First Monday

The new romantics: Authenticity, participation and the aesthetics of piracy by Margie Borschke

The participatory, collaborative and open character of networked digital media is thought to disrupt and challenge romantic assumptions and ideals about authorship, authenticity and creative expression, concepts that underpin most copyright regimes. In this article I consider MP3 blogs in the mid-2000s, drawing on an earlier study of MP3 bloggers in the U.S. and U.K. (Borschke 2012a, 2012b). MP3 blogs, like Napster and other forms of unauthorized reproduction, are better understood as cultural practices and artifacts when considered alongside piracy’s long history. The aesthetic consequences and possibilities of forms of expression that are also methods of distribution, are clarified by identifying and examining a tension that connects MP3 blogging to other practices of unauthorized use: that is, the persistence of romantic ideals of creativity, authenticity and authorship even while seeming to deny and disregard them. By acknowledging the poetics of piracy practices (including the aesthetic character of distribution and replication) we can begin to understand how new authenticities build up around networked expression and how the meaning of networked forms of expression, formats, practices and artifacts can change over time.


The new romantics
Folk revivals and ideals of participation
Rethinking participation
Networking authenticity
Conclusion: Towards a poetics of encounter




Piracy is copyright’s double; at once its evil twin and its angelic other. Like copyright, piracy has a history and as recent scholarship (see Johns, 2002, 2009) has shown, contemporary concerns about music downloading bear an uncanny resemblance to earlier debates about unauthorized reproduction and circulation. While it comes as no surprise that the rhetoric for and against the proliferation of MP3 blogs in the mid-2000s was shaped by earlier debates about Napster, the ability to map early twentieth century debates about sheet music (Johns, 2002) onto our own concerns about digital technologies in the twenty-first century should give us pause. In this essay, I suggest that in order to understand the persistence of these tensions surrounding everyday copying practices, easily reproducible media and, of course, copyright and piracy, we would do well to acknowledge and examine how romantic ideals about creativity, authorship and art continue to animate our cultural conflicts and celebrations. In doing so, I offer a way of understanding how copies as artifacts and copying as cultural practices have become intertwined with ideals of authenticity and new modes of sociality and begin to build a case for the scholarly study of the aesthetics of encounter and distribution in the networked environment.



The new romantics

Shifts in modes of cultural consumption, distribution and production associated with digital and network technologies are thought to challenge romantic notions of creativity, originality, and authorship, undermining the traditional distinctions made between producers and consumers and disrupting extant modes of exchange (Bruns, 2007, 2008; Jenkins, 2006a). A range of scholarly theories and explanatory frameworks seek to describe, understand, and, sometimes, defend these new practices. For example, Lawrence Lessig (2005, 2008), Lev Manovich (2005, 2007a, 2007b), and many others use “remix” as an explanatory metaphor for contemporary culture. Curator Nicholas Bourriaud (2000) writes of postproduction, and Henry Jenkins (2006a, 2006b) and Yochai Benkler (2006) suggest we concentrate on the convergence of media forms and the participatory nature of these changes. Many of these theories offer either implicit or explicit critiques of romantic authorship, discarding old-fashioned ideas about the misunderstood artist-genius in the garret, and instead foregrounding collaborative understandings of authorship and social aspects of creativity (Benkler, 2006; Toynbee, 2001), gift economies (Hyde, 2007) and non-market production (Benkler, 2006).

New forms of born-digital expression, discourse and exchange such as MP3 blogs, mash-ups, and peer-to-peer technologies, seem to exemplify these theories and prompt us to examine long held assumptions about authorship, creativity and making meaning. That said, in the lived experience of everyday media users, ideals of originality, self-expression, individuality and authenticity persist alongside an enthusiasm for creative reuse, collaboration, free access and social authorship. This seeming contradiction has prompted some scholars to revisit romanticism. In the wake of Napster’s demise, music sociologist Lee Marshall (2004) drew attention to how the rhetorical contours of the Napster legal battle mirrored earlier conflicts over bootlegged rock records and suggested that if we want to understand this cultural déjà vu, we should consider how both sides of the debate were premised upon romantic understandings of authorship and creativity. It wasn’t that digital technologies were disrupting laws and customs, rather it was that existing tensions related to the strong tradition of romanticism and romantic thinking in popular music culture were bubbling to the surface. Romanticism, Marshall theorizes, is not capitalism’s ”other.“ Instead it offered a modern worldview capable of both complementing commerce and rebelling against it [1]. It is “a way of coping with the contradictory experience of art in a social formation dominated by rationalism and utilitarianism.” Similarly, in Thomas Streeter’s (2011) study of the dominance of romantic individualism in late twentieth century computer culture he argues that contemporary romanticism is strong enough to bend back the bars of Max Weber’s iron cage of modernity. “In our day romanticism has become a kind of cultural toolkit, a grab bag of cultural habits, available for use in a variety of contexts.” [2] In the face of technological predictability, bureaucratic efficiency and market-oriented rationality, Streeter argues that romanticism revives the possibility of enchantment and freedom.

My aim in this essay is to unpack how romantic ideals about creativity, authorship and art continue to animate both our conflicts and celebrations of networked culture and in doing so, I consider how the binary between modernist ideals about romantic authors and postmodern celebrations about collaboration and creative reuse plays out in a diverse range of scholarship on new forms of networked communication and expression. I intend to use mp3 blogs in the mid-late 2000s as a case study to think through some common tropes about digital culture and interrogate the notion that the Internet era might be seen as a kind of folk revival, a return to a more democratic, direct, intimate, authentic and even natural experience of art, community, and each other. Although the practice of blogging generally and MP3 blogging specifically endures, the meaning of MP3 blogging as a form and practice has changed since the height of its popularity in the mid-2000s and reflecting on this particular period offers an alternate understanding of Napster’s legacy. Napster was among the network technologies that gave rise to a new expectation: that is, the expectation that the proverbial celestial jukebox should exist and be accessible by anyone, at anytime. The everyday conflicts that came about as a result of these new expectations and capabilities, pitted producers and consumers against one another, instead of focusing on previously overlooked questions of distribution and access. The rhetorical contours of these arguments continue to shape and have repercussions on present day debates. I also focus on MP3 blogs, because as with all forms of networked music, be it a peer-to-peer platform like Napster or a streaming service like Spotify, MP3 blogs were an early form that highlighted the increasing visibility of everyday music practices — collecting, ordering, listening and copying — and their history also offers an important reminder that though such practices were once invisible, this didn’t mean that they weren’t already significant engines of individual and collective notions of cultural experience. In the following sections I highlight how MP3 blogs were shaped by existing participatory practices and ideals, and explore how these relate to ideas about commercial culture and mainstream tastes. I also critique some common understandings about how digital technologies and networks give rise to new kinds of participatory cultures and highlight the ideological and normative dimensions of this understanding of networked discourse. Finally, drawing on the considerable body of popular music scholarship about the ideologies and myths that have long sustained popular-music cultures, I consider the parallels among discourses of authenticity, folk ideologies in popular music, and the suggestion that networked culture is a participatory culture that constitutes a folk revival. Along the way I will tease out the tensions and romantic ideals that underpin these claims with the hope of identifying some aesthetic dimensions of piracy practices.



Folk revivals and ideals of participation

MP3 blogs are music-focused blogs in which, as the name suggests, an individual uploads, or “posts,” an MP3 on a regular or semi-regular basis and makes a textual record of this networking activity on their blog, rendering the digital sound file findable, and thus available for download by a third party; the form blossomed in the early to mid-2000s with the advent of Web 2.0 technologies such as free blog platforms, and sometimes file hosting services (such as the now defunct Megaupload), improved access to fast broadband and followed on from Napster’s popularity and untimely demise (Wolk, 2002; Borschke, 2012a, 2012b). Like fanzines, mixed tapes, and playlists, MP3 blogs tended to be highly personalized (and often specialized) articulations of knowledge, taste and emotions that draw upon the aesthetic possibilities of enumeration, juxtaposition, reproduction and redistribution (Wolk, 2002; Novak, 2011). MP3 blogs can be a form of individual expression linked to both online identity formation and new kinds of online sociality and community participation that were also dependent on the increased visibility of consumption practices. This visibility is an opportunity to consider how MP3 blogs, also present us with an intriguing tension — one that, arguably, also lurks in the DJ booth and in the remixer’s studio. While bloggers, like DJs, create an aesthetic experience using preexisting recordings without permission and attempt to elicit response from those who encounter their use of these recordings as expression, they simultaneously rely on, enact, and seek pleasure in romantic ideals of creative expression and gestures.

Although blogging and file-hosting platforms are content-neutral, the musical genres and styles encountered on mp3 blogs in the 2000s had a particular character: they tended to represent niche genres and obscure or forgotten recordings (O’Donnell, 2006). Blogs focused more on the long tail than mainstream hits, and, many were shaped by pre-networked countercultural practices and ideals. David Novak’s (2011) study of the labels and MP3 blogs associated with the redistribution of older regional styles of popular music including Turkish Rock and Cambodian psychedelia — an eclectic range of rediscoveries that he dubs World Music 2.0— is a case in point. In this study, Novak shows how these new cultural formations “are strongly derivative of ‘old media’ aesthetics developed in the American musical underground of the 1980s and 1990s” [3]. Novak’s study reminds us that when we call new forms of networked expression “participatory media,” we should also consider the values and cultural formations that they remediate. In order to understand MP3 blogs in the mid-2000s we should acknowledge that many bloggers came from, or were interested in, music scenes that already valued participation — cultures that celebrated openness, where participants wore many hats, and brought their capacities and enthusiasms to a particular collective project. Marginal or niche cultural practices tend to be less specialized than their mainstream counterparts, and the lines demarking commerce, community, and leisure tend to be fuzzier. Such music scenes often conceived of themselves as grassroots, an alternative to, or even opposing, mainstream mass culture and the corporate music industry. Hence, the opening up of new channels of distribution and discovery, at a time when the RIAA was filing lawsuits against file sharers, and trying to curb the use of copyrighted material with DRM and the like, made the success of the taste of independent bloggers — with nothing more than a connection and a collection — exciting and invigorating. Their oppositional stance was now visible, searchable and discoverable. As I will discuss, this pedigree — the idea that MP3 blogs were heirs to fanzines independence and countercultural cachet (Wolk, 2002), and that they were on the right side of the divide between art and commerce — guaranteed their status as authentic listeners and, as Antoinne Hennion (2001) would have it, true lovers of music.

The bloggers in my 2006–2008 study (Borschke, 2012a, 2012b) were exemplary of this tendency away from the mainstream and towards specialization in niche or marginal music scenes. They were all committed collectors of recordings: that is, active and regular consumers of recordings — and some even earned a living in jobs related to the music industry. (In some cases, the bloggers entered their music industry-related profession because the success of their blogs in a way launched them there.) At the height of their popularity, bloggers were even courted by both small and major labels (Schiffman, 2007) and they were often cited as being instrumental in the rise of now well-known bands (Ganz, 2005; Pasick, 2004; Rolling Stone, 2006). Many bloggers I interviewed said they were pleased their blogs could help contribute to a performer’s success, and, like most fans, they were happy to flatter favorite artists. Despite an apparent tolerance of mp3 blogs by the recording industry, anxieties and risks remained. One New York-based blogger (now a professional music writer who also ran an authorized blog for a news service) told me,

If you go back in time — even 2004–2005 — I think the feeling among a lot of people was, “This is nice for now but any day now the music industry is going to crack down on it.” But it didn’t. In fact, it’s almost like the opposite — they embraced it. A lot of major labels definitely send things out [but] they can’t give you permission for thing. [4]

In response to these risks, many blogs posted a disclaimer explaining that the MP3s were for “sampling purposes only,” that they posted “out of love,” that, if you liked what you heard, you should buy the recording yourself, and that, if you were the artist and wanted your work taken down, the blogger would be happy to oblige. These disclaimers suggest that bloggers did consider the ethical and commercial ramifications of their practice but they also highlight a tension that persists in popular music: a need for music to eschew commercial concerns and to represent a subcultural community. This is what Simon Frith (1981a) identified as the folk ideology that underpins so much popular-music discourse and its use in constructing authenticity and creating community.

Anti-commercialism is an important element of romantic notions of authenticity and community, but, as Lee Marshall explains, “Romanticism is at once a challenge to the commodification of cultural goods and its ideological support” [5]. Frith [6] has argued that rock fanzines in the 1960s and 1970s assumed an oppositional stance to mainstream taste: “They claim their music to be better than what most people like and they want to change people’s ideas of how music should work.” The importance of these fanzines, Frith suggests, was ideological rather than commercial, as they “are the source of arguments about what rock means, arguments not only about art and commerce, but also about art and audience.” Blogs can be read in a similar light, regardless of their musical genre or focus. MP3 blogs were an anti-commercial gesture: A recording is networked, and thus made available to be copied, with no money changing hands when a copy is generated. They participate in the cult of the author (both themselves and the artists they admire), and they free the music from its industry shackles. Simultaneously, they follow an existing tendency in popular music that is not so much anti-market as it is anti-corporate: They valorize the little guy over the corporate giant. Music journalist Simon Reynolds (2009) has argued that the ethos of participation that characterizes many micro-genres has proved compatible with a kind of micro-capitalism: participants are interested in an “aesthetic underground” rather than a political one. Reynolds has observed that this, in turn, could create a “sense of a hierarchy in terms of the medium via which you discovered music.” Blogs might make the underground visible, but their relative obscurity (as compared to peer-to-peer where you have to know what you are looking for) and their commitment to direct encounters with music and personal ways of knowing, made blogs a more suitable source of arguments about what their particular niche might mean for those who participate in it.

So, while the tendency in digital-culture scholarship has been to use “participatory” as a term to describe new modes of user-generated content, expressive practices, etc., I think that, in the case of music, it might be more accurate to speak of ideologies of participation and then to ask if participation as an ideal has a romantic component, one that is overlooked when collaboration and non-market production are held up as virtuous. There was an existing suspicion and resentment of the corporate music industry within niche music scenes (McLeod, 2005; Novak, 2011) that lends the practice of inserting oneself into distribution a posture of rebellion, of thumbing your nose at the powers that be (even if you also link to the rest of the album on iTunes). This “whiff of rock rebellion,” along with a notion that true art is above the market, even as it circulates as a commodity within it [7] and that for music to be considered authentic, it must come from the people [8], are all part of what Marshall saw as the romantic underpinnings of rock music culture and the place of bootlegs within it. If sites of access and distribution can imbue a song with authenticity, that is if we can place value on where a recording comes from, then perhaps blogs as digital bodies (boyd, 2006) were considered authentic precisely because they made the cultural intermediary visible [9]; they multiplied and humanized the “middle man.”

In Marshall’s work, he argued that the bootlegging of rock records was a romantic gesture, in part because the bootleggers prioritized “aesthetic impulses for production over economic ones” [10], but also because of their rebel stance. MP3 blogs are considered part of a “folk” culture because they are seen to be assuming an oppositional stance toward the music industry, toward mainstream tastes, and toward the professional gatekeepers of such tastes — mainstream music journalists, for instance [11]. This tension comes to a head in discussions about the ethics of networking copyrighted material. Yet, the same romantic conception of authorship that underpins copyright is also at play in the folk ideology that fuels networked participation (including its disregard for copyright) and the aesthetics of new forms of discourse. The tension is this: a suspicion or a devaluing of corporate commercialism, and a preoccupation with authenticity, subjectivity, and community, can prop up copyright regimes at the same time as they offer a justification for their rejection or refusal. This tension crops up because different notions of copy are at play in the functioning of digital technologies and in the discourse of popular music. The question, then, is: what can this tension illuminate about networked culture, digital discourse, and the role that romantic gestures and ideals continue to play within them?



Rethinking participation

The word participatory is often invoked as a synonym for user-generated content in the digital sphere, and is often closely related to claims about new forms of cultural agency and the “democratization” of cultural production. Viewed through a participatory lens, MP3 blogs can be seen as a new folk culture, one that pinches songs from the commercial world and turns them into folk artifacts, or as new digital mutations of the grassroots fan practices that sprung up with mass culture but that previously circulated in small numbers (e.g., mixed tapes, zines, etc.). Many scholars argue that participatory practices predate the mass adoption of broadband technologies [12], and see the Web as accelerating and amplifying participation, as well as making it more visible. Yet, to say that a culture’s key characteristic is “participatory” is to suggest its “other”: There must exist another cultural sphere in which passive consumption reigns. A participatory culture, Henry Jenkins argues, “contrasts with older notions of passive media spectatorship” [13]. Jenkins suggests that convergence is not a technological change, but a cultural one, and that cultural convergence creates “a new participatory folk culture by giving average people the tools to archive, annotate, appropriate and recirculate content” [14]. For Jenkins, “consumption has become a collective process” [15] and in an era of media convergence, this cultural shift is thus closely related to the circulation of media [16].

In much the same way that Lessig saw remix as a return to Jeffersonian ideals of direct democratic discourse, Jenkins argues [17] that convergence culture is a return to the folk culture that was displaced by the mass culture of the twentieth century. He claims that, in nineteenth century folk tradition,

“cultural production occurred mostly on the grassroots level; creative skills and artistic tradition were passed down [from] mother to daughter, father to son. Stories and songs circulated broadly, well beyond their point of origin, with little of no expectation of economic compensation; many of the best ballads or folktales come to us today with no clear marks of individual authorship.” [18]

was no pure boundary between the emergent commercial culture and the residual folk culture: “the commercial culture raided folk culture and folk culture raided commercial culture.” [19] Jenkins argues that the rise of twentieth-century mass culture pushed folk culture underground and saw the rise of new “grassroots fan communities” around mass media. These alternative cultural economies were not a threat to the culture industries: They took place mostly “behind closed doors and its products circulated only among a small circle of friends and neighbors.” [20] In a convergence culture, new technologies enable a revival of these grassroots models of creativity and cultural circulation. What makes network technologies so important to models of participatory media is that they facilitate distribution: It makes it possible to share what you create. “Once you have a reliable system of distribution, folk culture begins to flourish again overnight.” [21]

Walter Ong (1991) argued that the romantic movement of the eighteenth century, and its concern with the “distant past” and “folk culture,” sparked the collection of oral stories [22]. Ideas about participatory and remix culture similarly invoke the “distant past” of pre-industrial and “folk culture” as a way to explain new kinds of digital discourse. When academics such as Jenkins invoke “folk” today, they insert networked discourse into past discursive traditions. When we are speaking about cultural practices that transgress regulatory frameworks — as Jenkins does with online fan practices and as Lessig does with remix practices — one aim is to normalize or naturalize these activities.

To call a kind of music a folk music, Frith (1981a) argues, is to make a claim about how the music is used, rather than what it is made from. To call a culture participatory is to project ideals about the value of individual expression, while at the same time making a communal experience possible. If MP3 blogs are an example of Jenkins’ claim that consumption is becoming collective, then this begins to hint at how we can enact the fantasy of communal experience while we remain apart, separated by space and time. Frith (1981a) argues that we use myths about popular music to make sense of contradiction in everyday life. When we bring these romantic ideals of expression into the digital sphere, how do they help us conjure communal experience and intimacy while we are alone in the bedroom, commuting on the train, or bored at work? Frith applied this logic to recordings and how they were used, and I now argue that we have brought our romantic relationship with artifacts, along with the pleasure we find in them, into the digital sphere, made up as it is of nothing but copies (in multiple senses of the word). As such, the folk discourse compounds and mutates, grabbing whatever is needed from commerce and its “other” along the way. Thus, in the form of blogs, you no longer have to buy the recording that represents the anti-mainstream — this was the quandary that Frith and Marshall’s work addressed — you can access it, copy it, and redistribute it on the Web. In the secondary art and antiques market, provenance is used as a way to assess the authenticity of a work of art — is it real? One way of assessing this is by tracing its history of custodianship. Digital objects, being so stubbornly opaque, need to be contextualized to be used. The generation of provenance is a way to animate copies (Borschke, 2012a, 2012b) — literally, to move them — making an argument about how to use them. It turns a rationalized electronic process into an individual argument for its perpetuation. Listen to this. But, most romantic of all — and making it a truly modern technology — the copy, once perpetuated, need not carry along that tradition, that provenance, that history. It can start over. It is the listener, as part of a crowd, who makes it come alive.



Networking authenticity

Authenticity is considered a central concept in the study of popular music [23] and these discussions offer many lessons for scholars of media. Claims about authenticity, Marshall [24] argues, are rooted in romanticism and span all genres of pop. Although different music cultures might not agree about what counts as authentic, they tend to use similar criteria to evaluate whether a musical work, performance, or use is considered authentic. Generally, these are perceptions that equate authenticity with that which is genuine, sincere, and noncommercial. These romantic ideals about authenticity continue to play an important role in our perceptions of MP3 blogs and in defenses of them. Upon scrutiny, these ideals appear to be closely related to the valorization of online participation (e.g., user-generated content and peer production) and to claims that blogs and similar forms of networked discourse represent a kind of folk revival. To interrogate these claims, I turn to Frith’s (1981b, 1981a) claim that popular music is underpinned by a folk ideology, Sarah Thornton’s (1995) argument that new technologies make new concepts of authenticity possible and David Novak’s (2011) suggestion that new authenticities are forming around redistribution while simultaneously drawing upon counter-cultural values of the 1980s and 1990s. According to Frith, popular music is underpinned by ideological assumptions that help users make sense of the contradictions they experience in everyday life [25]. Rock music adopts a folk ideology when it emphasizes its role in creating communal experiences, even when it does so through the circulation of recordings and the production of stars. To call a music folk, Frith argues, is to make a claim about how the music is used, rather than what it is made from. The notion of what constitutes a “folk” music has a history that, Frith posits, is rooted “not [in] existing musical practices but [in] a nostalgia for how they might have been.” [26] Successive folk revivals throughout the twentieth century compound this nostalgia, projecting fantasies about pre-industrial musical experiences and community life onto new material realities and cultural contradictions. Yet, each revival was also closely related to the creation of recordings — copies — that could circulate the particular variation of the myth at play. “Folk” becomes less descriptive of a music than it is aspirational. As Graham Smith put it, “Folk is a shifting signifier which constantly mutates in meaning.” [27] Frith suggests that “folk,” as a malleable concept, becomes a way for popular-music cultures — commodified mass culture — to be seen as representing a communal experience at the same time that it adheres to ideals about individual expression as a kind of truth to self and experience. It becomes a way to produce a myth about a music culture that can make sense of its contradictions. By adhering to a folk ideology, rock music could separate the musical work from its commodity form (as a recording); it could elevate the artist (and ignore the bureaucratic and technical apparatus) and emphasize individual expression, direct communication, instinct, and emotion as a reaction against a world that is commercial, rational, and mechanized [28]. The music would not have to represent the community: the recordings could be the communal experience — you could buy into anti-commercial culture. These ideals of authenticity can also be found at play in current descriptions of online participation as a folk revival.

The valorization of “live” performance in rock culture was an ideal that rock bootlegs adhered to and attempted to commodify, in that they sell unauthorized recordings of performances and thereby liberate them (Marshall, 2005). While rock culture valorized live performance and originality, other music cultures have applied similar ideals about authenticity to recorded music. In Thornton’s (1995) study of club culture, she parses the new senses of authenticity that recordings attract in disc cultures (disco, club cultures, etc.), as opposed to the “live” culture of rock. While Frith has argued that technology was often seen as fakery, a thing that distances the performer from the audience, Thornton showed that new technologies, once enculturated, make new concepts of authenticity possible. Thus, as records become essential to a popular culture, they come to have their own authenticities. Thornton distinguishes between two notions of authenticity, both of which are at play in all popular-music cultures. The first is authenticity, as it relates to ideas about originality and aura (or as it pertains to culture as works of art); the second is the idea of authenticity as natural, or organic, to the community (or, as it pertains to culture, as a way of life). Both live and “disc” authenticities value the genuine and the sincere and stand in opposition to commerce and hype; however, in a popular culture that values “live performance,” these notions of authenticity, Thornton argues, collide in authorship: “Artistic authenticity is anchored by the performing author in so far as s/he is assumed to be the unique origin of the sound, while subcultural authenticity is grounded in the performer in so far as s/he represents the community.” [29] By contrast, in a “disc” culture, such as that of contemporary dance music, recordings are understood as an authentic source of origin, and “the crowd makes it a ‘living’ culture.” [30] Thornton argues that these notions of authenticity have material foundations:

In the process of becoming originals, records accrued their own authenticities. Recording technologies did not, therefore, corrode or demystify “aura” as much as disperse and re-locate it. Degrees of aura came to be attributed to new, exclusive and rare records. In becoming the source of sounds, records underwent the mystification usually reserved for unique art objects. Under these conditions, it would seem that the mass-produced cultural commodity is not necessarily imitative or artificial, but plausibly archetypal and authentic. [31]

In both live and “disc” cultures, Thornton argues that authenticity is a cure for alienation and dissimulation, that it “is valued as a balm for media fatigue and as an antidote to commercial hype.” [32]

Many of the bloggers I spoke with talked about how and why their practice seemed intimate and personal (Borschke, 2012b) and, as I will discuss, how they saw their practice as a celebration of discovery and encounter with the strange, the spectacular and even the sublime. Consider that MP3 blogging came to prominence in an era of information abundance and accessibility — in a sea of data, to which artifacts should you give your attention? MP3 blogs came to be seen by users as an embodiment of authenticity, a genuine and sincere expression of taste, and, as such, they stand in opposition to the commercial hype that characterizes mass culture. The MP3 blog can stand as “a balm for media fatigue and as an antidote to hype” (ironically, at the same time that it appropriates hype and participates in it). This relief is rife with paradox: MP3 blogs are a form of individual expression that hinges on the use of recordings to produce a communal experience, admittedly, one that is mediated, its participants remaining isolated from one another; MP3 blogs value the intentionality of the user’s actions and their participation in the network in the face of digital automation, atomization, and surveillance; MP3 blogs elevate the emotional, the instinctive, and the subjective as ways to navigate rational, distributed networks; MP3 blogs seem to be the work of autonomous and independent listeners, yet they are also entirely dependent upon the recordings they network for their very existence.

Novak argues that new ideals of authenticity are building up around redistribution, as listeners attempt to create for themselves the conditions for “an authentically remediated experience” [33]. To do so they aim for “a blind encounter with mystery” [34], eschew authority and “official modes of explanation” [35]. This suspicion of interpretation was particularly evident in MP3 blogs that comprised of a list of songs with no explanatory texts. When I asked one such blogger why he didn’t write anything to accompany his daily sound file, he responded,

“I’m not an expert ... I think what it does is that it forces people to make connections between what’s being posted ... . The whole idea was to keep the mystery about everything. It was a way to keep people who are into it coming back. I didn’t want to explain it away.” [36]

This statement suggests that the blogger values a direct connection between song and listener, unmediated by contextual information, and yet augmented by the magic of discovery [37]. This user’s explanation also suggests that the experience of finding music and hearing it for the first time — a point of origin — is considered a valuable experience, and one he wants to reengineer in the digital domain. “Mystery” might seem a strange value for someone who posts his or her favorite underground songs in public, yet, for this blogger, it was a part of the experience of discovery, a process that, as Hennion (2001) might put it, “makes future listening possible.” MP3 blogging, for this music user, was an attempt to author serendipity, rooted in his own past experiences with musical discovery, media, and discourse. He told me that even the structure of the site, was inspired by his own experience of “crate digging” as a mode of discovery. He said,

“One of the reasons I like to keep the site simple is that I grew up going to op shops, looking at vinyl and you just buy stuff because you have no way to listen to it. You buy it because of the cover or you buy it because it’s cheap and looks interesting — that was always the most satisfying way to find music. It was the music that you weren’t looking for or that you brought home and it was like “holy shit, these guys are blazing on this!” It cost you 50 cents, it was completely rejected by everyone and you just own this great thing. I kind of wanted [people] to get that feeling. It was like you don’t know where it’s from, you don’t know the history of the stuff and you’re going to click on the link and hear something insane.” [38]

It is a stance that is almost suspicious of any provenance that one has not created for oneself. Listening is the only test of taste, he implies. It is as if recorded music is capable of transcending any of its particular histories. They embody romantic expression but cannot control it.



Conclusion: Towards a poetics of encounter

Just as DJs can be said to perform records, MP3 bloggers can be seen to play the network, and in doing so they make visible their collections and their ways of knowing. The affordances of the MP3 — to replicate, to exchange, and to accumulate — provide them with a rhetorical tool in their effort to “get people to listen the right way” [39] but network visibility will also have effects on what is listened to. By this, I mean that it will alter what is available to us, and that this availability and exposure to more ways of knowing will no doubt change the kinds of music made in future. Jason Toynbee’s (2000) notion of phonographic ‘orality’ suggested that the availability of recordings changes that which is recorded, a reflexive proposition that made copies possible source of renewal (just as Walter Benjamin [2007b] suspected). Networks compound this. That said, some of the romantic ideals about music and expression that kick-started blogging as a practice — the desire to replicate first listening, a faith in the transcendence of a work, a belief that art is above the market (and the markets are not able to recognize greatness) — are also transformed by their own success and by other forms of networked musical discourse (e.g., Spotify,, SoundCloud, YouTube). As these new technologies and templates for listening arise, we see the emergence of competing discourses of authenticity. Most (though not all) of the bloggers I spoke with now post less frequently, or not at all. Some, such as the middle-aged bloggers I spoke with who were revisiting their collections of vinyl records, came to “a natural end,” as one blogger in the U.K. put it. Others have gone on to write or to DJ professionally, and therefore do not have the time or inclination to blog anymore. One blogger started pressing small runs of vinyl records — bootlegs of rare recordings and edits. Just as contemporary edit makers play with biases of the vinyl in tandem with the biases of the network (see Borschke, 2011), there is a renewed interest in analog formats and in the handmade (Crawford and Healy, 2010; Reynolds, 2009) as the proper place for the new, the exclusive, and the rare. The rebel status of the MP3 blog has dimmed, but not disappeared. Yet, by shining a light on the romantic ideals that persists in musical discourse and culture, I hope we can begin to think about the pleasure listeners find in ideals of authenticity, authorship, and participation. In his critique of mid-twentieth century auteur theory in film, John Caughie advised that “the attempt to move beyond auteurism has to recognize the place which auteurism occupies.... It also has to recognize the figure of the auteur, and the way he is used in the cinephile’s pleasure” [40]. We need to ask similar questions about the pleasure we derive from romantic ideals of authorship and art objects, both as listeners and as producers. Are MP3 bloggers as archival auteurs — active listeners who attempt to create coherence from the activity of accumulation and to order the chaos inherent in that practice? This is what collectors do, says Benjamin, “for what else is a collection but a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order?” [41] We must make sense of the pleasure we find in the data at our fingertips.

Consumption practices that foreground the agency of listeners in music culture do not preclude romantic faith in the transcendence of the work, the notion that the song exists apart from its instantiations, that it embodies meaning and can speak for itself. Nor does a disregard for copyright mean that users do not value self-expression or truth to self; indeed, the blogger’s disregard for commerciality and legal strictures lends the activity a certain authenticity and cachet in a world dominated by corporate multinationals. (Anti-commercialism tends to be one of the guarantors of authenticity in popular music; a similar sentiment runs through network discourse.) These are not radio stations that can be bought with payola, or journalists being courted by record companies, but everyday music lovers who are reaching out to find others with similar interests and to distribute their own tastes, while making no obvious profit from the activity. Or, so the story goes. The MP3 bloggers’ status as authentic tastemakers is related to an ideology of participation, a folk ideology that renders music authentic if it emerges from the people [42]. This is a value that participants brought to the network, rather than a possibility that the network produced all on its own.

The chief lesson in my reading of MP3 blogs as a form is not actually about the form itself, but about how we might begin to think about the partial narratives of encounter that are offered to us online, and how we might begin to use them to understand media use and its histories. Digital technologies make music audible by first making it visible, and this creates certain biases in a culture of distribution that can be manipulated and played with. This changes how we listen, as much as it changes what is available to us, and it requires an aesthetic of availability or a poetics of encounter to make sense of both. Yet, as Kate Crawford has observed:

[E]ncrypted networks can go beyond masking, and become a form of effacement, leaving no memories of the user and their activities. Akin to Susan Orlean’s description of plants, the ideal encrypted network has no memory, and simply moves on to whatever is next. [43]

Provenance, as I have argued elsewhere (Borschke, 2012a, 2012b), can create identity and make arguments about taste, but in digital networks, it can also generate a copy that can move through, and even off, the network without any trace. This paradoxical liberation from the past seems to be the promise of the MP3 blog, just as it is the promise of many kinds of collecting. According to Walter Benjamin [44], “Only in extinction is the collector comprehended.” The generation of a copy might shake free of its history, but as Lisa Gitelman notes, “Each lacuna in provenance (the discomfort of not knowing where a digital object comes from) can’t help but put provenance on the table.” [45] The possibility of a history is as much a part of archival vitality as the stories that are known. Writes Simon Frith,

Memories dance with the music too ... . This is what I mean, I think, by music both taking us out of ourselves and putting us in place, by music as both a fantasy of community and an enactment of it, by music dissolving difference even as it expresses it. The sounds on that Leamington dance floor, like the sounds now in this Berlin hotel room, are at the same time rootless, cut free from any originating time and place, and rooted, in the needs, movement, and imagination of the listener. [46]

Your song can also be our song, and the song can remain the same. End of article


About the author

Dr. Margie Borschke is a Senior Lecturer in Journalism and Media at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.
E-mail: margie [dot] borschke [at] mq [dot] edu [dot] au



Many thanks to the MP3 bloggers who took time to speak with me about their collections and practices. Earlier versions of this work were read by my colleague, Professor Catharine Lumby (Macquarie University) and by three anonymous reviewers. Their insightful comments and critiques have improved the quality of this work and I am very grateful for their time and collegiality.



1. Marshall, 2005, p. 2.

2. Streeter, 2011, p. 46.

3. Novak, 2011, p. 611.

4. Telephone interview, 26 June 2007.

5. Marshall, 2005, p. 156.

6. Frith, 1981b, p. 177.

7. Marshall, 2005, p. 76.

8. Marshall, 2005, p. 60.

9. Following Shuker’s reading, Bourdieu (1986) might see bloggers as a cultural intermediary made visible (2002, pp. 84–85).

10. Marshall, 2005, p. 125.

11. See Frith, 1981b, p. 177.

12. See Deuze, 2006, p. 64; Jenkins, 2006a.

13. Jenkins, 2006a, p. 3.

14. Jenkins, 2004, p. 93.

15. Jenkins, 2006a, p. 4.

16. Jenkins, 2006a, p. 3.

17. The parallel is not accidental: Lessig (2008) cites Jenkins’ work as the key source for his understanding of the matter.

18. Jenkins, 2006a, p. 135.

19. Jenkins, 2006a, p. 135.

20. Jenkins, 2006a, p. 136.

21. Ibid.

22. It is intriguing that the orality of nineteenth-century traditional folk-music making and circulation is emphasized in these discussions about the nexus of musical recordings, digital media, and participation.

23. See Barker and Taylor, 2007; Frith, 1981a, 1981b, 1998; Thornton, 1995; Marshall, 2005, pp. 56–68; Shuker, 2002, pp. 20–21.

24. Marshall, 2005, p. 56.

25. Frith, 1981b, p. 168.

26. Frith, 1981a, p. 160.

27. Smith, 1997, p. 130, in Shuker, 2002, p. 134.

28. Marshall, 2005, p. 65.

29. Thornton, 1995, p. 30.

30. Ibid.

31. Thornton, 1995, pp. 27–28.

32. Thornton, 1995, p. 26.

33. Novak, 2011, p. 615.

34. Novak, 2011, p. 614.

35. Novak, 2011, p. 615.

36. Telephone interview, 19 June 2007.

37. Novak’s (2011, p. 615) bloggers similarly aim for what he calls “authentic remediation”.

38. Telephone interview, 19 June 2007.

39. Frith, 1998, p. 8.

40. Caughie, 1981, p. 15.

41. Benjamin, 2007b, p. 59.

42. Marshall, 2005, p. 60.

43. Crawford, 2005, p. 34.

44. Benjamin, 2007a, p. 67.

45. Gitelman, 2006, p. 147.

46. Frith, 1998, p. 278.



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Editorial history

Received 9 September 2014; accepted 10 September 2014.

©2014 Margaret Borschke. All Rights Reserved.

The author reminds readers that non-profit educational uses of copyrighted materials including instruction, scholarship and research are always allowed under fair use and fair dealings provisions in copyright law. I also acknowledge and share current community norms about the legitimacy of private and social uses of copyrighted material on and off the network; I respect and expect that this copy will go forth and multiply.

The new romantics: Authenticity, participation and the aesthetics of piracy
by Margie Borschke.
First Monday, Volume 19, Number 10 - 6 October 2014