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Essay: “The shift from critiquing to curating in the Music Blogosphere.”
The music blog has become somewhat of a phenomenon in recent years, allowing the critiquing and dissemination of music in cyberspace. In a digitized format, the music blog echoes the ideals of the first established music publications including the Canadian Music Review (CMR), created in the 19th Century. As Paul Théberge identifies, the primary motivations for periodicals such as the CMR were as a:
“Medium of communication on the dissemination and discussion of music to create a sense of national identity through awareness of cultural production, and, not least to provide an authoritative source of information for consumers of musical products” (Théberge: 1997: 93)
Though the creation of “identities” in music blogs today often transcends regional and national borders, owing to the global network of the Internet, the ethos of the music blog is generally consistent with this outline. However, within this framework there are disparities as some focus solely on the dissemination or curating of music, and others infuse this with discussion and critique. It would at this point be important to note that despite the economic and cultural worth that music publishing possesses, little scholarship has been dedicated to this element of the music industry, and even less so of the music blog, which has come into existence and prominence only in the last decade or so. The concept of the “music blog” is often problematic to examine as it commands the study of a diverse and innumerable amount of information. Consequently, this topic will be investigated using a small selection of examples, and is by no means a comprehensive representation of the wealth of blogs that exist today.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a “blog” as “a personal website or web page on which an individual records opinions, links to other sites, etc. on a regular basis.” (OED: 2013) It is by default an online conception, which poses both a range of advantages and complications. In comparison to print media, it is a format that is less restrictive and more flexible, and is accessible to a larger audience. It is usually, a medium that is cheap or free to create and consume. With these benefits, it is unsurprising that the music blog exists in myriad forms, and has become a popular platform for the distribution and reception of music. The music blog has a complex relationship between the recording industry and pre-existing music media, yet with this being said, the blog continues to play a vital role in the formation of individual and collective identities. Its influence upon the construction of youth subcultures, in both aesthetics and ideology has had an unforeseen impact, yet the “maintentance of musical communities or ‘taste publics’” (Théberge: 1997: 93) has, according to Théberge, neither been fully acknowledged nor understood.
Technological advancements have allowed music to be consumed and shared “easier, faster and farther than before” (Taylor: 2001: 1) and a correlation between these developments can be made with changes to social organisation. Since its creation in the 1990s, the MP3 file has now largely replaced other audio formats, including vinyl, cassette and compact disc. Though these means of sound recording have not become obsolete, today they are usually created for and bought by music specialists – DJs, collectors and other enthusiasts – where their tangible quality is often linked to romantic nostalgia or a distinct purpose. The MP3, as a digital form, has permitted widespread accessibility, but has also become a topic of constant debate owing to its illegal trade and rise in P2P file sharing. It is a commodity, but has also been defined as a “cybernetic gift” (Giesler: 2006: 21), becoming as such in the moment of transaction between donor and recipient. The subject of P2P file sharing justifies a separate discussion, however, its importance within the arena of music blogging is significant as a large proportion of sites use MP3 files as a tool to corroborate criticism, or as the basis of the site itself. The role of the “cybernetic gift” is multi-faceted, in commercial and economic contexts, but is also regarded to have “social binding power.” (Giesler: 2006: 28) The definition of “cybernetic gifts” in its broadest sense also encompasses the music blog itself, as the transfer of any information in a digitized format. The “gift” of the blog, alike the MP3 can be received infinitely and by multiple recipients and their existence perhaps represents a challenge to music industry conventions, and in turn creates new power relationships. (Giesler: 2006: 22) The music blog is also indicative of the degrees of agency that individuals hold, as the sphere involves participation by way of both contribution and consumption. The popularity of the music blog is also applicable to a perennial enquiry in social theory – “whether society is the predominant force shaping individuals or whether exceptional individuals prominently shape society.” (Turino: 2008: 94)
Established and renowned music publications such as Rolling Stone and New Musical Express (NME) who boast a loyal fan base and continue to circulate in high volumes, understandably transfer much of their content online. Recognised as authoritative voices in popular music, magazines such as these have become part of mainstream popular culture, as critics, tastemakers and sources of information. Similarly, websites such as Pitchfork, established in 1995, have risen to widespread acclaim and popularity, with 240,000 readers per day, and more than 1.5 million unique visitors per month, making it the “most popular independent-focused music publication online.” National newspapers including The Guardian also feature articles and features on music, both in print and online, and as the sixteenth most visited webpage in the UK (Alexa: 2013) offers discussion to a large audience. These examples however represent a traditional style of music journalism and criticism. The authors of these periodicals and websites represent an exclusive community of critics who largely earn their livelihood from journalism. In their respective institutions, such writers may be subject to restrictive guidelines, market forces that wish to endorse, or those who wish to slander individuals or collectives within music. In this way, these popular publications may contain biased opinion or misrepresentative information, which is influential in the music world. Conversely, music bloggers may not be restricted by the same structures of traditional music journalism as they are by definition “personal” sites, and may represent an egalitarian system of discussion. However, from this individualistic aspect there may arise a host of complications and personal prejudices. Furthermore, the subject of music criticism is complex as music in its very essence is itself a subjective form of expression.
Analysis of data collected from global web metrics site Alexa.com shows that users of music blogs are predominantly males, aged 18-24, who are college or university students, and primarily access these sites via their educational institution or work. It would also be a safe assumption that the creators and contributors of music blogs are largely, but not explicitly, from the same demographic. These factors impact greatly on the opinions, subject matter, style of content and literature presented on music blogs, where natures of exchange are often formed from these variables. Music bloggers that exist today can be considered in one of two categories, or an amalgamation of both: curator and/or critic. Both types possess their own advantages and drawbacks, existing as one or the other (or both in some cases) for a variety of reasons. The electronic music blog MTHRFNKR is a prime example of a shift in attitudes toward music blogging. Founded in 2010, the site focuses on ambient and minimal forms of electronic music, and a selection of R&B and Hip-Hop. Initially adopting a style that incorporated journalism with the distribution of new music, the site modified its approach and currently exists solely to share the works of artists via MP3 stream or video, with little to no commentary. This change did not go unrecognised by both its audience and creators, and MTHRFNKR issued a statement detailing, or perhaps defending its new method of communication. In this statement, the author cites a range of issues and discusses a number of topics, some of which could require a separate investigation altogether. However, the representative cites one of the main factors as a personal choice of the site, proclaiming “We’re curators not critics, why force us to write, if we don’t want to.” (MTHRFNKR: 2011) and also suggests “Platforms such as MTHRFNKR are just conversation starters. It’s where people can discover new music quickly, form their opinion on it and share or write about it.” (MTHRFNKR: 2011) The latter part of this statement is particularly significant as it recognises and promotes the importance of public participation, which is fundamental in any productive community. In this way, it also acknowledges a trend that sees the consumer as critic and tastemaker, rather than an intellectual or economic elite. It also demonstrates the formation of a communitas, an alternative society born out of resistance and marginalization from the mainstream, and is defined as “spontaneous, immediate and concrete.” (Taylor: 2001: 185) The site exists as part of an increasing network of influential sites that have created subgenres of music, and in turn subcultures, to the delight of some, and the disdain of others.
Its handle appears on blogging site Tumblr with its original title “post-dubstep” and continues to centre itself on niche categories of music, including “future garage” and “alt R&B”. Some musicians have expressed their concerns and distaste for applying such labels to their work, most notably in the online series Hashtags created by the Red Bull Music Academy. Episodes in the collection include conversations with artists, whose music has been classified in these emerging groups, discussing its advantages and disadvantages, and identifying the authorities that have created these divisions. Its title Hashtags makes clear reference to the tool, used on blogging sites and social media to distinguish topics (in this case artists and songs) usually for the purposes of Internet searches. Utilised by sites including MTHRFNKR, hashtags allow curators to classify their content, “tagging” similar artists or songs with a singular or short set of words. It is a device that is however problematic, as recognised by those featured in Hashtags, as its simplicity does not always translate into specificity. Despite generalisations of music made by curators, it is not seen as a negative quality, as MTHRFNKR maintains that “All of the music featured on the blog is an expression of our taste and is handpicked as a personal recommendation for you.” (MTHRFNKR: 2011) and the blog asserts that their approach is not lackadaisical, and is simply an adaptation to the consumer demand for immediate gratification. Whilst they propose the notion that the contemporary market has a short attention span, they also acknowledge the requirement for traditional music journalism.
The movement of “buzz-blogging” which to some purists requires minimal thought or effort has been transformed by platforms such as Tumblr. The microblogging site and social networking tool has hosted over 100 million blogs to date since its inception in 2007 (Tumblr: 2013), and serves as a hub for critics and curators of music. Both amateur and professional bloggers, and a large quantity of music publications use the site; as do artists, record labels and industry insiders, using the arena to convey their opinions and personal tastes. The sheer quantity of music blogs that exist on the site is reason enough for the domain to have influence in the music world and popular culture. Its prominence is noted in titles of episodes of Hashtags, one of which is named “#blogpop”, and another playfully titled “#tumblrwave”, in reference to the genre of music that has achieved critical or commercial acclaim from its exposure on the website. It is nonetheless usually regarded as a parody, humoring the rapidly changing fashions of music that are created by users, and eventually discarded once a new artist or genre emerges. This “hype” that surrounds musicians and musical communities is not a new phenomenon, and has occurred since the performance and recording of popular music began. Notwithstanding this, the rate at which music is consumed and distributed in this age of the Internet therefore accelerates this process, as does the quick-fire method of curation.
This swiftness is exemplified in The Hype Machine (hypem.com) - a consolidation engine that accumulates data from wide range of blogs to deliver the audience “most blogged” artists of a given time frame from around 1,500 blogs. It is a curious device as it acts as both curator and aggregator, and additionally is a barometer of the popularity of musicians and songs. Its simple format is based upon continuous stream of MP3 files, with a short commentary from its original blogging source and links to purchase. It offers an effortlessly edible method of collating and sampling music, and allows the user to modify content to their own preferences. As it charts the frequency of blogged music and musicians, it simultaneously acts as both an indicator of popularity but also an influencer on its future success. The site itself appears impartial and looks to external sources of criticism as evidence for featured works’ recognition. It is perhaps an anomaly in the blogosphere as it is not a blog itself per se but harnesses the power of other blogging sites as the basis for its existence. It also allows users to identify and interact with one another, and is an example of an online music community, akin to streaming sites such as Soundcloud. Unlike MTHRFNKR it is not bound by a set of genres, and does not recommend music from a personal perspective. Its all-encompassing nature is attractive to consumers as it acts as a one-stop-shop. In the sites “about” section, it explains that it selects blogs to “present what they discuss for easy analysis, consumption and discovery.” (Hype Machine: 2013) echoing the motivations of blogs such as MTHRFNKR. It continues to declare:
“We are creating tools that empower independent voices that write about music. We think a select group of passionate people can produce more engaging conversation than a huge social mob, or a rigid hierarchy of editors. We amplify their posts and the audio they choose, to help this vibrant culture spread.” (Hype Machine: 2013)
Though The Hype Machine has, rather contradictorily amassed a “huge social mob” in its popularity, its anti-establishment sentiments, in relation to traditional music journalism are the impetus for its creation and continuation. Its desire, to create a social and musical democracy, rather than following pre-existing patterns that could be described as a journalistic aristocracy, is in sync with the public request for participation. The consumer is no longer simply that, and now appears as a contributor in the process of distributing and discussing music. The shift from critiquing to curatorship in music blogs is perhaps not due to a decrease in attention span, but the longing for self-representation and an organic creation of individual and collective identities. It may answer the age-old question of the “great man” theory – that society, in some cultural contexts shapes itself, rather than at the mercy of an exclusive individual or group.
Katz, Mark (2004) Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles & London
Taylor, Timothy D. (2001) Strange Sounds: Music, Technology & Culture, Routledge, London & New York
Théberge, Paul (1997) Any Sound You Can Imagine – Making Music/Consuming Technology, Wesleyan University Press, Connecticut7uhk
Turino, Thomas (2008) Music as Social Life – The Politics of Participation, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London
Giesler, Markus (2006) “Cybernetic Gift Giving and Social Drama: A Netography of the Napster File Sharing Community” in Cybersounds: Essays on Virtual Music Culture, Michael D. Ayers (eds.) Peter Lang Publishing, Oxford, pp. 21-53
Théberge, Paul (1999) “Technology” in Key Terms in Popular Music and Culture, Bruce Horner & Thomas Swiss (eds.), Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, pp. 209-225
Hype Machine (2013) About
Oxford English Dictionary (2013) Definition: Blog
MTHRFNKR (2011) On Music Bloggers vs. Music Curators
Red Bull Music Academy (2013) Hashtags
Tumblr (2013) About