The Journal of Peer Production - New perspectives on the implications of peer production for social change New perspectives on the implications of peer production for social change
Peer production and changing norms in music practice: An ethnomusicological perspective image

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This article explores this by comparing discussions of music practices in the Global South with those of the North through the analytical perspective of ethnomusicology, a discipline concerned with the analysis of music in its social context. Ethnomusicology has traditionally focused on apparently clearly geographically and culturally bounded ‘non-Western’, diasporic and indigenous musics. Increasingly, however, it offers a critical analytical perspective where centre-periphery models are unstable due to the global spread of mobile technology and cultural diversity within nations. The comparison is organised under a set of headings extracted as key points from the changing norms associated with peer production described above. These are: authorship, ownership and control, participation, and income.

by Denis Crowdy, Senior Lecturer, Department of Media, Music, Communications and Cultural Studies, Macquarie University

The rise of peer production and the notion of the produser (Bruns 2009) have contributed to changes in a number of expectations and social norms surrounding the creation, sharing, and use of music. These include an expectation that recorded music will be cheap, if not free; a familiarity with media creation and manipulation as regular activities; and acceptance of widespread copying and sharing. As a result there have been significant challenges to traditional ideas of authorship, ownership, artistic control, creative roles, and income from music. Media discussion and scholarship on peer production comes mainly from the Global North and is usually urban centred, with a focus on particular kinds of music as somehow ‘naturally’ central. Associated technology and social practices have driven these changes; from the Internet, personal computers to smartphones. Although no doubt unintended, this has the consequence of placing the effects of such phenomena on the Global South as peripheral, despite the fact that much of the technology is created in Asia, and distributed globally in places where Internet access is growing rapidly.

The digitisation of music and the growth of Internet usage have driven these norms, and have enabled the involvement of music in peer production processes. If, as Taylor (2001) asserts, this digitisation is the most significant historical change for music since the advent of music notation (p. 3), then with the current growth of such practices in the Global South, the impact is likely to be just as significant. Indeed, given the diverse range of concepts and practices around music in the Global South, the changes might well be tectonic. One need not look far to find diverse ideas about authorship, ownership and control of music and these are issues that the peer-produced norms challenge very directly. The act of releasing once quite local, controlled performances of music with clear ownership for specific functions extending beyond entertainment to a highly distributed network can transform and mutate those values and practices. Control and ownership are relinquished — if not legally then practically.

This article explores this by comparing discussions of music practices in the Global South with those of the North through the analytical perspective of ethnomusicology, a discipline concerned with the analysis of music in its social context. Ethnomusicology has traditionally focused on apparently clearly geographically and culturally bounded ‘non-Western’, diasporic and indigenous musics. Increasingly, however, it offers a critical analytical perspective where centre-periphery models are unstable due to the global spread of mobile technology and cultural diversity within nations. The comparison is organised under a set of headings extracted as key points from the changing norms associated with peer production described above. These are: authorship, ownership and control, participation, and income.

Authorship, ownership and control

Music has a complex relationship with peer production and the notion of the produser. The production of popular music has long been highly social, involving a team of musicians, engineers, producers, managers, marketers and so on. Despite this, however, in Euro-American traditions at least the idea of artistic ownership in the sense of a single or small group of authors has remained dominant, extending from a cultural trajectory where the idea of a musical work is central (Goehr 1992; Taylor 2007, p. 99).

There are, however, many approaches to creative processes and material expressions of music in other parts of the world. Strathern (2006), for example, discusses multiple authorship in Papua New Guinea, and Leach (2006) explains how creative processes and related social relations can be regarded as important as the material expressions themselves. Aragon (2012) describes how many Indonesian artists and musicians do not see themselves as ‘creators’, but as followers of a tradition, and invoke God as the ultimate source of authorship. While this resonates to some extent with European Romantic ideas of a genius under the influence of divine power, the important difference lies in the extent to which the individual is represented; attenuated in the Indonesian case and foregrounded in the European. This is often incompatible with the implementation of copyright laws leading from a Euro-American legal approach, relying as it does on notions of clear authorship, originality, tangibility, and public availability.

Complexity around these concepts has intensified in the last ten years as effects often associated with peer production have resulted in more authors, more amateur activity, and greater modification of music towards new ends; from sampling, loops, and remixes to mash-ups. The main concerns that arise around such use and re-use are of permission and loss of control, and threats to income. While some types of re-use, such as sampling, have resulted in coordinated responses from the music industry to track and license material for sampling, sites with huge amounts of user created content such as YouTube offer material used without permission on a widespread basis. This continues, despite efforts of site owners to respond to take-down notices for copyright infringement. In the above case, changes in technology and associated social practices have empowered a wider public over rights holders relying on sales of recordings and royalty income. The scenario is complicated in the need to balance control, income, and access to material expressions of culture for creativity and to enrich public culture. Insightful analyses and arguments of power and public good are explored extensively in the work of Lawrence Lessig (Lessig 2004, 2013), although the focus is almost exclusively on the art and culture of the Global North, further reinforcing the need for wider analysis.

From the 1990s, many ethnomusicologists were concerned with how non-Western musics were being appropriated by Western musicians, how laws of supposed protection were implicated, and how recording technology and commercial music industrial structures contributed to these situations. World music and pop are genres that have been the most active sites for the misuse, appropriation and exploitation of non-Western musics. Taylor (1997, p. 41, 126), for example, points out how Peter Gabriel is able to draw on the work of others, while being in a position to fiercely defend any misuse of his own work through copyright. Meintjes (1990) and Feld (1988) highlight arrogant claims to ownership for copyright exposing neo-colonial attitudes in Paul Simon’s work with South African musicians in the album Graceland.

Zemp (1996) and Feld (1996) map and critique how an ethnomusicological field recording of a Solomon Islands lullaby moves via a UNESCO recording to a Deep Forest hit song to be used in ads for multinational corporations – generating significant income for the French duo, but nothing for the original singer and her community. More recently, Fitzgerald et al. (2013) describe how a film uses unattributed music from somewhere in ‘Papua’ and how attempts to trace its authorship are met with resistance by the film’s makers. Despite the rhetoric of the Australian copyright collecting society, APRA, in relation to copyright for indigenous musicians, the producer is a more lucrative business partner, so the rhetoric in this case has been empty. Fred Myers, in summarising some of Feld’s work exploring the appropriation of music of the Global South captures the tension between commodification and loss of local control with:

The history of what he calls “pygmy POP” (Feld 1996) he describes as a distinctive global microcosm of sonic property both as capitalist triumph and cultural humiliation (Myers 2006, p. 56)

This tension is worth considering in relation to the content created by users and published by corporations. It is surely capitalist triumph to reduce content production costs to almost zero while earning profits from advertising and metadata from such material? While cultural humiliation might be an overstatement, the potential for reuse, perhaps misuse, and certainly acts of control loom increasingly large.

In exploring approaches to dealing with such concerns around music, Seeger (1992) has explored vital issues for ethnomusicology in relation to music law. He highlights problems in reconciling Western legal definitions of authorship in situations where different processes and understandings of musical provenance are in place. If, for example, a song has been authored by a species of honey bee, and is owned by a community, how can copyright be applied effectively (Seeger 1992 p. 53)? He discusses the complex perspectives from which he has had to navigate issues of music law as ethnomusicologist, musician, co-producer, and record company director amongst others. The significance of earning potential, access to lawyers and relationships to financial stakes is also discussed as fundamental to the operation of copyright. He ends with this important observation:

Our discipline will be poorer for neglecting the rights and obligations associated with music, and we will have less and less to contribute to a dialogue about contemporary music, which is increasingly shaped by the very processes we appear to be ignoring. (p. 358)

This is sage advice for the present, no matter how different the situation might be in terms of the effectiveness and relevance of copyright. In a landmark study that covers a wide geographic and legislative span, Mills (1996) reinforces the cross-cultural incompatibilities of copyright across national and international legislation. Issues of tangibility, originality are explored and in conclusion, she suggests:

Once the momentum toward reforming intellectual property law gains speed, it is essential to create laws which assure that the originating community retains control over their music and enjoys the same protection as their Western counterparts. (p. 82)

Seeger continued his line of argument around the same time (Seeger, 1996), with some practical suggestions (p99). In a similar vein to Mills, he suggested “…that ethnomusicologists can consider to ensure that the music of the peoples we work with is accorded similar treatment to that of commercial artists” (p. 88). Understandably for the 1990s, the Internet was not yet on the radar in these articles, but the effects of its use would ultimately undercut and transform key tenets behind these suggestions.

The basic assumptions on which Mills and Seeger call for assisting musicians to get similar rights as their Western commercial counterparts were shaken in the 2000s. Despite the legal support of copyright, commercial artists in the Global North experienced significant reductions in income from their recorded music. Associated industry infrastructure such as professional studios and audio engineers went into rapid decline, while sales of project studio equipment increased. In such an environment where rampant sharing via the Internet is normal practice, and where few people other than advertisers seem to be making much money, a reliance on traditional copyright protection is almost redundant, or at least ineffective; the financial stakes are low, the defendants hard to identify, and public opinion often unsympathetic towards dominant music industry corporations. In critiques of world music appropriations and practices, the wrongdoer and potential defendant is identifiable, the actions clearly questionable, and the stakes relatively high. What to do when the defendants are many, distributed, difficult to identify; their actions regarded by much of society as normal, and the financial stakes low, even zero? While there will still be clear ethical and moral positions to be argued here, practical solutions become much harder to implement.

Novak (2011) describes a scene, centred in the United States, known as “World Music 2.0” where recordings of popular music from around the world are collected, then released via blog sites. Here we have alternative music practices of the 1980s and 1990s transposed to the digital environment using open source values of sharing and ‘freedom’, this time focused on (for the US at least) marginal, difficult to obtain, popular music. The politics of representation, collaboration, permission, ownership and control are complex here, sometimes benign, sometimes fraught, but for the purposes of this article, the activity clearly demonstrates how once recordings circulate, and particularly in digital form over the Internet, control as to how they are used, whether they might generate income and so on essentially evaporates. While the politics of this might be at their most neutral with some genres and contexts, the assumption that this might always be the case is naive at best, again exposing power imbalances between the North and South. Novak’s analysis clearly exposes how World Music 2.0, while closing distance and difficulties in access to peripheral music does not bring the politics of ownership, control and cultural understanding necessarily any closer. Perhaps as Internet access and social media continues to spread in the South, this distance will be bridged. When World Music 2.0’s faceless artists get Facebook, arguments for difficulties of identification from centre to periphery will be harder to sustain.

Ownership and loss of control

While peer production such as Wikipedia, or open source software is freely available and distributable by its creators and users, the situation is quite different where corporations rely on peer produced content as the free product from which revenue is made through advertising. This has connotations for both issues of ownership, and loss of control. Let me reverse the analytical position of how ethnomusicological analysis might inform the effects of peer production for a moment, as this has some interesting implications for power relationships and representation in the discipline.

Imagine two poles of representation of music; for illustration say indigenous music from some tropical, politically marginal location (like Papua New Guinea, where a good deal of my own work has been carried out, for example). At one pole, we might have a series of scholarly articles, documented field recordings in university and national archives, considered commercial collaborations with funds going back to the musicians and community of origin over a long term. Here a great deal of the power of representation lies with the ethnomusicologists. Consideration is made for restricting access to private music allowing for diverse understandings of ownership, power and responsibility. The institutions in which they are held are generally public, or at least not-for-profit.

At the other end of the spectrum might be a collection of social media and blog posts with comments from a variety of sources (community members from where the music originates perhaps), poorly documented recordings under various pseudonyms on a variety of video and other social media sites; with perhaps remixes and re-distributed versions, circulating primarily on the Internet, but also via SD cards and other media sharing involving more direct personal connections and networks. Here we have a more distributed, less hierarchical distribution of power in terms of representation. This second scenario demonstrates some healthy, selective and productive and local use of new technologies and the possibilities they offer. The existence of parallel texts and recordings will intensify the importance of the fundamental work of ethnomusicology, although transferred to a new kind of performative agency that was once largely in the domain of the researcher.

While Seeger has expressed concern about how copyright laws threaten to lock up great deal of material in professional sound archives, we should be equally concerned by the amount of information held by companies such as Google through YouTube, Facebook and other such sites relying on peer production for their content from which to generate revenue. Here we have public and possibly private music, held privately by profit seeking companies. It is inevitable that such companies will exert their influence, power and control to prioritise and increase income over any sort of public archival sense of duty. Indeed, as I write, Google has threatened to remove video content from independent music labels unless they sign up for a new streaming service[1].

As digital ethnography continues its rise as a valid research methodology, we will increasingly need to consider copying and archiving relevant material privately held for public viewing by such companies. This might well entail breaking the law as it stands under increasingly restrictive terms of Euro-American influenced copyright laws. In my own work environment in an Australian University where research activity is gatekept by ‘ethics’ processes as concerned with legal protection of the institution as of ethics in a more moral sense, this will be a dilemma.

As smartphones continue to spread into our fields of research, it is highly likely they will be increasingly be used for musical activity. If the uptake of Facebook in the area I am most familiar with, the Central Province of Papua New Guinea, is any measure to go by, then any increased access to the Internet will also see more locally produced media uploaded to the standard, current default sites such as YouTube. Some of this material will be ethnomusicologically valuable, and some will be linked to the sorts of cultural activism described by Ginsburg in the collection on global indigenous media (Ginsburg 2008, p. 302). Having that locked up by Google and others will be convenient in the short term. In the longer term (and right now if you are an independent record label owner or artist) that convenience could well be replaced with restrictive control, thwarting our well-intentioned attempts to publically store and share media and giving way to the imperative of generating profit.


Another side-effect from peer production is an ever increasing public familiarity with tools that manipulate media, and indeed, an expectation that media is there to be manipulated. This is intensified by a broader trend since the mid-1980s towards easier access to tools of music production, or what has sometimes been called the ‘democratisation’ of music technology. Again, the extent to which people actually do this is easily over-emphasised, but there is a developing trend I would like to explore in more detail: that of smartphones.

As phones become more able as computing devices (the Android system actually runs on top of the open source operating system Linux) their capabilities in terms of media recording and manipulation improve. Apple was obviously counting on this to help sell their latest phone in 2014. The early 2014 advertisement for the iPhone 5s starts with the catchphrase “You’re even more powerful than you think” as we see a guitarist on a subway platform with an iPhone connected to his instrument as a virtual effects pedal. Next is an artist with an iPhone strapped to her right hand, tentatively pressing buttons on a synth app, before cutting to a double bass player – the only obviously professional musician so far — using a tuner app. Then we see a young drummer using the phone as a recording device and he starts playing along with the bass, although not particularly in time. This then cuts to a singer singing the synth melody previously played, assisted by a pitch correction app. The groove then picks up; the guitarist joins in and we see someone using the phone to control the lights of a dance performance with our developing ensemble somehow providing the music being danced to. Then the ensemble is a garage band, led by the pitch corrected singer in full swing. The groove picks up and quickly transforms into a professional sounding cover of Gigantic by the Pixies. This then carries on as background music while the ad demonstrates the phone as gaming device, camera, translator, heart rate monitor, model rocket launcher and mobile planetarium. At no stage is the iPhone being used as a telephone or for passive music listening. The ad focuses on the idea of collaborative music making and values process over material expression. This hyperbolic assertion of personal empowerment — from rank amateurs to professional band in minutes, all with a few apps and a bit of collaboration! — is, following Mosco (2005), a myth of the digital sublime, little more than marketing boosterism of the digerati. Bird (2011), after all, reminds us that most people are still primarily consuming music passively.

There are, however, thousands of phone apps for creating and manipulating music, and Apple’s iPad has emerged as a widely used device in numerous musical contexts. My own amateur dalliance with app development, following a desire to see a couple of simple music production ideas realised, has provided some initial insights. For some time, I had wanted to be able to carry out simple multitrack recording on a phone. I wanted to record a rhythm track, and practice over it, while recording my attempts; overdubbing basically. I coded, tested and released an app titled Twotrack, in July 2012 that allowed one to overdub, bounce and repeat to build up multitrack recordings. Subsequently I have added a couple of other music production and assistance apps ( and after 18 months or so have had about 250,000 downloads. The analytics data available to developers reveals users throughout the world, although the majority is in the US. As a result, while providing support and tracking down bugs, I get a small insight into what people are doing which seems to consist of practicing, singing and rapping over instrumental tracks, and jotting down ideas for song-writing.

A quick scan of figures to get a sense of the potential for growth is valuable. There are thousands of music production apps representing millions of downloads, over the two main smartphone systems—Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS. The Android platform sees about 1 million new phone activations a day, and this is growing. In September 2013, Google announced they had monitored 1 billion activations of Android devices. In Africa, China, and India there are hundreds of millions of mobile phones, with a growing proportion likely to be smartphones, as phone manufacturers such as ZTE develop lower cost devices aimed at such markets. In summary, a growing number people are using these devices to not only listen to music, but to record, make and manipulate it.


For people with affordable access to the Internet, including most of the scholars writing on the topic, accessing content on peer produced sites such as Wikipedia feels free; we only pay for bandwidth. At the same time, two other kinds of common digital activity fuel this feeling of freeness so it almost becomes as though it is a right, if not a norm. The first is peer to peer file sharing, which allows free, albeit often illegal, access to digital material. The second is the provision of free services by private and public companies where, although we do not pay for their use, we are collectively providing large amounts of useful data for advertising. Add to this the growth of streaming services providing music for free or very low monthly subscription fees, and this tendency to free is magnified; indeed it can be seen as a cultural norm where Internet access is relatively cheap. The reality is that most people on the planet do not have reliable broadband connections. Many rely on poor, patchy, expensive or shared connections. What is on the rise is mobile Internet access, and the reduced bandwidth and increased cost changes the approach people use to engage with music. This might involve more physical forms of digital copying involving media such as SD cards or face to face networks via Bluetooth. This also contributes to the tendency for recorded music to be very cheap, or almost free, and amplifies the extent of piracy.

From Africa (Ouma 2004), China (Liu 2009), India (Beaster-Jones 2014), South America (Stobart 2010), the situation around circulation of pirated recordings is so common and covers such a large population that one might consider it a global norm, with copyright and IP protection as proffered by UNESCO and WIPO as actually running second in terms of actual practice. We are at the end of the era of an economic mentality driven by those with origins, experience and financial stakes in older industrial models which still apply rivalrous concepts and associated values to non-rivalrous media. Year after year, music industry bodies lobby for policing, law changes, and education around ethics, but largely to little effect. These cries for help from an industry whose main source of income has been decimated are complicated by competitive forces within the world of commerce. The sheer size, growth and power of corporations for whom peer-produced content provides them with an essentially free resource through which to sell advertising provides formidable competition to those trying to hold on to traditional notions linked to selling a physical, rivalrous product. Although the music industry has always liked to couch its rhetoric in terms of ethics and moral responsibilities of consumers, their real opponents are business competitors from traditionally quite different industries (IT, digital hardware) adopting music for different economic purposes.

The difficulties this has presented for those in the music industries focused on income from recordings is now well documented (Young and Collins 2010; Kusek et al. 2005; Knopper 2009; Alderman 2002) and the transition to newer, economically sustainable business models is taking a long time. The uncertainty and shift in capital is indicated by the growing presence of startups; perhaps nowhere more ably illustrated than by the companies presenting at the SFmusictech conference each year in San Francisco ( Startups are, by their nature, experimental projects exploring new business models with very high failure rates. They rely on venture capitalists gambling on the next big thing. In thinking about peer production, Ritzer and Jurgenson (2010) pose the question whether a new form of capitalism is emerging from such practices. Certainly a good deal of capital has shifted to hardware, bandwidth, and advertising, and along with it industrial power and influence. Those without a share in that are understandably threatened.


The uptake of new technology has driven rapid change in social practices and norms around music creation, sharing and use. Scholarship, particularly in ethnomusicology has lagged behind in the analysis of the impact of rapid technological change, and must address this. This will entail an expansion of work focused on the rapid uptake of mobile phones globally from media studies (Goggin 2012), anthropology (Vaarzon-Morel 2014; Telban and Vvrov 2014) and pioneering work in ethnomusicology (Gopinath and Stanyek 2014).

A leading scholar of music technology, Jonathon Sterne, has drafted a manifesto for music technologists, and has gathered considerable support from an international group of interested academics, musicians, engineers and educators. In a document reinforcing the over-emphasis of a white, male, urban, Western, able-bodied focus on a great deal of music technology, and recognising power imbalances at play, a number of guiding questions are offered:

We call for greater awareness of the cultural forces already in new music technologies, and the courage to challenge or change them when the collective good demands it.

Ask of any music technology: For whom will this make things better? How? Is it open or closed to creativity and innovation it has not yet anticipated?

Ask of any policy: Whose rights and opportunities are being promoted? Whose are being eroded? What idea of culture does it presume?

Ask of any practice: Who is invited to join in? Who is left out? Where will it find support?

Ask of any organization: How does it help people come together? Does it exploit them in doing so? (

Applying these questions to the concerns discussed in this article regarding ownership, authorship, participation, and economy will offer a useful frame for future research.

The tendency towards free access and normalised piracy will entail solutions involving digital networking, access control, and information and music not being held exclusively by third party companies prioritising profit over ethics. Following lines of thought from the pioneering collection connecting media, ownership, copyright discussion and open source software edited by Ghosh (2006) is valuable here. In open and closed source software development, version control systems are used to track changes in a project from inception to release, then the cycle of debugging, development and updating. One of the more recent and more commonly used systems—‘Git’—provides the kind of peer storage potential that mitigates against a single central source of data. If one ‘clones’ a repository from a server (as is the procedure to start contributing) then the resulting local repository contains a full copy of the history of changes and contributions, allowing further ‘branching’ and development which can then (if accepted) be merged elsewhere—a central repository, for example. If someone withdraws access from that central server, then there are copies elsewhere from which people may continue working. Some kind of musical/media based implementation of this might well be worth exploring for ethnomusicological archives in the near future.

Ethnomusicological research will need to play a role in mapping ways through tensions between the spread of Euro-American copyright models and legislation against the widespread practice of copying and networked distribution. It will be important to give voice to the ways people we work with understand, own, share and value music and not assume that this must accord with Euro-American approaches to copyright. As Aragon (2012) implores:

[…] it is critical to listen carefully to local creative producers and knowledge communities to prevent over-reaching legal models from adversely compromising the vibrant cultural expressions and practices that any new laws purport to protect. (p. 415)

In relation to tools of production, openness, and accessibility will be of high priority. Two main criteria will need to be addressed. Firstly tools allowing for the diversity of expression and are not simply limited to the needs of dominant Western popular music structures and practices. Ethnomusicological experience and input into the design of future, mobile, highly distributed music production applications and devices will be of great importance. Secondly, open source programs, open formats, and even open hardware devices should be prioritised over proprietary, closed approaches. This will offer more equal access and provide scope for sustainability well into the future.

Finally, in relation to income and new economies surrounding music, as commodification is increasingly infused in processes of creation, sharing and use of music, issues of economic justice for creators will become more critical. If more commodities are required to be involved in music, but opportunities to obtain access to those commodities through earning an income from music are reduced, then, following Sterne’s manifesto, who is being left out? Music technology associated with peer production, and selective social practices that develop around it, while enabling new connections and possibilities, simultaneously transforms the functions and contexts of music so conveyed. That occurs in all environments, whether commercial, peer produced, or pirated. The transformations occur differently and, as of yet, none provide solutions applicable to the diversity of concepts and understandings surrounding musical practice globally. A great deal of that diversity lies in the Global South, and ethnomusicology’s experience in this field will provide valuable insights and direction as the tectonic changes wrought by digitisation continue to proliferate globally.


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