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31 July 2007

Consuming Culture in Context

Consuming Culture in Context
© Danielle Carey

Our relationships to and understandings of music are shaped by far more than its sonic qualities alone. In this regard, the documentation of music plays a crucial mediating role in our ability to engage with and comprehend music of all genres. The recent explosion of online documentary forms is therefore of interest not only from the perspective of the potential opportunities they afford creative artists, but also in terms of the impact they have on shaping the ways in which different musical forms are able to be recognised, valued and comprehended.

This article responds to the emerging online landscape by scrutinising the ways in which newly dominant documentary models enable us to engage with art-based music practice. By identifying how these models favour conventions foreign to art music, I argue that this has significant implications for the ability of the general public to identify, understand and value music as an artistic practice.

'Conventions' in music

...the 'death of the composer' is a phenomenon common to many online documentary models.The approach I take in this article is to examine the 'conventions' by which we are able to construct and identify art music practice. My argument borrows on sociological analyses of art such as that by Howard Becker (1982), which identifies the idiosyncratic conventions that surround the production and dissemination of particular art forms and which are inextricably linked to their identity. My use of the term conventions similarly draws on the postmodernist notion of 'discursive practices', where 'art music' is the elusive discursive formation of interest. In examining online documentary models, I am interested in them as semiotic resources with different semiotic potentials for making meaning about music.

As an example of conventions, we can point to a unique set of non-musical practices accompanying live performances in all genres of music. These conventions range from the use of specific words (you might attend a 'concert' or a 'gig'), to the dress codes of performers and audience, ticket prices, acoustic standards of the performance space, event duration, audience conduct and more.

While there are certainly variances and exceptions to these conventions, that we can identify them as exceptions serves to reinforce the existence of the 'rules'. Regardless of the sounds emanating from the live or electronic performers, the presence of these conventions helps us to recognise and interpret what we are hearing as a particular genre of music. With regard to art music, institutions such as the Australia Council, the Australian Music Centre, festivals and radio stations all play a role in the conventions of art music's production and dissemination by legitimatising the honorific of 'art' on some musics and not on others.

Non-musical conventions don't simply reflect the world of a particular type of music. By reinforcing these worlds, they are an essential part of our collective ability to construct them as distinct communities of practice. The ways in which we consume art music are therefore an essential part of its identity. The development of conventions specific to the nature of art music can be traced historically, but are by no means 'fixed' or 'natural' relationships and they remain subject to being challenged and renegotiated.

Conventions in music documentation

...the review, critique and appreciation of art music are based on a meritocracy of opinion informed by established aesthetic theory.Traditional forms of documentation demonstrate conventions unique to art-based music practice. In music librarianship, for example, custom standards exist for cataloguing music as opposed to other bibliographic forms. Cataloguing standards such as ISBD (PM) and MARC combine to not simply reflect the objective nature of music, but privilege traditional notated forms of music. In doing so, they shape our perceptions of art music. This bias is evident in the Australian Music Centre's library catalogue, which is able to document Peggy Glanville-Hicks's piano concerto very well, but is awkward when it comes to an interactive sound installation such as Garth Paine's Reeds.

Similarly, in the physical retail world of recorded music it remains common for large stores to have separately partitioned spaces for art music, which serve (in part) to provide customers with access to products in ways customised to the conventions of art music interactions. At the most basic level, CDs are arranged by composer and instrumentation rather than performer (as is the case with popular music genres) because this is how people engage with this music. Discrete physical spaces also reinforce the idea that art music is distinct and separate from other musics.

Common to these examples of offline documentary practices is sensitivity to art music as a distinct community of practice. This sensitivity establishes our capacity to engage with, understand and value art music. In doing so, it becomes an essential factor in reinforcing the foundation for art music's identity.

Convention of the art work

An obvious and central convention of music as artistic practice is an emphasis on works over and above the containers through which those works are distributed. The emphasis in both the presentation and underlying data models of many online documentary systems, however, is on a commercially released CD recording.

In Australian Music Online (www.amo.org.au), for example, a work such as Roger Dean's Fissuring Silence is relevant only insofar that it features as a track on the CD release Acouslytic. Works are presented as an optional and dispensable part of the presentation of music, and there is no scope for searching and discovering music at the level of the work. In a similar vein, in order for last.fm's (www.last.fm) system to be able to effectively add (or 'scrobble') music as part of a user's listening profile, it requires that you be listening to a commercially available recording. As with AMO, the artistic work is absent and is replaced by tracks.

From the perspective of pop music conventions, a bias towards products and tracks is understandable, especially given the centrality of the CD release to this music's production, distribution and consumption. It is also understandable from a purely financial perspective, as it allows systems to rely on publishers and existing catalogues of music to populate databases at a fraction of the expense of paying cataloguers, or relying on individual artists themselves, to go to the difficulty of generating information about the more abstract and conceptual work.

These biases towards pop music conventions have a very real impact from a purely quantitative perspective when one considers the nature of art music collections such as that held by the Australian Music Centre. Art-based practice is rarely commercially driven. Approximately only 5% of the works in the AMC's collection have a commercial recording, with 76% of works having no recording at all. This includes many score-based works that have not been professionally recorded, as well as installation and multimedia works which cannot be represented by a purely sonic recording.

Convention of the creator artist

Equally important to our understanding of art-based music practice is the attention given to the composer or sound artist of the art work. Yet the 'death of the composer' is a phenomenon common to many online documentary models.

The way that AMO promotes The Heart's Ear (a CD showcasing composer Liza Lim's music) is a good example of how many emerging documentary models are not acknowledging the importance of the creator. While the CD itself, and ELISION Ensemble (the performing artist), are featured and discoverable, Lim is not. AMO's documentation model denies the possibility of her existence as a creator artist. The same is true of commercial models such as iTunes (www.apple.com/itunes) or Martian Music (www.martianmusic.com), where 'artist' invariably means performing artists, and composing artists are represented awkwardly, if at all.

Again, from the perspective of pop music conventions, a bias against composing artists is understandable given how this music is typically consumed. Can't Get You Out of My Head is a song by Kylie Minogue on the album Fever and the fact that it was composed by Cathy Dennis and Rob Davis is largely irrelevant. Last.fm reflects this convention by representing the song as being 'by' Kylie Minogue, and it is accordingly included as part of her artist profile. Cathy Dennis also has an artist profile on Last.fm, but (as is the accepted norm in the distribution of pop music) there is no mention of her role in the second most successful single of 2001.

Some of these online documentary models can, technically, include composing artists. But these artists can only be represented by adopting the same conventions developed for performing artists, and consequently they are consumed as such. On MySpace, for example, all artists are considered 'bands', and visitors to Elena Kats-Chernin's Boosey & Hawkes maintained webpage (www.myspace.com/elenakatschernin) can listen to her composition Eliza's Aria. Given the predominance of pop music conventions, it's not surprising that one visitor commented: 'You have such a good voice =).' Whereas, the voice they'd been listening to actually belongs to soprano Jane Sheldon.

Convention of aesthetics

For better or worse, the review, critique and appreciation of art music are based on a meritocracy of opinion informed by established aesthetic theory rather than a democracy of user opinions. This is demonstrated in prizes and awards, for example, where art (music) prizes tend to be the outcome of heated aesthetic discussion among small panels of experts, while awards such as the ARIAS are based on the voting of 1,300 industry representatives. And as a result, 'People's Choice' awards in art competitions such as the Archibald Prize carry less authority than those awarded by the 'real' judges.

In online documentary models the overwhelming trend is towards supporting the 'democratic' consumptive convention, with user-generated content lauded as heralding an end to the strictures of formal, elitist and archaic classification systems. Tagging - where users are able to apply their own labels to classify the content they encounter - is perhaps the most prevalent example of this trend. While I believe that impulse-based categorisation works well for categorising your collection of photos on Flickr, I'm yet to see it work well in established, mature and cohesive domains of knowledge such as art worlds.

Tags such as 'wierd [sic] electronic' or 'long live paper and scissors' (two tags applied to Karlheinz Stockhausen's music on Last.fm) effectively undermine users' capacity to engage with the music as art by instead promoting its consumption and appreciation using pop music conventions. Other tags, such as 'shit only a fag would listen to' and 'officially shit' demonstrate the subversion of user-based initiatives against their intended uses which is so prevalent in the online world, with 'victims' including everything from one of the darlings of the Web 2.0 era, digg (digg.com), through to the ABC's virtual Second Life initiative (secondlife.com) and even the Australia Council's The Program (www.theprogram.net.au) website.

Documentary models based on blogging are a further example of how aesthetics are being transformed in the emerging online environment. Rather than replacing the informed opinion, review and criticism which is disappearing from our print media, blogs (as argued by Jim Demetre, an established arts blogger and freelance newspaper critic) are almost always descriptive in content and are 'more likely to be fans or complainers than critics' (Demetre 2005). When MySpace, which is used by millions of teenagers as a way of socialising with one another, is used by artists as a marketing tool, it is the former sort of usage which sets the conventions for dialogue between artist and audience. A sample of the user comments left on Elena Kats-Chernin's MySpace profile, for example, includes:

'Thankyou for adding meee :-) <3 The Music!'

'Hello Elena, I love your angel-like aria... Thank you for adding me :-)'


As art-based music practice necessarily embraces the Internet, it is imperative that it maintains a critical appreciation for how the online environment mediates people's engagement with and understanding of music as an art form. This is especially the case given that the dominant online music models have been designed to facilitate user interactions that are often at odds with art music conventions.

It is necessary to balance the hyperbole surrounding the potential of the Internet for increasing art music's market reach with an understanding and awareness of how online models are shifting both art music's consumption conventions and our resulting ability to distinguish it as a distinct cultural practice. This is hardly an inconsequential consideration given the special treatment afforded to art music as a result of its identity as art, and the many practitioners who are reliant on the financial (and other) benefits gained through this special treatment.

There is no inevitability about the way in which music must be documented and mediated through online systems. A service such as allmusic, for example, has separate interfaces for 'classical' and 'pop' music which allow the unique conventions of each to be acknowledged and reflected. Also of interest is the potential offered by the international library community's Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records (FRBR) standard, which offers a holistic approach to documenting works, products, people, events, criticism and more.

Former New York Times critic Joseph Horowitz (2004) argues passionately that eras of great classical music are reliant on writers who display an intimate awareness of the context and sensitivities of music's creation and presentation. The need to respect such sensitivities extends to online documentary systems themselves, particularly as the mediation and consumption of cultural products increasingly occurs online. It is crucial to the health of art-based music practice that online spaces are created which are capable of supporting diverse users as they engage with art music in a way which appropriately reflects, represents and reinforces the unique nature of this cultural form.


Becker, H.S. 1982, Art worlds, University of California Press, Berkeley.

Demetre, J. 2005, Art criticisms and blogs, Seattle. [Accessed 19 February 2007] http://www.artdish.com/ubbcgi-bin/ultimatebb.cgi?ubb=get_topic&f=3&t=000103.

Horowitz, J. 2004, 'Classical music criticism at the crossroads' in eds A. Szanto, D. Levy, & A. Tydall, Reporting the arts II: news coverage of the arts and culture in America, National Arts Journalism Program, Columbia University, New York.

Simon Chambers holds an honours degree in communications from the University of Technology, Sydney, during which he completed discourse analytic research into how people engage with music and the subsequent design of information systems. Since 2000 he has worked at the Australian Music Centre, where he is currently Project Manager for their online initiative.


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Somewhat contestable ideas here

There are several ideas here which trouble me in this article and I'd like to present some thoughts. The first idea i have trouble with is the spurious and simplistic dichotomy between so called 'art' and 'popular' music - which works neatly for a modernist music aesthetic but not for most others. This assumed split underpins most of the argument presented here. It is just as hard to define popular music as it is art music, raising questions for many of us about the relevance in 2007 of these traditional terms. Due perhaps to the incredible increase in access to music of all kinds through online source, music is now extremely hybridised. Hard notions of genre are disintegrating rapidly. I would argue that keywords and tags are now more relevant, eg 'strings, ambient, consonant, Australian, 80s', or 'instrumental, indie, melbourne, 90s' or even 'serialist, complexist, atonal, acoustic, UK, 80s). Web 2.0 and tagging practices allow us to move beyond the simplistic notions of genre and high/low culture divides.

Many of us who have worked in both so-called art and popular music areas just don't experience the distinctions. There are as many serious artists working within the 2 guitars, bass and drums instrumentation context as any other - there is as much experimentation and innovation happening in this form as in any other 'genre' - just dip your toe into the waters of the huge field of post-rock to get some inkling of this. There are many serious artists working within the field of electronic dance music and within the post-digital music aesthetic. Is Alva Noto an art musician or a popular musician? Does it matter? This music is constructed with the same intensity of artistic purpose and the simplistic divide of art/popular just doesn't hold water and hasn't for many years.

I would advance the following assertions. All artists are interested in connecting with an audience who will appreciate their work. All artists are interested in the proposition that they might receive some income in return for their efforts (accepting that hardly anyone can survive from publishing music in any form). In this context, all artists have some stake, or interest, in promoting what they do in order to build an audience and derive some income. On the most basic level, you could argue that all artists are 'commercial' when looked at from this angle. To argue that people playing pop music have more commercial aspirations than those who make art music is a contestable argument - most people I know would love to spend more time on their music but have trouble surviving financially. Where is the evidence for this assertion? It doesn't hold up in the field, from my experience.

There are some factual inaccuracies here. Last.fm allows anyone to become a 'label'. You don't have to have a hard copy release. You can upload mp3s and tag them in the system with artist similarity. Many net labels and artist/producers operate on last.fm as either labels or independent producers - see http://www.last.fm/uploadmusic

Last fm is also a fantastic repository for deleted music. My own experience is that I have a long past music project which has attracted 3,200 listeners worldwide so far and it is increasing monthly. Most of the listeners are not in Australia and most of the listeners were under the age of 15 when the project wound up. A very abstract experimental audio project of mine has attracted 1,400 listeners so far. If you involve yourself in it, you will find that it works well and it works across all genres. Last.fm has a specialist 12 tone serial group if you want to join, and it has a musique concrete interest group with a lot of members. Niche interests aggregate significantly on a global scale and this is one of the benefits of open social media networks like Last.fm

I am in agreement with you that different musical practices articulate to different performance and presentation contexts, but again that is not a neat division between different genres - even within genres people have different needs and interests. Many post-classical artists like to take their music out of concert halls and into clubs, bars and warehouses. Many electronic and experimental musicians like to take their music into concert halls with good PA systems. The point here is that the performance context is something which you cultivate as an artist and it is different for each person. We need more flexible performance venues to cater for this reality.

The bias towards products and tracks to which you refer is not genre specific. 'Track culture' has emerged from the digital download/iTunes context and all labels have participated in that mode of distribution. And before iTunes, there was radio. ABC Classic FM plays tracks more frequently than full works... To assert that social media networks create some bias, is somewhat shaky given that the track listening and compilations have been with us for decades. The new services simply allow you to purchase a track as opposed to the full album. Debate is hot across all genres about 'track culture' - prog rock bands lament the death of the album! The point here is that you assert that social media networks such as last.fm are biased towards popular music because they facilitate track based listening but I would assert this is not genre specific and/or new.

The examples given in regard to Elena Kats-Chernin and Myspace are somewhat dubious. Out of hundreds of comments you have picked some for attention which clearly come from school kids who have most probably been exposed to her work through music classes at school. Yes, myspace allows anyone to leave comments about someone's work, and if I was EKC i would be really happy that these kids enjoyed my work. I wouldn't give two hoots about the language they used to express their appreciation. Let them be kids - they are who they are. They are the general public! As for the other exceptional comments, the research around folksonomic practices suggests that the more you are tagged, the more accurate those tags become. This concept can also applied to collective knowledge production, such as Wikipedia. So, you can find an artist with 10 listeners, who has some pretty out there tags, but if you find one with a few hundred or more than 1,000, then the tags start to become accurate. Last.fm now does not display tags until an pool has reached a certain size, which thus affords a measure of protection against the maverick tags which you have cited. For example, Karlheinz Stockhausen, who has over 11,000 listeners on Last.fm is tagged as "avant-garde, avantgarde, classical, contemporary classical, electronic, experimental, german, musique concrete". You have painted a pretty dim and selective view of Web 2.0 and folksonomy here and I would suggest that the academic research in this area points strongly in the other direction - see the writings of Chris Anderson, James Surowiecki, David Weinberger and the study of Wikipedia carried out by the journal 'Nature' some years ago. Social media networks and Web 2.0, along with the principles of collective knowledge production are seen as some of the most significant developments in the last 5 years. They are prompting a large scale re-evaluation of knowledge production.

The issue around composers is also somewhat misleading. AMO is not a Web 2.0 site and is limited by its information architecture and its editorial position, just like any site, but many Web 2.0 services are open to building composer profiles. It has limitations, just like the AMC site. At the most simple level, on a social media service like Last.fm, if a complete CD is released of a composer's work with the composer is listed as the artist, then that appears as a release under their profile or name. If a composer's output consists of tracks tracks recorded by other ensembles and is not happy with their profile, they could register as an independent artist and take more control over their profile online. If a composer has no commercial CDs they can make their own recordings and upload as an independent artist. It seems to me that all the bases are covered here.

In summary, I think this article is somewhat misleading in a number of areas and you might have gone to greater lengths to present a more balanced and accurate view of the issues. Readers may otherwise feel that Last.fm and Myspace do not represent major opportunities for artists of all kinds to reach global audiences.

Julian Knowles

Survival of the loudest

At the outset, I take heart that Julian evidently believes there are truths worth defending in a Web 2.0 world – always a risk when authority increasingly comes from the mass wisdom of a crowd where all voices, regardless of how well informed they be, carry equal weight.

In response to some of Julian’s comments, I would reinforce the sociological perspective taken in my article. I am certainly not positing that genres exist outside of a socially constructed reality, nor am I trying to advocate a demarcation between high and low culture. While Julian may take aesthetic issue with such labels as simplistic and irrelevant, that doesn’t prevent them from being an intrinsic part of the discourses through which society relates to, values and understands art.

Sanna Talja’s study of music, discourses and the library is a great example of research which highlights the way in which people draw upon different discourses to construct differing versions of music. Her study is in the context of an institution (the library) which is intrinsic in perpetuating those realities in day-to-day practices such as collection development and cataloguing.

Indeed in a world of finite resources, all art forms rely in part on these institutions to reinforce certain cultural practices as being identifiable as art. I am not trying to make a value judgement on what should and shouldn’t be considered art – but with financial and other resources at stake, that’s understandably an ongoing struggle among and between cultural forms.

As an observer, it seems counter-intuitive therefore, that regardless of the promotional opportunities afforded by online models for consuming music, they often display qualities which would prevent music from being valued as art – thereby making it harder for artists to justify the special treatment it receives in comparison to other cultural forms.

Accepting the aggregate wisdom of the crowds rather than the critical evaluation of informed aesthetic opinion seems a big risk for those currently benefiting from music being valued as art. Stockhausen has 100 000 listens on last.fm and Mozart or Bach has 3 million each. To put these numbers in perspective, Melbourne indie group Architecture in Helsinki (which has released all of three albums) has over 6 million listens. The contemporary classical user group has 892 users; a group based around a single relatively obscure Glaswegian band, Belle and Sebastian, has 1716.

The tendency of last.fm to only show tags once they reach a particular critical mass is an interesting one, as it ironically seems to be reinforcing the limited dominant perspectives which David Weinberger so furiously rants against in his rejection of formal authority based classification systems. But instead of the way in which art relies upon negotiated meanings in a meritocracy of established informed opinion, tagging risks reinforcing Andrew Keen’s law of digital Darwinism – the survival of the loudest and most opinionated.

Keen disputes the financial proposition of Web 2.0 made by those such as Chris Anderson and considers some of the consequences of the ways in which music is consumed in the 2.0 revolution – likening music to the plastic toy at the bottom of a cereal box.

15 bytes of fame

MJ says scrobble me sideways.

crowd surfing + experts

Experts - those who are passionate and knowledgeable about a topic - are also part of the crowd. They're surfin' the Internet along with everyone else! So the wisdom of crowds also includes their expertise. In this context the insight they bring to a topic should be cherished.

And it is these people who are writing the wikipedia entries, tagging music in last fm, running magazines, organising concerts, festivals, and creating/performing music! As I said somewhere else is in this issue: why would someone who wasn't passionate about a topic devote this kind of time to it?

We need people to be passionate about things - to devoted time and effort in learning and building knowledge. It makes the world more efficient and easier to navigate. And there is nothing wrong with striving for quality along the way.

With the rise of the niche market (an exciting prospect!) and the development of Web 2.0, the role of the expert has been scorned and criticised. But surely Web 2.0 depends on these 'experts' for its success? Larry Sangler - cofounder of wikipedia - thinks so. It's why he left the project (and started another rival one!). He didn't like the anti-expert attitude that was being perpetuated. An attitude that grossly misses the point. It is the 'expertise' that we all bring to a topic that make projects like wikipedia successful. It kind of blows the old saying 'Two heads are always better than one' to the extreme!

Though I should point out I make a huge distinction between knowledge and opinion about a topic! And Rhiannon and I talk about this in our blogging article - check it out...

User-led content and Museums 2.0

Here are some links to provide some further context from other researchers for the positions I've put forward.

Distinguished Professor John Hartley, Federation Fellow and member of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation, gave an accessible introductory talk at a recent conference about user-led content creation and top-down, bottom-up approaches to literacy. This has many resonances with the music field. It's online as a video stream here


In respect of dialogue about museums and Web 2.0, I can recommend the 'Fresh and New(er)' blog which was set-up by the digital media team at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. Seb Chan (DJ, editor of 'Cyclic Defrost' music magazine, and web services manager for PHM) is a key contributor to this blog and is highly regarded as an expert in this area. The PHM are showing significant leadership in these discussions and their staff are being invited to speak internationally at museum conferences. It's a fantastic resource. You can read the diverse views of sector professionals in one place. There is much discussion here about collaborative knowledge production and institutions.