the recession of
2008–2009, they would simply never recover (RD, pp. 39–52).6
Economic shifts, however, were not the only noteworthy effects of
the ringtone’s technical transformations – if they can even be called
“effects” at all, since the technical shifts themselves were ultimately
inseparable from the economic motivations that lay behind them. For
example, one of the studies I undertook in the book involved examining how ringtones were made, and I discovered that, like all products,
ringtones required a labor force to produce them. It turns out that the
labor of making ringtones changed quite drastically as the file formats
changed: the skill requirements and labor time involved in making
a ringtone became much greater once the ringtone changed from a
single, simple beeping melody into a full-blown imitation of a particular
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musical recording’s entire instrumental arrangement, as this required a
very skilled musician to undertake a fairly extensive exercise in musical
transcription. In contrast, once the ringtone became an audio file, all
that was required was for someone to excerpt a 30-second audio clip
from the original file; unsurprisingly, the payment that workers received
per ringtone decreased drastically and fewer workers were needed to
maintain comparable volumes of output. In addition to the decreasing
wages and employment opportunities that resulted from the sound-file
ringtone’s emergence, the character of the work changed, becoming
simpler, more rote, less satisfying, and thus deskilled, to invoke Marxist
writer Harry Braverman’s charged but vitally important term to describe
a general tendency in industrial manufacturing (RD, pp. 57–79). The
disappearance of an entire industry had consequences in the lives of the
musicians who worked within it. One of my interviewees, Billy Dixon,
was a young hip-hop producer who worked for the hip-hop magazine
and brand The Source. In the mid-2000s, The Source owned and administered a polyphonic ringtone “channel,” which was a kind of subscription service that one could purchase via one’s cellphone service plan.
In summing up his experiences working in the industry, Dixon noted:
It affected me heavily actually, during polyphonics, I made nearly
zero music of my own. After, for a good while, I did audio tones, and
during that phase, only really got into my own music again because
I pushed myself. It was hard, taking what I do to create and express,
and then doing the same thing without any creativity of my own to
make money, for a job. It was confusing, for me anyway. I’ve only just
in the last year made a little bit of my own music, so yeah, definitely
a large dynamic phased itself through my experience (RD, p. 74).
The technical-economic changes in the ringtone industry did not only
affect its labor practices, however; they were also registered in various
aspects of cultural production: popular and classical music, film and
television, and art installations and performances.7 To take one example, I found that an entire subgenre of contemporary classical compositions from the early to mid-2000s invoked the Nokia Tune – a melody
that was once the most popular ringtone in the world, heard an estimated 1.8 billion times per day. Compositions ranged from the rather
modest, such as virtuoso pianist Marc-André Hamelin’s The Ringtone
Waltz (2006, possibly earlier), which he would play whenever an audience member’s ringtone interrupted his performance, to the more
ambitious, such as Italian avant-gardist composer Salvatore Sciarrino’s
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remarkable Archeologia del telefono (Archeology of the Telephone) from
2005, in which the composer uses traditional acoustic instruments to
imitate the sounds of phone signals in order to critique the ways in
which they have overtaken our auditory experiences and everyday lives
(RD, pp. 103–14). The number of new Nokia Tune compositions peaked
just as the monophonic and polyphonic ringtone were giving way to
the sound file, and they declined precipitously in the second half of the
new millennium’s first decade. One might argue the Nokia Tune became
less interesting as a sonic phenomenon to composers once it stopped
appearing in its most abrasive and distinctive monophonic guise.
Moreover, due to the increased opportunities for phone customization
offered by the sound file ringtone, as well as the decline in popularity
of Nokia phones themselves (especially once the smartphone became
common), the Nokia Tune likely became less important as a sonic reference point – particularly as it came to be effectively replaced by other
default ringtones, such as the iPhone’s “Marimba” (RD, pp. 221–26).
Finally, one should not overestimate the way in which the quotation of
the Nokia Tune wore itself out as a kind of compositional gimmick, the
belated use of which would indicate a composer’s being out-of-touch
from, rather than aware of, contemporary social realities.
In contrast, a more obvious change resulting from the file-format shifts
in the ringtone industry can be found in the use of political ringtones.
Before the presence of the sound file ringtone, ringtones used by phone
owners to signify political allegiances were limited by the inability of
a monophonic or polyphonic ringtone to include speech: the primary
medium of the politician. Hence, the sound file ringtone provided new
opportunities for citizens to include political speech on their phones,
which became very common in the mid- to late 2000s. One fascinating
subgenre of political ringtones that emerged during this time is what
I termed the “political voice-remix ringtone,” in which a sample of a
politician speaking, often in an unguarded or unscripted way, was then
combined with a dance beat track to create a commentary on a political event indexed by the speech sample. Two examples: first, in 2005,
Philippines President Gloria Arroyo was caught on wiretap, attempting
to confirm vote rigging in her favor from an electoral official, named
Virgilio Garcillano or “Garci.” A musician connected to a Filipino
mobile activism group called TXTPower combined the wiretapped
recording with a sample from 50 Cent’s “In Da Club,” and the ringtone
became a national phenomenon, downloaded millions of times and
a part of the unsuccessful movement to oust Arroyo from power (RD,
pp. 152–60). Second, in December 2007, at the Ibero-American Summit
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in Santiago, Chile, in the middle of a heated discussion, President King
Juan Carlos of Spain told Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez to “shut
up”: ¿Por qué no te callas?” The recording made its way into ringtones
that were both sold and freely traded throughout the Spanish-speaking
world, and had special relevance in Venezuela to the anti-Chávez conservative opposition (RD, pp. 166–77). With its minimal dance music
background combined with the speech sample, this ringtone ended up
being quite similar to the Arroyo ringtone, including more “top-down”
versions of this ringtone genre, such as ringtones promoted by Barack
Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign (RD, pp. 333–4, n. 109).
These cultural and social changes, which can be said to result from the
technical-economic transformations in the ringtone industry, provided
a fascinating glimpse into the way that the economy affects culture.
Some phenomena, like Nokia Tune compositions, seemed to disappear
or decline as the file format of the ringtone changed; others, like the
political ringtone, experienced a new-found relevance and thus could
be said to have experienced a reversal of its fortunes. In yet other cases,
ringtone practices seemed to become particularized or tailored to the
specific national, cultural, and linguistic contexts in which they were
embedded, as in (for example) the way that African American popular
musicians working in R&B and hip-hop attempted to cash in and comment on the ringtone phenomenon by writing songs with “ringtone”
in the very title (often with the songs simply being titled “Ringtone”),
thereby targeting black consumers of ringtones. The book presents individual chapters detailing various social and cultural practices according to the way in which they relate to the industry’s transformation:
whether they declined, experienced a positive reversal of fortunes, or
became particularized in a specific part of the world (RD, pp. xxi–xxiii,
53–6, 129–31, 201–3). I termed this collection of dynamics “the ringtone
dialectic,” drawing on a concept in Hegelian and Marxist philosophy
used to describe a contradictory unity of incommensurable entities.
A dialectical contradiction often contains two definite elements that
seem to be opposed to one another, like a decline and a reversal, but a
dialectical contradiction can be understood as also containing a resolution to the opposition as well: in our example, the particularization process, which specifies the ways in which a technology becomes tailored
to its context, might be understood as a more general way of what happens to the ringtone in any individual domain, whether it experiences
a rise or fall in its fortunes (RD, pp. xv–xviii).
The ringtone dialectic, or the collection of relationships between the
ringtone industry’s technical-economic shifts (as embodied in file-format
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changes) and the cultural and social practices associated with the ringtone, turns out to be a particular version of a more general dialectic
commonly discussed within Marxist cultural theory: the relationship
between the economic base and the social, cultural, legal, and political
superstructure that seems to be founded upon it. Debates about Marx’s
metaphor of the base and superstructure, as well as dogmatic adherence to the idea, are replete within the literature and history of Marxist
thought, but the key issues appear to hinge upon how strongly the base
determines the superstructure and whether the metaphor is of utility at
all. I contend that it still has some value – in the capitalist system, the
economy has a huge effect on so much of what happens in our lives –
and my tentative solution to a complex and long-standing theoretical
problem is that one must examine the issue on a case-by-case basis, that
one ought not to force the base to appear to mechanically determine
what happens in the superstructure, and that one should instead continue to ask the question of how the base affects the superstructure, how
economy affects cultural form – the two terms I use to translate “base”
and “superstructure” (RD, pp. xviii–xx).
The dialectic of base and superstructure is not the only dialectical contradiction at play in the book; one can be found within the economy
of the ringtone itself: specifically, the emergence of the sound file
ringtone both led to great profits for the ringtone industry but its very
fungibility and exchangeability led it to destroy the very basis for those
same profits. Thus, we find a dialectical contradiction of profit and loss
contained within the potentialities of the sound file ringtone itself, a
finding that might be somewhat surprising on first glance. In fact, a
number of comparable surprises became apparent as I researched the
ringtone. Three examples of these are as follows. First, I came to appreciate the way in which the ringtone as a form engaged with an extensive
prehistory of short-form compositions, on the one hand, and with the
sound of functional ringer signals, on the other. These engagements
were realized in a wide variety of original ringtones created by Brice
Salek for his recording label Ringtone Records. In one amusing and
uncanny example, the “Look Mommy Ringtone,” Salek transforms his
own voice into a child’s voice, periodically and slowly saying the words
“look Mommy, a U.F.O.” in a repetitive, almost signal-like way (RD,
pp. 183–200). Second, through circumstantial evidence from Billboard
Magazine’s ringtone hit-charts, comments from interlocutors in the ringtone industry, and information from the Pew Internet & American Life
Project from 2010, it quickly became evident to me that the dominant
consumers of sound-file ringtones were working-class African Americans.
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When one combines this fact with the awareness that ringtones were
in many ways a huge rip-off, one might surmise that black consumers
disproportionately bore the costs of ringtone consumption and thus
helped to artificially boost recording industry profits at a time that
they were otherwise flagging (RD, pp. 241–67). Third, I came to appreciate the ways in which the technologies used to produce ringtones –
specifically, single-oscillator synthesizer, MIDI synthesizer, and digital
audio-file playback technologies – appeared in comparable successions
in the history of computer music using large mainframe computers,
personal computer sound cards, video game consoles, and handheld
gaming platforms before they underwent similar transformations on
mobile telephones (RD, pp. 14, 54–5). I also found fascinating precursors
to the earliest beeping ringtones in various early digital devices such as
the digital watch of the late 1970s and early 1980s – some examples of
which played ringtone-like melodies.8
Despite its very smallness and brevity, the ringtone, then, clearly
contained an entire world worthy of study, and even provided one way
of analyzing the entire world – although it should go without saying
that all of the ringtone world, let alone the world in toto, was by no
means represented in the book, which reflects my biases towards the
US as a US-American and scholar of the US. But given that the ringtone
developed far more quickly in East Asia and Europe than in the US, as
a study of global cultural processes the ringtone provides a fascinating
lens on a world in which the US, the global hegemon, was not the primary protagonist in the tale. But although one could use this aspect of
the ringtone to prognosticate what the future of the world might look
like – a future in which the US is not the dominant power – the greater
interest for me lies in the fact that the ringtone is a historical phenomenon, drawing attention to the way that the present immediately
becomes past, and the past passes over into the realm of history, which
always merits closer study.
Notes
1. The figures after 2012 are a bit problematic since the RIAA stopped including
music videos, full-track downloads, and “other mobile” in the same category
as ringtones and ringbacks – a product of the changing “ecosystem” of mobile
sales, which are now not as useful to differentiate from other online sales
(given the present continuity between phone and computer access to the
Internet for most users, as well as the declining relevance of phone-specific
sales portals). Nonetheless, the decreasing trend for ringtone and ringback
sales may be beginning to level off somewhat. In 2013, ringtone/ringback
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sales were at $98.0 million (a decrease of $68.9 million from 2012), and in
2014, they had decreased to $66.5 million (a decrease of $31.5 million from
2013). See ibid., and RIAA, 2014. For a chart of ringtone (and other mobile)
sales from 2005 to 2011, see RD, p. 51.
For an informative treatment of Ranke in relation to his dictum, which apparently is his translation of a statement of Thucydides and is thus bound up
with a classical ideal of history writing, see Grafton (1997, pp. 67–71).
See Shklovsky (1990, p. 6), in which the sentence is translated as “to make a
stone feel stony”; also see Morson (1986, p. 4), in which the translation cited
above is used.
One might argue for this in a couple of ways. For one, the fad’s economic
death obviates the need for prognostication, and thereby specious treading
into futurology or market reportage. In addition, the closure of the narrative
not only makes for a better story but also provides a contained phenomenon
and periodization from which one might better examine socioeconomic
and cultural dynamics. See, for example, the argument about the “ringtone
conjuncture” in RD, p. 273.
The melody continued to include the first 16 measures (or “A” section) of
the tune. My transcription is drawn on the source recording from Star Wars
(1977), and I cannot find a recording of the monophonic ringtone version,
although I recall it being slightly faster than the original and that the last
eighth note of the third measure (F#5) was instead an F5, tied over the barline
(and thus slightly simplifying the source melody).
In addition to the primary factors of technological convergence and the economic recession, there were two other causes for the decline of the industry.
The first was the “Crazy Frog effect,” or a backlash against ringtone subscription sales scams, which were inaugurated by the Crazy Frog ringtone fad
(see RD, pp. 147–9). The second was the decreasing public interest in the
fad itself, particularly as ringtones became essentially indistinguishable from
other sound files. Indeed, a part of ringtones’ appeal in the monophonic and
polyphonic eras, I would argue, was the nostalgic value of their technological
primitiveness, reminiscent for example of the rise of 8-bit music cultures.
Most of the examples discussed in the book can be found at www.theringtone
dialectic.com. Although the site is password protected, the password itself is
given at the end of the book’s introduction.
I am currently doing some follow-up research on sound in the digital watch
of the late 1970s and 1980s.
References
Anonymous (2010) The mobile ringtone is dead: apps define the new decade.
Techinstyle.tv (online blog), 31 May. Available at: http://techinstyle.tv/blogs/
the-mobile-ringtone-is-dead-apps-define-the-new-decade/ (accessed 8 June
2011 – URL no longer valid).
Bair, J. (ed.) (2009) Frontiers of Commodity Chain Research. Stanford, CA: Stanford
University Press.
Benjamin, W. (1999) The Arcades Project. Translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin
McLaughlin. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
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