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date: 08 May 2021

(p. 327) Communities and the World Wide Web

Fans’ identification with online communities who can participate, interact, and influence music in the virtual world of the Internet has often led to an all-encompassing interpretation of social equality, but as Shzr Ee Tan observes, is this, at heart, “an Internet-engendered false sense of democracy?”1 Her Chapter 18, “ ‘Uploading’ to Carnegie Hall: The First YouTube Symphony Orchestra,” interrogates the implications of Google’s championing of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra,2 where “an emerging picture of utopian teamwork … camouflages larger, uneven political concerns.” Responding to a worldwide audition call on a dedicated channel, musicians around the globe were encouraged to bid for a place in the orchestra. Some three thousand entries were short-listed to two hundred by a panel of YouTube-appointed music professionals, with the final selection being made by YouTube account holders. The finalists were then flown to New York (at Google’s expense) for three days of intensive rehearsal under the baton of Michael Tilson-Thomas. “Here was, in theory, an orchestra built by anyone and everyone with an Internet connection who cared to participate” (Chapter 18). But as Carr earlier observed, “In the YouTube economy, everyone is free to play, but only a few reap the rewards” (cited in ibid.). Tan presents a penetrative and fascinating account of YouTube’s privileged position as a prime video-sharing site, not least its aspirations to court the Chinese-speaking world by deploying high-profile China-born artists such as Tan Dun (who was commissioned to compose the Internet Symphony Eroica for the (p. 328) orchestra’s inaugural concert), and internationally acclaimed pianists Lang Lang and Wang Yuja. Yet “throughout most of the orchestra’s active period of existence, YouTube in its entirety—alongside social network Facebook—came to be banned in China … [and] the YSO’s crusade in China became a casualty of international politics” (ibid.). Issues of social stratification are also explored, including how the orchestra “unwittingly ended up acting largely in the interests of an ultimately select and elite group despite trying to promote classical music as an international and universal language” (ibid.). As Tan’s personal interactions with orchestra participants in New York reveal, there are doubts as to whether the orchestra’s three days of intense offline socialization could consolidate or remake existing notions of an online community. Not least, questions are raised as to whether, in making alliances with particular musical institutions and artists, “Google was running a branding agenda that harnessed the social mobility of classical performers” (ibid.), in so doing upgrading “YouTube’s profile within the information technology market as a serious portal and cultural broker” (ibid.), “prestigious” as well as “universal” (ibid.)—a cynical observation that is nevertheless an important consideration in the Internet’s increasingly capitalist ventures.

How despatialized audiences, communities, and networks are assembled is also addressed in Samantha Bennett’s discussion of “The Listener as Remixer: Mix Stems in Online Fan Community and Competition Contexts.” This time the focus is on artists who release stems of component song parts for mixing by their fan communities, thus providing them with a means of interacting with their fellow community members by promoting participation in the once-professional domain of the producer and studio. Issues concerning what she describes as the ongoing “democratization” of not only technology but recording and production skill sets and workplaces are extended to include the artist’s assumption of technology ownership and the varying degrees of technological literacy and ability among members of their fan community. Bennett’s focus on the technological aspects of mix stems, including problems surrounding audible nuances, and the distinctions between multitrack and master recordings, is followed by an analysis of four contrasting case studies where compilation of mix stems is contextualized by reference to the online community to which each example was released: William Orbitt’s “Orbitmixer,” an eight-track interactive mixing console interface; Radiohead’s “Nude” remix, a joint project with Apple’s iTunes music retailer and Garageband DAW; the U.S. rap artist Kanye West’s “Love Lockdown”; and Nine Inch Nails’ lead single, “The Hand That Feeds,” “one of the earliest examples whereby a commercial recording artist has voluntarily released the multitrack elements of a single to the public” (Chapter 19). As Bennett acknowledges, all of the case studies elicit “multiple lines of inquiry pertaining to authorship, production, dissemination, democratization, and reception” (ibid.), and her conclusions highlight how distinct communities have evolved around remixing practice, as well as how these assume a combination of both technological ownership (the tools to create a remix) on the part of the artist, and processual ability (remixing skill sets) on the part of the listener. But as her case studies reveal, “The listener is held at arms’ length and the ‘participatory (p. 329) nature’ of their involvement with the remix is limited … technology may have been ‘democratized,’ but remixing skill sets have not, or at least not to the extent that a fan could be trusted with contributing to an official remix release” (ibid.).

Is it the case, then, that communities tend to evolve from belonging to a generic music technology? If so, how important is it to differentiate between the professional and the amateur, the physical/real and the virtual? Bennett’s investigation into the relationship between global communities, technology, and creativity also comes to the fore in Benjamin O’Brien’s discussion of laptop ensembles. “Sample Sharing: Virtual Laptop Ensemble Communities” opens with a discussion of Roger Dannenberg’s debut composition, FLO: Federation of Laptop Orchestras (2012), at the First Symposium on Laptop Ensembles and Orchestras (SLEO): “The work featured coordination between seven university-based laptop orchestras around the globe, from Stanford University (US) to the University of Huddersfield (UK) … the premiere was not just a simulcast of ensembles performing in parallel across 5,000-plus miles: each laptop musician virtually received and transmitted various combinations of audio, video, and control-message data over a shared network. To accommodate and optimize the transmission of these data collections over vast distances, Dannenberg and his university colleagues and students designed an innovative layering of multiple networks” (Chapter 20).

The SLEO provides the stimulus for O’Brien’s chapter, and as he observes, “In addition to constantly monitoring the influx of data, each musician must come to terms with the ‘displaced’ sound … emanating from any nearby computer as well as the sonic reduction of virtual ensembles through the venue’s speaker-system … this sound rests in a gap between ‘real’ and ‘imagined’ realities” (ibid.). O’Brien’s discussion of virtual music scene networks is contextualized by a brief history of the Hub and “how individual and ensemble-driven artistic interest evolved as a result of innovative computer technologies,” which he interprets “as a mutualistic feedback loop where a community inspires its members, whose work encourages others to continue advancing new music and technologies” (ibid.). Academy-based laptop ensembles and orchestras are also discussed, as well as the concept of the laptop as a “folk” instrument, and the recently created genre “algorave,” a music scene subset where “musicians generate dance music on their laptops in real-time via algorithms that allow them to freely adapt to the venue’s atmosphere or environment” (ibid.). O’Brien also examines the complex philosophical and technical issues in the virtual realm of performance, where “context reveals the structural qualities of elements in an environment and situates the embodiment of performance—real or virtual” (ibid.). As he observes in relation to laptop ensembles performing live, “One may argue that the audience’s question of ‘who’s doing what?’ is a welcome ambiguity compared to a completely virtual performance, where the trace rendered is only a product of phantom processes” (ibid.). Laptop ensembles have also adopted Second Life conventions, forging musical relationships within virtual geographies (ibid.), and a “relatively new (p. 330) live coding method for sharing SuperCollider codelets is” now “available to Twitter users in the form of ‘sc-tweets’ ” (ibid.). As he explains, though this approach to live coding attracts novices, “It is the charm of composing efficient, sonically interesting, 140 character codelets that appeals to the more advanced SuperCollider users” (ibid.).

O’Brien makes a substantial contribution to our understanding of network ensembles, and although often technical in its detail, his philosophical discussion provides a thoughtful insight into the connectivity between the local, translocal, and virtual levels of the music scene. He also raises an important conceptual point: “If one is to hear music being created in a virtual place, then it must be heard at some real locality … Thus, virtual music rests somewhere between symbolic and imagined realities” (ibid.). It is a thought that is pertinent to David Pattie’s discussion, “Stone Tapes: Ghost Box, Nostalgia, and Postwar Britain,” which opens with a reminiscence of “The Geography,” the fourth track on Belbury Poly’s fourth album, The Belbury Tales (2012). As he comments, it is “unsettling. We’re not in the familiar, safe, cozy spaces of the English countryside; we seem to be elsewhere” (Chapter 21). “The track and the album are the work of Jim Jupp, who records mainly under the name Belbury Poly … the self-styled vicar of Belbury” who, together with Julian House, founded the small independent label Ghost Box in 2004. As Pattie observes, the art work and other ancillary parts of the label’s output resemble “a curiously jumbled lumber room, filled with the refuse of British postwar society, mixed with images and ideas drawn from a particular strain of (mostly) British horror and science fiction” that “run around and against each other unpredictably” (ibid.).

Pattie’s analysis offers both insight and a critical evaluation of hauntology, a term that was borrowed from Jacques Derrida’s Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International (1994), but that shed most of its political associations when it migrated into popular music. Instead, it came “to describe a type of recording that was haunted—or that existed in an indeterminate relation to the past; it bore the spectral imprint of previous styles and technologies, mixed with techniques and approaches available only to the contemporary musician” (ibid.). As Simon Reynolds (2006) explained, in Ghost Box “the homeland of postwar Britain becomes unheimlich; texts, images, and meanings that are part of an agreed memory reemerge, in a jumbled, uncanny, unsettling virtual version of themselves” (ibid.). They invoke “a musical style and a cultural memory of a time when the folk traditions were both nostalgically evocative and frightening, and when cultural concerns over the past were inextricably bound up with persistent, cultural worries over the technologies of the future” (ibid.). Yet, as Pattie observes, the virtual Britain identified in Ghost Box recordings gets close to the cultural atmosphere of postwar Britain, so an apparent fantasy version gets pretty close to the truth of the time.

“What makes Ghost Box (as a label, and as a virtual version of a vanished time) both artistically and intellectually effective,” Pattie writes, “is that it manages to simultaneously evoke and undermine the comforting nostalgia which we might (p. 331) feel for a vanished time … one that was already haunted by the ghostly image of its own apparently inevitable demise” (ibid.). Its music and its framing “combined a nostalgia for a future that never came to pass, with a vision of a strange, alternative Britain, constituted from the reordered refuse of the postwar period,” and, as such, “its nostalgia isn’t for a lost country, but for a country that was never quite there” (ibid.). Not least, Ghost Box is about “the weirdness of Britain in general, especially during our imagined all-at-once time frame of roughly 1958 to 1978” (Jupp interview, cited in ibid.). As Pattie concludes, “The Britain in which I grew up becomes a stranger, ghostlier place; a virtual, reconfigured, haunted collage or palimpsest” (ibid.).

Adam Trainer, in Chapter 22, agrees: “Our relationship with memory and the representation of our individual and collective pasts have changed. The personal and affective are undeniably tethered to our negotiation of culture through increasingly mediated experiences, which now occur predominantly in the digital realm” (ibid.). “From Hypnagogia to Distroid: Postironic Musical Renderings of Personal Memory” situates the stylistic approach shaping hypnagogic pop within the cultural experience from which its young artists operate. More specifically, their childhood and adolescent years stretched across the late 1980s and early 1990s. Their created sounds use a nostalgic and unstable remembrance of that era, channeled through popular cultural references: “revenant forms freed from their historical context” (Keenan, cited in ibid.). Trainer’s analysis of Daniel Lopatin’s video for “angel” (2009) provides a thoughtful example of hypnagogic pop’s format for cultural reappropriation and its “investment in the personal affectivity of popular culture”: “a form of mnemonically encoded cultural shorthand” (ibid.). Subsequent video experiments and a mixtape of similar aural experiments released under the alias Chuck Person preface “ecco jams,” a play on the interpretive functionality of texts: “the furniture music of the postconsumerist landscape” (ibid.). “In this reappropriation of the cultural detritus of a media-saturated capitalist social order, hypnagogic pop and its connected movements dislocate their source material from textual cynicism or irony, instead accessing the affective moment of engagement” (ibid.). Trainer then turns to James Ferraro, whose Far Side Virtual (2011) summons a digital utopia built from the detritus of the early-twenty-first-century consumer experience” (ibid.), or as Ferraro commented, “ringtone music meant to be experienced on the poststructuralist medium, the smartphone” (Gibb, cited in ibid.). Attention then moves to “chillwave,” which “occupies a space somewhere between electronic pop, psychedelia and easy listening styles from the 1970s and 1980s” (ibid.); “vaporwave,” which “took its musical cues from the shiny, synthesized digital vistas produced in the early 1990s” (ibid.), “depoliticiz[ing] its source material by presenting global capitalism as an unobtainable aesthetic instead of an ideological hurdle” (ibid.); and “distroid,” a fusion of “bass-heavy thumps and synthesizer reveries of dance music with the mechanized, quasi-industrial soundscapes of dystopian digital nightmares” (ibid.). (p. 332) As Trainer concludes, “The post-Internet age has produced an aesthetic of musical understanding that cuts across not only popular music but also other media, resulting in an approach to art (and music) born out of the glut of information that assaults contemporary subjectivity (ibid.).3

The extent to which the post-Internet age has changed how identities are inscribed, enacted, and managed through networks and in front of multiple audiences, and how this is reflected in the representational choices made by bands, is increasingly a matter of concern. As Danijela Bogdanovic reveals, “Politics of style, commonly tied to commercial goals” (Chapter 23), “guided the visual representational choices” of the five bands observed in her ethnographic study “Bands in Virtual Spaces, Social Networking, and Masculinity.” Her research provides an important insight into “the practices of ‘doing music’ and ‘doing gender’ … of social networking communities” and whether these signify “a challenge to stereotypical representations and enactments of gender, prominent in real-life musical spaces” (ibid.). Situating “virtual music spaces and practices … as an extension of the real-life spaces and practices,” as “enmeshed, interlinked, and interreliant,” “the convergence of the participants’ experiences, social spheres, and practices” (ibid.), she reveals “some of the significant themes that emerged from my work on gender and music in offline music spaces and communities … [These include] observable (gendered) practices that actively or inadvertently exclude women from music spaces, the regulatory power of hegemonic masculinity within the setting of the band, homosocial practices that reinforce the sense of belonging to a group and feelings of bandhood, and the significance of musical enculturation in the forging of gender/masculinity through a series of music-related practices” (ibid.). While acknowledging the demise of MySpace as the number one social networking site, Bogdanovic maintains that its architectural legacy (“profiles, friends lists, tools for public communication, and streamed updates”) and “the dynamics created by both visible and invisible (imagined) audiences, collapsed contexts, and the blurring of the public and private domains [citing boyd] remain a pertinent terrain for the arguments about self-presentation and social connection in the digital age” (Chapter 23). As Bogdanovic discovered, “There was a striking and noticeable lack of female presence in images used to represent and contextualize the bands, within their virtual photo albums and their top friends” (ibid.), although she was added to the latter “to aid credibility” or “due to the way I looked” (ibid.). Outside of the context of band identity, her inclusion was based on rapport and real-life knowledge, suggesting that “the performance of gender/masculinity and music group member identities are determined and governed by different behavioral norms … extending beyond a simple display of connections, to where they become strategic and political” (boyd, cited in ibid.). To be included on a band profile, the female fan needed to display both physical attractiveness and entertainment value. In contrast, male fans commented on technical aspects of a band’s performance.

(p. 333) As Bogdanovic’s research reveals, “Music-related interaction on SNSs including MySpace can be understood as gendered in the sense that different behavioral modes are adopted by men and women, reflecting the different roles played by men and women within wider cultural domains. Though undeniably there were and are female bands and performers with profiles on SNSs, women, on the whole, tended to be visible or invisible fans and invisible girlfriends and friends of a band” (ibid.). Hence, “If we accept that identity is verified and inscribed through visually represented connections, then who is included within the network becomes a significant determinant of self-identification of bands” (ibid.). It is also evident that “in 2013 social networking is characterized by cross-platform interaction, where one’s Facebook profile features links to videos on YouTube or sound files on SoundCloud and Bandcamp, where Twitter updates are synced with Facebook status updates and so forth, creating a further challenge of managing representation in front of several audiences and across several platforms” (ibid.). Thus, even though “the shift in status from digital objects to that of digital subjects had a potential to disrupt the dominant representations of gender marked by hegemonic masculinity, homosocial practices, and assignment of gender-specific spectatorial roles and positions, the artists scrutinized and discussed in my study tended to translate offline dynamics onto online platforms. This was achieved by employing strategies such as active exclusion of women from online band spaces and visual reinforcement of bandhood ties through choices made in managing the groups’ visual capital, as well as through textual and musical coding of gender” (ibid.). As Bogdanovic concludes, this is an area that merits further research, not least as “an approach that incorporates theorizing about the importance of spectatorial gaze in the co-creation of musical and gendered meanings, by artists and audiences” (ibid.).


(1.) Anahid Kassabian, Research Training Roadshow on Studying Popular Music, pers. comm., Jan. 17, 2007.

(2.) Google had acquired YouTube in 2006.

(3.) The editors would like to thank Danny Bright (AHRC researcher, University of Sussex) for his thoughtful reading of Pattie and Trainer’s chapters.

Books, Articles, and Websites

boyd, danah. 2008. “Taken Out of Context: American Teen Sociality and Networked Publics.” Ph.D. diss., University California, Berkeley.Find this resource:

(p. 334) Dannenberg, Roger. 2012. “Laptop Orchestra Communication Using Publish-Subscribe and Peer-to-Peer Strategies.” In Proceedings of the First Symposium on Laptop Ensembles and Orchestras: 88–93.Find this resource:

Derrida, J. 1994 Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Reynolds, S. 2006, November. “Society of the Spectral.” The Wire 273: 26–33.Find this resource:

Whiteley, Sheila. 2015. “Sexploitation and Constructions of Femininity in Contemporary She-Pop.” Pop-Frauen den Gegenwart: Körper - Stimme - Image. Vermarktungsstrategien zwischen Selbstinszenierung und Fremdbestimmung, ed. Christa Brustle. Bielefeld: Transcript- Verlag.Find this resource:


(1.) Anahid Kassabian, Research Training Roadshow on Studying Popular Music, pers. comm., Jan. 17, 2007.

(2.) Google had acquired YouTube in 2006.

(3.) The editors would like to thank Danny Bright (AHRC researcher, University of Sussex) for his thoughtful reading of Pattie and Trainer’s chapters.