30-05-2011 mag 4 / popular /

article/

#heapsong1: sharing music on SoundCloud

Abstract: 

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.

Introduction 

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).

Conclusion 

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. 

Music Reference

Heap, Imogen. 2011. Lifeline. http://soundcloud.com/imogenheap/lifeline.

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