Sonic Sensations of Industry and Fandom at VidCon 2015

As a sociologist of work, my main research focuses on workplace experiences and labor/management relations in media industries. This includes service workers and engineers in the music industry as well as YouTube content creators and routine, “analytic” media workers. In an effort to gain a better understanding of how the digital media industry talks about itself, I took a drive down to Anaheim for the annual VidCon in July 2015. For those of you who don’t follow digital media, VidCon is a cross between an industry conference and a fan convention for digital video platforms (YouTube, Vimeo, etc.) and various corporations that have sprung up around said platforms (e.g., Maker, Machinima, FullScreen, Studio 71, MiTú, Stylehaul, Roosterteeth, etc.)


Equipped with a beat-up Sony MP3 recorder and a notebook, I went there to take it all in. A much-too-tan man told a crowd that he would provide us with some “real anthropology.” Another, older gentleman told industry crowds about “limbic resonance” – claiming that media must make affective, neurological connections in order to keep audiences anchored to their screens. A number of people spoke of something called “disruption” in something called “the space” – a curiously Bourdieuian metaphor for what we might simply call “industry.” A global banker played a video of himself as Dos Equis’ “Most Interesting Man in the World” that ended with the banker urging media companies to “Keep Merging My Friends!” A venture capitalist told industry crowds that American-made content “travels well” and so I thought, “Hey, I’m American! Why be an academic when I could ‘disrupt’ the limbic regions of millions with snackable digital content?!” Really, it was all quite fascinating and just a bit frightening.

As much as that might rattle the cage of your inner Frankfurt school theorist, I found the differences in sonic sensation between the fan floor (Floor 1) and the industry floor (Floor 3) equally interesting. Both were quite loud, but for different reasons that you’ll hear in the sound assemblage above.

Forgive the poor sound quality. Think of it as an artifact of sound technology (a now vintage 2009 MP3 recorder) used to document a very contemporary mass public.

0:00 – 2:02
The recording begins on Floor One – the cheapest to enter ($55 fan pass). Mostly young women in attendance down there in Anaheim. The cheapest floor has the brightest lights and the loudest sounds.

2:03 – 3:01
Ascend to Floor Three for industry talks and complimentary food (if you’re there on time and have purchased a $500 industry pass). In this recording fragment, you cannot hear the light EDM and hip-hop played in between speaker sessions inside the auditorium. What you do hear is the roaring chatter of digital video industry executives, employees, and a few straggler academics like myself. Just before a break for drinks, an executive from YouTube lets us all know that we can spend an unlimited amount of time inside a cardboard box with Google written on its side[1] for “free” so long as we make sure to pick it up.

[1] Google Cardboard

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Sounding Board– A Collective Exhibition

If you happen to be in Austin, make sure to visit the exciting–and first ever–Sounding Board collective installation curated by Leonardo Cardoso. The exhibition is the first of its kind for the Society for Ethnomusicology’s annual meeting and features many excellent scholar-artists producing sound-based research.


Thursday-Sunday, December 3-6
3:00 – 8:00 PM

The Companion Gallery
908 E. 5th St., #106

Here is the invitation and exhibition notes:

…a structure behind or over a pulpit, rostrum, or platform to give distinctness and sonority to sound

 a device or agency that helps propagate opinions or utterances

 a person or group on whom one tries out an idea or opinion as a means of evaluating it…

This collective sound exhibit showcases the creative work of scholars attentive to the spatial, acoustemological, and ethnographic potential of sound. This SEM SOUNDING BOARD aims at operating in the interstices between sound-as-episteme and sound-as-performance, sound-as-symbol and sound-as-affect, sound-as-ethnography and sound-as-art.

The exhibit is an opportunity for sound-minded scholars to:

  • explore other avenues to circulate advanced or incipient research projects
  • deploy the sound installation as an acoustemological tool to understand unattended research horizons
  • reflect on ethnography as a process, for instance by making use of audiovisual material collected during fieldwork
  • collaborate with other sound-minded people, such as ethnographic collaborators and scholars working on similar topics or places
  • stimulate dialogue between ethnomusicology and other academic fields such as sound studies, sound art, ecomusicology, anthropology, and media studies
  • establish a point of contact between SEM and the local community during the annual meeting

The first edition of SEM SOUNDING BOARD displays nine sound works that probe into sonic in-placements (water and wind), sonic displacements (the telephone, the radio, and the microphone), sonic emplacements (the acoustic territories of urban Taiwan, the Brazilian hinterlands, and West Texas), and sonic mix-placements (in Mexico City and Havana).

This is a grassroots initiative built on the genuine interest and voluntary work of scholars and the local community. I appreciate your support and hope to see you at the next SEM SOUNDING BOARD.

Leonardo Cardoso
1st SEM SOUNDING BOARD Curator and Co-chair, Sound Studies Special Interest Group, Society for Ethnomusicology

Cardoso Sounding Board



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Sounds of the New Age, Part 1: Singing Crystals

Josef N. Wieland, an anthropology graduate student at the University of California, Irvine, shares some of his current research tracking global gemstone networks spanning from Brazilian miners to luxury consumers in southern California. This is the first of Josef’s tw0-part series on Sounds of the New Age.

I first encountered “singing crystals” at a gem and mineral show at a Holiday Inn in Santa Ana, California several years ago. I was among a group of crystal customers lingering in hotel room that had been converted to a metaphysical shop for the weekend.

“Wow, singing crystals,”  a woman next to me read from a small paper sign next to a tray of small, slender Brazilian quartz crystals with a light pinkish hue. Picking up the crystals for the first time, I was surprised by the high pitched “clink” that they made when I rolled them around in my hand. It was oddly calming, almost cathartic. In New Age spiritual communities, singing crystals are thought to hold a powerful centering vibration that can help release creative energies. Some crystal healers jingle a few singing crystals in the palm of their hand during healing sessions, and others have suggested that the resonance of singing crystals can transform the body’s subtle energies during meditation practices.
During fieldwork at the Tucson Gem Show last month, I purchased a bag of random crystals, and upon opening the bag, I noticed that some of the crystals “sang” while others only thudded against each other.  One friend explained to me that the temperature of formation and purity of the crystals causes them to resonate at a distinct frequency, but I am awaiting a gemologist to verify this!
In the video I have separated the singing crystals from the “regular” crystals. The sonic differences, in my opinion, are striking. While researching the global New Age quartz crystal market, I’ve tried to look beyond the use of sight, the most obvious sense employed in evaluating and categorizing crystals’ luster, shape, and color. Singing crystals are unique in that they invite a much different sensory engagement with quartz and its metaphysical properties. What can the resonance of these crystals tell us about the subtle role that sound plays in other global commodities, from designer electronics to luxury car engines?
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Provoke! A Special Collection of Digital Sound Studies

Cross-posted on Innovating Communication in Scholarship

Screen-Shot-2015-01-06-at-12.05.12-PM-e1420564088283Provoke!  published its first online collection of sonic scholarship, making scholarly communication just a little noisier. As the editors write:

“Provoke! creates a home for creative-critical projects by makers, documentary artists, and sound scholars whose work presses at the boundaries of scholarship. Envisioned as ‘provocations’ to existing forms of publication, these projects relate to one another through their deep engagement with sonic materials and innovative formal presentation….

The editors, known collectively as Soundbox, wish to see audio material featured more abundantly and creatively in scholarly settings. At the heart of our collaboration is a bold aspiration to hear sound used as a primary means of knowledge production.”

Their website privileges listening. Hovering one’s cursor over different projects triggers related sound. The range of scholarship and approaches are impressive. Perhaps the challenges of working between media and fields of expertise fostered frequent collaboration. Dancers, composers, ethnomusicologists, curators, sound artists and others worked together. The pieces include “a city symphony of sounds” collected before the 2010 earthquake in Port-Au Prince; recordings from a music studio set up in the Richmond, VA jail; and an audio effects processor, Paperphone, for giving scholars tools to ‘sonify’ their presentations.

As part of Paperphone’s debut at the UCLA, I had agreed to become one of experimenters. Using the MaxLive software plug-in, I performed “Mixtape Rio,” weaving together soundscapes I recorded with my vocal narration. Everyone’s varying uses of the software revealed and opened up new possibilities for scholarly communication and artistic creation.

But, what of credit and evaluation for this kind of scholarship? How does the work register as scholarship and what challenges does it present for the standardized peer-review model of publishing? Support and guidance from well-respected individuals and institutions helps; Duke’s Franklin Humanities Institute and PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge sponsored the initiative. Also, the online iteration of Provoke! Digital Sound Studies will be followed by an edited volume to be published by Duke in Fall 2015. Perhaps, these multiple modes of publishing can work together to strengthen and push the possibilities for scholarship– sonic or otherwise.

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Feliz Navidad from San Miguel de Allende!

Last night, Christmas Eve San Miguel de Allende reverberated with bells from every direction. The city’s three-hundred or so churches each seemed to have their own, slightly different schedule for ringing in la navidad. The Parroquia, the city’s main parrish church in the main square, the Jardin, dominated the soundscape with its bells ringing for about five minutes each hour.  After night fell, fireworks boomed through the air from seemingly every family’s party. Feliz Navidad!

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Standardardizing Species: Listening to, Representing, and Universalizing Bird Sounds in the 20th Century

I’m excited for Alexandra Hui’s upcoming talk November 4th at UC Davis and for the chance to act as discussant of her paper. She will be the second invited speaker of our Innovating Communication in Scholarship and Center for Science and Innovation Studies Speaker Series.  If you can attend,  RSVP for the paper.


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Singing on the Train

If traveling by train from Sicily to mainland Italy, the train is cut in half and boards a ferry. The ferry, carrying its cargo of train cars and passengers, crosses the Strait of Messina- a narrow passage connecting the Ionian Sea to the south with the Tyrrhenian Sea of the north.

Sicily was being left behind, but the Sicilians aboard the train made their presence known up through Calabria into Catania, finally arriving at dusk, pulling into Napoli Termini.

For an hour, a man had been singing along to his radio a couple compartments ahead of mine. I read and watched the scenery pass before I even thought to take out my i-phone and record what I had been hearing. It was so casual, so woven into the fabric of the sound waves of travel, that I hadn’t thought anything of it.

Of course when I hit record, he sang a few more lilting notes before falling silent.
Later someone else picked up the tune in a whistle.

I never saw either of them. When I walked up on deck, girls were taking selfies, curly tendrils of hair whipping across their faces in the wind.


My first day in Naples. There is a church on the top of Spaccanapoli- the narrow street the cuts through old Naples like a knife.

Inside half a dozen old women were reciting the rosary. My friend Mahriano indicated my phone and whispered, “Record this, no?”

The church echo and monotony of the women’s recitations cast a spell. I don’t know how long they had been there that day and I don’t know how much longer they stayed after we slid out. What Mahriano did tell me was that they come everyday. But only the old and devout. The ritual will die out when they die.

When we stepped out onto Spaccanapoli, bells from a neighboring church began ringing through the air. The cacophony of the street began.

-Nadia Szold

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