Attendance at the workshop we organised in May was by invitation only, but the project team’s presentations were video recorded. In this edited version, we explain how and why we have been researching London’s electronic music scene and the valuing of electronic music.
Also available from the Open University podcast site.
Valuing Electronic Music is an innovative research project using qualitative and quantitative methods to study the role of online and offline interactions in producing the cultural value of electronic music. I’ll explain exactly what we mean by that later.
It’s also an attempt to study the London electronic music scene in all of its diversity. And it’s funded by a six month grant from the AHRC’s Cultural Value Project although we’re hoping to continue the research for a much longer period than the six months that we’re actually funded for.
This project began partly with the research that I was talking about with visual art producers in the east of London. But it also, on a theoretical level, it began with an idea drawn from the work of the sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, which is that specifically cultural value as opposed to economic value or anything like that consists in nothing more nor less than cultural producers’ evaluations of one another’s work.
Bourdieu focused on the contrast between what sociologists call ‘legitimate culture’, which essentially means largely non-commercial culture which is celebrated through the educational system. So things like classical music, serious literature, fine art, etc. So the contrast between that and mainstream middlebrow and lowbrow commercial culture. Things like popular fiction, Hollywood movies, etc.
Since Bourdieu, sociologists of culture have taken that further by studying other non-commercial forms of culture in ways drawing on Bourdieu’s study of what he called the Field of Restricted Production which is this legitimate culture. For example, there have been some interesting studies of hip hop, jazz. I’ve done some work on a largely forgotten art form called interactive fiction. Looking at the way that these fields are sustained by production for producers. So people producing not in order to sell to a large audience, because that generally doesn’t exist, but people producing for the appreciation of other people whose work they appreciate. And you can see that going on in all sorts of cultural areas.
So a lot of what I’ve been concerned with theoretically is on the one hand how methodologies that allow you to deal with musical situations wherein people are engaging with one another in the micro dynamics of making music together. And on the other hand the fact that those mutually intimately oriented musical interactions are in many cases simultaneously being broadcast or published out to an audience of unknown persons.
So the terms I’ve used to describe these multiple or simultaneous kinds of social orientation talk about intimacies and talk about imaginaries. So intimacies being those kinds of face to face interactions. Imaginaries being those kinds of interactions that address Dear Listeners, Dear Readers, these kinds of relationships. There are people in social relationships but involve a different kind of orientation. I’ll bracket for now some of the theory that’s been written up on intimate publics because there’s a body of literature on that. But just to have this productive, I think, I hope, opposition in place.
One of the areas that immediately complicates the opposition is this thing in the middle here that I’ve called public spaces. The fact that there are venues, that venues advertise or even broadcast out to publics. But the fact that public spaces are places where people can meet and interact face to face even if it’s only to spill somebody else’s beer.
So there’s that sense of a public space being a potential place for fledgling intimacies or where you go with intimates where intimate interactions, musical interactions, are taking place, calibrated very closely to one another in time.
So this is the broad area of interest that I’ve been investigating for the most part, as I’ve said before, in the realm of North American indigenous music. And I’ve been investigating this kind of relationship for the most part in the offline world. I’ve been thinking about musicians making music together face to face. I’ve been thinking about acts and performance and publication largely through the radio, through traditional recorded media, through print publication.
But again, with online forms of interaction, you have this place in the middle that I think is a particularly interesting, fascinating place where it’s possible on the one hand to cultivate intimacies to people that you get to know. And on the other hand it’s possible to publish to a world of strangers. And so it’s those online equivalents of pubic spaces that I also think are particularly fascinating places. And Sound Cloud is one of those, where actually you can end up cultivating relationships, developing intimacies with people.
So if you like, I’m interested in this project particularly in the kind of two zones or two kinds of orientation and the zones that enable both of them and investigating those. And it seems to me that electronic music production involves all of them. So that the trick is coming to terms with methodologically, with methods that are robust and open to investigating all of these venues, all these kinds of social orientation and all of these venues for social interaction.
And so methodologically what our fix has been, has been to incorporate on the one hand broad studies of data from the SoundCloud website, largely quantitative. And then interviews with particular persons. And to interview people about their acts and publication and performance, whether those are in offline venues or online ones to ask them about their relationships. The kinds of relationships that they cultivate with persons.
That grounds us in terms of what kinds of social networks we’re looking at. We’re looking at the relationships that people cultivate online and offline with publics of strangers but we’re also interested in the kinds of relationships they cultivate with known and knowable persons, and specifically we’re interested in looking at the ways that valuing is at the centre of all of those relationships.
This section of the day is going to be about the methodology we’re using for the project. So we’re using a combination of qualitative and quantitative research. I’m going to first of all talk a little bit about the nuts and bolts in terms of collecting the data, the quantitative side of things.
We are using SoundCloud. As I mentioned before SoundCloud is the social media site for musicians. And there is a large amount of data that we can collect that is freely available, freely made available by SoundCloud through their API which is their point at which you can request information from their site and they’ll send you the data.
There’s the little link down the bottom there.
So you can collect all sorts of information. You can collect information about users and it’s not just a case of what’s the user’s name, where do they come from, its things like how many followers do they have, have many tracks have they favourited, how many tracks have they clicked I Like This.
You can collect information about where their avatars are if you are interested in that kind of thing. There’s all sorts of connections. Connections to MySpace if they have that. Connections to sites that I’ve never even heard of, Discogs, no one seems to have recorded any data for that so that might be slightly irrelevant.
Alistair Willis (off camera)
Because they haven’t made any records!
And beyond the users you can collect information on the tracks that the users have created and uploaded to SoundCloud. So as well as things like, here is the track, it is available at this URL, you can collect information like the beats per minute of the track. You can collect information like the tags that we mentioned earlier, they can put multiple tags to say this is…
Nick Crossley (off camera)
Is there a problem with randomness that there are lots of people on there that don’t really do anything?
Yep, you’ve pre-empted this slide in fact. One way to discard data from our sample is to remove those users who aren’t really contributing to the network, who aren’t really participating.
So, you see my little red circle there, that’s a user who follows other users but no one’s following them. So we would say this person is not so influential. So we can remove them for the moment. Whereas over here we have the Justin Timberlake node, I do believe, who has lots of followers but does nothing on the Sound Cloud network. So we’re not so interested in what Justin Timberlake is doing. We’re interested in these guys here who are participating by following other people or liking other people’s tracks or participating in some other way, but are also having that same interaction coming back to them. So there is activity both ways.
So, just because we like these little diagrams, the top little circle was the horrific mess of users that we had in – this is 500 users – and around the circle you have all the users, and this is all the connections between them. So if you take away all the people who – I forget which way around it is –
Matthew Yee-King (off camera)
So a connection would be defined as someone commenting on a track or liking something that someone produced or following them?
Yeah. Interacting with them in some way. Yeah. So once we remove the people who are not participating by following others – Justin Timberlake – and the people who are not having interactions coming into them, it’s still a mess, but there’s slightly more structure there, so the idea is that we can condense slightly.
I’ll stop talking except to point towards what we’re doing with this. We’re using various methods of analysis. Firstly to find the most influential users, which gives us an idea of the top guys, the most influential guys, various methods. But then we want to really know a little bit more about what is going on in the network beyond the top guys. Now, here we’re feeding back and forth between what Byron and Daniel are finding out from interviewing people as well.
We’re also looking at how little networks within the network arise and what we can find out from those. I have put the etcetera there because I’m hoping to get some feedback as well about what else we could do with this data now we have it.
I’m going to pass over to the others. We’ll have a discussion period to talk about the decisions that I’ve just talked about and what Byron and Daniel will present.
There are four or five points to make here.
The first comes out of the participant observer kinds of engagement. And that’s that valuing takes verbal and non-verbal forms. So we do find that people are leaving comments, following people, these sorts of things but what about when you go out to a show. How do people appreciate electronic music? It depends on the genre of course.
The gig I was at yesterday I’m sure that appreciation was shown in part by remaining silent during the performance. When a couple of people behind me started talking during it, so I was wondering about the effect on the musicians who are up on the stage. It was a very quiet performance.
When I spoke to a DJ who works at, not only entirely mainstream but it’s a pretty mainstream gig, playing at a bar in Shoreditch High Street he said, well I know people are into what I’m playing when they jump up and down, when they scream and they yell. Actually I’m quoting directly from a bit of an interview transcript that you’ll see later.
And then on the other hand when Daniel and I went out to see a grime event it was very interesting to me to see the very specific ways that, it seemed to me at least, on a first night out at this event, and I need to go back to possibly talk to people to see if my intuitions are correct. The ways that people seem to be
At this event there were people dancing definitely but they weren’t dancing facing each other. A lot of people were not dancing facing each other they were dancing looking at the DJ booth. It’s not like the DJs were doing anything particularly exciting, every once in a while they’d pump their fist in the air, where they do a rewind or something interesting would happen. But generally speaking they were kind of manning the decks and occupying themselves with the basic logistics of running the evening.
So why were people not facing one another, facing the DJ booth? It seemed to me that what they were doing in part was performing a kind of engagement, letting the DJ know that they were into what the DJ was playing. So they were moving around but they were moving around while facing the DJ booth. As a way of, if you like, communicating one’s openness to the music, one’s appreciation of the music and it’s a particular embodied way of doing that.
Whereas at other clubs it might be very well that you don’t orient yourself at all towards the DJ booth. That you just go out and have a good time and that’s how the DJ knows that they’re being successful.
So what this is suggesting is that first of all there are non-verbal ways of communicating appreciation. Secondly that these too are specific to genre. That people have genred ways of performing their liking or their appreciation of certain types of music. There are more or less appropriate ways to behave in certain contexts and that you respond to music in particular ways. So that’s a little bit that comes out of some of the ethnographic data.
The second point is that value involves valuables. There are things that people want. So one of the things that I think came up even on Daniel’s examples of materials or comments that were listed on Sound Cloud were things like downloads. In other words could I get this for free please? The fact that people are asking for it means there’s something that they want.
And there are complicated relationships to music. I spoke to one DJ and asked, do you buy your own music? He said, no, none of it, download it all for free. But he argued to me that he did value the music that he played and that he showed his valuing for it by playing it for other people.
Third, talk about value often becomes talk about relationships. When I ask people to talk about instances when they’ve known themselves to be valued or when they valued other people they start talking about pretty, generally speaking, close relationships with other producers that have come about.
I interviewed, for instance, a woman who has about 9000 followers on Mixcloud which is another social music networking site. And one of the things that she is active in doing is she finds music producers of music she really likes and she’ll fold their music into her mixers. Sometimes she’ll get in touch with them, contact them and on occasions she’ll also go out of her way to start promoting them.
I think in a couple of cases she even arranged for interviews with newspapers with particular producers. All of this for free. She told me that she was thinking of eventually moving into the business of management, this was good practice for it. The fact of the matter was the people she valued were the people that she was willing to do things for free for. There was that kind of personal relationship.
When we interviewed another producer, or a producer more specifically, he said that the way that valuing was most evident amongst peers, people who are kind of on the same level as one another, was that they would collaborate. They’d work together on a particular track and release it jointly on both of their Sound Cloud pages.
So there’s a sense that valuing meant closer and closer forms of engagement that somehow investing in music was investing time in other people. This was the third thing that emerged so far from the data.
And the things that I’ve just been talking about, the examples that I’ve just been using are also examples of this fourth point that the valuing of electronic music involves participants in very complicated forms of economics. Economies of patronage I’ve called them here, and they’re not necessarily market economies. They’re reciprocal economies that involve investment of time and effort in people that one knows.
When we talk to people it seems that these kinds of valuing are the ones that emerge most when discussions of the deep dynamics of the sociality of Sound Cloud even, but other things too emerge.
I can add a final point that came up over lunch. A fifth and final point is that interesting kinds of fabrications and misrepresentations seem to be possible online in the same way as they are in public spaces in the offline world. There are clever ways to make use of systems to misrepresent yourself. When I talk to the Mixcloud DJ who is also a manager, she talked about the ability to buy likes on Facebook. You can buy a bunch of likes for your page and by that means sort of get a little bit more recognition for yourself as a musician.
What she argued was it’s much more important actually to have relationships with real people rather than bought likes. The likes that you work hard for that you go out of your way to make those are the people who are going to talk about you with their friends. Those are the people that you are going to matter to and they’ll work for you in a way that bought likes simply won’t.
Again a fifth and final point is that there are fascinating ways of fabricating sociality that are in themselves of course deeply social that are worth investigating. And suggests a nice point of similarity between say, the offline street and the online street as public spaces where you can be sort of tricked into various kinds of fabrications by various agents.
When I think about what we might be contributing in the kind of activist sense, it’s a sense that we want to complicate the idea of what value is thought to be. That we want to think about insisting that there are many kinds of economies. There are many kinds of valuings and that they need to be taken seriously because here we’ve got evidence of people really seriously valuing things with lots and lots of time spent doing it, in creating economies that are not primarily based around the circulation of capital – although that’s part of it, it’s part of it in complicated ways. So, insisting on the complexity of the modes of valuing that people are involved in and supporting all the time.
I mean for me, one of the most important, one of my most important motivations for doing this is actually essentially is critiquing the idea of cultural value itself. If you can show that cultural value actually reduces to acts of valuing on the part of particular networks of people then that removes the idea that there is – it makes it impossible to have an idea of absolute cultural value. And it would make it difficult to justify particular funding choices on the basis of the supposedly objective properties of particular works because it reveals that in fact those have their value because they were – because of the acts of valuing carried out by people in different networks.
So, for me that’s an important part of this project. He says to the person on the cultural value panel.