Posted on April 14, 2015 by

A visit among ethnologists

Tomorrow, on the 15th of April, three of us (Anna, Maria and Rasmus) will visit the higher seminar of the Department of Ethnology at Stockholm University in order to discuss digital methods in general, and digital ethnography in particular.

The event will be held at 1 pm (hall D4110, Södra Husen) and visitors are asked to contact seminar coordinator Karin Högström at karin.hogstrom [at]

Posted on March 24, 2015 by

With spring comes…

… not only sun, but also a lot of interesting conferences, and our project will be represented at five of them.

To start off, several of us will attend the ACSIS conference In the Flow: People, Media, Materialities, held in Norrköping, Sweden in mid June. Rasmus Fleischer will join the session “Cybernetic populism: Feedback logics, personalized media flows, bubbles, visibilities” and offer some thoughts on the topic “Universal Spotifism: What’s new in “new business models”?”. His abstract reads as follows:

“Since the Swedish company Spotify launched its music streaming service in October 2008, this became a very powerful symbol for digital innovation. Soon dozens of tech startups promised to create “a Spotify for literature”, “a Spotify for film”, “a Spotify for magazines”, etc. In its homeland, Spotify almost became synonymous with the buzz-phrase “new business models”. But the newness has been far from stable. The early promises of making music “free but legal” have been discarded in favour of the idea that “subscription is king”; Spotify’s interface has changed from search-centered and on-demand towards a recommendation system; the buzzword “social” has been filled with various meanings; “streaming” situated within different media histories. Tracing the trajectory of “spotifism” through the economic crisis, this presentation will not only historize the rapid changes in music distribution, but also provide critical perspectives on the current dot-com boom.”

Maria Eriksson will instead take part in the parallel session “Methods: Tracking Digital Flows.” Her presentation, which holds the title “When artistry is turned into data: doing research with/on APIs,” aims to discuss methodological attempts to capture and analyze an important component of digital music streams: its inherent flows of music metadata. The presentation will draw from a case study of one of the worlds largest companies dealing with music metadata generation and analysis: the Spotify owned company The Echo Nest. As her abstract explains, The Echo Nest is a business…

“which claims to generate “musical understanding” through collecting and synthesizing billions of data points regarding artists and music in real-time. In order to track, mine and analyze these data flows a special API-application was built that allowed for a longitudinal study of artist metadata transformations. Presenting results from this experiment, I highlight some of the methodological potentials, but also challenges, of the increasingly popular method of using APIs as research tools. While offering a valuable sneak peek into the “black box” of online platforms, I suggest that APIs should also be approached as objects of study in themselves, since they present us with curious ways of organizing knowledge, people, things, and not least research.”

Eriksson will also present a paper on a similar topic in Sheffield, England at a conference entitled Data Power. This time, the broader implications of metadata generation and archival will be in focus, as the presentation focuses on how music metadata functions as a tool for managing musicians and musical artifacts. The talk will further discuss the need to understand metadata as a key element in the performance of streaming music and a critical entity that affects how streaming music moves and is displayed.

In a slightly different context, Anna Johansson will attend the 12th congress of the International Society for Ethnology and Folklore in Zagreb, Croatia, presenting on the topic “Music for everyone? A technographic account of Spotify and the construction of users.” As Johansson describes in her abstract, this talk will focus on how…

“individual freedom and commercial-institutional power is played out in Spotify’s construction of users and audiences. Drawing on a ‘technographic approach’ (Bucher 2012), I will discuss how Spotify, through their client, enable particular user practices and subjectivities. By investigating how normative assumptions are reproduced in the systematization and presentation of music collections, how personalized recommendations – either algorithmic or editorial – are constitutive of particular user positions (e.g. with respect to age, gender, location), and how users negotiate these positionings, the paper provides an understanding of how digital music platforms may be infused with norms, values, and power struggles.”

In August, Johansson will also discuss digital music collectors, collections and practices of collecting at the 33rd Nordic Ethnology and Folklore conference in Copenhagen. There, she will take part in a session which asks questions such as: “How do collectors motivate and make their collecting practices meaningful? When and how does collecting and collections cross the borders of normality? What is accepted and what is deemed inappropriate when, why and for whom?”. Johansson will explore how automatized collections of streaming music can be understood, and the ways in which “normative assumptions structure how the collections are systematized and presented”.

In late June, Pelle Snickars is also travelling to the Global Digital Humanities conference in Sydney, Australia in order to discuss what happens to the role of heritage institutions “when streaming heritage becomes a fact.” On a second, yet interrelated topic, this presentation will also draw from our record label experiments. As Snickars abstract explains:

“On a general level, the purpose of the project is to study emerging streaming media cultures, and the music service Spotify in particular, with a bearing on the digital challenges posed by direct access to musical heritage for memory institutions. However, the purpose is also both web historical and contemporary. On the one hand, this so called ”Spotify-project” will track the development of online music cultures, from file sharing at Napster and The Pirate Bay to legal streaming services as Spotify. On the other hand, it will follow files in digital music distribution by way of digital ethnographic methods. Research is, in short, conducted and based on the creation of a non-profit record label in order to study unexpected file ’behavior’. Programmers from HUMlab are involved in the research process. The record company acts as an innovative research tool, with the aim of following—or simply pursuing—digital music files throughout the intra-digital distribution process: from creation, via aggregation, and through to playback. Using various digital methods the ambition is to observe the files’ journey through the digital eco-system—streaming media culture’s black box—normally not accessible to traditional media researchers. The basic idea is that digital (or digitized) media objects has changed the way in which they should be conceptualised, analysed and understood—not the least from a heritage perspective. That is, a movement from studying static music artifacts to an increased scientific focus on dynamically active files with a kind of inherent information about factors such as broadband infrastructure, file distribution and aggregation, user practices, click frequency, social playlists, sharing and repetition. During autumn 2014 we have initiated and started our record label, and via the aggregator RouteNote—”a free way to get your music onto the world’s leading stores and distributors”—begun to track ”our music files”. Research results will follow.”

In other words, it looks like June will be a busy month.

Posted on December 19, 2014 by

More music is better music

Pelle Snickars is currently finishing up an article about bots, musical profusion, and streaming trickery. Here is the introduction to the article:

In March 2014 the funk band Vulfpeck released the conceptual album, ”Sleepify”, containg five minutes and 16 seconds of pure silence. The purpose was to crowdfund an upcoming world tour, and songs were specifically prompted to be available on the Swedish music streaming service Spotify—hence the title of the album. In a video posted at the same time on YouTube, band leader Jack Stratton stated that, when he had sat down with his band to talk about potentially touring during the fall of 2014, ”they said that they would do it under one condition: that all the shows would be free.” Jokingly, he replied: ”That’s not a problem—Yeah!”

In the video Stratton continued by explaining ”how it works”: Vulfpeck releases ”Sleepify” on Spotify, an album that ”is different from our previous albums. This album is much quieter. In fact, we believed it is the most silent album ever recorded.” Essentially, what Stratton was asking fans to do was to play and stream the silent album put on repeat while sleeping—”make your sleep productive”—all in order to exponentially multiply royalties from Spotify. Since the latter are only disbursed once a song is registered as a play, which happens after 30 seconds, all songs on “Sleepify”—ingeniously entitled ”Z” to “Zzzzzzzzzz”—were 31 or 32 seconds long. According to Stratton, 800 streams would roughly generate four dollars in royalties to the band. ”If you stream ’Sleepify’ on repeat while you sleep every night, we will be able to tour without charging admission”, he concluded, all the while vividly exclaiming that if someone was unaware of what Spotify is—it’s a service that’s ”gonna through in the entire history of recorded music” (Sleepify 2014).

Vulfpeck’s recent prank is illustrative of the fundamental changes the recording industry has gone through during the last 15 years. When music is treated as data and handled in binary form, it literally looses its meaning (at least from a computational perspective). Noice reduction and signal processing (or the lack of it)—that is, silence—instead becomes distinctive features. In fact, at the very origin of communication theory (or high modernism for that matter) lies a mute meaninglessness. After all, all semantic aspects of communication were once deemed ”irrelevant to the engineering problem” by Shannon in 1948—only four years prior to the well know ”four minutes thirty-three seconds of silence”. Hence, Spotify’s spokesman Graham James seem spot on when commenting on ”Sleepify”: ”This is a clever stunt, but we prefer Vulpeck’s earlier albums. Sleepify’ seems derivative of John Cage’s work.” (Shannon 1948; Ramirez 2014).

Then again, when music is treated as data, visions of completness also occurs, and it becomes possible to claim (or at least envision) that one is going to ”through in” the whole history of recorded music, as Jack Stratton admiringly put it. The notion of ’the celestial jukebox’ has, no doubt, been the most prevalent one within this archival discourse. It was the first dominant vision of a networked database of consumable on-demand music proposed already two decades ago (Goldstein 1994). Digital purchase of individual songs then became a widely promoted solution, spearheaded by the iPod, iTunes and Apple’s palette of gorgeous mobile devices (Snickars & Vonderau, 2012). Today, ’disruptions’ have occured again, with the game changer towards cloud-based streaming services of which Spotify is perhaps the most salient one—or as the New Yorker recently stated: ”Spotify is a force for good in the world of music, is almost Swedenborgian: salvation in the form of a fully licensed streaming-music service where you can find every record ever made” (Seabrook, 2014).

Since the establishment of YouTube in 2005 streaming media has been a general phenomena (Snickars & Vonderau, 2010). Still, novel forms of access to streaming music also needs to be understood and treated in media specific ways. In fact, as a media form suited and unusually fit for the digital transition, popular music has in more than one way been situated at the vanguard of media industry developments during the last two decades—from the ’devastating’ file sharing á la Napster to the promoted ’solutionism’ brought forward by Spotify and similar services (with the irony being that both rely on the same communication protocols).

In this article, I will make a claim that throughout these digital shifts and changes within the music industry, more music has been a recurring lead metaphor, as well as marketing gimmick for digital music consumption—even if the promoted uniqueness has rapidly become totally habitual. The underlying idea of the article is quite simple, albeit important I will argue. On the one hand, digital production and distribution of music has during the last decade led to a situation where particular songs are also (and always) part of the ’whole history’ of recorded music. The lure of streaming services are, after all, that they offer (almost) everything recorded. But on the other hand this sort of archival mode of online media—all in the form of a giant and (more or less) inflated database—also runs the risk, or (depending on perspective) has a technological and inherent ability to go berserk, and potentially burst—and thus, completely undermining classical notions of archives and/or collections as trusted and secured repositories of material and/or cultural content. Spam or automated content generation are obvious examples, as well as the bot culture currently in vogue online. The latter, I will argue, is not only underestimated and poorly understood, it is also way more ubiquous than regularly and publicly apprehended. Estimation vary, but it is often said that around a third of all web traffic is nowadays non-human. More specifically, some 20 million ’users’ on Twitter are bots, more than a quarter of all changes on Wikipedia (the world’s fifth most popular site) are done by machines etcetera. Hence, machines pose a big threat; on, for example, for a dollar each scripts or bots will ”get you plays & listeners on Spotify”. Then again, humans can also subvert music catalogues as ’the artist’ Matt Farley, who apparently has earned more than $20 000 from his music since he has released over 14 000 songs. There are, as a consequence, different ways where aggregating musical content bot wise or à la web 2.0 runs the risk of technological back-fire, damaging the very notion of what a musical archive is, should or could be. More music does not necessarily mean better music.

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Posted on December 16, 2014 by

The story of a music release

Last week, HUMlab at Umeå University organized a conference with the somewhat elusive title Genres of Scholarly Knowledge Production. This was a three-day event that experimented with – and critiqued – the concept of the academic conference itself, and mostly drew scholars from various fields within the digital humanities. I, Maria Eriksson, was there as a result of my affiliation with HUMlab, and presented some initial results from a research experiment I’ve been conducting during the past month, alongside the works of Rasmus Fleischer and Anna Johansson.

In particular, this experiment has been geared towards trying to find a way to open up the “black box” of streaming music, and to try to follow – or perhaps even stalk – streamed music files.

Now, one way of trying to follow streaming music files as they move about within the Eco-systems of digital streams, would be to try to talk to the people who use or build these services.

Instead of doing this, however, we’ve decided to adopt a kind of DIY approach. That is, we produce and distribute music as a way to critically engage with streaming platforms. These experiments are grounded in ethnographic methods and participant observation. By enacting and setting streaming music and artistry in motion, we want to develop a deeper understanding of the software workings, organizational structures and forms of meaning making that take place behind streaming platforms. In the process of doing so, we study both ourselves (our choices and experiences), and the institutions, actors, gate-keepers and programs that we face as our music gets released.

At the conference, my contribution to the discussions was therefore to tell the story of how I became an “artist” as part of these explorations. My talk was meant to give listeners an insight into what it takes for something to become streamed music, and to make a case argument for the kinds of insights that can grow out of these kinds of interventionist methods.

In order to recoup what was said, my modest “music career” began at my kitchen table where I recorded sounds from my breakfast, took a picture of my kitchen carpet to use as an album cover, and in the end produced three tracks which I jointly labeled “Frukost” (or “breakfast” in English).

I then proceeded to try to get my music distributed by a music aggregator. To keep it short, this is a new kind of intermediary actor that has popped up since music distribution has gone online. What an aggregator does, is to take music and push it out onto various digital platforms such as Spotify and iTunes, either for “free” (I’ll shortly come back to what the concept of “free” means in this context), or against a fee. The advent of aggregators means that artists are no longer forced to have a record contract before their music get the chance to be distributed across vast distances. What remains for an artist that wants to have their music released, however, is to convince an aggregator to take their music under its wings.

I decided to first try my luck with aggregators that market themselves as “free”, which means that no initial cost is demanded in order for the music to be distributed. Signing a contract with one of these aggregators does, however, mean that the aggregator holds rights to a certain percentage of any future earnings.

To my great disappointment, it turned out that these initial attempts were not a great success. My Frukost-tracks got rejected twice. One aggregator told me that my sounds were not “music content”, and another aggregator that tried to put things a bit more nicely, gently replied that my music was not the kind of content they were looking to sign up at the moment. If these rejections were the result of a machine or a human actually listening to my sounds, remains unknown. What is clear, however, is that aggregators play a crucial role in defining what counts as “music” today.

Rather than giving up, however, I decided to pay for myself, and it turned out this made things a lot easier. I aimed to sign up for a one-year contract with a subscription based international aggregator, and then started going through a long process of answering questions about myself and my music in order for my music to be released.

For example, I was asked to put genre labels on my sounds – something which forms the basis for the kinds of metadata materials that recommendation algorithms base their suggestions on. I was also asked to decide whether I was aiming for “world domination” (which would mean having my music distributed onto 17 different platforms online), or if I was more of a “top dog” (which would mean signing up for a package that would make my music appear on five different platforms). I decided that a top dog was probably enough in my case.

I also had to decide on which royalty levels I wanted to maintain for my sounds, were a higher royalty level meant paying more money up front. My tracks also had to be re-formatted in order to fit the standards of this particular aggregator. In this case, this meant that I deleted one of the three tracks I had first produced, in order to squeeze my music into the EP-release package the aggregator had on offer. In the end, I paid $20 to have my music released on 5 different platforms (Spotify, iTunes, Deezer, Amazon MP3 and Google Play).

After 5 days, my sounds first appeared on Deezer. After six days, they were available on Spotify and iTunes, and after about 30 days I’m still waiting for my tracks to appear on Amazon MP3 and Google Play.

After my sounds had taken their first steps out into the world, I was given access to tools that helped me monitor the success of my “music”, and by extension also the success of myself as an artist. These tools for example contained daily statistics regarding my Spotify fan base, broken down into categories of age, gender and geographical location. I was also faced with graphs that displayed my sales incomes and royalty revenues, and the aggregator continuously offered me promotion opportunities in order to boost my fame.

Having gone through this process of signing up and engaging with many different aggregators, I started realizing something important: my music, and my artist self, had started migrating onto various platforms. Rather than being confined to the five platforms I had originally signed up for, I was now also represented on sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Paypal and imgur. Partly, this was the case because I had been forced to use some of these services in order for my music to be released. In other cases, I had just been strongly advised to create such accounts, and decided to follow suit. Rather than thinking of streaming music as objects which are confined to particular streaming platforms, this revealed how streaming music is entangled in complex networks of actors, services and practices of self representation.

In the end, I argued that this experiment has pointed to three important results:

– First, it has offered access to the backsides of streaming platforms, and thereby areas to which it otherwise would have been difficult to gain entry.

– Second, it has offered insights regarding the kinds of expectations that are put on contemporary artists looking to merge into the stream.

– And last, the experiment has also provided great navigational guidance regarding which actors and platforms that are important to have a look at in the future.

As a starting point, this experiment has also put in place a structure from which the pathways and movements of streaming music can be explored. It hasn’t allowed me to open up the black box of streaming music completely, but it has at least given us a chance to peek into what might lie inside.

For those who are interested, here is a sample from my songs on Spotify, and Deezer. All talks from the HUMlab conference were also recorded and published here.

Posted on November 25, 2014 by

Meeting and upcoming conference

Last week, on Monday 17th, we had another group meeting in Stockholm at which we tried to catch up on our various sub-projects and plan ahead for the future. At the moment, our primary research projects orbit around 1) the production and release of music as a way to critically engage with streaming software and platforms, 2) experimenting with ways to explore the metadata that surrounds streaming music, and 3) tracing the historical development and contextualization of streaming platforms. During the meeting, Jonas Andersson Schwarz also paid us a visit to talk about his current research concerning the critical analysis of logics of sharing online. This is a research topic that not least ties into our current attempts to historize streaming in the aftermath of debates over file sharing.

As for this week, three members of the group – Anna Johansson, Rasmus Fleischer and Maria Eriksson – will present some of the first results from our ongoing research at a conference organized by the Music Focused Interdisciplinary Research & Analysis Center (MIRAC). The event, entitled “A changed musical landscape”, is to be held at Stockholm University and will take place during November 26th and 27th.

gold mining
Posted on October 20, 2014 by

Upcoming article

We are happy to announce that a freshly written article by Patrick Vonderau will shortly be published in Television & New Media. The piece which is entitled “The Politics of Content Aggregation,” mainly deals with online video and music streaming, and traces both the origins of the concept of streaming, and the practices and notions of its facilitating principle: content aggregation.

In the article, Vondearau investigates how streaming has “become an actionable concept, useful to engineer changes in the way media are accessed, commodified, and experienced.” In so doing, he directs focus towards the importance of content aggregation – a crucial, but often ill-forgotten element that, in many ways, is what makes today’s online streams flow. Vonderau approaches streaming and aggregation as sets of practices – and as metaphors – asking how the two conjunctively help to “organize media knowledge, markets, and the actual work that goes into distributing music or video online.”

One of his findings leads us back to the historical origins of the word “streaming” itself, which he reminds us has its roots within contexts such as mining – “the washing or streaming of earth to obtain tin-ore or gold”, and in the context of theology – “as in ‘the streamings out of sin.’” This leads Vondearau to note how ideas of streaming (in both historical and present times) seem to be “linked to an economic belief in a conversion of values.” However, rather than simply converting – or reviving – the value of commodities according to the wishes of it’s rights owners, Vonderau argues that streaming services and agreggators might contribute to the kinds of commodity devaluations that their services were designed to fight.

For a full reading of the text, a pre-print pdf can be accessed here:
The Politics of Content Agreggation

Posted on October 2, 2014 by

HUMlab collaboration initiated

On the 30th of September we had a productive meeting with Roger Mähler and Fredrik Palm – two exemplary programmers working at HUMlab who have agreed to help us develop a few methodological tools for our project, and thus serve as exciting additions to our research group.

The meeting was formed around a “digital tools wish list” authored by the not-as-technically-literate group members, and during our discussions we especially agreed on trying to develop two tools that will hopefully come very handy in our future research.

The first tool involves setting up an online system that allows for navigating and exploring the “Million Song Dataset” – a downloadable database of music metadata provided by the Spotify-owned analytics company Echonest. The hope is that such an application will help us make sense of the structure, and some of the contents, of what might be found within the “black box” of streaming services – a topic that is of central relevance to our research.

The second tool initiative involves developing digital methods for monitoring, archiving and analyzing the developments of software interfaces over time. In a digital landscape where the designs and functions of online platforms are in rapid transformation (sometimes even daily) this is a quest that speaks to larger difficulties of historically grasping our objects of study within the digital humanities, and something that also has high bearing for the cultural heritage angle of our project.

Having the possibility of working closely together with technically skilled personnel at HUMlab – not least in dialogue with HUMlabs Patrik Svensson – is one of the great advantages of this project, and something we believe will truly deepen and broaden the scope of our research. Our hope is that these tools will also be made available to the public, so stay tuned if you want to learn more about these issues in the future…

Posted on September 19, 2014 by

Journal interview

A few months ago, an article about our ongoing research was published in the journal Curie – a web magazine issued by the Swedish Research Council. The article was based on an interview with Pelle Snickars and was assigned a title that roughly translates into “Researchers follow music files online.”

In the interview, Snickars explains how one of the goals of our project is “to document the journey of files through the digital eco system.” As Snickars notes, this will partly occur through the establishment of a non-commercial record label – a move intended to help us gain access to analytics tools and user archives that are kept within streaming services. Throughout this process, “our perspective is humanistic”, Snickars adds, “we want to explore how humans use technology, and how technological interactions shape us.”

For those who are interested, the full article can be accessed here.

Posted on September 16, 2014 by

Berlin kick-off

In late August we spent two intensive days in Berlin in order to collect our thoughts and kick-start our project for the coming year.

Besides from having thought provoking discussions regarding literature and our research plans, the trip involved a very interesting meeting with professor Holger Schulze, founder and principal investigator at the Sound Studies Lab – a hub for sound studies research in collaboration with universities such as the Leuphana University of Lüneburg and Humboldt Universität zu Berlin. Schultze shared his thoughts on ethnographically oriented field research in connection to studies of sound and music, and did not least point to the importance of research regarding the materiality of music distribution – a topic where our research interests very much overlap.

We were also fortunate enough to sit down with Berlin-based author, theorist, artist and net activist Pit Schultz. Schultz, who is involved in various projects such as radio station and the V2_, Institute for the Unstable Media, gave us interesting and inspiring inputs on the current conditions of streamed media and the various kinds of streaming solutions that are emerging on a local and global scale.

Our Berlin trip also resulted in a few planned engagements. A joint-piece article aimed to be finished during spring 2015 has been initiated, and on the 30th of September we will meet Roger Mähler – IT developer at Humlab, Umeå University – in order to discuss the realization of several research ideas that grew out of our meeting in Berlin. More information about these endeavors will come in the future.

Posted on July 13, 2014 by

New PhD attached to the project

We are please to announce that the project group has decided to employe a new participant in the form of a PhD student, Maria Eriksson. Starting during autumn (on September 1) Maria will be a PhD candidate in media and communications studies at the Department of Culture and Media Studies, Umeå University – and linked to the project Streaming heritage. Eriksson has an MA in social anthroplogy from Stockholm university. She has a specialised interest in digital anthropology; her master thesis, for example, traced how digital pirate copied content – as objects, items, things – is being produced, distributed and consumed, and thereby given a “social life” through passages of value regimes and moral spheres.

Eriksson’s research interests lie in the intersection between the anthropological study of digital technologies, material culture and economics – which makes her background and research profile very relevant to the research project. Eriksson’s detailed project plan – among the most original of all of the applicants to the announced PhD position – picks up where the Master’s dissertation leaves off. With the heading, ”’Listen to the Right Music’ – Artistry, Normativity and the Materiality of Music on Spotify”, she aims to study streaming media consumption with primarily three premises: ”firstly, examining the material and technological constitution of streamed music objects on Spotify and the importance of such material properties and technicalities; secondly, analyzing how Spotify organizes, standardizes, and culturally gives streamed music files a ‘social life’ through algorithmic calculations and ‘expert’ evaluations; and thirdly, exploring how such material, technological, and cultural framings feed into the strategies and practices of musical artists and music rights owners.” In other words, her focus is the software that forms the basis of Spotify and how musical works/files/objects regulate, influence and control user behaviours. She envisions a compilation thesis, and as a doctoral student, she will alas be a part of the project’s interdisciplinary research team.

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