I was delighted to get an email last week from a former student, Sophie Weiner, who was working on a piece for the Village Voice about the Brooklyn Folk Festival. She contacted me because she was seeking a quotation about why rap could be considered a form or modern folk music, and she thought, rightly, that I might have a considered opinion on the matter.
I was doubly delighted by this question. You see, this question is practically a word-for-word restatement of discussion question in the History of Rock Class I’ve been teaching at Berklee. Over several semesters, I’ve come to understand some interesting things about the contours of the responses the question elicits. So I was happy to field it.
Here’s what I told Sophie —
Our class discussion is stimulated by a quotation from Pete Seeger who once argued that âfolk magazines make a mistake not to print the best new rap songs.â Notably, although Seeger is really talking about folk music as process, when discussing this question many of my students get hung up on the question of style: “folk” is such a received category for them, if someone’s not singing along to an acoustic instrument, it couldn’t possibly be folk music. This is an association cemented in the 1960s by the folk revival — a movement in which, ironically, Seeger played a major role. Others get caught up by the commercial aspects of rap, though Bob Dylan was no less commercial, of course, and a lot of the songs Seeger popularized as folk anthems were initially commercial products, not simply unattributed ditties roaming the wilderness. Finally, some hesitate to think of rap as modern folk music because so many rap songs don’t seem to share the “progressive” messages that we’ve come to associate with folk, even though many rap songs do offer serious social critiques (if not always in such obviously recognizable form as “Blowing in the Wind”). If, however, we’re talking about a question of process — of collective recitation, reshaping, and recirculation of songs and lyrics — then yes, of course, we could consider rap a modern form of folk music. (That said, we’d have to say the same for other genres of popular music). The best contemporary example in this sense, especially if we’re going with a certain romanticized ideal, would be Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” which, like many a Seeger anthem, has become not just a general expressive resource for everyday folk but an actual protest chant.
Of course, this was much more than Sophie was asking for, but I couldn’t say less. I did, however, give her free reign in deciding what to use. (What are blogs for if not “director’s cuts”?) Not surprisingly, in the actual article, given that I am making — ahem — an academic point, Sophie focuses on the resonant connections between rap and folk:
Today, young activists are choosing as their anthems not traditional spirituals but songs by artists such as Kendrick Lamar. Wayne Marshall, an ethnomusicologist and assistant professor of music history at Berklee College of Music, says there are clear parallels between folk and rap. “If we’re talking about [the] process â collective recitation, reshaping, recirculation of songs and lyrics â then yes, of course rap is a modern form of folk music,” he says. Marshall also sees a continuity between the progressive themes of traditional folk music and hip-hop today. “Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright,’ like many a Pete Seeger anthem, has become not just a general expressive resource for everyday folk but an actual protest chant,” he says, referencing the multiple instances in which activists have sung the chorus at marches and actions.
What can I say? It’s been a chockfull summer. Mostly with farming and teaching, but also, I’m happy to note, with writing and talking about music as well. And while I’ve found the time to do some “dancing about architecture,” I’m afraid I’ve been a little slack when it comes to linking/re-posting it here. So here are some items from the last few months that I’d like to call attention to if you haven’t already seen & heard em. (FYI, I’ve also been reviewing albums for The Wire, but I’ll be reposting those separately.)
First, I’m excited to report that I was asked by the nice ppl at Mixpak Records to pen an essay for Popcaan’s debut album, Where We Come From. Writing reggae liner notes is something I’ve always dreamed about doing, and I was thrilled to sit with this stellar set of chunes for a few months before it went out to the world. Here’s a little teaser, but definitely click through to read the wole ting — and do give the album a good listen, it’s well worth the time!
In turns uplifting and haunting, reverent and rude, Where We Come From gives voice, as the best reggae does, to the contradictions of life in a society rife with inequities and yet so rich. Whether odes to the ghetto or the good life, Popcaan’s lyrics bring realist portraits and utopian visions into dynamic tension. Songs about struggle and sex and happiness occupy the same space because they do. …
Like his predecessors in crossover without compromise, Popcaan appeals to listeners outside of Jamaica precisely because he brings a distinctively Jamaican voice to the proceedings. In a world gone global, Popcaan occupies that sweet space of possibility where a deeply local accent communicates to outernational listeners. With his patois lyrics, plainspoken and poetic, his own takes on the latest slang, and his vowels stretched in that Portmore twang, Popcaan is unapologetically uberlocal in address. But since dancehall is itself a globe-spanning style and symbolic code, Popcaan’s performances are also pitched to the world. For all the downhome detail, nuff translatesâand plenty comes across in universal terms: hustle for the money, too damn evil, everything is nice.
Speaking of hustle for the money (and it shall appear?), the Popcaan essay dovetails with a conversation I had recently with Afropop Worldwide for their “Money Show,” which explores the role of money (or not) in music scenes spanning Ghana, Kenya, Colombia, Jamaica, and South Africa. The topic turns to Jamaica at around the 45 minute mark:
Ethnomusicologist Wayne Marshall says reggaeâs success can be attributed to its many divergent (even contradictory) forms and meanings. âThe genre offers a flexible palette for a wide range of ideological positions,â he explains, âfrom Pan-Africanism and other forms of transnationalism to utterly provincial nationalism, from peaceful and respectful postures to aggressive machismo and militancy, from tolerance to its own forms of oppression.â So whether itâs the image of Bob Marley as a revolutionary avatar, the liberated body politics of dancehall music, or simply the flows of culture enabled by the sprawling networks of English empire, something has made reggae stick in a number of unlikely locales.
âYou can find local reggae scenes just about anywhere in the world: Germany, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa, Native American reservations, you name it,â Marshall continues. âIt really is remarkable that reggae has inspired local scenes all over the world, especially since Jamaica is such a small place.â
This is, admittedly, an exaggerated example, and itâs hard to imagine anyone enjoying it save from a certain ironic distance. But itâs noteworthy â if not mindblowing â that someone uploaded it at all, and it speaks volumes about the political economy of contemporary music circulation. The intense compression artifacts may or may not be intentional â whether anti-piracy technique or incidental product of crappy software defaults. It reminds me of Jonathan Sterneâs contention that the MP3 puts the listener on a Â«sonic austerity programÂ». Illustrative because so extreme, the warped sound of this clip is deeply familiar to the MP3 generation â like cumulative tape hiss or dusty record crackles for older ears. Due to better bandwidth, the death of DRM, hi-qual darknets, and more liberal leaking practices, such distortions already strike us as Â«artifactsÂ» in the archaeological as well as audio sense.
In the wake of Rupert Murdoch buying Myspace and ânukingâ the imeem streaming service in 2009, ethnomusicologist and blogger Wayne Marshall, a longtime annotator of the microtrends popping up every second on any number of online streaming platforms, wrote an extensive blog post, spurred by the very real fear that âentire media ecosystemsâ might suddenly âsuccumb to the sudden slash and burn of corporate logic, which cares little for what we might celebrate as cultural vitality.â Iâve been using the word âplatformâ throughout this article as linguistic shorthand to describe a variety of streaming services, but as Marshall notes, the term can disguise as much as it describes. YouTube and other services use âplatformâ as strategic PR, Marshall contends, to cover up the much more precarious technological and political realities that underpin their use. Calling YouTube and other streaming services âplatformsâ creates the image of an elevated space on which one might communicate to a large audience, strategically eliding the fact that uploads can vaporize at any point, often without warning.
West Coast examples of raggamuffin rap only appear briefly toward the end of our mix, so it’s great to have the picture fleshed out a little more. Here’s the hook —
Back when Shabba and Super Cat were killing the game in the early â90s, the influence of dancehall could be felt throughout hip-hop. While East Coast rappers with Caribbean backgrounds like KRS-One and Heavy D collaborated with dancehallâs heavyweights themselves, artists from the West Coastâwhere the connections to Jamaica were less apparentâhad to get a little more creative. Hence, the faux raggamuffin deejay styles on records by NWA, DJ Quik and other gangster rap acts of the day.
While I’ve got you here, I thought I should share something of an author’s cut of the Cluster Mag article, which had to be about half the length that I wanted it to be. At one point in the article, there appears a rather brief history of Jamaican soundsystem culture, accompanied by the disclaimer, “To make the very long story unforgivably short…”
Well, what else are blogs for? Here’s the longer version for any of you who care to read. For me, the little leaps of logic involved in the beginnings of reggae and rap really do deserve explication and emphasis —
Playing records to people, interactively, sounds totally commonplace today, because it is. But at the time that âsoundsystemsâ in Kingston started holding dances backed not by bands but by savvy selectors with hot and hit records and powerful speakers, that sort of thing was hardly seen outside of sock hops or the first French discothĂšques. As they later did with the recording studio itself, Jamaicans were in the process of making the jukebox a live instrument, which required some little leaps of logic and a lot of ingenuity.
When Clement âCoxsoneâ Dodd was working as a migrant laborer in Florida in the 1950s, he attended lots of parties. And while picking oranges, he was also picking up plenty of the 45s running the local jukeboxes. Back then, there were two main sources for the soundtrack of the party: canned jukebox or live band. Returning home to Kingston, Coxsone decided to combine the two: to play records as live performance. He started with a PA at his parentsâ pharmacy, bringing in customers with the slick sounds of Southern R&B. Before long Coxsoneâs Downbeat soundsystems were operating across Western Kingston and beyond, vying with Duke Reidâs Trojan as keeper of the best downtown dancehall sessions. Soon after, he opened up Studio One, where the feedback loop between what dancers liked and selectors played could be made even tighter. Eventually, through the magic of dubplates and multitracks, selectors could rinse instrumental versions of popular tunes while, inspired by African-American radio disc jockeys, jive-slanging âdeejaysâ such as King Stitt and U-Roy toasted in a local, cosmopolitan tongue. It didnât take much longer, if another little leap of logic, for these masters of ceremony to become recording stars in their own right: in 1970, U-Royâs first âtalkoverâ singlesâa trio of rocksteady-repurposing noveltiesâheld the top spots on Jamaican radio for months.
This interactive approach to playing commercial dance records is, of course, essentially the same insight that would engender disco right around the same time, and which carries forward via house, techno, and their EDM ilk as perhaps the dominant paradigm of modern musical experience. It is also the same insight that sparked hip-hopâquite directly, in fact.
As the story goes, hip-hop was born on a summer night in 1973 in a rec-room on the ground floor of 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, an apartment building in the West Bronx, when Clive Campbell, better known as Kool Herc, hosted a party with his older sister Cindy. Born and raised in Kingston, Campbell was well familiar with the importance of a customizedâand loud and clearâsonic experience. For the party, Herc borrowed a powerful PA from his father, a soundman for local R&B acts, and played the role of selector, hand-picking and cueing up records, as well as MC, using a mic to praise partygoers with rhyming routines, and to hype the musical selections, make announcements, and encourage dancing.
Like any good DJ, Herc sought to respond to the demands of his audience. Given the context, this entailed embracing certain soundsystem techniquesâespecially the license to manipulate a recording in realtimeâwhile departing from what one might have heard at a dance in Jamaica. Despite borrowing liberally from soundsystem culture, Herc didnât play reggae at the party. Among his peers, Jamaican music and style had yet to undergo the cool recuperation that eventually followed Bob Marleyâs success and, more important in New York, the violent dominance of the drug trade by Jamaican gangs, or âposses,â in the mid-80s. Just as Herc made an effort to swap his Jamaican accent for a Bronx brogue, he played soul, funk, and driving disco tracksâespecially records with stripped-down, percussion-led breaksâin place of reggae anthems.
Herc and Cindy began throwing parties regularly, and the audience steadily grewâas did Hercâs crew, including dedicated MCs like Coke La Rock and a coterie of flashy dancers. Running out of room at 1520 Sedgwick, Herc relocated to nearby Cedar Park where, repurposing what little civic infrastructure remained in a place haunted by the politics of neglect, electricity from a utility pole powered the soundsystem. In contrast to clubs, where cover charges and age restrictions kept teenagers out, the âpark jamsâ were active incubators, stylistically and socially, of a new kind of public youth culture. In this way, Hercâs burgeoning audience, some driven West by gang violence in the South Bronx, helped essentially to co-produce a remarkable phenomenon: a vibrant party scene where local culture thrived as DJs, MCs, and dancers wrested new forms out of the resources at hand.
Hip-hop was so tied to realtime social gatherings in its early years that the idea of committing such performances to tape and selling them as commodities required some imagination. Recordings of parties were made, of course, and tapes circulated informally and even quasi-commercially, but it was not until a seasoned and savvy record executive, Silvia Robinson of Sugar Hill Records, saw potential in the form that the rap song emerged as such, six years after Hercâs back-to-school jam on Sedgwick Ave. Most of hip-hopâs biggest names at that time were not easily convinced, or drawn away from the relatively lucrative party circuit, so Robinsonâs first attempt was more a studio simulation than a faithful rendering of contemporary party practice. Assembling a ragtag crew of aspiring rappers as the Sugar Hill Gang, Robinson released a 15-minute single called âRapperâs Delightâ stitching together popular routines drawn from such prominent MCs as Grandmaster Caz over a replayed loop from Chicâs âGood Times,â then a current favorite among hip-hop DJs. Despite its unusual length for a pop single, as a passably genuine artifact of hip-hopâs sprawling party style, âRapperâs Delightâ became a massive hit on urban radio, selling millions of copies and offering the wider world its first exposure to hip-hop. (Multiple Jamaican acts recorded reggae-fied versions of the song before the year was out.)
I’m thrilled to report that tomorrow morning I’m headed back to Jamaica for the first time in a couple years. It’ll also be the first time in a decade for Rebecca, and the very first time for Nico and Charlie. I can’t describe how excited I am to see their faces upon having a cold jelly, a sun-ripened banana, some ackee & saltfish, and other likkle wonders of the place. We’re very lucky to have the opportunity for a multigenerational vacation (Charlie 1.0 and Fern will be there too), to have dear friends in Kingston to receive us (bigup Sara & Marvin), and to have a lovely time ahead of us, both in town and up in Portland, arguably the most beautiful corner of a beautiful country.
Our vacation will no doubt stand in some contrast to the all-inclusive tourist-traps many college students and other folk are looking forward to this Spring Break. And so it seems as fitting a time as ever to re-run an excerpt from an ol’ “Jamaica Blog” post about our experience of an all-inclusive in Ocho Rios some 10 years back. (This was first published on 25 Feb 2003, so, yeah, still lagging a bit. Soon Come ;) I don’t feel like quite as strident a critic of other people’s experience of Jamiaca as I did 10 years ago, but I think it’s useful to register (and re-register) my experiences, aesthetics, and prejudices all the same. And I have to admit that the questions i raise at the end remain trenchant and recurring ones for me. We’ll see whether I have anything to say about all of that when I return next weekend.
L to R: sour sop, naseberry, naseberry tree, at our friend kush’s place, just outside ochi
after four weeks of living in jamaica, becca and i finally got a chance to spend a few days outside of kingston. becca was asked to speak at an internet forum being held in ocho rios by the ministry of utilities. for her part, she was provided accommodations at the hotel where the conference was to take place, the renaissance jamaica grande, a subsidiary of marriott, the largest and most prominent all-inclusive resort in the attractive coastal town. (ocho rios stands third to montego bay and negril as a tourist spot in jamaica.) despite the pre-packaged feel we suspected the hotel would have, we were both looking forward to spending some time on a beach and taking a little holiday. moreover, we were curious about the hotel, wanting to compare our experience in jamaica so far with the jamaica that most tourists are shown. we were glad to have a complimentary chance to check it out.
since i was conducting workshops at the american school on thursday, i decided to meet becca in ocho rios later in the day (she left at five am). i had planned to take a bus from kingston, which seemed to be an inexpensive and interesting prospect. it turned out, however, that one of the companies at the conference was offering a cruise departing at 5:30 that evening, so i chartered a taxi to get me there quickly (the ride can take well under two hours, depending on traffic and the driver’s desire to tempt fate). driving in jamaica is quite an experience. never mind the wrong side of the road problem, which, for the passenger (being a driver, i assume, requires more adjustment) quickly loses its jarring effect. taking corners and passing cars in kingston is often enough of an adventure. taking corners and passing cars (sometimes several at once) as one winds through the mountains, pedal to the floor, is a more grueling experience.
my driver was an excellent driver, which did a little to assuage my frequent fear of hurtling to my death. i don’t think he ever let up on the gas so long as he could accelerate, which meant down-shifting — not breaking — and speeding up around tight corners, getting as close as possible to the rapidly traveling (though never rapidly enough) car ahead, and passing caravans of slower cars if possible. that said, my driver did an impressive job. he was easily the fastest car on the road (no one passed us anyway), partly because he knew the winding road so well that he traced it incredibly efficiently. i asked him how many times he had driven this route. “how many times? nuff times, mon. sunday, tuesday, and wednesday of this week.” i got the point. he had been driving twenty-years, probably with this kind of weekly frequency through the mountains. he got me to ocho rios in the time he said he would (two hours), which was rather fast considering the thursday afternoon traffic.
having, towards the end, grown a bit nauseated by the twisting, turning, and lurching, i was not looking forward to a cruise. but it was refreshing and reinvigorating to pass through fern gully (a cool, damp stretch of road, surrounded by ferns on both sides, and covered overhead by a thick canopy of trees) and then into town, sun still shining. i shouldn’t skip over the beautiful ride by focusing on the dangerous driving. the roads through the mountains have granted me some of the most gorgeous glimpses of grand jamaica i have ever beheld. from kingston, you pass through spanish town (with its central-but-abandoned colonial-era courtyards) then you ascend into the hills, where before long, the vegetation grows denser and the air cooler. soon enough, you are driving along high mountain roads through bamboo forests. here and there people sell fresh fruit, mostly mangoes and otaheite apples. then the vegetation recedes a bit, villages spring up, and the descent begins. fern gully makes for a fitting cool down in the final stretch before the coast. once through fern gully, ocho rios springs up fairly quickly. dancehall reggae fills the air from several directions as soundsystems (advertising that night’s dance or a particular record store), cars, and vendor’s carts take part in an informal soundclash (the dancehall term for a competition between soundsystems). the jamaica grande is located right on the beach and right off the main road. i paid my driver JA$3000 (US$60), which is the standard fare for the journey in a taxi (the prices dive for buses: JA$125 – 250, or US$3-5), and not a bad price considering that my stay at the hotel would cost me nothing.
i met becca at the aptly titled “fantasy pool,” which, i noticed, was cleaned every morning by a shirtless dread, the stella-got-her-groove-back type. the cruise left from the hotel dock. (you really never have to leave the hotel.) it was not worth the breakneck pace of the drive through the mountains, but it was a good introduction to the culture of the jamaica grande (not, mind you, the culture of jamaica. oh, no. this was an entirely different animal). we shoved off with twin speakers blaring lovers rock at us, a little heavy on the treble, and set off down the coast to dunn’s river falls, a famous waterfall nearby. it was a nice enough view from the boat, but not quite worth the trip. still, the sunset was lovely, and then the stars. and the rum punch (white overproof rum mixed with water and syrup) hit the spot. the water got very choppy and we had to head in early because some people, myself not included (remarkably enough), were feeling ill. we cruised back into the hotel bay and camped out in the calm waters while a man entertained us all by eating fire, ripping apart a coconut with his teeth, and lifting up women by the belt with his teeth. then there was a limbo and a beer-drinking contest. i kid you not. participation was lackluster (we’re talking about internet service providers here), especially since the prizes were promotional company-logo polo-shirts. “hey, that would look sharp on the golf course! or on casual friday!” thoreau says beware any enterprise that requires new clothes, especially promotional polo-shirts.
the rest of the jamaica grande was less impressive than the boat ride. for an expensive resort, the lack of quality was astounding. the all-you-can-eat buffet was practically inedible, though becca and i knew quite well (and confirmed on friday night) that there was absolutely astounding food to be had around town. they couldn’t even put out fresh, local fruit or juice, never mind fish, bammie, and calalloo. (world of fish on james avenue, a short walk from the hotel, is not to be missed. even so, one is lucky to see another white face in the vicinity, especially after sundown.). it seemed as if, in truly contemporary jamaican fashion, everything was imported. the beach was a flimsy, artificial-looking strip along a stale bay. white girls aged 10-18 walked around with their hair in complimentary braids. a high percentage of guests — over half were american, and there seemed to be an inordinate number of italians this weekend — could best be described as resembling whales or lobsters, and there were plenty of lobsterish whales. the music and “culture” were completely canned. consider, for example, the dinner-time serenade of a smooth-jazz-ish reggae band doing lionel richie covers or the friday night faux-naughtiness of doing the limbo and conga-line-dancing to the lascivious sounds of trinidadian soca (“turn it around and push it back in” [repeat ad nauseum]). compare this music with the dancehall and roots reggae pounding away, day and night, in the center of town — just a stone’s throw away. to the detriment of their own experience, and certainly their cultural horizons, the all-included set miss out on the vibrant local music scene as much as they miss out on ochi’s culinary delights.
it would be incorrect to call the hotel’s bizarre mix of cultural signs a representation of jamaicanness, for the mix was too messy and the focus too vague. to be more precise, we might talk about the hotel’s “projection of caribbeanness,” which struck somewhere between exoticism and familiar fun. one wonders how much the presentation is fueled by the guests’ actual desire or by an assumption on the part of the proprietors (who are american) that such is the experience people desire. i am sure it is more of a push-and-pull than any supply/demand model could attempt to explain. still, i can’t help but feel cynical about the phenomenon. don’t get me wrong: i hold no delusion that there is some “authentic” jamaica to be found and presented, oyster-like, to fat, ignorant american tourists or to naive anthropologists or to reggae lovers. the real jamaica is, of course, all of the jamaicas anyone imagines. the projection of the idyllic and carefree jamaica creates some serious tension when compared with, say, the reputation of jamaica as the country with the highest murder rate. (the tension jumps out of the little pink booklet of dos-and-don’ts that the hotels distribute to guests.) for all of the fantasy, one always bumps up against the stark reality of poverty, of desperation, of hunger. but perhaps not if one never leaves the hotel.
i am deeply interested in the concept of authenticity, at least partly because i recognize that it operates on my own perception, my “reception,” or interpretation, of various texts, cultural and literal. i also see the way it plays into other people’s ideas about life and art, essence and appearance, soul and race. it is good to confront oneself about what one deems to be real and why. what is involved in such a value judgment? what kind of assumptions undergird the determinations we make, the reactions we have, especially to cultural materials (e.g., music, film, advertisements, language, social practices)? examining the way that i react to music that i deem to be authentic or not, and asking myself why and how i confer authenticity to something, is usually an edifying experience. the conversation about hip-hop, including and far-exceeding the lyrics themselves, is pervaded by the question of what, or more often, who, is real. i am curious about how authenticity is communicated in sonic terms — what are the musical signs which convey the real? i wonder how it works as a psychological process — is it a kind of elicited empathy? i wonder about the negative ideas that often travel with things deemed authentic — how are one’s ideas about race, about the inherent differences and aptitudes of groups of people, informed, reinforced, or challenged by the experience of the “real” in music? i wonder whether by making the machinery of authenticity more visible, i can challenge people’s complacency about their received knowledge. i wonder whether happy italian tourists give a damn. i doubt it.
me & naseberry tree, in a quieter and prettier (if less “grande”) part of ochi
Initially serving as an outlet for the IDM scene and its offspring, the label has since undergone a series of radical overhauls, consistently wrong-footing its detractors and cementing its position at the forefront of all things electronic. In the mid-2000s the label served as an essential platform for dubstepâs launch into the mainstream; in recent years it has become renowned for championing Chicago footwork, helping to plant a previously obscure music firmly in the global musical consciousness.
With footwork for example, how did you discover that? Was it something you stumbled across?
MP: âYeah. I think Wayneandwax posted something on his blog, maybe, and I clicked a link. Then I just followed all the YouTube links from there, and there was shitloads of stuff, and it was all completely amazing in its own way. Although we got a lot of criticism from certain corners of Chicago for releasing DJ Nate. So then I suppose we had to redress the balance slightly.â
Noncommital attribution or not, I do appreciate the nod. (Thanks, Mike, if you still read on occasion.) Can’t help but be delighted by even the faintest possibility that this here blog had something to do with oddball Chicago bedroom / rec-room music crossing over into the global bass mainstream (for better and worse). I started blogging about juke back when I lived to Chicago and discovered imeem (at the same damn time). Sudden juke goldmine even if everything was pretty much streaming at horribly compressed levels. And I was a certified Nate booster, so that might explain some things too. If this really was the chain of events, sure was a roundabout way to finally score some Nate 320s!
Speaking of betterdom or worsement, allow me to share a bit more:
In general do the Chicago scene approve of what youâve done with footwork?
MP: âI think they just want to make money. I mean I think they care whether theyâve been represented, individually, correctly or not, obviously. And that the scene has been represented OK. And thatâs why they didnât like what had happened about DJ Nate â self-appointed scene members were upset by it. But above that, I suppose everyone wants to be successful. I think artistically we were successful [with Footwork], but it hasnât been the best-selling thing. Some of the artists made advances from us, and thatâs been good for them. And Rashad and Spinn have been playing out a lot. Iâve always wanted Hyperdub to release some [footwork]. Because I felt like people were looking at Mu as if it was mental, releasing all this Chicago footwork. I wanted not to be alone. Though there are a lot of labels releasing pseudo-footwork â even us, even Planet Mu.â
What sort of things are you referring to?
MP: âPeople like Machinedrum. FaltyDL has been doing a bit of it, though I donât think itâs been released. I think Machinedrumâs has been successful in that it wasnât emulating footwork â he was taking a deeper sort of response to it. But there has been a lot of other things â like Krampfhaft â itâs all a bit pyrotechnic-ey. I donât think the European and white American response, unless youâre in the [Chicago] scene, has been that successful. Itâs not very grassroots is it, itâs just part of the post-dubstep scene, and so thereâs not really a big reason for it to exist other than, âOh Iâve been listening to a bit of this, Iâm going to put it in my musicâ. Some of itâs more successful than others. I think the first successful track for me â apart from Machinedrum â was Mark Pritchard as Africa Hi-Tech, âOut In The Streetsâ. But then Markâs a fucking great producer.â
My first reaction was: don’t blame me for future-juke! Just kidding, my actual first reaction was: gotta appreciate the candor. Paradinas appears to come by his love for and opinions about the music honestly. Gotta appreciate as well that he’s put some Chicago-based producers, established and emergent, into circulation for entirely new publics — and into little more posterity than the socialmedia “platform” du jour.
The Young Smoke album Planet Mu put out last year was one of my favorite things of 2012 and still resides on my smartphone many months later (which is something, trust me). To think that I might have had some passing influence on the processes that led to this music finding me 6 years later puts a little smile on my face, no lie.
Here is the syllabus for a new course I’m teaching this spring at the Big H. It’s the culmination of a few years of piqued curiosity about “public” as term and concept, noun and adjective. As happy as teaching technomusicology made me, this sort of course — an intense, focused series of readings on a subject I find fascinating — has few parallels as far as intellectual pleasures go. Here’s hoping I have a good team of co-readers glad to read along. (I’ll note that, aptly, a great number of these readings are available, ahem, publicly.)
Without further ado…
Music 208r: Musical Publics
In the age of technological reproducibility and mass media, and especially since the advent of the Internet, the Web, and social media, the notion of the public is an ever shifting but paramount concern. Thanks to its special affordances and remarkable ubiquity, music offers a powerful lens into questions of publicness and public spheres. How do musicians and musical textsânever mind musicologistsâaddress particular publics, and how has this changed over time?
To better understand musicâs role in public culture, this course examines the idea of the public sphere in historical and theoretical perspective. From philosophy to the social sciences to more recent theoretical propositions and ethnographic work, we will consider a variety of publics, the (musical) media that bring them into being, and the implications for acknowledging music as part and parcel of collective experience. Our study will span the rise of print culture, the broadcast era, and the more recent development of what have been dubbed networked publics.
Week 2 / Feb 5 — Foundational Texts Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958. (p. 1-78)
Habermas, Jurgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991 . (browse all, but esp: 1-56, 159-243)
Week 3 / Feb 12 — Critique & Elaboration Calhoun, âIntroduction.â In Habermas and the Public Sphere, 1-42. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992.
Fraser, Nancy. “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy.” Social Text 25/26 (1990): 56-80.
Hansen, Miriam. âUnstable Mixtures, Dilated Spheres: Negt and Klugeâs The Public Sphere and Experience, Twenty Years Later.â Public Culture Vol. 5, No. 2 (1993): 179-212.
Week 4 / Feb 19 — Print Cultures & Imagined Communities Anderson, Benedict. âImagined Communities.â In Nations and Nationalism, a Reader, eds. Philip Spencer & Howard Wollman, 48-59. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005.
Bohlman, Philip V. âComposing the Cantorate: Westernizing Europeâs Other Within.â In Western Music and Its Others, eds. Georgina Born and David Hesmondhalgh, 187-212.
Kay Kaufman Shelemay. âMusical Communities: Rethinking the Collective in Music.â Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 64, No. 2 (Summer 2011): 349- 390.
Week 5 / Feb 26 — Mass Cultureâs New Musical Publics Middleton, Richard. ââRoll Over Beethovenâ: Sites and Soundings on the Music-Historical Map.â In Studying Popular Music, 3-33 (esp 3-16). Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1990.
Suisman, David. âPrologue,â âWhen Songs Became a Business,â and âThe Musical Soundscape of Modernity.â In Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music, 1-54, 240-72. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.
Gitelman, “The Phonograph’s New Media Publics.” In The Sound Studies Reader, ed. Jonathan Sterne, 283-303. New York: Routledge, 2012.
Hilmes, “Radio and the Imagined Community” In The Sound Studies Reader, ed. Jonathan Sterne, 351-62. New York: Routledge, 2012.
Week 6 / March 5 — Aural Public Spheres Hirshkind, Charles. “Cassette Sermons, Aural Modernities, and the Islamic Revival in Cairo.” In The Sound Studies Reader, ed. Jonathan Sterne, 54-69. New York: Routledge, 2012.
Ochoa Gautier, Ana MarĂa. “Social Transculturation, Epistemologies of Purification and the Aural Public Sphere in Latin America.” In The Sound Studies Reader, ed. Jonathan Sterne, 388-404. New York: Routledge, 2012.
Week 7 / March 12 — Racial Authenticity as Public Form Radano, Ronald. “Music, Race, and the Fields of Public Culture.” In The Cultural Study of Music: A Critical Introduction, eds. Clayton, Herbert, and Middleton, 308-316. New York: Routledge, 2012.
Gilroy, Paul. ââAfter the Love Has Goneâ: Bio-Politics and Etho-Politics in the Black Public Sphere.â In The Black Public Sphere, ed. The Black Public Sphere Collective, 53-80. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1995.
Diawara, Manthia. âHomeboy Cosmopolitan.â In In Search of Africa, 237-78. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.
Novak, David. âCosmopolitanism, Remediation, and the Ghost World of Bollywood.â Cultural Anthropology 25:1 (2010): 40-72.
Week 8 / March 19 (No class â Spring Recess)
Week 9 / March 26 — Counterpublics Warner, Michael. Publics and Counterpublics. Brooklyn: Zone Books, 2002. (p. 1-188)
Bickford, Tyler. âThe New âTweenâ Music Industry: The Disney Channel, Kidz Bop and an Emerging Childhood Counterpublic.â Popular Music 31/3 (October 2012): 417â36.
Week 10 / April 2 — Networked Publics (part 1) Castells, Manuel. âCommunication, Power and Counter-power in the Network Society.â International Journal of Communication 1 (2007): 238-266.
Ito, Mizuko. âIntroduction.â In Networked Publics, ed. Varnelis, 1-14. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008.
Week 11 / April 9 — Networked Publics (part 2) Benkler, Yochai. âEmergence of the Networked Public Sphere.â In The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, 212-72. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.
boyd, danah, “Social Network Sites as Networked Publics: Affordances, Dynamics, and Implications.” In A Networked Self, ed. Papacharissi, 39-58. New York: Routledge, 2011.
Week 12 / April 16 — Publics & Social Media Baym, Nancy & danah boyd. âSocially Mediated Publicness.â Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 56:3(2012): 320-329.
Marwick, Alice and danah boyd. âI Tweet Honestly, I Tweet Passionately: Twitter Users, Context Collapse, and the Imagined Audience.â New Media & Society, 7 July 2010: 1-20.
Crawford, Kate. âFollowing You: Disciplines of Listening in Social Media.â In The Sound Studies Reader, ed. Jonathan Sterne, 79-90. New York: Routledge, 2012.
Sterne, Jonathan. âThe MP3 as Cultural Artifact.â New Media & Society 8:5 (2006): 825â842.
Week 13 / April 23 — Precarious Publics & Platform Politricks Dean, Jodi. “Why the Net is not a Public Sphere.” Constellations Vol. 10, No. 1 (2003): 95-112.
Gillespie, Tarleton. âThe Politics of âPlatforms.ââ New Media & Society Vol. 12, No. 3 (2010): 347-64.
Not long after my last post went public, a savvy searcher quickly proved that what I thought was fairly ungooglable (at least without knowing Arabic) was, in fact, waiting for me on eBay. And beyond simply locating & IDing the music/CD in question, this kind commenter hit Arabkidsmusic paydirt.
First, I want to take back my description of the CD itself (pictured here) as “clutterred”; scans of the jewelcase reveal heretofore unimagined photoshop riches–
And the seller pointed to other visually alluring CDs that I now want to hear, including one clearly ‘shopped by the same artiste —
And one which departs significantly in visual style, but is no less tempting —
Plus, the seller decorates with nifty gifs to boot —
Taken altogether, even with my lack of Arabic, I find the whole ensemble to offer a rather fascinating snapshot of some of the various and sundry artifacts gathered around music culture today.
But the best part of all is that it turns out, not too surprisingly, that the tracks I shared yesterday are fairly popular songs by Lebanese pop star Nancy Ajram, who — though we must keep in mind that its a bot’s list — has a YouTube channel with 13,000+ videos on it.
I’m not too surprised to learn it was Lebanese, since Boston and Cambridge and especially neighboring Watertown have a relatively large Lebanese (and more generally, Armenian-via-other-places) community. This is why we are so fortunately rich in hummus and other goodies. (Hands down, IMO, Eastern Lamejun beats any other hummus in the Greater Boston area, but I digress…)
The songs I posted yesterday appear, in the same “medley” fashion, in a rather fantastic (and apparently “big budget”) video, which the eBay site links to as a “preview.” They were released in 2007 on an album for kids after Ajram “discovered,” according to the Wiki page, that young people were a substantial part of her audience.
Here’s the must-see video, which, if the beginning gets too cutesy-pedantic you might fast-fwd to 1:20 or so to see Ajram-as-Tinkerbell descending into a city of children-dressed-like-adults:
My daughters, incidentally, really enjoyed this — the visuals as well as the music, though I have to admit I liked it a bit more when I could imagine reggaetoneros in the mix.
At any rate, while perusing the Wikipedia page for Shakhbat Shakhabit, I was slightly surprised to see what seemed like an obvious bit of moralist editorial —
The album & video were the most notable and successful work for children at the time, following a huge wave of works directed to children. The reason for this could be the fact that it was purely meant for children, unlike children works by other singers that included sexual content for adults.
This didn’t seem surprising, exactly. There’s plenty of oddly salacious stuff that gets marketed to children (and their parents) in the US too, of course. Still, “sexual content” seemed a bit strong. But then, in my ensuing random walk (or rabbithole spelunk) on YouTube, I turned up a few things that, in the immortal words of Arsenio Hall (or Freedom Williams), make you say hmmmm, e.g.–
But there’s a lot of fun stuff to be seen too — and lots of songs about telephones maybe? — such as the following, which is awesomely jarring in its treble-culturized teeveediation, but also depicts a roomful of kids having a lot of fun dancing to some classic rhythms:
Anyway, I’ll stop there for now & leave you to your own funky spelunks, but I’m glad to solve this mystery — thx mystery commenter! — and to have found another YouTube musical wormhole to wiggle through.
For this week’s “Back Talk” — the Q&A that runs on the back page of the Phoenix — I had the pleasure to pose a few questions to Nancy Baym, a scholar who’s work (& Twitter feed) I’ve been following for a few, especially as my own research turns more to questions of music “industry” in an age of “social” media.
Nancy is coming (back) to town next week to take part in Rethink Music, “a solutions-focused conference” being staged by Berklee and MIDEM “in association with” the Berkman Center & Harvard Business School. I was also supposed to join a panel there, but I withdrew from the program a couple weeks ago based on contractual language that seemed, in short, out of step with any meaningful “rethinking” or reform of the way business gets done in “the” “industry.” (I was surprised and disappointed that the “association” with the Berkman Center failed to produce better boilerplate.)
I confess that I was lukewarm to the prospect anyway: the last thing I want to do, really, is to forestall the crash-and-burn of the current regime by sharing ideas about creativity and grassroots practice with them. (Though I’m still wondering who the audience will be for this event, given the hefty pricetag.)
At any rate, I’m happy to contribute in my own little way to any rethinking that might happen here in the next week by amplifying some of what Nancy has been thinking and writing about recently. You can read the full interview online here (the physical paper features an abridged version), but allow me to share a pull quote or two —
Does the question of “social exchange” (as opposed to economic) become more important in an age of “social media,” or just more noticeable? Where does something like (unpaid) “fan labor” fit into the equation?
Social exchange is both more noticeable and more important. It’s always been there. When I talk to musicians about what they find most rewarding in their engagements with audiences, they never talk about the fan who paid them $100 for a CD when they were only asking for $10. They talk about hearing that their music helped someone deal with a loved one’s death, they talk about realizing people had traveled far just to see them perform, they talk about receiving art that fans had been inspired to create because of their music, they talk about getting to travel and meet people in different cultures. These are all social rewards and none of them rely on social media, though they often arrive through those means.
Fans engage in unpaid labor for social reasons rather than economic ones. In fact, they often view monetary compensation as devaluing what they do, which is common in fan communities. They do what they do for one another because they want to share the pleasure they take in the music. They also do it to build their own status in fan communities. They do it because it brings more music into their inbox. They do it because it’s a way to form social relationships with the artists they love. Sometimes they do it to build a base for a career in music themselves, and some do move on from running a fan site to working for the label, but it’s rarely intended from the get-go as a way to make money. Just as people in the music industries need to recognize the social values that matter in the music ecosystem, people who think about the work fans do as exploitation need to recognize and respect the social rewards that these fans receive and value in exchange for their labors. That said, the potential for exploitation is always there and is something everyone involved should be sensitive to.
Your current research has brought you into conversation with rock stars, singer-songwriters, and globetrotting DJs. Are there ways in which certain genres lend themselves better to this moment of transition/disruption?
It’s been hard to get a pulse on this, because even within genres people are having such different experiences. Genres that are already heavily technological (like electronica) or highly personal (like singer-songwriters) lend themselves better to this era, the former because they are already game for experimenting with technology and playing with technological mediation as a means of creating connection, the latter because there is already a sense of intimacy and personal connection between musician and listener. But it’s really more about the attitude of the individual musicians and the team of people they’re working with than about the kind of music they’re making. This moment serves people who like to socialize with strangers and acquaintances, it doesn’t serve people who prefer to be private and just make music. Those differences exist within as well as across genres.
How many times do we need to be SoundClowned before we get wise?
Back in late December, tellingly/suspiciously right in the midst of the holiday vacation lull, SoundCloud started sending out the same sort of automated take-down notices to its users that YouTube has been using for years. Mix-style DJs and remix producers found certain of their uploads suddenly removed from circulation. According to an innocuously named audio detection algorithm, the tracks in question were allegedly guilty of infringing copyrights in their unauthorized uses of particular recordings. (Let’s not get distracted, I suppose, by the already stretchy notion that any of these things are substitutable “copies.”)
As Larisa “Ripley” Mann noted in the immediate aftermath, it seemed especially ironic that a site that so clearly courted users from across various DJ/remix communities — and, in turn, benefited immensely from said users’ (promotional) use of the service — would turn around and attack one of its core constituencies.
It’s ironic, but it shouldn’t be surprising. Because SoundCloud, like any other for-profit venture, is first and foremost looking after its bottom-line, of course it doesn’t assume the burden of contesting any of these assertions. Rather, per the DMCA, in order to remain in “safe harbor” territory, it complies with the data-analysis and auto-serves takedown notices. (And to its credit, again following YouTube, the company at least alerts people to the possibilities of submitting a “counter notice.”) This is, of course, reasonable behavior by a commercial company seeking legal cover against a content industry that has been known to drive similar platforms into the ground. But it’s not the sort of stance that is going to make SoundCloud the people’s champion (and ubiquitous audio app) it would like to be.
Despite the bloggy/tweety fallout, however — again, see Ripley’s round-up — SoundCloud has hardly seen its image tarnished in the wider world: last month, just a week or so after the first SoundClownings came to light, it was announced that the company had raised $10M in venture capital, and just yesterday I saw reported that the site has grown by 50% in just the last three months, now exceeding 3 million users. Far as I know, none of the users who allegedly gathered “in 517 cities around the world” for a âGlobal Meetup Dayâ earlier this week voiced any sort of discontent.
And so we bear witness again to platform politricks at work — once more with chilling implications for everyday musical practice, global popular culture, “fair use,” and the public domain.
So what are those of us who want a better platform to do?
I’d say there are two main options, which we might think in terms of tactics vs. strategy: 1) continue to support and invest in SoundCloud while pushing for a more robust defense of fair use there; or 2) build something else, something more able to resist the corporate enclosure produced by overzealous, automatic, and often erroneous copyright litigation.
Here, I’m going to propose a little bit of both.
Amidst all the SoundClowning last month screenshots like the one above hardly seemed to present a reasonable set of choices for people who’d like to defend ordinary DJ/remix practice. All the assumptions are clearly running in the wrong direction. (“Recognized as”? “By mistake”? “Explicit permission”?)
Honestly, how is one supposed to respond? And how is one supposed to respond honestly? It’s not that the detection of the Blake track is a “mistake” exactly, but the assertion that the Blake track is tantamount to the whole of the upload is wrong. Moreover, implying that one must have “explicit permission” to use the Blake track presents a false and dangerous picture of the scope of fair use, radically restricting the realm of the legally permissible. Because this is how things are structured — as captured in the form above — there exist few practical alternatives for someone like gregb. He could file a counter notice and fight it, perhaps all the way to a costly and potentially bankrupting trial. (Is this really a practical alternative?) Or he can sit by and watch his mixes disappear one by one. C’est la net.
These issues aside, the screenshot invites us to reflect on how SoundCloud, and mixes like gregb’s, contributed to the rise of James Blake. (Is it just me, or is it extra ironic that Blake’s aesthetic push toward conventionality accompanies a rejection of experimentation at the level of music industry?) Or we might think about how SoundCloud served as a launching pad for someone like Munchi, who really did exploit the site as a kind of launching pad, now garnering thousands of hits on his uploads. I wonder if it’s only a matter of time before astounding efforts like Munchi’s breakout year in 2010 — aided and abetted by a great many samples used without permission — become an impossibility on SoundCloud, as the company is brought to heel under 20th-century copyright law while attempting to host 21st-century audio culture.
Of additional worry, as highlighted in this TechDirt post, is the question of whether we should assent to automated processes adjudicating the various downstream uses that our constitution protects by granting a “limited monopoly” to copyright holders. The author of the post, Mike Masnick, calls this the “Automated Diminishment Of Fair Use,” and I hope that sounds as scary to you as it does to me. Despite that the audio-detection algorithms have already proven error-prone and predictably grabby, we’re letting bots decide what is fair — or more to the point, what is not.
Should we really cede that ground? Is that a good trade-off for the network effects of a massive socially-networked media-sharing site? Plenty seem to think so, and act accordingly, even if their concession is implicit.
Ah, sample-based music in the age of algorithmic detection! Won’t this be fun. We can play it like the 1990s all over again, when torch-bearing “underground” sample-based hip-hop producers like Primo, in the wake of chilling litigation, managed to stay one step ahead of the system, taunting catalog companies with dusty samples that weren’t easily recognizable even by hired-gun sample-sniffing snitches. Here’s an open letter from 1998’s Moment of Truth that still resonates:
In that vein, I present to you a remix (or two) of the very James Blake track responsible for some recent disappearances on SoundCloud, as mashed-up with its source of inspiration, Feist’s original, in a couple different ways. (As it happens, I opened a SoundCloud account two years ago this month, but this is the first time I’m uploading something.)
In a gesture of fairness, if you will, I decided to make two versions of the Blake-Feist mashup, one that keeps intact the cover and bends the original toward it, and another that performs the opposite procedure. I like the idea of “honoring” both versions in this way. (They get to have their integrity and we get to eat them too!) I myself have a preference for slowed-down female voices over sped-up males, but I’ll be curious to hear if anyone prefers the Feisty, chipmunky Blake version.
Without further ago, here are a couple of those trademark orange waveform widgets:
A few technical notes, as always, about what I’ve done here:
1) the two versions are several semitones apart, but more or less the same tempo, so all it took was some pitching up of the Blake to meet the Feist, on the one hand, and some pitching down of the Feist to meet the Blake, on the other
2) as you can see in their Vimeo instantiations (Blakey | Feisty), I have, in each instance, left one of the tracks completely whole while applying as few cuts as possible to the other; this required relatively minimal surgery, as the only real difference, time-wise, was Blake’s inclination to stretch things out, as in the intro
3) the Feist track actually has a long-ish intro that I, following Blake, completely bypass on each mashup; I saw no reason to begin the Feisty version with a Blake-free minute of music, though I did, in a departure from my generally hands-off approach here, suture some of the Feist intro to the long, almost silent section of the Blake version (as you’ll see/hear)
I hope both mashups do the job of drawing the listener into the questions of form, interpretation, and affect raised by these subtly divergent but simultaneously-sounding renditions. Let me be clear: I’m not pretending that these remixes are necessarily aesthetic triumphs; indeed, I think they both get a little muddy half-way through, especially once Blake starts getting freaky with the bass — but that sort of disjuncture is precisely the sort of thing that mashups like these are so good at highlighting. As I’ve argued elsewhere, mashups can offer poignant, useful resources for classroom discussions of form and content, not to mention re-use and fair use, self and other, etc., and it is in the twin spirit of education and critical commentary that I defend these tracks if they happen to be sniffed out by some clumsy algorithmic audio-sleuth.
I’ll be curious to see whether my remixes can weather the sample-sniffing. I’ll be sure to keep you posted. Feel free to join me in a little bit of digital civil disobedience / remixxy fun!
Pro-tip: parodies are almost always a safe bet —
If I still have your attention, please allow me to briefly discuss plan B: i.e., rather than working from within SoundCloud — tactically, if you will — to resist spurious copyright policing, we instead seek a new way forward, a strategy for ensuring a certain sustainability and resilience for collective, interactive musical practice, for our peer-to-peer industry. Given the direction the White House appears to be heading with regard to “IP” and the increasingly pernicious and vicious legal tactics of the content industry, there is a clear and present need for better platforms on which to stage our shared culture.
Decentralization seems key. And it’s telling that much of the discussion in the wake of December’s SoundClownings came around to the obvious limits (despite the advantages) of massive corporate media-sharing sites. Channeling hip-hop in his own way, Timeblind reminded that “only toys buy their paint” and, hence, “pirates need to keep it on the D/L.” I hear him on that, but at the same time, I’m not comfortable ceding the high ground to the vested interests who have decided what is “piracy” and what is not.
what are other ways of having platforms of these kinds, which place their control in the hands of the folks who use them? and, more importantly, perhaps, what are ways of propagandizing these autonomous platforms, and of spreading the analysis that works against the continued use of the current corporate ones?
I’m wondering what it would require, technically, to start building decentralized control of our resources/platforms/online communities. What was the best, more successful aspects of an Imeem or Soundcloud + how can we start assembling + using alternatives?
In the week or two following the SoundClowned episode, a few of us were chatting about the different pieces necessary to the puzzle. Tim “Tones” Jones proposed some ideas over here, and we chatted a bit in the comments, but I’m sorry to say that, once again, the conversation has since tapered off.
I wonder, is it already too late to move from this moment? Has the iron cooled too much? That would be disappointing. As Rozele put it in a follow-up, “before some other corporate pseudo-solution starts lying to our friends,” we really need to answer some concrete questions, e.g.:
how many folks whoâre being evicted from SoundCloud will put up some cash to kick things off? and, more importantly, how many music-makers will commit to making this new space the only place to find their work online (or at least the primary one)?
There are, of course, major tradeoffs between scale and resiliency, and these same questions we’re asking of each other open into broader, current, critical debates about resiliency on the net. In this regard, we might see something like Wikileaks suggest some options for music culture in the embrace of an “alternative control structure.”
The comparison is not so far-fetched. See, for example, a recent piece by Clay Shirky, who trots it out:
Like the music industry, the government is witnessing the million-fold expansion of edge points capable of acting on their own, without needing to ask anyone for help or permission, and, like the music industry, they are looking at various strategies for adding control at intermediary points that were previously left alone, under the old model.
With dovetailing interests like these, maybe Somali pirate servers are our best bet after all.
Seriously, though, who’s gonna step up and build something? Are 4shared or Hulkshare the best we can do for scaling our (free) distro? Are pop-up ads and malware a necessary reality for the sort of peer-level music industry that seeks to evade capture? Do we really want to operate in a world where our own ideals, and values, and best practices must be compromised if we wish to continue making and sharing art on a global scale, in a public way? Must we be forced (back) underground, and coerced back into adopting practices that cut against our ethics, our desires to acknowledge as we build on the work of other musicians and artists and producers?
To return to Ripley (in a great follow-up post), there are deep implications for this sort of retreat-by-design:
Nameless reuse can erase the reality of difference, turning everything into a consumerist fantasy, where you don’t have to deal with the lived realities of different worlds and different lives.
Again, the big question is: will we rise to the occasion, and finally find a way to give the drummers some (and protect their legion interpreters), or will we continue to get clowned, and pawned, and toyed with?
orthogonal image copied from some website or other
I’ve been working on this monstruo post since last January, and hinting at it here and there, making it feel all the more urgent to finish though I haven’t had the time to tie it up. And yet, what has made finally publishing this post so hard is also what makes finishing it all the more pressing: the seemingly unending array of reasons to be suspicious and cautious toward the so-called “platforms” of the net.
The issue has, of course, come into more intense relief than perhaps ever before with the last weekâs commotion around Wikileaks and the way that what many of us understand as, in some sense, âpublicâ “platforms” hosting âfreeâ “speech” have been exposed as anything but public or free. But we’ve been following this plot for some time now, with ephemeral but irrepressible songs&dances serving up so many canaries in the coalmine. In other words, the so-called platforms falling out from under Wikileaks are the same ones that have been shifting beneath our footworking feet for years. Once again grassroots popular culture — as animated by music in particular — stands as a harbinger for a brave, new, and rather unstable future.
Clearly, mere vigilance will not suffice. New media literacies, even, only go so far. My aim here, then, is to reaffirm (with the support of many smart thinkers) that for those of us who see, hear, and feel a lot of promise in the participatory publics and creative, critical cultures that coalesce around certain websites and protocols, there is real need for action — toward bringing the most popular platforms to heel with regard to users’ demands and expectations of fairness, for one, but more importantly, toward a collective investment in self-determined and self-controlled architectures, where we can share in the value we ourselves create through the network effects of a critical massive.
While I don’t think I’m saying anything terribly new here, as my reliance on the writers below attests, I do think music plays a remarkable role in these matters and can offer an instructive, persuasive thread through this tangled web. Moreover, I’m interested in synthesizing various debates in recent technology and media studies for the music-centered conversation (esp for participants and practitioners — namely, many of you who read this blog).
IMEEM, IâM SAYIN
For some time now, my research has felt increasingly like sorting through a disturbed graveyard, names and dates scraped off tombstones, everything scattered if not missing.
Weâve all seen blogs and blogposts and videos disappear, often thanks to specious legal challenges. Even more troubling, weâve seen entire media ecosystems, such as imeem or Jamglue, succumb to the sudden slash and burn of corporate logic, which cares little for what we might celebrate as cultural vitality.
Many imeem users were shocked and dismayed when MySpace, after acquiring the site in a copyright-hobbled firesale (for reportedly under $1M), suddenly nuked it without warning. They promised post-facto to let users “transfer” their media over to the misguidedly redesigned MySpace Music, but this turned out to be true only for the sort of corporate-owned content that proved to be imeemâs downfall (in the form of unauthorized uploads impossible to monetize to the satisfaction of certain record labels). The substantial amount of independently produced and remixed music on imeem, which is what drew me and so many there in the first place, simply disappeared into the e-ther.
Whatâs striking is how much more vibrant imeem was as a musical-cultural space than MySpace Music or Facebook could ever be — precisely because it was so unruly. For some time, it stood as a remarkable platform for musically-organized social networks, musically-animated public conversations, and the peer-based, non-commercial sharing of worlds upon worlds of music.
I mean it when I say imeem was amazing: I often found myself drawn into a veritable maze of media there. As a somewhat self-contained (but outwardly connected & embedded) media ecology, it managed to become a willynilly archive for all kinds of audio (YouTube now largely fills this function, of course), and it networked a variety of vibrant publics (e.g., juke publics, Trini publics, West Indian publics, Caribbeanist publics, nu-whirled publics, and so on).
Unfortunately, especially from a research/advocacy perspective, unlike the more widely mourned and archived Geocities, no one seems to have mirrored imeem â or even get decent screenshots. More recently, a similar site, Jamglue, which also offered users the ability to (re)mix tracks online, joined imeem in the web2.0 scrapheap (though that metaphor fails to capture the utter lack of scraps left behind). At least in this case, there was a little notice, leaving me enough time to get some screengrabs. A glance at the number of jerkin mixes and tracks in circulation at the time of the site’s shuttering, most of them home-produced, is impressive:
This disappearance of archives, of crucial contextual data, is a product of “preferred” protocols as dictated by Big Copyright. Flash-based media are not so easily archived. (Had torrent technology triumphed in the battle over critically-massive streaming media, we likely wouldn’t be having the same problems.) And the sort of ad-hoc archiving that perseveres in an age of flash-media — save something here, fave something there — will hardly help us to reconstruct some of the most important information we lose when sites like imeem go under (whether data or “metadata”). Even if many of us take the trouble to download an FLV file or rip some other format from it, that’s hardly the same sort of preservation as one that would keep intact the broader contextual framework for any particular instantiation of audio or video. When platforms go poof, a lot more disappears than awesome dance vids.
Following a host of media scholars, we might productively (if provisionally) think of all this contextual data — interfaces, playlists, connections, conversations, and records of embeds and changes and the like — and to the careful cultivation it calls for, as constituting a particular site’s ecology (which, of course, is itself embedded in other ecologies, not to mention situated in various topographies). Thinking about media in terms of âecologiesâ or âtopographiesâ can help us to understand the implications of the so-called “architectures of participation” that increasingly structure social connectivity and cultural production. Such biological and spatial metaphors suggest modes of interplay as well as types of terrain, as shaped by particular affordances & constraints.
It is instructive to note how the distinctive design and address of Fotolog, for example, facilitated the efflorescence of flogger culture in Argentina and beyond. No less a spokesperson than the de facto leader of the floggers, a tomgirl photogenic who calls herself Cumbio, has discussed the signal differences of certain socially-networked media-sharing sites, and how they can seem inviting in certain ways, or not:
âFacebook asks your religion, your eye color, your relationship status,â she explains, âWe donât ask any of those things. We floggers just accept people as they are. We say, âShow yourself.â And we accept you.â
Floggers may be an extreme example in this regard; after all, they’re named after their preferred platform for a reason. But given such a clearly constitutive relation, we might wonder about the implications, say, for a substantial shift away from Fotolog (in Argentina, at least) in the wake of increasing inroads by Facebook:
Given the important irruptions of the public sphere that floggers staged in Argentina and across Latin America, we might find a statistical plunge like that worrisome. When we talk about disappearing platforms, we’re also talking about disappearing people. And in reflecting on various kinds of âdisappearing peopleâ on the net, from bloggers to floggers to subjects of extraordinary renditions that never get leaked, I inevitably start thinking of this as a serious collective action problem.
For some time, including rather explicitly on this here blog (sheesh — that post is nearly 4 years old!), weâve been bearing witness to, and bemoaning, the effects and losses associated with this relocation of public culture to the corporate net. But we haven’t done much at all to change the status quo.
âIS OUR CHILDREN LEARNING?â
After my âSkinny Jeans and Fruity Loopsâ talk last year, the ever-sharp Chrysaora asked me the silly but poignant question above. At the time, she was working at MITâs Center for Future Civic Media, and my concerns about public music-and-dance culture on the web clearly resonated with the underlying issues theyâve been exploring there. My answer was, simply, no. Savvy as they clearly are, I donât generally see a lot of young people (or older folks, really, myself & peers & forbears included) employing what we might call a strategic approach to culture on the net; rather, it would better be described as tactical.
But alas, moving relatively unhindered from imeem to the next thing, or ignoring âwatermarksâ from demo/unauthorized software — essentially privileging, as I’ve put it elsewhere, “participation, immersion and immediacy” — is not what activist-artists usually have in mind when they talk about “tactical media.” The sort of tactics we behold on web2.0 may represent a form of subversion, in a sense, but they hardly constitute an intervention.
As I attempted to trace out in the “Sounds of the Wide, Wired World,” what we see and hear on the net offers ground for celebration. And yet, the audible and visible aesthetic traces of our compromised ability to freely share the fruits of collective creativity also remind us that we’re building our cultural heritage on shaky foundations. They may even highlight what Siva Vaidhyanathan, in his forthcoming The Googlization of Everything, would call a “public failure.”
Clearly, this predicament is far from ideal. “Kids these days” enjoy an effervescent, exciting, but deeply compromised public culture. Which, among other things, gives the lie to facile celebrations of “millennials” or “digital natives” as inherently or naturally equipped to navigate this brave new world. Take, for example, David Parry’s warnings about assuming far more digital literacy on the part of our students (and brothers and sisters and sons and daughters) than is warranted:
I do not mean here to suggest all of that nonsense about digital natives versus non-digital natives; indeed I am actually suggesting something quite the opposite: students are not digital natives who possess some unique set of skills whereby they can magically manipulate the network and gadgets to do whatever they want with outstanding acumen, rather that students are for the large part unreflective about the way they use these network technologies, and what is more are unreflective about the ways in which their use (or our use) has already been historically determined and shaped, an unreflective response which gives up power and control over to these systems.
And yet, as important a reminder as this is, the critique of naive kids and their crummy tactics can also go too far, as in the elitist screeds of Andrew Keen, Mark Bauerlein, or Jaron Lanier. As pointed out in a pointed critique in Pop Matters, such rants tend to miss out on a lot of what does drive this stuff — the sort of thing I’ve celebrated here again and again, the stuff of music as social life:
The implication of Lanierâs argument is that people are motivated to create only by rewards rather than by the pleasure of creation or participation itself, an assertion belied by Web 2.0 voluntarism. âIn the open culture future, your creativity and expression would also be unpaid, since you would be a volunteer in the army of the long tail. That would leave nothing for you.â
Nothing, that is, except the pleasure that stems from creative work itself, the solidarity that derives from participation, the satisfaction of contributing useful social labor, and the expanded potential for recognition expressed in non-monetary terms.
This calls attention to the importance of understanding what motivates people to do what they do (and hence opens up important space for ethnography). The question of motivation came into fine focus, at least for bloggers, with last February’s so-called “musicblogocide” (which also extended to such seemingly unlikely targets as insouciant teen fashion blogs).
Among those that moved, some offered poignant testimony about what they do and why they take umbrage at having their platform unjustly pulled out from under them. Allow me to quote Masalaâs manifesto-like response to Blogger in some length:
– At Masala we believe that music, like culture and art at large, is a mix of influences and is largely derivative. No artist is creating anything from scratch. We also believe that if the copyright laws (DMCA) prevent culture and music from circulating and being reinterpreted and mix, weâre moving towards a monolithic culture (to the economic benefit of a few).
– The music weâre promoting here is the incarnation of this idea. Itâs often music made by young people wired to the world through internet or 1st, 2nd or 3rd generation immigrants. People who are inventing themselves through and with the world theyâre living in, trying to connect their local tradition and history with what they receive from the outside.
– We believe that by posting MP3s on this blog, weâre encouraging people to broaden their horizons, be curious and open minded about other peoples music and in the case itâs possible, (and itâs often not possible), to buy the music, support the artist and the people who made it possible to circulate.
– Donât believe the hype, every download is not a theft or one less sale. Music lovers have a pretty limited bank account. But do support art when you can! Recording music industry is shifting and doesnât make as much money as they used to and on the other hand, the music industry at large is doing ok (publishing, shows, merchandising, sponsorship etc.).
This resonates righteously with Larisa Mann’s (aka, DJ Ripley’s) notion of “saving the world” (a phrasing that also evokes archives), by which she means to underscore how music blogs, regardless of the platform on which theyâre hosted, are an important part of the cultural ecology of popular music and the forms of sociability that grow up around it —
Masalacism is a perfect example of music-making, in that the blog is part of the conditions for my favorite music, it creates the possibility of audience for/creation of music variously rooted in geographically and socially distant scenes.
I’m talking about music as a social practice, not music as a recording or a particular moment frozen in time or on paper. Masalacism makes music involving actors from all over the world, it draws them together and opens lines of communication between people, places, scenes, who might not get to know of each other in any other way. This is some of the best music-making there is, in my opinion. I love the specific &local, juxtaposed with other specific & local, to make a kind of conversation between localities and experiences, when music does this well, it also does this for the bodies &minds of people involved, bringing them into conversation or dance with each other, physically or mentally or both. Which is part of saving the world, kind of, or at least getting us there.
How do we save a world that can disappear behind a URL redirect in the blink of an eye? In the long term, we need to build better platforms; in the short term, we need to proceed with far more suspicion when that term gets so loosely thrown around.
In a recent article, Tarleton Gillespie discusses the politics of ‘platform’, arguing that the term serves as an effective bit of rhetorical judo to do the delicate job of knitting together the multiple constituencies of sites like YouTube — among them, the uneasy triad of professional content producers, advertisers, and end-users (that’s us, pretty much, though I hate being called a user, esp when I’m actually a product). For Gillespie, “This is where the discursive work is most vital.” He continues,
Intermediaries like YouTube must present themselves strategically to each of these audiences, carve out a role and a set of expectations that is acceptable to each and also serves their own financial interests, while resolving or at least eliding the contradictions between them. … Curiously, tropes like âplatformâ seem to work across these discourses â in fact, the real value of this term may be that it brings these discourses into alignment without them unsettling each other.
More specifically, Gillespie notes that
The term âplatformâ helps reveal how YouTube and others stage themselves for these constituencies, allowing them to make a broadly progressive sales pitch while also eliding the tensions inherent in their service: between user-generated and commercially produced content, between cultivating community and serving up advertising, between intervening in the delivery of content and remaining neutral.
And yet — and you saw this coming? — for Gillespie, portraying itself as a platform “is a claim that arguably misrepresents the way YouTube and other intermediaries really shape public discourse online.” Gillespie’s use of the term “intermediaries” is important, for he argues that sites like YouTube, or in his own words “a handful of video platforms, search engines, blogging tools, and interactive online spaces,” have become — for better or for worse (for better and for worse?) — “the primary keepers of the cultural discussion as it moves to the Internet.”
Hosting the public conversation on private, commercial “platforms” is problematic for any number of reasons. One of the primary ones — and the one most salient for me — being that our shared culture (especially in the form of recorded sound and video), and all the discourse in and around it, is not only constantly vulnerable to cooptation and exploitation — worrisome as those are — but to outright disappearance. This is problematic from an archival/heritage perspective as well as for anyone interested in contemporary practices, politics/publics, and the chilling effects constraining the creation and circulation of the (peer-to-peer) popular culture of the 21st century.
Without needing to get so romantic about it (e.g., invoking das volk), we would do well to consider the framing offered by Yochai Benkler in chapter 8 of Wealth of Networks, which concerns the power of peer-production: âFrom the perspective of liberal political theory,” writes Benkler, “the kind of open, participatory, transparent folk culture that is emerging in the networked environment is normatively more attractive than was the industrial cultural production system typified by Hollywood and the recording industry.” He is quick to caution, though, that, “We cannot, however, take for granted that the technological capacity to participate in the cultural conversation, to mix and make our own, will translate into the freedom to do so. The practices of cultural and counter-cultural creation are at the very core of the battle over the institutional ecology of the digital environmentâ (277).
It should probably go without saying that the biggest threat to continuing the “cultural conversation” on our own terms is the hammer of copyright being wielded by Big Media companies — and more recently, in the case of Wikileaks, by the US government — to force compliance from the corporations who are hosting more and more of our socially-networked digital culture. In Benkler’s words: âthe tension between the industrial model of cultural production and the networked information economy is nowhere more pronounced than in the question of the degree to which the new folk culture of the twenty-first century will be permitted to build upon the outputs of the twentieth-century industrial modelâ (300).
Allow me to quote him at a little more length (as appropriate for Yochai ;) —
In this battle, the stakes are high. One cannot make new culture ex-nihilo. We are as we are today, as cultural beings, occupying a set of common symbols and stories that are heavily based on the outputs of that industrial period. If we are to make this culture our own, render it legible, and make it into a new platform for our needs and conversations today, we must find a way to cut, paste, and remix present culture.
On the other hand, lest technoptimism run away with the spoon, in a provocative article about what he dubs our emergent “network culture,” Kazys Varnelis contends that if âappropriation was a key aspect of postmodernism, network culture almost absentmindedly uses remix as its dominant processâ (150). The effect is to invite the tentacles of capital into everything we do, via legal capture and a certain subtle, insidious consumerism:
But such peer-to-peer production also faces challenges. Chief among these is new legislation by existing media conglomerates aiming to extend the scope of their copyright and prevent the creation of derivative work. Even if advocates of the free circulation of cultural goods are successful in challenging big media, it is still unclear if the burgeoning fan culture is critical, or if it only re-inscribes, to a degree that Guy Debord could not have envisioned, the colonization of everyday life by capital, with debates about resistance replaced by debates about how to remix objects of consumption. Furthermore, the possibility of consumers not only consuming media but producing it for the (new) media outlets suggests the possibility of new, hitherto unanticipated forms of exploitation.
FREE CULTURE, FREE LABOR
In an attempt to debunk the all too uncritical embrace of web 2.0 rhetoric in the tech conversation, Trebor Scholz charges that:
âA fine example of the Web 2.0 Ideology,â writes Scholz, âis immaterial free labor,â which he calls âa fairly unpopular and very complex subject.â But he gives it a shot:
The Web makes people easier to use. By âsurfingâ it, people serve their virtual hosts and they are not unhappy about it. Online, service platforms rather than products are offered, and users are encouraged to participate, communities become the brand.
Itâs precisely this scare-quotable way of âsurfingâ the net that inspires Astra Taylorâs recent critique of the myriad ways weâre actually âserfing the net.â For Taylor, the key bit of deception is with the word âfree,â namely that it excites both the technoptimistic âfree cultureâ kids as well as the rapacious capitalists eager to have “pirates do the work of mass marketers, while industry pretends to defend the very artists they have exploited for so long”:
Where free is concerned, weâre typically told that âthe kids,â impatient and entitled, want their culture this instant and will not pay a dime, so theyâve embraced piracy. But the young pirates arenât really leading a mass insurrection; theyâre a symbol or a scapegoat employed to obscure a larger struggle about culture and valueâand in whose pocket that value accumulates. The owners of social networking sites may be forbidden from selling individual songs posted by members, but the companies themselves, including user content, can be turned over for a hefty sum: almost $900 million for Bebo and far more for YouTube. Google doesnât see the mammoth archive of books it currently hopes to digitize as a priceless treasure to be preserved; itâs a trove of content to sprinkle with banner ads. Google, as Chris Anderson points out many times, succeeds because of an almost unfathomable economy of scale; each free search brings revenue from targeted advertising and fodder for the data miners: each mouse click is a trickle in the flood. Technology writer Nicholas Carr and others call this âdigital sharecroppingâ: Itâs not that the production or distribution of culture has been concentrated in the hands of the few â itâs the cultureâs economic value. Somebodyâs got a massive financial interest in free, and itâs not the people uploading footage of kittens to Vimeo.
Given all this talk of serfing, itâs no surprise that feudal metaphors appear to be proliferating in critical discourse about the current state of the net. Matteo Pasquinelli offers up âdigital neofeudalismâ to call attention to the alarming trend whereby the utopias of the net have shifted âfrom self-organised media to generic activism on corporate platforms with their closed code and protocols,â a provocative parallel to Jodi Deanâs critique of activism in an age of âcommunicative capitalism.â For Pasquinelli, digital neofeudalism describes
the polarised scenario where few landlords owns the whole infrastructure of communication (hardware layer, protocol layer, meta-data layer, social network layer) and face a multitude of cognitive workers forced to âcreativityâ.
profit is the income made selling commodities, rent is the income made by a monopolistic exploitation of spaces. In feudal times, it was the exploitation of land cultivated by farmers, in the internet age itâs the exploitation of the immaterial spaces cultivated by cultural producers, prosumers and the notorious Free Culture.
And while I’m not nearly as cynical and I might take issue with Pasquinelli’s use of music as an example — I’m not sure the situation is “squeezed” for more musicians now than a decade ago; the myth of a middle-class of musicians better off under Big Music is one that really needs debunking — taking a big picture view, with the idea of a hamstrung 21st century (popular, p2p) culture in the balance, this is a necessary and bracing critique.
Itâs a little dispiriting, to say the least, that this harrowing specter was raised at least a decade ago. In an article called “Free Labor” (pdf | html), first published back in 2000, Tiziana Terranova argues that, if I may update her argument a bit, the kids on web2.0 “are not working only because capital wants them to; they are acting out a desire for affective and cultural production.” For Terranova, “Free labor is the moment where this knowledgeable consumption of culture is translated into productive activities that are pleasurably embraced and at the same time often shamelessly exploited.”
She also speaks to the particular predicament of such collectively produced fields as fashion and music:
If knowledge is inherently collective, it is even more so in the case of the postmodern cultural economy: music, fashion, and information are all produced collectively but are selectively compensated. Only some companies are picked up by corporate distribution chains in the case of fashion and music; only a few sites are invested in by venture capital. However, it is a form of collective cultural labor that makes these products possible even as the profit is disproportionately appropriated by established corporations.
Recently, a number of artists, writers, bloggers, etc., in sectors like fashion, are picking up on this, um, thread. And clearly, a large number of artistsdesign workers also agree with this perspective, feeling more and more like assembly-line workers in a precarious world of rapid deskilling, reskilling, and unsatisfying work.
I like the Rasta term ‘politricks’ for its slip-tongued critique: in a Babylon system, politics is rigged so better to turn to (and invest in) culture, to various practical toolkits for dealing with, persevering under, and triumphing over Babylonian fuckery. But what happens when that culture to which we’ve turned gets folded back into what Peter Tosh dubbed the shitstem? And where does a total retreat leave us? (All too often, it seems to pave the road not for independence but for exploitation.)
The irrepressible DailyMotion so embodied by youthful (net-abetted) dance crazes tells me, again and again, that the genie’s out of the bottle. They can’t shove it back in. But they can try to build a bigger bottle. And call it a platform.
THE FUTURE OF MUSIC âŠ AND HOW TO STOP IT
Against this creepy, creeping context, some suggest that âweb 3.0â might well be conceptualized as a âgrand retreat back to our own servers.â
But will this vision of an interconnected independence prevail, or will it be a ZuckerBorgian colonization of the net as we know it? Given what Iâve sketched out above, the specter of a âsecond Internetâ should be a scary one–
Facebook, with the private information of over 350 million members, now constitutes what Wired magazine has called a “second Internet.” By encouraging members to bring their Facebook settings with them onto the rest of the Web, Zuckerberg hopes to take this new Internet, with its pretensions to privacy, and place it at the foundation of the old one.
While Zuckerberg’s ambition to reduce the experience of the Internet to a more human scale should be applauded, his site, despite its recent openness, prevents users from transferring their information to other social networks — a restriction, considering the huge time and effort many members put into their profiles, akin to prohibiting homeowners from packing up their houses and moving elsewhere. Moreover, with the site’s huge database of personal information and its hopes to profit from highly targeted ads, Facebook creates its own surveillance problems. If anything, Zuckerberg looks, in some distant but discernible way, like the Robert Moses of the Internet, bringing severe order to a chaotic milieu.
Facebook’s OpenGraph indicates that they’re moving away from the walled garden approach toward simply being one’s portal to the web (like AOL 2.0), but the fact is, there’s an increasing amount of self-censorship in the ever-expansive realm of Facebook. And that’s not great for the kind of unruly culture that many of us prize.
As far as silver-linings go, the Robert Moses reference above makes me wonder: if Facebook is the Cross-Bronx Expressway of the Internet, what sort of hip-hop will emerge from under its overpasses and beyond its walls? What kinds of cultures will thrive in the corners of the net, unhindered by auto-takedowns and the prying eyes of parents and employers?
This degree of dominance, Facebook’s increasing mediation of the internet itself, opens up the idea that Facebook resembles a utility and perhaps, as danah boyd argues, it should be regulated as such:
If Facebook is a utility — and I strongly believe it is — the handful of people who are building cabins in the woods to get away from the evil utility companies are irrelevant in light of all of the people who will suck up and deal with the utility to live in the city. This is going to come down to regulation, whether we like it or not.
Iâd advocate turning social networks into public utilities to better hew it towards the Bill of Rights, but not in a country that passes the Patriot Act. Weâll have to wait until the revolution comes to nationalize Facebook. And by that point, lots of people wonât even be able to afford the internet.
But why expropriate when we can innovate? That’s what Mark Andrejevic suggests with regard to YouTube — or more to the point, suggests that YouTube, as a commercial venture, may never become the platform it promises to be:
The objective is data-driven control: the channeling of usersâ own activity to further a goal arrived at neither through shared participation not conscious deliberation: that of increasingly accelerated consumption. âŠ That the offer of a platform for ânon-estrangedâ production might threaten this goal constitutes the contradiction at the heart of YouTubeâs marketing plan, and helps explain the ambivalence and even hostility of commercial content providers toward âamateurâ content. They want the user-generated data without the user-generated content. If sites like Hulu start to gain large and loyal followings, they may well succeed, and in so doing demonstrate that the more appropriate infrastructure for a site like YouTube may not be commercial, but collectively owned and operated.
It’s been all too easy to let corporate enterprise host our collective culture. We didn’t know some of these things were possible, and we didn’t necessarily have the critical capital to bring such things into being. But this is a devil’s bargain we’re making. Certainly we can do better. The network effects of critical mass constitutes a great proportion of the value that we bring to these sites (user-generated data, as opposed to user-generated content, pace Andrejevic). But when will our critical mass become a truly critical mass?
At least in the near term, one way, among many, to address the issue of control (and hence stability/sustainability) is what some have called “virtual rights management” (and hence, activism, architecture, self-determination). Along these lines, see, e.g., the Berkman-related Project VRM (and Doc Searls’s emphasis on internet geology), as well as the Mine! Project (about), or the badly-named but well-meaning Diaspora, or the fledgling Poyozo. If any of these gain serious steam, they can create a serious opening.
While we’re at it, as Kevin Driscoll asked many months ago, who wants to start a broadband collective?
To return to the words of Jace Clayton, let us commence our grand retreat —
NO SURRENDER, NO DELETE
Or, as he put it elsewhere and with regard to something else:
The key is openness. Together we can make everything last.
Last week a daily newspaper from Abu Dhabi, The National, published a piece I wrote about “nu world” music under the title “Sounds of the wide, wired world” (29 Oct 2010). As usual, while I think my editor — here, the mighty Dave Stelfox — did an utterly admirable job of making my prolix prose ring pretty damn clear, it still feels weird for stuff to fall under my byline that didn’t come directly from this horse’s mouth. And there are lots of words and phrases and names and things that I’d rather like to cram back in. So as with other things I’ve written for newspapers and magazines, I’m providing here at W&W a “director’s cut” (which nonetheless preserves many of Dave’s careful cuts and amendments). Thx again, Dave!
Sounds of the wide, wired world
In the autumn of 2009, Dave Nada, a Washington DC-based DJ, was playing a midday party in a basement for his cousin and a couple dozen of his high-school-skipping friends. The DJs preceding Nada warmed up the room with bachata and reggaeton: mid-tempo dance music from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico that offered deep, familiar grooves to the Latino crowd.
At 32, Nada was the oldest person at the party, and more of a techno/electro guy. In a flash of inspiration, he decided to drop something out of the ordinary on his young audience. Afrojack’s remix of Silvio Ecomo & Chuckie’s “Moombah” – a typical example of Dutch “dirty house” – already had all the elements of a reggaeton club banger: thumping kick drums, piercing synth-lines, cut-and-paste party chants, and a distinctly Caribbean cross-rhythm in the snares. The only problem was that it was too fast. To make the track fit the vibe of the gathering, Nada reduced its speed by 20 beats per minute. This simple adaptation sent the kids into a frenzy.
Unexpectedly, it also birthed a new genre that embodies a much broader phenomenon: a reclamation and redefinition of global street music for the internet age that we might call world music 2.0. Spurred by the success of his experiment, Nada recorded an MP3 edit of his Afrojack remix and constructed several more slowed-down interpretations of house tracks. These were circulated on the internet, representing a sound that its creator, perhaps not entirely seriously, dubbed “moombahton.” Ever hungry for the new, the global dance music blogosphere seized upon this strange, hybrid sound. By March of this year, Nada had been featured on the website of The Fader magazine; by summer he was running a popular weekly club night, Moombahton Mondays, in DC.
Back in the Netherlands, meanwhile, an aspiring producer stumbled upon Nada’s work during a routine trawl of the web. Like the kids at the party, he was floored. A 20-year-old Dominican, born and raised in Rotterdam, Rayiv “Munchi” MĂŒnch was a long-time fan of bachata and merengue, especially a recent streetwise version of the latter, known as mambo; Dutch bubbling – a mid-1990s collision of hyperspeed gabba techno and Jamaican dancehall; and hip-hop of all kinds. In moombahton, however, he heard a new future for reggaeton, a genre he loved but believed had become creatively stagnant.
He worked all night long, emerging the next morning with a digital “promo” package of five new songs. Rather than editing pre-existent tracks, Munchi built his productions from the ground up. Using samples from his ecumenical music collection, he injected influences from Brazilian funk carioca, Angolan kuduro, Latin American cumbia and more. In April, he wrote to a number of bloggers, myself included, to share his music. Over the next few months he maintained a prolific work rate, producing 50 tracks in all and releasing concept-driven online promo packs every four weeks. These circulated rapidly via blogs, tweets, and the SoundCloud account where he streams them and provides links for free downloads, either there or at free (but ad-riddled), temporary âdigital lockersâ such as MediaFire.
The feedback loop doesn’t stop there. In just the last month DJ Orion, a producer from Austin, Texas, uploaded 30 tracks to his BandCamp site (where customers are asked to pay as much or as little as they like to download the music), in a style he is calling “boombahchero.” Many of the songs are second-generation interpretations of Nada’s and Munchi’s remixes. However, Orion has gone a step further, infusing his edits with the strains of Mexican tribal guarachero, an emergent form of electronic dance music mixing cumbia, techno, and a distinctive triple-time swing – often produced by teenagers, the genre has been making the rounds recently as the latest local fusion of global elements to resound more widely than, say, the clubs and communities in Monterrey and Mexico City where it sounds right at home.
These interconnected stories form but one knotty vignette in the wider narrative of world music 2.0. Largely brought together online, this tangle of diverse street-level sounds is bound by common tools and shared reference points. Its accelerated interactive pace is driven by the proliferation of accessible music and video-production software, and the connective possibilities of the social web or, in marketing parlance, web 2.0 – the key feature of which is the explosion of networked platforms that enable anyone with access to publish their music and dance moves to a limitless audience. Needless to say, this is precisely what thousands of young people are doing.
The commonplace use of cracked or demo software in many of world music 2.0’s more rough-hewn productions produces a patina of piracy, an unintentional but marked aesthetic effect that privileges participation, immersion and immediacy. On YouTube, Colombian teens dodge “Free Trial Version” watermarks as they do a modified Melbourne shuffle at the local mall. Robotic voices interrupt homespun raps from Los Angeles to remind us that weâre listening to music made with unlicensed programs. Pop-up ads piggyback on the networked DailyMotion of young people across the Francophone world trying on and showing off the latest steps from the tecktonik and logobi scenes. Chains of compression lend a sizzle to MP3s of reggaeton and Baltimore club music, filled with uncleared samples and made everywhere from the Dominican Republic to Romania.
Because most of this activity happens on corporate “platforms,” the unruly openness of online enterprise is constantly vulnerable to the caprice of bottom-line logic and rearguard legal attacks from twentieth-century copyright giants. Videos disappear regularly, sniffed out by audio-detection algorithms. Entire sites vanish overnight. In the last year alone, imeem and Jamglue, two popular audio-streaming sites which played host to such burgeoning scenes as Chicagoâs juke and LAâs jerk, suddenly shuttered, falling prey to licensing nightmares and hostile takeovers. Down the ether hole with them went thousands of conversations, personal playlists, home-produced gems, and peer-to-peer connections.
But who cares about quality control or posterity? Clearly not the kids who keep uploading. They’re hacking their way through contemporary media ecologies, motivated more by making and doing than by legal strictures or commercial profit. The result is a vivid picture of a truly global youth culture. Kids doing what kids always have done: dancing, performing, goofing around. The difference is that they now broadcast it to the world – if often as an afterthought, the result of default settings that encourage openness.
Public culture is being remade by all this so-called “user-generated content,” including the ever curious category of âworld music.â In some contrast to its creation by a consortium of British music-industry players in the 1980s to market recordings that represented musical traditions of the non-western world, a multinational network of grassroots producers, DJs, and bloggers are now renegotiating and redefining this freighted yet inclusive term.
Their work embraces a fluid but thoroughly urbanized idea of worldliness. The stylistic signposts of world music 2.0 are utterly contemporary, grounded not in traditional instrumentation but the ubiquitous structures of hip-hop, reggae and house. The music’s themes are more often than not as unvarnished as its sound: sex, social domination and the travails of life in the big city – be it London, Johannesburg or Rio. Nonetheless, and more than likely as a direct result of this fact, it resonates widely.
A wealth of websites have sprung up, bringing these far flung sounds together. On Ghetto Bassquake (London), Generation Bass (Tilberg, Holland), Dutty Artz (New York) and many others, New Orleans bounce, Colombian champeta, Jamaican dancehall, desi bhangra and South African house all find common ground. Many of these sites have also become record labels, releasing music from and inspired by urban dance scenes from around the world – and around the corner.
A prime example is Dave Quam’s It’s After the End of the World, an open-eared blog from Chicago focused on the city’s juke scene but often extending its remit to Dutch bubbling and Memphis rap. Quam launched a digital label called Free Bass last month by giving away a three-song EP by Cedaa. A teenager from the small city of Bellingham, Washington, Cedaa’s music takes flight from juke’s stuttering drum machinery and adds a certain, synthesised Pacific Northwest pastoral. It’s glorious stuff that could only have happened now.
As the vibrancy and resiliency of youth culture from the inner-cities of the world inspires urbane curators and globe-trotting DJs, it animates another new strain of world music: Trinidadian soca filtered through Montreal’s Ghislain Poirier, funk carioca via MIA and Diplo, the cumbia of Buenos Aires’ slums recontextualised by the uptown crew ZZK. In a sense, this slicker, commercially released music by savvy interpreters of the Global North recalls the earlier, successful mediations of Paul Simon and David Byrne – albeit rather more modestly, at least in terms of sales.
Informed by the diasporic settings that so many cities have become, the “bottom-up” revision of world music is a valuable development, offering new ways of engaging with the world, often undergirded by intimate, everyday experiences of cosmopolitan conviviality. However, certain queasy connections with its earlier incarnation also persist. Despite the necessary translation and filtering provided by metropolitan mediators, the xenophily animating their work can cloak familiar fetishes of otherness in slum chic.
Another name for world music 2.0, in this regard, might be “global ghettotech” – a term I floated on my blog a few years ago, hoping its implicit critique would be clear. Surprisingly, it has since been unironically embraced by a number of artists and entrepreneurs across Europe and the Americas. The ghetto remains a major signpost in this new world, but its romanticization or exploitation as a signifier of edginess, especially by those not of it, will always create tensions. Teamed with a recent embarrassment of tropical tropes and neo-tiki motifs, it’s almost enough to return us full circle to hearing the world as kitschy exotica rather than the noise next door.
Fortunately, critiques are not the sole preserve of critics. They can come in musical form, too. In June a New York/Vancouver collective called Old Money, with Jamaican, Guyanese and Polish membership, posted a track to SoundCloud called African Kids! A sardonic send-up of the use of generic African imagery, it fits seemingly random lyrical fragments – “shapes, colours, African kids!” – to a bass-wobbling beat that nods to several recent UK dance genres all at once. The only tag added to the track reads “TribalTribalAfricanKidzzz,” a lyric in the song. It was amusing, but also discomfiting. Old Money sent it around to the usual network of websites and blogs, some of whom had helped hype their previous recordings. No one wanted to touch it. Perhaps it hit a bit too close to home. Or maybe it’s not such a brave new world after all.