Music and the internet: towards a digital sociology of music

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: Languages Cultures Art History & Music


Music and the internet: towards a digital sociology of music (Digsocmus) is an interdisciplinary research project that aims to provide the first comprehensive analysis of the changing cultural roles of the internet in music. Taking as its historical focus a twenty-year period ranging from the early take up of the world wide web to the present day world of social media platforms, and taking as its empirical focus a series of music genres known for innovative experimentation with the internet, it responds to three overarching research questions:

1) Have uses of the internet contributed to greater boundary crossing between 'art' and 'popular' musics? ('Crossover')

2) Has the internet affected an expansion or diversification of the geographical reach of contemporary genres? ('Geography')

3) To what extent have the institutions that provide for the production and distribution of music been reshaped by the internet? ('Disintermediation')

The project will take a comparative case study approach. It will analyse four 'born digital' music genres whose respective geneses coincide with important periods in the cultural development of the internet and world wide web, and whose aesthetics, politics, geographical extent, and supporting institutions have all been shaped by these developments. The case studies will be:

1) Mid-90s: experimental electronica

2) Early-00s: network music and live coding

3) Mid-00s-present: cassette tape revivalism (noise, drone music and DIY)

4) 2010s-present: post-internet music (audio-visual composition, net art, vaporwave)

Although they vary, each of the genres has substantial and innovative online manifestations that are central to their definitions and to how they are experienced by musicians, audiences and promoters. These range from the use of mailing lists to organise independent communicational channels, often merging art and popular musics (study 1); to the adoption of the internet as a live performance medium for geographically-distributed performance (2); to a reactionary move offline and towards the mail order exchange of cassette tapes, often bypassing mainstream institutions (3); and then to a subversive and critical engagement with the modern day world of social media and commercial webspace (4).

The range and diversity of uses of the internet over this 20-year period demand new approaches to the analysis and theorisation of music for which online practices are central. A major conceptual and methodological contribution of this research, then, will be to analyse these genres using social data science, or 'big data' methods. Informed by the research questions, and mixing qualitative and quantitative approaches, these tailored methods will analyse and visualise data from 'natively digital' mediums like forums, mailing lists, and social media platforms, thereby taking the analysis of online music beyond the reach of a single researcher. By mixing these approaches with ethnography and history, the project will stake out a bold new direction in digital musicology: the digital sociology of music.

The leadership activities are designed to support Haworth's development to becoming an international research leader. A visiting fellowship at the University of Amsterdam will place him in close contact with the leading figures in digital research, providing new opportunities for collaboration and publication. The international conference will allow him to collaboratively shape a new subfield of digital musicology, while also impacting on a new generation of digital musicologists. Finally, his international standing outside of academia will be enhanced by workshops at international festivals where musicians, industry professionals, and audiences will be invited to collaborate: first, in debating the themes of crossover, geography and disintermediation in relation to the genres; and second, in designing and shaping the digital methods themselves (see WP5.1).

Planned Impact

Digsocmus will achieve lasting cultural impact through an innovative programme of knowledge co-production ('ethnographic collaboration') that is folded in with the intellectual goals of the project. The research participants will include: creative practitioners associated with the case studies; music industry professionals associated with the independent record labels that support the genres; and audiences and members of the public with interests in electronic music. By bringing these normally disparate groups together to debate the themes and findings of the project, and by building and nurturing a mutually enriching collaborative dialogue with them, Digsocmus aims to 1) enhance the interdisciplinary knowledge and skills of the stakeholders, 2) influence the programming of major electronic music festivals, and 3) create a new public understanding of the aesthetic, social, and institutional changes to musical production in the age of the internet.

The ethnographic collaboration will take place during the following on and off-line activities: 1) collaborative workshops at Mutek festival, Montréal; CTM/Transmediale, Berlin; and Music Tech Fest; 2) a residency at Access Space, Sheffield; and 3) a 'Twitter takeover' in co-ordination with the international festivals

1) The collaborative workshops will each be organised around one of the three research themes of crossover, geography and disintermediation. They will take the form of organised public debates on the given theme, with invited contributions drawn from a mixture of artists, record label owners, journalists, audiences, and representatives of the festival.

2) At Access Space, the Fellow will work with Alex McLean, one of the founders of the international 'live coding' movement, to brainstorm social data science methods for the analysis of live coding's online communities. Using digital archives McLean holds, he and the fellow will collaboratively design text-mining methods oriented to the 'crossover' research theme (WP5.1).

3) In collaboration with international festivals, the fellow will 'takeover' their Twitter feeds to interact directly with online practitioners and audiences associated with the genres, both to strengthen and consolidate existing links, and reach new audiences ('takeover' means having control of their popular Twitter page for a defined period). As well as debating on Twitter, those that interact will be directed to a wiki page where, similarly to in the workshops, they will be invited to debate early comparative interpretations in open online exchanges.

To consolidate the results of the workshops, and deepen the impact of the findings, a discussion session will be organised featuring invited contributors drawn from the collaborative workshops, residency, and Twitter takeover. This will result in a statement to be published in the festival booklets for Mutek, CTM, and/or Music Tech Fest. As well as reflecting on the process of collaborating with the stakeholder groups, the statement will make critical recommendations concerning the programming of electronic music events. This will include: 1) how they may achieve geographical diversity and challenge geographical inequality in electronic music; 2) how the 'divide' between art and popular electronic musics may be productively challenged; and 3) how we may achieve sustainable on and offline music industries in a technological ecosystem dominated by a small number of internet companies.

With histories of early computing and the internet currently booming in popular culture - demonstrated by museum exhibitions, television programmes, and features in broadsheet newspapers - these events will chime with a growing public interest in, and understanding of, the project's themes and historical foci. In addition to the collaborative workshops, the aforementioned festivals will all be used as venues within which to share the benefits of the research beyond academia via public talks and seminars.


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Description Interview on electronic music and cyberculture in the 1990s 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The activity relates to case study 1 of the project. It is part 1 of an ethnographic interview I conducted with the founder of Collapse journal and Urbanomic Press about his activities in relation to cyberculture and electronic music in the 1990s. The interview was very widely shared on social media and sparked interest in the project. It also placed the PI in dialogue with several other important figures in the scene.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019