Popular Music Reception, Data, and Digital Technologies
by Craig Hamilton
Part one of two. For part two, click here.
My research explores contemporary popular music reception practices through the development of The Harkive Project (www.harkive.org), an annual, online, crowd-sourced method of gathering text-based reflections and other data from people about the detail of their everyday engagement with popular music. Since 2013 the project has gathered over 10,000 stories, and will run again on Tuesday 17th July 2018.
The volume and complexity of the data gathered by the project, along with the experimental methodology I have developed in response, are a useful means by which to engage with BCMCR’s current research theme of cultural translation. The basic idea of a cultural form moving from one context to another, implying an agent (or agents) doing the moving, neatly encapsulates contemporary conditions of popular music reception.
This can be considered more fully in terms of acts of popular music reception – which Keith Negus’ (1997: 9) describes as ‘how people receive, interpret and use music as a cultural form while engaging in specific social activities’ – being understood as a cultural form that ‘move’ from the context of our everyday engagement, and into another – the abstracted realm of data points and statistical analyses. In my research I have employed similar data collection methods and computational analytical techniques to those used by key players in the digital music space, which has provided me with a means of not only exploring the data I had gathered, but to simultaneously offer a route towards a critical engagement with the role that such systems play in music reception once the results of analyses are deployed via dynamic interfaces. Harkive, in this sense, is simultaneously as agent in a process of a cultural translation, and also a means by which similar processes can be broken down and observed.
It is worth pausing to consider, however, that in capturing, analysing and reflecting back individual and collective music taste and activities in the form of recommendations, companies such as Spotify are engaged in a practice that is not entirely new in terms of commerce (see: Cohen, 2004), the media industries (see: Lears, 1995) or indeed music specifically (see: McCourt and Rothenbuhler, 2004). However, the scale and degree of fine detail involved with the processes of creating machine-derived recommendation systems through digital interfaces, along with the relative novelty yet growing centrality of streaming as a mode of music reception, suggests that long-standing debates around individual choice and agency (Adorno and Simpson, 1942) and the role of the cultural intermediaries in terms of cultural goods (Bourdieu, 1984) ought to be revisited.