"The perfect guide in a crowded musical landscape": Online music platforms and curatorship
First Monday

The perfect guide in a crowded musical landscape: Online music platforms and curatorship by Emilia Barna



Abstract
Curatorship or curation has become a widely used term in music industry and popular music discourse recently, used not only in a museum or exhibition context, but also in connection with music festivals, and increasingly, playlists and other functions related to online music platforms. Through a case study of 22tracks, an online, playlist-based music discovery service currently based in four European cities, I look at the role and position of the music curator, and provide a critical analysis of the dominant discourses around music curation. I place the discourse of music curation into a context of dominant narratives accompanying music as well as digital and online technology, including that of the “long tail” and the “tyranny of choice.” I then proceed to explore the relationship of curation to place, scenes and genres, and conceptualise curatorship as an increasingly professionalised tastemaking and promoting function.

Contents

Introduction
Narratives of transforming music industries
22tracks and music curation
Innovative platforms and the music industries
Conclusions

 


 

Introduction

“22tracks.com is all about curating” — states the self-definition of “music discovery service” 22tracks, a music platform based in Amsterdam, which features playlists compiled by commissioned DJs representing a variety of music genres — such as “Beats,” “Indie/Rock,” “Disco,” “Jazz,” “Latin,” among many others — and European cities — namely Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and London. “Curatorship,” a term not without elite or high cultural connotations, is an increasingly popular term, a buzzword even, in music industry and popular music discourse, and increasingly debated at the same time. Recently, it has been used not only in connection with popular music-themed museums and exhibitions (cf., Atton, 2014) — a more traditional meaning — but also in relation to festivals such as All Tomorrow’s Parties, “curated” by a different popular music luminary every year. Moreover, and more importantly for the sake of this paper, the activity of music bloggers, and even DJ culture, has also been referred to as curation, as well as the compiling of playlists — typically for streaming services — whether by professionals (employed by companies such as Apple, Google or specific playlist provider services such as Songza or Soundiiz) or regular users such as music fans. Even more recently, the principle of curation as a theme and curation as a business model have been at the centre of intense music business discussions (e.g., at SXSW [1], WOMEX [2] or MIDEM [3]) and discussed in depth in the music press (e.g., Hogan, 2015; McDermott, 2015).

Curation clearly involves acts of selection, principles of distinction and value judgment — telling “good” from “bad,” exciting, novel or trendy from mediocre or outdated, “real art” and “value” from the “vulgar.” These considerations and categories are central to popular music discourse — to our speaking and thinking about popular music (Frith, 1996a). The aesthetic choices involved are social in complex ways: they may be understood as relying on tastes determined by social status, which are therefore able to communicate one’s position in the social hierarchy (as theorised by Bourdieu, 1984). At the same time the choices themselves function as musical acts through which tastes, and identities, are being constructed (Frith, 1996a, 1996b; Hennion, 2007, 2001). Despite its origins in the high cultural, canonised spaces of the museum and the gallery, the notion of “curator” has been claimed to be a less elitist alternative to “gatekeeper,” and has been described, simply, as “the ability to spot things” (Josh Spear, quoted in Dumenco, 2011). I will call this a weak notion of curation. Nevertheless, the question remains whether it signifies practices that are more democratic on the level of discourse only. This conception of curation rather seems to mask the structural aspects involved in the tastemaking function of curation: the position in which the curator is placed. Taylor (2016) helpfully draws attention to this structural aspect when using the term curatorship within the context of globalization and popular music: it regards the role of already established Western musicians with sufficient cultural and social capital as brokers in a process of cultural “translation,” typically through collaborations with non-Western artists, where their status essentially serves as a guarantee of good taste (Paul Simon’s Graceland (1986) is an obvious example [4]).

In this paper I examine the notion of curation and curatorship in relation to online music platforms emerging recently, including music blogs and streaming platforms, through a case study of 22tracks, which links the functions of music blogging and streaming in an arguably innovative manner. How can we approach the relationship of curation to place, scenes and genres (in the case of 22tracks, cities, genres and individual DJs’ tastes are simultaneously represented)? Can curatorship be viewed as an increasingly professionalised tastemaking and promoting role? If so, what is the significance of curating independent music — the pronounced mission of 22tracks — within the complex structure of today’s music industry? More generally, how does the discourse around curation fit in with ideologies around new technology and the music industries?

I explore these questions with the help of interviews conducted with 22tracks DJs (I will alternately refer to them as “DJs” or “DJ-curators”) and managers in 2014 in which I discussed their work and the way they viewed and made sense of this work, and of 22tracks itself, in the context of the changing technological environment of online music and the gradual transformation of the music industries. Prior to the discussion of the interviews, I briefly reflect on the context of the changing music industries and dominant discourses and ideologies around it. This will then enable me to situate the narratives and interpretations of the DJ-curators within this “ideoscape” (Appadurai, 1990).

 

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Narratives of transforming music industries

“Tyranny of the hit” versus “tyranny of choice”

A relatively recent report (Mulligan, 2014) proposes the “death of the Long Tail,” referring to Chris Anderson’s (2006; 2004) popular — though not undisputed — concept, which in recent years has been dominant among understandings of the way the availability of music online is shaping the music industries [5]. In the study of the cultural industries, it is broadly understood that the industries have established successful strategies to manage the risks inherently carried by the the production of cultural products. These include, according to David Hesmondhalgh, “misses” being offset against “hits” through the building of repertoires; “concentration, integration, and co-opting publicity;” “artificial scarcity;” “formatting: stars, genres, and serials;” and “loose control of symbol creators; tight control of distribution and marketing.” [6] Moreover, the fact that “the economics of the cultural industries under capitalism disproportionately rewards big hits (...) and the creation of stars who effectively act as brand names” result in conditions that favour large companies rather than small ones [7]. According to Anderson’s “Long Tail” hypothesis, however, the rapidly decreasing costs of production and distribution, in a large part thanks to the availability online channels, carry the possibility of catering to a huge variety of niche needs, as opposed to having to “lump products and consumers into one-size-fits-all containers.” [8] On the one hand, this structural transformation is enabled by technology, as digital formats entail that there is “room” for a practically limitless number of cultural products — Anderson refers to this as “infinite shelf-space effect.” On the other hand, it is ultimately explained by the ways cultural goods are consumed: Anderson argued that people were interested in more than the “hits” — bestsellers, blockbusters and such; that in fact a niche existed for practically every kind of product. Moreover, hits themselves created the need for people to explore — hence the relevance, in music, of back catalogues, as well as “live tracks, B-sides, remixes, even (gasp) covers. There are niches by the thousands, genre within genre within genre.” [9] Ultimately, the availability of cultural goods on the Internet according to Anderson is driving our cultural landscape towards an ever greater diversity and the end of “the tyranny of the hit.” [10]

Anderson’s theory can be understood as part of a (techno-)optimistic discourse, or “technological triumphalism” in Taylor’s [11] terminology, which surrounds digital music — a key moment of which is the rise of peer-to-peer file-sharing platform Napster. First Monday’s (2014) special issue [12] looking at the legacy of Napster on its fifteenth anniversary demonstrates how the rhetoric around Napster, certainly initially, was focused on possibilities, on the one hand, and hazards, on the other. Either way, its appearance was viewed as revolutionary (for this, see also the Napster documentary Downloaded). Andrea Guzman and Steve Jones (2014) show how the mainstream press “covered the service extensively, framing Napster as a simultaneously ingenious and nefarious technology that was spurring a cultural and economic revolution.” [13] One of the points covered in the mainstream press concerned the increasing democratisation of listening allowed by the digital platform in the sense that Napster users were able to select individual songs based on their choice as opposed to having to purchase an entire album, and build their own libraries and playlists [14]. This kind of neoliberal optimism, centred around the power of individual consumer choice, parallels Anderson’s arguments.

Ten years on, Mark Mulligan (2014) argues, on the basis of income figures from recorded music, that contrary to Anderson’s predictions, an ever greater and concentrated “Superstar Artist Economy” has emerged recently. Essentially, the old structures never went away. Recycling Anderson’s “tyranny” rhetoric, Mulligan states that “[t]he excessive pollution of digital music catalogues with filler drivel only serves to strengthen the hand of the Top 1% and to make the Tyranny of Choice’s power absolute.” [15] During the decade between the two cited studies, not only has Apple’s iTunes grown — a platform incorporating a huge media library, an online radio/streaming service, serving as a media player and offering more than 26 million songs for purchase starting from 2012 [16]; other music streaming services have emerged and gained space, typically operating with a “freemium” model and boasting huge catalogues: notably Spotify (over 20 million songs [17]), Deezer (more than 30 million songs [18]), and various others such as Pandora, Rdio or Google Play. Mulligan’s reference to “digital catalogue pollution” above indicates this plenitude of songs, a significant proportion of which, moreover, is made up by sound-alikes, karaoke versions, and so forth. The ten years between the two studies, however, also saw broader economic, political and ideological changes in the Western world in particular: the financial crisis of 2008 has arguably resulted in a detectable political and ideological turn, with increasing criticism directed at neoliberal capitalism, from grassroots movements such as Occupy to mainstream economics — the latter indicated by the widespread acknowledgement of such works as Piketty’s (2014) critique regarding wealth and income inequality in Europe and the U.S. Mulligan’s easy reference to the “Top 1%” has to be understood in this context.

In 2015, Jimmy Iovine, speaking for Apple Music, caused controversy when he specifically stated that Apple playlists were aimed at aiding women, who “find it very difficult at times ... some women ... to find music.” [19] What he did in this interview is make explicit the inherent, yet mostly hidden masculine elitism of connoisseur music consumption and the implicitly implied feminine character of “mass” or “mainstream” consumption (Huyssen, 1986). Mulligan’s evaluation, it can be argued, is characterised by a similar kind of value-laden elitism, if with more subtlety: he refers to a “relatively niche group of engaged music aficionados that have most interest in discovering as diverse a range of music as possible,” while “[m]ost mainstream consumers want leading by the hand to the very top slither of music catalogue. This is why radio has held its own for so long and why curated and programmed music services are such an important tool for engaging the masses with digital” [20]. As we will see later on, the music industry discourse around curation — especially when it comes to promoting curation-based services — echoes Mulligan’s statement regarding consumers of music: “the marketplace has shown us that humans are just as much wandering sheep in need of herding online as they are offline.” [21]

To further illustrate what I interpret as an elitist, even conservative turn in narrative, I point to the reference to quality and the performing of value judgment in Mulligan’s analysis, and the celebration of the taste-maker role of, among others, record labels:

Dilution of quality: More people making more music does not mean more quality, the opposite in fact. For all of the positive impact of DIY — and there is plenty — the movement has removed a crucial quality hurdle. Record labels — for all their faults, and indeed there are plenty of those too — act as crucial arbiters of quality and taste. [22]

Mulligan goes on to attribute professionalism and expertise to record labels and criticising independent (DIY) music worlds for cultivating a climate of unconditional support that is counter-productive in terms of success and quality product:

Record label A&R teams filter the best from the rest, while in DIY there is a risk of the self-congratulatory echo chamber, of friends, family and uber fans perpetually praising rather providing tough love. Vast swathes of digital music catalogues consist of music from wannabes that simply are not good enough and — of much greater creative concern — cynical sound-alikes and karaoke versions. Of a typical 25 million digital catalogue only six million is ‘serious’ catalogue and of that only 1.25 million is streamed or purchased with any meaningful degree of frequency (...). The vast majority of the rest is only ever going to perform miserably in revenue terms. Indeed Nielsen reported that 94% of tracks purchased on iTunes were downloaded 100 times or less. [23]

Ironically, the last statement actually points to the variety of songs that are downloaded — suggesting that listeners indeed consume according to their various tastes, while, as Hesmondhalgh and Meier (2015) also point out in their critique of the long tail theory, revenues are mostly made on the “head.”

Nevertheless, the rhetoric used here is very different from the democratic listening habits emphasised in relation to Napster, mentioned earlier with reference to Guzman and Jones (2014) — there the envisioned listener was an adult, a knowledgable consumer able to exercise control (certainly a neoliberal conception), while the “Tyranny of choice” consumer is infantile and in need of guidance.

Importantly, Mulligan also points to “excessive choice” actually hindering the discovery of new and varied music, which suggests that the abundance of music in fact masks, while at the same time also facilitates, industry concentration. The question remains whether platforms and practices for music curation challenge this process by acting as a counter-force against concentration, or are they rather part of this process? Most probably, as we will see, they do both.

Independence and artistic control

The complex, layered structure of the music becomes evident once we look at the periphery besides the centre — the fringes, informal economies, independents. Based on research conducted in Australia, Collins and Young (2014) point to the emergence of an identifiable “middle class” of artists that manage to establish relatively lucrative careers with the savvy use of online platforms — new intermediaries such as Bandcamp, SoundCloud or iTunes itself — that enable producers to exert more control over distribution than in the traditional major record label structure. These artists, argue Collins and Young, are effective at developing the right skills adapted to a changing digital industry environment. While sufficiently validated by empirical data, the interpretation appears to echo what Barbrook and Cameron (1996) called the Californian ideology [24] by centring on artists — typically independent — taking control of their careers with the help of technology [25], and focusing less on the other side, namely the difficulties and constraints of entrepreneurialism in neoliberal capitalist cultural industries.

In 2014, Carter and Rodgers offer a different view when positing: “‘[n]iche’ artists that were supposed to benefit the most from the democratizing effect of online distribution, often appear among those who feel the most disenfranchised.” [26] Hesmondhalgh and Meier (2015) identify two main remaining types of popular music independence, namely “fairly well-established large independents (...) many of them with close financing, distribution and other connections to the majors” and “a world of amateur and precarious semi-professional musical production, including the continuing world of underground scenes and micro-independent institutions.” [27] Taylor (2016), too, in his critique of the neoliberal capitalist economy of popular music, leaves space for marginal players who “tak[e] advantage of the capitalist system to distribute a kind of music that [is] unpopular.” [28] Yet the complexities of such a stance are not underestimated by either Hesmondhalgh and Meier or Taylor.

This is the ideoscape in which I proceed to look at the official discourse of 22tracks, based on the self-representation of the platform through its online presence and its promotional material, as well as interviews conducted with DJs. The latter in part represent and reproduce the ideas communicated by 22tracks officially, but they are also at times critical in relation to these and offer their own readings.

 

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22tracks and music curation

22tracks is a free online “music discovery service” founded in 2009, offering playlists of 22 relatively new music tracks curated by DJs currently based in four cities, with 22 DJs or teams of DJs in each city. The number 22 is therefore utilised as a symbol and a key element of the brand, also visualised in the platform’s logo. The playlists are aimed to represent the respective cities as localities, as well as different styles and genres. They are updated weekly with new songs.

For my interviews that form the basis of the following analysis, I contacted five DJs from each city (Amsterdam, Brussels, London and Paris), and eventually, through recommendations managed to conduct seven interviews from three different cities (unfortunately I received no response from Paris). To cater for the variety genres, I deemed it important to be able to compare different DJs from the same city (e.g., four of the DJs are in the Brussels team), as well as representatives of the same genre from two different cities (“Alternative” from London and Brussels allows for such a comparison). Furthermore, I also wanted to compare the DJs’ opinions and perspectives with that of a so-called city manager’s, the main manager’s (Vincent Reinders — through an interview published on 22tracks’ blog), as well as 22tracks promotional material. Five interviews were conducted via video call, two via e-mail, all in English. In general, the interviewees appeared to find the questions relevant — in some cases they found it worthwhile to think about something they do not normally ponder, just go ahead with; in other cases it was clear they think about these questions daily and have articulate, sophisticated and complex answers to them. All interviewees were male — while I did try, without success, to interview female DJs as well, this setup is nevertheless indicative of the scene. At the time of writing, Amsterdam features one team of two women and 21 teams comprising of one or more males. Brussels has two women but both appear as part of teams with one or two males, and 20 male teams. London features two women, one individually and one as part of a team of three. Paris has three individual women curators but that still means 19 are (all-)male. In all, out of the 88 DJs or teams, five are female and three are mixed. The music curating space of 22tracks therefore seems to be very much a masculine one — which fact is certainly connected both to the structural position occupied by the curator as tastemaker, as well as the broader masculine culture of the music industries, and the even broader patriarchal social structure [29].

As one further methodological note: the responses at times quite clearly seem to echo the official “discourse” of 22tracks, yet this is not necessarily an indication that the DJs are trying to sell the service. Rather, they appear to have internalised this discourse. It is striking how certain phrases and definitions recurred across the board, despite different language backgrounds — or perhaps exactly because of that, as English, the language I used for the interviews, could work as a lingua franca for official discourse. For this reason in particular, it may have been beneficial, had it been possible, to conduct the interviews in the mother tongue of each DJ.

22tracks as online radio and music discovery service

One of the interviewed DJs identified two ways in which listeners can use 22tracks: firstly, in a more “passive” manner as online radio, as background music; secondly, in a more “active” manner as a source for discovery — to “feed yourself off the knowledge of someone else and do your own thing” (Nosedrip, 2014). The latter especially corresponds to the official definition of 22tracks as a “music discovery service,” [30] while the distinction between active and passive use points towards an important distinction between active and passive listening. We will see later on that this distinction is important for the DJs to make sense of music consumption in the digital age. The terms “online radio” and the idea of the “easiest way to discover new music” (Koen Galle, 2014) were recurrent throughout the interviews, combined with adjectives and phrases such as quick, time-saving, reliable, diverse, and a continuous stream of music. It is considered as an “innovative way of making radio” (Mr. Mendel, 2014) lying somewhere between traditional radio and listening entirely directed by listeners, enabling greater control of the experience on the part of users by allowing them to skip songs or listen over and over again, but still being reliant on DJs’ pre-selections.

The DJs emphasised how the tracks were “hand-picked” (Mr. Mendel, 2014), thereby situating the service on the human side in what we can refer to as the “human touch” versus “algorithm-based,” or automated, computer-generated, curation debate. Algorithm-based recommendations, using the technology known as collaborative filtering, have been utilised by such services as, for instance, Amazon or Spotify, and these are frequently compared and contrasted with playlists compiled by listeners on the one hand, and music “experts,” or professional curators, on the other [31]. However, the debate, thus articulated, is certainly guilty of simplifying the idea of algorithm and masking its social embeddedness and human input. Algorithms are partly based on data on listening practices, according to which we can distinguish taste groups or niches. The emphasis on human touch articulated by the DJs reproduces the official 22tracks discourse, which in its turn is situated in the mentioned debate, as indicated by the following statement from 22tracks founder and creative director Vincent Reinders: “[W]e don’t believe in algorithms. Whilst we appreciate what Hypem and Shuffler do, you’ll never get an inter-weaving playlist experience over there. It’s essentially just a list of tunes that can never really function as a well thought out [sic] playlist” (Reinders, 2013).

The second type of argument distinguishing 22tracks from streaming services such as Spotify is the following: on streaming platforms as music listeners we have to know what we are looking for, while 22tracks serves as a music discovery platform and a gateway, in particular for discovering new genres. The representation of genres was mentioned as a crucial element of self-definition for the platform, as well as 22tracks’ supposedly unique feature enabling selection by city. Individual DJs are supposed to be “the best in their field,” in other words, the genre or style which they represent. Nosedrip emphasised their expertise when defining the platform’s function as “the digital curation of people who know what they are doing” (Nosedrip, 2014).

When I asked the DJs to compare 22tracks to other services, the most common immediate answer was that there is no other service like 22tracks, it is a unique kind of platform. Nevertheless, two kinds of services were mentioned: on-demand radios and streaming platforms. Examples of on-demand radio included U.K.-based NTS, which grew out of a community radio and gives space to individual curation; and Rdio, which also places individuals at its centre, although it runs with a 20-million-song-catalogue, similarly to the main streaming services such as Spotify or Deezer. The boundaries are therefore not always clear between the types of services. Besides Spotify and Deezer, SoundCloud was also mentioned — a more user-based, social networking-type platform with regard to uploaded content. According to Vincent Reinders, the main difference between these types of platforms and 22tracks is speed and flexibility: “[w]e act more as a blog, which means that if a new sensation like say, London Grammar releases a single, we stream it. It can take months or sometimes years for acts to be available on services like spotify [sic].” [32] The focus on new music is certainly a key distinguishing element — speaking to the DJs, one almost gets the feeling that new music is the only music that matters, or that people are only looking for new music.

Music curation as practice

Curation as practice means, according to the DJs, “seeing a bigger picture” and selecting some elements from it to show to the world (Nosedrip, 2014). It involves “pulling together from a number of sources” for the particular platform (Tim Dickinson, 2014). It means organising in a way that helps the audience find good music among the tracks continuously released — it is “a Readers’ Digest for music” (Cracksoul, 2014). Terence of the team Earnest Endeavours describes it as “the ability to tell a story through someone else’s assets — combining your own influences and experiences with a deep knowledge of your subject” (Earnest Endeavours, 2014). In other words, they emphasised a quality of distinction, based on extensive knowledge. Deep knowledge, being up-to-date and “in tune” with a genre, constant attention and dedication are traits emphasised by other DJs too. Nosedrip described how “[the] people who do the hip hop [playlist], they check everything that comes out and they share what they think is the best, the most relevant to it.”

What are the criteria and principles for DJs in selecting the particular tracks? Affect and commitment is certainly an important factor: several DJs expressed that they have to like the particular song, and this overrides the necessity of corresponding to a genre. In the particular, and perhaps somewhat atypical case of Nosedrip, the label “Moody” proves to be convenient because of its semantic flexibility; yet similar sentiments were expressed with regard to the “Alternative” or “Tropical” playlists. There is a general sense that it is the DJ and their interpretation of a genre or style that counts. Besides liking a track, the desire to share (“You are convinced that you have something to share;” Nosedrip), even to educate (Sylvestre Defontaine), are further important factors.

All interviewees agreed upon the fact that 22tracks playlists represented (their) personal tastes — for them, individual taste appears to be the central organising principle. Some of the DJs specifically stated that they only select what they like; as we have seen, this may override the principle of representing a particular genre. The importance of taste in the sense of value judgment, that is, the ability to distinguish between “good” and “bad,” is necessarily overall implied. According to the Brussels city manager, the DJs have to be the best in their genre or style. This requires experience — implicitly, the knowledge necessary to make apt value judgments. “Good selections” is a criterion for a good DJ, where “good” refers not only to the perceived quality, novelty and engagingness of the tracks, but also the extent to which they can be perceived as showcasing a musical personality and individual style with their own unique taste. The compiling of playlists thus constitutes a kind of creative contribution, and the playlists themselves the creative outlet of DJ-curators. We may call this a strong notion of curation.

Representing, and thus promoting, lesser-known independent artists is a responsibility for DJs, and accordingly, the practice of curation here also refers to making otherwise invisible artists visible to the world through the technology offered by the 22tracks platform: “22tracks is a place where I can upload music for an artist, I don’t know, maybe some artists don’t have the skills to upload on YouTube or SoundCloud” (Sylvestre Defontaine, 2014). The platform can function as a “virtual business card” for artists (Sylvestre Defontaine, 2014) — but even more so, we may add, for DJs.

For some, this practice even acquires a temporal, retrospective dimension: Defontaine refers to 22tracks playlists as “a vintage way to use music.” He compares it to a home-made mix tape cassette, which friends can compile for each other and share or exchange: “it’s like back in the days, when you’re in your classroom with your friend” (Sylvestre Defontaine, 2014). Speaking nostalgically, he also compares the playlists to “best of” and “greatest hits” records representing a year in music, presumably of the 1990s. The attachment to the playlists therefore can be understood in the context of a yearning for the times before the easy availability of music online, a yearning for older practices of listening to, and sharing, music.

The work of the DJ-curator

Some of the interviewees consistently referred to 22tracks DJs as “curators,” invoking the 22tracks terminology — an insider discourse; others as DJs or selectors, that is, a more traditional terminology. As 22tracks DJs, their duties involve adding a minimum of five new, non-major-label tracks to their playlist per week, which should always be from the past six months or year — although apparently 22tracks is not necessarily too strict with the latter criterion.

22tracks is appreciated by the DJ-curators for serving as a free creative space for them, a playground, with fewer constraints than traditional radio. This freedom applies not only to the genre or style, but also, for instance, to a lack of constraint regarding the length of songs (Sylvestre Defontaine, 2014). And while the DJ-curators make a point of contrasting the service with radio in this regard, many do have a radio background, enabling the comparison in the first place. Moreover, in some cases their radio selections inform, or feed into, their 22tracks playlists — as Defontaine puts it, 22tracks gets “the cream of the cream.”

On the other hand, Nosedrip — although not the other DJ-curators — pointed to the existence of a clash between the idea of DJ-based curation and the freedom users are allowed in relation to online playlists such as that of 22tracks: he lamented the possibility of a temporal mismatch arising from the fact that his music was meant for the late hours of the day. When listeners do not “get” the music, it is partly because they listen to it at the “wrong” time, such as at work in the afternoon. In this sense, he prefers traditional radio, as that medium enables those responsible for providing content more control over the listener experience.

With regard to working conditions, for Defontaine, the fact that they work for free for 22tracks guarantees quality, arising from the dedication it requires. The DJs certainly expressed pride in, and satisfaction with, their participation and contribution. In line with the above, with regard to the selection of DJs, the Brussels city manager emphasised such qualities as knowledge and reliability, fed by enthusiasm and the necessity of trust (Koen Galle, 2014). Reliability also guarantees continuity, as dedicated DJs stay with 22tracks (“75% or 70% of the DJs we started with are still doing it after 3 years;” Koen Galle, 2014). Besides the expressed pride, in some cases, the role is perceived by the DJs as an important building block in their career paths, so there can be a lot at stake in terms of subcultural capital (Thornton, 1995) and professional prestige on a local level. This is especially true in cases such as that of Nosedrip, who by his own admission was fairly young compared to the other DJs when asked to DJ for 22tracks and not very well known at that point. In such a case, working for 22tracks may be beneficial for the individual career in two different ways: in presenting and establishing the DJ as a representative and connoisseur of a particular genre or style; and, potentially, in allowing the DJ to tap into a local, as well as translocal network of DJs and other music industry people. For Nosedrip, compiling playlists also functions as a personalprofessional diary, helping him to look back on a year and keep track of time through music.

With regard to working strategies, 22tracks playlists are approached similarly to a general DJ mix. Yet there are notable differences: Mr. Mendel contrasts “just bring[ing] music to the people” in the online space of the platform with a club setting where DJs are supposed to adjust their set according to what will go down with the crowd. This statement reinforces the strong notion of curation, the strongly individualised self-expression function of the playlists. Sylvestre Defontaine describes his strategic method — “vision” — as consisting of five steps, some of which were also described by other DJs: first, listening, namely to a lot of music, including tracks or records they specifically receive from various sources to listen to; second, reading — magazines, which are often from abroad, meaning the U.S. or the U.K., and music blogs, then checking out tracks and records on iTunes or SoundCloud — which suggests that reading and listening often go parallel; third, taking notes; fourth, getting hold of the songs or licenses; fifth, selecting and organising according to a certain principle. For Defontaine, there has to be one “big artist,” one “alternative,” one “unknown,” and eventually he usually selects “five subgenres of Alternative.” The selection strategy of course also involves the deliberate inclusion of local artists — for instance, the Cracksoul team ensure that there is a minimum of two French/Belgian songs per every five new tracks.

Genre and curation

The playlist-based structure of 22tracks as a music platform contributes to reinforcing the significance of genre and style as organising categories or principles in relation to listening to music. Stylistic categories in the form of “tags” have been central to such platforms as LastFM, the social networking site MySpace, and more recently, Bandcamp. Genre-based playlists are also featured by major streaming platforms such as Spotify and Deezer. Music curation can be understood as lending people a way into a genre. However, as we have already seen, the degree to which genre is central on 22tracks is complicated by the personal preferences of the curator. As Galle puts it, “genre or style is always connected to the DJ behind it” (Koen Galle, 2014).

While a central structuring principle of the platform, genre is therefore not always a straightforward or objective category for DJs. Mr. Mendel talked about how the contents of the label “Tropical” was not necessarily very clear for the audience, as well as how he “Tropical” DJ-curator role fairly differently to his predecessor (“he did more contemporary African pop music, sort of, and more electronically based, I’m doing more old stuff;” Mr. Mendel, 2014). Defontaine expressly states that representing a genre (in a particular country) is not particularly important for him: “according to 22tracks, I’m the Belgian representative of alternative, but I really don’t have this aspect of my job, this aspect of 22tracks in mind.” The rest of the DJs had even less to say about genre or style. Somewhat contradicting the official discourse of 22tracks, an emphasis on personal choices and preferences seems to override strict genre boundaries — certainly with the more flexible stylistic labels such as “Alternative,” “Tropical,” or “Moody.”

Instead of genre boundaries, some of the DJs emphasise their alternative stance, their commitment towards providing something other than mainstream — they will use the music “as long as it’s not mediocre and middle of the road” (Earnest Endeavours, 2014). Defontaine divides the “music world” into mainstream and alternative, himself identifying with the world of alternative music. Koen Galle is sceptical towards such easy categorisations as underground versus mainstream, and articulates a preference for music with creativity invested in it — which he does not necessarily conceive of along “mainstream” versus underground lines.

Locality and curation

The other prominent structuring aspect of 22tracks playlists besides genre is place. It is needless to argue the relevance of place for music culture and the music industries — the wealth of literature looking at local sounds and scenes, music heritages and the geographies of music production as well as consumption is an obvious evidence of the significance attributed to locality in popular music studies. Ethnographic explorations of music worlds such as that of Ruth Finnegan (1989) or Sara Cohen (1991) have been complemented by studies of music scenes (e.g., Shank, 1994; Stahl, 2004; and many others). More recently, technological developments, in particular the Internet and digital music technologies have been accompanied by increasing scholarly attention paid to local music making and local sounds in the era of globalisation. This has led to reconceptualisations of music scenes as translocal or virtual (e.g., Bennett and Peterson, 2004), simultaneously online and off-line (e.g., Kruse, 2010).

In a globalised music economy, the symbolic meanings and capital associated with places arguably remain, or become even more important — as Taylor argues:

For the U.S. entertainment industry, audio production of various kinds remains mainly in Santa Monica, California (greater Los Angeles), but increasingly for reasons of hipness and the desire to be near one’s tribe and less for reasons of convenience, since audio or video tapes or film no longer need to be physically transported as they were in the past. [33]

The “hip” or “cool” factor becomes attached to musical hubs, endowing them and representations of them, with symbolic capital. In the case of 22tracks’ cities, representations of locality seem both to draw on already existing associations and to aim to create such.

The cities currently represented are typically music industry hubs — London in particular, as the largest global hub besides Los Angeles and New York. None of them are associated with an easily identifiable, single local music heritage or sound (as, for example, Nashville is with country music [34]). Regarding the particular case of Brussels, every Belgian DJ interviewed emphasised that they represent the country rather than the city of Brussels. Nosedrip talked about a “Belgian sound,” and at least one DJ pointed out that he was not even physically based in Brussels. Sylvestre Defontaine attributed substantial cultural significance to the cooperation of French- and Flemish-speaking DJs on the platform: he calls 22tracks “the only place in the cultural landscape [...] in Belgium where people from the two cultural communities work together.” The genre “Belpop,” furthermore, is mentioned by all Belgian DJs as a typical representative of Belgian popular music (French or Flemish) — even though on 22tracks it only makes up one out of the 22 Belgian playlists.

The DJs mention locally definable characteristics, which are represented through their choices in the sense that, firstly, DJs listen to bands and records partly in their own city, therefore local music forms part of the pool they rely on when selecting the tracks. Secondly, that they themselves as artists can be regarded as representations of respective local tastes.

Koen Galle refers to a local house music community in relation to Brussels and talks about his own role in representing it — in other words, locality for him gains meaning through stlye. According to him, DJs who live and work in a specific place will “automatically” reflect that locality through their tastes, which is based on their sources, the music they are able to access. The Brussels playlists are meant in this sense to convey “how Belgians listen to music” — but through the mediating hand of the DJ. He also names certain local aesthetic characteristics:

Compared to Amsterdam, for example, we are a bit more rough, a bit more edgy maybe, the feeling is a bit more ... for example, we have an African music playlist because there are a lot of Africans in Brussels and Belgium, we have this Belpop playlist with all the Belgian based music. (Koen Galle, 2014)

He therefore also refers to social and ethnic factors shaping the local musical palette. In a somewhat similar vein, Tim Dickinson (2014) talks about the London playlist as being “more what people in London listen to as opposed to what people in London are making.” Earnest Endeavours express their “hope that the vibe of London rubs off” — a phrasing that perhaps indicates the presence of a general difficulty of, or reluctance towards, talking about the specifics of music in industry discourse, which leads to the frequent use of such fairly vague expressions a “vibe,” a “feel” or a “sound.” Yet a number of more clearly defined characteristics were also named, such as: the Amsterdam “school” of DJs being characterised by “soulful styles” and versatility (“you can hear it in the dynamics, when somebody plays it goes to all sides of the spectrum, guess it’s Amsterdam sound but I’m not sure;” Mr. Mendel, 2014), referring to a community of DJs who started around the same time and have influenced each other; the already mentioned “rough,” “edgy” quality of Belgian music with its perceived African influence; or the specificities of languages such as Belgian hip hop with French lyrics. “Big names,” stars are also mentioned as ambassadors for places, such as Lefto and Funky Bompa in Belgium.

Besides the representation of particular stylistic characteristics attached to locality, place is also expressed in the articulated goal of supporting local artists. Nosedrip even alludes to a difference in standards when selecting local versus international artists: “when it [comes] to local acts, [...] that sounds so bad, but I lower the standards a little bit.” This lowering of standards stems from the responsibility felt towards representing local artists — not only for the sake of representing locality, but stemming from his role as a DJ, which involves reliance on creative work done by others:

I feel responsible if people make music here and it fits the list, that they should have the chance to get [on it] because in the end it’s about me and it’s not about me, it’s about the 22 people or groups who made the music, they make [up] the list. [...] I’m nothing without people who make music. (Nosedrip, 2014)

The quality aspect arises in a different sense when Sylvestre Defontaine contrasts the representation of local artists on 22tracks with local radio PureFM on a choice versus requirement basis: on the latter he is required by law to correspond to a quota of local French-speaking artists. As opposed to having to compromise in order to fulfil the quota, for 22tracks he is allowed to choose the few select artists he deems worthy.

According to the DJs, and somewhat counter-intuitively, the main community aspect of 22tracks lies not in online sociability, but in their own local embeddedness into communities around music practices. While the platform does enable international connections to be developed, reinforcing existing and even creating new connections among various local actors — DJs, radio people, promoters, bloggers, journalists, local musicians — seems to happen with much more efficiency. Vincent Reinders (2013) states: “(...) we’re deeply connected within our local music scenes. I get daily requests from DJs who want to curate genres or special playlists. To be included in a playlist is a big up as well; I listen to hundreds of hip hop tracks every week, but only five get featured.” His emphasis here is on the promotion function fulfilled by the platform for the DJs as well as the featured artists aspects of the local scene.

 

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Innovative platforms and the music industries

Regarding the transformation of the music industries, three main observations or perceptions dominated the answers of the DJ-curators. Firstly, the abundance of music available: “there [are] too many songs, too [much] music in 2014,” says Sylvestre Defontaine. Along with other DJs, he used the metaphor of the jungle to describe not only the abundance of music, but also music blogs (“it’s like a jungle, blogs are like a jungle too, there are too many blogs;” Sylvestre Defontaine, 2014; “many people as passive listeners feel lost in the jungle of Internet;” Koen Galle, 2014). Taylor observes how a sense of plenitude is a main feature of the neoliberal economy (“One of the most noticeable and remarked-upon features of today’s capitalism is the seemingly limitless supply of commodities, including cultural commodities such as music” [35]) and how digital technologies have contributed to this sense of plenitude and easy availability. Morris and Powers (2015) refer to plenitude more specifically in the context of streaming, where “the stream” is evoked in the marketing of these services as a metaphor for musical omnipresence, for inexhaustible choice (an ideology the authors proceed to critique) — thus it is used in a positive sense. Ironically, as we have already seen, playlist services on the very same platforms are marketed as the solution to the problem created by inexhaustible choice, and it is this latter discourse that the DJ-curators evoke.

Secondly, a sense of uncertainty regarding the future of the music industries also seemed to prevail: “we are in the position in 2014 [where] nobody in the music business can answer that question” (Sylvestre Defontaine, 2014), where the question concerned the role of music blogs and streaming services in music consumption. The DJs have a sense of less money being around as a result of the increasing concentration of the industry.

Thirdly, at the same time, they are also aware of a parallel economic structure developing, “a constellation of record companies, small structures,” creative circles with plenty of energy (Sylvestre Defontaine, 2014). This awareness of a space for informal economies outside the highly concentrated sector of the popular music industry echoes the more optimistic, although tentative, conclusions of both Taylor [36] and Hesmondhalgh and Meier (2015) regarding possibilities on the fringes of the neo-liberal industry.

I know this guy in Belgium, he just has a laptop and a very good ear for music and he started a blog and right now he’s one of the most influential blogs from Europe. He’s on 22tracks as well, he’s a DJ, he’s called Disco Naivité and he’s just a young guy who’s a good writer and has a good ear so he’s an active listener and in years to come, one of the most important decision-makers so that’s interesting. (Koen Galle, 2014)

From this perspective, concentration can even be viewed as a positive, or at least redeemable, tendency, in the sense that it enables a parallel independent economy to thrive alongside it. It has become a music business cliché that independent music entrepreneurs are able, to a certain extent, to bypass intermediaries are missing directly reach their audience by uploading their music on the Internet:

(...) but I’m almost sure that there will be just one record company, just one major company, and a constellation of small record companies, small structures, and some way it’s a good thing because usually in each aspect of life it’s good to have a big structure and a lot of small structures because it is creative, there is a lot of energy in the small circles so maybe in the future there will be a big big big record company with artists like Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and stuff like that, and a lot of small companies or no companies at all, people with their own small companies at home, working in their own studio, putting songs on the Internet, using 22tracks to broadcast music. (Sylvestre Defontaine, 2014)

This conclusion, however, fails to take into account the already mentioned corporate background of online platforms that are acting as new intermediaries — the role of large corporations such as Apple and Google in creating new forms of dependence [37].

New taste-makers

In order to get a more nuanced view of their understanding of the relationship between curation and the changing structure of music consumption, I asked the DJ-curators about who they consider as the most important taste-makers of the new, digital music industries. Their descriptions of taste-making were very similar to the way they talked about their role as music curators: distinction was a key element. Terence from Earnest Endeavours defined taste-makers as “the people who can spot emerging talent in this sea of information” — again utilising a plenitude metaphor (here: “sea” instead of “jungle”) and placing the focus on new music, new “talent.” He calls taste-makers the “real life and virtual A&Rs of the world” (Earnest Endeavours, 2014), referring to the traditional profession of Artist & Repertoire person, employed by record companies, responsible for spotting new trends and signing promising artists. They are at the same time understood as people who have a voice as well as taste and knowledge (Tim Dickinson, 2014) — in other words, they have to be in an position where they have the power to exert influence. The listed examples included the following: DJs and other music personalities, often associated with radio, such as Gilles Peterson; blogs such as Hypemachine and Stereogum. In relation to the latter, Defontaine observes a tendency of concentration with regard to the channels of information — or, to put it differently, the power of influence — in the sense that there are only a handful of “good” blogs with genuine content on which the rest rely for their own selections — those handful are in central position. YouTube as a platform was also among the named taste-makers, with reference to its role in introducing new music; as well as online magazines such as Fact Magazine (http://www.factmag.com), Accelerator (https://www.xlr8r.com), and Pitchfork (http://pitchfork.com) — where the over-abundance of information recurred as criticism. Music events and projects such as the online-off-line Boiler Room were mentioned; festivals such as Tomorrowland (electronic dance music festival held in Belgium); producers such as Diplo; artists in key positions such as Jay Z and Beyoncé; and, finally, 22tracks itself. More traditional mentioned tastemakers included label people, especially A&R; the BBC, and radio in general; music journalists; locally, record stores, as well as print magazines; the mainstream (non-specialized) press, such as TheGuardian.com’s “New Band of the Day” feature by Paul Lester; and lastly, record companies themselves.

Besides the evident optimism described earlier regarding the space for “small structures,” informal economies on the fringes, a number of the DJs also see the danger of corporations increasingly taking over the function of taste making through new intermediaries. As Koen Galle points out, besides YouTube’s new music service, the fact that Spotify or iTunes feature albums and thus promote them are evidences of major corporate influence, seriously complicating the idea of free and unlimited choice for consumers.

Right now I think many people as passive listeners feel lost in the jungle of Internet (...) and (...) the more you feel lost the more you need trustworthy decision-makers. And I think that more and more some big institutions will take the lead role as decision-maker. Some will be traditional, like radio will always be a decision-maker, and some will be new like things on the Internet like YouTube, YouTube right now, they have been in the news recently and they are opening a new music service, so that music service will be important. Spotify and the way Spotify is treating decision-making, and even the way albums are pushed to the homepage of Spotify for example, and the albums that are pushed to the homepage of iTunes, there is a system behind it, you can pay to get your music there. So again those will be the decision-makers then. (Koen Galle, 2014)

Using a similar rhetoric to Mulligan’s (2014) discussed earlier, although without the overt elitism, he connects this increasing corporate influence with passive listening on the part of consumers. He posits a kind of division of labour between corporate-influenced taste-makers, catering for passive listeners (estimated by Galle to make up 90 percent of music listeners) and other taste-makers that cater for more active listening (the remaining 10 percent) — the DJ-curators of 22tracks being an example. There is a perception of a lack of clear “subcultures,” referring here to music listening communities with well-defined identities and tastes, with eclecticism taking their place. This is in line with the tendency described by Peterson and Kern (1996) of “omnivorous” taste gaining dominance within the elite, with preferences for a palette of various genres and styles replacing “univore” ones (traditionally, classical music and opera, for instance) in the legitimate realm of culture. For 22tracks DJs, too, the primary dividing lines are not necessarily along genre or style, rather a more general mainstream and alternative, as well as, not unrelatedly, more passive and more active listening practices. The DJ pair Cracksoul, too, distinguish between mainstream music on the one hand, with its main channels being YouTube, radio, music television and underground music on the other, the channels of which include platforms such as 22tracks, SoundCloud, as well as, on the more traditional side, local radio.

Lastly, several DJs mention friends and social network as channels of musical influence that continue to remain importantindeed, as Taylor observes, “face-to-face sociality still matters” in neoliberal capitalism [38]. As Nosedrip puts it: “if you have the right friends, you don’t need 22tracks.”

 

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Conclusions

The practice of music curation, which I have explored in a digital and online context, involves distinction; performs functions of representation; and exerts control. Among 22tracks DJ-curators, I observed what I have called a strong notion of curation, referring to curation as creative practice, as musical self-expression, the expression of personal taste and individual style. Through performing music curation, curators are able to acquire (sub)cultural capital that may contribute to their own music industry careers and prestige, but, indirectly also to the well-being of informal music economies. The involvement of DJs in 22tracks certainly seems to contribute towards the reinforcing of local, as well as online, niche music communities or scenes, through curators acting as local catalysts, giving support to local artists, even if the latter is not an exclusive concern. Curators thus certainly perform intermediary functions, in both a technical and a cultural sense.

Taking a more critical perspective, the similarities in definitions between taste-making and curation reinforce the hypothesis that curation has become a neutralised marketing term for taste-making and gatekeeping — functions that imply the occupation of key strategic positions within a power structure. A multitude of various kinds of taste-makers, new and old, seem to coexist in key positions, and we need to ask critical questions also in relation to the spaces apart from the corporate world, the mainstream music industry, which continues to have a huge influence and share. We need to begin to ask questions of who occupy key positions, gatekeeping roles in the sphere of informal economies. We have seen, for instance, how the music curation space of 22tracks is dominated by young men across genres and locations. Moreover, with regard to geography, Vincent Reinders’ claim of the platform including “representatives all around Europe” is indicative of a fairly Western-centric perception of Europe. As Tim Dickinson put it, taste-makers need to have a voice — and it seems that who has a voice continues to be determined by structural powers of the broader society, regardless of optimistic claims regarding the democratic possibilities within informal music economies aided by digital technology and the Internet.

Others, including Hesmondhalgh and Meier (2015), have argued that digitisation and the Internet have not only reinforced old forms of dependence, through the maintaining of key positions by traditional players such as major record companies, but also created new ones. I would like to add to this observation that a new ideology and discourse, embraced by “small” as well as “large” players, intermediaries as well as record labels, seems to have emerged to support these processes of reinforcement and new forms of dependence: an ideology that can be viewed as being diametrically opposed to the optimist democratisation narrative of the turn of the century and early 2000s. The idea of passive listeners, the “sea” or “jungle” of music out there, and the necessity of the guiding hand of expert curators in this mass may well have become the dominant discourse of the new “middle class” [39] of the music industries. End of article

 

About the author

Emília Barna, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor at the Department of Sociology and Communication, Budapest University of Technology and Economics. Her doctoral thesis (University of Liverpool, 2011) examined the relationship between music scenes, networks and the Internet through a case study of contemporary Liverpool indie rock bands. Her main areas of research include the study of popular music scenes and genres, and popular music, gender and technology. She is Treasurer of IASPM (International Association for the Study of Popular Music), Chair of IASPM Hungary, editor of Zenei Hálózatok Folyóirat [Music Networks Journal], and Advisory Board Member of IASPM@Journal.
E-mail: emilia [dot] barna [at] gmail [dot] com

 

Notes

1. “Why curation will save the music industry,” SXSW Austin, Texas (18 March 2015), at https://soundcloud.com/officialsxsw/why-curation-will-save-the-music-industry-levelated?in=officialsxsw/sets/sxsw-music-2015, accessed 17 August 2016; “Music curation through festivals and streaming,” SXSW Austin, Texas (19 March 2015), at https://soundcloud.com/officialsxsw/music-curation-through-festivals-and-streaming, accessed 17 August 2016.

2. “Why curation will save the music industry. The power of human guidance in the era of algorithms,” WOMEX 15 (Budapest), 23 October 2015.

3. “Music curation and playlists: The new music battleground,” MIDEM Cannes (5 June 2016), at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cnRMXvMsC-U, accessed 17 August 2016.

4. Taylor, 2016, pp. 97–103.

5. Following Cloonan and Williamson (2007), I refer to “the music industries” in plural.

6. Hesmondhalgh, 2007, p. 18.

7. Hesmondhalgh and Meier, 2015, p. 1.

8. Chris Anderson, “The long tail in a nutshell,” TheLongTail.com, at http://www.longtail.com/about.html, accessed 17 August 2016.

9. Anderson, 2004, p. 2.

10. Anderson, 2004, p. 5.

11. Taylor, 2016, p. 120.

12. At http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/issue/view/427.

13. Guzman and Jones, 2014, at http://firstmonday.org/article/view/5545/4124.

14. Ibid.

15. Mulligan, 2014, p. 16.

16. “Apple unveils new iTunes,” Apple.com (12 September 2012), at http://www.apple.com/pr/library/2012/09/12Apple-Unveils-New-iTunes.html, accessed 17 August 2016.

17. Spotify.com at http://press.spotify.com/us/information, accessed 10 January 2016.

18. Deezer.com, at http://www.deezer.com/, accessed 17 August 2016.

19. Jimmy Iovine, Mary J. Blige talk Apple Music’s new ad. 2015. CBS This Morning (19 November), at https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=128&v=EUZKg8Oo_KI, accessed 17 August 2016.

20. Ibid.

21. Mulligan, 2014, p. 16.

22. Mulligan, 2014, p. 10.

23. Ibid.

24. Carter and Rogers, 2014, p. 6.

25. The documentary What is indie? (2006), directed by Dave Cool, could be regarded as a further example that perpetuates this ideology.

26. Carter and Rodgers, 2014, p. 7.

27. Hesmondhalgh and Meier, 2015, p. 102.

28. Taylor, 2016, p. 154.

29. While I do not address this issue in the present paper, I discuss gender in relation to an underground music scene in Barna (2016).

30. 22tracks.com, accessed 17 August 2016.

31. Human- versus algorithm-based curation was, for instance, an important point of debate in the music industry roundtable discussions referenced earlier.

32. Reinders, 2013, at http://blog.22tracks.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/RecordOfTheDay.pdf.

33. Taylor, 2016, p. 178.

34. Needless to say, such straightforward associations — place myths — are constructed.

35. Taylor, 2016, p. 69.

36. Taylor, 2016, pp. 154–176.

37. Hesmondhalgh and Meier, 2015, p. 105.

38. Taylor, 2016, p. 75.

39. Collins and Young, 2014, pp. 112–113.

 

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Editorial history

Received 29 August 2016; accepted 11 March 2017.


Copyright © 2017, Emília Barna. All Rights Reserved.

“The perfect guide in a crowded musical landscape”: Online music platforms and curatorship
by Emília Barna.
First Monday, Volume 22, Number 4 - 3 April 2017
http://www.firstmonday.dk/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/6914/6086
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v22i14.6914





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