Apps as music factories

The rise of music apps has individualised the consumption of music, allowing users to create their own music, sing songs, upload them, and sing live with like-minded singers. Although the creative engagement may engender a sense of freedom of choice, these apps are not entirely free of the tangles of capitalism.

Published : Apr 24, 2022 06:00 IST

Members of a Smule group  in Coimbatore using the app for their practice sessions, a 2019 picture. Smule promotes creative forms of musical expression.

Members of a Smule group in Coimbatore using the app for their practice sessions, a 2019 picture. Smule promotes creative forms of musical expression.

Music has received renewed attention since capitalist forces turned local and indigenous music forms into commodities standardised for the masses. Theodor Adorno argued that large-scale music industries created anti-market situations by trying to monopolise and homogenise consumer tastes. The rise of mass culture, mass production and mass consumption meant that capitalist logic controlled the industry. In the 21st century, following the digitalisation of music, the production, distribution and consumption of music have undergone changes, leading to the demassification of music or music becoming an individualised and hyper-individualised phenomenon.

Napster was the first site launched to share music. It worked on the premise of peer-to-peer sharing of MP3 music. One could download music from another person’s machine precluding the need for music to be stored in a centralised server. However, it had to shut down as Napster allowed users to copy and share music without any consideration for copyright or intellectual property. That is, with music and songs offered as free objects, the industry lost the opportunity to expropriate commodity value from these products.

Should we access music free? Harking back to the Fordist economy, the music industry, before the arrival of the Internet, had its own resources to produce and distribute songs and albums. They were mass-produced and consumed on a large scale. The Internet turned this model of music on its head. The rise of musical apps such as Spotify, Raaga and Wynk has individualised the consumption of music once again, doing away with sameness. This is partly post-Fordist in nature. DIY music apps that allow users to create their own music, sing songs, upload them, sing live with other like-minded singers and karaoke have further accentuated the way music is experienced. These are platform-driven apps subscribing to what is known as platform economy. While it is true that users are allowed to sing and perform, these apps are not entirely free of the tangles of capitalism.

In his work The Cinematic Mode of Production, Jonathan Beller says “to look is to labour”, referring to media as a site of labour and global production. In similar ways, new age musical apps have become factories that are made up of an assemblage of software, hardware, human beings, infrastructure, and so on, all of which are essential to capitalism. In other words, to sing is to labour in apps such as Smule, a karaoke social-music app. The difference between karaoke apps and Wynk is that the former does not have any means of production other than the software, akin to Uber or Ola not owning cars, while the latter is involved in letting people access music through subscription and free trials. Let us look at Smule and how it draws users to its space and produces ‘singing’.

Materiality of Smule

The Smule app is a social musical app that facilitates karaoke . It is a popular singing app that creates a network and a community of people who want to sing or sing along. All those who have a yearning for singing are allowed to express their desire through the app while the smartphone is converted into a simple musical instrument. It is a musical instrument that contains several other machines within the app. For instance, the app allows people to record audio and video performances of songs in any language and genre. It also enables users to duet with other users, mostly asynchronously. People use the app to sing, record, search for duet partners, listen to the voice of others and listen to their own voices.

Singing bodies (users) exist as bodies inside and outside the apps; inside as singing bodies residing in databases and outside on social media and other digital spaces. For instance, it is easy to geotag and share one’s performance with anyone on the planet on social media and other spaces. Karaoke is a collaborative singing potential harnessed by Smule. These characteristics make Smule open-ended. Further, the app’s generative potential, enabled by features such as solo singing, tempo, genre, duet and karaoke, renders music as a digitally materialised entity.

In the contemporary culture, algorithms create music categories and recommend music to audiences on the basis of their tastes and preferences. Earlier, the seller’s purpose was to coax a buyer to purchase cassettes, CDs or DVDs, and there ended the market cycle. However, musical apps, with the help of algorithms, continue to track users even after some form of purchase is accomplished. Therefore, algorithms continue to capture and recognise distinct likes of users in order to demassify them. As the academic and writer Raymond Williams said, “there are no masses; there are only ways of seeing masses”. In other words, recommended systems of algorithms have made listening to and creating music online more personalised.

Singing in Smule

Smule promotes creative forms of musical expression. The creative engagement here is made possible by the potential of Web 2.0. It is best explained through the concept of prosumption as online platforms facilitate both consumption and production. As people produce and consume data or music online, they are also supplying detailed data about themselves to apps. This is the control factor that they are oblivious to while being appreciative of the mystical qualities of freedom that apps seemingly promise. The app controls users by collecting data about their likes and dislikes through algorithms that predict their future tastes based on an aggregate of data collected from users.

In another sense, Smule is a mike, a music instrument and a platform for singing bodies to perform and actualise their interest. Likewise, bodies are also instruments that produce sound and sonic experiences. Thus, the app, human bodies and non-human entities (technological features and spaces from where they sing) become bodies that are capable of producing sound, voice and music. Besides, territories of music are not confined to the app but extend to the outer world. Sometimes users share the co-produced musical event on social media where their singing acquires larger traction. The popularity gained or attraction garnered by singers on social media pages does not downplay the musicality practised in Smule.

The singing bodies of Smule are not celebrities; they are not conventionally trained singers. They do not enter the app with a pre-fixed identity as singers. They have the desire and the will to sing; their capacities to sing are enabled by the app and its features. Further, singing becomes an ongoing activity and is far from it being a vocation. Singing is not done within a studio, but inside an app, asynchronously, stored and stocked for others to choose and pair with.

Talking about music, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari have discussed the synthesiser, a new musical instrument popular in the 1970s. They said the apparatus was capable of blending different signals and creating a heterogeneity of sounds. The synthesiser can mix any signal across different parameters and amalgamate music as a varying continuity.

Smule defines the era of the machine similar to the synthesiser. Disparate human and non-human entities are brought together along unprecedented trajectories where songs are musical performances amalgamated from different sources from outside and within the app.

Milieus, Rhythms & Smule

In Smule, every feature can be designated as a milieu as each has its own agentive powers to mark and express its territories. For instance, in kindergarten schools the classroom emerges as a milieu for children, wherein they resist order and norms and become nomads moving about inside the classroom marking and expressing their territories. Smule and its features constitute multiple milieus through various user actions, such as singing solo, duet, karaoke, and uploading them either in aural or visual modalities. Visual modalities capture the user singing, the singer and his/her background, and spaces from where they sing. The visual creates a visual and sonic territory while the aural creates only sonic territories.

Some Smule users may choose to delineate their musical territories by singing single versions rather than pairing up with recorded renditions of other users. In another instance, the combination of singing, users’ attention to perfection, the headphones they use, the space they choose to sing from, stocked musical score from the app, and at times the lyrics with already recorded versions result in the formation of a new territory. But the territory thus formed is different from the established conventions of singing.

Another milieu offered by Smule includes the use of digital filters to repurpose the song, the voice or tempo. A user can produce multiple variants of the same song and invite others to co-sing the other part.

The app speaks different languages and performs different music with each act of the app, from recording the voices of singers to playing its music, from displaying pairing duet voices of a song to choosing intensities. In between every act lies an intermezzo, an interval. Intervals break the continuum to set on a new journey, exhibiting new traits. The recorded voice encounters an intermezzo before it unites with the musical score. The voice and the musical score get ruptured in a duet performance when the voice of another singer conjoins to form a new unity. This gets ruptured again when the rendition is chosen to be delivered either as aural or visual songs. The app thus offers multiple possibilities that lead to continually evolving new formations. Music becomes rhizomatic.

Smule and algorithms

Smule runs on algorithms and codes, and the materiality of the app in itself is mathematical. The materiality of the app is demonstrated by the interlacing of the mathematical codes and that of singing bodies, a melange of the flesh and the machine. The singing body is a flesh body and its recorded voice when databased is subjected to algorithmic tuning and modelling. The databased voice is disengaged from the body and coded into the machine.

Each time an individual decides to sing, the language of the song connects with the ‘software sorting’ of the same song sung by others. The absence of the musician, the original singer, and the text forges a new subjectivity for the singer. Through its features, the app also provides the lyrics, if needed. Thus, the song as an event is de-composed into text, audio, music, a recorded version of gendered voices of the song, and so on. All these elements are fetched by the app at the time of singing.

Smule is run by symbolic programming languages that operate at the layer of code. The code linguistically performs (it has a performative function) the logic to run the app. The execution of the code and the programme is actualised in the corporeal machine of the phone, which is the material hardware.

Each Smule user is endowed with singularities that actualise his/her singing. Singularities are actors that shape a thing when it enters a field of forces. Singularities are not present for one to see. They can be inferred only during interactions with materials. All features, interface, software and hardware, singing, and so on, are different materials in Smule. Singularities can be understood in the interactions with these elements. Therefore, someone becomes a singer in Smule not because s/he is already recognised as one but because of the app and its affordances, which constitute a field of forces. Entering the app filled with forces, the voice or the sound produced by a mouth interacts with the musical score and databasing feature to produce the qualities of a singer. A singer as an individual is produced after the singing is complete and much after that singing is generated with the integration of music. But, this singer as an individual further mutates into another singer when paired up in a duet.

Even in the case of a solo performance, a feature that Smule facilitates, there is no object-hood or subjecthood as it is an assemblage of technologies, techniques, music, rendition of the song, renditions of song in different versions by each user, which implies that the singing body lives in multiplicities conjoining with many other singing bodies. Likewise, in Smule , the identity of a song is born out of the splinter elements of music, singing bodies, invitation to participate in singing, algorithms, voices, and so on, all of which come together to form a unit.

Further, users are not professional singers, trained in classical singing or having the socially acceptable voice for singing, or having the knack for or proficiency in singing. Smule does not prescribe or define its functionality as a space that is meant only for professional singers. Smule does not proscribe amateurs from engaging with it.

In Smule, users are not circumscribed by such presuppositions because the app evokes only emptiness, to be occupied, inscribed, and sung into. Singing performed by a user is not evaluated against the performance of the original playback singer.

Smule to some extent becomes an acoustic mirror. Users visit the app to know how many likes they have received, how many times their renditions have been played and who have joined them in duet singing. Some use Smule to sing their way to popularity.

While users manipulate their renditions of songs, increase fidelity, tempo, and so on, one cannot ‘see’ these manipulations. The app has an option called Studio, which has variants that allow users to improve fidelity. Further, Smule functions not as a surface on which songs are inscribed, stored in databases as subjects, but as a machine—a machine that can be plugged into.

However, the visual renditions of songs are perceived differently as units occupying spaces. Even when users decide to use the video display of their rendition, it is the voice that acts as a sonorous bridge. When users sing along for a part of it that is already recorded, it is the voice that becomes central. The musical score recedes into oblivion as it is familiar. The playback score that already exists is called forth from the algorithmic space. It starts rolling out when the user is ready to perform.

Smule also illustrates how the analog folds into the digital. Voice is analog (unmediated sound) carried through in the medium of air before it is transduced into a digital material space. Digitised by the Internet, the smartphone and Smule, singing bodies fold into a digital space through multiple codes. Thanks to software, interface, hardware, algorithms and codes, a particular song will have many variants just like the double helix and genetic code that continues to evolve and create a finite number of components.


In Smule, the musical object, that is, the song or the singing body, does not pre-exist. It emerges through interactions between singing bodies, voice, timbre, musical score, interface, filters and codes. The subjectivity and expressivity of singing (by a user) are read into the incorporeal machine of musical codes. Several such subjectivities are inscribed on the app by singing bodies floating around within the app.

The musical object is not only one that is listened to but is also sung into. In that sense, the subjectivity of singing bodies oscillates between the subject-object borders as they sing and also listen to. They sing their own part and listen to it, besides listening to the part sung either by celebrities, playback singers or common singers. In other words, the song is rendered/emitted and listened to, sent and received. Further, it also negates the stratification of trained/untrained/professional/amateur singing.

Music in Smule ruptures the fixed grammar and canons of music, causing it to transition, move, alter, evolve and become a song than being a song. For instance, Spotify uses algorithms that help users to select the timbre of a violin, like the way larger categories such as melodies and other genres of music can be chosen. Thus a song is broken down into smaller units and fragments, thereby de-composing the song and re-composing it into different musical texts.

Singing has to be removed from its exalted status, torn down to form a minor music. The major music of established songs becomes minor in Smule. The major music and singing is broken into and invaded, but only to produce new singing possibilities and generate musical texts unheard of. It is the singing of the same song but with a difference. The difference is illustrated by the de-centring of the original artist. Smule also deterritorialises the visual montage (visualities are that of users singing) of musical sequences. It creates a unique form of visual-music or audio-music. But these are released from singers who sing, hear and create before and after. Further, the metre is mutated or it mutates and becomes incommensurable with standardised performances that already exist. The app precedes and extends beyond the songs produced for the market. The app in and of itself is a smooth, cosmic and becoming music space. Musical performances enacted by performers, along with the materialities of non-humans such as the ‘liking’ and ‘sharing’ in the environment of the app, repurpose music in Smule.

Smule does not allow users to select songs of their own choice for free. They have to become members of premium accounts. The interconnections between economy, politics and code bring up and highlight the project in which the subject experiences control. Assemblages formed using free account and premium accounts are thus contested here.

As the political economist Jacques Attali says in his book Noise , singing and playing for one’s own pleasure and doing it for the sake of doing creates conditions for new communication. He mentions that we are in an era of composition. In this sense, Smule also has communities that promote their own indigenous music. The creative engagement may engender a sense of freedom of choice within us, making us feel that we are neoliberal subjects that revel in a certain framework of freedom. On the flip side, the freedom of choice is illusory as users grow oblivious to control exercised by technologies. Creativity and exploitation form a formidable force and mobile phones and apps are instrumental in extracting labour under cognitive capitalism. Thus, the ‘produsage’ that Smule facilitates (to produce and consume) is another form of exploitation of labour wherein users perform their tasks completely free.

M. Shu aib Mohamed Haneef is Associate Professor & Head in charge, Department of Electronic Media and Mass Communication, Pondicherry University.

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