American Music Scenes in the Age of Social Media

American music scholarship reveals the cultural connections, disconnections, influences and inspirations within and between our communities. As a means of linking and intersecting communities, our music scenes—an interconnected intellectual, artistic, social, economic, and cultural industry of musicians, instructors, technicians, venue-owners, non-profits, recording studios, and audiences—are indicative of the sonic health of our nation. Understanding how Americans connect to, or mishear, one another through music reveals challenges to and opportunities for forging a “more perfect” union.

On this page we will post the ongoing findings of an NEH-funded project on the digital archiving of contemporary American music scenes. This project involves a team of interdisciplinary musicologists, humanists, and computer scientists from several institutions. Dr. Andy McGraw and Dr. Joanna Love (University of Richmond) are co-Principal Investigators for the project.

Music Scenes and Social Infrastructure

American Music Deserts

Background

Although newspaper and “zine” (local fan magazine) archives provide important primary sources for humanists analyzing the history and evolution of local music scenes (see, for example, Fabian 2020; Finnegan 2007; Taylor, Katz, and Grajeda 2012; and Walser 1998 in Appendix Section B), the digital revolution has made many local news sources financially unstable, forcing some out of business, especially in smaller and mid-sized American cities. Concert publicity has thus largely shifted to web and social media platforms, particularly for lesser-known local artists. Today, many live music performances, and almost all “virtual” performances are listed exclusively on social media (e.g. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter), and since the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic last spring, these platforms have become the lifelines for disseminating American music.

In musicology, the minimum threshold for defining the existence of music scenes has typically been identifying a historically stable culture of live musical performance and a publicly recognized stylistic focus. However, we have found that adopting a traditional approach to music scenes like Richmond, VA—focusing on an ethnography of local live music events and relying primarily on print archives and scraped event listings in static media, such as websites—cannot reveal the humanistic complexity of today’s American music scenes. Instead, our preliminary research indicates that social media ecologies, even when focused on geographically localized areas, may shift classic conceptions of what may define a music scene (cf. Finnegan 2007), since social media’s global reach means that fans from all over the world can engage with regionally specific music scenes. The normalization of livestreaming during the COVID-19 pandemic has already intensified this trend. To understand the scope of Richmond’s music scene and its connections to other geographical locations, we must analyze the networks in social media ecologies. Questions that will arise from our study will thus include globally-minded questions, such as: How have practioners of hip hop who have been marginalized by local venues found an international audience through live instagram feeds?

 While many web archiving projects capture a selection of relevant content from newspapers and zines that have shifted online, we are not aware of any large-scale humanities archiving projects dedicated to social media—likely because it is more technologically difficult to capture. To illustrate the benefits of capturing data from various sources, we have developed a time-animated map of music events in our city—Richmond, Virginia—that allows users to filter media by type.

Example 2 demonstrates that “scraping” online newspapers and zines captures a selection of live musicevents, while Example 3 illustrates how adding information from web-based calendars such as Eventbrite and venue websites provides a more complete picture. We found, however that relying solely on these traditional sources distorts our understanding ofthe scene. Indeed, the timeline at the bottom of Example 1 might suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic completely decimated Richmond’s music scene (as indicated by the suspension of events at the end of March 2020). But as illustrated in Example 4, the inclusion of events advertised on social media shows the extent to which virtual performances flourished. (Also see Example 5 for a breakdown of the total events advertised according to their sources.)

Examining the “negative space” of the traditional archive can thus help us understand what stories of musical and cultural heritage are missing from our understanding of America’s music scenes. Based upon our research, many musical events occurring within minority communities in Richmond only appear in social media. But tracking music events on social media “by hand” isimpractical and difficult because of biased algorithms that point users to profiles similar to their own. So, if a future (or current) scholar wants to study how, when, and where Puerto-Rican bomba music (for instance) emerged in Richmond, they would need access to the kinds of archiving tools and datasets we propose to develop.

Humanists working on contemporary music scenes already face considerable methodological challenges as they attempt to trace cultural activity through a constantly evolving array of ephemeral digital media. They struggle to both locate and capture this content, making it difficult to accurately analyze shifting scenes or trends over time. Without innovative responses, humanists working on local music making will simply not have reliable archives on which to refer. And without new tools, future scholars and students may only have access to the partial records made available by private media companies—“archives” created for (and biased towards) the imperatives of commercial profit. Instead, humanities-optimized social media archiving would enable a more comprehensive picture of scenes and communities, especially those historically denied access to (more) stable newspaper and website archives—a problem that hinders the study of many minority enclaves across the U.S.

Many of the most popular web archiving projects across the globe conduct “selective captures” based on particular topics, using Wayback Machine or Archive-It technology produced by the nonprofit, Internet Archive. While useful, these tools and archives are far from exhaustive. Using Richmond’s scene as an example, we found that Wayback’s archive of Style Weekly Magazine—the city’s most comprehensive resource for music listings, articles, and reviews—excludes weeks and, sometimes, entire months. This is because it only takes “snapshots” of public sites, capturing merely 10% of Style Weekly’s music listings. Moreover, Wayback is unable to capture social media content, which is currently the primary venue for Richmond’s music listings. So, while information about national tours and corporate acts will likely be preserved in perpetuity due to their ubiquity on Google, without novel and nimble digital humanities tools, the ephemeral nature of social media will make it nearly impossible for futurescholars to research and understand the city’s twenty-first century music scenes.

Digital music listings and associated metadata hold valuable humanistic information that is often richer than what is found in traditional sources. When reliably archived, this metadata can include geolocation, date and time stamps, images, video, network links, and text that can be integrated with existing demographic and public datasets using tools such as ArcGIS and CartoDB. Extracting this creates rich interactive digital humanities resources for scholars and the public. Social media datasets would greatly expand these archival possibilities, providing additional insights, such as fan responses and comments. 

Preliminary results from our exploratory research suggests that the proposed project holds great potential to enhance scholarly research, teaching, and learning in the humanities. For instance, using comparatively meager datasets, student and faculty research conducted at the University of Richmond in Virginia has demonstrated how Richmond’s music scene correlates with the city’s historic patterns of socio-economic and racial segregation. Only 6% of publicized music events held in 2019 occurred in establishments owned by people of color. That year hip-hop accounted for only 4% of the city’s public music events despite the fact that Nielsen ranks it as the dominant genre for the market. The city’s musical infrastructure also correlates with demographics; the majority of instructional studios, music shops, recording studios, and venues are located in white neighborhoods. Mapping hip-hop events and comparing them to venue restrictions, noise complaints, and citations also suggests strong spatial correlations between the genre and the racialized surveillance and control of sound and music. These revelations thus offer some insight as to why the historically Black genre of hip hop continues to struggle in Richmond—a majority Black city—despite the genre’s now-40 year history and status as the number one musical style in the US. Our research into the analytical possibilities of digital music event data has thus already revealed some of the ways that Richmond’s history of racialized inequality has manifested in its music scene, revealing both challenges and opportunities for how the humanities can help us to create more inclusive communities.

References

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