Researching online music networking in the Web 2.0 era: Soundcloud and the demise of MySpace

On: September 28, 2010
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About Hans Terpstra
I'm a 28 year old student who previously got his BA in filmstudies. The reason I chose to do a MA in new media is because I'm currently in the process of setting up a weblabel with the crew members of RSA, our drum 'n bass group. So indeed, in my spare time I produce electronic music and of course another passion of mine besides that is film.


MySpace passed on?

With the current steady rise of social networking sites, it is by all means an important question to ask how to research these in the field of new media studies. Furthermore, a lot of these sites offer services destined for a particular group of users. Of course when it only concerns interests like geology or animals, one can join a specific group on a general social networking site and form contacts with the people around there. But in other instances, such as the case with musicians is, social networking sites need something much more important; an outlet for letting people’s music be heard to others and therefore creating a solid fan base for the musician (if their music is to be liked by them that is). Like any other social networking site, people can leave their comments for the musician, appreciate or depreciate their material and ‘befriend’ them. First sites like MySpace gave musicians the opportunity to create a ‘musician’s page’ instead of a normal personalized page. It gave musicians the chance to upload some of their music to be streamed, post dates of gigs, promote albums, and network with a broad range of musicians who had also joined the community. Today however, it seems that the users of MySpace are flogging to Facebook, and the musicians are embracing the adaptability of multiple services to make sure all their fans are reached. Therefore I want to give a short outline of how to research social networking sites in the light of the online musician, and how he or she can build on a career by using a site like Soundcloud to achieve this. I will first outline how musicians started used social networking sites since the emergence of Web 2.0, and then outline what aspects of a site like Soundcloud are viable when researching music networking sites in general.

A little history of musician’s struggling on the internet is in order here. Before Web 2.0, there were hardly any people convinced of the fact that they would buy all their music off the internet one day instead of in a shop. There also weren’t many musicians who thought that their sole existence of their musical career would one day rely on promoting themselves online. A musician’s website was more a ‘visitiors card’ where you could order CD’s, check out tour dates and look at their discography, biography, and enjoy sounds and pictures. But in this age of social networking, a band’s website has become essentially obsolete. Artists should be right in the network of their fans in this 2.0 era, make them feel like they’re their ‘friend’ (based on the assumption that a musician has to accept a user and this therefore creates a form of interactivity between the fan and artist). Or as David Beer puts it, social networking sites are actually quite radically reworking the definition of the word ‘friendship’ since one can have 60.000 friends on their Facebook page and about 8 physical friends in the physical friends, stressing the importance of separating these. Despite the questionable nature of the word ‘friend’ in this context, acoording to Ross (et al) this is one of the core aspects of social networking since it is designed to hold stronger relationships with people who have similar interests in a particular area. A website with a simple e-mail address for contacting is too distant in this day and age of piracy and declining music sales, requiring artists to get closer to their fan base. Or at least make it looks like it. Tim Wall and Andrew Dubber argue that becoming a fan of an artist is basically a socializing phenomenon on its own, since before the internet and social networking sites emerged, fans expressed their fandom in social activities like making mixtapes for other fans, writing fanzines and organizing conventions. All this seems to happen online now through social networking sites, requiring less organizational capacity in terms of spatial, temporal and financial means.

Myspace for musicians logoThis concept was first established with the social networking site MySpace and their profiles for musicians. Add to this the emergence of YouTube (all these phenomena were more or less established around 2005) which could integrate videos of musicians onto their MySpace page, and all other advantages like finding similar people who like the artist, post instant feedback, and get subscriptions on newsletters. But as we all know now, a social networking site not coming along with the times is doomed to fail sooner or later, and it seems that MySpace is dying rapidly now, being terribly beaten by services like Facebook and Twitter. And looking at a site like Facebook one couldn’t wonder; MySpace doesn’t look very attractive with its bold lines, endless scrolling and confusing frames all over the place. An old-looking website which is insufficiently customizable to meet up to the soft, slick designed sites like Facebook with their easy look and bubbly fonts.

Facebook logoMusicians, obliged to leave the dying world of MySpace, have to automatically move on to the new developments of social networking simply because their fans are moving on. Most professional musicians now reach their fan base by Twitter and Facebook, since these are simply the biggest social networking sites now. But do they offer anything like ‘musician pages’ as MySpace had? Not only that, but it also offers customization from a social networking service like Twitter or Soundcloud, and it is this power to offer adaptability with sites like these that accounts for a large part to Facebook’s glory.

Soundcloud logoIt is here that Soundcloud comes in. It’s essentially a tool for musicians to get their music around the previously mentioned social networking sites and forums in a clear and professional way. In this way, it is not a wholly packed social networking site like MySpace or Facebook, but basically a means to give a listener more visual and time-related overview of the artist’s music. Visually, listeners can see the waveform of the song, and pinpoint certain parts of the song in the waveform to highlight, such as a beautiful phrase or particular moment that speaks to the listener, which are called time-linked tags. Furthermore, these visualized songs can be implemented anywhere, in forums, Twitter, and of course Facebook (see the image below for one of my own songs presented in Soundcloud fashion). According to an article in Computer Music from last year, more than 250.000 users have joined the network including high-profiled artists like Beck and Moby. It is of course here where research questions begin to rise, for instance why musicians are flogging to Soundcloud in big numbers and why a one-stop approach like MySpace had its days, apart from its terribly outdated design.

Gloom by Reactor Grits

A visualized song as provided by Soundcloud

First of all, when conducting research on musicians using social networking sites, it is important to stress the easy of use and overview of these sites, or it’s GUI (Graphical User Interface) that they employ. One of the main reasons a site like MySpace is losing the battle is obviously because its GUI is looking confusing, incoherent and disseminated; it jumps with one click from page to page and the separated sections sometimes seem to look all over the place. A site like Facebook stays more on the same page, and clicking to perform actions just makes a small change on that page without being all over the place. It is also much more graphical, compact, and easier on the eye. MySpace’s overwhelming backgrounds with frames sometimes completely disappearing in them made it look like an epileptic’s nightmare. From this point of view, we can also understand the virtues of Soundcloud. The waveform which can be implemented anywhere makes a song easy to navigate for certain parts, more so to pinpoint. This all stresses the iconic aspect of Web 2.0, where both text and sounds can be made into icons and visualizations, making them more clear and intelligible and thus easier to access for a broader audience. Fans want to see the visualized song to have better structural understanding and to highlight parts which can be communicated easily to other fans to show what part of a song springs out.

Facebook's GUI
Facebook’s GUI

Secondly, the adaptability of services like Soundcloud and Twitter into sites like Facebook, can give musicians the option of just choosing the best way to satisfy their fans, however they see fit. Soundcloud itself for instance stresses it has no rivalry wit established social networking sites, but do offer better copyright guarantees to an artist’s music than Facebook as many argue. In this way, musicians can choose the applications which suit them best from their own point of view and be not solely dependent of one single social networking site providing all the services and accompanying rules. This can be seen as another new aspect of Web 2.0, where users can implement multiple services from many sites focusing on diverse aspects of social networking on one central webpage, a convergence of social networking services if you will. In this light it can also be argued that MySpace is losing to Facebook because its lack of customization and adaptability.

Soundcloud embedded into Facebook
Combining Facebook with Soundcloud

A third and very important aspect is the distribution of music by social networking sites. Where sites like MySpace and Facebook pose limitations on file size, certain file formats and can show a considerable decrease in sound quality after uploading, Soundcloud only offers a limitation of uploading a maximum of five songs per month but virtually accepts audio files from any size in any format, which can also be downloaded by others unaltered in quality as the producer intended. If a producer fears piracy or copyright infringement, the download option can be turned off and the song will being downgraded in quality to the extent that it’s not suitable for musical theft but more than acceptable as a high quality listening stream. The process of uploading is, especially in comparison to file sharing protocols like FTP, straightforward and easy with Souncloud taking care of most of the things considerable. This makes clear that Souncloud is taking things aboard that producers stress as important, such as piracy and copyright infringement, straight away into the process. An important virtue of this specialization of adaptable services is thus that it tries to get to the bottom of the field it is representing, something that a site like Facebook finds harder to do since there are too many fields to consider.

Uploading music in Soundcloud
Uploading music in Soundcloud

For now it hopefully is being clearer what to look at in musical online communities of the Web 2.0 era we seem to be still living in. An important shift I wanted to stress to look out for when carrying out research in this era, are aspects like visualization and icons replacing text and even sound not only for better universal understanding, but for easier pinpointing of certain aspects within the visualized text and sound. Another core aspect of the Web 2.0 era, the emergence of outsourcing certain elements of a social networking site which offers more specialization and depth in achieving one’s goal on their personalized page, decentralizes on one hand the capabilities of a social networking site but on the other makes it a space for convergence of many open source services who provide a more in depth service for the goals of the user. These services seem to have exact knowledge of what an artist is looking for whilst trying to reach their fans online, not only by providing them a means of presenting their music in a professional and clear way, but also by protecting their own interests in terms of copyright infringement. This goes hand in hand with easy distribution of the music itself, and its presentation and linking visually to any place online where a fan base can be expanded.

Beer, David. ‘Making Friends With Jarvis Cocker. Music Culture in the Context of Web 2.0.’ In: Cultural Sociology, 2:2 (2008): p. 223-241.

Computer Music, 145 (2009): p. 78-79.

Ross, Craig, et al. ‘Personality and motivations associated with Facebook use.’ In: Computers in Human Behavior, 25:2 (2009): p. 578-586.

Wall, Tim, Andrew Dubber. ‘Experimenting with Fandom, Live Music, and the Internet. Applying Insights from Music Fan Culture to New Media Production.’ In: Journal of New Music Research, 39:2 (2010): p. 159-169.

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