Synths and Social Capital
Held in Manchester from 24–26 October 2014, the first Sines & Squares Festival of Analogue Electronics and Modular Synthesis was an initiative of Richard Scott, Guest Editor for this issue of eContact! Some of the authors in this issue presented their work in the many concerts, conferences and master classes that comprised the festival, and articles based on those presentations are featured here. After an extremely enjoyable and successful first edition, the second edition is in planning for 18–20 November 2016. Sines & Squares 2014 was realised in collaboration with Ricardo Climent, Sam Weaver, students at NOVARS Research Centre at Manchester University and Islington Mill Studios.
The author’s slides from his presentation at Sines & Squares 2014 can be viewed here (PDF).
The current interest in modular synthesisers could be seen to have grown through a number of Internet forums, one of the most popular being found at Muffwiggler.com. Named after the founders’ forum “handle”, a combination of two particular guitar effects pedal names, the forum itself has become the go-to place for discussion on and around modular synths and associated interests since its origins in 2006.
After expressing my own interest in the Eurorack modular synth format (established by Doepfer in 1995), a friend suggested I host an informal “modular meet”, so I began organising the Brighton Modular Meet with the support of the University of Sussex in the summer of 2012. My aim was to bring people together who may have not met face-to-face, in a place where they could share knowledge and experiences, show off and discuss their synths, make a noise and talk about the stuff they are interested in.
The process of exploring discussions on the UK electronic music scene since the late 1980s and early 90s, as well as my own position within it, also led me to investigate cultures in dance music. In Club Cultures, a key idea that Sarah Thornton writes about in this context is a particular type of “capital”. Obviously “capital” is generally thought of as money, but within this field of discussion, Pierre Bourdieu, in his book Distinction (1984), introduces “cultural” capital along with various sub-categories, such as “social”, “artistic” and “intellectual”.
Cultural capital is the linchpin of a system of distinction in which cultural hierarchies correspond to social ones, and people’s tastes are predominantly a marker of class. (Thornton 1995, 10)
Thornton continues the process of sub-categorisation and introduces “sub-cultural” capital in response to her investigation of British club culture. David Gauntlet discusses “social capital” further as something that:
… started life as a metaphorical mirror of financial capital: just as a supply of money can enable you to do things that you otherwise could not do, a stock of social relationships will also make it easier to do things that you otherwise could not. (Gauntlet 2011, 129)
Linking these ideas of capital to the growing interest around modular synths and its accompanying DIY scene (many modules are offered as kits that buyers must build themselves), I found this to be an interesting area to investigate, especially as — like many other elements of digital society — much of the discussion, such as how-to’s, problem solving, sharing ideas and the promotion of music, events and other works (Bruns 2008) happens within and around particular social networks.
Bourdieu based his research into “cultural capital” on the middle classes in Paris in the 1970s. As I read through some this work, I found it didn’t connect with my own cultural background and it became difficult to locate my own and my peers’ work and experiences within it. In the 1970s, the UK experienced the explosion of Punk and growth of the DIY ethic (Spencer 2008), a cultural phenomena that quickly spread to other parts of the world. In parallel to this trend, ideas on and around consumerism also developed, as we can see with the move to the idea of the well-informed “prosumer” buying “high-quality” pro/am hi-fi equipment in the 1980s. This and other observations made in 1980 by Alvin Toffler in The Third Wave also informed the growing electronic music of the time — Detroit Techno (1980s/90s), pioneered by Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson (Sicko 2010). The growth of consumerism can be seen to have continued in to the early 2000s with the wide proliferation of the Internet and user-led content creation. Axel Bruns, in his 2008 work Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life and Beyond, he coined the term “produser” to highlight how users produce the content they view and share, for example on platforms such as Wikipedia or YouTube.
With this in mind, and with access to information about how to use relevant tools freely shared online, support networks are easier to find through digital social platforms such as forums and social networks
Gauntlet again talks about the various forms of capital giving a clear history and overview of both “cultural” and “social” capital when he writes of James Coleman’s work in the late 1980s:
[Coleman] proposes a model in which social capital is one of the potential resources, which an actor can use alongside other resources such as their own skill and expertise (human capital), tools (physical capital), or money (economic capital). Unusually, though, social capital is not necessarily “owned” by the individual but instead arises as a resource that is available to them. (Gauntlet 2011, 133)
This idea of social capital should strike a chord with anyone who has attempted to find helpful information from blogs, YouTube or forums, by asking questions or just searching for answers. With the right amount of patience, access to how-to guides, what to do when whatever you are making goes wrong, and how to modify or improve these things, is available. Combining this access to information with Ian Anderson’s “long tail” concept (2006), it becomes clear that as any niche is going to be catered for; it will follow that there will be support networks too.
My own story and use of social capital begins with a desire for another analogue sequencer to complement my vintage Roland synths, along with the awareness of how prohibitively expensive original units on the second-hand market have become, not to mention their quite limited functionality. As a result, in 2009 I discovered a partial kit for a Scott Stites Klee sequencer available through the forums at electro-music.com. This project sat unfinished for five years once I realised I lacked sufficient knowledge and experience to even begin the complex wiring the front panel interface needed. In the interim period, I began my journey into Eurorack, established the Brighton Modular Meets and attended other such gatherings around the country. A user of both the Muffwiggler and electro-music forums adapted the original design and sold Eurorack adaptor kits, which enabled me to complete the build (with further help from a few other people via discussion online). I have continued to capitalise on the Muffwiggler community with the development of my current modular system, which encompasses both audio and video. I have also publicised and attended further modular meets, used it to gain followers on another social network for photo-sharing, and, I believe of equal importance, I have been exposed to and entertained by many other threads on other interesting and unexpected material that continues to be shared within the community. We as users of a forum have additional and separate interests — sometimes these come together and, as David Gauntlet highlights:
[W]e appear to be part of several groups — an interwoven community of communities — reducing the level of specialist isolation. (Gauntlet 2011, 153)
So it is important for other interests to be evident and that a community of communities comes together, and, as a result, new ideas and discussions can be introduced confidently to participants. This helps solidify the foundations that support social capital, namely trust and altruism. Where common ground is established, experiences are shared and fellow users can ask for and share advice for little or no gain, with the understanding that the advice is suitable and correct.
What follows is now an attempt to break down the broad application of “capital” available to users of the Muffwiggler forum; these reflect a narrative often followed by new and old users alike:
- What modules should I buy?
- What sort of case and power combination should I use?
- How should I assemble my dream synth?
- What else do I have to buy?
- How can I get the sound of “X”?
- Why doesn’t this do what I thought it would?
- Oh s%!t!!! — Smoke is coming out of my “X” module, how do I get it back in?
- Off-topic madness: where users can step over the fine line between common ground and niche interests.
It is clear that these forms of capital are good for the modular synth community, just as they are for many others; they encourage democratic produsage (Bruns 2008) and the development of a good support network, which can be seen as a home for participants to share and discuss ideas and work.
Finally, I appreciate this is quite a utopian view of the subject matter, and since my original discussion I have seen the Muffwiggler community shift, with the introduction of a number of Facebook groups as a response to certain events, changes and down-time with the forum itself. As Facebook stands currently as the most widespread social network, perhaps, as modular synth increase in popularity, there will be a shift away from web forums to further normalisation of the networks within which they are discussed. This may bring with it new issues in the ownership of, and access to, intrinsic social and cultural capital or “data”.
Anderson, Chris. The Long Tail: How endless choice is creating unlimited demand. London: Random House Business, 2006.
Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social critique of the judgement of taste. London: Routledge, 1984.
Bruns, Axel. Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life and Beyond: From production to produsage. New York NY: Peter Lang, 2008.
Coleman, James. “Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital.” American Journal of Sociology 94, Supplement: Organizations and Institutions: Sociological and Economic Approaches to the Analysis of Social Structure (1988), pp. 95–120.
Gauntlet, David. Making is Connecting: The social meaning of creativity, from DIY and knitting to YouTube and Web 2.0. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011.
Gelder, Ken and Sarah Thornton. The Subcultures Reader. London: Routledge, 1997.
Sicko, Dan. Techno Rebels: The renegades of electronic funk. 2nd edition. Detroit MI: Wayne State University Press, 2010.
Spencer, Amy. DIY: The rise of lo-fi culture. London: Marion Boyars, 2008.
Thornton, Sarah. Club Cultures: Music, media and subcultural capital. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995.
Toffler, Alvin. The Third Wave. London: Collins, 1980.