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Music, industry, and researching your own hidden curriculum

Music, industry, and researching your own hidden curriculum

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Tags: General and reference, History of computing, Model curricula, Performing arts

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Every field starts with hopes and dreams. If you're working in tech, it's important to understand the foundations that the first platforms were built on. If you're working in research, it's important to know how to get published. If you're working in industry, it's important to understand how roles work together and how to build your career. If you're working in music, you have to find ways to understand the history and foundations of the music industry. All of this requires research; or rather meta-research to understand the unspoken rules of how to succeed, how to navigate barriers, and where to focus your limited time.

back to top  Data in the Music Industry

Recently, Amber Hamilton provided a great overview of foundational utopian visions in the early tech industry [1]. How previous social constructs like race and gender wouldn't matter anymore, but also how it turned out that using such hopes as a baseline assumption led to some rather shaky foundations [1]. Working in a domain like music is hugely inspiring, but shows similar shaky foundations. There are both barriers to entry and barriers to the top.

As two technologists who care deeply about representation and the power of art and music to inspire social change, we wanted to explore the technological manifestations of those challenges as well as the drivers for success. However, it's important to also do the work to establish where we are. Our focus is gender in music.

Women have always been creators and musicians, but they also face specific challenges. Only 21.6 percent of the artists that appeared on the Billboard Hot 100 from 2012–2020 were women. Of credited producers, only 2 percent were women, with only 9 out of 1,291 of production credits going to women of color (while artists are much better represented in comparison) [2]. In our study of music streaming, we similarly found only slightly more than one in five music streams go to female artists [3]. This is not the same across genres. In metal and hip hop relatively few streams go to female artists, while in pop and R&B these numbers are higher, suggesting genre-specific expectations may play a role. Interestingly we found these numbers to be slightly higher in programmed streams, which are the result of algorithmic or editorial recommendations, than in non-programmed streams that are the result of searches or playlists. While this baseline can use further investigation, this does suggest that indeed change is possible.

When further investigating which artists get to climb in streaming, we found representation of women is not the same at every popularity level. More women artists are at lower levels of popularity than at middle levels, but experience a slight uptick at the top. This uptick top suggests added selective pressure making it through the ranks, with outsize investment in superstars. For example, mixed gender groups become less prominent at the top, suggesting very specific expectations for specific individual superstars. It, however, also suggests that industry willingness to invest in an artist can mitigate gaps. The popularity of genres with higher female representation like pop and R&B provides hope—but also the insight that there are structures to navigate that aren't the same for every genre and subculture. This also applies to specific roles. For specialized, but highly influential, roles, such as music producers, the numbers are even lower—estimated in the single digits (2.7 percent in [2]). Organizations, such as The Women's Audio Mission (womensaudiomission.org), are specifically set up to change this and impart education and experience necessary to create careers in music production. But the necessity for this organization to set up the first women-run studio in itself illustrates the amount of work, investment, and knowledge necessary.

There is a hidden curriculum in the music industry, one that is often hard-learned from experience. Beyond the various behind-the-scenes professional roles one could assume, you have to learn to navigate the professional politics of an industry famed for celebrating those who eschew rules. Music and entertainment provide a seemingly never-ending cycle of new genres starting as subversive and norm-breaking, but slowly become the new mainstream norm [4]. This cycle makes music and entertainment a good place to explore and break boundaries, but it also means a structural challenge for the vanguard who has to break those rules. Navigating this challenge is part of the hidden curriculum that makes breaking into a successful music career difficult. The opacity of what makes for a successful career in music, at least partially, explains low representation of marginalized groups across the upper levels of less visible industry roles—while being much better represented as popular artists.

back to top  Using History to Frame your Current Work

A lot of Ph.D. work and publications seem to be framed as "what are you doing that no one has ever done before." However, making this into a competition isn't necessary. Your human domain has most likely been around hundreds of years—if not before recorded history. AI is old news from the 1950s. Human-centred AI is 20 years old. Value-sensitive design is 20 to 30 years old. And that's fine. You don't have to be "the first," you have to add on top of foundations, in your specific way. That means you can pull inspiration from the historical foundations in your research field, your domain, and your own experiences.

If you're building in music, you need to know what roles platforms play in how artists build audience communities—and can benefit from the work of Nancy Baym [5] who takes a deep dive into those processes. If you're in an organization, it's important to understand its history, and the different types of roles and projects it has been investing in. Thinking through your own curriculum, beyond the technical aspects of your work, are crucial in preparing you for your audience's questions about why your project matters, especially if they have been part of that wider history themselves.

That inspiration can come from fields that may appear rather esoteric at first. For example, in the early 1900s to 1920s, going to the cinema didn't just mean viewing ads or announcements before the main feature. There were also "song slides" that would introduce new songs, enticing moviegoers to buy sheet music or later records, this evovled into entertaining audiences through sing-along. Basically, song slides were music videos or even karaoke before either existed. When searching for the titles or lyrics on those slides, it becomes very apparent that not every track can easily be found anymore, while other tracks have become mainstays—who actually performed the tracks in the theater is often much less clear. There was an industry with dominant song slide producers setting the visual culture of the day (See Figure 1), song slide exchanges acting as hubs to build slide collections, and even bootleg slides. It also becomes clear that the hidden rules to attract specific types of audiences—while leaving out others—were becoming more and more explicit. Nickelodeons began to legitimize themselves by marketing toward "respectable" audiences, with middle-class women as a desired audience—even if their hats were annoying features (See Figures 2,3,4 for example slides). (Dr. Maggie Hennefeld takes a fascinating deep dive into these hats and what they signified [6].)

Media formats and platforms come and go, or grow. Understanding how this impacts culture is crucial in deepening your own understanding of current practices, and how what you are coding doesn't exist in a vacuum. Sociological or historical work that provides thorough, and very concrete examples, can provide you with the foundations and comparative frameworks to understand imbalances in specific cultural domains (whether it's music, or tech, or the intersection of both). For example, Esther Morgan-Ellis provides a great in-depth overview of later sing-along in American cinemas [7]. She discusses the norms for different audiences, format changes, how orchestras changed into organs, and how those changes affected an industry and the people working in it. Which audiences got to see what? What content was shown to which audiences? Who played the organs, and became stars themselves? All those questions are still relevant today, and will affect what current tracks will still be around in a century from now, which illustrates the crucial roles of archives and libraries beyond commercial platforms alone. Understanding those wider contexts can also help you understand similar challenges in the academic realm, or even in your personal career.

back to top  Educating your Audience Through your Own Research

Understanding the unspoken rules of how to succeed, how to navigate an industry, and where to focus your time are crucial in your own research and career as well. Very roughly speaking, research in industry can be used to identify new opportunities, as well as understanding potential impact and potential risks when making decisions. Translating and transitioning between academic and industry research requires some shifts in how to frame work. If it is unclear how a research project could potentially change decisions and project directions, it's unlikely to get resourced. If you already know what you're going to do, you're unlikely going to invest in doing research work. There has to be a clear "so what." Why does this work matter, and how will we—if the results are different than we expected beforehand—change what we do. This means doing a hidden research project in itself: understanding what matters in your specific domain and organization.


Establishing the baseline for developing the technical expertise that is expected, also includes finding what makes your work actionable for others.


In a similar process, research that can be deeply influential in a business or product setting may not necessarily be understood as such by academic audiences. For example, when working on music, an unfortunately not uncommon response is that music is a niche, maybe even "unserious," application. To someone in the entertainment industry, this would be incredibly surprising. Not only is music an approximately 20 billion dollar industry, music is also a massively influential cultural force. Music has the power to impact the psychology and behavior of human beings and groups. Whoever underestimates the power of K-Pop fandoms or Beyoncé's Beyhive does so at their own peril. Music affects moods, creates communities, and galvanizes movements [5]. Who is visible, who makes it, and what tracks are on repeat matters to worldwide audiences. But that doesn't mean that every audience will get this without an explanation.

The longer you work in a specific field, the more you anticipate what different professional audiences may not have learned, and the hidden curriculum you need to uncover for them. You may present work and not get the enthused reaction you were anticipating. Being able to pull from very different experiences, and getting straight-up feed- back from mentors or colleagues from very different backgrounds—sponsors with insight about your current organization—can help you build foundations. Those foundations help you to not be thrown off by confused reactions, but be open enough to learn from them—and push back when you need to. Sometimes you have to make it as easy as possible for your audience to get to where you want them to go. Presenting a complex paper may impress an academic audience, but an executive needs a headline explaining why this matters, and a clear action-based scenario: What options do they have, what do you want them to do next, and what are the consequences of picking one option over another?

Rather than relying on your technical expertise alone—which is a baseline expectation that you'll have—you need to build an organizational and operational curriculum for yourself. Your hidden curriculum here can be to get to know communications and operations professionals, program managers, and product managers; learn how they prioritize and communicate; and under-tand the hidden work they do to push initiatives forward. It can also include taking some non-corporate inspiration from groups like the Guerilla Girls (guerrillagirls.com/work). They are an activist art group focused on representation in the art world, who run ads with (a) a clear data-based stat, and (b) a very clear suggested action (with just a little bit more bite than you'd usually present in the boardroom).

back to top  Research as a Learning Exercise

After you graduate, learning doesn't stop. Working in different capacities within specific domains gives you a great opportunity to learn not only about that domain, but also the wide variety of roles and expertise that make up that domain. Whether in academia or in industry, you have to make your research skills work for you. This means understanding the challenges different groups will face when "getting things done," but also finding the drivers for success. Establishing the baseline for developing the technical expertise that is expected, also includes finding what makes your work actionable for others. This means you cannot stick to the technical alone, you have to explore the hidden curriculum of how industries work, the art, the history, the politics, as well as finding your joy and inspiration to keep going.


Media formats and platforms come and go, or grow. Understanding how this impacts culture is crucial in deepening your own understanding of current practices.


As an artist, Avriel learned the power of PR and audience building, which served her well as a researcher. Learning to promote your work and gain support from like-minded individuals is important when you're building a fan base for your new album, convincing a funding agency to grant you a fellowship, or getting organizational support for a new product. During her research, Henriette learned that persistence can pay off, but you also have to find the right packaging for different types of audiences and a receptive moment, to experience short-term successes along the way. That moment can take a while, which—silver lining—gives you the time to be ready with the right data, at the right moment. Part of this preparation can be to turn this into a research project in itself. For example, when wondering about what made tech responsibility efforts a success, Henriette found new collaborators who were surveying the landscape of others with similar work elsewhere as a shared research project in itself [8].

Those who can successfully navigate the hidden curriculum of both research and industry are poised to be impactful researchers. Knowing the larger history and how it will intersect in your work, as well in your work practices, will make a difference. This doesn't always happen automatically. While experience will provide some of those lessons, learning can be sped up with some planning. You need mentors, either in real life or in text, to help you figure out what that hidden curriculum is, but especially sponsors who can actively help. You have to consciously work on a plan to identify the gaps you have, how to get that non-formal "education," and build a portfolio. Being able to move between communities, and finding fields and people outside of your regular day-to-day work, are crucial to learn how to pick and communicate what is worthwhile to focus on. At the end of the day, one's career success—whether that be in academia, industry, the arts, government, tech, or in other fields—hinges on structural barriers or support, your ability to influence others and persuade them that your work matters, and finding your sponsors.

back to top  References

[1] Hamilton, A. A genealogy of critical race and digital studies: Past, present, and future. Sociology of Race and Ethnicity 6, 3 (2020), 292–301.

[2] Smith, S. L., Pieper, K., Choueiti, M., Hernandez, K., and Yao, K. Inclusion in the Recording Studio? Gender and Race/Ethnicity of Artists, Songwriters & Producers across 900 Popular Songs from 2012–2020. USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative Report. 2021; http://assets.uscannenberg.org/docs/aii-inclusion-recording-studio2021.pdf

[3] Epps, A., Bouyer, R. T., and Cramer, H. Artist gender representation in music streaming. In Proceedings of the 21st ISMIR Conference. International Society for Music Information Retrieval, 2020.

[4] Gioia, T. Music a Subversive History. Basic Books, New York, 2019.

[5] Baym, N. Playing to the Crowd, Musicians, Audiences, and the Intimate Work of Connection. NYU Press, New York, 2018.

[6] Hennefeld, M. Women's hats and silent film spectatorship: Between ostrich plume and moving image. Film History 28, 3 (2016), 24–53.

[7] Morgan-Ellis, E. M. Everybody Sing! Community Singing in the American Picture Palace. University of Georgia Press, Athens, GA, 2018.

[8] Rakova, B., Yang, J., Cramer, H., and Chowdhury, R. Where responsible AI meets reality: Practitioner perspectives on enablers for shifting organizational practices. arXiv preprint arXiv:2006.12358v4.

back to top  Authors

Henriette Cramer is a director of research and algorithmic impact at Spotify. Her work combines quantitative, large-scale data approaches with qualitative research to translate abstract calls to action into concrete, data-informed strategy, and product directions. Her work has resulted in products, features, patents and publications with applications ranging from (ro)bots to recommenders. Her Ph.D. from the University of Amsterdam (2010) focused on people's responses to autonomous systems.

Avriel Epps-Darling is a Ph.D. candidate, Ford fellow, and Presidential Scholar at Harvard University. As a scholar, she has garnered numerous awards and honors, including an invitation from the U.S. Department of Education to present her work for Congress in Washington D.C.. Her research on algorithmic bias and music streaming compliments her foray into music making, where she took on the stage name King avriel. Her most recent musical project "thesis" was released to critical acclaim, hailed as "prodigious" by the Huffington Post and featured in The New York Times, Vogue, Vice, and more.

back to top  Figures

F1Figure 1. Before making it into the statistics, you need to make it into the data. That itself isn't necessarily a given. Active data curation can help understand data limitations. Here an example found by Brendan Coon, lead of the Data Curation team at Spotify (one of those less known, but critical, roles in tech), of a "lovely girl vocalist," with a "winning "personality" but no name.

F2Figure 2. An example of an cinema announcement slide (or a later reference, as provenance of this slide is unknown) illustrating the conflict of cinemas trying to attract a "nicer" audience by signaling they were safe venues for "respectable" women—at that time fashioned with the most impressive hats, while also setting norms about their behavior (see also [6]).

F3Figure 3. Rules appear to have varied depending on time period, venue, and [desired] audiences, from having to be quiet to sing-a-long.

F4Figure 4. Example of love themes in a glass slide, part of a song slide series produced by Scott and Van Altena, one of the most dominant song slide production companies.

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