I’ve been getting into music networking/streaming radio sites Last.fm and Pandora.com and thinking about how they and related forms of social and artistic networking relate to the ideas this blog is exploring. Google can search for words, but not (yet) for snippets of musical melody, harmonic progressions, jazz solos, visual images. But once these are digitized, uploaded, and interpreted, they can be tagged and connected to others in ever-multiplying connections. These sites allow for the utmost in niche marketing – type in your favourite artist and listen to all the other artists who sound that way – but also for an infinite pluralization of the niches your musical identity can occupy.

Blogger Steve Krause compares Pandora and Last.fm to ‘nature’ and ‘nurture,’ in that Pandora.com actually analyzes individual pieces of music according to a set of parameters they developed – they refer to this process as the Musical Genome Project – while Last.fm relies on its users, i.e. on the interpretive creativity of the social community, to tag and analyze music so as to create as complete a many-layered map of the musical universe as possible.

Last.fm, then, understands musical perception to be immanent to the social community (nurture), and to get at that community, they provide software which ‘scrobbles’ your musical library to find out what you like, build an identity for you, and recommend other things based on that. Pandora does much the same thing, but understands musical perception to be immanent within the music itself – its harmonic structure, rhythmic and temporal dynamics, etc., i.e., nature (though Pandora’s programmers have to select those parameters first, in a kind of second-guessing of what musical ‘nature’ is). But music is both – it’s social and bio-acoustic in intermingled ways ways that cannot readily be separated: our tastes are shaped by our social experiences with music, but those experiences take place in a milieu of physical and biological interactions, and once the music settles into our neurophysiology it evokes similar effects upon repeated listening – which itself often takes place socially, etc.

Both sites seem quite good at doing the thing that social networking sites do when they’re done well – at making it possible for people (listeners, in this case) to do what they would if they could: to learn about new music from those who share their tastes, to connect with others who like the same music, to learn more about the artists, hear their other music, etc. – i.e., to expand outward as listeners in ever widening circles of social and musical connection. Sounds so Deleuzian… Is the internet and all it makes possible, then, the ultimate embodiment of the kind of immanent productivity/connectivity Deleuze & Guattari describe, and is that why they, and Hardt & Negri, et al, are as popular as they are (among the theoretically inclined)? Are they the philosophers of the transformation from the-world-as-picture (as Heidegger described it) to the-world-as-database? (Nathan on Swarming Media blogs about this.) Are they describing the natural world, too, and what do we lose in our understanding of ‘nature’ when we see it this way? These questions seem facile, but they are starting points that are only beginning to be moved beyond (e.g., by the Herzogenrath collection on D/G and Ecology, mentioned earlier, which at first glance appears very good, or Rhizomes 15) – and that’s long overdue.

So far I like Last.fm more, mainly because its range is broader (same reason I like EMusic, which bypassed the 4 or 5 corporate music behemoths and went straight for the thousands of independent distributors covering the full range of the musical universe – and it’s much less expensive than iTunes or Amazon for downloads). In any case, the two are now combinable, so their strengths can complement each other.

Compare all of this to the oligarchic music world dominated by a handful of record companies that I grew up with, and it’s fantastic. But what about the small record stores (and book stores, etc) that are disappearing under the weight of Amazon.com and online downloading and all that? (Pure Pop is my local one, and it’s great, but they’re online too.) As more and more of the world gets uploaded, is there a way that we could ‘re-wild’ the non-uploadable spaces left behind? Hmm, makes me think… Is the Left Behind series a paranoid Christian-millennialist version of the world-as-database, a quasi-biblical alternative to William Gibson’s (genuinely prophetic) Neuromancer? Who will be uploaded, and who left behind? I’m blathering… Time to up/download and get back to work.

A moment later: All that said, it would be naive not to acknowledge that Last.fm and Pandora, like Google, Amazon, et al., are commercial interests. To the extent that they democratize music or information and come up with creative ways of making it flow more freely and widely, I applaud them. They will eventually get swallowed up or killed off by others like them, and the struggle between the commons (responsible open access) and enclosure (control and striation, empire and monopoly building, addictive subjectification, etc.) will continue in other forms.

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