Nabeel Zuberi – Musicking Now

It’s that point where you start thinking a bit more seriously about what you’ll repeat and what’s to be switched up in next semester’s classes. I’ll be teaching an undergraduate course Recorded Music & Media Formats and the postgraduate Media, Sound & Music. Here I’m trying to focus on what seems to me most urgent about music today in this moment of danger and possibility. Call it an agenda rather than a manifesto, the ghost in the syllabus, a dystopian distillation that underpins the more positive talk later about the technological imagination and radical media, not to mention music as inherently political and valuable for flourishing (and ‘well-being’).


First thing is to impart the motto of ‘get skeptical about technology’ since you want to disabuse as many as possible of the notion that new technologies necessarily mean progress. You want to do this without sounding like an old man who wants to sit under a tree with an acoustic guitar. At the same time, you don’t want to appear like a technological determinist because technologies are shaped by economic, social and cultural realities, as well as contributing to them. An A.I. generated version of Public Enemy’s ‘Don’t Believe the Hype’ plays as students wander into the lecture theatre. Some disenchantment with the technological sublime would be a boon. A start would be just thinking that it doesn’t have to be this way. These technologies are not natural. They involve rationalization and standardization. Algorithms and platform culture make us the plantation and the sharecroppers. Data that manifests the practices of music consumers/users is the harvest. The listeners are the listened upon. Musicians are content providers for influencer playlists and mood management. Media industries have long organized music listening with formats and playback technologies, but today the surveillance of listening is ubiquitous. Profiles and activities are turned into metrics for advertisers. The self or subject at this late stage of neoliberal capitalism is highly individuated, performing itself on social media and feeding into the machinery of promotion in popular culture. Constant network access to massive inventories of mobile music has modified private and public listening practices and our malleable states of attention to music.


How do we understand the interfaces and mostly invisible codes and infrastructures that reinforce and shape the power dynamics between industries, musicians and listeners?


What is the play between technology and human in these processes as we listen to music in our everyday lives?


And what minor or competing models can we offer to respond to the effects of this political economy of music as data? That includes technically illegal but widespread ways of reproducing, distributing and sharing music.


Can I mention capitalism without eliciting groans? The music commodity has never been one thing but fragmented into many copyrights, repetitions, variations, moments that become memes. Brands are built through the connections and dislocations between these forms. The sound of the music is just one resource — a lubricant for a dispersed set of relationships with other services and goods. Musicians and fans work hard to build intimacy and capital in social media. The music world takes on even more of the features of promotional culture. The spectacle and experience of live music are ascendant as recorded music’s value diminishes in the zeroes behind the decimal point. The value of the archive is squeezed out in reissues and jukebox musicals. The hauntings of samples and holograms, old gear and formats like tape and vinyl are the raw materials of post-digital culture.


We cannot forget cultures in the plural. These technologies and economic forces are lived experiences. Musical communication contributes to social identities, to our sense of who we are as individuals and how we belong to groups, communities, scenes and subcultures. Today’s authoritarian populism with its focus on who belongs and doesn’t belong within the boundaries of a particular imagined community remind us how music both enforces and transforms listening formations. A prayer can be taken as a battle cry for the end of civilization as we know it. After Christchurch, which happened at the beginning of the last semester and still hangs in the air, reflecting more deeply on this dimension of music’s power could contribute a little to the healing of the nation. 


Of course, show them loads of clips and play them something to sing and dance to, and I think I have the makings of a few lectures already.


Nabeel Zuberi is an Associate Professor in Media and Communication at The University of Auckland