‘Walking in the city with headphones on’: some thoughts about Music, Big Data & The Harkive Project

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I’ve recently become involved with a Pop Music Writing Group as part of my PhD studies at BCU. We meet once a fortnight and respond to an academic paper, or a book chapter, with 2000 words of our own. The purpose is to get us all writing regularly, flexing the muscles so that the task of coming up with 80,000 words isn’t quite so daunting. This is the 2nd piece of work I have produced for the group. It’s a response to a chapter from Michel De Certeau’s 1984 book, ‘The Practice of Everyday Life’, entitled, ‘Walking in the City’, in which I begin to explore some ideas around music and ‘big data’ as they relate my own PhD and The Harkive Project.

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Walking in the city with headphones on

Following a recent conversation with friends about general health and fitness, I worked out, using Google Maps, that during the course of my normal, daily life, I regularly walk over 25 miles each week. This total did not include the steps I take around my home or office, or any sporadic forays into the world of sport, but consisted solely of my daily commute to work, which includes a half-mile walk at either end of a bus journey, twice a day, and a daily walk of over 2 miles with my dogs. That I walk the equivalent of a marathon each week during two activities I take entirely for granted was a surprise.

As I trudge through these miles I’m almost always accompanied by music. I listen using my iPhone, with headphones, and normally via my Spotify subscription, which gives me unlimited, mobile access to a large catalogue of songs and to my library of playlists. The only time I’m not listening to music is usually on Saturdays, when the walk I take coincides with a live football broadcast on the radio, which I listen to using the mobile BBC Radio app, also via headphones and using my iPhone.

The interesting thing to consider for the purposes of this essay is that data related to a lot of this activity is either logged, or is capable of being logged, by third parties who can find a use or value for it. My iPhone can report my geographic position and movement, and the songs and/or radio programmes I listen to are logged by the respective media outlets that deliver them. My mobile service provider, 02, as well as Spotify and the BBC, already know a certain amount of personal information about me, including my age, sex, postal address, and bank details, and from there it isn’t too great a leap to understand that it would be possible to cross-reference my listening and geographic activity with other consumer activities I engage in. My data can also be cross-referenced with other information, such as the local weather conditions, or the consumption patterns of others. Further to that, and like many others, I have an online identity that exists in numerous dispersed places, including social networks and in the logs of search engines, which could enable further cross-referential analysis. In short, from just a small element of my normal, everyday life – the activity of walking around the city with headphones on – I am generating a good deal of potentially useful data from which it is possible for organisations to glean valuable information about not just my music consumption, but also about my other habits, opinions and preferences. I am, of course, not alone here; millions of others generate similar data about themselves on a daily basis, and often without any effort to do so on their part.

There are a number of ways one can react to this as an individual: indifference; annoyance; ambivalence; fear; and acceptance, are all possible emotional responses. Whether, at the one extreme end, you view this data capture as symptomatic of a culture of surveillance and control consistent with the practices of 21st century Western capitalism, or, at the other, as a harmless and entirely non-intrusive means of media companies improving the quality of the services they offer, it is nevertheless a state of affairs that almost everyone who engages with media (and other) services in a hyper-connected modern world finds themselves implicated in. Extrapolating out from the tiny example of my walks around the city, and viewing the generation, collection and analysis of data on a global scale, we are collectively facilitating and assisting in the creation of millions of bits of data on a daily basis at a rate hitherto unseen in human history.

Due to the scale and voracity of such activity, issues and questions related to data protection, use, monetisation, ownership, access, surveillance, storage and archives are of growing interest to academics in a number of fields (see Housley et al (2014) for an overview). The realm of data is of particular interest to scholars of Popular Music because of its growing influence on matters related to the production, distribution and consumption of music, and it is here that my own area of research intersects with the wider debates.

In very broad terms, my PhD research project provides a mechanism and motivation for music listeners to share with me details of their music consumption, which I then intend to analyse. Clearly, then, by creating, promoting and operating The Harkive Project, I am engaging in very much the same activity I have described above, and in particular it is similar to the activities media companies and rights holders involved in the music industries are currently focussing a large amount of attention and resources on1. On a positive note, this has the benefit of making my project timely. On another, more problematic level, it raises a question: If my project is to make an original contribution to knowledge, how do I ensure that it is steered towards something new, something different, and is not in danger of simply replicating, or contributing to, the work and conclusions of those involved with industrial data analysis, both in and outside of the music industries? In other words: How is Harkive different?

In order to begin to explore this problem I’m going to attempt to map the work of Michel De Certeau, and in particular his discussion of walking in the city as a practice of everyday life (De Certeau, 1984, pp. 91–110), on to a discussion of some ideas around music and data, using my own experience of listening to music as I walk as a reference point. For the purpose of this we must first substitute De Certeau’s New York City for the landscape of popular music consumption. Imagine, if you will, not a city built of a network of roads, buildings and people, with laws and regulations governing activity, trade and movement, but one comprised instead of an ecosystem of media businesses, music listeners and connections, both on and offline, that has regulatory frameworks of its own, including copyright legislation, pricing models, and so on.

By adapting Jeremy Silver’s (2013) idea of digital city-states, we can understand the larger players in the marketplace (Amazon, iTunes, Facebook, major labels and broadcasters, and so on) as the skyscrapers that dominate the skyline of the city and to which the main routes and thoroughfares carry and direct traffic. The smaller, side-streets lead to the mid-sized buildings (Bandcamp, Soundcloud, independent retailers, media outlets and labels), and the less-trodden paths to the unregulated, or niche areas of the landscape (band sites, messageboards, torrent sites, and so on). With this image in mind, we can then swap De Certeau’s view from the top of the World Trade Centre for the view afforded by the collected and collated data about music consumption (sales, streams, searches, social media metrics, and so on), which ‘makes the complexity of the city readable, and immobilizes its opaque mobility in a transparent text’, and for the people walking in the streets of New York, far below, we can instead see the music listeners navigating their way from song to song, service to service, within ‘the city’.

In this context, the data generated and collected by my music listening whilst walking can be understood as an infinitesimally small element of the texturological picture of music consumption practices that are created by music listeners daily. Along with millions of others, I am the co-writer of a ‘poem‘ I cannot read; I am (we are) ‘the individual in the mass that is read by the all-seeing eye as representational of the individual’. As individuals we could perhaps find this problematic – it depersonalises us; it is an affront to our idea of self. But is there also a problem with applying such a logic to the arena of music consumption, where the idiosyncrasies of taste and other drivers so heavily influence our choices in listening to the music we do? I shall return to this question later in the essay.

We can also understand the design and development of the present landscape of consumption in terms of De Certeau’s idea of the city, which produces it’s own space by repressing that which could compromise it, creates systems to suppress tactics of opportunities, and creates universal and anonymous subjects; ‘a finite number of stable, isolatable, and interconnected properties’. If we consider, for example, the service I use on my daily walks, Spotify, as something which grew out of a response to disruptive digital technologies (piracy, in other words), then De Certeau’s model could easily be deployed here: the ecosystem of music consumption reorganised by the establishment of new ‘loci of exchange’ (Burkart and McCourt, 2006) in response to citizens not sticking to the designated pedestrian zones of the city, for instance.

According to De Certeau’s model, the concept of the city must always attempt to make the fact of the city fit its model. Even if ‘linking the city to the concept never makes them identical..it [nevertheless] plays on their progressive symbiosis‘. The data gold-rush and the continued drive for and investment in the creation of music discovery platforms2 is a case in point here. We can track and ‘predict’ consumption with data, therefore listeners must consume according to this data via music discovery platform recommendations, which completes the circle. As Simon Frith observed, long before the advent of the age of Big Data, ‘the culture industry is the central agency in contemporary capitalism for the production and satisfaction of false needs(Frith, 1981, pp. 44–45), and in that sense, data can be seen as merely the latest logical step in the process of standardisation and rationalisation in popular music that was so heavily criticised by Adorno (Adorno and Simpson, 1942).

Yet, in spite of this, and just as the work of sub-cultural theorists (Hebdige, 1979) and sociologists examining music in everyday life (Bull, 2000; DeNora, 2000) who built upon Adorno et al attempted to show, there is hope to be found also in De Certeau’s model: ‘beneath the discourses that ideologise the city, the ruses and combinations of powers that have no readable identity proliferate’.

Just as it is in the city, so it is in music…

…and it is perhaps here where a glimmer of hope appears. The driving premise of Harkive from its very inception was the idea (my assumption) that, ‘No two people listen to music in precisely the same way’. If that is indeed the case, and De Certeau’s model would suggest that it is more than mere possibility, even in spite of growing and efficient rationalisation through data, then it follows that a reliance and focus on data alone is a flawed approach. Indeed, this idea is explored by Lazer et al (2014) in their caution against any creeping ‘Big Data Hubris’ in academic enquiry. I would argue that similar caution should be paid by those operating at an industrial level.

Can data, for instance, ever fully account for what De Certeau refers to as ‘practices of space‘ – the illusive movements of walkers in a city (for which we can read, music listeners)? A possible hypothetical aim, function or argument of Harkive, then, would be to argue that it cannot. This is not to say that data is without merit, of course, and, indeed, to test out such a hypothesis would require a methodology that mapped Harkive’s data against industrial data in order to challenge or disprove the conclusions drawn. It would also be one that simultaneously built on and challenged existing scholarly ideas around music consumption. However, whilst challenging existing ideas within the academy is the function of a good academic, a potential danger in identifying flaws and under-attended areas of industrial practice in the music industries would be that I provide a means for their reification. As I hint at below, however, neither the academic nor industrial process can ever be complete. The only guaranteed outcome in both cases would be more questions.

There is a great deal more to be made of this reading of De Certeau’s work, I feel: the idea that footsteps (listens, plays) are ‘an innumerable collection of singularities‘; that walking (listening) is a speech act; that it has a grammar and a rhetoric of its own, and so on, lend themselves as ideal models for exploring music consumption in the context of data. Unfortunately, space does not permit me to explore them here, and in any case this line of thought would require a considerable amount of further development before anything concrete might emerge. However from this explorative start there are perhaps the beginnings of a position of my own, the kernel of an argument. In closing, I will attempt to sketch out some related areas that might be included in such a development.

As hinted at above, the ideas considered provide numerous routes back to themes explored by popular music scholars over the years, and thus to possible areas of new knowledge in the context of modern developments:

  • If big data can be seen, for example, as representative of the latest logical step in the march of ‘reason’, and if the actuality of listening that reason can never sufficiently explain is ‘material reality’, then the presence of Adorno looms large;
  • Just as Sterne (2012) and Milner (2010) have pointed out in their explorations of the development of recording and audio technologies, the idea that a recording, however advanced, can capture a true representation of reality, is fundamentally flawed – for Sterne (2006), the gaps between the zeros and ones in digital recording, it’s flaws, in other words, are where the interesting questions lie;
  • The affordances of zeros and ones are exactly what the service offered by Shazam uses to do its work. It now accounts for 10% of all digital music sales3 and is heavily influencing music production and distribution through the monetisation of its data. It represents a further rationalisation of process in the music industries, yet a similar service, HitPredictor, armed with granular data and an algorithm which analyses the ‘hit potential’ of a song, entirely failed to predict the success of All About That Bass, one of the biggest hits of 2014. Building on Sterne’s observation above, is it possible that the failures and blind spots of Big Data are more interesting than its successes?;
  • I’m aware that I have completed a 2,500 word essay entitled ‘Walking in the city with headphones on’ based on a theory of everyday life, and only briefly mentioned a number of key studies in the field of popular music and everyday life, notably Micheal Bull’s ‘Sounding Out The City’ (2000) and Tia DeNora’s ‘Music In EveryDay Life’ (2000). Both studies pre-date the current developments in Big Data (although Michael Bull did update his study in 2006 to include a consideration of the rise of the iPod). The opportunity to build on both pieces of work to include digitally delivered music, big data and social media (and the idea – another assumption of mine – that the relationship between the acts of ‘listening to music’ and ‘communicating about music’ is evolving) would be another potentially fruitful route that my project could incorporate.

Bibliography

Adorno, T.W., Simpson, G., 1942. On popular music. Institute of Social Research.

Bull, M., 2000. Sounding out the city: Personal stereos and the management of everyday life. Berg Publishers.

Burkart, P., McCourt, T., 2006. Digital music wars: ownership and control of the celestial jukebox. Rowman & Littlefield, Oxford.

DeNora, T., 2000. Music in everyday life. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Frith, S., 1981. Sound effects; youth, leisure, and the politics of rock’n’roll. Sound Eff. Youth Leis. Polit. Rocknroll.

Hebdige, D., 1979. Subculture: the meaning of style. Methuen, London (etc.).

Housley, W., Procter, R., Edwards, A., Burnap, P., Williams, M., Sloan, L., Rana, O., Morgan, J., Voss, A., Greenhill, A., 2014. Big and broad social data and the sociological imagination: A collaborative response. Big Data Soc. 1, 2053951714545135.

Lazer, D.M., Kennedy, R., King, G., Vespignani, A., 2014. The parable of Google Flu: Traps in big data analysis.

Michel, D.C., 1984. The practice of everyday life. Berkeley U Calif. P.

Milner, G., 2010. Perfecting sound forever: the story of recorded music. Granta, London.

Silver, J. 2013. Digital Medieval, Xtorical Publications Media.

Sterne, J., 2006. The mp3 as cultural artifact. New Media Soc. 8, 825–842.

Sterne, J., 2012. MP3: The meaning of a format. Duke University Press.

1The most high-profile recent example of this is the acquisition of MusicMetric, a firm specialising in music data collection and analysis, by Apple in a deal reported to be worth $50M. http://musically.com/2015/01/21/apple-buys-musicmetric/. Whilst the reasons for the purchase have not been made public by either party, industry experts have speculated that MusicMetric will be incorporated into the relaunch of the Beats Music service, which Apple acquired in 2014.

2For an overview of the manner in which data is having a growing influence on industrial practice in the music industries, see http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/12/the-shazam-effect/382237/

3The figure was reported by the BBC in January 2015, but it should be noted that Shazam itself was the original source of the figures http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-30917477

 

January 2015

This is the first post under the ‘new regime’ for this site, all of which is explained here, if you’re interested.

The very short version is that I’ll be writing a monthly blog post to pull together all of the music-related things I come across. It will include the interesting things I’ve read and seen, the things that I’ve been listening to, the records I’ve bought, and the music-related things I’ve done. This is the first one, for January 2015.

I’ll start with a round-up of links and a monthly Spotify playlist. That way you don’t have to trawl through the whole, detailed post to find something that might interest you.

The whole post will be peppered with images I’ve seen online, like the disco quote below. These images are what you might call ‘digital music ephemera’, if you were trying a bit too hard, and they are part of the things and experiences I hoover up over the course of each month. They will normally be things that I’ve seen online, usually on places like Twitter and Facebook, and I’ll do my best to provide original sources. That won’t always be possible, so on the remote off-chance that you stumble across this site, see an image that belongs to you and would like me to remove it, just let me know.

 Found by @LondonLee on Twitter, a snippet from a 1978 New York Times article


Found by @LondonLee on Twitter, a snippet from a 1978 New York Times article

That’s enough blether. Let’s get on with it….

I use Spotify for most of my mobile listening, or for listening at work, and over the last few years I’ve been in the habit of creating monthly playlists. When I read a review, or hear a song on the radio, or see a recommendation from someone online, or want to listen to a new release from an artist I like, I add tracks to the monthly list. I then spend most of the month listening to it as it grows, weeding out the ones I don’t care for, or delving deeper with the ones I like.

Here’s the list for January 2015. There are 48 tunes here, and it’s in no particular order, so for best results you should play on shuffle. The reason for the inclusion of 4 or 5 ‘Bro-Country’ songs will become apparent in a while. You can skip over those if you like. They are pretty turgid, in fairness.

Bro-Country aside, there’s some great stuff in the mix. New releases by two of my favourite artists, Matthew E White and The Phantom Band, new soundtrack stuff from Olafur Arnalds and John Carpenter, and – perhaps most unexpectedly of all – following a recommendation from Geoff Dolman of Static Caravan Recordings, I became quite smitten with Larry Norman, who was the ‘Bad Boy of Christian Rock’, apparently.

 

Odds and Sods from January 2015

Here are some interesting things I came across this month…

 1970s advert for in-car stereo system, starring Ol' Big 'Ead and Ol' Blue Eyes, found by @LondonLee on Twitter


1970s advert for in-car stereo system, starring Ol’ Big ‘Ead and Ol’ Blue Eyes, found by @LondonLee on Twitter

  • Mark Ronson’s hit single, Uptown Funk, is remarkably similar to the theme tune from a 1990s kids TV show, The Really Wild Show
  • This remix of Big Love by Fleetwood Mac is pretty special. It was briefly available on a limited 12″, but those are long gone, unfortunately.

 

Red Bull's #Givesyouwings hashtag didn't garner entirely positive contributions

Red Bull’s #Givesyouwings hashtag didn’t garner entirely positive contributions

  • Amongst the hundreds of videos of people lip-syncing to ‘Love is an Open Door’ from the movie Frozen, this one made me laugh. For some reason.
  • Some of these 10 oddball funk rarities from the last 20 years found their way on to my monthly playlist.
  • Tom Petty and Sam Smith reached an amicable settlement about the similarity of Smith’s ‘Stay With Me’ to Petty (and Jeff Lynne’s) ‘I Won’t Back Down’. The two songs were meshed together to illustrate their similarity. The result was pretty great. As SentricMusic pointed out, ‘Stick a DONK on that and it’s poppers o’clock”. Indeed.

 

 

  • This 10-CD box set from Philadelphia International Records appeared on sale for £20, which was basically a steal. I ordered one, but it hasn’t shown up yet. Maybe it was too good to be true.
  • In other news that will break a few bank balances, Moog relaunched some of their classic synths
  • The BBC’s ‘Sound of Song’ series of documentaries are well worth a look if you’re interested in the processes of songwriting and recording.
  • Talking of songwriting, this demonstration that 6 modern ‘Bro-Country’ songs follow the exact same formula is very interesting. The songwriter who made this plans to write a song of his own that follows this formula, and then take it to publishers. Incidentally, this is where those turgid Bro-Country songs on the monthly list came from. Morbid curiosity.

 

  • I found out that former Aston Villa defender, Paul McGrath – one of the best players I ever saw in claret and blue – recorded an album of covers back in 2011. If that wasn’t odd enough, it sounds a lot like Julian Cope. He also recorded a version of Handle With Care, which featured the aforementioned Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne on its original version. I’m sure that’s just a coincidence, though.
  • NASA posted a collection of Space Sounds to their Soundcloud account. According to Open Culture, these recordings were free to download and use.

 

  • Bournemouth University launched a portal that provides useful, basic information about copyright. If you’ve ever been baffled by the subject, this could be a useful site.
  • It has a big whiff of the staged about it, but the American policeman lip-syncing to Shake it Off was a lot of fun

 

  • …and also on the Taylor Swift tip.
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A moment of Pop serendipity on a US road. Posted by @? on Twitter.

Buying Records….and some other things about vinyl

I bought quite a few records (and books) this month. More than normal, anyway. The reason for this was that we had a New Year clear out at home, so I also found myself visiting a fair few charity and junk shops. Whilst there, I pulled out a few nice things.

A 1910 advert for new-fangled double-sided discs, found by Eamonn Forde

A 1910 advert for new-fangled double-sided discs, retweeted by @Eamonn_Forde on Twitter

All in I picked up 33 records. I like taking pictures of the record sleeves I pick up and usually post photos of new purchases, or records I’m listening to, over on the FGTeBay Instagram account. Photos of all of the records purchased this month are in this album on Flickr, but here are a few of my favourites

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The interesting thing about some of these purchases, and the Johnny Mathis and Brian Protheroe records in particular, is that songs from many of these records have featured in monthly Spotify playlists previously….and in doing so the albums they come from have automatically been added to the long, long mental list I keep of things that I’d like to pick up one day. So, it was nice to tick a couple off for £1 each.

 

 

Also on the subject of vinyl, there were a few interesting nuggets online about that this month. An article in LA Weekly did a good job of providing a counter-narrative to the sometimes very annoying rhetoric about audio quality you get from the vinyl crowd, making a case for the superior sonic quality of CDs.

Meanwhile, this article in The Guardian eventually fell into exactly that kind of annoying ‘It just sounds better’ nonsense, but before it did, it gave a really interesting overview of the state of the vinyl manufacturing landscape. By way of extra detail, this article on Modern Vinyl told of the difficulties involved with the supply chain now that vinyl is experiencing a ‘comeback’. The graphic below offered additional perspective on the scale of that comeback, as did the news that streaming revenue continues to grow. All very interesting stuff, if you like that sort of thing, which I do.

 

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Talking of obsolete formats….

I played with a USB / Tape Doohickey

A colleague at BCU recently purchased a job lot of USB / Tape converters as he’ll be using them to teach his students about digital archiving. He asked a few people in the office to play with them to see how they worked.

I have a huge pile of old tapes at home that I’ve been meaning to digitise for a long time, so I was interested in giving it a go. I though it might be useful to provide a quick overview of my experience with it. So, here goes….

I used it on a Mac, so didn’t bother with the software that it comes bundled with, but the disc and handbook it comes with says it’ll work with Windows. It works with Audacity on a Mac (but can presumably work with other software). You plug it in to a USB port (which also powers the device) and tell Audacity that you want to use it to record. You hit record on the software, and press play on the tape machine, and away you go.

There is a volume control on the unit itself, so you’ll need a few false starts as you mess about getting a decent level, but that’s about it in terms of set up. One thing: Don’t leave your mobile next to the tape player cos if you get a call/txt/whatever, you’ll get interference on the recording. I learned this the hard way.

As you probably know, it’s easy to top and tail the finished file in Audacity, and to then export it in the file format of your choice. Sound-wise it’s ok – as good as the tape itself. Not too much hiss. No idea how durable the machine is as I’ve only done two tapes so far, but I plan to use it a lot more over the coming weeks (if I ever get around to lugging the box of tapes from the loft)

All in all, for £11 and the fact that once you’ve spent a minute or so either side setting/tidying up, you can just leave it running in the background as you work, it’s pretty good.

It’s given me a few ideas of things I’d like to do with the tapes I have, but none of those are going to happen whilst the tapes remain in the loft. Maybe I’ll have more on that next month.

Making Music

A few records I’ve been involved with are starting to near completion, which is great news. 9 songs from the 3rd Friends of the Stars record are now mixed and sounding really sweet, and the James Summerfield record I played and sang on at Highbury Studios last summer is finally ready for release. That’s coming out in April and I’m really excited by it. It’s an album of songs about Birmingham that James put together with a local poet, Darran Cannan. Here’s a promo video for the record.

 

 

I also helped out on the logistical side for a few releases on Static Caravan Recordings. The single ‘Up’ by Victories at Sea came out in January, and we worked on singles by Free School and Stick in the Wheel, which are due next month and are picking up some nice reviews and airplay.

 

 …and finally, the PhD

All of the above I do for fun. The day job is my PhD, which is based around The Harkive Project and is looking at music consumption practices in the digital age. You can read more about the detail of that over on the project website.

I had two reasonably large deadlines this month, with 6,000 words handed in to the University on 9th January and a further 7,000 to the funding body by the end of the month. Alongside that, I read a LOT, and spent a good deal of time trying to get to grips with Theodore Adorno – which is another reason why the ‘Bro-Country’ songs made such an impression on me.

And that’s yer lot. If you’re still with me after all of that, thanks for reading. If any of it was useful, or if you have any questions, please do say hello on Twitter.

Ta,

Craig