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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

"Cybersounds outlines the initial contours of a debate I hope to see flourish in the coming years concerning the future of musical creativity and the role of digital technologies in that future."
Jonathan Sterne, Afterward
Sterne's comment (quoted above) on the final page of the afterward is probably the best overall description of the underlying focus of Cybersounds: a focus that is more emergent that emerged. The chapters range over a wide scope of individual focus and theoretical sensemaking to provide the "initial contours" of a complex, emergent topography of artist, fan, technology, corporation, profession and law.

The first chapter, "Deafening Silence: Music and the Emerging Climate of Access and Use," is, to my mind, one of the gems of this collection. In it, Elizabeth Buchanan lays out the sordid story of legal maneuverings to enclose the electronic commons and to destroy the fair use clause in the copyright laws. Her conclusion, that "we have started negating the promotion of knowledge" (17), while startling in some ways does logically flow from her analysis and has profound implications for artists and scholars alike.

If the first chapter is a gem, the second is not. Markus Giesler's "Cybernetic Gift Giving and Social Drama" can, at best, be described as "frustrating" to read and an excellent example of how not to build a theoretical model. Perhaps my reaction to this chapter was conditioned by the style of writing: I find his "summary" to part one to be extremely egotistical, arguing that he has developed something "new" when, in reality, he has merely replicated a limited part of Barry Wellman's (1998) insightful observations. In his "Implications for Research on Gift Giving" he states that "first, my research results significantly contribute to the study of gift giving" -- to which I can only respond, "No, it doesn't."

Andrew Whelan's "Do U Produce" is a joy. His "modest ethnographic account" (57) sooths the reader with a well crafted ethnography that gives the reader more than enough to empathically "understand" the P2P networks he has studied. Whelan's account is both subtle and, at the same time, theoretically informative, drawing the reader in to the community and allowing them to form their own impressions and understandings of the operation of P2P networks and the supple interplay between technical skills and social status.

"Building a Virtual Diaspora: Hip-Hop in Cyberspace" is not as subtle as Whelan's work, being more of a structural analysis of two online Hip-Hop communities: Africanhiphop.com and Okayplayer.com. Andre Pinard and Sean Jacobs use these two communities to analyze how virtual communities impact non-virtual cultural groups in terms of power, identity formation, and socio-economics. They provide a very fine grained analysis of the complexities of what I have elsewhere called "contingent communities" (Tyrrell, 2000).

In "The Technology of Subversion," Adam Haupt presents one of the best analogic theoretical arguments it has ever been my pleasure to read. Haupt draws on Hebdige's (1979) arguments on sub-cultural resistance and places them into a discussion of Empire based on Hardt and Negri's (2002) work. While Haupt's formal case is on parallels between the digital sampling of Hip-Hop and the MP3 revolution, his theoretical case has a much greater application to the general socio-political trends in the 21st century.

Editor Michael D. Ayers' "The Cyberactivism of a Dangermouse" examines the events of Grey Tuesday, an online protest over the reactions of EMI to the mash-up album The Grey Album. This is a short chapter (nine pages + bibliography), and yet it succeeds nicely in framing both the event and response. Ayers makes an interesting, and important, observation when he notes that the case illustrates a key difference between coordinated and collective activism. His other conclusions about the illustrative nature of the case are interesting in that they are really questions that cannot, at the present time, be answered.

"Music B(r)ands Online and Constructing Community" offers an interesting blending of theory from consumer brand research, identity formation, and online community formation. In their analysis of texts on the New Model Army website, Daragh O'Reilly and Kathy Doherty present a nicely composed, albeit short, analysis of the discursive construction and negotiation of the fans as "family" or [neo-]"tribe." While they do weave their analysis around the tensions of consumerism and identity formation, I was somewhat surprised that the they did not really theorize the importance of the shared experience aspect of gigs, which is cited quite often. Based solely on the texts they quote in the chapter, I was struck by the fairly constant references to shared experiences as the basis of "Family" and I am surprised that they did not draw on Victor Turner's (1987) concept of communitas as a way of framing this.

Chris Anderton's examination of music trading networks, "Beating the Bootleggers," is at odds with the popularized characterization of music traders as "pirates" or their oft heard characterization as engaging in acts of resistance. As Anderton notes, "not-for-profit traders are not motivated by financial gain but by a love of music" (181). This chapter is one that shows how the structures and morals of traders support the industry, or at least the artist, rather than attack it and also gives some interesting suggestions on how bands can use trader networks to their advantage.

Unlike many of the other chapters in this book, "'Hacking' the iPod" does not deal directly with either artists or fans. In it, Gabrielle Consentino tells a story of how the iPod came to be from the perspective of business strategy (i.e. development, alliances, and marketing). Most importantly, it is a story that illustrates how a company can and should use emergent cultural practices such as file-sharing to aid in the development and release of a new product. This chapter is so well written and clear that I would recommend it as required reading for MBA courses.

"The Social Pulse of Telharmonics" is truly an excellent example of Post-Modern discourse at the edges. In his chapter, Trace Reddell enlists polyvocal tropes of surprising scope to provide the reader with an interiorized soundscape that matches the exterior and distributed art forms he discusses. While drawing on Baudrillard's reflections on May '68, Reddell has produced a work that is both dialogically opposed to and yet resonant of another great French theoretician -- Bourbaki.

The final chapter, "Breaking the Decision Chain," by John Ryan and Michael Hughes, lays out a clear logic, at the structural level, of the interplay between technology, careers and artistic creation. And, given their level of analysis, it is not surprising that they do not view the advent of PC digital recording and internet distribution with unalloyed optimism. Their chapter is the final gem in this collection, one that should be read by every aspiring musician.

Which brings us back to the start of this review and Sterne's observation that "Cybersounds outlines the initial contours of a debate" on the interplay between creativity and technology. A significant part of this future debate, which Sterne highlights in his afterward, concerns the academic rush to find the "new"; a tendency that he warns us against when he notes that "the move into the textualized world of online musical practice may have led us to rediscover something old, rather than to discover something new" (259). Indeed, it would be a shame to concentrate so heavily on the "new" aspects of virtual music culture that we assume the stance proposed by Allen and Sager (1974)
No need to remember when
because everything old is new again.


Allen, Peter and Sager, Carole B.
1974 "Everything Old is New Again," Peter Allen - Continental American, A&M Records.

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri
2002 Empire. Harvard University Press, London

Hebdidge, Dick
1979 Subculture: The Meaning of Style. Routledge, London

Turner, Victor
1987 The Anthropology of Performance. PAJ Press, New York

Tyrrell, Marc W.D.
2000 Hunting and Gathering in the Early Silicon Age: Cyberspace, Jobs and the Reformulation of Organization Culture. In The Handbook of Organizational Culture and Climate, Ashkanasy, Wilderom, and Peterson (eds.), Sage Publications, 2000.

Wellman, Barry.
1998. Networks in the Global Village (Introduction). Available at http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/~wellman/publications/globalvillage/in.htm

Marc W.D. Tyrrell:
Marc Tyrrell's research focuses on 1) the practical and philosophical grounds of how sensemaking is possible and 2) the use of socially constructed structured communications strategies. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology with a specialty in Social Anthropology, and currently teaches out of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies at Carleton University. In addition to teaching, Marc sings with the Ottawa Bach Choir and is a consultant. He has presented at the Academy of Management, the American Sociological Association, the Canadian Anthropology Society, and Microsoft Research, as well as publishing in several venues.  <marctyrrell@gmail.com>

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