JPMS Online: POP/IASPM-US Sounds of the City Issue, Jeremy Morris

by justindburton on October 15, 2012

Hear, Here: Location-Based Music Commodities

 Jeremy Morris

[Editor’s Note: After last March’s POP/IASPM-US joint conference, Sounds of the City, a collaborative project was hatched to feature the work presented at that conference in both print and online versions. This collaboration pulls in the Journal of Popular Music Studies (Karen Tongson and Gustavus Stadler), the EMP Museum (Eric Weisbard, also on the IASPM-US executive committee), and IASPM-US (Anthony Kwame Harrison, also on the JPMS editorial collective, and Justin D Burton). A print version of JPMS appearing in Fall 2012 (24:3) features eight essays from the conference, and we’ve selected several more to publish on the IASPM-US website this fall. So enjoy the reverberations of a spectacular March weekend in New York, and don’t forget about the 2013 conferences for IASPM-US and EMP’s POP.]

 

On October 7, 2011, the Washington-based experimental music duo Bluebrain released a new album, Central Park (Listen to the Light). These days, album launches are typically precisely planned events, complete with supporting concerts, strategically selected retail efforts and much other fanfare. Central Park, instead, was delivered as an application for Apple’s iPhone and iPad devices. Moreover, while Central Park was widely released (digitally) in North America, only those listeners who made the journey to New York’s 843-acre public park could hear it. This is because Central Park is what Bluebrain call a “location-aware” album; a site-specific collection of songs that unfolds differently depending on a listener’s location within Central Park. Musical elements such as pace, melody, instrumentation and rhythm all change in reaction to the GPS coordinates of the users’ phone. As listeners enter the park, for example, they hear the droning sounds of an orchestra tuning up. Inside the park, classical music inspired melodies rise and fall (listen to audio snippet from the album Central Park). There are even places – like near the zoo, near trees or lakes – where sounds of animals, birds and water refer back to the physical place.

The album joins a series of other apps that make explicit links between sound and place/space. Apps like SoundTracking, RJDJ, Soundtrckr and Spotisquare all offer different takes on – and different technological solutions for – experiencing both places and sounds in unique ways. Using popular portable consumer devices, these technologies soundtrack cities, neighborhoods and places of interest by giving them a particular score or by offering a collection of sounds that are dynamically remixed and output during each journey. Although there is an obvious history to trace that runs through artistic traditions like soundscapes, soundwalks, installations, and other kinds of audio art, this analysis will mine a different lineage: that of CD-ROMs, Interactive CDs, and other “enhanced” music commodities of the 1980s and 90s. Since Bluebrain explicitly position their work as an album, as a collection of songs that belong together because of a particular place, I am more interested in questions about what location does to the music commodity, and what a commodity based on location does to music. Accordingly, this paper uses Bluebrain’s stroll through Central Park along with other location-based music and sound apps as an opportunity to think about the relationship between music and place and about the evolving digital formats of the music commodity.

Enhanced Music

The Wall Street Journal declared 2010 the “Year of the App” (Dowell, 2010). The proclamation – typically hyperbolic for a tech trend-spotting piece –noted the rise of software applications (apps) for smartphones and mobile computing platforms in the realms of leisure, commerce, art, and other everyday activities. Although musicians and labels have been slower than other sectors to jump into app production, 2011 saw major artists like Bjork and Sting release expensive and expansive multi-media loaded app-based albums. Countless emerging artists and tech companies were also exploring their own innovative ways to combine music and software, suggesting apps are becoming an increasingly viable avenue for the packaging and delivery of popular music.

At the heart of these new app-based albums lies a twin desire. The first is to re-infuse digital music with the materiality, context, and tangibility typically associated with physical formats. In the late 80s and early 90s, as music made its way from CDs to computers, music underwent an interface-lift where the music commodity was stripped of many of its previous attributes (i.e. album art, physical packaging, etc.) before it was eventually re-dressed with new features (i.e. metadata, interfaces, “packaging”) that made it understandable to users, and sellable as a digital good. We now have ways of sorting, collecting and displaying digital files and albums that resemble previous formats, though many still feel digital music is not much more than “just data, metadata, and a thumbnail” (McCourt, 2005, p. 250). App-based albums promise to take the music commodity beyond its digital limitations through new uses of digital technology.

The second hope for app-based albums is to use new technologies of music playback and presentation to create unique musical experiences. In this regard, app music follows the efforts of tech and music companies in the mid 80s and early 90s who, during the push for a multimedia revolution, rushed to create “interactive” and “enhanced” compact discs. Enhanced CDs were attempts to create a new kind of music product by stuffing it with audio-visual extras (e.g. exclusive content, games, audio remixes, etc.). They were designed to offer musicians additional modes for artistic expression and consumers a more complete experience of their favorite artists. They were made possible thanks to advances in CD technology and enhancements to the CD standard that opened up the ways CDs could be used in computers (Pohlmann, 1992: 213-273).

With these new technologies available, musicians and record labels started experimenting. Conferences – such as the 1992 seminar entitled “Music Industry: From CDs, Long Form VHS & Laserdiscs To CD-I And Video CDs” – brought musicians, record labels, and technology companies together to discuss the potential these new formats held for music and entertainment products (McGowan, 1992). Labels started licensing their catalogues for inclusion in these new formats (Nunziata, 1992), and high profile artists began releasing material in CD-I or enhanced CD formats (McCullaugh, 1992). Peter Gabriel’s Xplora1 CD-ROM (1993), David Bowie’s Jump (1994), Prince’s Interactive (1994), Brian Eno’s Headcandy (1994), and Todd Rundgren’s No World Order CD-I (1993) [1. Rundgren even took the push towards new media one step further by giving himself the pseudonym TR-I (for Todd Rundgren-Interactive) for the “albums” he released from 1993-1995. For Rundgren, Interactive wasn’t just a type of CD; it was a way of life.] were all examples of a new kind of music commodity that combined information and sound in novel ways. The information on these various enhanced CDs was designed to give greater context to the artist’s career and music and to give listeners different ways to experience the music and musicians they enjoyed. These weren’t traditional music commodities; they were more like a video games. They were distinct commodities that sought to explore an artist’s music through a technology that was separate but related to the traditional album. They were attempts at evolving the music commodity. However, most of these endeavors were expensive and met with limited commercial success, at least as far as marketing music was concerned (Philips U.S. CD/Flub-2: Didn’t Understand U.S. Consumers 1996; Ziggy on CD-ROM, 1994).

I will leave it to fans and critics to judge whether these enhanced music commodities were examples of forward-looking musicians experimenting with cutting edge technologies or washed-up rockers desperately trying to remain relevant in an industry that had forgotten them in the hunt for the new. Regardless, enhanced CDs and their ilk are reminders that digital files, as we know them, were merely one way the digital music commodity could have evolved. Despite their relative failure as formats of the future, these formats were acknowledgements that, thanks to computers, manufacturers could use extra layers of information and include more than audio on their CDs. Similarly, the current crop of app-based albums are examples of artists and labels trying to navigate the new environments in which music finds itself. This is an environment that is constantly networked, GPS-enabled, and in ongoing interaction with a variety of other applications.

Mark Katz has noted the audible and tangible effects of recording technology on the way listeners listen to and musicians make music (Katz, 2004: p. 3-5). Extending this idea, I would argue that the value of the commodity form of any type of media or cultural product depends heavily on the devices and technologies through which we access, display, manage, and use those products. The value of the compact disc, for example, is bound up in the affordances of CD players, portable disc players, car stereos, and so on. The commodity itself has value on its own, through its packaging, shape, and form, but its full value is only realized through use. CDs were innovative because they allowed users to skip forward and back with ease, to see the length of tracks clearly, and to listen to an entire album without ever changing sides. The drawbacks of CD technology – they are easily damaged, they skip etc. – also form part of the experience of taking music in through that particular format.  As the technology to play, access, and manage digital files changes, so too does the value the digital music commodity offers users.

App Music

Most of the academic research on the subjects of mobility, sound and location revolves around or responds to Michael Bull’s work on personal stereos and urban space. Mobile devices and mobile listening help users “manage” their experience of the space around them by creating a “privatised auditory bubble” (Bull, 2005: p. 344-346). In other words, “Consumers create their own soundworlds [that] simplify the user’s environment” (Bull, 2005: p. 347– 348).

httpvh://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AZT8TqRvEE4

While Bull’s research has received much support (Simun, 2009), others have argued that the idea of a sound bubble is too exclusionary or reductive (see for example Beer, 2007; Thibaud, 2003). In these alternate accounts, the sounds of the city combine with the sounds of the user’s choosing to create a re-combined city soundscape. The result is not so much an isolation of the listener from his or her environment, but a tangled “urban information overlay” (Mitchell, 2005: p. 9”, where there is a “constant web of interactions with the concrete environment, its inhabitants, the aural ecology, and with the informational structures and processes that underpin their listening practices” {Beer, 2007 #1410: p. 858}). The bubble, in other words, is permeable.

The idea of an informational overlay is particularly relevant, given the amount of data that now lies around the city, waiting to be interpreted by the devices in our pockets. Some apps, like Soundtracking or Sounddropper, use this informational overlay to both embody places with sounds, and to make the experience of places more musical and more social. Users can add songs they like and “pin” or “drop” them to specific locations. This creates a sonic record of a space that other users can then listen to (and add their own sounds to) as they travel through those spaces. These apps recognize that sound is part of how we produce space around us and these apps formalize and socialize that process. They make it convenient to tag sounds to locations and to share those sonic reflections of a space with their network of friends and followers.

Other apps employ location in a more integrated fashion, like RJDJ, which allows listeners to blend in sounds from their immediate environment into their music during playback. RJDJ provides a series of backing tracks, some created by artists, others by users in the RJDJ community. Once a user hits play on their device, a song begins to playback. However, the song is augmented by sounds that come in through the device’s microphone (either on the device, or on the headset). These sounds are often effected (i.e. reverb, echo, flange) and then fed back into the mix. The result is a dynamic mix of pre-recorded music and location-specific sounds.

This is where Central Park (Listen to the Light) stands out. The album (along with the band’s other two location-based albums The National Mall and The Violet Crown) places the informational overlay at the center of the composition process. Ryan and Hays Holladay, the brothers who make up Bluebrain, began their creative process by using a map of Central Park to divide the space up into a series of different sound pockets. They outlined dozens of areas and built a map with a Venn diagram of circles overlapping the park. The brothers shuttled between the park and their studio to compose and record sounds for each of the different areas. The result was over 400 complementary and interweaving tracks. These were then run through a software engine called “Sscape” which was specifically created by the app developer, Brooklyn-based Bradley Feldman, to match specific sounds with GPS coordinates. As users walk to specific GPS points, the instrumental samples are triggered and looped until they are no longer in that position, at which point the samples play to their completion but do not return. Given how many samples can be playing at any one point, and the length of the various samples, it is often difficult to detect a specific point at which transitions are occurring. Rather, as movement continues, the tone and mood shifts gradually.

Albums about places are nothing new. There are countless songs and albums that are directly or abstractly inspired by specific cities, countries or locations. Central Park shares this geographical inspiration; its 400+ tracks, individually and collectively, are musical representations of Bluebrain’s perception and experience of the park’s spaces. Site-specific events are also not particularly novel. Bands have long held concerts in specific places (parks, canyons, malls, etc.) and the experience of those moments have been limited to the listeners who were present. But the integration of location data into both the composition and playback process embeds space even deeper into the sounds and the progression of the album. Instead of a traditional linear progression, location-based albums follow a geographical one; a modular flow based on the informational overlays of the composers and the listeners. This makes Central Park as much like a video game as it is an album. Notably, the album is available via Apple’s App Store, not through its iTunes Music Store. Sscape, the engine at the core of the app, is also a variation on a program used to score video games. As characters approach certain locations, the tone and themes of the music change, intensify, or dissipate. The album barely exists until the walking starts and the direction and pace of the stroll conditions the flow of the album.

There are at least two levels of information overlay at work here: 1) the sound pockets pre-inscribed in the album by the composers and 2) GPS data that triggers the playback of these songs. Location is an irrefutable part of both the composition process and the listening experience. The album is the product of the space and another production of it. Location is the engine that drives the album’s playback. In this way, Listen to the Light turns Central Park into what Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge call a coded space (Kitchin & Dodge, 2011: p. 18). A coded space is one where software and code provide an enhanced understanding of the environment (Kitchin & Dodge, 2011: p. 16-18). They distinguish this code/space from spaces where software and the space are mutually constitutive and entirely dependent on each other (Kitchin & Dodge, 2011: p. 16-18). A lecture hall, for example, is a coded space. If the technology that runs the slide show or PowerPoint presentation malfunctioned, the lecturer could still complete their presentation. Airports, on the other hand, are entirely dependent on the technologies that underpin them. From tracking luggage to checking in passengers, it’s unlikely airports would be able to fulfill their roles, without major delays and disorder, if the code that runs the space’s various technologies stopped working.

Listen to the Light turns Central Park into a coded space since the park is never dependent on the album. In other words, people can walk through the park listening to other albums, or to nothing at all, and they are still able to experience the space. Conversely, the album is entirely dependent on the park. It is what Kitchin and Dodge might call a code/album. It is an album that requires code to function, and if the software were to crash, or if the GPS were turned off, the album would cease to function. Bjork’s Biophilia or Sting’s 25, for example, are coded albums that can still function without the accompanying app. There are standard CD versions of the album that allow for other means of listening. But location-based albums are a strain of code/albums where the music and the technology to play it back are so thoroughly integrated that they depend on users successfully navigating layers of mediation for the act of listening to take place.

App-based albums serve as reminders that, with the digital music commodity, some albums and songs can only be consumed through certain platforms and software. There is a contingency to app-albums that highlights broader worries about digital music more generally. As music moves into the realm of software it takes on the properties of software, leaving it vulnerable to the vagaries of DRM and other authentication technologies (Gillespie, 2007). Except here, the contingency is more aesthetic than legal or technical. Bluebrain have imposed a form of geographical rights management on the album as part of their artistic process as a way to control the listening experience. Even though the limited locational availability of the album is part of its charm and its accomplishment – and in fact, it’s really the entire point of the experiment – it still results in a commodity that is dependent on specific technologies to work.

Beyond the obvious limits (i.e. Central Park is only available for Apple products, and only available to those actually in the vicinity of the park), the album’s content is also contingent. Although what a listener hears today in Central Park will be the same as what they hear in two weeks or a year (providing they are in the same location), there’s no preparing for the frequent updates to the hardware devices, and possibly even some of the underlying GPS data that makes the album possible. Further, app-albums are subject to the rhythms of software updates and upgrades. Central Park has already been through one major revision that brought an entirely re-written audio-engine, and more compressed audio to make the app itself more portable (from close to 1 GB when it was first released to now around 300 MB). The user interface was also tweaked to allow for smoother transitions between the various pages of album art. The band’s previous album, The National Mall, also received an update, to improve the app’s “start-up location algorithm”, suggesting that the early version placed some users in inaccurate locations, or otherwise created friction in the listening process. App albums are frequently subject to updates and revisions that are often beyond the user’s control. While some of these revisions may be ultimately beneficial, they are also often unilateral and they raise questions about the integrity of albums.

With playlists and shuffle modes, the integrity and linearity of the album has long since splintered and fragmented. For years now, users have been free to determine the flow of not just specific songs on an album, but entire collections of music. Interestingly, while Central Park calls into question the integrity of app-based albums, its entire sequencing is actually more linear than other digital formats, since it depends on movement, and physical activity. Even though it’s creators describe it as a “choose your own adventure” album, it’s actually more difficult to hear songs out of context than with other digital formats given that there are only so many directions a user can choose and so many GPS triggers they can set off. Listeners cannot, for example, simply shuffle through sounds found in the north end of the park if they are wandering on its south side. Central Park was composed with a walking pace in mind, and while it’s possible to subvert this slightly by running or biking through the park to trigger sounds more quickly, it’s never as random as shuffle mode.

There’s no doubt that location-information is big business these days. Networks like Foursquare, Path, and others track the activities of users and theirs friends and create a variety of location-based activities and competitions. Even more general software and social networks like Facebook, Flickr, or iPhoto all allow for the inputting of locational metadata. It is not hard to imagine how app albums could eventually make locational data, such as GPS, velocity, altitude, and the like regular parts of our portable musical experiences. But it remains to be seen whether or not the integration of location into music will be enough to separate app albums from the long line of enhanced music formats (e.g. CD-ROMs, Enhanced and Interactive CDs, etc.) that came before them and that are best remembered as technological footnotes instead of musical achievements.

The app-ification of music, at least for now, holds more promise for software and entertainment than for music. Although Bluebrain made the Washington Post’s “Best of 2011” album list (for the National Mall), most reviews of their work focus on the technology rather than the music (Geere, 2011; McKinley Jr., 2011; Richards, 2011). Even Ryan Holladay expresses a bit of frustration with the critical reception: “We’d love to get past the novelty. It would be so awesome to get it reviewed on something like a Pitchfork. Like, as an album” (qtd. in Richards, 2011). As a code/album, however, Central Park, invites a fascination with the code that the album depends on to function. What makes it a novelty is also what makes it an album; the two cannot be divorced. Listening becomes as much of a game of trying to control and discover sounds through space as it is about experiencing a musical work.

httpvh://vimeo.com/26700564

Location-based albums will likely remain a niche artistic practice, but they underscore that location is now a commodifiable part of the music experience. It’s not just that these apps have embedded location into music, but that location is now a plane upon which artists and labels can distinguish their musical offerings. As such, Central Park is a distilled version of the limitations and possibilities of digital music. It highlights some of the new vectors on which we can start to experience music and our surroundings. But also the contingency that comes with music as software.

Works Cited

Beer, D. (2007). Tune Out: Music, Soundscapes And The Urban Mise-En-Scène. Information, Communication & Society, 10(6), 846-866.

Bull, M. (2005). No Dead Air! The iPod and the Culture of Mobile Listening. Leisure Studies, 24(4), 343-355.

Dowell, A. (2010, 27 December). The Rise of Apps, iPad and Android, The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704774604576035611315663944.html

Geere, D. (2011, 3 February). Listen to the Light App is a Musical Exploration of New York’s Central Park. Blog Post Retrieved from http://www.wired.com/underwire/2011/10/listen-to-the-light/

Gillespie, T. (2007). Wired shut: copyright and the shape of digital culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Katz, M. (2004). Capturing Sound: How Technology has Changed Music. Berkeley, Calif.; London: University of California Press.

Kitchin, R., & Dodge, M. (2011). Code/space : software and everyday life. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

McCourt, T. (2005). Collecting Music in the Digital Realm. Popular Music and Society, 28(2), 249-252.

McCullaugh, J. (1992, 7 November). U2 to Grace Philips CD-I Title in ’93. Billboard, 104, 13.

McGowan, C. (1992, 25 April). Labels, Musicians Assess Interactive Edge. Billboard, 104, 51.

McKinley Jr., J. C. (2011, 8 December). Central Park, The Soundtrack, The New York Times, p. C1. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/08/arts/music/bluebrains-app-central-park-listen-to-the-light.html?_r=1

Mitchell, W. J. (2005). Placing Words: Symbols, Space and the City. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Nunziata, S. (1992, 19 September). Warner OKs Master for Multimedia Use. Billboard, 104, 8.

Philips U.S. CD/Flub-2: Didn’t Understand U.S. Consumers (1996). (News Wire Release). Available from Dow Jones Factiva Retrieved July 23 2008, from Capital Markets Report

Pohlmann, K. C. (1992). The compact disc handbook. Madison, WI: A-R Editions.

Richards, C. (2011, 28 May). Bluebrain Make Magic with World’s First Location Aware Album, The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/click-track/post/bluebrain-make-magic-with-the-worlds-first-location-aware-album/2011/05/28/AGSVQSDH_blog.html

Simun, M. (2009). My music, my world: using the MP3 player to shape experience in London. New Media & Society, 11(6), 921-941.

Thibaud, J. P. (2003). The Sonic Composition of the City. In M. Bull & L. Back (Eds.), The Auditory Culture Reader (pp. 329-342). Oxford: Berg.

Ziggy on CD-ROM. (1994). (News Wire Release). Available from Dow Jones Factiva Retrieved July 23, 2008, from Media Monitor.

Jeremy Morris is Assistant Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he focuses on new media history, the current state of the music industries, the marketing of cultural goods (e.g. music, books, newspapers, etc.) and the technologies of music production and consumption (e.g. GarageBand, looping pedals, mp3 Players, etc.).

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