Since the dawn of the Internet, people have been using it to talk about music.
In ancient times (the 1980s) Grateful Dead fans counted among the few paying subscribers on the WELL, one of the most notable early Internet communities. They brought parking lot culture from Dead shows to the network, a hybrid of social gathering and flea market. On the WELL’s forums, they’d debrief about the band’s current tour and exchange mailing addresses to pass around concert bootlegs on cassette tape.
Ever since those Deadheads took to the WELL, online music communities have been intrinsic to every major moment of the Internet.
IRC (Internet Relay Chat, an early precursor to chat tools like Discord) was filled with groups talking about electronic music and experimenting with live-streaming audio. Napster paved the way for widespread file sharing and ultimately motivated copyright holders to restrict access to media, often via the subscriptions we know and don’t love today. MySpace, arguably the first massive social media platform, was such a hub for music scenes that its fate felt intertwined with genres like screamo and ringtone rap.
Given all that, we live in a weird moment for music online. There’s an unprecedented amount of music available on-demand, but our tools for discovering and sharing music we love with one another are surprisingly poor. The platform era simply has not produced quality space where music fans can get together.
That’s why we’re building Freq, a community-centered social media platform for music discovery. Freq (pronounced “freak”) is short for Frequency, or the speed at which sound waves vibrate to create musical pitches. Freq is our experiment with a new type of digital public sphere for music, a start at mending significant tears in the music web today.
Music’s infrastructure problem
If you want to discover new music, chances are you’re discovering it through marketplaces, be it the virtual record fair Bandcamp, a cartel-like streaming service (Spotify, Apple, Tidal), a two-sided market like Soundcloud, or an attention-hungry video app like YouTube or TikTok. Comment sections on these platforms offer some ephemeral engagement, but they lack spaces for deeper, more persistent community-building.
If you want to gather with fellow fans to talk about music, you’re probably relying on accidental infrastructure. You might hang out with friends on Discord, which is designed for gamers and continues to be developed as such. Or you might be part of a Facebook Group or subreddit dedicated to your favorite genre, occupying a corner of their vast, multi-purpose platforms.
You’ll find, though, that these spaces come up short for music communities in really basic ways: just try scrolling back through a random Discord server’s #nowplaying channel past last week to figure out what music defines that community’s tastes.
There simply isn’t the same effort put into supporting social music discovery online as there is building out algorithmic curation or pay-to-pay algorithmic boosts on the aforementioned music marketplaces. TikTok is great at shuffling you through hundreds of seconds-long pop hooks, and Spotify promises something fresh every time you press “next,” but meaningful connection is the first thing to go when discovery is optimized for short attention spans.
Welcome to Freq
Freq is a purpose built platform for people to talk about music they love. The main things users can do on Freq are review albums, congregate in subreddit-like groups to talk about music, and make playlist-like collections of albums. The platform is currently in development, backed by our ethnographic study of online music communities today. It is inspired by Letterboxd and the defunct torrent tracker What.CD.
On Freq, you can customize a group to your community’s needs. So if you’re part of a group dedicated to your local music scene, you may want a bulletin board with upcoming shows and mutual aid efforts. Maybe you’re part of a cohort of songwriters, so you want to enable an album spotlight widget to boost an album each month written by a group member.
Members of groups can participate in decision- and rule-making. Moderators have robust tools to help maintain community norms and healthy rapport. They also have flexibility to choose how the group interacts with other groups.
For example, if you migrated along with some friends from r/RABM to start the Red and Anarchist Black Metal group on Freq, you likely spend much of your time on the platform trying to define which black metal artists and labels are “sketch”—ones that are explicitly fascists or friendly with fascists. You may well want to block all interactions with other Freq groups that seem okay with National Socialist Black Metal (yes, there is explicitly Nazi black metal).
On the discovery side, Freq is a place where you can learn and share knowledge about music by making thematic collections, adapted from the collage feature on the defunct torrent tracker What.CD, where one could make a big grid of album covers, with those albums organized by some kind of theme. And that theme could be “Midwestern spiritual jazz albums from the 1970s,” “bangers from my 2006 Bat Mitzvah,” or “Every country album with a song written by Willie Nelson.” It will feel familiar if you’ve ever used the Lists feature on Letterboxd.
You can make a collection, you and your friends can make a collection, or a group that you’re part of can make a collection.
As a user, you can review albums, and rate them if you want to. The ratings you’ll see, though, will only reflect the ratings of the people who you follow. This does a few things: it personalizes ratings to some extent, via your social milieu on the site; rejects the validity of a “universal” rating for any piece of music, which would only ever represent the biases and tastes of the platforms’ most active users; and prevents a long-running problem on the music web where people talk about an album’s rating instead of the album itself.
There will also be rudimentary blog functionality, where you can write about what you’re listening to, sing the praises of a little known album, or write a primer on a genre or label you love.
Why doesn’t something like this already exist?
The most vibrant and healthy spaces for social music discovery in the 21st century have often been ones where users were sharing files in violation of United States copyright law. When industry-backed legal action successfully shut down file sharing efforts, it inadvertently destroyed music community too. Such was the downfall of Napster, MP3 blogs, and many torrent communities.
Arguably the last social music discovery platform to truly thrive was the aforementioned torrent tracker What.CD, described by interviewees in our ethnographic study as a veritable Library of Alexandria of digital music. It drew many to its vibrant message board culture and a unique, volunteer effort to catalog and organize its vast collection of music along lines of genre, geography, and vibe.
It also attracted French law enforcement, who scrubbed its servers in 2016. When that library of audio files was deleted, so was a thriving social network and a vast crowd-sourced organizational system for cataloging recorded music that any library would be lucky to home.
Why is iDPI doing this?
You may be surprised that a small research lab at a public university is developing a platform like this. There are some significant reasons this feels like an important thing for us to do.
First, it’s part of our experimental work. At the Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure, our focus is trained on a new digital public sphere, one full of small spaces for quality discussion governed by communities. We started developing such software with Smalltown, a municipal social media platform where local citizens can discuss major issues in local civics and politics.
We want to learn what tools and protocols are effective for building healthy communities online, and we think arguments on Freq about the rise of skramz or whether or not a Black Metal band is sketchy will be a great testing ground.
Second, we’re trying to create a working model of a functioning VSOP—or Very Small Online Platform, but perhaps more accurately in this case, a Very Specific Online Platform—aligned with the values outlined in our white paper, “The Three-Legged Stool”:
- Interoperable, both with the streaming service of your choice and with future interoperable VSOPs
- Community-governed, like Smalltown or subreddits
- Small and specific
- Public-minded and prosocial
The final reason we’re building Freq may be the most important one. Fans, musicians, and music as a whole deserve a purpose-built gathering place for music community and discovery. Not one that’s accidental infrastructure, not one that’s a market, and not one that’s vulnerable to copyright-motivated legal action.
We’ll be launching Freq as an open source project sometime this fall. We just completed the design stage of the development with the help of designer Isaac Durazo and accessibility strategist Louis Do of Bocoup. You’ve seen their site mockups throughout this post, and we’re thrilled that they worked hard to ensure accessibility was baked into the design by default.
Since we are a research lab and not a start-up looking for 1000x growth, the early stages will be dedicated to experiments conducted with existing communities. We plan to collaborate with college radio stations and active Discord servers to iterate according to their practices for discovering and sharing music.
Of course, if you want to take part, there will be a public beta too. But understand that since Freq is first and foremost community discovery software, it’s going to work best if you bring some friends and get your hands dirty. Start a group dedicated to your favorite drum and bass subgenre. Make a collection of all the albums that influenced your favorite artist. Get a group of friends together and review a bunch of albums and learn about what your friends really think about Cocteau Twins’ Four Calendar Cafe.
What Freq offers is not music discovery based on an algorithm or shady deals that labels cut with platforms. Freq is offering the chance to find music you love through a community of people you enjoy.
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