Sound as Social Object. Caroline Drucker of SoundCloud at Share Conference 2

Johnny Jewel's page on SoundCloud.

Besides issues such as open government, decentralisation of the Internet, copyright legislations, and others, sound maybe unexpectedly proclaimed itself as one of the biggest things of Share Conference 2. Share by Night artists played around Belgrade until dawn, trying to prove that point and maybe even bring to exhaustion both speakers and the public of the conference. Apart from this, the question of sound has been brought to the fore by the presence of Caroline Drucker of SoundCloud. Commonly seen as a new MySpace, or YouTube, SoundCloud might be a mixture of all of that, but something else, too.

At her talk, Drucker provided us with a wider perspective on SoundCloud. First of all, as its title already states, SoundCloud is about sound, in fact, not only music, even if music-sharing is its most popular use.

Broadly speaking, SoundCloud has integrated sound capturing, processing, publishing and sharing in a single continuous environment. This interface/studio is now available for mobile devices, too, which has some not immediately apparent consequences. As Drucker pointed out, we have been carrying around sound recording devices for quite some time. In fact, our mobile phones are not just talking devices, and SoundCloud simply yelled it loud with its simple recording app boasting a huge red button which urges you to record something. But, why should we record sounds?

Drucker spoke about the significance of sound in terms of our personal memory, a point which is not at all given in epochs of written and (audio)visual media. What is interesting is how recording interacts with what is being recorded. For example, when we start shooting a video or taking a photo of our friends, they start to “act”. On the other hand, Drucker states that sound recording is not as invading in everyday situations, people do not change their behaviour when they are being sound recorded. For that reason, Drucker concludes, sound recording can capture subtler nuances in interpersonal communication as well as allow us to perceive sounds of ambiences, which is very difficult in our daily experience due to our impressionability with visual stimuluses.

I would stress the later point, sound recording of spaces, what is generally called soundscaping. Ambient recordings bring us nearer to the sense of place”, for example, of a Toronto or Vancouver street, as when we listen to Urban Sound Ecology's walkscapes. This practice has up to now been the privileged ground of visual arts, and it never really became a popular way of registrating experience such as photography. With SoundCloud, maybe we could see less people taking photos around the city, and instead carefully walking around with smartphones in hand trying to capture what cannot be seen in the photos. I shall not describe to what extent soundscapes open up new layers of meanings even in some places that we presume to know perfectly, it is so easy to try that out.
Building on this, Drucker put out her most interesting point: SoundScape made sound “a social object”. We all know that music can be an intensive social experience, but could be a sonic „social object“? I will try some tentative responses.

First, SoundScape reveals the structure of the sound, as it represents soundtracks as waveforms. It is not quite the most usual way people think of sound. As sound engineer and writer Bobbie Johnson writes, SoundCloud puts out the “data exoskeleton” of sound. In this way, I may add, it translates the open-source philosophy onto the realm of audio, which has major implications.

Waveform allows the listener/viewer to think in active terms, in sound editing terms. This is a breakaway from MTV culture, from music clips which generally juxtapose music and image, and thus, radically change the experience of sound, for better or for worse. On the contrary, when we look at a waveform, it is infinitely nearer to what we hear. Visualisation of music has been a feature of all the major sound players for a long time, from WinAmp to Windows Media Player. But, they always adopted equilaser form which bounces up and down following the frequencies of the music, whereas waveform sacrifices this detailed information for the sake of presenting the entire timbre of the track. This comprehensive view allows to a listener/viewer to think about modifying the track, to bias it to his own liking, as we can often see from users' comments. Music clips and equilasers, instead, determine our role as passive users/observers of music. Simply put, waveform demands creative response.

Furthermore, the waveform view makes sound a sound object. Vinyls, tapes, CDs already rendered sound physical, and, most importantly, these mediums, besides being personal property, also meant person-to-person giving and receiving. This ritual has become quite different with Internet-based sharing. Now, with SoundCloud it seems that the act of sound sharing has regained some of its ritualism thanks to the waveform. A track is not just a file name, nor a short film with a soundtrack, we can see its personality now and makes sharing a more engaging process.

SoundCloud highlights this quality by the innovative use of waveform as a field of communication among listeners. The act of bookmarking and commenting right on determinate points of the track finally broke up with the quintessentially boring blog-like commenting on YouTube or similar. On SoundCloud, it can be an emotionally charged experience to listen to a track and watch comments pop up as the play bar moves slowly from left to right. In this way, every sound becomes a collective experience, a listening with a crowd of friends who cannot withhold their shouts, exclamations of amazement as the music drives on. This interactive listening may be a third term somewhere between individualistic headphones listening to the music on MP3 portable devices, and in-middle-of-the-crowd listening on concerts.

At this point, I will focus on the "object" of Drucker's "sound is social object" statement. Henri Lefebvre has delved deep into the question of production in his milestone Production of Space (1974). Basically, he distinguishes between two types of objects that society produces: products and works. Society, through production, “creates works and produces things” [products]. [Lefebvre, Production of Space, 71] Products are primarily based on labour, repetitive actions: their succession, concatenation, simultaneity and synchronicity. On the other hand, works are made primarily out of creative action, and secondarily, of labour. Therefore, if this dialectic were transferred into the realm of sound, for example, if we presume that any piece of music is a work (of art), than, at the very moment it enters (re)production, thus is printed on vinyl or CD, it becomes a product (which is afterwards repetitively listened to). But, even a digital track, be it shared via peer-to-peer clients or listened on YouTube or MySpace, is still a product, a file copied either on hard disk drive or into the cache of the browser. 

Following this reasoning, the same status of product should be applied to a track on SoundCloud. But, maybe something a little bit different happens. SoundCloud, through the seaming of productive process, or sound recording, with its objectification into the final form of waveform, leaves the trace of its production open, and renders it a space of social relations, a participative assembly, encounter or gathering. This work/product construct could be then understood as a "Thing", as Bruno Latour says, and thus, as something that brings together people around a “matter of concern”, a thing that actually compels to think and act. [Why has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern, 2004, 232-236] “Thingness” of sound lies in its flow quality, a flow which is capable of escaping the dichotomy between work and product, between object and thing. SoundCloud's waveform is a visual memo of that essential quality, as well as it is an active space for gathering. Sound is a social thing (again).

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