Using online/offline methods: An ethnography of chip music and its scene

marilouEditor’s note: This week, Marilou Polymeropoulou, D.Phil student at the Oxford University Faculty of Music, talks about her work trying to understand creativity in chip music, a type of electronic music composed on retro videogame and computer consoles. For Marilou’s thesis entitled: “Limitation and Creativity in Chip Music: an Ethnographic Perspective”, she conducted online and offline ethnographic fieldwork among the transnational community of chip music for the last two years. The methodological focus of her work promotes an ethnomusicological perspective on creativity and assesses technology from a sociological viewpoint. Marilou developed a set of ethnomethodological tools to juxtapose and combine the online/offline binary which she talks about in her short post below. 

Check out past posts from guest bloggers


Desert Planet (FI) perform at Eindbaas 9 in Utrecht, NL (13/4/12)

Desert Planet (FI) perform at Eindbaas 9 in Utrecht, NL (13/4/12)

Chip music is a type of electronic music composed on retro videogame consoles and computers such as Commodore 64, Atari ST, Amiga and the Nintendo Gameboy but also on any computer that can simulate the retro consoles’ sound chip. “Chiptunes”, “8-bit”, “micromusic” and “fakebit” are some terms associated with chip music. The chipscene is a transnational community which emerged online in late ’90s but its historical background is rooted deep into the ‘80s subcultural community, the Demoscene. Why use retro machines to create music? This is not the easiest question to answer. In some respects, it is all about expanding the limitations of these machines. “Why not?”, is a response I often receive by my informants. “It’s fun!” others acclaim.

Setting up the gear at the Analog Attack event, London, UK (7/4/12)

Ethnography assisted me in finding a meaningful truth of chip music and of what it has to offer to the academic discourse of music studies. The question is however, how does one conduct and juxtapose multi-sited and online ethnography with a transnational group of people? I used a selection of ethnographic methods, which can be summed up in the following bullet points:

  • Snowballing. My story with the chipscene begun when I met Tonylight a chiptune artist who was visiting Athens, Greece for an event. Tonylight introduced me to Javier, a director who was working on a documentary about the chipscene: “Europe in 8 bits” (see video). And from then on I met several people that were somehow connected.
  • Lurking. I lurked online in (servers are down for about a year now) and for enough time in order to learn the dynamics of the community online.
  • Participant observation. I followed Javier’s team in Europe and I experienced chip music in a different cultural setting – in Italy, Spain, France, England, the Netherlands and Germany. In addition, I attended virtually events which were broadcast online (e.g. Eindbaas 8 in Utrecht and the last Blip Festival in Tokyo) where users had the opportunity to interact via a chat room.
  • Interviews. This was the starting point of my ethnography. However, chip music is part of club culture and it was not always possible to interview people for a variety of reasons. While I was in the field, I attempted to record an interview at every opportunity. With some informants I found correspondence via e-mail or Facebook to be more efficient.

When it came to organising my ethnographic data I found that saving everything online would be the ideal solution for me as a) I could access it from any location and b) I did not trust my 4-year-old laptop, which could break down at any point and result in a massive data loss. In this instance again, I used a variety of tools to archive and save my data:

  • Evernote. Although I was using traditional fieldnote notebooks, I found Evernote to be very useful for jottings as I could include an audio/visual clip and/or pictures.
  • Dropbox. It functions as an online archive of all my data (pictures, videos, audio)
  • Blog. I set up a private blog, “e-fieldnotes”, to archive my electronic data.

Post scriptum: Packing up for the field

As I conducted multi-sited fieldwork, I had to be extremely mobile. I was usually travelling with a small backpack which included:

  • Clothing and accessory basics.
  • Earplugs. Vital tool for nightlife ethnography.
  • Nook (Android tablet). Useful for notes and internet browsing.
  • Smartphone (Android). Using Evernote, taking pictures and recording video.
  • Portable recorder.
  • Digital camera.
  • Smaller bag for passport, money etc.
  • Gifts for my hosts.
  • Finally, I always left free space in my backpack as I would always bring material back home (merchandise and other gifts).

One of the most important issues in an ethnography is location. Whether ethnography is performed in online or offline spaces, the purpose (to communicate a message) does not change. The only difference is the means of performing it, in terms of ethics, technology and representation.

Disclaimer: all pictures taken by the author.

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