- Guest Editors' Introduction:Platforms, Labor, and Community in Online Listening
As part of its 2019 global advertising campaign for "Streaming's Biggest Decade," music streaming platform Spotify put up billboards and installations cleverly visualizing some of its proprietary data. One ad in the campaign used variously sized images of the viral pop singer Rebecca Black to represent the average percentage of streams of her (much-maligned) song "Friday" that occurred on each day of the week. Unsurprisingly, the largest percentage of streams of the song was cued up on the titular day; the "Friday" Black towers over the others on the billboard, leaving only her legs visible.
This advertisement is almost too convenient a metonymic object for this special issue of American Music, which brings together articles and authors analyzing a variety of aspects of listening and how corporate and vernacular musical engagement takes part in twenty-first-century digital culture. The advertisement, like this issue, acknowledges the outsized presence of Spotify as a streaming industry tech behemoth. It foregrounds the prominence of user data as both tool and product and spectacularizes contemporary interactions between users and digital brands. It invokes Rebecca Black, an accidental YouTube celebrity who became a viral icon, demonstrating the potency, influence, and unpredictable nature of digital fandoms. In bright, bold colors and images, it condenses complicated entanglements of corporate data-gathering and everyday behavior, play and work, absurdity and self-awareness. In the opening decades of the millennium, pervasive social media and digital streaming services have encouraged new modes of authorship, enabled new patterns and pathways of circulation, and engendered new forms and practices of participatory culture. This special issue examines phenomena circulating across diverse platforms to consider how music [End Page 125] and musical practice shape—and are shaped by—novel digital and participatory Web 2.0 modalities.1 The advertising campaign's superlative—"Streaming's Biggest Decade"—suggests one point of departure for this issue's articles. Since the late 1990s, dominant conceptions of musical media, materiality, and ownership have fundamentally shifted. Amid the rise of ubiquitous devices like smartphones and a new landscape of pervasive digital connectivity, digital files surpassed cassettes and CDs as the dominant form of musical media, with corporate platforms like iTunes colonizing the piratic space of digital torrenting and downloads.2 The dominance of digital musical circulation was itself undercut, only a decade into the twenty-first century, by the efflorescence of streaming music platforms—platforms that substituted service for purchase, with the user and their listening data reformatted into product behind an inviting interface.3
There are signs that scholars are taking streaming and digital culture more seriously. In 2019 alone, several major publications took up questions of music, listening, and streaming cultures, including The Cambridge Companion to Music in Digital Culture and Spotify Teardown. In his expository essay for The Cambridge Companion, Nicholas Cook offers a brief history of music technology in the digital age, noting that "at one level it is quite easy to say what digital technology has meant for music," before proceeding to dissect some of the sociocultural changes that new technologies afford, especially in the realms of networked individualism, participation, and the posthuman.4 Yet any attempt to investigate these new sociocultural changes will doubtless run into challenges due to the perception of profitability attached to music technology; as new digital platforms have the promise of making significant amounts of money, they also become ripe sites for legal challenges and previously unimagined business practices. The editors of The Cambridge Companion headed off this problem by including the perspective of industry insiders. In contrast, the authors of Spotify Teardown open their book with a threatening letter Spotify's lawyers sent the researchers once the company learned about their research.5 Despite these potential obstacles, researchers continue to shed new light on the evolving relationship between new technology and music. These recent volumes provide us with a unique opportunity to focus outward from these corporations to the communities of musicians, listeners, volunteers, and laborers that make these platforms influential forces in the world of music.
Since its beta launch in 2007, Spotify has emerged as a...