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Comunicar Journal 34: Musics and screens (Vol. 17 - 2010)

Imaginative appropriations of music in the new communicative scenarios


Miguel de-Aguilera-Moyano

Joan-Elies Adell-Pitarch

Eddy Borges-Rey


Sharing music is a traditional mechanism of cultural sociability, the observation of wich is useful in order to understand the negotiation procedures of sense and identity. In the new digital scene, the act of sharing and offering music shows –along with the obvious purpose of establishing relationships with others as well as making them participate in something pleasant– a desire to spread one’s own personal taste and a will to communicate our one’s identity. Thus, now and then, communicating by means of music and sharing it –as well as giving an opinion on it– are ways of both self-representation and expression of one’s identity, offering others some sort of «musical personality»: another way of being in the world, typical of our era and related to a way of using the products of cultural industry with a personal purpose. This use, however, is not restricted to just expressing identity aspects: we use mass culture products in several ways with different purposes in our everyday life. According to some of these other uses, we will expand the field of the main subject of this article: other ways of sharing music that represent both permitted and non-permitted appropriations of music. We will accomplish this by considering some of the reasons that help getting a better understanding of the cultural task carried out by music (and other cultural products).


Social networks, cultural practices, digital music, imaginative appropriation, identity building, communicative scenarios

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1. Introduction: music in the new communicative scenarios

A user of the social networking website Facebook has just uploaded to his personal profile the video clip of a song by one of the favourite groups from his youth that he found by chance on YouTube. Per haps, for example, the song in question is «Inter ferencias», the B-side of an early single by Madrid band Radio Futura released in the 1980s. The song is a live version the user has never heard before, as it was filmed by a fan of the band who has only recently posted the clip on the world’s biggest video sharing website, YouTube. As we said, this user discovered this video clip by chance and, delighted at finding this unknown version of one of his favourite songs, wants to share it with his virtual friends with whom he has much in common, not least in taste in music.

As it is well known, the network of friends and personal relationships that make up a social network on the internet is complex and diverse. It is not limited to those people to whom we can ascribe the dictionary definition of friendship – «a bond of personal affection, pure and unselfish, something shared with another person that is born and nurtured through care and attention». It goes beyond that, as it deals with a type of personal relationship that is different in some as pects, in which the nodes (individuals) and edges (relationships) that constitute this online social strucoture network are not only sustained by a «circle of friends» according to the definition previously given, but which are fleshed out by other types of relationships. These relationships are intimate and affectionate to a greater or lesser degree, with variable forms and levels of treatment based occasionally on the professional environment and, at other times, on an affinity for shared common interests. Not all the friendships classified as such are really the product of a previous personal relationship or dealing with someone face to face, but they can start and even strengthen through the use of the software of social network websites on the Internet.

Shortly after uploading the song, the user begins to receive various replies on his wall commenting on it. So, in the space of a few minutes an improvised collective communicative act has occurred in which music plays a key role but which is based essentially on sharing; the sharing of music and opinions on music. This little story based on recent experience will surely sound familiar. It is common practice among thousands of users of social network websites on the Internet, especially Facebook and MySpace (although each network has its own characteristics); in this case, sharing music with friends and chatting (evaluating, commenting, arguing) about the music shared. According to Brown and Sellen: «Despite the attention given to Internet sharing, physical music sharing is an activity that has been commonplace for many years – sharing of music between individuals through copied tapes and CDs» (Brown & Sellen, 2006: 37).

For years, music has played an important though varied role in the establishment and development of particular social relationships, and that role has grown substantially in recent decades. This is due to social networks and other elements of the emerging media system that surrounds us today and which is merely a technological and symbolic extension of ourselves – the instruments of our relationship mediated with the environment. Among these Facebook, which although not initially conceived as a computer application for developing this cultural sociability constituted and presented around some cultural phenomenon, nor specifically conceived for sharing and exchanging music, is a demonstration of how music is playing an increasingly important role in this social network. But Facebook is not the only means we have for sharing music or having easy access to it. There are many other applications that allow this. In particular, those that enable the swapping of digital files, such as iTu nes1, via podcasts or other means, or more recent applications (last.fm, Spotify, among the best known) that allow access to music via streaming, so the searcher can access via artist, album or playlists created by the users themselves. Of course, the proliferation of all these forms of releasing and circulating music on the internet, putting it within our reach, is no chance occu rrence. This abundance is due to the fact that: «Music is a rich part of our environment – providing cues for structuring activity and creating appropriate atmospheres and ambience. Music also plays a role in our social lives – talking about, displaying, swapping and sharing music are all ways through which we express who we are and interact with others» (O’Hara & Brown, 2006: 3).

As the editors state in the introduction to the book Consuming Music Together, the way we consume mu sic is not just about simply listening but is part of the way we construct our daily lives and how we integrate in our society. Today, technology and the new associated ways of consuming and listening are by no means remote from this notion: «this relationship between technology and the ways people consume music in their everyday lives can be illustrated by looking at some key technical shifts over the years and how they created new and interesting social phenomena around music consumption» (O’Hara & Brown, 2006: 3).

We use music in many ways, and facets that present the participation of music in our social lives are many – functions whose use gives satisfaction individually and collectively, social forms that adopt, relationships that promote and condition, social mediations that fit together. This is not strictly new. But within the historical context in which we live, music has characteristics that, although subject to a significant pace of change, allow us to talk about something new. They change the technologies on which music is supported today (creation, production, circulation and reception), as well as the ways we relate to cultural products and, to a certain extent, the ways we keep in touch with each other. We live in an innovative age in which the various social actors involved in music play their part: the creators; the cultural industries; the users; and the consumers. We examine this innovation as part of a longer line of research, although this article pays special attention to some of its specific facets.

Here we principally focus on the act of sharing music, by now an ancient instrument of cultural sociability long valued for its importance in understanding the mechanisms of ne gotiation of meaning and identity by fans, music lovers and other participants in musical acts. In the new digital communicative scene, the swapping of files or the me re ex change of opinions and evaluations of music also highlight the role that music can play in the process of the personalization of the user’s taste, as well as the social presentation of his/her most intimate but public «I». In the act of sharing or offering music there is, besides the evident intent to involve others in something pleasurable and enter into a relationship, the desire to disseminate personal tastes and communicate through one’s own identity. So today, just like yesterday, communicating through music and sharing music (and airing opinions on the music shared) are forms of self-representation and the expression of one’s own identity, offering other people a kind of musical personality; this is another way of being in the world, apt for our age and related to a way of using cultural products that Manuel Castells calls Mass Self-Communication. However, this use is not limited to the expression of aspects of identity: we use mass culture products – or popular products, as we prefer to call them – in various ways and with diverse ends in our daily lives. Some of these other uses open up the field that interests us in this article: other forms of sharing music that represent ways of music appropriation with or without consent. This is rounded off with some brief considerations on the most important ideas that help us to understand that common cultural task – making sense, negotiating, living experiences – which we develop through music, among other cultural elements.

2. Music and technology: cultural work of the imagination

Music is a cultural element that is available to us, in our social medium; it has many uses and we use it very often (music is there at many times and use context during our lives). But in very special circumstances, those uses are imposed by our historical context. Some experts are starting to recognize this; Gerd Leonhard (2008) for example, who tries to interest the musical industry in what is known as the economy of attention. The industry has lost control of the distribution of content and now feels obliged to harness the attraction of the user. Thus, the musical industry must try to ensure that the potential consumer of its cultural product first knows of its existence and then feels a desire to access that musical work to later enjoy it. If this was traditional in the musical industry in the past – and in any other cultural industry – the difference now lies in the multiplication of means and ways to access that content (the industry must learn to profit, to monetarise, these various forms of access – Digital Music Report 2009) and in the ways we take these cultural products that are now part of the complex cultural work (De Aguilera, 2004: 154) which we must deal with now more than ever. We dedicate a paragraph that comments on that work and some of the conditions in which it is done, even though we are forced to do so in somewhat abstract terms.

If in the entire historical context human beings have had to use the series of elements that respective cultures possess, in present day society we are obliged to keep up a more intense activity in order to discover cultural elements, select them and appropriate them imaginatively and use them in our habitual scenes, living experiences with them that satisfy a range of experiences. On this, most experts on the subject agree that, as a consequence of the crisis of subjective and inter-subjective meaning (Berger and Luckmann, 1997) that affects us today there is need to fight this crisis using cultural stimuli. In fact, diverse factors of varied weight and condition have contributed to this crisis, including the loss of functionality of the main institutions established by industrial society to furnish new individual and collective biographies with meaning (Castells, 1988), as well as the abundance, indeed opulence, of cultural stimuli that we have at our fingertips today thanks to the huge interconnected system of media.

These stimuli, although they originated elsewhere, derive from the various cultures that we humans have created in response to various beliefs in addition to the types of time and space context for which each cultural element was conceived. Thus, those cultural stimuli whose use means their break with the circumstances from which, and for which, they were conceived, as well as their subsequent attachment to the circumstances of the contexts in which they are used [meaning in movement (Lull, 2000), are abundant and of varied origin, as well as being virtual, since accessing any of them is as easy as any simple technical operation (a simple click]. All of which contributes to the profound modification, or breaking, of the cultural ba se of human experience, its time space order. So this leads to a crisis of meaning as a consequence of the loss of interpretative certainties with respect to ourselves, what surrounds us and what occurs. And the uncertainty goes hand in hand with a feeling of risk.

In sum, that crisis of meaning reflects the gradual collapse of the ideal foundations of the industrial society set up by Modernity (Bueno, 1996) to which the abundance of cultural stimuli of varied origin has contributed. But, in order to overcome that crisis and gain some certainties, we have been compelled to undertake a cultural work to which we referred before. Several authors took up this theme some time ago, and they draw attention to certain facets; reflexivity, which we use to understand life and construct our I-project, giving it cognitive coherence (Giddens, 1995). But other authors looked less to the sphere of conscious reflection and more to emotional and other elements within the human personality and its own culture. From here, questions emerge such as the work of the imagination, by means of which large swathes of the population employ the imaginary present of the Net, its myths and archetypes to elaborate their imagined I and their dream worlds (Appadurai, 1996: 3), to live euphemistic ac tions with them – or symbolic creativity – to creatively transform the elements of everyday life in order to make them ideally more comfortable and to express ourselves through it (Willis, 1990: 1-6). And music plays a significant role both in that work of the imagination and in the symbolic creativity.

So, as it is well known, for a long time many authors have attributed a primary role to culture and communication in this changing society. The field of communication has in turn experienced considerable shifts of movement that affect its various spheres and which have coalesced around the display of a renewed range of cultural practices. These changes then feed on them selves and strengthen each other and bestow even greater importance on communicative activity in our social and cultural life. A decade ago we could not have foreseen the major advances that were going to occur one after the other in technology. Decisive steps have been taken along the path of digitalization and its development in numerous interconnected applications, such as in the development of the 2.0 version of Internet and the emergence of mobility in communications, with its permanent and ubiquitous connection. Among the conditions associated with technology and that have contributed to its development has been the widespread capacity to access communication machines, the use of these machines and the symbols associated with them.

Thus, the traditional interpretative powers – understanding messages, criticising them, creatively appropriating them, negotiating their meaning – that users of communication long ago acquired, are now augmented by more creative and useful powers – to modify them, create them, share them, display them. And all this within a framework that includes an extended participative culture and the display of new forms and modes of sociability.

So, users of communication have historically had a certain way of participating in communication, at least being able to enjoy a certain interpretative power that facilitated the understanding of messages and their imaginative appropriation. But with their greater expertise in communicating, the development of certain technological orientations and with the concurrence of a series of reasons, users today have extended their control over the communications in which they participate by making them more serviceable – for their lifestyles, their needs, their pleasures – and by putting them to more innovative use in this appropriation which constitutes one more component in our cultural work.

All of which has led us to display a brand new range of cultural practices – some newer, others more traditional – characterized by access to the content each user wants (among the thousands available in the system of interconnected media), when the user wants (access to most content is asynchronous) where the user wants (connection can be made anywhere) and through the medium deemed most appropriate (since the user can access content in different media, where usually the screen is the main interface – TV, computer, mobile phone and even a console). And among those cultural practices, music occupies a place of considerable importance.

3. The imaginative uses of music in the various communicative scenarios

Profound changes in music have occurred over the past years that have revolutionised music itself and the way it is created, produced, distributed and consumed. This, as pointed out earlier, is due to certain tech nological changes coinciding with other changes such as the extension of musical knowhow to broad sectors of the population, and an ability to produce musical content2. As Roca puts it so well: «Musical crea tivity has been completely transformed by computers, putting tools in the hands of musicians and users with no musical technique which would have been inconceivable decades ago» (Roca, 2004: 31). Add to which the greater ease of access to technology and the existence of traditions of appropriation of content and technology (of varied nature and different weight – versions of songs, remixes and others). Despite the convergence of varied transformations at the heart of appropriation practices – which will be outlined in this paper’s section – one can perceive a first point of in - flection in the mode of access itself, with the user’s growing interest in consumption via guaranteed paths of access, that is, here and now quality access to the content the user wishes to acquire. Leonhard (2008) explains this transition in his liquid model, in which access acquires a value that replaces the property of the content and guarantees the consumption itself. Not surprisingly, some applications that are supported in this idea, like Spotify and last.fm, have gained in stature and now openly compete with iTunes (Hattersley, 2009) by offering an unlimited source of musical content for a monthly subscription. This mode of access to content enables consumption via streaming – even from portable and mobile devices – which also enhances consumer experience by avoiding problems of storage and management of content or loss of data. This easy access to musical content on demand at any place and time helps transform a basic idea linked for so long to music and other cultural works; from content held as property, a closed system (protected), to the practice of sharing. Sharing is an open system, and thus open to easy appropriation, and this leads us to a second important transformation; the emergence of the communicative scenario of the virtual community within the framework of sharing.

Despite various attempts in the past, the practice of sharing digital content on platforms would not come into its own3 until the arrival on the communicative scenario of the social networks, marking the point at which the community of users came to reinforce sharing and the flow of opinion on shared content, and this greatly strengthened the link between participants and promoted virality. Returning to the example of Spotify and last.fm, which are undoubtedly based on some of the basic properties of the social networks, we observe that these applications are boosted by the sociability of the virtual collective and the need to share content, opinions, play lists, personalized radios and even subscriptions to the application, thus disseminating listening habits and profiles that define the identity of the social network. It is the practice of sharing that mainly channels the displaying of content, and it is the virtual community that profits from that discovery, but always from a communicative scene in which ideas of participation and idea-sharing predominate.

Now, if the guarantee of access has created the glue for establishing virtual communities based on the practice of swapping content and opinions, the third key element arises when the practice of sharing occurs within a framework whose aim is creative appropriation (De Aguilera, 2008). It is this transformation, along with other factors that are not just social, that has stimulated the proliferation of content generated by the user. This phenomenon, successfully exploited through music industry initiatives – even though You - Tube got there first - and which would later find a space for development and close overcome in the social networks, now belongs to the essential uses and practices of those users having greater technological involvement. Creative appropriation not only means the modification or alteration of content, but extends to the use of content in a different communicative context – the symbolic creativity of the user. This type of creative insertion, particularly in remixes, is evident in cases like the launch of Nine Inch Nails’ Year Zero in 2007 which represented the new way of sharing tracks that fans and network users could later remix themselves4. Since then, the concept has developed into a base for virtual track sharing networks such as SoundCloud and IndabaMusic, in which the community creates and manages music online. In the practice of creative musical appropriation, YouTube is a reference that arouses great interest. This video swapping space has a vast community of musicians who record and upload videos of their performances and generate a considerable amount of opinion – a feature much used and with great skill in the new music marketing practices. It has become the norm for videos of musical performances shared on this social network to either reinforce musical knowhow via the Internet or to create a focus for discussion around a particular performance or to divulge pedagogical competence, and thus the imaginative use to which the user puts the uploaded content transcends the concept of appropriation. We can view a mixture of musical interpretations that range from live concert recordings in large venues to a simple performance in front of a home computer webcam, an amateur group rehearsal in a garage to tutorials on how to play the latest hit song. What is clear is that YouTube is seen as a solid platform for musical apprenticeship where the musician can save on the arduous task of deciphering code, a musical score for example, and pass directly to an audiovisual creative practice that is easily accessible to the untrained musician. One of the most important phenomena that has grown out of this practice is the re-emergence of the figure of guitar hero of the 80s. The Activision video game has undoubtedly contributed to this, but the increase in video uploads of guitarist performances of varied musical styles has led to music industry artists giving away additional content when they release a record – track mixes without guitar solos or vocals – so the user can generate their own content.

The dizzying evolution of the new uses of music on YouTube has directed these individualised performances to the terrain of group interaction, with projects like The LivingRoomRockGods5, which uses the practice of musical appropriation as a justification, and stimulates the creation of online musical projects that find sufficient means on the Internet to consolidate musical groupings. This is evident in the growing number of different sources that converge on the Internet, and they not only create compositions and MySpace profiles but they also audition online and create symphonic orchestras – as in the case of the YouTube Orchestra, in which more than 90 musicians from 30 different countries took part.

However, an important distinction must be made regarding the practice of appropriation. Basically, the elements mentioned in this section refer to the dynamic of appropriation of content with consent. However, invasive appropriation sees the modification of content that is protected by copyright. Mention should be made of video clips with altered vocals and music which jeopardise the image of the artist, the use of a protected audio track in audiovisual creations or the humorous subtitling of songs to alter their meaning6. This small example of imaginative usage offers a brief glimpse of the expansion of innovative practices in music, but it also allows us to discern certain gratification associated to these practices which, in some cases, play an important role in the construction of identities. Sharing, for example, can be associated to gratification related to courtesy and social acceptance. But the type of cultural practice displayed, in its connection with various collectives and lifestyles or situations, can also dictate which patterns of identity are constructed. A consented appropriation occurs normally through collaborative ideals that are based on mutual confidence and agreement, which characterises the collective that participates in this activity; in turn, an invasive appropriation is related to more illicit practices.

4. Back to identity: between technology and shared consumption

The gratification gained through different forms of interaction between the individual and digital musical content in the social networks can be a positive source for the active construction of identity as well for personal self-realization, emphasising the relationship between musical consumption and identity. Hesmondhalgh (2008) posed the importance of music in daily life based on two contrary but coexistent dimensions of musical experience: the constant and complex negotiation between the individual’s expression of privacy; and the expression of the collective identity. That is why music is considered a sum of cultural practices that have always been closely linked both to the subjective and to the objective, at the same time providing a base for public collective experiences (Hesmondhalgh, 2008). Thus music represents a meeting point between the public and the private, offering a base for the identity in a perpetually negotiated relationship between the individual and the collective. As Simon Frith writes « (it…) seems to make possible a new kind of self-recognition, to free us from the everyday routines, from the social expectations with which we are encumbered… Music constructs our sense of identity through the experiences it offers of the body, time, and sociability» (Frith, 1996: 275).

As in other scenes in daily life, music on the Internet participates in the construction of our identity but in diverse forms. Thus, in the most popular social networks (Facebook) and in those websites that allow the user to listen to and share music selectively (last.fm), this construction of identity is based on the act of sharing (music, information), converting each user into one more agent of identity creation, balancing between the public and private, the personal and collective (although in some cases this collectivity is li mited to those users accepted as friends and is not completely open). What is certainly true is that this type of application enables listening habits to be followed – only if the user wishes to share this with other users – to see what music others recommend and intervene in potential debates that arise. In the case of last.fm, the user can display what he is listening to on the profile page and allow others access to this information in such a way that they can get an idea of that user’s musical tastes past and present. The Net inevitably proposes a new model of music distribution and circulation (music as product but also as information) which overrides the traditional control of the music industry. Experiences such as last.fm or Facebook aim definitively to provide an outlet for this situation of radical abundance, as Beuscart (2007: 170) accurately called it. Thanks to the dynamism of the social networks on the Internet, these experiences create a new value for music sharing, opening up new contexts in the relationship between music and communication. We should not forget, however, that the use of music for cultural sociability purposes is frequent in the daily life of many people, constituting symbolic cultural material that plays an important role in the way individuals organize themselves socially (DeNora, 1986; 2000) and how they perceive of themselves as subjects.

The current ease of access to music means that we must rethink its role in daily life. In one of Gerd Leonhard’s most famous articles, republished in the Music 2.0 volume (2008), which aims to be a sort of road map to guide us through the future of music, he posits that music must be regarded as water (music like water) or electricity since it is a fluid, ubiquitous element, that is, a basic consumer product that should be within reach of all through a monthly charge (he opts for a flat rate). This easy access to music – knowing we have any kind of music we want or can imagine within our reach, ipso facto, with a single click – naturally affects the music business but also the consideration of music as a cultural object of desire and the way in which it is consumed. So it is that «the freedom in the free digital downloads suddenly allowed music lovers to do all kinds of things with this music that they had longed to do but were unable to do before things were free. The free in digital music meant the audience could unbundle it from albums, sample it, create their own playlists, embed it, share it with love, bend it, graph it in colors, twist it, mash it, carry it, squeeze it and enliven it with new ideas. The free-ization made it liquid and free to interact with other media. In the context of this freedom, the questionable legality of its free-ness was secondary. It didn’t really matter because music had been liberated by the free, almost made into a new media» (Kelly, 2007).

The fact of sharing music on the social networks of the Internet is, and with this idea we close, one of the collateral effects of this sensation of the free, fluid superabundance of music in the digital age. Since all music is accessible immediately, what is new in the behaviour of those who consume it is the use they make of it for configuring their own identity. This does not take an individual form that excludes, but rather is negotiated with the rest of the virtual community via the social network. Although these are consumer musical practices (appropriation practices, too) that are still emerging and scarcely defined, they deserve more detailed investigation. These new communicative scenes, these forms of appropriation by the user, are a challenge to our knowledge of culture; they require a pragmatic exploration of the desire to share music, sharing even while knowing that it is easily accessible music. Also needed is an explanation of the motives that make sharing music so interiorized (and so pleasurable) (Adell, 2008) within the social practices of music lovers.


1 «Apple Computer’s iTunes digital music jukebox software has been one of the few music sharing technologies that has successfully walked this apparent fine line between taking advantage of certain technical innovations and conforming to the constraints of political, legal, and ethical considerations. A study of iTunes music sharing practices enables the research community to better understand the moving target of music sharing technologies and practices and the implications of the positioning of music sharing technologies between technical innovation and political, legal, and ethical considerations » (Voida, Grinter & Ducheneaut, 2006: 61).

2 One of the many examples that illustrate this assertion could be that the Guitar Hero franchise «has sold more than 32 million copies among all the games of the franchise. www.sextonivel.com/cifrasde- ventas/la-franquicia-guitar-hero-logra-vender-32-millones-decopias

3 In 2004, the 4.5 version of iTunes incorporated iMix lists configured by users, and placed in the iTunes Store for downloading by other users. The strategy was not as successful as Apple had hoped because the virtual distribution platform lacked – and in many ways still does – a scene for the virtual exchanging of experiences and dialogue, as well as the virality characteristic of communication in these times.

4 The album had songs in multi-track format that allowed the most restless user to make his/her own versions of the tracks. Currently a community has been created that can access the Web for open source remixes and send in their own musical proposals. In 2008 British group Radiohead lend their support to the project.

5 This section of virtual rock bands corresponds to an original and innovative dynamic in which, after a negotiation stage, various musicians decided to interpret a song; so a guitarist, bassist, drummer and vocalist record their performance from home and each clip – sent in online – is edited onto a group video that is later posted on: (www.lrrg.net; www.youtube.com/watch?v=aTk8WePJRvc).

6 An example that illustrates this is the case of videos that have been viralized on YouTube with shreds, where the user modifies the audiovisual content, specifically the performance of some famous guitarist, and substitutes the audio track for one of his/her own, synchronizing the sound and body movement of the artist in the video to simulate a bad recording (www.youtube.com/ watch? - v=89zM9pZzt0U&feature=related). The growth of shreds has reached such proportions that it is now applied to entire band concerts and even to composers like John Willliams. Another example of appropriation of restricted content is that related to Microsoft’s Songsmith application. Songsmith can recognize the notes of a voice melody recorded through a microphone onto a computer and construct a harmonic accompaniment to that melody. Taking advantage of the characteristics of this application, users started to erase the vocal tracks of hit songs and create new versions through Microsoft’s software, which were later posted on YouTube and the Web (www.youtube.com/watch?v=wHduATM-o7M).


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