IASPM day 4: Musical Chameleons – Fluency and Flexibility in Online Appropriation Practices #iaspm2013


Nenna. She came to rock!

Musical Chameleons – Fluency and Flexibility in Online Appropriation Practices. Maarten Michielse (Maastricht University, Netherlands)

This paper argues that music audiences who spend their free time remixing, mashing up, and covering popular music online are often not fans, as we perhaps might expect (Jenkins 1992, 2006), but rather ‘enthusiasts’: music hobbyists who work with any source material, no matter the original artist or genre (Abercrombie and Longhurst 1998; Geoghegan 2009). Remix enthusiasts, for example, tend to enter online remix contests of artists and songs that they often do not know or particularly like. Similarly, cover enthusiasts on platforms such as YouTube tend to work with a broad variety of different source materials, often choosing their songs pragmatically (in terms of popularity, actuality or the challenge that they offer) rather than affectively. This paper uses a combination of online participatory observations and qualitative interviews (see Hine 2000; Kozinets 2010) to show how music enthusiasts find joy in constantly broadening their horizon and developing, what Gouzouasis calls, musical ‘fluency’ and ‘flexibility’ (Gouzouasis 2005; see also Guilford 1967) in order to be able to appropriate ever new source materials in a quick and meaningful way.

The presentation opens with a playback of the song ‘We Came To Rock’ by ‘Nenna’ which was provided as source material for a recent remix competition. The song was derided by the remix community, but interestingly several remixers (who stated online that they hated the source material!) downloaded the files and remixed it anyway! Maarten challenges the prevailing mainstream view that remixers only work on music that they like. He states that remixing opportunities are limited to situations where the raw materials (isolated multi-track files) are available. He points out that filtering [e.g. nulling, hard pan etc] can be applied to isolate audio objects in a mix but it is sonically often unsatisfactory [I have suggested elsewhere in this week’s blog that the popularity of the Funky Drummer loop can be ascribed in part simply to its brief isolation in the mix]. So remixers often work with what Maarten calls ‘the usual suspects’ (i.e. mainstream successful/viral works) because this may mean that the remix may be appreciated by a wider audience. He stresses that remixers are not entirely cynical – rather, they want to engage with listeners and other creators – and this is part of the motivation for choosing mainstream work as the source audio for the remix.

As one remix interviewee states: “It’s really a challenge. You hear a song and you say “OK, it’s not my taste [but remixing it…] could be interesting”.

Maarten goes on to address other practical challenges of remixing – these practitioners need to work fast, due to competition deadlines, being beaten to the punch by rivals, missing the ‘viral moment’ generated by the popularity of the source work etc. Therefore part of the remixer’s skill is achieving good sound quality in a short timescale. He does not purely deal with electronic remixers, citing John Streese, who does ‘violin covers’ of source material; Streese asserts that “I’m not trying to be perfect”. The ‘imperfect’ approach is framed within Keen’s (2007) The Cult of the Amateur. [A questioner later asserts that because Keen’s work was in 2007, the online culture has of course developed since then – Maarten agrees that Keen’s predictions of an audience-led takeover did not take place].

Another characteristic he identifies in remixers is flexibility – the ability and preparedness to switch method or approach. He points out that remixing extends well beyond dance music, playing Enjoy Yourself as an entertaining selection of very broad re-appropriation of the source including ‘70s disco, Modern Polka, Hard House etc. He notes that these are in many cases lo-fi mixes. He describes them (after Gibson’s 1979 Ecological Approach to Visual Perception) as ‘negotiations of musical affordances”.

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