There Is No Music Industry

by Jonathan Sterne on May 21, 2014

New text in the inaugural issue of the new journal Media Industries.

What Is Music Technology For?

by Jonathan Sterne on May 13, 2014

(x-posted on the Social Media Collective Research Blog)

In late March and early April, I attended three events that together signal some interesting shifts in thinking about music technology and sound.  The first, a day-long symposium on March 24th I co-organized with Nancy Baym, was entitled “What Is Music Technology For?”  It came after a weekend-long instalment of MusicTechFest, which brings together people from the arts, industry, education and academe to talk about music technology.  For our more academically-focused event, we brought together humanists, social scientists, engineers, experimentalists, artists and policy activists (among others) to discuss our mutual interests and investments in music technology.  Rather than editing a collection that would come out two years from now, Nancy and I decided to try assembling a manifesto, a project that gave direction to the day and also helped us think in terms of common problems and goals.

The result is now available online at, and I encourage you to visit, read and sign.

That event was followed by two others which I think show at least a possibility for a sea change in how we talk about music technology and with whom.

The following weekend found me at the University of Maryland, for their “Sound+” conference.  I presented a (still early version of) my work on Dennis Gabor and time-stretched audio, and listened to a wide range of papers from (mostly) English and literature scholars on sonic problems.  But of course Maryland is home to the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, and that combined with a critical mass of people interested in theory and interdisciplinarity meant we also had some conversations that looked outward, especially a roundtable on mutual sonic interests across the humanities and sciences at the end of the second day.

The weekend after that (4-5 April) found me at the Machine Fantasies conference at Tufts University (across town), which brought together musicologists, anthropologists, composers, engineers, artists and computer scientists to have conversations about what it means for machines to make music, and how we might think about both the pasts and the futures of music technology.

Combined with other events, like the huge MusDig conference at Oxford last summer, there seems to be a growing interest in working across established interdisciplinary boundaries.  In other words, while humanists and social scientists are used to talking with one another, and while engineers and computer scientists are used to talking with one another, there now seems to be a growing (and one hopes, critical) mass of people who want to work across intellectual and institutional boundaries.

Speaking as someone coming out of the humanities and “soft” or “critical” social sciences, this is a major change brought on, I think, by several concurrent developments (and keep in mind this is musings in a blog post, not a careful intellectual history):

1.  A renewed interest in making, probably heavily lubricated by the turn to the “digital humanities” in some fields, but also by a re-assessment of the role of critique.  A generation ago, I came up learning that to be critical required one to be separate.  But increasingly, we are seeing integration of critique with other scholarly modes. Anne Balsamo’s mapping of the technological imagination in Designing Culture captures this beautifully.

2.  A new openness to humanistic and interpretive approaches in the world of music engineering and science.  I can’t say that I know them to have been “closed” in previous generations–that may well not have been the case.  But I have personally spent the last 10 years or so in dialogue with people in a variety of scienc-y and engineering-y spheres of music technology design, development and research.  I have found a great deal of openness to and interest in the kinds of ideas in which I usually traffic, and what began really as a “study of” a group of people has evolved into a series of “collaborations with.”  To that end, and to provide a little institutional leverage (or play space), I have joined McGill’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music, Media and Technology (CIRMMT, pronounced “Kermit,” like the frog).

3.  Some of this may also be the result of changing institutional configurations and easy familiarity with tools. Two generations ago, when places like Stanford’s Center for Computer Music and Acoustics were getting off the ground, to do anything with computers and music (or music and technology more broadly), you needed a space and resources, you needed specialized equipment, and you needed specialized knowledge.  Today, those tools are cheaper and more available than ever.  There is something lost when people aren’t heading over to the mainframe or computer lab and running into each other that way–common spaces are so central to interdisciplinarity.  But there is something gained when we all have an easy sense of the available tools, and some of our questions are beginning to converge.

4. Some of the theoretical concerns of humanists, like what it means to make or listen to music, what it means to be a musician or fan, what technology is or should be, how the various music industries ought to be organized, and what the nature of an instrument or instrumentality is–these questions are suddenly on the table and pressing issues for everyone.  The answers we come up with now can have practical impact as we imagine the next generation of music technologies, or worry after the increasingly precarious status of people who make their living from music or sound work. In other words, we are in the enviable–and impossible–position of having a lot of thinking to do, and having a chance to act on those thoughts.

These are exciting, challenging, messy and incomplete developments.  They hold a great deal of promise.  It is up to us to pop our heads up from our silos, to think big, and try to work together in different kinds of spaces to move some of these shared agendas forward.

Dear James Turk:

Faculty can either take a stand against sexual violence and intimidation on campus, or we can passively promote such a climate, but there is no neutral position to occupy.

That is why I was surprised to read your very dismissive-sounding remarks in this morning’s Montreal Gazette article on the subject of trigger warnings in university classrooms.  It is possible you were misquoted, in which case I would welcome a clarification. But here is the quote that most concerns me:

Professors never want to gratuitously make life difficult for people, but this takes it to a silly extreme. You will end up with a situation where the only thing you could read in a literature course is (akin to) My Little Pony.

Let’s get a few things clear: trigger warnings are not about changing what you teach.  Even the controversial Oberlin motion simply asks professors to exercise good judgment. A trigger warning are not (as you later suggest) about restrictions on academic freedom, except the freedom to shock students.  It is also not about coddling or sheltering students. Professors use them to avoid gratuitously stirring up past traumas that we are unlikely to know about ahead of time.  The idea of the trigger comes out of work on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It has been taken up in activism against sexual violence and by the refugee rights community.

Right now, both those issues ought to be foremost on the minds of university professors. Our campuses are international, which means we may well have students who experienced some kind of state violence in our classrooms.  Our campuses are also far too tolerant of sexual violence, a problem university administrations (including my own at McGill) have often been slow and late to address. We can’t know which of our students may have experienced sexual violence. But we do know that students who have suffered sexual assault often face increased difficulty completing their studies if they don’t have adequate support.

It is true that we can’t anticipate how materials in our classes might affect students. But we are not as stupid as the examples in this article make us look. The issue is not My Little Pony or other hypotheticals like bee stings; the issue is obviously violent or disturbing content. Anyone who teaches avant-garde material can come up against this, and anyone dealing with issues of gender or sexuality in their courses can come up against it. A warning about violent or disturbing material allows students to prepare themselves or step out briefly. It is humane and decent. We won’t catch every trigger, and that’s not the point. The point is that there is a big difference between doing nothing and doing something.

Perhaps there are professors who will object, saying that their pedagogy depends on shock and surprise. They should be free to continue working that way, but students should be informed enough that they are free to not take those courses.

It may well be the case that faculty members have also been affected by sexual or state violence in their lives, so a policy about triggers on a syllabus might also be to their benefit.

Jonathan Sterne
CAUT member

On writing: assume you’ve won

by Jonathan Sterne on April 22, 2014

I was asked by a colleague who assigned some of my work to say something useful about the writing process for her grad students.  Here’s the request:

my charge is to invite you to jot down in one paragraph any helpful thoughts you can offer about any aspect of the writing process–choosing a topic, figuring out the structure of a paper, strengthening an argument, structuring sentences, revising and fine-tuning, etc.  

It’s kind of impossible not knowing them, but this is my attempt:

The piece of writing advice I’ve found myself giving lately, more than anything else, is: “assume you’ve won.”  So much writing in the humanities and critical social sciences is defensive–making sure an argument is protected from all comers.  I understand that some aspects of both graduate school and journal reviewing lead to this way of doing things.  But it’s not generally fun to read or write and it’s an impossible task.  My teacher John Lie always said “even the best argument is full of holes.”  What is fun is learning how to think differently about an old topic, or learning to think at all about a new one.  That’s why most of us get into being academics in the first place.  Often when we are working through drafting new material we are still figuring out what we think as we are writing it (this is not true for everyone, but for a large portion of authors, including me).  But in revision we get to both commit to a line of reasoning and to building out its implications.  So at that point, I try to write pedagogically and invitationally rather than defensively.  I imagine that my audience is ready to hear what I have to say, now I have to take them through it.  Of course this presupposes that one understands writing is a process, and that revision is where the magic happens.  Revision isn’t really taught much in graduate school, but it should be.

I hope this helps!

PS–this entry was heavily revised (and I am resisting the urge to do more).

…and we’re back!

April 19, 2014

I’ve been neglecting the blog for over a year now, but it’s time to dust off the cobwebs and get things started again.  In recent years, I’ve posted more “least bloggable units” directly on my Facebook status.  It seemed I got faster and more satisfying response, but this is a problem for several reasons: 1. […]

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one reason I was away for so long–I got hacked

April 18, 2014

PS –As to the neglect of the blog, that’s a whole other story, but one of the big issues was that my site got hacked some time ago. On the advice of my ISP, I hired to fix it, they made a much bigger mess than they started with, and eventually I had to […]

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Tap tap tap is this thing on?

August 16, 2013

Why declare a hiatus when you can just go on one?  I’ve been thinking a lot about what to do with this space, but come to no conclusions.  The archive is good, so I’d like to keep that up at least. In the meantime, there’s been some malware trouble.  I’ve cleaned up my mess, and […]

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