- Circulatory Maintenance:CThe Entailments of Participation in Digital Music Platforms
To the administrators, developers, moderators, team members, interviewers, uploaders, downloaders, seeders, musicians, designers, archivists, and historians who contributed countless thousands of hours of voluntary effort: our library could not have existed had you not been willing to build it piece by piece.—@whatcd.Twitter Post, November 18, 2016, https://twitter.com/whatcd/status/799751019294965760
This article examines an undertheorized facet of digital participation, a mode of labor that is distinctly not creative, one that fits equally between the "playground" and the "factory": labor that is preservational in nature.1 Based on a multisited digital ethnography of digital music circulation conducted between 2013 and 2016, I articulate how listeners are enjoined to partake in the ongoing maintenance of the platforms they use for music consumption. This article compares What.CD, a music-focused private BitTorrent tracker, with one of the most widely adopted digital music streaming services worldwide, Spotify. This work belongs to a broader commitment to tracing the less visible yet critically important infrastructures of music circulation.2 The technologies that engender music circulation are not neutral; they permit and encourage certain flows, discourage others, and stem certain styles, formats, and participants entirely. In this way, the technologies of circulation participate in the systemic shaping of their users.3 Meanwhile, equally considered [End Page 197] are the ways in which networks of circulation are themselves shaped by their participants: the top-down values that administrators impose on these services and the bottom-up participatory labor that together forms these networks.
One of the clearest ways Spotify and What.CD can be compared are the ways in which free labor is fundamental to their continued functionality. Drawing heavily on Nancy Baym's account of the relational labor of musicians and their audiences,4 I conceptualize these diverse forms of upkeep and management as a form of free digital labor, or "circulatory maintenance": necessary labor concerned with perpetuating the platforms' musical, technical, and social functioning, without which the circulation of music would cease to occur. In What.CD, while uploading music is the most visibly necessary form of contribution, the platform depends also on a host of other competencies and contributions from its users to maintain its distributed archive, particularly by "preserving" torrents. Similarly, Spotify encourages users themselves to engage in maintaining the platforms' sociotechnical relations by solving users' technical issues. In both cases, then, participation responds not only to creative energies but also to the need for digital forms of upkeep. This article probes several examples of the distinctive types of free labor devoted to maintaining both platforms as social-technical-musical assemblages, noting how certain forms of circulatory maintenance emphasize collective and collaborative action while others enhance the individualization of commercial music platforms. It further interrogates the hierarchical nature of both sites, noting how the systemization of prestige through "user class" systems is a key incentivization mechanism in both examples. This builds on the current literature regarding free, precarious, and unremunerated digital labor, with particular attention to how users are compelled to contribute to online music circulation platforms. Both Spotify and What. CD are characterized by their systemic shaping of individual behavior and technically prescribed governance while also generative of powerful social connections and affective notions of belonging.
Introduction to What.CD and Spotify
What.CD is an unlicensed private BitTorrent tracker with over 160,000 active users and over one million unique musical releases available in its index. Private trackers are distinguished from "public" trackers, such as rutracker and Kickasstorrents, in that access to torrent files is gated by account registration. While some trackers, notably Demonoid, have hybridized public and private approaches by offering open registration to all users who provide a verifiable email address, What.CD only permits access through two avenues: an invitation system, whereby senior existing members can "vouch" for a new user, and an "interview system," [End Page 198] in which applicants undergo an arduous, several-hour interview with a senior What.CD member in order to determine the applicant's knowledge of digital audio encoding and file-sharing social norms.
Founded days after the shutdown of the vanguard private music tracker...