#heapsong1: sharing music on SoundCloud
Technological advancements in the music industry have influenced the processes and spaces of production, dissemination and audition of recorded music. During the collaborative production process of alternative electronica musician Imogen Heap’s next album via SoundCloud, distribution and consumption processes take place simultaneously and a hybrid musical space thrives on the online social music network platform. In the midst of the production process of her new album’s first track with working title #heapsong1, both artist and audience give and take interface-afforded opportunities to contribute musically to the production process while sharing the traditionally separate dissemination and consumption processes. These interactions are not only afforded by the platform design of SoundCloud, but also encouraged by its design. The interface’s low technological barrier to entry, its audio-visual orientation to the music experience, its social features and integration feasibility invites users - producers, distributors, and consumers alike - to share traditionally distant roles in the hybrid musical space. While the gap between existing and interface-prescribed skills closes, the seams of converging process spaces are unraveling and a musically hybrid space is realized. In musical hybridity, the traditional recorded music track is no longer crystallized, but in a constant state of production, “continually, immanently open to re-creation” (Born 2005, 26). This article explores how, as a result of online social music network platforms, agency and mediation, the recorded music experience and the musical artifact that is central to that experience have and continue to be transformed.
Technological advancements in the music industry have influenced the processes of the construction of spaces of production, dissemination and audition of recorded music. Before the introduction of the online social music network, artistic processes were realized in separate spaces. Convergence of these spaces has since occurred in the relations between artistic roles in the online social music network experience. Since the introduction of this online social music network, modern platforms and interface designs invite users to converge the processes of the construction of all three spaces in a recorded musical experience, eventually enabling and influencing the production of a hybrid musical space and transforming the nature of the musical track itself. The user processes encouraged by the design of these “idiosyncratic” interfaces (Tanaka 2005, 279) in turn transform the quality of the recorded music experience. By focusing on the case of SoundCloud interface-mediated collaborative creation of alternative electronica musician Imogen Heap's next album, this article explores the agency of online social music network interfaces, the user roles they prescribe, and the processes they instigate and converge in order to present the effects those processes have on the recorded music experience.
Recorded Music Experience
A recorded music experience most often consists of a set of processes allocated amongst a set of roles which function to produce the cultural artifact of the recorded music track. The main processes that make up this music experience are production, dissemination and consumption. Each process is traditionally carried out by their respective roles, following a general chronological order, realized in their respective spaces. The general roles that carry out these processes are, respectively, the artist, mediator and audience. The artist's role carries out the production process and can be classified by its modes of creating and producing recorded music, the mediator by the mode of carrying out the dissemination process, and the audience by the mode and degree of consumption of recorded music. At the center of the recorded music experience is the musical artifact, also known as the track.
Recorded Music Experience through a Traditional Lens
The roles that fulfill traditional recorded music processes can be differentiated not only by their function but also by specific artistic qualities and skill sets. Artistic qualities and skills of the artist include but are not limited to musical knowledge, technique, and creativity. Those of the mediator include network accessibility, storage capacity, promotion and dissemination. The artistic qualities that differentiate the audience include and are not limited to auditory capabilities, medium access, and medium competence.
A social analysis of these processes reveals that a network of relations exists amongst the roles. By employing Latour’s Actor Network Theory, these networked relations can be traced throughout the traditional recorded music experience amongst all human and non-human roles and artifacts involved in each separate process (Latour 2006). These relations consist of interaction, transformation and transfer, and can be described as the processes that revolve around the central music track.
A spatial analysis of the traditional recorded music processes that these roles fulfill, reveals that each role realizes its process in separate physical or digital spaces. For example, the artist carries out its production process in a recording studio or similar environment and on analog or digital recording engineering devices and platforms. Once a track is produced, the mediator performs its process in spaces such as a distribution center, physical or digital music retailer, online or offline distribution services, restaurants, radios, advertisements, films, etc. Last, the audience’s consumption space can be described traditionally as that which contains a specific means of reception. Cultural sociologist Jody Berland describes this traditional consumption space as the site within which one is surrounded by mediated sound (Berland 1988, 83).
The traditional recorded music track can be traced through an archaeology of its media beginning with the wax cylinder, then the vinyl disc, followed by the cassette tape, and eventually the compact disc (Kusek and Leonhard, 2005). Before the advent of the digital medium, the recorded music track was mediated by a static, physical product. This track can traditionally be defined as a “crystallized set of social and material relations” (Sterne 2006, 826). While traditional processes are realized in separate spaces, the advent of web-based production, distribution and consumption platforms enabled a limited sharing of these spaces. The artifactual result of these newly mediated processes is the MP3 - that which is less crystallized in its digital, immaterial nature than its physical recorded music archetype.
Online Social Music Network Advancements in digital technology afford and encourage new spaces and relations as they integrate into and transform the recorded music experience. As new media scholar Mirko Tobias Schäfer suggests, the basic reconfiguration of the new media culture is “rooted in the computer, in software, and in the global interconnectedness of the Internet” (Schäfer 2011, 56). This recipe also applies to that of the recorded music experience; the new digital environment of the computer, software and the Internet afford the reconfiguration of the recorded music experience. The computer afforded the digitization of the music track from its physical, material form into a compressed, immaterial MP3 form. The digitization of the music track coupled with computer afforded software developments gave way to the introduction of computer-based digital music production and consumption services. The construction of music service software moved to the Internet and, as the infrastructural features of the new digital environment afforded, web-based platforms designed to support the production, distribution and consumption processes and their respective spaces proliferated.These advanced platforms - online social music network platforms - function as new socio-technical ecosystems for the recorded music experience (Ibid).
The online social music network has evolved and proliferated with further advancements in technology and design informed by user appropriation (Schäfer 2011). The platform and its interface are designed by humans and as Bruno Latour’s notion suggests, they, too, harbour agency over their human users (Latour 1992, 2005).
Among the now countless advanced online social music network platforms such as Spotify, Grooveshark, Last.fm, iLike, Pandora and Imeem, SoundCloud is emerging as one of the most socio-technologically progressive. In the case of SoundCloud, each of the auditory, visual and social features of the web-based platform interface affords, or channels, user processes and interactions (Norman 1998). The auditory feature, or the player, affords users the opportunities to create, upload, search for, play (stream or download) and store tracks. The visual feature, or the “waveform player” is a graphical representation of the track’s waveform. It enables a dynamic music experience wherein the aural dimension of the track is reflected in the visual orientation (Tanaka 2001).
The waveform player affords the sampling and fragmentation of tracks, as well as the option to leave timed comments and discussions on the visual representations of tracks. The social features of SoundCloud, making up its community, allow users the options to critique, share and recommend tracks directly on the waveform player. Additional social features enable users to personalize activity feeds, create interest groups, and even collaborate in the previously separate creation (and re-creation), dissemination and consumption processes. The waveform player and community features that make up the SoundCloud interface support all three processes and spaces of the recorded music experience of each track. The revolutionary affordance of the SoundCloud interface is the convergence of traditional music experience processes, roles and their spaces.
The features of the online social music network’s interface are designed to afford certain processes and interactions, and in doing so, pre-inscribe skills and competencies of its human users in order to perform roles and fulfill processes (Latour 1992). Those prescribed in the case of SoundCloud and many other online social music networks include technical competencies such as Internet and browser access, compatible hardware (i.e. computer, microphone, speakers), different levels of musicianship and technique, and even epistemological competencies such as musical intrigue and/or creativity. There exist discrepancies between prescribed and actual competencies in such social interactions (Ibid). In the case of the online social music network, the actual user competencies and appropriations of the software determine how the design of that platform and its features is further developed to prescribe new corresponding competencies.
To extend the potential human-interface interaction in the case of SoundCloud and Imogen Heap, composer and new media scholar Atau Tanaka’s term “idiosyncratic” interface can be applied (Tanaka 2005, 279). According to Tanaka, when a composer finds what an instrument is capable of expressing, he is finding its voice. The term idiomatic is used to describe this characteristic of an instrument (Ibid, 274). The notion of the idiosyncratic interface derives from the idiomatic character of the instrument as the online social music network platform and its qualities are assimilated to that of an instrument. The idiosyncratic interface, in this case the SoundCloud platform as employed by Imogen Heap, is not only an instrument but also a situation created by the artist that incites or naturally filters certain user behaviors and actions. The idiosyncrasy of the SoundCloud interface implies dynamic, human-filtered non-human agency. In other words, the platform’s encouraged actions and prescribed competencies of its users are sluiced by Imogen Heaps instructions and guidelines for collaboration on the platform.
Convergence of spaces: musical hybrid
Together, the features of the SoundCloud interface afford and enable the convergence of the traditional spaces in which processes of the recorded music experience are fulfilled. These technological features incite both explicit and implicit modes of participation from its users, which, together with the enabling and encompassing digital environment, produce a participatory culture (Jenkins, 2006; Scha fer 2011). The idiosyncratic interface of SoundCloud invites users like Imogen Heap to explicitly design an “architecture” for collective musical processes (Tanaka 2005, 281) by which she and the consumers participate explicitly and implicitly (Schäfer 2011) . This interface-afforded and socially constructed convergence creates a new, hybrid music space wherein roles are shared and artifacts are created, disseminated and consumed collectively.
The SoundCloud platform as an audio-visual music player affords the convergence of production and consumption processes. The player allows users (artists and consumers alike) to upload - and even directly record - music track content to the player. It is integrated with music creation and recording applications from which users of all musical and technical competencies can directly upload tracks for sharing. Once uploaded, a music track represented in the waveform player is open to timed comments, feedback and discussions, to streaming and downloading for use in the creation of other new tracks. These participatory activities incited by the audio-visual music player are both explicit, as they are driven by motivation, and implicit, as they are not necessarily conscious but are channeled by the feature’s idiosyncratic technical design (Schäfer 2011, 44). Each individual track on the SoundCloud waveform player is assigned its own distinctive URL that allows those tracks to be embedded anywhere (SoundCloud.com 2011).
This allowance ties into the social features of the SoundCloud platform. The social features afford the convergence of the music player feature’s production and consumption processes with the dissemination process. Users can choose public or private sharing settings for each of their own tracks, and embed the URL of their own tracks on any other compatible website, social network platform or music service, controlling the availability of their own tracks to other users. The customizable dashboard affords user creation of a “daily inbox of sounds”. It encourages users to trace social activities around their own tracks, and the tracks of other users they “follow”. Users can also create, follow and share in groups by style or sound, collaborate with other users, and collect and distribute audio submissions with the group Dropbox feature. And last, SoundCloud integrates with external online social network applications such as Tumblr, Songkick, Twitter, Facebook, and several others, allowing and supporting an extensive, dynamic community of creators, distributors and consumers (SoundCloud.com 2011). As with feature of the audio-visual music player, user participatory activities encouraged by the social features of the interface are both explicit and implicit. The participatory culture that results on the SoundCloud platform constitutes the collective creation, dissemination and consumption of user-generated recorded music content, and the data generated by user appropriation that ultimately informs the future design of that platform (Schäfer 2011).
A case of interface-afforded collaboration
A musical hybrid space is realized in the case of Imogen Heap and the collective production of her next album on the SoundCloud platform. Imogen Heap interacts with her audience via the platform’s dynamic community. She invites and organizes collaboration with the group feature of the interface and embeds widgets of that group function in other online social networks for recruitment and promotion (Heap 2011). By interacting with her on these platforms, the audience in turn promotes Imogen Heap. They can comment on, “like” and share Imogen Heap’s interactions with their followers on SoundCloud and with connections on other online social network platforms. Users are invited and directed to submit sample tracks for the inclusion and infusion in Imogen Heap’s new tracks using a group Dropbox. Through social and Audience and artist can give feedback on both audience submissions and artist integrations of those submissions. Imogen Heap blogs in her SoundCloud group and in embedded applications (UStream, Tumblr, Spotify, 3DiCD, musicglue, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) about collaborations, submissions and album progress. In this project, the audience and artist are afforded the opportunity to collaborate on SoundCloud. As an effect, SoundCloud bridges the distance between producer and consumer. This feature is once exposed through the participatory nature of the comments, but moreover - SoundCloud encourages the user to produce together with the artist, bridging their relations with the artist closer than ever before.
With the support of the platform’s social features, artist and audience can then collectively produce tracks with the waveform player. Under Imogen Heap’s direction, audience can post sample tracks to the group DropBox. Users (audience and artist) can post timed comments for feedback and analysis. All users have access to the statistics (downloads, plays, favorites, comments) of each sample track. This feature offers valuable insight to artist and audience on the consumer judgment of each track. Imogen Heap can download and integrate audience sample tracks into the work-in-progress album tracks and post them to the group for further feedback. At the end of the process, final products are made available to the public via the SoundCloudwaveform player, track by track. These final artifacts are then open to the same streaming and downloading, and are the original archetypes for future user appropriation in infusions, remixes and mash-ups.
Musical hybridity realized: Implications for the recorded music experience and its artifact
The hybrid space of production, dissemination and consumption produced on the SoundCloud platform has implications on the artifacts. At the center of these converged processes, the track in its traditional crystallized state is transformed. Social and material relations on and with the SoundCloud musically hybrid platform are fluid and constant so the nature of each track is constantly transforming while leaving an archaeology of its forms behind. In musical hybridity, the online social music interface allows the recorded track to be in a constant state of assemblage and production, “continually, immanently open to re-creation” (Born 2005, 26).
In the hybrid musical space afforded by the online social music network platform and its idiosyncratic interface, the convergence of processes has implications on the recorded music experience as a whole. In the case of Imogen Heap on SoundCloud, the roles of artist, mediator and audience are merged, and the user competencies prescribed that traditionally distinguished roles from one another are now prescribed to and assumed by any participating user. As the process, role and competency gaps between different users closes, user actions further inform the design and development of the online social music network interface. The transformative implication of musical hybridity on the digitally mediated recorded music experience is the progression towards a shared music experience. Just as artist Imogen Heap situates individual users (artists, distributors and consumers) musically in collective action on the SoundCloud platform, she generates an interface-afforded shared music experience in a space where the user experience and networked social dynamics generate “collective musical output” (Tanaka 2005, 287).
The artist is audience and audience is artist in the collaborative creation of Imogen Heap’s next album via SoundCloud. During the collaborative production process, distribution and consumption processes take place simultaneously and a hybrid musical space thrives on the online social music network platform. Imogen Heap uses the SoundCloud platform to invite audience members around the world to post sample audio tracks for the potential inclusion and infusion in each of her upcoming album tracks. In the midst of the production process of her new album’s first track, both artist and audience give and take interface-afforded opportunities to contribute musically to the production process while sharing the traditionally separate dissemination and consumption processes. These interactions are not only afforded by the platform design of SoundCloud.com, but also encouraged by its design. The interface’s low technological barrier to entry, it’s audio-visual orientation to the music experience, its social features and integration feasibility invites users - producers, distributors, and consumers alike - to share traditionally distant roles in the hybrid musical space. While these processes are encouraged by the SoundCloud interface, the musical and technological competencies needed to perform these interactions are prescribed. While the gap between existing and interface-prescribed competencies closes, the tracks resulting from the SoundCloud-mediated recorded music experience are transformed. The transformation of recorded music experience processes, roles and tracks informs the developing design of the SoundCloud interface which further improves the user (inter)actions it facilitates, the tracks that result and the shared recorded music experience it mediates.
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