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  • Cybersounds: Essays on Virtual Music Culture
  • Stefaan Van Ryssen
Cybersounds: Essays on Virtual Music Culture edited by Michael D. Ayers. Peter Lang, New York, NY, U.S.A., 2006. 282 pp. Paper. ISBN: 978-0-8204-7861-6.

In a book of twelve essays on music and the Internet, one can imagine that copyright issues (Napster and KaZaa et al.), fandom and on-line collaboration will be treated in depth; and so they are here, but there is a lot more in this collection. What keeps the whole bunch together is an ethnographical and anthropological viewpoint and a high quality of scholarship. Editor Michael D. Ayers, professor of sociology and music critic, has kept up his end of the bargain. What makes it an interesting book is the inclusion of a few essays that break new ground, which is a rare quality in view of the high number of recent publications on the sociology of music in the digital age and on the influence of technological advances in the production and consumption of music.

Markus Giesler contributes "Cybernetic Gift Giving and Social Drama: A Netnograpy of the Napster File Sharing Community." Borrowing from anthropological theories of gift-giving, he stages the story of Napster and its descendents as a social drama (in anthropologist Victor Turner's sense of drama as a social process with relatively high visibility and very clearly recognizable protagonists, developing around an issue that takes on high symbolic significance for both actors and viewers). In a questionable but interesting argument, Giesler concludes that file-sharing is practically the only example of gift-giving without a trace of egoistic interest. This leads to specific moral consequences and a high potential for social change, or at least some social upheaval, which genuinely deserves the epithet "drama." (By the way, he pulls Moses Maimonides, Marcel Mauss, Marshall Sahlins, Derrida and Caillé into the mêlée, so these are finger-licking pages for any social anthropologist.) Giesler's penchant for coining new words and drawing in just a bit too many epistemologically diverse theoretical frames cast a shadow over the essay, but it offers undoubtedly a big step forward in understanding the cultural dynamics of file-sharing. [End Page 404]

Andrew Whelan's "Do U Produce?: Subcultural Capital and Amateur Musicianship in Peer-to-Peer Networks" presents a Bourdieusian analysis of virtual communities of "amateur" musicians and, thus, establishes a solid basis for a discussion about the very nature of music. The fact that he distinguishes between amateur and professional is echoed, if inversely, by the concluding essay of the book: Jonathan Sterne's "On the Future of Music." Sterne quite rightly points out that the analysis of the effects of the Internet on the production and consumption of music has been too narrowly focused on the professional, or rather the industrial, field of production and on records and mass media as distribution channels. Amateur and local production, with its much tighter feedback loops, tends to be left out of the picture, while it is exactly that part-a part where a lot of pure fun competes with high levels of uncensored creativity-that gets a boost from the Net.

The feedback loop in industrial music production is unquestionably mainly impersonal and purely functional: Sales figures, airplay and (nowadays) numbers of illegal downloads tell the managers, professional producers and marketers something about the audience's appreciation of an album or recording. Again, the Internet is changing the situation, as Daragh O'Reilly and Kathy Doherty illustrate in "Music B(r)ands Online and Constructing Community: The Case of New Model Army." How NMA's branding leads to a feeling among fans of belonging to a virtual family and how that family feeling again helps the brand is much more interesting than what we usually read about Deadheads and their relationship with their grateful favorites. (I must add that this has absolutely nothing to do with my personal taste-I dislike both the Grateful Dead and New Model Army, but the composers I prefer would not have fan clubs, would they?)

There are six more essays in the collection, but one needs to be mentioned separately. Trace Reddell's...


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