Blogotheques and Black Cabs: Popular Music and Urban Place
Ben Aslinger / Bentley College

royksopp remind me

Rock Out to Röyksopp’s “Remind Me”

The music video for Röyksopp’s song “Remind Me” from their studio album Melody A.M. (2001) follows a day in the life of a woman who works in the information technology offices of a company housed in a central London skyscraper. Röyksopp, a Norwegian electronica duo, was formed in Bergen when Torbjørn Brundtland and Svein Berge reunited years after they had stopped experimenting with composing as schoolboys in the town of Tromsø. But as the plaintive lyrics of “Remind Me” indirectly indicate, music made in Norway and the artists who made it would only be heard outside Scandinavia if they got noticed by those executives, label bosses, critics and reviewers in London who wielded the most power to make music audible to a pan-European audience and to North American ears. Indeed, the reason I discovered Röyksopp’s work was because the duo is signed to Astralwerks – a label specializing in alternative rock and electronica that was purchased by Virgin and later became a part of EMI when the conglomerate purchased Virgin.

Thus, Röyksopp’s music alludes to the ways that the culture industries work to make music scenes visible and to construct music’s ties to place and travel. Röyksopp’s music, born of Bergen, found its way to my ears in Madison through the mediations of London-based music firms and a bevy of critics. Digging deeper into the animated video for “Remind Me,” however, reveals another tie between Röyksopp’s electronica and spatial understandings. In the video, we follow the various vectors of movement one woman takes through suburban and central London as the music overlays the rhythms of a workday, data visualizations of world markets, and statistics on how many Londoners walk, drive, take the bus, or catch the train to work. Remind Me links the engineered sounds and plaintive lyrics that emphasize travel, memory, and affect with various ways of mapping movements within the city and understanding the ways in which modern urban life relies on a multitude of systems and technologies – such as sewers, electricity, and communications infrastructures – that are largely taken for granted.

Röyksopp’s Remind Me highlights two issues surrounding music’s connections to place. First, musical sounds, styles, genres, and the performers who popularize them emerge in specific places, but the travel of specific sounds and performers to a national and/or international audience depends on critics, label bosses, bloggers, scholars and/or dedicated fans who work to construct and define the relationship of the music to place. Critics, musicologists and popular music historians have examined the conditions under which musical forms such as Detroit techno, Chicago house, New York garage, London grime, Seattle grunge, Memphis blues, Kansas City jazz, and Atlanta hip hop have evolved, traveled, and influenced other genres. ((There are many scholars who address the ways in which music scenes emerge out of particular places. See Tim Lawrence, Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), for an overview of the origins of New York garage and Chicago house, and Andy Bennett and Richard A. Peterson, eds., Music Scenes: Local, Translocal, and Virtual (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2004).)) While it might appear to the casual observer that networked and mobile mediations of popular music work to wrest musical performances, performers, and styles from any ties to location, experiments such as Vincent Moon’s La Blogotheque and Hidden Fruit’s Black Cab Sessions illustrate that articulations between place and music remain vital, even if site-specific listening practices have turned into the “site-unspecific” practices Max Dawson has chronicled in relation to U.S. television. ((Max Dawson, “Little Players, Big Shows: Format, Narration, and Style on Television’s New Smaller Screens,” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 13 (2007): 231-50.))

La Blogotheque and the Black Cab Sessions feature musical performances primarily in Paris in London, offering performers a new way of promoting their records and new ways of imaging musical performance in both networked and particular places. On one level, La Blogotheque and the Black Cab Sessions challenge the traditional ways of visualizing genres such as indie rock. Music video scholar Carol Vernallis argues that videos for alternative bands emphasize interior and domestic settings associated with the middle class suburban locations that the largely white producers and listeners of such music wish to escape from. Vernallis writes, “In alternative videos, one might see a small, boxy set, built in a studio or warehouse, covered with murky green wallpaper, and decorated with shabby furniture. The run-down look of these settings underscores an interest in rawness and spontaneity and an ambivalence about such practices as writing attractive, accessible hooks. Alternative groups are typically imagined to play in low-rent spaces, like garages and small clubs, and these sites become associated with specific musical practices.” ((Carol Vernallis, Experiencing Music Video: Aesthetics and Cultural Context (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004, 78).))


La Blogotheque: Music in the city

Rather than the cramped domestic spaces of middle class suburbia, La Blogotheque and the Black Cab Sessions illustrate movements (even if bounded) within the city as well as within the decentralized geographies of networked infrastructures and the fixed and mobile viewing settings of web users. La Blogotheque’s shows take us out of the living room and into the streets of Paris. Frequently, pedestrians move around the performers, carrying shopping bags and other items as they run errands, or entering doorways that are partially blocked by musicians from bands such as Lambchop. A roving camera tries to capture musicians who wander around the exterior settings as these performers offer viewers glimpses of Parisian neighborhoods.


Grizzly Bear’s “Shift”

Occasionally, these Take Away Shows parody and satirize music video depictions of alternative bands. For instance, New York-based neo-folk band Grizzly Bear performs “Shift” in a tiny Paris apartment bathroom, with most of the band squeezing into the shower, a performance that carries the cramped interior setting trend to a point of absurdity.

The very choice of the name La Blogotheque – a name for a piece of new media real estate that brings to mind the offline and increasingly endangered species of the discotheque – also highlights the increasingly sterile sonic urban landscape while artists, camera operators, and Vincent Moon try to reintroduce sound into the city. LCD Soundsystem laments that New York City is not the same in “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down,” CBGBs is now a John Varvatos store (where you can relive rock history while browsing at $2000 jackets), and the prospect of soaring ticket prices from a Ticketmaster-Live Nation merger point out that live engagements with popular music are not what they used to be. In the context of the sanitizing impulses of urban gentrification, experiments such as La Blogotheque’s Take Away Shows try to re-imagine the urban soundscape.


Confessions of the Music Kind

The Black Cab Sessions’ slogan of “one song, one take, one cab” attempts to establish the ways that these performers are simultaneously relatively un-mediated and hyper-mediated.


A Great Lineup on a Small Stage

Each performance foregrounds the presence of the cab driver as emcee and features a consciously pared down version of the song (how many band members and instruments can fit in the back seat anyway?). The performers compete with the sounds of the cab itself and the bustle of London traffic.


The Black Cab Sessions. Chapter Thirty-Seven: Lykke Li

Visually, passersby can be seen in the medium shots that frame performers, and the camera occasionally moves to capture specific features of the outside space (street signs, landmarks, or intersections). The last shot mimics a passenger’s POV through the back window of passing buildings and blocks, further emphasizing the articulation between music, place, and mobility that occurs within one of the most overdetermined symbols of British travel.

Even as networked and mobile technologies are seen to challenge the particularities of place, the efforts of programmers and artists to insist that urban locations matter, to remember and to reassert the particularities of place, and to circulate these sounds need to be considered. Given that the success of La Blogotheque and the Black Cab Sessions relies on sites such as dailymotion and youtube and mobile devices such as the iPod, it would make sense to also think through the ways that the dynamics of what Henry Jenkins has termed “spreadable media” impact the connections between sound and place. ((Henry Jenkins, “If It Doesn’t Spread It’s Dead (Part Eight): The Value of Spreadable Media,” Confessions of an Aca-Fan, 02/if_it_doesnt_spread_its_dead_p_7.html, accessed March 27, 2009.))

Image Credits:

1. Röyksopp’s “Remind Me”
2. La Blogotheque
3. The Black Cab Sessions
4. The Black Cab Sessions Lineup

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Soundalikes and Disrupted Pleasures

Sports Night

Issues With a Little Sport Night Music

In “Intellectual Property,” season one, episode four of Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night, Dan Rydell sings “Happy Birthday” to his on-air partner Casey McCall at the end of one of their sports broadcasts. Rydell is surprised that an executive from the accounting department calls him to task for singing “Happy Birthday” without having it approved through proper channels, given that the accounting department must now juggle the production budget to pay for the licensing and public performance rights of the time-honored birthday serenade. ((Sports Night, wr. Aaron Sorkin, original airdate, October 13, 1998, ABC.)) Rydell’s consternation mirrors the consternation of listeners and fans unaware of the legal and economic backstories of production and distribution of the music they hear in their everyday lives. As the amount and variety of music in television, gaming, and various forms of new media increased during the 1990s, complex negotiations involving licensing, copyright, contracts, and intellectual property law shrouded the backstories of media production in economic and legal language. DVD releases of series such as Freaks and Geeks and La Femme Nikita were delayed for years, and producers often paid through the nose for the use of classic rock songs, oldies, and established artists. Other releases such as the DVDs for The Chappelle Show simply left out most of the musical numbers and performances, since producers either could not negotiate decent rates or felt that paying licensing fees wasn’t worth the trouble.

One of the most noticeable ways that these backstories have become visible is in the discussion and derision of soundalikes in the DVD releases of television series and in video game content. Soundalikes – the act of replacing an artist’s song with something that sounds vaguely similar – result from licensing and revenue sharing issues that arise when a television series transitions from broadcast to DVD home distribution or from a game publisher’s desire to cut production costs. In order to expedite DVD releasing and manage game development or television distribution budgets, producers began using soundalikes in order to avoid expensive licensing fees. Soundalikes are songs that to the casual listener sound similar to the songs being replaced, but these songs are often written and/or performed by new and emerging artists that do not carry the high price tag of A-list singers and songwriters. While the use of soundalikes made economic sense, the practice angered fans and threatened to cause a backlash from angry performers whose work had been replaced.

The WB and production companies working with the netlet angered fans when programs such as early seasons of Felicity and Dawson’s Creek were significantly altered in the transition from broadcast to DVD, with original songs replaced with soundalikes. The choice to use soundalikes annoyed viewers who wanted to watch the broadcast versions of shows they had followed over multiple television seasons. The move also affected those who experienced and decoded the narrative based on the specific songs and stars whose music was incorporated into television programs. For instance, teen girl fans of the music of Alanis Morissette or Tori Amos might combine their readings of the music, Morissette/Amos’ star text, and the visual and dialogic elements of the television narrative. Replacing Morissette or Amos with a musical unknown would significantly alter the sources of viewer pleasure and identification.

Guitar Hero Closeup

You May Cover a Cover Band in Guitar Hero

Similarly, gamers playing Rock Band or Guitar Hero quickly noticed the difference between the use of actual master recordings and the use of soundalikes for tracks that were “made famous by” the original artists. Classic rock fans and Generation Xers were not amused.

Married with Children

Married with Children: Now with New Theme Song!

And the use of new songs or new renditions of the title credits on The Cosby Show and later seasons of Married with Children have made these shows unwatchable for many audiences and less useful as pedagogical tools in media studies classrooms.

The use of soundalikes also had the potential to provoke litigation from A-list and iconic artists whose work had been replaced with musical unknowns. Lawsuits lodged by Bette Midler against Ford Motor Company and by Tom Waits against Frito-Lay created precedents for the protection of vocal style under the right of publicity theory and extended this right to soundalikes. ((Kembrew McLeod, Owning Culture: Authorship, Ownership, and Intellectual Property Law (New York: Peter Lang, 2001, 216).)) In these two cases, corporations wanted to use Waits’ and Midler’s work, the artists refused, and the companies used singers to mimic their vocal style. While these two cases posited that the artist’s image had been harmed and that the corporations had intended to fool the public into thinking that it was really Waits and Midler singing, they did alert media producers to the potential dangers in using soundalikes to stand in for iconic recording artists.

I am Johnny Cash

Will the Real Johnny Cash Please Sing?

This made the soundalike strategy a legally defensible position only with the use of musical unknowns whose image, star text, and memory were not kept under constant scrutiny; in these cases, however, producers could probably afford the original in the first place. For example, replacing iconic artists on The Wonder Years soundtrack with soundalikes in order to release the show on DVD (which has not yet occurred and may never occur) might threaten to spark litigation regarding the rights of performers and copyright holders. If producers intentionally used something sounding like Diana Ross and the Supremes or Elvis, lawsuits arguing that producers intentionally chose soundalikes in order to subvert contract law and industrial policies governing licensing rates might be filed against program producers and distributors.

Soundalikes also raise methodological problems regarding how we do textual analysis by making the formal analysis of television and game texts historically contingent. Television’s early encounters with the music industry were highly charged. Since I had not archived the original airings of many of the series I consider, I have had to rely on DVD releases and friends’ collections of over-the-air broadcasts, and thus my analyses of television texts may run counter to the memories of some audiences who accessed these texts in their broadcast run. Convergent strategies in the culture industries have made textuality historically contingent at the same time that these strategies potentially multiply the channels of discourse, making it important that we specify our objects of analysis and the distribution method in which texts were accessed. Soundalikes re-establish the need for us to archive over-the-air broadcasts and the first runs of programs, as these programs are often significantly different from syndicated and DVD versions of the same titles. Soundalikes may also tell us a great deal about how the texts we see on American screens are modified for British, Australian, and other foreign markets.

For media historians for whom primary research materials may be limited to commercially available products, the choice is to analyze the materials that have been successfully licensed and made commercially available to the public or, in attempts to specify original textual materials, to rely on information compiled by fans, which is often incomplete and of questionable veracity. It follows then that shows with a devoted fan base will have more visible traces on the web and in fanzines and that in these cases fan sources will become more prominently featured as sources of evidence. In short, soundalikes alert us to how malleable televisual sound truly is and render claims regarding the meaning and reception of televisual mobilizations of popular music more difficult to make.

Image Credits:

1. Sports Night
2. Guitar Hero Closeup
3. Married with Children
4. Johnny Cash Comic

Please feel free to comment.

The Sounds and the Business of Mobile Music
Ben Aslinger / Bentley College

Mobile Music

Theme music for the mobile consumer

Cell phone manufacturers and wireless carriers have tried to make the cell phone the preeminent convergent fetish, offering users an array of services in order to convince consumers to purchase the latest handsets and to upgrade their service plans. Though future revenues from the wireless distribution of television may in the future render music revenues chump change, the development of the ringtone economy was one of the first steps in exploiting wireless capabilities in delivering media content. As such, the development of mobile music economies deserve more attention from scholars interested in historicizing media convergence, television studies scholars interested in understanding how prior negotiations over intellectual property and revenue sharing influence the rollout of new forms of wireless media, and new media scholars interested in investigating rapidly shifting industrial and social definitions of the user. I want to suggest in this article that paying attention to the development of wireless music economies requires us to do two things: 1) to recognize the constitutive roles that aural and sonic texts play in establishing both the business arrangements and the aesthetics of convergence and 2) to recognize that we need to weigh and revalue the importance of the American market in light of the fact that the bulk of wireless commerce happens far away from Sprint and Verizon’s fiefdoms.

Interest in the global potential of the cell phone ringtones and wireless music resulted in a growing number of partnerships between music labels, manufacturers, and carriers. In 2002, Motorola created its Mobile Services Café. In 2003, America Online opened the AOL Download Store and Nokia introduced the Nokia 3300 handset featuring a digital music player and a FM stereo radio. In 2004, carriers began partnering with labels: Vodafone – a carrier with clients in over thirty countries – signed agreements with Warner and Sony; Universal Mobile and the French telecom group Alcatel partnered; Warner Music Intl. pledged cooperation with Deutsche Telecom’s T-Mobile; and Virgin Mobile USA and Universal Music Group developed a “First Dibs” program where Virgin customers would have first access to hip hop music such as D12’s D12 World. ((Ben Fritz, “Warner calling,” Video Business, April 12, 2004, 10; Juliana Korantang, “Gold rush is on in mobile-music sector,”, June 26, 2004; “Hollywood Records, Xingtone Team on MP3 Ringtones,” Business and Industry Online Reporter, January 31, 2004; “Cell Phone Users Want Mobile Music,” Business and Industry Online Reporter, July 17, 2004; “Ringtone Album Sees Better-than-Expected Sales,” Business and Industry Online Reporter, August 21, 2004; “Sony Delivers Mobile Music Service,” Business and Industry Online Reporter, June 19, 2004; “Virgin Mobile Scores UMG Exclusive,” Business and Industry Online Reporter, June 12, 2004.)) In 2005, MTV Networks and Verizon Wireless announced plans to deliver ringtones and short video snippets to cell phones; MTV offered ringtone albums by hip hop producers such as Timbaland through its Made Hear service; and Sprint Nextel unveiled the first mobile music store. By the end of the year, ringtones accounted for more than one-tenth of the global music market and were the most profitable non-voice service. ((Himanshu Rai, “Lord of the Ringggz..zo,” New Straits Times (Kuala Lumpur), October 2, 2005, 16.)) In 2006, Verizon launched its VCast service, Napster and Ericsson began marketing a music service to carriers, ((Terence Keegan, “The Mobile Media Network; Carriers: Music on Cell Phones Is Just the Beginning,” Medialine, March 1, 2006, 24.)) News Corporation paid $188 million for controlling interest in VeriSign’s Jamba! Ringtones unit, ((Harry Maurer, “Pricey ring tones,” Business Week, September 25, 2006, 35.)) BMI projected sales of over $600 million, ((Clint Swett, “Ringtone sales booming,” Sacramento Bee, April 6, 2006, D2.)) and the RIAA updated its Gold and Platinum program to include ringtones. ((John Wenzel, “That special ring,” Denver Post, July 11, 2006, F1.))

Technical advancements in handset sound quality along with increases in cell phone storage space changed the types of ringtones available. First generation ringtones were monophonic ringtones. When WAP-enabled cell phones with better sound quality came on the market, polyphonic ringtones became more common. Polyphonic ringtones were synthesized segments of songs that only required aggregators to deal with music publishers and/or performance rights organizations, since no sampling of original recordings was involved. After iTunes provided evidence of the huge profits to be earned from digital music and more advanced phones came on the market, the music industry became interested in master ringtones. Master ringtones, also called “truetones,” were segments of the original sound recording; selling them required content aggregators to work with record labels in addition to publishers.

Real Music Tones

Avril or Ozzy? Oh the possibilities!

Hip hop worked well for wireless distribution because the genre worked to target core demographics and worked well within early 2000s handsets’ sonic constraints. Hip hop’s generic conventions – a reliance on bass and percussion, sampling, and repetition – made it possible for aggregators to digitally synthesize a section of a song and have the segment recognizable as a rendition of a popular tune. Cell phones capable of processing the master ringtone could also produce sounds clear enough to help make rock, country, and folk music popular wireless media products. Sasha Frere-Jones writes, “Musical genres that suffered as polyphonics – sonically thick guitar rock, country, and jazz – can now challenge the hip hop hegemony.” ((Sasha Frere-Jones, “Ring my bell,” 86. )) Rock, country, and folk tunes proved popular in trying to court other generational demographics. Incorporating these genres into wireless music commerce allowed the industry to target consumers over the age of 30 and professional/business consumers wanting to personalize their Blackberries and other “smart” phones.

As a more diverse mobile music marketplace emerged, negotiations between mobile operators, hardware manufacturers, and content owners altered the wireless media marketplace. While many stories could be told here, I dwell here on the Finnish multinational firm Nokia’s efforts to provide users mobile content. Nokia experimented with providing content on its Club Nokia service from 2000-2002, even cutting one of the first major ringtone licensing deals with EMI executives in 2000. Club Nokia worked to include local artists that would be most appealing to handset users. While Club Nokia allowed users to access local music, local mobile operators were angry at what they saw as a threat to their own branded portals and their attempts to control their subscribers’ mobile experiences. As the global market for ringtones expanded, mobile operators wanted to claim and keep a sizeable percentage of the revenue; often their claim to a piece of the ringtone economy pie rested on the argument that it was their improvements to cellular infrastructures and network designs that enabled the rise of wireless media commerce. As one anonymous Nokia source told Mobile Communications in 2002, “There’s hardly a high-level meeting with an operator where this subject – particularly the issue of Club Nokia – isn’t raised.” ((“Mobile Operators Consider Ways to Check Nokia’s Market Power ” Mobile Communications, March 19 2002.))

The highly controversial nature of the Club Nokia venture led Nokia to close it down in many markets, but Nokia’s emphasis on addressing local audiences and tying devices to local tastes would inform its most recent efforts in content provision. In Nokia’s landmark deal with EMI in 2000, Nokia insisted that its executives have access to local artists and to local EMI executives.

Nokia Ovi

Finnish for “door,” Ovi is Nokia’s gateway into greater mobile music possiblities

Currently, Nokia’s Ovi – which consists in most markets of a music and a game store – provides a high profile to local artists. Telecomworldwire reports that the Nokia Music Store Australia “will stock locally relevant music and will feature artists such as The John Butler Trio, The Presets, Pete Murray, Kate Miller Heidke, Powderfinger, Silverchair, Lior, Cut Copy, Kisschasey, and Kasey Chambers.” ((“New Nokia Music Store Opens in Australia,” Telecomworldwire, April 22 2008.)) The list includes a range of artists with strong ties to the Melbourne and Sydney music scenes. The list of artists also signals that Nokia wants to actively associate youth-related and subcultural content with its mobile devices in the Australian market; at the same time, new distribution pathways for these artists and the purchase of their products by Australian urban users would help construct Sydney or Melbourne listening tastes and music scenes. Another example of the importance of local content is Nokia’s deal with Singapore-based label Ocean Butterflies. ((Amit Roy Choudhury, “Nokia Opens Singapore Online Music Store; Individual Tracks Will Cost $2 Per Track and Most Albums Will Be from $16,” Business Times Singapore, April 30 2008.))

Nokia Music Store

Move over Burger King, Nokia music is letting me have it my way too

These examples help illustrate the importance of local content, but they also illustrate Nokia’s focus on Asia-Pacific markets where Nokia hopes that its early entry, targeting of urban users, and associations with local content will help its devices compete with other products such as the iPhone. Nokia’s efforts largely ignore American consumers, with the company preferring to focus on the Asia-Pacific region and Europe (especially the emerging wireless economies of Eastern Europe) at the same time as the multinationals activities signal the continuing economic importance of music in wireless media economies.

Will the development of mobile television parallel in some ways the historical development of the mobile music market and the relative importance of the American user to mobile media commerce? How do we write about the aesthetics of mobile media when a) such texts are difficult to archive and b) most services and texts are largely inaccessible to scholars living within the United States who are chained to their cell phone contracts? And perhaps more importantly, how do we write mobile media histories that continue to recognize the importance of music and sound even when mobile television becomes normalized?

Image Credits:

1. Mobile Music
2. Real Music Tones
3. Nokia Ovi
4. Nokia Music Store

Please feel free to comment.