Streaming heritage: the pursuit of files in digital music distribution

Within a very short space of time, ways of listening to new (and older) music have changed in the age of digital reproduction. Visions of a celestial jukebox 20 years ago promised music in the cloud for everyone. This has now become a reality, with Sweden's Spotify being the foremost example of the music industry's technological transformation.

The project studies emerging streaming media cultures in general, and the music service Spotify in particular, with a bearing on the digital challenges posed by direct access to our musical heritage for archives, libraries and museums. Rediscovering older music is a key concept for Spotify, and the company has worked to constantly expand its catalogue. The project therefore aims to investigate the effects, challenges and consequences of streaming musical heritage for the archive, library and museum sector. For example, seamless access to music has led to alternative usage patterns, new forms of engagement and the popularisation of older musical forms in a way that cultural heritage institutions can never replicate.

The project is based on specially developed research methods, which involve establishing a record company for research purposes. The company will act as an innovative research tool, with the aim of following - or simply pursuing - digital music files throughout the intradigital distribution process: from creation, via aggregation, and through to playback. Using digital methods and digital ethnography, the ambition is to observe the files' journey through the digital ecosystem, streaming media culture's black box, which is not normally accessible to traditional media researchers. The basic idea is that the digitalisation of media objects has changed the way in which they should be conceptualised, analysed and understood - from studying static music artefacts to an increased scientific focus on dynamically active files with a kind of inherent information about factors such as broadband infrastructure, file distribution and aggregation, user practices, click frequency, social playlists, sharing and repetition. The record company will provide access to distribution platforms such as Spotify Analytics, and will make it possible to study the industrial generation of massive cultural data that all music files now produce. The core of the project thus involves tracking and monitoring music files - a kind of ethnographic observation of their distributive life. The actual music offered by the record company will be of lesser importance. In brief, it will consist of works by classical composers for which all rights have expired (along the lines of computer-generated MIDI remixes of e.g. Mozart, Chopin or Bach).

The project is being financed by the Swedish Research Council (SEK 8.8 million), and involves four researchers working in an interdisciplinary research team. It will run between 2014 and 2018, and is being led by Professor Pelle Snickars -