cfp: SEM 2020 panel ‘Feminist and Critical Race Approaches to Analyzing “Culture” in Music Streaming Services’

Panel Proposal for the Society for Ethnomusicology Annual Meeting

Ottawa, Canada October 22-25, 2020

Feminist and Critical Race Approaches to Analyzing the Emerging Role of ‘Culture’ in Music Streaming Services

Panel Organizer: Darci Sprengel, University of Oxford

In September 2018, Spotify launched its ‘Global Cultures Initiative’, which it insisted would make it a ‘leader’ in the field of audio streaming by moving the platform beyond its traditional focus on North American and European musics to ‘promote and advance culturally diverse music’ (Spotify Newsroom 2018). As Spotify expanded to other regions, however, it met pushback from local rivals. For example, Anghami (‘my tunes’ in Arabic), founded in Lebanon in 2012 and known as ‘the Spotify of the Middle East’, claims to meet better the needs of Arab listeners. It boasts alternative algorithmic technologies with unique abilities to combine international and local sounds in ways it asserts listeners in the Middle East and Arab diaspora want to hear, making Anghami’s distinctly local knowledge its ‘sonic brand’. These trends indicate that music streaming services differentiate themselves not through the music they provide, but through the techniques they employ to mediate between users and music catalogue (Goldschmitt and Seaver 2019).

This panel investigates how notions of ‘local knowledge’ and ‘cultural specificity’ are at the forefront of this consideration. It questions how multinational corporations and the AI technologies they develop employ ‘culture’ and to what ends. This is a critical consideration given the music industry’s problematic history in cultural appropriation and in perpetuating essentialized tropes of ‘cultural difference’ to market non-Western music. As scholarly analysis of the ‘World Music’ industry has demonstrated, these marketing techniques rely on racialized tropes that lead to unequal treatment of non-Western artists and persist even with the development of new sonic technologies (known as ‘World Music 1.0’ and ‘2.0’) (see for instance Erlmann 1996; Taylor 1997; Feld 2000; Bohlman 2002; Novak 2011). For instance, as ethnomusicologist Kyra Gaunt has recently demonstrated, new media technologies such as YouTube perpetuate many of the same inequalities perpetuated by old media, including the appropriation of black music and dance to the disproportionate benefit of large corporations and white audiences (Gaunt 2015).

Using feminist and critical race approaches to digital media, scholars such Safiya Umoja Noble, Lisa Nakamura, Kyra Gaunt and others have uncovered the seemingly invisible ways online platforms and AI technologies reinforce oppressive social relationships and racial profiling, deepening inequalities along lines of race and gender in the ‘real’ (as opposed to virtual) world (Nakamura 2002, 2007; Gaunt 2015, ‘Music, Misogynoir’ unpublished paper; Noble 2018). More research is needed on how context-based recommenders, an emerging technology that uses algorithms to recommend new music based on location, are formed through AI infrastructures that may perpetuate similar biases. By making assumptions about listeners based on ethnicity or location, or privileging the dissemination of some music over others, do these technologies signal the emergence of a ‘World Music 3.0’ or do they enact a different logic altogether? Addressing this question contributes to the fields of ethnomusicology, media studies, and the digital humanities by demonstrating how online listening practices may be a new frontier, not only in psychographic data mining, but in the development of online infrastructures that enact what Noble calls ‘algorithmic oppression’ (Noble 2018).

This panel seeks papers that address (but are not limited to) the following:

·      The branding, technologies, and marketing techniques employed by regionally focused music streaming platforms in the Global South, especially as they may compare to large, multinational platforms such as Spotify.

·      How users and musicians in particular communities/locations utilize music streaming platforms, including how regional platforms are situated within or engage local music scenes.

·      The role of ‘culture’ and ‘difference’ in the marketing and development of music streaming services, and how these notions engage inequalities of race, gender, sexuality, geography, and so on.

·      The role of listening in the development of algorithmic infrastructures, including what psychographic data emerges when technologies ‘learn’ how users listen.

·      What ethnomusicologists, and an analysis of music streaming platforms, might have to contribute to discourses on race and technology pioneered by scholars of color.

·      The possibilities and limitations for developing an ethnographic feminist and critical race approach to digital technologies, including ways to expand the scope and reach of emerging digital humanities methodologies through digital ethnographies of online listening, or a critical consideration of the limitations of such an approach.

Please send a title, 250-word abstract, and short bio to Darci Sprengel by February 5, 2020.

Works Cited

Bohlman, Philip V. 2002. World Music: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Erlmann, Veit. 1996. ‘The Aesthetics of the Global Imagination: Reflections on World Music in the 1990s’. Public Culture 8: 467-487.

Feld, Steven. 2000. ‘A Sweet Lullaby for World Music’. Public Culture 12 (1): 145-171.

Gaunt, Kyra D. 2015. ‘YouTube, Twerking, & You: Context Collapse and the Handheld Co-Presence of Black Girls and Miley Cyrus’. Journal of Popular Music Studies 27 (3): 244-273.

______. ‘Music, Misogynoir, and Technology as a Weapon’. Unpublished paper, available at:

Goldschmitt, K.E. and Seaver, Nick. 2019. ‘Shaping the Stream: Techniques and Troubles of Algorithmic Recommendation’. In The Cambridge Companion to Music in Digital Culture, edited by Nicholas Cook, Monique M. Ingalls, and David Trippett, 63-81. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nakamura, Lisa. 2002. Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet. London: Routledge.

______. 2007. Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Noble, Safiya Umoja. 2018. Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. New York: New York University Press.

Novak, David. 2011. ‘Sublime Frequencies of New Old Media’. Public Culture 23 (3): 603-634.Spotify Newsroom. 2018. ‘Discover Hits from Around the World with Spotify’s Global Cultures Initiative’. 28 September.

Taylor, Timothy D. 1997. Global Pop: World Music, World Markets. London: Routledge.