by Michael Terren
In March 2021, the music creation technology companies Native Instruments (NI) and iZotope announced a coalition under the name Music Creation Group. At first glance, this might seem like mundane bureaucracy. But following the money reveals a narrative of financial contest that is reframing the musical instruments of the 21st century as capital. Music Creation Group is the brainchild of the private equity firms Francisco Partners and EMH Partners. Both companies work exclusively in the technology sector. Back in 2017, EMH had invested €50 million in NI, one of the largest funding rounds ever seen in the music creation technology space. NI grew by some 60% over the next four years, before EMH sold its majority stake to Francisco in January 2021. Francisco had a lucrative 2020, having been named the top-performing private equity firm worldwide. Their $25 billion portfolio includes MyFitnessPal, Tile, American private healthcare tech, and several cybersecurity companies including Forcepoint, whom they bought from arms manufacturer Raytheon. In May 2020, Francisco bailed out ticketing company Eventbrite with an injection of $225 million, as venues shuttered across the Global North. All the while, musicians who had lost all their income were left with patronizing gestures of support, like extended trials of digital audio workstations (DAWs) and a ‘Donate’ button on Facebook Live streamed concerts.
Apart from Eventbrite, Music Creation Group is Fransisco’s first foray into the cultural and creative industries. Francisco’s press releases about the move illuminate how this space is perceived as a site of untapped extraction. Francisco praises NI’s efforts to ‘democratise’ music creation—in this context, a dog whistle for market dominance of an emerging demographic. It describes NI’s products as creating a “seamless user experience for music makers,” assuming seamless cultural production were possible, and claiming that “the appetite for a streamlined experience [is] only increasing.” It also asserts its goal to “further consolidate the fragmented music creation software industry.” ‘Fragmented’ isn’t a metaphor here, but a technical term for a market where no company is large enough to push the market in a particular direction. “This investment,” Francisco announced after first purchasing its majority stake in NI, “is meant to continue Native Instruments’ strong thought leadership in digital music creation and expand the company’s product offering to create the end-to-end user-centric platform for the music creation industry.” I’ve underlined ‘the,’ because at first it reads like a typo, but then reads like a demand. The title “Music Creation Group'' becomes more ominous, an entity as totalizing as it is banal. Francisco’s agenda is clear: democratization leads to consolidation, which leads to platformization, which leads to profits.
Although Music Creation Group’s product line includes hardware and standalone applications, their main products are audio plug-ins, small programs used in a DAW with audio functions such as synthesizing, sampling, or signal processing. Plug-ins are one of the main sites of aesthetic individuation in computer-based music production. Producers invariably have favourite, go-to plug-ins which are instrumental to their artistic identity. By and large, the plug-in industry is a cottage industry of sole traders or small businesses with niche aesthetic interests. There is a playful, albeit boyish character to the culture. Popular plug-ins have names like ‘Sausage Fattener,” “Decapitator,” “Diva,” and NI’s own “Massive,” breaking with the product code-esque names of past synths and audio processors (DX7, TB303, LA-2A, H3000). Their interfaces are often gaudy representations of what their hardware counterpart might look like—a design trend called skeuomorphism that evokes other, usually older media (the ‘Save’ function represented by an image of a floppy disk, for example). One of iZotope’s earliest and most popular plug-ins is “Vinyl,” which emulates the crackle and flutter of a dusty vinyl record. Its first version had a charming, cluttered design, a kitchen sink of sliders and dials with a brushed steel front plate. If you click each of the front plate’s screws, it flings off to reveal an integrated circuit and a sticky note, scrawled with the names of its developers. When iZotope updated the plug-in in November 2020, they replaced this interface to align with the uniform, technocratic style of the rest of their plug-in range. The transformation of “Vinyl” demonstrates plug-in gentrification, an industry transitioning from homespun curiosity to humourless, platformist expansion.
When Horkheimer and Adorno first described the ‘culture industry’ in 1944, they were referring to the systemic effort of a few powerful artists, entertainers, and administrators to impose a hegemony of economic liberalism and social conformity on a bedazzled public. According to Angela McRobbie, this centralized model has morphed into what is now described as the ‘creative industries,’ which privileges the economizing of individual self-expression, subjects it to the free market in lieu of government funding or patronage, and downplays the collective identities that help to create politically engaged art and culture. In the new creative economy, McRobbie writes, a growing cohort of the middle class are forgoing mainstream employment and internalizing risk and uncertainty to pursue exciting, challenging, creative entrepreneurship. It is increasingly figuring its workers across all disciplines as independent, enterprising individuals. With cultural production atomized and alienated more than ever before, it seems there has never been a better time to invest in its means of production. Creative software developers are well aware of this. Adobe, whose extortionate Creative Cloud suite includes Photoshop, Lightroom, InDesign, and Premiere Pro, has near-monopolistic control of visual and design culture, as well as the education institutions that teach art and design. It is now essentially a compulsory investment for the precarious creative worker in those fields; the means of cultural production are being rebranded as capital investments.
Francisco and EMH no doubt saw the lucrative potential of music software in a post-COVID world. It fulfils an existential need for individualized creativity that is aesthetically cosmopolitan and adaptable to the etiquette of domestic space. They also have likely identified the steep learning curve of electronic music production, a labyrinth of protocols, file formats, insider terminology, and tacit best practices. The business case for flattening them out into one ‘streamlined’ user experience is not unreasonable. There has been financial jostling in this space for some time, with holding companies consolidating and buying up music tech brands. The equally banally-titled InMusic is the holding company for a slew of brands such as Akai, Alesis, Denon, Marantz, M-Audio, Numark, Rane, and Stanton. Behringer’s holding company, the even-worsely-titled Music Tribe, includes the brands Midas, TC Electronic, Oberheim, and Auratone. Focusrite PLC also owns Novation, Adam, and Sequential, and is listed on the London Stock Exchange, their stock price nearly doubling since pre-pandemic levels. Despite the public-facing image that the brands within a holding company compete with one another, their target markets and supply chains are carefully orchestrated and interconnected.
What makes Music Creation Group a notable case study is that it employs several distinct approaches to the platformization of music production. NI puts platformization at the heart of its products. The beatmaking ecosystem Maschine, the synthesis engine Reaktor, and the DJing ecosystem Traktor, all employ some degree of proprietary hardware integration or third-party content. One of NI’s most hegemonic platforms is Kontakt, a sampler with a custom scripting backend. A small industry of sample packs is built predominantly on Kontakt, mostly geared toward the ‘professional composer’ working for screen media. Although intrinsically anything can be sampled and sold as a pack, most sample packs are recordings of extant instruments that do not conform to domestic space; orchestras, choirs, grand pianos, acoustic drum kits, esoteric synths, generic ‘cinematic’ sounds, and so on, all rendered playable on a MIDI keyboard. NI sells dozens of sample packs, including the problematic ‘Spotlight Collection,’ monetising instruments based on their vague traditional location (“East Asia,” “West Africa,” “Middle East”). By reducing their tonal complexities to the strict confines of the Western, equal-tempered piano keyboard, NI sustains what musicologist Philip Ewell describes as the white racial framing of musical understanding. Despite non-Western tuning systems being easy to implement in theory, they are not readily accessible for most software instruments, an issue that musician and researcher Khyam Allami has recently addressed with his transcultural generative music apps. As well as a platform for atomized cultural production, Kontakt is a platform for neocolonial musical framing.
Many of NI’s sample packs come in their Komplete bundle, which collects dozens of their plug-ins and packs for a significantly marked-down price, equivalent to about three or four individual plug-ins. It is an attractive option that appeals to a business instinct of contingency planning, of having many sounds available just in case. The Komplete bundle is characterized by a superabundance, or glut, of options. Its many software synthesizers have hundreds or thousands of presets, its sample packs each several gigabytes. NI’s newest platform, and probably its most appealing for investors, is the Native Kontrol Standard (NKS) protocol. Integrated with its proprietary hardware controllers, NKS is essentially a layer of metadata that makes sifting through tens of thousands of presets more time-efficient, organized by categories like genre, instrument, and vague adjectives. Writing about Adobe Photoshop, researcher Frédérik Lesage writes that “glut, when applied to software design, entails a strategy that figures an individual actor who searches, sorts, and manages a dis-ordered order in the (potentially futile) hopes of finding meaning and value.” NKS renders ‘finding your sound’ as both a compositional technique and an opportunity for optimization. NI creates glut and sells it back to you with the means to sort through it.
iZotope’s products are less concerned with ‘finding your sound’ as ‘perfecting sound,’ specializing in audio restoration. They use terms and techniques that make venture capitalists swoon: machine learning, AI-powered, integrated ecosystem, intelligent assistance. Unlike NI, iZotope position themselves and their products as agnostic to all musical styles or media content: the default laissez-faire stance of technology platforms. By distancing itself from aesthetics, it asserts itself as an objective, politically neutral entity, despite its products potentially being used in politically charged ways — their products are as useful for music production as they might be for forensic law enforcement or surveillance. One feature in its flagship RX audio editor is the ability to change or flatten the pitch contours of dialogue which, in most dialects of English, can indicate the class, region, and ethnicity of the speaker. In a demonstration video, iZotope flattens out a man’s Southern American dialect into something that sounds more measured, drained of character. In another part of the video, it takes a young American man’s voice with upward inflections at the end of each thought, and suggests “we can help make him sound more confident by rearranging the intonation.” The effect is middling, but sets a worrying precedent for how this technology might be used to modify the voices of people who aren’t American men. The video finishes with a slogan: “Restore the intended performance,” as if dialect was unintentional.
In its products more specifically geared toward home music producers, iZotope renders the discipline of mixing in entrepreneurial terms. Neutron is a suite of plug-ins that suggest an optimal mix for each track in a DAW session, applying EQ and compression accordingly. It is the starkest example yet of a managerial approach—maximizing speed and productivity via automation—to a discipline that wavers ambiguously between aesthetic and pragmatic. iZotope are performatively sympathetic to the way this technology has been received by mix engineers. “I think many of us were in shock that a lot of what we thought to be craft could be distilled into objective theory,” iZotope writes in an article addressing the moral implications of so-called intelligent assistance mixing. “This is actually a good thing,” they continue, “because it enlightens us on where to focus our creative energy and time so that we forge our musical endeavors into new, untapped territories.” Any historian of technology will tell you that a technology that purports to increase productivity, under neoliberal capitalism and the atomized ‘creative industries,’ will only ever redistribute or delegate labour to other technical concerns. They may also suggest that creativity does not move in lockstep with technology; there will never be a button you can click to make reliably compelling music. My experience of using Neutron’s mix assistant is that it makes everything sound homogenous, a caricatured mix somewhere between pop rock and EDM. But as with any hegemonic platform, its preset mix settings will inevitably grow to subsume more of music culture, encompassing more and smaller niches, while never quite replicating .
“A tendency towards monopolisation is built into the DNA of platforms,” Nick Srnicek writes in his book Platform Capitalism. Once monopolization is achieved, enclosure accelerates, locking users into an ecosystem with few alternatives or competitors. Shortly after Music Creation Group’s formation, iZotope announced a subscription model with a monthly fee for ongoing updates to their products. It is clear that this expropriative software-as-a-service model is creeping to ubiquity in music. Being mindful of this trajectory is important for any project to reclaim the creative industries as a critical, healthful cultural economy. John Tresch and Emily Dolan write that we need to understand musical instruments “beyond the standard notion of the tool as utilitarian and passive.” Musical instruments are made for music, of course, but they are also made to organize musicians in particular ways, bodily through technique, and politically through atomization. Musicians need more recourse to seize their means of production.
Michael Terren is a writer and educator based in Perth, Australia.
Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, ‘The culture industry: Enlightenment as mass deception’, in Gunzelin Schmid Noerr (ed.), Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), pp. 94–136. ↑
Angela McRobbie, Be Creative: Making a Living in the New Culture Industries (Cambridge: Polity Press). ↑
The Switzerland-based Behringer’s business model involves cloning famous pieces of music gear, with precisely enough design changes to evade trademark disputes, at a fraction of the original price. It is arguably a form of cultural and intellectual appropriation that parallels colonialism’s appropriation of Indigenous technologies and instruments, and forcing them out of the market with cheap, Fordist modes of production. With a name like Music Tribe, Behringer’s founder Uli Behringer seems to suggest he doesn’t care. ↑
Philip Ewell, ‘Music Theory and the White Racial Frame’ Music Theory Online, 26(2), 2020 <https://mtosmt.org/issues/mto.20.26.2/mto.20.26.2.ewell.html>. ↑
Khyam Allami <https://isartum.net/apotome.> ↑
Frédérik Lesage, ‘Searching, Sorting, and Managing Glut: Media Software Inscription Strategies for “Being Creative”’, in The New Normal of Working Lives (Palgrave Macmillan: 2018), pp. 109–126. ↑
Nick Srnicek, Platform Capitalism (Cambridge: Polity, 2016). ↑
John Tresch and Emily I. Dolan, ‘Toward a New Organology: Instruments of Music and Science’, 2013, Osiris, 28(1), pp. 278-298. ↑