Masquerading as Ourselves by Scrobbling MP3s
Gisela Swaragita (musisi, menulis untuk LARAS Studies of Music in Society, mengelola seri pertunjukan musik Lelagu)
About a year ago I read a tweet by @menjahitcelana that said “Buat apa beli vinyl kalau tidak bisa di scrobbling di Last.fm?”(Why do people buy vinyl records if it cannot be scrobbled on Last.fm?) Akbar Adi Wibowo (Kultivasi, Asangata, Sabarbar), the owner of the account, got several retweets from his twitter followers for this satire remarks. The tweet made me realize that one of our objectives in listening to music is to show it to our peers. Whether uploading the photos of record collections to Instagram or scrobbling the songs played in our Winamp to Last.fm, music consumers nowadays have the urge to show what they are listening to.
Buying records, despite the increasing popularity of buying vinyl and cassette releases in the last few years, is still widely considered as a luxurious way to appreciate music. Many young music enthusiasts like Akbar and I stick to free digital music files. Millennial music listeners around the world access music by downloading pirated digital files through portals like mp3skull and mp3juices, or legal download portals like netlabels and iTunes. MP3 becomes the most common format for recordings that take ride on the internet, as its compressed size makes storage and distribution more convenient than larger formats like WAV or FLAC. For those preferring to listen to MP3s, Last.fm profiles serve as a convenient platform for showing off playlists as well as the obscurity level of one’s musical taste.
Last.fm is an online platform that profiles its users’ music listening habits to provide music recommendation. Normally, Last.fm users install scrobbler plug-in in their music player software. Scrobbler is a content based recommender system, a system that gives recommendation to its users based on what its users already consume (in this case is music). It acts as an automatic track logging system that would automatically send information from the music player to the user’s Last.fm profile about the music he or she is playing. The details of the songs would be recorded in a log, and then the system would give a list of recommended artists, songs, and music events that share similar tags with the scrobbled music. The music log is publicly shown at the user’s profile, so that the user could measure his or her music taste through charts and statistics. Other users could visit their profile, review their music taste, and make interactions; making Last.fm one among vast choices to meeting new people.
The social networking offered by Last.fm is built through sending and accepting friend requests with users of similar tastes, joining online music communities, keeping track of what others listen to, and keeping in touch with others’ music interests. Like other social media platforms, Last.fm is also equipped with testimonial boards in which users could write public shout outs as well as private messages.
Mapa Satrio, a former Last.fm user and avid music enthusiast, stated that he enjoyed the recommendation system and the social networking feature offered by Last.fm. The 24 year-old International Relation Studies student stated that Last.fm indeed changed the way he consumed music. “It helped me appreciating music not only by listening to it but also by reading about it.” He discovered Last.fm in 2009 when he googled Blueboy, a Sarah Record indie pop unit. The search engine led him to Blueboy’s bio at Last.fm, and he was fascinated when he was also fed with the info of the similar artists. He admits that using Last.fm actively for five years, his music taste gradually changed to what he considers improvements as the portal made him geeky in exploring the wide range of recommendation.
He also discovered new friends through his connections in Last.fm. Besides getting music references from people he never met before, he also built meaningful friendships with fellow users. Last year Mapa joined a gathering of Last.fm users in Jogja, a community that consists of people with various music tastes. “This person likes classic rock, this person likes post rock, and this person likes other thing. The community is actually not based on our musical preferences.”
However, he agrees that similarity in music taste makes friendship starts easier. “Well, it applies in any cultural product actually –readings, movies, music, whatever,” He said, “Isn’t it more comfortable, easier to get intimate, with someone with the same cultural frequency?”
Mapa’s Last.fm experience is different from Eka (Nervous, Brilliant at Breakfast). Eka said that she does not need to be a Last.fm user to use the recommendation system. “I love music and I love seeking new music references, but I never like the scrobbling system,” she stated, “Once I thought it was because it needs constant internet connection, which I could not afford. But now as access to internet becomes easier, I don’t find myself needing the feature. Instead of scrobbling, I prefer giving and getting recommendation from my existing networks on Twitter and Facebook.” Even so, she also stated that she still uses Last.fm to find profiles of ‘obscure’ bands that can not be accessed elsewhere. She could easily search an artist’s Last.fm info page and discover similar artists there.
However, she does not deny saying that a music taste is an important factor to judge a person. “I believe that every trait a person has, except those that are inherited from birth, is an indicator of a person’s personality; including one’s music taste.”
For Eka and Mapa, music taste is an identity marker that helps building a bigger profile of a person’s character. Music taste, something that is of a person’s choice, is achieved rather than innate. According to Lawler, identity is something that is done rather than born with. A person’s identity is achieved through his or her interaction in the society, as a part of collective endeavor rather than an individual odyssey. Thus, that is why music enthusiasts use Last.fm profiles to show off their obscure playlist: to turn the cultural capital into symbolic capital; to gain recognition in the wild game of aesthetic judgment.
Hence, if music taste is one indicator in how they perceive others, is it also a part of the factor of how Eka and Mapa perceive themselves?
Eka said in her younger years, she was conflicted with herself whether or not to let herself loving Guns ‘n Roses as she had declared herself as a self-proclaimed grunge/alternative/punk-rock kid. “I like GnR since I was 10, but Kurt Cobain HATED GnR!” Besides, GnR is strongly related with 80s goon-looking guys, which according to her, not quite edgy. She also had difficulty admitting to herself that she liked Spice Girls, as the girl-band was promoting an image that was “…manufactured, bubblegum pop, shallow, and overall so un-cool.”
Mapa also realizes that you have a curatorial control over your Last.fm profile. “As a social media, it enables us to shape the image that we want to achieve. You could be an emo kid or a psychedelic hippie by turning your scrobbler on and off.” To earn the desired obscurity level, you could turn your scrobbler on when you’re listening to crossover music of Byzantine orchestra vs noise recorded in a European sex dungeon, and turn the scrobbler off when you want to listen to your nostalgic Sheila on 7 second album.
Not only to show to people, curating Last.fm music log is an action of self-impersonation, a subtle act of masquerade to make us look more interesting, more ‘obscure’, to others. However, it is also an act of self-preservation, the way for us to achieve the desired self. The masquerade is not a deceitful act to hide a very different personality behind a mask. Rather, the mask itself (the carefully-curated music log) becomes the integral part of the self. Selecting the music that we listen to is an act of actively crafting the mask. Wearing the mask, sharing our Last.fm activities in Facebook or twitter for example, is an act of performing the masquerade in the social world. Performing of identity is an inevitable process and humans could hardly be part of the social world without it. That the performance is in the game of aesthetic judgments of knowledge and cultural competence (of music taste) is a default environment for music enthusiasts, especially for those who value obscurity levels in the realm of cutting-edge music scene. Last.fm, beyond its initial function as a recommendation site and its tertiary function as another meet-new-people spot, serves as the stage to perform the masquerade of identity.
>Lawler, Steph. Identity. Cambridge: Polity Press. 2014.
>Manabe, Noriko. “A Tale of Two Countries: Online Radio in the United States and Japan”. The Oxford Handbook of Mobile Music Studies Vol. 1. Summanth Gopinath and Jason Stanyek (ed). New York: Oxford University Press. 2014.
>Sterne, Jonathan. MP3: The Meaning of a Format. Durham and London: Duke University Press. 2012.
>Sobat Indi3 Edisi Mini: Sobat Dot Com. November, 2014.
PS: The title “Masquerading as Ourselves by Scrobbling MP3s” is inspired by Chapter 6 of Lawler’s Identity, “Masquerading as Ourselves: Self Impersonation and Social Life”.
 “To scrobble” is a verb coined by Last.fm, meaning to find, process, and distribute information involving people, music, and other data (Manabe in Gopinath and Stanyek, 2014: 470)
 Sterne, 2012: 1
 Manabe in Gopinat and Stanyek, 2014: 470
 There is a tendency among cutting-edge kids that the more obscure one’s music taste is, the higher level of coolness one is. Sobat Dot Com, a zine made by anonymous Jakarta indie kids, stated that Last.fm is one of the most legitimate portals for cutting-edge kids to get potential romance by being “less cheesy and more awesome”. The zine also stated that in-depth knowledge of rare music is a strength in winning a girl’s heart in Last.fm.
 Lawler, 2014: 119
 Lawler, 2014: 120, 123
 Lawler, 2014: 122