27/04 /12

The other week I wrote this paper and presented it at the IFIMPaC (conference) in leeds on the 27/04/12. There are a fair few typos and its all acedemical so a little less fun but the earnest bit towards the end (as ever) has some fun stuff about meta memory. Essentially it is a lit review dripping with bias… enjoy!





In this talk I will be addressing a range of problems faced by the users of creative music technology and the philosophical implications inherent therein. To this end I will begin with a complex quote from David Foster Wallace’s novel ‘Infinite Jest’ which seems to outline accurately these problems;

‘First there’s some sort of terrific, sci-fi like advance in consumer tech… which advance always, however, has certain unforeseen disadvantages for the consumer; and then but market niches created by those disadvantages are ingeniously filled via sheer entrepreneurial verve; and yet the very advantages of these ingenious disadvantage–compensations seem all too often to undercut the original hi tech advance…’ [1]


Today’s computer music technology is of such an advanced, powerful and sophisticated nature that one can become disassociated from what it was intended to do in the first place. For contemporary music practice this is a multi-faceted problem ranging from the initial stages of composition, to the finishing touches of production and mastering, to the issues surrounding digital reproduction, distribution and dissemination. The situation is, of course, not without its positive elements, with which the postindustrial west is well familiar. Large powerful software suites such as Logic Pro and Ableton Live are relatively cheaply available and easy to use as are more complex programs such as SuperCollider. This could potentially enable everyone to participate in the activity of producing an almost limitless range of musical activities. What’s more is that the Internet allows one to share any form of digital media (including music) either legally or illegally in a matter of moments. This of course has been well known for some time. What is now coming to a point of more focused attention is what Wallace explains in the above quote. That being the disadvantages and their solutions could, and perhaps already have, undercut the original technological advances.


One of the traditional income streams for the record industry is, obviously, record-sales. In Britain these have fallen dramatically over the last eight years from a peak of 163.4m records sold in 2004 to only 113.2m in 2011 [2]. The main factor in this decrease is Internet Piracy. This has had a dramatic effect on the nature of the ‘cost effective’ music in which, particularly major, record companies will invest. This in turn changes the nature of the music that dominates the public sphere. It is the aforementioned easily available and powerful music technology that is facilitating this change in this nature and as result potentially the expectations of the role, function and qualities of, particularly popular music. It can be asserted that some of this situation in the music industry illustrates both that the popular music industry as a component of the culture industry, as defined by Adorno and Horkheimer,[3] implicitly reinforces the values of the prevailing market based ideology of western societies. First, however, before illustrating the ideological connotations, it seems necessary to further explain the current situation for those who create music with computers.



It is now the case that the present situation for a composer who uses computers is considerably different from a traditional view of the practice. One key difference between these views is that it is becoming less necessary to distinguish those composers who use computers in their practice as a distinct group. The potential for enhancing one’s practice with technology has become irresistible to the vast majority of composers. A relatively early champion of the practice describes the traditional view of these advantages as:

‘You’re working directly with sound, there is no transmission loss between you and the sound – you handle it.’ [4].


There is a great deal of truth in Brian Eno’s remark. The technology of studios and computers puts the practitioner in a very different position in relation to sound than they have been for the entirety of human history. Sound becomes material rather than occurrence. This is a remarkable opportunity. However to say that there is no transmission loss would seem to be at best inaccurate, as interfacing with sound as captured material is entirely different from sound as a dynamic experience that is only existent in the now. Whilst it seems the traditional idea that one has unlimited control over sound on a computer may be technically true, however composers are constrained in the use of this control by a number of factors. These included the internalized conception of the sort of sound or music that they should be making. This is a point that will be looked at in more detail later. Their own understanding of the tools in both terms of their role in relation to their process and the result is of course inseparable from the first point. Perhaps surprisingly many of the technical tools of music making have become part of the common understanding. Traditionally when an artist is interviewed in the studio one expects to see a mixing desk but now we also see a computer running sufficiently technical looking audio software. Additionally the word auto-tune, the name of a specific piece of software, has entered the common lexicon and is understood to be something that either falsifies a competent vocal performance or that creates a fashionable effect on a voice. Specific technical tools of music creation and production now themselves communicate as signifiers to specific audience tribes as much as the composition does and often they are essential to the composition. As Kim Cascone writes:

‘The Tendrils of digital technology have in some way touched everyone. With electronic commerce now a natural part of the business fabric of the Western world (sic) and Hollywood cranking out digital fluff by the gigabyte, the medium of digital technology holds less fascination for composers in and of itself. The medium is no longer the message; rather the specific tools themselves have become the message.’ [5]


While there is still a great deal of this information that is only available to a certain music technology cognoscenti, it is of a shrinking range. However, as our understanding of the power this technology has over the music making process increases, so shifts our expectations of the music it can produce. One can make a vocal melody stay in tune and a rhythmically inaccurate performance stay in time from a single take. In terms of efficiency this is a positive development that should always be utilized. Of course this is not quite the case. The correction software is not fool proof. Strange and stylistically unwelcome artefacts or glitches may appear in the corrected audio but to a great extent they now work technically very well. However for many listeners this creates more and deeper concerns over the loss of nuances than the uncorrected inaccuracies ever did, as David Toop explains:

‘[The band] Levert played with machine precision that left me impressed but unmoved. Doubtless they would describe this precision as professionalism but I heard something underneath that: clear signs that inventions like MIDI and sequencers, were changing the way in which musicians played in live situations. Under economic pressure and changing tastes, humans were learning how to be as accurate as machines.’ [6]


What Toop describes may have its origins with musical pragmatism, i.e. in order for live instrumental performance to sound remotely rhythmically accurate when playing with early rather robotically precise MIDI sequencing, the performer must play very accurately. This would become an internalized skill that could become the norm of performance that would both react to and reinforce the changing public tastes. However it can be asserted that the direction of the changes to public taste are not solely driven by the economic pressures on the artist but also the economic pressures on the larger industrial structure. Pressures that have always existed but have been exacerbated by Internet piracy.



Thus, in order to survive, the industrial giants of the record industry must attempt to minimize the effect that piracy has on their income. Possible solutions to this include investing only in music with the widest range of consumer appeal so as to target the widest audience thus reducing the proportion of pirates in the audience. This mass appeal content has the added benefit of being very useful for synchronization with advertisements. In order to guarantee the accessibility of a piece of music or artist to the greatest number of people, the music must conform to certain standards. Through the use of the aforementioned technology to remove the perceived imperfections which could act as cultural signifiers that appeal to a certain group at the expense of alienating others to create a ‘best fits all’ sound. It is at this point that it is necessary to clarify that this behaviour is not being done consciously as part of a grand scheme, rather it is more likely to conform to the premises of Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s propaganda model for the mass news media. They write:

‘Institutional critiques such as we present — are commonly dismissed as ‘conspiracy theories,’ but this is merely an evasion. We do not use any kind of ‘conspiracy’ hypothesis to explain mass-media performance. In fact our treatment is much closer to a free market analysis, with the results largely the outcome of the workings of market forces. Most biased choices in the media arise from the pre-selection of right-thinking people, internalised preconceptions and the adaption of personnel to the constraint of ownership, organisation, market and political power.’ [7]


This perspective explains the behaviour of individuals in the industry as based on hegemonic understandings of how the industry works and how adhering to this understanding is personally beneficial. What is more, is that this relationship between record companies and advertisers is mutually beneficial for both active parties; the advertiser gets the cache of currency that comes from attaching the work of an up and coming artist to their product, and record label gets paid to promote said artist. While the audience (as a passive party) is unlikely to identify the artist or the work from the advert, it places the work in some level of consciousness for a later point of recognition.

However this undoubtedly has an effect on what we consider the role of music to be in society and in our lives. Consumers could and arguably have, become jaded to the idea of popular music as art and may only view it as a not unpleasant distraction and as a useful tool, for commerce and social lubrication. This is not a new idea, Theodore Adorno was warning of this outcome in the 1930s:

‘The opening up of the markets together with the effect of the bourgeois rationalisation process have put the whole of society – even ideologically – under bourgeois categories, and the categories of contemporary vulgar music are altogether those of bourgeois rationalised society, which, in order to remain consumable, are kept only within the limits of awareness which society imposes on the oppressed classes as well as on itself.’ [8]


Even if one were not inclined to discuss the situation in terms of Marxist dialectics, it would be difficult to argue that the impact of commercial markets on our collective understanding of the role of popular music in society has not been significant. To understand music as a commercial product is in the first instance, to place onto a set of requirements and expectations that are constantly met in mainstream popular music by the technological advancements. However advancements in communication technology within the Internet, an avenue of great potential for commercial distribution, have now re-posed the questions over the very ownership of recorded sound that came about initially with the recordability of sound. However, in the age in which digital technology is taken for granted in the post industrial west, the situation is even more complex. The process of copying an original exactly, without degradation, is unprecedented in our understanding of property. So too is the ability to be able to broadcast or send said copy anywhere in the world in a mater of moments with almost a complete absence of gatekeepers. What is more, it is those who want to profit from this digital content that want to simultaneously control access to the content for profit whilst making it a ubiquitous part of our lives for the purposes of marketing. As John Oswald points out:

‘All popular Music is (as is folk music by definition) essentially, if not legally existing in the public domain. Listening to pop music isn’t a matter of choice. Asked for or not we’re bombarded by it. In its most insidious state, filtered to an incandescent bassline, it seeps through apartment walls and out of the heads of Walkpeople… Difficult to ignore and pointless to imitate: how does one not become a passive recipient?’ [9]


Many individuals have sought to address the problem posed by Oswald by engaging in the creative practice of music making that affordable music technology offers them. However, attempts to make work that is not a part of the mainstream of popular music are often curtailed. The prospect of in some way appealing to the tastes of a growing underground market is cannot be ignored by the mainstream record industry. To that end elements of the once underground genre are subsumed and altered for the palatability mainstream popular music consumers. This in turn alters the public’s perception of this now subsumed type of music.



However, in the first section of the quote, Oswald describes a much more worrying problem; namely, that one does not choose to pay attention to popular music but your attention has already been paid for in the budget of a record company’s marketing strategy. Attention here is meant in the sense described by Bernard Stiegler as an important part of a human’s psychological and social health [10]. Once, how you focus your attention has been taken out of your control to some extent it becomes more important than ever to consider the content that is purchasing it. This content, no mater how faintly, will become part, not only of your everyday experience but also a larger social memory the complex structure of which is described by Stigler with reference to Gérad Granel and Edmund Husserl:

‘Retention belongs to this ‘now,’ which Gérad Granel calls the ‘large now’… This retention, which is part of the now of temporal phenomenon, is called primary memory.

…a ‘secondary memory’ (a re-memorisation of a past temporal phenomenon that could come back to presence)… a general case of what we call a tertiary memory….

The echoing itself and after images of any sort left behind by the stronger data of sensation, far from having to ascribe necessarily to the essence of retention… (Husserl 1991:33).’’ [11].


What it seems is meant by this understanding of memory is that in the first instance of primary memory we are consciously aware of retaining the sensation of events in the passage of time, secondary memory is the ability to recall the event captured in retention with a great deal of accuracy in the now. Tertiary memory, whist having its origins in sensation, is made up of incomplete fragments and is not related to the processes of retention. This is how we construct a sense of the ‘large now’ both individually and socially and we retain the large now that draws our attention.


It is in this very idea of the ‘large now’, (ever present in and in spite of our experiences) that it is important to retain some control over our attention. If we allow our attention to be controlled by those who profit from this control, then over time this will change our expectations of what is worthy of our attention to that content which generates the most efficient business model regardless of individuation. At present this seems to be, in the world of popular music, that which has been cleansed entirely of certain cultural signifiers that do not appeal immediately to a wide enough audience. By cleansing popular music of perceived imperfections the implicit desire of the industry is to stimulate the experience of retention in primary memory capitalising on the effervescent phenomenon of the now. The stimulation of such cleansed material creates particularly ‘strong data of sensation’ that then become evocative fragments in tertiary memory. These fragments of idealised clean music create an undercurrent of presences in the ‘large now’ that helps to form an understanding of the role of music, which, conforms to a consumerist ideology, and false notions of perfection. Additionally this cleansed music is left with insufficient idiosyncrasy and nuance for the process of conscious reflection in secondary memory. Thus reflection does not become a part of the general experience of popular music. Arguably, this cleansed music fosters an ideology in the ‘large now’ that is resistant to the process of reflection.


To reiterate an earlier point, this is not part of some conspiratorial plan but rather the result of internalised values in order to attain short-term personal gains with little or no consideration of the consequences. This is very similar to the causes of the current global economic situation as Stiegler writes,

‘The consumerist model has reached its limits because it has become systemically short-termism, because it has given rise to a systemic stupidity that structurally prevents the reconstitution of a long term horizon.’ [12]


However, the damage here in the short term is unlikely to be economic. Rather the damage of attention being directed to content that meets a certain production standard conforming to a business model is likely be to the manner in which we understand value in society as being something that helps one to better engage with the experience of being alive and is separate from that which is measured monetarily. This understanding of value however is also not out of reach of attempts of marketization. For example, the song “Price Tag” by Jessie J [13] contains the lyric ‘It’s not about the, Money Money Money… I just want to make the world dance, forget about the price tag’. A lyric that is unlikely to have been written with any degree of cynicism but has undoubtedly made her and the Universal Music Group a great deal of money. This is problematic for trying to separate one’s own values from those presented by the mainstream industry, as is put forth by Slavoj Zizek:

‘The very act of egotist consumption already includes the price for its opposite.’ [14]



From what has been discussed above, several theoretical avenues for exploration have emerged regarding the changing nature of mainstream popular music and the emergence of new popular music that no longer needs to be part of the hegemonic recording industry system. It is from hear that a variety of data sets can be compiled that should further illuminate these issues as well as offering up some possible solution to the problem of how one should use technology in music and how one should be able to access this music without resorting to limiting the freedom currently enjoyed on the Internet.




Dr. David Plans.


Dr. Robert Mackay.


[1] D. F. Wallace, Infinite Jest St. Ives: Abacus. 1997.

[2] S. Jones, (12, March, 26). UK music sale decline for seventh successive year despite downloads [Online]. Available:

[3] M. Horheimer, T. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Stanford University Press, 2002.

[4] B. Eno,: “The Studio as a Compositional Tool”, in C. Cox and D. Warner, ed., Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music New York: The Continuum international Publishing Group Inc., 2008, pp. 127-130.

[5] K. Cascone, “The Aesthetics of Failure: “Post-Digital” Tendencies in contempory Computer Music”, in C. Cox and D. Warner, ed., Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music New York: The Continuum international Publishing Group Inc., 2008, pp. 392-398.

[6] D. Toop, Haunted Weather: Music, Silence and Memory. London: Serpent’s Tail, 2004.

[7] Chomsky, Noam, Herman, Edward S, Manufacturing Consent London Vintage, 1994.

[8] M. Paddison, Adorno, Modernism and Mass Culture, London: Kahn &Averill, 2004

[9] J. Oswald, “Bettered by the Borrower: the ethic of musical debt”, in Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner, ed., Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music New York: The Continuum international Publishing Group Inc., 2008, pp. 131-137.

[10] B. Stiegler, (12, March, 27) Pharmacology of Attention and Relational Ecology [Online] Available:

[11] B. Stiegler, Technic and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus. Translated by Richard Beardsworth, George Collins Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.

[12] B. Stiegler, For a New Critique of a political Economy. Translated by Daniel Ross Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010.

[13] J. Cornish, L. Gottwald, C. Kelly, B. R. Simmon, Price Tag, London: Lava, Island, 2011.

[14] S. Zizek, (12, March, 27). First Tragedy, Then Farce [Online]. Available:


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