Friday, October 23, 2009

On the buses: sodcasting and mobile music culture

In response to Wayne Marshall’s excellent series on ‘Mobile Music and Treble Culture’. From the abstract:
Today most people — in the overdeveloped world, that is — have a cellphone, an iPod, a laptop on their person, much of the time. These digital devices have become, for many, the primary interfaces with sound recordings, especially in the form of mp3s, compressed music files that allow for easy circulation and storage by adding a further layer of frequency range constraint (albeit mostly out of the range of human hearing). While some bemoan the social isolation symbolized by Apple’s white earbuds, remarkably, especially among young people, these personal portable technologies also enable the sharing of music in public. It is not uncommon in major cities such as New York or London to observe a crowd of teenagers clustered around a tinny piece of plastic broadcasting a trebly slice of the latest pop hit.
So many of the developments in music technology in the era of web 2.0 is driving it to become a more private experience. While this affects everyone, it has particular resonance for under-18s: people with less private space and income at their disposal, and more of a need and evolutionary drive to be out and about developing their social skills. With a soundtrack.

But the impulse to enjoy music together is innate: it’s an integral part of what human beings are. Barbara Ehrenreich argues that dancing and playing music were vital evolutionary imperatives for early humans – it encouraged them to bond together in groups larger than that of a small family (the optimal size was about 15), and in doing so, be better prepared to ward off predators. Most studies of cave paintings indicate that collective festivity precedes the evolution of speech as a social glue.


In this context, it’s not far-fetched to argue that the public playing of trebly mp3s off mobile phones on British public transport – mostly buses, mostly in London, mostly by teenagers, often non-white teenagers – is a clear and important attempt to correct the drift away from literally millennia of human public festivity. It’s been called ‘sodcasting’ in the press a few times, which is a pretty horrible, New Labour-esque neologism. Generally, the kneejerk reactions of little Englanders have been kept to a minimum, simply because little Englanders don’t use the bus, so they’d never know these out-of-control rowdy teenagers were pissing on everyone else’s metaphorical privet hedge. A couple of socially-constipated thirty-somethings from Enfield felt strongly enough to start a Music Free Bus campaign, however:
"People think they can sit on a bus and blast music out, and when you ask them to turn it down you get the abuse, especially from teenagers. I am not surprised people do not say anything because if I saw a group of seven or eight people playing music I would not go up to them, but if TfL advertised it on the bus, we could point to the sign to show them it is not permitted."
The campaign website now appears to be down: another victory for Broken Britain, eh?

On the London buses

From my haphazard gathering of anecdotal evidence on sodcasting (if we must call it that), the comments on Wayne's blog, and my own experience of hearing everything from minimal techno to South American pop on London's buses, I’ve heard it's common on public transport from Coventry, to Bristol, to Aberdeen – though there is less evidence of the practice outside the UK, so far. It’s two joyful examples from friends in London which stand out, illustrating sodcasting as much more than just sonic territorial pissings:

Alex Macpherson on Kanye West’s ‘Gold Digger’, on the 277
It was years ago, on the 277, in the middle of the afternoon. Three schoolgirls obviously skiving school (hurrah), playing it off their phone, and singing it in rounds: two singing the looped sample while one did the rap, and switching for each verse. Interspersed with giggles, obviously. It was an incredible moment.
Tom Lea on Fire Camp’s ‘Forward 2’, route unclear
I was quite drunk on a night bus in north London – couldn't tell you the number for the life of me- two girls playing ‘Forward 2’ off a phone (the one with Bruza, Kano and JME on it), and I sung the Bruza verse with one of them. In case you had any doubt, its not just a London ting, in fact it was more prevalent up north when I was at uni, but because it's Scotland they played hard house, bonkers, trance et al.

Recently I was on the overland from Cambridge Heath to Seven Sisters, and some girl played Donaeo’s ‘Devil in a Blue Dress’ off her phone, to which someone who I think was her little brother exclaimed 'this song makes me want to dance right here!'. That was just quite cute.
No Bass?

Anecdotal tales of London bus-music have long pointed towards the ever-growing popularity of road-rap: Giggs’ infamous ‘Track 9’ freestyle is possibly the most sodcasted track ever (this is more guesswork on my part, do please suggest alternatives for the title). Either way, it's not really contentious to moot Giggs as the first crossover star who owes their success largely to plays on mobile phone speakers. While road-rap may hold sway on the buses now, it's grime which has the best fit for the context – clear in grime's low-bitrate, badly-mastered early incarnations, which carryied that rawness and DIY energy of punk, as Alex Bok Bok and I argued in our Bloggariddims post:
Tracks like the insane, taut Ruff Sqwad anthem R U Double F – one of the few vocal tracks we've included [in the mix] – is a 64kbps, straight-off-Limewire, never-released work of genius. It's an mp3 dubplate, and the grooves have been battered into submission by repeated compression: we've included many low-bitrate tracks in this mix, because for us fucked-up sounding mp3s were a massive part of listening to music from this era.
Grime suits mobile phone speaker technology, or lack thereof, perfectly. The glorification of treble culture in grime reached a peak of forthrightness with the Slix Riddim 'No Bass', rinsed by the likes of Ruff Sqwad, Bossman, and scores of mobile phone DJs throughout 2005/6. Does grime need bass weight to back its beef? Let’s ask Chronik about that:

Chronik - No Bass riddim

Sodcasting may 'fucking annoy' more private souls, but it’s so much more than anti-social territorialism. The Metropolitan Police have just announced that actually, yes, they will be unashamedly, explicitly targeting black music in London, leaving its fans marginalised into the private sphere by technology on the one hand, and the authorities on the other. In this context, sodcasting represents a vital, politicised re-socialisation of public culture, through the collective enjoyment of music; an agency of human interaction so ancient that it predates speech.

Edit: In my haste to post this, I forgot to mention Owen Hatherley's post on the subject from last year. He lauds this same idea of young people attempting to recover the public space that they've been alienated from - a strike back against privatisation which also comes up in the conclusion to Hatherley's 'Militant Modernism'. I missed the Militant Dysphoria event, and haven't read The Cold World yet, so I've only a few blog posts to go on, but isn't this assertive re-engagement with the public sphere, this flag-planting in the increasingly private terrain of public transport... isn't this entirely contrary to the idealised retreat-from-view of militant dysphoria? This comes back to my confusion about how dysphoria can be rendered militant in the first place, I need a good explanation of why the phrase is not oxymoronic. Any links gratefully appreciated.


Blogger boomnoise said...

excellent work dan

3:17 PM  
Blogger Elijah said...

this is sick

3:22 PM  
Anonymous 8Bitch said...


6:02 PM  
Blogger Tan Copsey said...

You should have included some of mine n Abbie's stories about 'sodcasting' (crap phrase) being used as a means of creating confrontaion. Bit of a cop-out not to tbh. All very well celebrating it, but f£cks sake, give it some context. I've seen it used as a prelude to threats of both normal and sexual violence. Can be especially nasty for women who dare complain. I don't necessarily mind music but understand those who do, especially on long commutes. What compromise policy would you advocate, because I think in writing this piece it is incumbent upon you to do so. Happy to talk about this at home :)

6:09 PM  
Blogger dan hancox said...

tan i'll happily accept the charge that this is 'the case for the defence', rather than an entirely balanced overview.

but i genuinely didn't/don't remember these examples you refer to? abbie's beef on the top deck of the number 8 (the story i do remember) was nothing to do with people playing music. a prelude to threats of sexual violence?? seriously, i think i'd remember if you told me about this..

12:44 PM  
Blogger Tan Copsey said...

Will post twitter conversation here if you think it is relevant - me and Abbie were on the bus with a man who threatened to cut out the eyes of a woman who asked him to turn his music off. He then went and sat directly behind her and continued making lurid threats for an extended period of time. Lots of other more mild stories that involve less graphic threats and just frustrated, irritated passengers reduced to feeling powerless.

I'm afraid I also think the idea of young people reclaiming an increasingly privatised public sphere is self-indulgent wank, I'm sorry to say. Public spaces like this have to be negotiated not reclaimed. Sadly in my experience most people playing music do not respond well to requests to turn off their music from others. I think if another member of the public asks you to you have a responsibility to take their concerns seriously. In my experience most people don't seem to and on a number of ocassions this has resulted in pretty nasty verbal threats from those playing music (see above).

Also I take issue with the idea that this can be a collective experience beyond the one or two rare examples you site. I doubt most people are playing their music for the benefit of others on the bus, except perhaps for a few friends. Generally I read these actions as an a more individualistic attempt to lay claim to what is public space, often at the expense of others. These actions are more likely to be damaging to any larger community.

If you are going to make this point it would also help if you engaged with people rather than straw men. I largely disagree with you on this and have done in person. I would say a lot of your friends do as well. Engage with our legitimate concerns, we use the bus and we aren't some irritating imagined 'middle england'.

Finally, when designing public policy, the type of music or even audio 'noise' has to be irrelevant - so dark hints of racism are as well. More flippantly I can't help thinking that you wouldn't have written this post if the dominant soundtrack to London bus journey's was embrace and talkshite radio. A policy-maker wouldn't necessarily think of the type of music played on buses.

2:24 PM  
Blogger dan hancox said...

dude, there's a link there to a 'music free bus campaign', an organisation with a pretty clear objective and agenda - that's not a straw man!!

but i take your point about the broad range of responses of course, and i know that as many of my friends dislike the practice as enjoy it - i'd honestly say it's about a 50:50 split.

but, there's a clear line between the notion that it's a bit irritating, and your story of someone who is clearly deranged incorporating 'sodcasting' into their deranged threats of violence. i see no reason to conflate the two. sodcasting doesn't lead to threats of violence does it? if the guy didn't have a mobile phone with him do you think he would have sat there politely and quietly?

i think this whole debate operates somewhat outside of the sphere of pubic policy, doesn't it? no-one is going to legislate on the matter, realistically. i don't think the authorities generally care about what happens on buses.. elites don't take the bus, i think it's fair to say.

though saying that, i never thought anyone would legislate against drinking booze on public transport. but our LEGERND of a mayor proved me wrong on that one.

2:39 PM  
Blogger droid said...

I hate to say it, but kids playing music on public transport is incredibly annoying. The only time if found it even mildly entertaining is when a bunch of them started playing some home made Finglas hip hop one morning. Other than that its generally the usual chicane style euro-pop and shit US rap.

Personally, I don't see the difference between playing music and talking loudly on the phone - although with the latter, at least there's a chance it will stop at some point...

9:41 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I'm with Tan Copsey on this. It's not ideal, but the nature of public spaces mean we all have to compromise a bit in what we'd personally like to do out of consideration to others. Obviously that applies way beyond just mobile music.

I used to get the train to Kent regularly, and a bus for 5mins is irritating, but a 1hr journey...

And yes, it sucks being a teenager in terms of personal space, but... it sucks being a teenager, full stop.

My problem is not just about a disrespect/lack of consideration for others, but also that I hate hearing tunes on shit sound devices. How wretched would a world without bass be, so I can't get excited that a generation are becoming used to listening to music like this.

Interesting post though - it's a topic worthy of debate.

2:57 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I like my bus journeys without anybody else's torch lights in my eyes, blood over my clothes, dogs on my lap or fingers in my orifices. So don't insert your music into my ears, thanks. I don't care what it is or whether you've washed it, you're fucking up my chi. And my body's carefully tuned sensory system and its threshold for monitoring for acceptable changes in constants.

10:23 PM  
Blogger Steve Shaw said...

Sorry Dan, loads of things wrong with this!

1. If I'm drunk and bellowing an Irish football song out at the top of my lungs, would that be a collective experience worthy of your attention?

Your article focuses on one format of what we could call 'anti-social broadcasting behaviour', and one specific cultural group. By bringing up these issues of race, age and musical genres, you have strayed worryingly close in your argument to a 'one rule for them, another for everyone else' territory; that is, Black/Urban/Underground music culture should be appreciated and possibly protected/promoted in this form. Because race has been brought up and is also linked with the genres involved in your argument, there is the danger here of those who disagree with such a policy being labelled racist.

You are therefore placing yourself at the other extreme to those lobbyists of Music Free Buses. Such people could quite easily label you as a pioneer of Pro Music Buses (So Long As It's From A Disaffected Ethnic Minority Youth Culture That I Sympathise With, Listening To Genres I Happen To Be Interested In, Via A Generational Technology I Can Relate To). Which would mean you'd be avoiding the Pro Death Metal/Gypsy Accordian/Junior Marching Band Rehearsal Bus, yes? ; )

2. If I played a bagpipe reel out of my SonyEricsson on the 254 would people really say 'You know, if that had more bass I think it'd be OK to play that out loudly on this bus'?

Who gives a shit if grime needs bass or not? I find this idea of lack of bass being a justifiable pivot point in this debate laughable. Just because a phone sounds tinny does not mean that if we had a full-on system at the back of the bus or on a train carriage that commuters would appreciate the extra disruption these frequencies (and additional amplitudes) would cause them, just because they were experiencing the whole sonic range of the track's vertical entirety.

3. If I were playing empassioned evangelical talk radio loudly and shouting along about non-believers burning in hell, but there is the sweet love of Jesus for those who accept him, would that be alright?

Well firstly, in this instance, and in the instance of those playing any music, my view is keep your tastes and opinions to yourself. Playing your music out loud is giving me information I don't want, and in its original form, the most powerful form, the hardest to ignore and therefore the most stressful to me.

Secondly, I would agree with Tan entirely about the public broadcasting of music in this context, be it vocally or through technology, as potentially purposefully confrontational. Certainly any act of broadcasting is inherently territorial, as you are taking over a space (both abstract and concrete), whether you have good intentions or not. If you have bad intentions, the phone is a useful tool to initiate confrontation through provocation.

Thirdly, the grime subculture you have decided to feature most prominently in this argument of yours is also notoriously confrontational in its sound, attitude and behaviour. This isn't helped by biased media coverage either, of course. But people on a bus who don't want to listen to it, being forced to listen to it, and maybe even understanding the lyrics and sentiments involved - especially if teenagers are rapping along out loud to the bus about shagging underage girls or shooting someone down - are fully within their rights to get scared, angsty, irate, indignant, upset or however else they want to feel.

In all three of these cases, the music is being quite literally inflicted on others against their will. So the old adage of 'if you don't like it, don't [listen to] it' is impossible to follow. Not very fair, is it?

4. If I played a counter song, over the top of the original music and created a purposefully dissonant atmosphere, how would you follow up on your points from there?

I actually made a treble-based digital noise track specifically for mobile phone for this very reason, though have never had the balls/energy to use it. Thoughts?

11:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

sorry, but well reasoned and empathetic though this post is, kids playing anything on their horrifically poor sounding mobiles is one of the most irritating experiences you can experience as someone using london transport. i dont care what music it is. i love grime but surely they can use some headphones. this isnt 'reclaiming' the public space, its irritating the fuck out of anyone in that space, and purposely so.

2:25 PM  
Anonymous EsoTio said...

This happens here in Gibraltar too and it's fucking annoying. I'm sure it's all great and wonderful for the people sharing the music, but being required to listen to other people's music on ultra-tinny speakers does not make a bus journey more pleasant. It would be nice if they just plugged two sets of headphones into their mobile instead.

2:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a pile of shite! Loud music on buses is just fucking ignorant and lacking in respect for others. Full stop. But then buses are full of idiots who don't give a toss about what other people think anyway.

6:18 PM  
Anonymous liveworkingdiefighting said...

...and I guess souped up cars blaring out happy hardcore and attending cruises is merely an extension of Britain's sound system culture? a rich vein that runs all the way back to troubadour peasants on mules?

it's all valid as long as it fits within my narrow view of the world?!?!?!1?1?!

what utterly ignorant, chin stroking, subjective wank.

why stop there? why not extend this argument to defending other antisocial behaviour - hell, burglary is just a protest against private property, joining a gang is just regaining a sense of collective pride maaaaaan - as long as its perpetrated by a disaffected social group of course!

such relativism is truly depressing and severely out of date.

11:38 PM  
Anonymous nick said...

'sodcasting represents a vital, politicised re-socialisation of public culture'.

No, silly, it's a way of starting fights on buses with any poor 'sod' stupid enough to ask the little ****s to show some respect for other passengers.

Try riding the bus out of your ivory postcode and you will find that threats are more the norm than jolly singalongs.

9:31 AM  
Anonymous Alex Webster said...

Some people do genuinely feel intimated by people playing incredibly loud music on their phones and then being told to "fuck off" when they ask if it can be turned down.

They're not being racist, when they ask music to be turned down, which seems to be Mr Hancox's opinion.

To be honest, none of this is what Mr Hancox really thinks when he's on the late night bus home surrounded by 5 or 6 youths playing hiphop on their phones. He wraps his keys around his fingers just like the rest of us. He's just being contrariness for the sake of it, showing off his liberal credentials so he can label the rest of us hypocrite fuddy-duddys.

11:40 AM  
Blogger Neil Mossey said...

haha - I like this post - against the assumption that music played out loud defaults to antisocial

Put a video of an old person sodcasting on my blog

noone moans about their bloody keypad tones

7:47 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

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