Reviewer biography

Current Reviews

Review Articles

Book Reviews Archive




Cybersounds, Essays on Virtual Music Culture

by Michael D. Ayers, Editor
Peter Lang, New York, 2006
282 pp. Paper, $32.95
ISBN: 978-0-8204-7861-6.

Reviewed by Stefaan Van Ryssen
Hogeschool Gent


Twelve essays on music and the Internet. One can imagine that copyright issues (Napster and KaZaa et al.), fandom, and online collaboration will be treated in depth, and so they are, but there is a lot more in this collection. What keeps the whole bunch together is an ethnographical and anthropological viewpoint and a high quality of scholarship, so editor Michael Ayers, professor of sociology and music critic, has kept up his end of the bargain. What makes it an interesting book is the inclusion of a few essays that break new ground, which is a rare quality in view of the high number of recent publications on the sociology of music in the digital age and on the influence of technological advances in the production and consumption of music.

Markus Giesler contributes Cybernetic Gift Giving and Social Drama: A Netnograpy of the Napster File-Sharing Community. Borrowing from anthropological theories of gift giving, he stages the story of Napster and its descendents as a social drama (‘drama’ in the sense of anthropologist Victor Turner: a social process with relatively high visibility and very clearly recognisable protagonists, developing round an issue that takes on high symbolic significance for both actors and viewers). In a questionable but interesting argument, Giesler concludes that file sharing is practically the only example of gift giving without a trace of egoistic interest. This leads to specific moral consequences and a high potential for social change or at least some social upheaval, which genuinely deserves the epithet of ‘drama’. (By the way, he pulls Moses Maimonides, Marcel Mauss, Marshall Sahlins, Derrida and Caillé into the mêlée, so these are fingerlicking pages for any social anthropologist.) Gieslers penchant for coining new words and drawing in just a little bit too many epistemologically diverse theoretical frames cast a shadow over the essay, but it offers undoubtedly a big step forward in understanding the cultural dynamics of file sharing.

Andrew Whelan’s Do U Produce?: Subcultural Capital and Amateur Musicianship in Peer-to-Peer Networks presents a Bourdieusian analysis of virtual communities of ‘amateur’ musicians and, thus, establishes a solid basis for a discussion about the very nature of music. The fact that he distinguishes between amateur and professional is echoed, if inversely, by the concluding essay of the book: Jonathan Sterne’s On the Future of Music. Sterne quite rightly points out that the analysis of the effects of the Internet on the production and consumption of music has been too narrowly focused on the professional, or rather the industrial field of production and on records and mass media as distribution channels. Amateur and local production with its much tighter feedback loops tends to be left out of the picture while it is exactly that part — a part where a lot of pure fun competes with high levels of uncensored creativity — that gets a boost from the net.

The feedback loop in industrial music production is unquestionably mainly impersonal and purely functional: sales figures, airplay and (nowadays) numbers of illegal downloads tell the managers, professional producers and marketers something about the audience’s appreciation of an album or recording. Again, the Internet is changing the situation, as Daragh O’Reilly and Kathy Doherty illustrate in Music B(r)ands Online and Constructing Community: The Case of New Model Army. How the NMA band branding leads to a feeling among fans of belonging to a virtual family and how that family feeling again helps the brand is much more interesting than what we usually read about Deadheads and their relationship with their grateful favorites. (I must add that this has absolutely nothing to do with my personal taste — I dislike both the GD and the NMA, but the composers I prefer wouldn’t have fan clubs, would they?)

There are six more essays in the collection, but one needs to be mentioned separately. Trace Reddell’s The Social Pulse of Telharmonics: Functions of Networked Sound and Interactive Webcasting is the odd one out because it mainly describes the work of the author and a number of music projects that specifically exploit the technical potential of the web. I heartily welcome his categorisation of networked music projects and interactive webcasting, but wrapping it in a rather pompous rhetoric wasn’t necessary. Actually, referring to Debord, Bakhtin and their likes doesn’t make the whole thing more intelligible. Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem, sayeth Occam.



Updated 1st December 2006

Contact LDR: ldr@leonardo.org

Contact Leonardo: isast@sfsu.edu

copyright © 2006 ISAST