So now that I'm done writing and defending the dissertation, I have to think about the next phase, publishing.
What I'd really like to do is just to post the entire thing as a wiki under a Creative Commons license, with a nice, juicy interactive appendix, and let the world mash it up. However, that's not the way things work in academia (yet) -- if I want to make the jump from visiting to tenure-track professor, and eventually to get tenure, I need to find an academic publishing house to put out a print edition. And if it's all available online, or licensed under CC, even though that would probably increase the book's quality and marketability, they wouldn't bite, I'm told. So, ironically, in order to ensure that my ideas get distributed most broadly, I've got to restrict their distribution. This, in a word, is everything that's wrong with both academic publishing and intellectual property today.
But enough ranting. Fortunately, I got a surprise visit from an editor at an academic press today, and I basically asked him how much I could get away with blogging, and still have a good shot at print publication. I'm gonna take his sound advice: namely, blogging the abstract and introduction. If you're interested in reading more, email me, and we'll talk. I look forward to your comments, and your remixes.
This dissertation examines the emergence of new musical aesthetics and practices based around networked media technologies, from remix music to file sharing, and argues that these “configurable” technologies and practices compel us to reexamine our assumptions about both cultural production and social organization. The research is multi-theoretical and multi-methodological, bringing together elements of cultural studies, social network analysis, personality psychology, art history, and musicology, and drawing data primarily from personal interviews with musicians, music industry executives, and attorneys, as well as self-reported attitudes about emerging cultural practices from a survey of 1,765 American adults.
I begin by reviewing the social history of musical regulation, and the resistance that this regulation has engendered. I also propose a mechanism by which musical aesthetics influence social organization, helping to explain the universality of musical regulation and resistance across a broad range of social milieus. I argue that the dialectical tension between these opposing ethics has operated as a vital engine of aesthetic innovation. However, I argue, this process is bounded by a discursive framework that overdetermines our understanding of music’s role in society, and that both sustains and is sustained by dominant social institutions.
Next, I demonstrate that configurable technologies and practices undermine the discursive boundaries that have been in place for the past two centuries, which I term the “modern ontological framework.” I draw upon interview and survey data to explore the ways in which musicians, lawmakers, and everyday people are developing new ways to understand music and cultural production, as the definitional binaries underpinning the modern framework continue to erode into shades of gray.
Finally, I analyze these data in an effort to determine whether a new discourse based on configurability may be replacing the modern framework, and what such a discourse might entail in terms of social organization. I describe five principles: Configurable Collectivism, The Reunion of Labor, The Collision of Public and Private, The Shift from Linearity to Recursiveness, and The Emergence of DJ Consciousness. Their net effect, I argue, suggests a roadmap for the emergence of new social forms and institutions in the networked age.
Introduction: Confessions of a (Reformed) Musical Reactionary
“. . . We’re the only bar in the area, you know, has a strictly electronic music policy. Come on around Saturdays, starting midnight we have your Sinewave Session, that’s a live get-together, fellas come in just to jam from all over the state, San Jose, Santa Barbara, San Diego---”
“Live?” Metzger said, “Electronic music, live?”
“They put it on the tape, here, live, fella. . . .”
- Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49
It is both fitting and ironic that I have written this book. Fitting, because I have been obsessed with both music in general and the expressive potential of recording technology in particular for as long as I can remember, and because my entire professional career to date has been dedicated to exploring the intersection between music, technology and society. Ironic because, while many or most other members of my generation happily embraced configurable music styles such as hip-hop, house and techno as both we and they reached adolescence in the 1980s, I actively resisted these innovations, and only begrudgingly came to accept and finally to love them a decade later.
I still remember the wonder and amazement I felt when I first heard my own voice recorded and played back to me. It was the late 1970s, I was about four or five years old, and my father, an attorney, brought home a battery-powered Dictaphone with an internal condenser mic. He held the small black box in front of me while we talked, then pressed a button. All of a sudden, my own voice came out, repeating the words I had just spoken. I was shocked; he hadn’t told me what the box was for, and I had never dreamed that such a thing was possible.
Even at this young age, I was already quite familiar with sound recording technology. I had been requesting to hear albums by my favorite musicians – The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Everly Brothers – since I could first speak, and by four or five I was very comfortable with the mechanics of the turntable and the amplifier, and happy to raid my parents’ record collection whenever I had the opportunity. I had even come to view the stereo with a kind of familiar reverence, often running my fingers over the knobs on the receiver or the fabric covering the boxy Advent floor speakers as I listened to music, and wondering how it all worked.
Thus, my sense of awe on encountering the Dictaphone had nothing to do with the technology per se. What shocked me, though of course I could never have put it in words at the time, was that the device allowed me to produce recorded sound, and not just to consume it. The thought had literally never occurred to me. Although we had a beautiful Steinway baby grand piano in our home, it was rarely used; in my family, music was something that you primarily listened to, rather than made. We could listen appreciatively – even passionately – but the notion that we’d make it for ourselves was as absurd as the notion of making our own butter, or clothing. That was a job for experts, whose work we acquired at a store and brought into our home to enjoy.
Nonetheless, over the ensuing years, I developed a passion both for making music and for recording sound. I begged my parents for piano lessons, but they demurred, believing (perhaps accurately) that I lacked the requisite attention span, and that forcing me to practice would quickly become a chore for them. I would not receive my first formal music instruction – on guitar – until I was 13. However, much earlier on, I acquired my first tape deck, and by the age of eight, I was recording my own “radio show” (call letters WARAM) from the dining room table.
A few years later, my parents bought me a RadioShack integrated stereo unit, which included both a turntable and a dual-deck cassette recorder. Most importantly, it had a headphone jack and a microphone jack. It didn’t take me long to figure out that a set of headphones could serve as an improvised microphone if plugged into the “wrong” jack, and by the time I was 12 or so, I had upped the ante on my recorded radio show, creating tapes on which I alternated songs from my parents’ record collection and my own patter. From there, I made the obvious leap, to talking and singing while the record was playing, rather than waiting for the interstitial silences between songs. To this day, one of my most treasured relics is a tape I made at the age of 15 with my 3-year-old brother, on which I cajole him to sing along with songs such as The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” and to chant slogans such as “LSD, LSD, LSD is the thing for me” (never mind that I had never tried LSD – it just seemed to go with the territory).
By the end of my teens, I actually fulfilled my childhood ambitions and became both a disc jockey (for three years on my college radio station) and a semi-professional musician, writing songs and playing guitar and bass first in college bands, and then in gigging and recording bands in New York and elsewhere.
None of this is extraordinary. In fact, as I will argue throughout this work, I believe that my own relationship to recording technology is indicative of a much larger cultural shift, a redefinition of our relationship to media production and consumption. My generation was the first to have cheap, accessible, and even disposable audio recording equipment in the home from early childhood, and in the decades since then, both audio and video production have become increasingly accessible in many senses, including affordability, ubiquity and ease of use. And, because technology and culture coevolve, continually nudging one another in new directions, we have seen drastic changes in our aesthetic and symbolic environments in these years as well, many of which I will describe in greater detail in the pages that follow.
What is extraordinary is that, despite my practical enthusiasm for recording (and re-recording) music and sound from earliest childhood, I was not only blind to the merits of what I have come to call configurable culture for many years, but actively hostile as well. As I have mentioned, I was reared on the rock-and-roll of the 1960s, and throughout my childhood, that music remained my gold standard, even as popular idioms moved farther and farther away from it. Even the most mainstream pop acts of my adolescence – Prince, Madonna, Michael Jackson – felt somewhat foreign to me. The big, gated drum sound, tinny synthesizer patches and electronic percussion that pervaded nearly every popular recording of that era sounded like music from another planet; it just didn’t fit into my aesthetic at all.
Far more foreign, and even threatening, were the musical styles of the ‘80s that dispensed with the fig leaves of guitars, chord charts and vocal melodies retained by the pop stars I mentioned above. Emerging styles such as hip-hop (which was suddenly everywhere in my Brooklyn neighborhood), house and techno were unapologetically mechanical in their aesthetic, and though I didn’t fully understand it at the time, Afrocentric in their structural logics. In a sense, then, I understood the message of the music intuitively – these recordings were hostile to the music I held most dear, and to what I refer to in this book as the modern ontological framework.
What I didn’t understand yet was how these musical innovations related to me, and to my own life experiences and social position. My aesthetic antipathies to these new musical styles were consciously and unequivocally moral – I viewed them as a kind of commercial bamboozlement, a bait-and-switch operation in which the human soul was being replaced with a robotic facsimile, and I believed myself to be uniquely conscious of this tragedy among my unthinking peers. In short, I felt about hip-hop the way that Theodore Adorno did about jazz.
This continued even into my early college years, during which I remained a musical reactionary, believing myself to be a revolutionary: strumming my acoustic guitar, playing only “live” recorded tracks on my radio show, and condescendingly insulting the tastes of my friends and acquaintances. I remember many conversations with my friend Henry, around the age of 19, during which he tried fruitlessly to convince me that sampling was a legitimate art form, and just as creative as sitting down and playing a piano. I rejected his arguments out of hand; in my mind, sampling was copying, it was unoriginal. How could Run DMC or Public Enemy ever approach the genius of The Beatles if they didn’t even know how to play their own instruments?
Then something changed, around the time I turned 20. Suddenly, I could hear hip-hop. I could appreciate the brilliance of a well-flipped sample, the ingenuity of an unexpected remix. I began, for the first time, to feel that configurable music was my music, my generation’s music, in a way that the rock I had formerly cherished and the jazz I had come to adore could never be. Almost overnight, I became an enthusiast, blasting KRS-One, De La Soul and Negativland from my stereo. I had arrived, late, to the configurability party.
What precipitated this change of heart, this change of ear? I’m not completely sure myself. It may be that, as I entered adulthood and roamed ever farther from my home, I paradoxically came to see myself ever more as a New Yorker, and to immerse myself nostalgically in its culture. Or it could be that, as the miles and the years separating me from Brooklyn widened, the palpable threat contained in hip-hop waned, and I was better able to appreciate what was left over.
Or maybe the change had nothing at all to do with leaving. Maybe it had to do with arriving. Halfway through my college career, I transferred to Wesleyan University, where I instantly immersed myself in its stellar music and ethnomusicology programs. There, I was exposed for the first time to innovative music theorists such as Anthony Braxton and Alvin Lucier, and to new (for me) musical traditions, from locales as diverse as Ghana, South India and Indonesia. Also, during these years, I developed a deeper cultural competency in the African American musical styles of the 1970s and 1980s (my parents had stopped collecting soul and R&B records around the time I was born, at the beginning of the ‘70s), as well as in dub and dancehall reggae. Given how deeply the hip-hop of the 1980s and 1990s drew upon these traditions, it makes sense that I would gain a fuller appreciation of this newer music only once I had further developed my historical musical lexicon.
It is also possible, of course, that my change in tastes reflected an actual change in the form of the music itself. The early 1990s witnessed a blossoming of new hip-hop sub-species, many of which seemed tailored to appeal as much (or more) to middle class white kids as to the inner city black kids who comprised much of the form’s original audience. Some of my earliest and most enduring loves included groups like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, whose “Native Tongues” ethic included a style that sampled a broader range of musics (some of which I actually knew), rapped more melodically, and used more “sophisticated” language in its lyrics. Also, at this time, there was conscious emphasis among some DJs to integrate jazz into a new hip-hop “fusion” style – and my preexisting love of bop and post-bop made me a natural candidate to appreciate these efforts.
Most likely, my conversion to the cause of configurability was a result of all these factors and more combined. Along with effecting a change in my musical tastes, they also helped to spur in me a dawning recognition that music is intrinsically political, and that my intransigence on the subject of sampling was therefore evidence of some reflexive social conservativism that didn’t jibe with either my progressive politics or my own cultural practices and predilections (e.g. tape recording accompaniments to vinyl records).
This realization, and the story of my musical conversion, comprise the genesis of this work. In the 15 years since my about-face, I have had the opportunity to explore the questions surrounding musical taste and meaning, and the complex relationship of music to both social organization and communication technologies, from a variety of angles. As a musical composer, performer, and sonic experimenter, I have progressed from recording with bands on 2-inch magnetic tape in recording studios to recording and sequencing tracks on my own laptop at home, and assembling them in “virtual” space with other musicians via the Internet. As a digital music industry analyst, I have been privileged to meet and speak with many of the executives, policymakers, journalists and musicians working in this sector, and to contribute my own questions, opinions, and expertise to the field as the need has arisen. Finally, as an academic, I have discovered many rich veins of discourse and debate over these issues in a broad range of disciplines, including Media Studies, Communication, Cultural Studies, Psychology, Sociology, Anthropology, Science, Technology and Society (STS), Art History, Musicology and others – many of which I will explicitly reference and address in the course of this work.
The argument I make in this book is fairly simple and straightforward – that there is a seismic cultural shift, analogous to my personal musical conversion, currently underway. This cultural shift is evident in our changing ideas about music and our changing uses of communication technologies, and has ramifications for every aspect of the existing social order – from the institutional macro-level to the cognitive and affective micro-level.
In my first chapter, I propose a historical dialectic consisting of musical regulation and resistance, and producing aesthetic innovation. I also review and critique many theories linking musical evolution to social evolution, and propose my own theory regarding the mechanism by which this correlation occurs. Finally, I argue that the entire process of musical regulation, resistance and innovation is bounded by a discursive framework, which sets the limits for both regulation and resistance, and which is intimately bound to the institutional context in which it arises.
In my second chapter, I begin by reviewing the origins and principles of the modern ontological framework, the discursive boundary that has defined music in our society since the Enlightenment era. I argue that these discursive boundaries both sustain and draw support from modern social institutions, such as our legal, educational, and commercial systems. Then I discuss recent developments in both communication technologies and cultural practices, which I group under the term “configurability.” Finally, I demonstrate that configurable technologies and practices challenge the fundamental precepts of the modern framework, forcing us to reevaluate our assumptions about the social institutions that both support and rely upon this framework.
In my third chapter, I address the discursive ambiguities presented by the introduction of configurability to the modern framework, drawing upon dozens of extensive interviews with configurable musicians, music industry executives and attorneys, as well as self-reported attitudes about configurable culture culled from a survey of nearly 1,800 American adults. The aim of this chapter is not to answer the question, “what’s happening?” in a definitive sense, but rather to offer a range of responses to the question, “how do people understand and interpret what’s happening?” As these data show, there is no longer any clear consensus about what constitutes originality and derivativeness, artist and audience, or even figure and ground in a configurable context. However, interviewees and survey respondents consistently expressed passionate opinions regarding their individual answers to these questions, demonstrating that people widely perceive questions of aesthetic meaning and valuation to be both morally and politically vital – much as I described my own feelings in the anecdote above.
In my final chapter, I analyze these data in an effort to address my primary research questions. First, I ask to what degree we can understand configurable music as a “resistant” or “critical” musical movement, using the same taxonomic matrix of regulation and resistance that I introduce in my first chapter. Then, I discuss the ways in which the resistant potential of these forms has been mitigated by the recent embrace of entertainment companies, advertisers, and other musical regulatory institutions. Finally, I abstract five core principles describing specific ways in which the ethic of configurability poses a threat to the foundational assumptions and structures comprising our modern social institutions. I term these principles Configurable Collectivism, The Reunion of Labor, The Collision of Public and Private, The Shift from Linearity to Recursiveness, and The Emergence of DJ Consciousness. Their net effect, I argue, suggests a roadmap for the emergence of new social forms and institutions in the networked age. However, I conclude with the acknowledgment that these principles are neither utopian nor dystopian; some form of social order will be maintained, and it will almost certainly retain some historical social inequities, while eradicating others and producing yet more.
I have briefly described what this book is. I will conclude by describing, even more briefly, what it is not. This book is not a work of music criticism, outlining an evaluative mechanism for configurable music, or championing some songs, styles or musicians as “better,” “more authentic,” or “more legitimate” than others. This book is not an ethnography, describing the cultural habits and symbolic structures that characterize a specific musical community. This book is not a work of art history, chronicling the emergence of a new style or the ascendancy of a new aesthetic paradigm. This book is not a comprehensive catalog of configurable musical styles or techniques – in fact, I have avoided getting bogged down in the differences between synthesizing, sequencing, sampling, remixing, DJing and mashing-up, except where absolutely necessary, perhaps to a fault. Finally, although this book was written in part to satisfy the dissertation requirement of my Ph.D. degree, I do not consider it a work of scholarship in the classic sense: I am not testing a specific theory or expanding a specific methodology, nor am I responding to and extending the literature of a specific discipline.
I view this book as something of a mash-up in itself: an improvised amalgam of theories, methodologies, and writing styles, loosely harnessed together to suit my own immediate purpose – namely, to address the questions that have interested me most throughout my life. Ironically, however, I am still a reactionary in some ways; although this work emulates the structural logic of configurability to a certain degree, it still takes on the form of traditional scholarship – not just at the superficial level of footnotes and formatting, but at the deeper level of linear argumentation and the written word. Therefore, I am quite aware that, although I am relatively new to academia, I am already a member of the old guard. As the ethic of configurability increasingly comes to full fruition, and the modern framework that dominated the 19th and 20th centuries recedes into intellectual and cultural history, I consider it likely that scholarship will change as well. Most likely, it will come to increasingly resemble the musical principles I describe in this book, in both its material aspects (e.g. the use of configurable technologies rather than paper and ink) and its formal ones (e.g. the use of recursive argumentation).
This idea is not so far off, or so absurd, as it may seem. I believe that, in many ways, the spirit of configurability and the spirit of scholarship have always been one and the same: both are communitarian enterprises, emphasizing the benefits of collective ideation, and yet both recognize and celebrate the needs and contributions of individual participants. Both ethics relentlessly reexamine their own origins, continually seeking to re-cast old assumptions in a new light, and to challenge dominant and ossified ideas. Finally, both ethics explicitly acknowledge that the last word has never been spoken, and that no project is ever complete. There is always another stone left to turn, another perspective to add to the mix. As you read this book, I encourage you to keep this in mind. Even for me, these pages are no more than a snapshot capturing two years of my own intellectual evolution, and the moment I finish writing, it will be obsolete. I look forward to editing, abridging and augmenting it in the future, and I look forward to your remixes, as well.