IASPM day 5: “Fish Don’t Know Water Exists till Beached”. Henrik Smith-Sivertsen #iaspm2013

Henrik-page1“Fish Don’t Know Water Exists till Beached”– Documentation of Music Production, Distribution and Consumption in the Age of Streaming. Henrik Smith-Sivertsen (The Royal National Library of Denmark, Denmark)

[JB note – Henrik is a professional historian and archivist who does not wish for any human endeavour ever to be lost – he is therefore delighted to offer his presentation in full here as a download. Download Henrik’s PowerPoint]


In recent years streaming technologies have changes the distribution and use of recorded music radically. The long predicted shift from cd’s and other physical media to Internet based platforms for music is now a reality, and music is uploaded, streamed, heard and shared across platforms and borders on various devices, and a general destabilization of the “old” system has already taken place. In this paper I will address the challenges of the streaming revolution from music archivist perspective. In times when music was primarily distributed via physical media, documentation of music production was relatively easy. Typically music published in and to specific regions have been collected and stored in national music archives, but how do such institutions cope with the digital reality and which implications does it have to future studies of popular music? Using a Danish case study on how a young female musician, Sys Bjerre, has made a career via the Internet and not least social media, I will demonstrate the challenges of digital archiving of music and the consequences for popular music research if music archives do not change the main perspectives from physical media to digital files on the Internet.

Due to some unexpected extra time becoming available due to conference logistics, Henrik’s presentation began with some contextual audio – be played us the video of the song ‘Malene’ by Sys Bjerre (a Danish hit with lyrics about a heartbroken character who burns down her boyfriend’s house). The song led to many YouTube responses, from fictionalised other characters in the story, starting with the boyfriend, and followed by other members of the family, including the parents, the grandmother (and, apparently, the cat). This participatory Internet meme took Denmark by storm. We will return to Sys Bjerre later.

Henrik then begins the presentation proper, attributing his title to Marshall McLuhan, and starting with a quotation from Imagine – “Living for today”. He takes the position that the immediate and ephemeral nature of the Internet makes it exclusively a tool of ‘now’. Henrik, remember, is based in a library, and he makes it clear that his perspective of a professional archivist. The question that concerns him is, as he says – “Has the digital music revolution been saved”. He uses the word ‘saved’ in the computer/data sense, to address the extent to which digital (musical) history is being successfully archived.

His first graph is a familiar one – the decline of music industry sales. He describes the analogue/digital eras in three phases – fighting digital, using digital to replicate analogue, and then using digital to improve on the analogue experience.

He compares stats for music’s shift to digital with downloading in other digitised media. Digital music currently represents 32% of music sales (2011 stats), and he contrasts this with newspapers (5%), books (4%) and film (1%) [JB note – I imagine these figures are very different now, particularly with the rise of streaming film, TIVO etc]. But his point is sound – that music was first in the switch to digital [in my opinion, because it was the lowest bandwidth] and other industries are now experiencing similar challenges. He next tells us about netarchive.dk – a site devoted to archiving digital media to avoid it being lost. He calls it a ‘nearly dark archive’ – 15 users for 15TB of data.

We now return to our illustrative example Sys Bjerre, and the story of her rise to fame, her use of social media, and her first album, entitled ‘Do It Yourself’. Henrik lists the way Bjerre’s presence (and others who are influenced by her presence) can easily be found via many contemporary online sources – YouTube, chat rooms, Facebook etc, but none of these things are archived.

He next plays us another Bjerre single ‘VIP’, and uses it to frame a discussion of webcrawling. He notes that her Myspace profile is now gone because webcrawler robots cannot locate this now-deleted content. He makes the serious point that ‘navigation depends on the present Internet for discovery’ and discusses the gaps in chronology of data.

Next, he notes the difficulty of harvesting closed systems – typically Facebook. He then drops his bombshell – no music was harvested internationally until 2012. He states that the harvesting is only partial, and shows us some empty YouTube content and Sys Bjerre’s Myspace profile to illustrate the nature of the problem. He notes the inadequacies of the wayback machine.

He concludes with

We are in deep touble

And we [the Danes] have saved more than most

So we are ALL in deep trouble

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