Amazingly — given I didn’t know it has existed for a decade — my mellow Marvin Hall dropped a YouTube bomb last night in a comment on my recent re-post, “School Bell Nuh Ring“: he actually has video of the awesome impromptu dancehall freestyle session that the students from St. Andrew’s broke into on the day that we visited the school while a teacher’s strike loomed large. Check it out!
I just love this for so many reasons: they’re being clever, having fun, amusing themselves, teasing the teachers, riffing on a Shabba Ranks tune in fine DJ tradition, and using the simple but totally sufficient accompaniment of a soda bottle banging out that ol’ 3+3+2.
Here’s the Shabba track that inspired their cipher. Even though it was already over 10 years old, you can see why the tune — and the video — would still be so resonant for Jamaican school kids back in 2003:
Marvin’s the guy responsible for bringing me into Jamaican schools back then, including to Camperdown, where he formerly taught and where the segment below was shot. He also provided the link to RETV, which was an especially exciting institution in Jamaica in the pre-YouTube days, finally offering a platform for local videos in an MTV and BET dominated media landscape.
The video catches me toward the end of our 6-month sojourn on Hope Road, one product of which was my dissertation (which I’m planning to finally post here soon), another was Boston Jerk, and another was, as you’ll see, a rather skinny me — a downright mawga man in local parlance. Quite a trip, e?
The first time one of my daughters said “internet,” I was deeply curious about what she might understand it to be. So I asked. Here’s how it went down:
“Did you get it on the internet?”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m just saying ‘internet.’ … Internet.”
It was an awesome bit of backpedaling, but it’s not like Nico didn’t know what she was talking about. Surely I had told her many times before that I was getting some video or other “on the internet” (although this time I was just searching for an mp4 on our harddrive).
Of course, defining “the internet” in plain terms is no simple task, even/especially for experts — never mind elected officials (for whom even the proposal of a relatively reasonable metaphor, say a “series of tubes,” can lead to eternal ridicule).
Anyway, as tweeted, we had occasion yesterday to revisit the exchange. This time both Nico and Charlie offered up awesome answers — with no evasions — and I even got it all on video!
As we were getting back in our car after lunch at a local diner, Charlie asked me if I wanted to buy a newspaper. I told her I didn’t and then said something to the effect that I could read the same stories on my phone — that is, on the internet. At which point I had to ask, in a somewhat strange and serious and playful voice, “What. Is. The. Internet?”
To which Nico replied, rather reasonably, if in her own strange voice (a “boy’s voice,” she tells us)–
I thought that was great, so I took out my internet phone and asked her if we could re-run the Q&A for the camera. The kids love seeing themselves on video, so Nico agreed, and that’s what you see up there (with my question inadvertently truncated).
After which, natch, Charlie needed a turn. At first it seemed like she was just going to rehearse the same exchange herself (complete with funny voice), but instead, operator-style, she threw a curveball. A hilarious curveball, especially after my follow-up —
And I’m honored to get the EthanZ treatment over at his blog. As usual, Ethan does an excellent job distilling the central points of my talk, maybe even better than I did myself! I especially appreciate how he extends the conversation with some thoughts about the problems of hosting public culture on corporate platforms and with regard to music’s remarkable — perhaps even unique — mobility, and the implications thereof in the age of YouTube and global exchange. (I’m also grateful for this informative post on Dominican dembow he turned up!)
On the other hand, while I appreciate the genealogy, I must admit a certain unease about the parallels Ethan draws between my project and the preservationist ethnomusicology of the mid-20th-century. To be clear, while I’m sorry to see particular tracks and videos disappear, my concern is more with the sustainability of interactive structures for making and sharing music and dance, rather than with, say, making sure jerkin never dies. This is a crucial part of the distinction I seek to draw between what we might hear as a brave new world music, propelled by peer-level circulations, and the outmoded, hierarchically-curated sort of “world music” we still associate with that freighted misnomer.
Thanks again to all, and may the conversation continue!
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.
a once-obscure music that enjoyed a fanatic embrace in the _______ slums of _______ has become a full-fledged global occasion â
This could be the mantra of global ghettotech. Could hardly have written it better myself. But I didn’t. Nor was it written, despite what might be its commonplace connotations, about reggae, or funk carioca, or kuduro, or any of the usual suspects. It was written about cumbia made in Peru in the 1970s, and I came across it not on an enthusiastic blog but via a careful press release announcing the second volume in the Roots of Chicha series. The appearance of this phrasing shows how even well-worn attempts to market “world music” can turn with the times and speak the language of resonant novelty. Global g-tech blogging begetting sexy new scenarios, new sites of authenticity. Old wine, new bottles.
The story of “world music 2.0″ however — and the built-in critique of that tag — is not all about newness, or some sense of progressive departure from previous, problematic regimes of representation, or visions of egalitarian peer-to-peer exchange and cosmopolitan conviviality in our brave, new, digital and diasporic age. (Booty-shaking sugar plums dancing in our embeds?) It’s also about a great many continuities with “old” “world music” and its commercial & discursive repertories — including especially, 1) how deals get done (or not at all); and 2) how musical wares get described, (re)contextualized, hyped, dressed up, pimped, punked, and truffled. In other words: New wine, old bottles.
This post is meant to serve as a follow-up to my previous thoughts on today’s world musics. The focus again falls on small, independent record labels, but unlike those mentioned in the last post, the labels I discuss below didn’t begin as blogs (and are not to be confused with them). In the interest of going deeper into context and credit and other #realtalk — from business practices to the language employed by labels and PR firms to frame their enterprises — allow me to try to tell three brief stories about a few kinds of cumbia circulating in the world today — particularly in world(s) beyond their home contexts, worlds where cumbia becomes, for some, “world.”
The first thing I’m going to say about BarbĂšs, run by Brooklyn-based Frenchman Olivier Conant, is that the two Roots of Chicha compilations have been a welcome presence in my life. They’re full of fantastic performances from rightly (locally) popular performers who were listening intently to the world around them — to cumbia, psychedelic rock, and huayno, among others — and whirling it up into their own special sound. The first disc lodged itself in my car for many many months back when it came out. And what I’ve heard of the second keeps the chicha torch aloft and blazing.
A hopefully unnecessary disclaimer: none of what follows is meant as an ad hominem attack. I’m interested in the larger structures that someone like Conan or his PR people have to navigate, as well as how they plot their way through. If I seem poke too much at the latter, or even to be calling names, it is intended more as a critique of the language that markets world music, or chicha, or cumbia — a discourse which implicates audiences & customers as well as producers & promoters. (That said, the unofficial subtitle of this post is: “How To Stop Receiving Promos” ;)
That said, let’s begin on the sound’s own terms, if you’ll permit the conceit. Check some of the tracks on the new comp:
Ok, back to words. There are lots of things we could say about these songs. What the PR focuses on, however, is the heroic narrative of label-owner Olivier Conan, who saw (& heard) the value in cumbias amazĂłnicas even when many in Peru could not. “Scorned by the middle-class and the official tastemakers,” we’re told, chicha has become a “full-fledged global occasion” and even recuperated back home, “thanks to the stunning success of a 2007 CD called The Roots of Chicha.” That’s actually the end of the sentence that I used as an epigraph (full text here); here’s the non-redacted version:
a once-obscure music that enjoyed a fanatic embrace in the Peruvian slums of the 1970s has become a full-fledged global occasion â thanks to the stunning success of a 2007 CD called The Roots of Chicha.
Chutzpah? Perhaps, but these sorts of claims are pretty par for the course in the world of music promo, never mind “world music” promo, where one classic trope is of the noble adventurer seeking out the golden nuggets of exotic lands. (Even if outstretched microphones have largely been replaced by crate diggers.) But the press release really hammers home on this narrative, suggesting it’s a psychological hook for all the curious, cosmo gringos who make up the album’s principal public:
News that a gringo was interested in chicha found its way in many of Peruâs mainstream magazines, newspapers and TV â including canal cuatro and the very official El Comercio.
The icky part is, the reason this sort of thing — ie, a curious gringo in the foreign press, or the “fancy-fish-out-of-water” — is remarkable at all is precisely because of the intense power asymmetries between, say, the US and Peru. Of course, also motivating this response is a degree of self/national pride that finds flattering any sort of outside appreciation — and there’s often an insidious, if perhaps also productive, dynamic at play in these exchanges whereby a proletarian music becomes a national symbol thanks to foreign affirmation — but those structural dimensions are not what receive emphasis here.
And such a campaign has effects. I mean jeez, even Mother Jones can’t resist going with a lede like this:
Imagine hiking in the Peruvian Andes and finding a group of chicha musicians: migrants playing a fusion of Cuban son, Andean melodies and psychedelic surfer rock, blended like the Inca corn whiskey the music is named after.
This narrative tack is striking given that BarbĂšs is clearly attuned to questions of representation, or at least their uses. Take the assertion, circulating as promo, that vol. 2 is âan attempt to rectify some of the biases and inaccuracies of the first volume.â According to the website, the bar/performance space which bears the same name as the label “puts the stress on cultural variety, neighborhood conviviality” (& they really play my violin on that last note). All the while, Conan is well aware that, “Brooklyn may be the only place where middle-class gringos are playing the music with a more or less vintage ’70s approach.”
One reason I started with the sound files above is that I don’t want to dwell too much on the representational stuff when the music can also speak for itself (at least the music that passes through Conan’s filter). And I don’t mean to conflate marketing hyperbole with the valuable service that Conan’s efforts have done for chicha and cumbia, not to mention for many of the artists he’s featured.
Conan’s “attempt to share his enthusiasm” in the Roots of Chicha comps is, in many ways, laudable. Targeting a (relatively) wide audience by selecting popular tracks also ensures a certain degree of quality, the lingering resonance of previous moments of intense attachment, and Conan has indisputably helped to re-ignite the appreciation — economic, affective, and otherwise — of chicha. In this sense, BarbĂšs deserves credit for inspiring others to go in search of great chicha and kindred forms of cumbia, including the guy who runs the next label I’d like to talk about.
But can we talk about value without mention of the label’s relationships to the musicians who provide the grist for the mill? How can we appraise this new wave of chicha appreciation without a sense of how BarbĂšs is sustaining any chicha scene other than “middle-class gringo” Brooklyn’s? Why can’t the terms of the deal enter into the heroic narrative? Isn’t tracking down the musicians involved in the original recordings at least as romantic, if not more, than tracking down the recordings themselves? Why is there a significant, building “Fair Trade” / transparency movement in food but not in music?
Why, for example, doesn’t the following rycooderesque press release — issued by the same entity promoting Roots of Chicha 2 (and working to promote lots of other music I like — sorry, Ryan, but realtalk beckons) — in which the exchange between all involved is so crucial, talk at all about how this project stands to contribute to the scene from which it poaches?
In April of 2010, Cory Wong and Eric Foss of Secret Stash Records traveled to Lima, Peru with a translator and assembled PeĂ±a, an Afro-Peruvian ensemble featuring a handful of the best musicians within the genre. The group was a revolving door of sorts that included over a dozen players ranging in age from 24 to 65. In seven days they recorded over 50 tracks. With no access to a conventional recording studio they improvised by tracking in classrooms, living rooms, balconies, offices, and even on the stoop of a hostel. The sessions were fast, free spirited, and generally consisted of one or two takes per track. The result is an authentic display of one of the worldâs most unique, unexplored and underrated musical styles.
Below are the full details and download links to an MP3 to post, the album, and more. I look forward to your feedback and hopefully coverage in your media outlet. [W&W note: I look forward to a leaner inbox after this post.]
I can think of at least one very successful example where the fairness of the deal (& correcting for unfairness in first dealings) became a crucial and appealing part of the release’s narrative. I’m thinking here of Greg Scruggs’s labors to put together PancadĂŁo do Morro, a project & product that Greg referred to as “Fair Trade Funk.” In his own words —
Every artist has a contract in Portuguese, was paid a sum upfront, and will receive royalties. I can vouch for this personally, as Iâm the one who has been orchestrating it all for my friends over at Flamin Hotz Records. Moreover, the CD itself is a gorgeous six panel deal, c/o BustBright, with cover art by funk legend Tony Minister, spot gloss lettering, and two booklets â featuring lyrics in Portuguese and English, artist bios, and photos. There is no anonymity here.
So put some names and beats with faces, add some well-mastered tamborzĂŁo to your collection, and support the hardworking MCs and DJs down in Rio: proceeds are going their way. Trust me, Iâll be sending the remittances myself.
Read the rest of that post for further details of how Greg worked to right some things and to write those things into the story of the release itself.
But back to BarbĂšs. In the spirit of this post, let’s be fair in our appraisal. Aside from perhaps making the deals with musicians part of Conan’s heroic narrative, what else would we have the label do? BarbĂšs is still a relatively modest operation, asking for donations to kickstart interesting projects, and so forth. All things considered, they’ve brought some wonderful music to my ears and no doubt have generated a significant degree of interest in, appreciation of, and opportunity for chicha and Peruvian cumbia. For that we can say, bravo.
[Update: Please see this follow-up post for a detailed response from Olivier Conan, which helps to bring more balance to the appraisal above.]
2. Mass Tropicas
Michael Pigott is a guy who lives in Western Mass, which he had the gall to call “the better half of Massachusetts” in an introductory email to me. He runs a label called Mass Tropicas devoted to small batch releases, so far mostly of weird and wonderful Peruvian cumbia. He deals directly with the artists themselves to license the tracks he releases, and he doesn’t do digital. At all. Instead, Mike stubbornly insists on durable, physical media — vinyl and cassettes — believing that the objects themselves have a way of preserving and instilling value.
While Roots of Chicha served as some inspiration for reissuing and recording some cumbia himself, Mike had been getting into the genre, especially of the Peruvian variety, over the course of several years thanks to a couple key figures: 1) his wife, who is herself from Peru, and 2) Bruno “Tunchi” Guerra, a photographer and mainstay in Lima’s punk scene. On visits, Mike would listen to the local cumbia station in his wife’s neighborhood, note the songs he liked, and then try to find them on vinyl. (Apparently, he boasts quite the collection of 45s.)
In contrast to BarbĂšs reach for a broad audience, which entails reissuing formerly popular tracks (at least in Peru), Mike seeks to bring lesser known recordings to chicha’s expanding listening public (at least those addressed by hi-fi vinyl reissues). He sees the Roots of Chicha as an important “stepping stone” for people to “dig deeper” into his more obscure finds and favorites.
Mike described his operation as “DIY” and it’s clear that its infused by a certain punk ethos. (How DIY? you might ask: “All the records you touch, I touch,” Mike told me.) Small-batch cumbia appealed to Mike because pressing one’s own records is “sorta like punk rock.” His fourth and latest release, Ranil’s Jungle Party, a 12″ LP collecting some fine cuts from a local cumbia legend now running for mayor (and subject of a would-be documentary by BarbĂšs), could hardly better embody the approach: Ranil’s records were originally produced and released by himself on his own label, so Mike dealt directly with the man himself. (Of course, this elides unresolved questions about who, if anyone, should have exclusive rights to a collectively produced recording, but since “backup” musicians have gotten the short-end in just about every other music biz scenario, we can’t begin to hold a label like Mass Tropicas to a different standard.)
One complicating factor in re-releasing Ranil’s music, however, was the fact that Ranil himself didn’t own any of his own records; and he had taped over the masters years ago to store recordings of his radio program! Here we see how the durability of vinyl and the diligence of the digger can prove paramount. Ranil no longer possessed any of his own records, but Lima-based collector and chicha connoisseur Victor Zela, with whom Mike has been sharing his enthusiasm for years, has every single one. Victor compiled Ranil’s Jungle Party, and Mike gives him full credit as a creative partner. (The artwork, a clear homage to the style of the day, was done by Tunchi, another Lima-based collaborator.)
About that artwork, though (& plz permit another quick foray into the jungles of marketing lingo) —
So despite all the clearly thoughtful practices motivating Mass Tropicas, we still encounter almost inevitable notes of exotic fashioneering in the language on the record themselves, their promotion, and their inevitable reformulation in press coverage. Regarding the latter, one might read that Mike “researches the deepest streets of Peruâs forgotten music,” an interesting formulation in its familiar contour but shifting locus of the real, from the jungle to the streets, again reflecting perhaps a general recalibration (or widening of the rhetorical repertory) in “world music” discourse. (Then again, despite the prevalence of the rural/pastoral/traditional, urban sounds and imgs have enjoyed a persistent, if fraught, presence in world music bins. Indestructible Example A?)
If this sort of spiel about “fascinating journeys” can ring a little hokey to some of us, redolent as it is of Putumayo pap, I don’t think that’s because Mike is out of touch. Rather, he’s following a playbook that has produced its share of touchdowns.
But let’s talk about different notions of touch for a moment. Touch is clearly important to Mike, who touches every record he sends off. In particular, two kinds of touch: being in direct touch with actual people & directly touching actual physical objects. As with Greg’s ideas about “fair trade funk,” doing it right for Mike involves both the fairness of the deal and the quality of the product. A lot of cumbia artists on some fairly popular (bootleg) compilations have no idea. “These guys are still alive,” Mike told me. “It’d be nice if they knew they were appreciated.”
As for touching actual objects, not to mention being in touch, here’s a nice chunky plastic thing I got in the mail from Mike:
Mike doesn’t really sell cassettes, yet. He tells me he’s had trouble convincing distributors to carry them, despite a minor current/recentvogue for them (indeed, a couple local producers slipped me their latest mixtape, on tape, just last week). I was happy to get the cassette since I’m lucky enough to have a car that plays them; this was true for Mike too, back when he got the idea of pressing up some of his own.
The El Hombre Orquesta cassette is from a limited run of 100, printed up mainly as an effort to promote El Hombre, aka Carlos Antonio, a sui generis one-man-band (and paraplegic) who Mike encountered while walking around in Lima. (Here’s an unrelated local news profile of him.) Singing songs while playing bongos, timbales, cymbals, wood blocks, and a halved soda bottle that sounds like a mean slide trumpet, El Hombre Orquesta has a sound all his own.
Struck by the sound, Mike asked him on the spot whether he could record him. Antonio told him, “It’s gonna cost ya,” and asked for $30. “I’ll give you extra,” said Mike, who then paid for $3 for a local practice space, recorded for 80 minutes, and gave Antonio $50, telling him he’d seek out a label back in the US to release his music. A relatively successful indie label specializing in what we might call “found sounds” of the wide world expressed strong interest, but eventually dropped the project. Having told Antonio that “next time I come down I’ll have an EP for ya,” Mike returned recently, gave him a bunch of cassettes and $200. El Hombre cried; he was touched.
3. ZZK Records
ZZK Records (pronounced zee-zek, Argentine-style, not ĆœiĆŸek), a label that started as a party, boasts a deep roster of hyper-creative pibes (yep, they’re all dudes), who make all kinds of exciting electronic dance music (especially the digital or “nu” cumbia for which they’re primarily known), run successful Kickstarter campaigns, and, having put their stamp on the nu world scene, are slowly but successfully wiggling their way into the potentially lucrative ol world music circuit (that’s 1.0, if you’re counting).
Recently, ZZK acts appeared at the 2010 Chicago World Music Festival, and they’re aiming to make it to Womex later this month. As the premier world music showcase in the world, Womex can be a huge platform, opening the golden doors to some of that ol world music industry money, where, especially in the live performance/festival circuit, there’s still a substantial amount to be made (unlike in the relatively tiny “global bass” scene, unless you’re fortunate enough to join the truffled classes).
For all its promise, Womex also presents significant risks for a fledgling label like ZZK, which still supports itself through all kinds of side/day-gigs (including a design firm, making somewhat more saleable use of their in-house talents). Simply getting to Copenhagen is taxing enough for an operation of this size to merit a kickstarter campaign for assistance. Everyday they’re hustling. But also touring a lot and making some great music and having fun.
By my watch, the ZZK crew got where they are today, notably, not merely though the various grinds above, but, in a nod to industry 2.0, by giving a lot of music away — especially in the form of mixtapes and bootlegs/mashups pushed onto the net (and in many cases, directly to bloggers in the nascent nu-world world). In this way, they share the plight of a lot of other small, independent labels (or artists) trying to build an audience and create some demand for (some commodification of) what they do in a saturated, “post-scarcity” music industry. ZZK effectively inserted their productions, style, and brand into translocal media flows by being savvy with what they make and share: mixtapes that blend their own tracks and other local flaves with global currents, mashups that lend a familiar tinge (in the form of say, a rap acapella) to their own electro-cumbia productions, videos that might find an eager embed on electronic / world / cosmopolatino blogs.
Although ZZK would prefer not to find its acts consigned to the marketological ghettos of “world” and “Latin,” such tags also offer certain footholds, crossover niches. When El G (aka Grant Dull, ZZK cofounder) and Lisandro of the Frikstailers came to Cambridge to play Beat Research this month, I had the opportunity to witness how the label attempts to work within the unwieldy boxes that litter the music industrial landscape. While Grant was being interviewed by a local guy who does an “alt Latin” radio show, I couldn’t help but appreciate how he tried to thread the needle, talking about the sound of the label, or specific acts, in a manner commensurate with their actual style and outlook and yet also in ways that make sense, that translate, that communicate to certain audiences. Hence, the Frikstailers were described at once as audibly “from south America” but, in the same breath, “very modern, contemporary.”
So despite the label’s nu-ness, it’s no surprise that the ZZKers selected to go to Womex are Tremor, the only “band” in the ZZK crew, and hence an act that already affirms certain entrenched ideas about “real” (world) musicianship. It probably also helps with the WM1.0 folks that they guys in Trebor play folkloristic drums (bombo leguero) and perform, according to ZZK’s own website copy, no less than an “interpretation of local musicology.” Indeed, once you read that amidst the mix of synths and drum samples one also hears “timeless Andean flute,” I think it’s clear that we’re treading familiar (“foreign”) territory.
I myself would probably leave the showcase featuring folkloric drums in order to see, say, a couple of guys banging on synths and laptops and DDR-pads, but I think it’s a while yet before the old world music guard is ready for the likes of the Frikstailers. Their loss, especially since the Friks’ productions may actually better embody the world-is-flat mythos animating a lot of WM1.0 fantasies. (Easy-listening reggae from any corner of the globe!) Like many of their nu-whirled peers, the Frikstailers find themselves immersed, at least part time, in a global culture flattened by the likes of YouTube and Twitter and mp3, where the real “world” music is the stuff we all hear no matter where we go: Justin (Bieber or Timberlake), 50, Britney.
The Frikstailers’ music features all sorts of referents, from the general to the specific — dancehall drums, cumbia percussion, that hip-house guy who says “oww” — but it’s pretty damn omnivorous in terms of what gets glitched and glitzed into a clubby, poppy frenzy. They don’t seem to proceed creatively with any self/audience-imposed requirements for local or Latin sabor. Their new EP reminds me as much of vintage Aphex Twin or the Black Dog as anything else. This stands in some contrast to, say, the nearly note-for-note renditions of Conan’s Brooklyn-based band.
Sometimes it really does feel like I’m in Oz, some Wizard behind a curtain producing lifelike YouTubes of my swirling musical obsessions — or like that cartoon kid Simon for whom the things he drew came true
In my recent post on “Watagatapitusberry” I wondered aloud, in so many words, where “the text” in question might reside, given that most people have been exposed to an intermediary “fan”/peer-produced text (a video) more popular than the original “text” (a recording), tho perhaps soon eclipsed by a new “official” video with potentially greater reach (I’m sayin: Pitbull is second only to Miley Cyrus for most viewed music video, all time on YouTube). That said/wondered, I was happy to stumble across Henry Jenkins’s recent interview with Jonathan Gray in which they discuss the notion of the “paratext.” As Gray explains:
I draw the word from a book of that title by Gerard Genette, a French literary theorist. He was interested in all those things that surround a book that aren’t quite the “thing” (or “the text”) itself. Things like the cover, prefaces, typeface, and afterwords, but also reviews. His subtitle to that book – “Thresholds of Interpretation” – is the intriguing part, since it suggests that meaning might be constructed and might begin at these textual outposts, not just at the site of “the thing itself.” And that in turn offers a pretty radical proposition, namely that the item that we’re studying, whether it be a film, television show, book, or whatever, becomes meaningful and is interpreted in many sites, some arguably even more important than the site of thing itself. The purpose of the book, quite simply, then, was to examine those sites.
I prefer the word paratext precisely because it has a pretty academic background, and from within textual studies at that, and thus isn’t encumbered by a lot of the connotations that surround many of the other words that we usually use. Your readers may be more familiar with “hype,” “synergy,” “promos,” “peripherals,” “extratextuals,” and so forth. But hype and synergy frame paratexts too definitively as wholly industrial entities. Certainly, paratexts are absolutely integral in terms of marketing, and in terms of grabbing an audience to watch the thing in the first place. But we’ve often stalled in our discussion of them by not moving beyond the banal observation that hype creates profits. What I wanted to look at is how they create meaning, how our idea of what a television show “is” and how we relate to it is often prefigured by its opening credit sequence, its posters, its ads, reviews, etc. Meanwhile, “peripherals” belittles their importance, since they’re not at all peripheral, at least in potential. “Promos” is fairly innocuous, and yet I’m interested not just in how the things that surround a film or show create an image of it before we get there, but also in how reviews, DVD bonus materials, fan creations, and other after-the-fact paratexts might change our understanding later on, so that too seemed inadequate. And though I like “extratextuals” (the title of my blog!), “extra” means “outside of,” whereas “para” suggests a more complicated relationship to the film or show, outside of, alongside, and intrinsically part of all at the same time. Hence my fondness for that word in particular.
Interesting stuff, though I’m not sure — thinking through several musical examples I’ve had on my mind lately — that the notion of the paratext can be so easily ported over to the messy, p2p musical culture we witness on the web. Rather, it seems a better fit when we’re talking about mass media broadcast models (TV shows, films, books), where it is relatively easy to posit a central text and peripheral (if also crucial) ones.
Let’s take “Watagatapitusberry” yet again as our object of analysis: what’s the text and what’s the paratext? Can we really say so clearly that the pseudo-“Official Video” made by a group of NYC teens is simply a paratext when it’s the version that most people have engaged as “Watagatapitusberry”? When we behold that so many other “Watagata” videos — including, notably, the slick new production ft. Pitbull and Lil Jon — seem to take their cues from those dudes dancing in their kitchen, their high school, their backyard and bathroom, who will make the argument that it is nevertheless a paratext? Does the concept of paratext prove useful in this instance, or does it in fact — for all the useful intellectual/cultural work it might do around TV or Hollywood — prevent us from apprehending something even more radical about the ways that texts are co-produced and circulate, with value added, in today’s media ecologies.
(Perhaps it goes without saying, since this is common for any popular song these days, that “Watagata” has also been remixed widely, e.g. by Toy Selectah, Allen Cruz, A.C.T., and no doubt many more. These are perhaps more easily subsumed under the notion of the paratext — so long as they don’t end up more important to people’s interpretation and engagement with “Watagatapitusberry” than “the text” itself, whatever that is.)
We could add to “Watagata” the example of “You’re a Jerk” (as my previous post also suggested), a song which, as the New Boyz have recounted, jumped from MySpace to YouTube and inspired dozens of people to dance along in their own videos (many of which are now muted/missing), all of which positioned the New Boyz to sign a deal for major production/promo/distro, which produced, eventually, an “official” text of its own (which includes a glossy video but should maybe also entail the audio-ID fingerprint which Warner Bros adds to its takedown-DB). Indeed, as far as Warner is concerned, the audio-ID fingerprint may as well be the text (which they can monetize), and everything else just a paratext — some more parasitical/piratical than others.
Of course, the template for “You’re a Jerk” is “Crank Dat,” which perhaps best illustrates the problem with trying to apply a theory of para/texts to music culture in the age of YouTube. Really, re: “Crank Dat,” which is the text and which are the paratexts? Is the text itself the song that Soulja Boy recorded (relying heavily on Fruity presets)? Or is it the easily-mastered set of dance steps so crucial to its spread? Is it the initial video that made the rounds featuring SB’s friends doing the dance in their living room? Is it the white-out-on-my-sunglasses tutorial-in-a-pool that SB put out there to help people learn to do the dance (and spread the song)? Or is it the official video / release? What about the dozens, if not hundreds, of other versions of people dancing to or mashing up the song? What about the dozens of “Crank Dat” spinoffs? I realize that as I go down this list, things can get more and more para/meta, but the first few questions, to my mind, show how hard it is to locate “Crank Dat” in any singular instantiation.
Or, take, “Super Freak” & “U Can’t Touch This” (which I discussed a ways back) — whose text has merged with whose? Which is now primary and which is para? It’s not simply a matter of which came first. And who can ever say when it’s all been settled? Don’t count a good paratext out. Ever.
Against this backdrop, I find more persuasive the idea that a musical text is less defined by a textual object per se and more by a set of relations, ever reconstituting themselves. Along these lines, I’m eager to hear more from Georgina Born, presenting at a symposium in which I’ll take part at Princeton next month. Born seems to be arguing — in proposing what she calls the “provisional work” — that the notion of the “assemblage” might better describe how musical culture works, at least in certain realms of creativity and collaboration. From her abstract —
it is possible to discern an alternative ontology of music to that historically enshrined in intellectual property law … the âprovisional workâ … To grasp the alternative ontology requires us in turn to engage analytically with music in the expanded sense of the assemblage: that is, as a constellation of mediations â sonic, but also social, material and technological, discursive, corporeal and temporal – that together constitute what âmusicâ and musical experience are held to be.
If this is like the Death of the Author all over again, maybe it’ll go down easier this time?
Next Tuesday (Feb 2) will be the initial meeting of the first class I’m teaching at MIT. I’m excited about the course, a new one, which invites students to read along with me and collectively investigate what I’ve been calling music industry — that is, a broader understanding of musically-propelled cultural practice than something like “THE music industry,” with its focus on commerce, tends to demarcate — in particular as it relates to the more well-worn (if no less confusing) term, digital youth culture.
Wording aside, the subject matter should be familiar for readers of this blog. The discussions about music I try to host here are often, and perhaps also increasingly (see, all the youthful youtubery posted here in recent years), centered on the fraught and fertile intersections between musical/cultural practice, technological tools, industry and commerce, public debates, and the stories we tell about all these things.
If the subject matter is familiar to regular readers, I suspect some of the specific readings I’ve selected might be new to some — in part because some are fairly new. In sketching out the course’s — and my larger project’s — purview, I reach across various disciplinary literatures and genres (from the dry to the webby) to focus our foray on a few primary areas of inquiry: music/culture industry history; digital/media theory; and youth ethnography.
Finally — & this probably goes without saying — I welcome any comments, other suggested readings, etc. I will likely offer this course again in 2011 and intend to keep tweaking it. Plus, as already noted, this course emerges out of my current research project, and any help on that would be, as the digital youth used to put it, teh awesome.
21F.060 / 21M.539: Topics in Media and Cultural Studies
âMusic Industry and Digital Youth Cultureâ
Mellon Fellow in the Humanities
Foreign Languages and Literatures
Music and Theater Arts
Tuesday/Thursday 2:30-4:00 pm
Giving emphasis to the specific tools used to produce and disseminate media today, this course examines how digital technologies — especially peer-to-peer networks and so-called social media sites — are shaping and being shaped by the practices and values of the people using them. Taking into account a variety of forms and platforms, our study will focus on music as a crucial connective thread in contemporary media and culture.
The convergence of global pop, social networks, and international digital youth culture constitutes a profound shift in how we imagine and access the world around us, but one which has yet to undergo a sustained and appropriately interdisciplinary examination — in particular, an approach which attends to specific tools (e.g., YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, imeem, blogs, torrents, production software, etc.) while situating them in the broader contexts of media studies, social science approaches, and digital humanities. Reading across these perspectives, we will ask: What is music industry today? And what can it tell us about the possibilities and constraints of cultural production in our digital, increasingly networked, and perhaps âpost-scarcityâ age.
Class meetings will involve discussions of readings and various musical and video texts as well as regular demonstrations/investigations of particular technologies of production, circulation, and representation. Assignments will include documentation of collective and individual research topics, developing a hands-on familiarity with particular digital tools, conducting online ethnographic experiments, composing critical appraisals of readings and media texts, as well as a final research project which â in terms of topic, scope, and expression â will be primarily developed by individual students depending on their areas of interest.
Course Requirements and Grading Distribution:
Discussion, Attendance – 20 % – Throughout term
Response Papers / Wiki work – 30 % – Throughout term
Individual Presentations – 20 % – Week 14
Final Paper (8-10 pages) – 30 % – Due last day of class (5/13)
Part I: 20th Century Pop Culture and Music Industry 1.0
Week 1: Mass/Pop/Web Culture & Its Discontents
Middleton, Richard. 1990. ââRoll Over Beethovenâ: Sites and Soundings on the Music-Historical Mapâ (short excerpt: p. 13-16) and ââItâs All Over Nowâ: Popular Music and Mass Culture â Adornoâs Theoryâ (34-63). In Studying Popular Music. Philadelphia: Open University Press.
Andrejevic, Mark. âExploiting YouTube: Contradictions of User-Generated Labor.â In The YouTube Reader, eds. Pelle Snickars and Patrick Vonderau, 406-23. Stockholm: National Library of Sweden, 2009.
Ok, back to reggaeton. So, once again, back to questions of vitality and vocality. Or, how it’s doing and for whom & from whence it speaks.
one way of looking at the “reggaeton” “crash” (and recovery?)
I was tickled to see Birdseed name reggaeton genre of the year for 2009, fully contra Gavin’s provocative post about the genre’s crash. If one is not persuaded by Birdseed’s praise of reggaeton’s post-dembow turn to synthy club beats (right alongside, let’s note, its longtime main sources: hip-hop and dancehall), the real proof in the pudding is Dominican dembow, but more on that below…
First, a couple other items relating to reggaeton’s urbanity, if you will. This is gonna get a little meta, but my post about Gavin’s post resulted in a post by Marisol which got cross-posted to Racialicious, where it generated an intense and interesting conversation about Calle 13, reggaeton, and transnational racial politics, among other things. Marisol’s central argument riffs off something I wrote in my response to Gavin:
Wayne makes a good point that âmĂșsica urbanaâ basically functions as a (seemingly sexier and less scary euphemism) for reggaetonâs old moniker of âmĂșsica negra.â So itâs interesting to me that reggaetonâs resident blanquito has appointed himself the gatekeeper of said race music. … Iâm curious about the work that placing a blanquito at the center of âmĂșsica urbanaâ does. For sure it makes the music palatable to the a wider audience, as so many blanquitos have crossed-over ârace musicsâ in the past. But I think the work that Calle 13 very clearly does is âfuel fantasies about reggaetons inherent latinidad,â as Wayne points out in his chapter âFrom MĂșsica Negra to Reggaeton Latinoâ in Reggaeton (Duke UP). There is something appealing to the many music critics who have profiled the group in their brand of Latin World music, something in stark contrast with the repetitive samples and versioning of Black music that is central to many other reggaeton acts.
I recommend that anyone interested in reggaeton and race read the entire exchange.
As it happens, I was asked recently to write another dictionary blurb, an entry for Calle 13. Trying to sum up an act like Calle 13 is difficult even with the 9000 or so words tossed around on that Racialicious post, but I only had 200. In light of the conversation at Racialicious, I found Calle 13’s polarization of the reggaeton audience (never mind of their peers in so-called mĂșsica urbana) difficult to leave out. Here’s what I came up with (exceeding word limit a little) —
I still have time to edit this, incidentally, so if you feel strongly about the word choice or what gets put in vs. left out, I’m all ears.
Curiously, a few years before “mĂșsica urbana” became the new industry term, the media had already announced the dawn and dusk of the “hurban” era — a term given to the new formats adopted (and, before too long, dropped) by such radio franchises as La Kalle, centered on reggaeton but also including Spanish-language rap, r&b, NYC-based bachata and other styles that could be confidently classed as hispanic-urban. I corresponded recently with a student working on a paper about the rise and fall of “hurban,” or as they described the project:
I am currently interested in the mass proliferation of “hurban” media outlets during 2004-2006, and their eventual demise from mainstream radio. Basically, I hope to analysis why “mainstream” Reggaeton, a la N.O.R.E.’s Oye Mi Canto and Daddy yankee’s Gasolina, has “fallen off,” so to speak, of the mainstream U.S. media circuit.
So if you can answer some of these questions, that would be so helpful:
Why do you think Reggaeton and the “hurban” radio station phenomena failed to hold a spot in the mainstream media? Was it a backlash from Anglo-audiences, who were quick to jump on the catchy Reggaeton bandwagon but soon decided they did not really understand the music? Or was it a feeling from the young Latino demographic that the music “sold out” to corporate interests?
Or, was it simply the repetitive nature of the music (use of dem-bow, “copycat” artists, similar lyrics) no longer attracted the same attention?
Do you think there will be a resurgence of Reggaeton in the mainstream pop music circuit?
These are interesting questions, if familiar. I was happy to hazard some answers, though once again, I’d be eager to hear from people who have other evidence or narratives to offer. Here’s what I replied:
I think one thing that needs to be put into context is how much the “hurban” marketing angle was a relatively contained (if well hyped) experiment on the part of major media conglomerates like Clear Channel and Univision. If we understand it as an exercise in top-down, corporate branding — as opposed to grassroots demand, regardless of the extent to which it sought to tap into that — then it becomes easier to explain the sudden abandonment of the format when it failed to meet high expectations.
Another thing to note is that the question of the rise and fall of “hurban” is separate from the question of reggaeton’s fleeting heyday in the Anglo mainstream; hurban format stations were not pitched at Anglo listeners. On the other hand, reggaeton’s receding from mainstream urban radio and MTV (where it maintains a marginal presence, but a presence all the same) and the failure of the “hurban” format might have the same root cause(s), as you imply. My sense is that a certain lack of interest in reggaeton/hurban was less about an Anglo lack of comprehension or a Latino disenchantment with the corporatization of the genre, and more with a sense of saturation and sameness: at the height of reggaeton’s (mainstream/media) popularity, radio DJs and major record labels were pulling from a relatively small pool of hits and artists, and the Luny Tunes sound was so dominant — and momentarily successful — that it crowded out other approaches. I think a lot of people just got bored.
That said, it’s worth noting that reggaeton — or whatever one wants to call it (and it’s telling that “mĂșsica urbana,” not so different from “hurban” as labels go, has become the latest umbrella term for the music) — continues to offer a fair amount of variety to listeners willing to seek it out. I’m not sure what it will be called the next time there is a resurgence of Spanish-language dance-pop in the mainstream pop circuit, but I’m quite confident that we’ll hear that sort of thing again. The underlying reasons for reggaeton’s mid-decade explosion — burgeoning Latino demographics in the US, savvy music entrepreneurs, a timely stylistic overlap with contemporary club music — are factors that remain very much in play.
In the other corner of reggaeton’s big tent, across from the slick commercial stuff that fills-out Birdseed’s YouTube queue and aspires to radio spins and TV airings (and, yes, YouTube views) — the stuff that Jace more or less dubs music for airports — is Dominican dembow, an exceedingly local (if also diasporic / virtual) reanimation of reggaeton’s former (and formative) sound. In a somewhat surprising and awesome move, the DR’s hip-hop scene has embraced PR’s mid-90s underground aesthetic — the stuff of Playero and The Noise mixtapes — fullup of samples from classic (that is, early-mid 90s) dancehall riddims like Bam Bam and Drum Song, rubikscube beats shuffling the same snares, hats, and hits into an endless array of colorful configurations.
I’m particularly struck by how these productions resonate with Marisol’s questions about sampling & reggaeton’s racial politics — questions raised, notably, not just by DR dembow but by PR’s ‘regreso’ acts as well):
Is it time to think of sampling practices within reggaeton as an overtly political act? Is sampling consciously hailing an audience and interpolating the performer and audience in a specific genre?
I often wonder how much these theories about sample-riffic music and memory/signification require particularly active, engaged, and perhaps cognocentric (?) modes of listening, though we might posit — especially with the sorts of samples recycled in (proto/regreso) reggaeton / Dominican dembow (i.e., largely, short percussive sounds with distinctive timbres) — that there are modes of embodied (and perhaps even what Adorno would call regressive) listening that also, in their own ways, involve forms of musical memory. At any rate, that this practice is happening at the producerly level is remarkable in its own right.
More important than giving all this seemingly related activity a name is to note that the efflorescence of shared referents and practices, all this artful work of technological reproduction (to refix Benjamin for our labor/leisure effacing age), continues unabated outside the corporate mediasphere (that is, if things like YouTube can exist outside of that; I’m not sure they can). This vibrant shared and co-produced culture thrives on overlapping publics networked by language, diaspora, dance, Facebook, and filesharing. This is the point that I try to underscore whenever I get asked about the so-called reggaeton crash — if we only look to corporate radio, to the formal commercial sphere, for measures of music’s vitality, we may well overlook the lion’s share of what’s happening. Que fue indeed.