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Cybersounds: Essays on Virtual Music Culture

Editor: Michael D. Ayers
Publisher: New York: Peter Lang, 2006
Review Published: March 2008

 REVIEW 1: Lori Landay
 REVIEW 2: Shintaro Miyazaki
 REVIEW 3: Marc W.D. Tyrrell
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Michael D. Ayers

Everyone agrees that the Internet has transformed music culture, and that the industry is trying to adapt to and harness digital technologies. The old model of a physical product (whether sheet music, records, or CDs) has been challenged by digital technologies including peer-to-peer networking (Napster), electronic formats like MP3, new business models such as Apple's iTunes Music Store, and new devices like the iPod and other MP3 players. Moreover, fan communities, record companies, music stores, and musicians all have online presences. The ramifications of online music for music production, regulation, consumption, distribution, and fan cultures are explored in Cybersounds: Essays on Virtual Music Culture, a sophisticated and engaging collection of essays edited by sociologist and music critic Michael D. Ayers. The essays share an ethnographic approach, a grounding in cultural theory, and an emphasis on raising questions about how the physical and virtual contexts of music culture are connected. The individual essays explore many aspects of the cultural contexts and social issues of online music: how fans build online communities, how musicians use the internet, and how the music industry handles online music. Taken as a whole, the collection offers a thought-provoking bridge between the fields of cyberculture studies and contemporary music, with particular focus on a careful investigation of the practices of musicians, corporations, and audiences.

Each essay has something to offer, and will appeal to readers' individual interests, but also they all engage wider issues of online music such as legality, creativity, social interactions online, the relationships between music producers and consumers, and how technology changes music. They do this steeped in both classic and current anthropological and sociological cultural theory and recent scholarship on digital culture and cyberspace. Because all the essays do address these broader themes, editor Ayers deliberately chose not to organize the essays into categories, but some groupings might help you get a sense of the book's depth and breadth.

There are two essays which focus primarily on copyright, ethical questions, and legal concerns: Elizabeth A. Buchanan's "Deafening Silence: Music and the Emerging Climate of Access and Use" and Adam Haupt's "The Technology of Subversion: From Digital Sampling in Hip-Hop to the MP3 Revolution." Buchanan's contribution is a particularly strong essay that manages to present an overview of the history of Internet copyright issues within an ethical context and raise salient issues for further consideration in eight stellar pages. Buchanan's essay is complemented nicely by Haupt's study of how "technology has been used to frustrate corporate interests" (107); together they shed light on the complex interrelationships of the rights of artists, consumers, and industry.

Several essays explore online music communities in detail, including Andrew Whelan's “Do U Produce?: Subcultural Capital and Amateur Musicianship in Peer-to-Peer Networks” Andre Pinard amd Sean Jacobs's “Building a Virtual Diaspora: Hip-Hop in Cyberspace,” Daragh O'Reilly and Kathy Doherty's “Music B(r)ands Online and Constructing Community: The Case of New Model Army,” and Chris Anderton's “Beating the Bootleggers: Fan Creativity, 'Lossless' Audio Trading, and Commercial Opportunities.” Using different case studies as jumping off points, these essays probe what Pinard and Jacobs discuss as “cultural flow” in their intriguing study of American and African hip-hop online communities. Markus Giesler's striking essay “Cybernetic Gift Giving and Social Drama: A Netnography of the Napster File-Sharing Community,” considers peer-to-peer networking through the prism of anthropological perspectives on gift-giving, and breaks new ground in developing theoretical constructs that bridge the boundary between the physical and the cybernetic; it is worth the effort to follow the scholarly trail Giesler sets up in order to discuss the “rhizomorphous structure of cybernetic gift giving” (45).

There are four essays foregrounding music production: John Ryan and Michael Hughes's “Breaking the Decision Chain: The Fate of Creativity in the Age of Self-Production,” editor Ayers's “The Cyberactivism of a Dangermouse,” Trace Reddell's “The Social Pulse of Telharmonics: Functions of Networked Sound and Interactive Webcasting,” and Anderton's aforementioned essay, “Beating the Bootleggers.” Ryan and Hughes's contribution is an exceptionally well-written piece that contextualizes the advent of self-production within the history of music production; the piece's sophisticated understanding of the production of culture is illuminating for thinking through how technological innovation changes the processes of culture.

Like most of the essays in this fine collection, Gabrielle Consentino's “'Hacking' the iPod: A Look Inside Apple's Portable Music Player” delves into a nexus of music production that involves technological innovation, marketing, and consumer adoption/participation. By thinking through the iPod as both gadget and icon, Constentino's elegant analysis gets to the heart of one of the issues running throughout any discussion of digital culture -- the attempted (and, in Apple's case, successful) corporate cooptation of alternative values (in the “1984” ad and the “Think Different” campaigns, for example). The subtle teasing out of how, as physical music products have dissolved into digital files, “the aura of the work of art moves from the content to the medium -- in this case, the playback device” leads to an understanding of how the iPod became the “embodiment of technological allure” (194).

The “Introduction” by Ayers and an “Afterword” by Jonathan Sterne provide a superb frame for the volume. Both are engaging, smart, and evocative, helping the reader make connections among the essays and reminding us of the new ground into which the collection makes forays. Ayers's initial story about attending a Wilco concert offers a utopian glimpse: “I felt as if I had just converged into a cultural space where the digital met the original; the live sound met the studio sounds; the music industry, the artist, and the fans converging into one 'happy place' in which art was of utmost importance and any controversy surrounding music existing online had ceased” (1). The “Introduction” and the book stem from this utopian moment and documents all the ways in which it is and is not replicable and scalable. In the afterword, “On the Future of Music,” Sterne revisits the possibility Ayers sees in that moment. In summarizing the idea that “music culture is not a purely 'online' culture. It systematically violates the 'online/offline' distinction upon which much Internet ethnography is based” (255), Sterne reframes the entire volume as a question to the “dear reader”: “How do you want musical practice to change, and what will you do to see those changes through?” (262).

By highlighting practices and changes, Cybersounds establishes itself as a worthwhile collection, full of theoretically-based and historically-grounded interdisciplinary journeys into the moving target of music and digital culture. By refusing to isolate cyberspace and insisting on looking at the complex interchanges between the physical and the virtual, Ayers and his collaborators have made a significant contribution to the fields of the sociology of music and cyberculture, and have crafted an exemplary collection of essays.

Lori Landay:
Lori Landay is Associate Professor of Cultural Studies at Berklee College of Music, teaching in the Liberal Arts and Film Scoring departments. Her scholarship includes the book Madcaps, Screwball, and Con Women: The Female Trickster in American Culture, and articles on topics such as dance in silent film, digital narrative, and I Love Lucy. Her current project, Lucy TV, is under contract for Wayne State University Press' TV Milestones Series.  <llanday@berklee.edu>

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