Information Overload? Music Studies in the Age of Abundance
8-10 September 2021, University of Birmingham
Keynote Speakers: Robin James (University of North Carolina at Charlotte), Nick Seaver (Tufts University)
For those investigating any musical activity after about 1994, the main sources of research data will not be print archives or discrete media—they will be World Wide Web media. The Internet Archive, the web’s library, today holds over 525 billion archived web pages, while API and post-API archiving initiatives make social web platforms accessible as research databases. At first glance, no other archive is more inclusive in terms of whose voices it represents, and none more comprehensive in terms of the insights it provides into the thoughts, desires and musical tastes of ordinary people. To paraphrase the web historian Ian Milligan, whose recent book provides the title and framing for this conference, we might suggest that in its scale, granularity and plurality, the web represents the music historian’s dream.
Yet there is good cause to be sceptical of claims to a more ‘democratic’ archive in an age of surveillance capitalism. Contrary to early hopes that the internet would bring about greater egalitarianism, Shoshana Zuboff argues that the political economy of contemporary digital communications is characterised by ‘radical indifference’ in the service of maximising data flows. The harms that algorithms perpetuate through biased and incomplete training data suggest that visibility within the archive remains strongly patterned according to race, gender, prosperity, ability and geography. Intersecting with these concerns is a question of how the superficial ‘abundance’ of stories to be told about music in the last twenty-five years impacts on questions of historical theory. Is it possible that a surfeit of available paths through the data compensates for a lack of meaningful historicity over the same period?
With this conference we seek to gather researchers who are interested in the epistemological, methodological, ethical, and disciplinary problems that arise when studying music in the age of abundance. The below questions are intended to be indicative rather than exhaustive:
What skills and literacies are required to treat web media as primary sources? Does treating web media as music literature prompt a further call for musicology to reflect on its disciplinary and medial borders?
How might music historians and other researchers work with one another towards the curation of shared datasets, mutually agreed best practices, and a culture of collaboration? What are the barriers to these ways of working in music studies?
What ethical and epistemological questions are raised when ordinary (and often anonymous) people and everyday activities take centre stage in the writing of music history?
How should music researchers navigate a ‘post-Cambridge Analytica’ world in which platform APIs are increasingly restrictive in terms of what data they make available? Is it necessary to work within the ‘Realpolitik’ of social media data access, or should scholars consider the active breach of platform rules in the public interest?
Does the World Wide Web necessitate new thinking around matters of history and historiography? How helpful are recent attempts to periodise the last 30+ years in cultural-political terms (‘the long 1990s’, ‘the contemporary’, etc)? Do generational politics inflect our understanding of recent music history in new ways, or our perspectives on history as music researchers?
Paper titles and abstracts of no more than 250 words, together with a 100-word bio, should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org by Friday 7th May 2021. Notification of acceptance will be sent via email by Monday 7th June.
Full preparations are being made for an in-person conference, however online participation via Zoom will also be possible.
This conference is funded by the UKRI AHRC Early Career Leadership Fellowship, Music and the Internet: Towards a Digital Sociology of Music.
Further updates will be posted to the conference website: