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A New Era of Evaluation on Music Social Networking Sites

The music industry has consistently relied on a ranking chart and rating system as a marketing strategy and as a way to predict consumers’ penchants (Laing, 2003; Shepherd, Wicke, Oliver, Laing, and Horn, 2003). In the social media era, evaluative mechanisms function not only to determine musicians’ popularity but also to elicit consumers’ musical tastes. I propose to research how rating, ranking and badges on social networking sites represent a new era of evaluative mechanisms of aesthetic tastes. In doing so, I will examine learning in an informal and non-institutionalized context.

Foundational Research and Rationale
The study proposed here will become part of the ongoing research I am conducting on social media and ranking, which will provide a wide audience and an in-depth context. My past research has examined how independent musicians use social networking to market their music and manage their reputations by building popularity online (Suhr, 2008; 2009b; 2010). As an integral part of this study, I examined a variety of competitions and contests for musicians on social networking sites and the value of the online music chart Social 50 (the online version of Billboard’s ranking and rating chart) on social networking sites (Suhr, in-press). I also examined how the music industry recruits newly rising artists on social networking sites based on ranking and numbers of “friends.” (Suhr, 2009a).

Proposed Project and Work Plan
As a follow-up study to previous work, the proposed research will explore forces that impact the evolution of evaluative mechanisms and competitions in social media environments, as these intersect with the politics of aesthetic tastes and fame. To achieve this I will study several music-related social media environments, but the primary study “subject” will be Indaba Music.
Indaba Music is a music social networking site operating with two aims: 1) providing interest-driven activities in which musicians compete in various contests for awards; 2) enabling learning and improvement in musical skills through active feedback from peers and professionals. Learning occurs for two groups: for music industry professionals who try to discern which music has the most commercial viability by utilizing voting procedures, and for musicians who learn success criteria from industry insiders by competing in contests. Additionally, the “Artists Residence” section provides articles by industry professionals to provide useful tips to musicians such as “Learn How to Survive in the Music Business.” In this informal learning community, the members also acquire badges, which are positioned next to artists’ profile names and are awarded for such things as featured artists, contest winners and honorable mentions, and “Opportunity Maven,” which is defined as a “badge awarded to Indaba members who have submitted music to 25 opportunities…[and] demonstrated above-average commitment to professional advancement and creation of new music.”

To accomplish the purpose of this research, I have two goals: Goal 1: Understand the impact of badges on musicians’ perceived value, popularity and success in their career development. Do badges have the potential to function as an online resume for musicians? Can badges help establish musicians’ credentials? Do badges represent a new symbol of achievement and personal identity in the social media era?
Objective 1: Interview members of industry such as staff of Indaba Music and Microsoft’s development team to determine the motives behind the systems of ranking, contests, rating, and badges. Do they add value to musicians’ credentials as more everyday users participate in evaluations?
Objective 2: Survey musicians competing in Indaba Music contests about their experiences and what badges mean to them. From a practitioner’s standpoint, what are the motives for participating in systems of ranking, contests, rating, and badges?

To achieve this goal, Mantis Evar, one of the founders of Indaba Music, has agreed to participate in the study and noted that Indaba Music is already in need of improving point systems and badges. In addition, I will construct an online survey, in which musicians will answer questions about their experiences competing in Indaba Music contests and what badges mean to them. I will also contact decision makers of the music industry to discover to what extent evaluation systems on social networking sites impact or relate to the musicians’ likelihood of achieving success in the music industry.

The second goal focuses on sites that provide badges to fans and music listeners. (paired with Spotify, an online music service) is a place where fans share music playlists and learn each other’s recommendations for music. In doing so, badges are awarded for achievements such as Super User, Featured Playlists, and Recommended. Spotify has also merged with Facebook; thus every time a user listens to a song, it can publically display on Facebook newsfeed. Similarly, on, the members receive badges for a certain number of plays, contributing useful information, or displaying their musical preferences.

Goal 2: Address the implications of expressive mechanisms such as “liking” and earning badges on social networking sites as music fans. How does the rise of new evaluation systems in social media intersect with collective formations of aesthetic tastes? What is the significance of developing a new mechanism of expressing and displaying our tastes through the use of badges in digital media environments?

Objective 1: Examine, Spotify, Facebook, and to understand the significance of learning about each others’ musical tastes on social networking sites. Can a casual user’s exhibition of their playlist impact the collective formation of aesthetic tastes? What are the positive and negative ramifications as social networking sites function as a new type of gatekeeper? To achieve this goal, in July 2012, I will travel to Silicon Valley to interview Microsoft’s development team and also conduct a textual analysis of these sites.

Overall, I will use a qualitative research method to critically interpret the major themes and noteworthy patterns. I will also create a blog to update the progress of research for wide dissemination. As an outcome, I will write a journal article and develop a proposal for a second book.


Bourdieu, P. (1993). The field of cultural production. (R. Johnson, Ed.). New York:
Columbia University Press.

Laing, D. (2003). Music and the market: The economics of music in the modern
world. In C. Martin, H. Trevor, & R. Middleton (Eds.), The cultural study of
music: A critical introduction. London and New York: Routledge.

Shepherd, J., Wicke, P., Oliver, P., Laing, D., & Horn, D. (2003). Continuum
encyclopedia of popular music of the world (Vol. 1). New York: Continuum.

Suhr, H.C. (2008). The role of intermediaries in the consecration of arts on International Journal of Media and Cultural Politics, 4(2). 259-263.

Suhr, H. C. (2009a). Underpinning the paradoxes in the artistic fields of MySpace:
The problematization of values and popularity in convergence culture. New Media
& Society, 11(1-2), 178-198.

Suhr, H.C. (2009b). Understanding the operation and values of live music performances
on Secondlife: A textual analysis on social networking sites for
International Journal of the Humanities, 7(1), p. 183-196.

Suhr, H. C. (2010). Understanding the emergence of social protocols on
MySpace: Impact and its ramifications. Comunicar: Scientific Journal of Media
Education, 17(34), 45-53.

Suhr, H.C. (in-press). Social Media and Music: The Digital Field of Cultural
Production, Digital Formation Series, S. Jones
(Ed.). New York, New York: Peter Lang Press.

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