Saturday, March 21, 2015

Seminar 2 Position Statement: Craig Hamilton (Media)

Popular Music, Big Data and Ethics
Many of the ways in which popular music is produced, distributed and consumed have altered considerably over the last two decades, and largely as a result of digital and internet technologies. We are by no means at the end of this 'digital revolution' in popular music, with much still in a state of turmoil and flux as businesses, artists and consumers alike grapple with the new and emerging landscapes. It's an exciting time to be researching in this field. My PhD focusses primarily on music listening in the digital age, and does so through the collection of user data through The Harkive Project. This is an on-line, crowdsourced method of gathering stories from music listeners about the detail of their everyday music consumption that I developed as part of my MA studies at Birmingham City University. Since 2013 the project has gathered over 7,500 stories, from people all over the world.

By gathering (what I hope is) useful data from music listeners, I am engaged in much the same activity that media companies and rights holders involved in the music industries are currently focussing a large amount of attention and resources on. Data collection and analysis is rapidly becoming a key element in the business of popular music, as illustrated by the recent acquisition by Apple of MusicMetric in a deal reported to by worth US$50M. This raises ethical concerns on my part, in that the data I collect has potential uses beyond the purely academic, and is one of the two main reasons why I am keen to attend this seminar.

The other reason is that due to the scale and voracity of industrialised data collection in a wider societal sense, issues and questions related to data protection, use, monetisation, ownership, access, surveillance, storage and archives are of growing interest to academics in a number of fields. The realm of data is of particular interest to scholars of Popular Music because of its growing influence on matters related to the production, distribution and consumption of music, and it is here that my own area of research intersects with the wider debates. As such I am very much looking forward to hearing what the panel and delegates have to say on these matters.

In terms of my position, I would start with Sterne (2012) and Milner (2010), who, in their explorations of the development of recording and audio technologies, have argued that the idea of a recording, however advanced, being capable of capturing a true representation of reality, is a fundamentally flawed one. For Sterne (2006), the gaps between the zeros and ones in digital recording - its flaws, in other words - are precisely where the interesting questions lie.

The affordances of zeros and ones are exactly what the service offered by Shazam uses to do its work in telling millions of listeners each day the name of the song they are listening to. Shazam is one such company that is heavily influencing music production and distribution through the monetisation of the data it collects via its relationships with industrial clients such as record companies. This represents a further rationalisation of process in the music industries as it chases increasingly granular revenue streams with increasingly granularised techniques. However, a similar service, HitPredictor, armed with both granular data and an algorithm that analyses the ‘hit potential’ of a song, entirely failed to predict the success of All About That Bass, one of the biggest hits of 2014. Building on Sterne’s observation above, is it possible that the failures and blind spots of Big Data are more interesting than its successes?

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