Curation, Choice, and the Internet: Score Follower and New Music on YouTube
Dan Tramte email@example.com | Ermir Bejo firstname.lastname@example.org | Victoria Cheah email@example.com | Zach Thomas firstname.lastname@example.org
Platforms like YouTube have made an incredible amount of content available seemingly for free, all the time, to anyone with an internet connection. Videos feature subject matter from people reacting to pop culture prompts to lectures on physics uploaded pro bono to slickly produced major-label music videos to someone’s sophomore oboe recital. Legally posted or not, the videos on this platform provide a varied and busy picture of society today, validated by instant feedback in the form of video likes, dislikes, and comments. Users see not only what others deem worthy of sharing, but also what others think of these handpicked uploads. Viewers trust in the taste of the masses, which is reflected in the popularity and promotion of certain videos (and not others). Within this mass of cultural product, contemporary music has made a niche but significant home in the form of scrolling score videos, accompanied by recordings. Not only is access to materials of contemporary concert music more available than before, these videos teach viewers to follow scores and read contemporary music, made possible by the internet and its ways. This paper explores how Score Follower engages with internet culture to represent and support contemporary music.
At Score Follower, a non-profit organization with three YouTube channels, the internet shapes everything we do from operations to organizational strategy to content curation. On an operational level, the YouTube platform shapes our activities. In terms of organizational strategy, we have learned a lot about how the internet affects social interaction, informing our Follow My Score project over the past three years. Curation is also shaped by the possibilities and etiquette of the internet, leading us to reflect on how we represent the music we put on our channels based on the context of the internet. To this end, we have put together a brief self-reflective study of how our organizational and curatorial practice has evolved in tandem with our generation of internet users.
Shortly after the internet entered the households of the general public, a community of creatives began using it as a platform for their art. This community welcomed the internet as an alternative to traditional platforms, such as galleries and museums. Criticisms of the gallery as a presentation space include incompatibility of the gallery wall with sound-, digital- or interaction-based work, the conservative nature of gallery audiences and buyers, physical boundaries of gallery spaces and limited community reach. These were a few of the driving factors of the net.art movement (i.e., Seth Price, paper rad, Cory Arcangel and others). The internet seemed to promise a democratizing disruption that artists working beyond traditional genres seemed to desire, especially with the possibilities of the emerging digital medium.
As the early adopter internet artists embraced their new medium throughout the 90s and 2000s, making videos, glitched images, interactive games, and Net- poems, a wave of internet users followed them. Most of these users had no intention engaging with the net.art movement; instead, they mostly used the internet for daily tasks like email and reference. As Web 2.0 services began to flourish, a new generation of user-generated content platforms emerged such as YouTube, Soundcloud, Facebook, Instagram, and Reddit.
Echoing the artistic pursuits of net.art pioneers, internet users made memes, wrote blogs, mashed up songs, and posted heavily filtered photos to Instagram. Indeed, some of those pioneers noted that this new wave of Web 2.0 users had the effect of flooding the space that was once unique to them. According to Cory Arcangel:
“All this stuff out there made by all these people is probably better than the stuff I’m making. How do you deal with that? That’s one part of the question, and the second part of the question is where do I fit in with that, because essentially I’m doing the same thing that they are. As an artist, what is my role in the internet? The first part is like a daily battle. I call it the fourteen-year-old Finnish-kid syndrome. Basically there are people doing things on the internet right now that are above and beyond. I will see stuff daily and think, Oh my God, that’s the greatest thing I’ve ever seen in my life, and in an art context it could work”
Because of the assimilation of the internet into everyday life, today we see less distinction between art made for the internet and art documented online. Artists who came to the internet and relied on the platform’s metrics to measure success are now confronted with the fact that their art is in competition with anybody who posts creative digital content on the internet.
The accessibility of the internet as a platform for exposure has leveled the playing field and redefined success for artists and musicians. To many, “view count” correlates directly to success. For us in the YouTube era, this means “going viral.” However, mass exposure and popularity may not have any bearing on quality, longevity, or the artistic integrity of the work. For example, a fourteen-year-old Finnish kid with iMovie on their iPhone could generate a piece of internet art that gains a degree of virality that completely overshadows a traditional artist’s entire oeuvre. The notions of success of the internet-native artist in this context can conflict with traditional values of art as a product of labor and process.
In notated music rooted in the Western classical tradition, the traditional metrics of success for a composer are often tied to performance audience numbers, standing ovations, prizes, and grants from existing establishment institutions. While these metrics are still important to a composer’s career now, the more important marker of worth is having created an enduring cultural artifact. While it is never for the composer to say what endures, it is a goal for certain kinds of institutions to define what endures and to document and protect that work.
At Score Follower, we present the work of our time through a YouTube based archive and documentation style. Instead of physical artifacts preserved in a physical archive, such as the formidable Paul Sacher Stiftung Archive and Research Center for the Music of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries in Basel, Switzerland, we have chosen instead to make the internet our virtual home. This is so that we may reach different audiences in a medium of our generation, and because of the nature of our cultural artifacts. Instead of precious original manuscripts and letters, we preserve and make available performances and scores. As record companies and publishers seek their next steps, we look to a non-profit model to support and maintain what we consider to be fundamental materials of this field.
As an organization, we value curatorial and operational freedom above all else. We choose what we do and how we do it. Despite our quest for independence, on both curatorial and organizational levels, general internet culture and YouTube’s structures have influenced our operation and activities.
3.1 INTERNET CULTURE & ORGANIZATIONAL STRUCTURE
The experience of internet culture is seemingly random, immediate, distant, yet intimate. In internet culture, random pieces of digital content theoretically carry equivalent weight, for example in the following scenario: You open up Facebook. You scroll past kind of a funny meme, then a cringy dad joke. You see a link to your friend’s new Soundcloud track, click on it, and let it play for a bit while you continue scrolling onward. Next, a video auto-plays of your sister and her child observing pandas at the zoo. You watch on silent for a moment, not to pollute the Soundcloud audio in the adjacent browser tab. Then you stop the Soundcloud track short so that you can a video of your former roommate play second violin on Beethoven’s 7th in the Toledo Symphony. In this case, you have temporarily fulfilled your fix of primarily unrelated pieces of digital content, each representing a small digestible artifact curated by the broad umbrella of your social bubble. While some may think that a recording of Beethoven’s 7th may carry a broader cultural weight than an iPhone video of your niece at the zoo, nobody would be able convince you that the latter is not far more profound. Personal curation is ultimately our takeaway from the mass of artifacts available online.
The immediacy of the internet has also changed how we approach and build personal interest. Social media companies like Facebook, ad publishers, and content creators are primarily concerned with consumers’ attention and how often they view ads. Internet consumers value instead content that attracts and holds their attention. Consumer trade their attention to ads for desired content, and we agree to pay in the currency of marketing.
Likewise, online communities expect content providers to keep up with the immediacy of internet culture, ads or not, prompting the need for platforms of dissemination. For a composer, the time it takes between the original conception of a piece of music and producing a recording of it is often months or years. Assuming this composer posts their work to YouTube or Vimeo, one can expect a new video to be uploaded by them once every couple of months. Because of the pace of internet culture, it is incredibly difficult to maintain enough momentum as an individual to keep up with users’ overloaded attention. Our solution is to come together as creative musicians, to collaborate, curate, and compile. For example, an artist collective selling works of a group of artists at a local gallery or a festival presenting works of many composers or a composer collective performing each other’s music. Another example is the content aggregator, which include Facebook pages like the Museum of Internet, which curates and posts high quality memes, or blogs like Johannes Kreidler’s Kulturetechno website, where Kreidler compiles conceptual music content. Distribution of labor in both content creation and aggregation is vital the operational livelihood of music online. For Score Follower, this means working with a variety of composers and curators.
3.2 INFLUENCE OF YOUTUBE
While YouTube affects the format, features, and mode of presentation of the works we curate and upload, as an organization, SF’s operations are also increasingly affected by YouTube’s copyright management and monetization mechanics. This aspect, though not applicable to other kinds of curation, is often crucial in determining whether a work can be promoted and uploaded onto our platform. A significant portion of our curatorial work involves negotiating with copyright owners and addressing their distribution and monetary concerns. As a platform, YouTube resembles a traditional television network or newspaper. Their business model relies on collecting revenue from monthly user subscriptions, as well as selling advertising space to the highest interested bidder. This money is then distributed among YouTube content creators and copyright holders in the form of mechanical and performance royalties. Although our organization does not monetize the rights holder’s registered work, we nevertheless have to contend with the ramifications of YouTube’s monolithic copyright management system called “Content ID.” YouTube explains that “videos uploaded to YouTube are scanned against a database of files that have been submitted to us by content owners.” This database is accessible and searchable from the “Music Policies” tab under the channel’s “Creator Studio” dashboard. Often, our first step in researching the feasibility of featuring a composer’s work involves checking against this database.
Despite the guidelines listed on YouTube’s help pages, the actual criteria for selecting which entities can register works on Content ID seems to be a closely guarded secret by YouTube. Unless the rights holder happens to be a large company or conglomerate boasting “exclusive rights to a substantial body of original material that is frequently uploaded by the YouTube user community,” (e.g. Naxos of America) the chances of joining Content ID are slim. The alternative for smaller publishers, labels, and individual artists is to rely on YouTube affiliated companies that offer to register the work with YouTube’s Content ID as part of their services. These services (e.g. Audiam) take 20-30% of the revenue left after YouTube takes its initial 45% cut, while also demanding exclusive licensing rights of the uploaded content. Recently, Performance rights organizations such as ASCAP, have also independently reached agreements with YouTube so that they may collect additional performance royalties on behalf of the publisher and/or composer. This complicated web of chaotic transactional interactions and justified insecurity on behalf of the rights holders and artists affects some of our major curatorial decisions. This is especially true in regard to well-known and commercially recorded musical works.
Unfortunately, the current system may seem unfair and prohibitive to a majority of new music rights holders who are forced to choose between exposure with little profit, or profit potential with little exposure (by deciding to not participate on YouTube). As an organization, Score Follower is committed to supporting rights holders and artists in their battle to negotiate a more equitable distribution within YouTube’s monetization mechanism. Congressional action and a strong public campaign on behalf of the artists who are demanding fair treatment as equal YouTube partners seem to be the only options that we have available to bring about positive change to YouTube’s digital landscape.
From curation, to communication, production, and implementation, our work is shaped by a specific medium and context (e.g. YouTube as part of Alphabet Inc.’s larger ecosystem). With few exceptions, Score Follower curates works that exist autonomously as recordings or video/media performances and scores that utilize prescriptive musical notation. However, once an autonomous work is assembled for a specific online medium and context, its form and meaning are further shaped by the medium, which in turn adjusts its functioning in response to the uploaded content. Not only has this feedback loop resulted in Score Follower videos that radically alter the interactive and visual aspects of the original score (for instance, overlapping different tempi displayed and synchronized simultaneously instead of sequentially, as is commonly represented in a printed score), but, more surprisingly, we are starting to see an interest in music composed specifically for YouTube and/or Score Follower as its primary intended audience.
Members of our rotating curatorial team are encouraged to draw from their own personal interests, experiences, and local communities in finding work for Score Follower’s channels. We aim to put together a team with diverse interests and backgrounds, so that content on Score Follower is constantly redefining our curatorial mission. Our curators are responsible for selecting works of their own choice, and also for participating in the judging of Follow My Score.
Beginning as a popularity competition and now a fully juried competition, Follow My Score is an example of our evolving approach to institutional exposure. In 2016, Follow My Score began with an open call for scores in the first round of competition, from which the four directors selected half of total applicants, moving to a second round of five professionally-recognized jurors who selected three finalists. In the final round, the public voted in the form of YouTube likes on each of the three finalists’ works to select one winner for a joint commission between Score Follower and Ensemble Dal Niente (Julio Zúñiga). In subsequent editions of Follow My Score, the first round remains similarly open call, while the second goes to our house team of eight curators, finishing in a third round in which 30-40 works are selected by the four directors of Score Follower. We have two editions of Follow My Score each year, one in spring and one in fall.
From the first iteration of Follow My Score, we encountered how the internet’s accessibility affects competition. In 2016, the competition quickly became about one composer versus another, which was a kind of competitive attitude we did not want to foster. The composers themselves were not aware of the intensity of attention resulting from an open voting round. Considering our resources and our home on the internet, we decided to change the format of FMS to select more works to feature over a season, instead of attempting to imitate commissioning bodies.
In conclusion, we aim always to keep evolving with the needs, interests, and problems of internet culture as we strive to build a new kind of institution. YouTube, as a popular content platform, allows Score Follower to reach communities beyond our own local ones, providing immediate access to materials of notated or contemporary music. Going beyond our organization’s activities, we at Score Follower continue to ask ourselves and you how we may shape the community and careers that we want through mindful navigation of the world we live in today.
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 “On August 6, 1991, [Tim Berners-Lee] took a bold step. He posted three key items on the Internet: 1) the World Wide Web software for NeXT computer editors, 2) a browser, and 3) a basic server that could be used with all computers. […] With the three items Tim posted, anyone with a NeXT computer and Internet access could investigate what the Web was all about. As the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) would later put it, August 6, 1991, was the “day the Web went worldwide.”
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