Musical Chameleons: Fluency and Flexibility in Online Remix Contests




remix, community, skills, fluency, flexibility

How to Cite

Michielse, M. (2013). Musical Chameleons: Fluency and Flexibility in Online Remix Contests. M/C Journal, 16(4).
Vol. 16 No. 4 (2013): remix
Published 2013-08-11


While digital remix practices in music have been researched extensively in the last few years (see recently Jansen; Navas; Pinch and Athanasiades; Väkevä), the specific challenges and skills that are central to remixing are still not well understood (Borschke 90). As writers like Demers, Lessig, and Théberge argue, the fact that remixers rework already existing songs rather than building a track from scratch, often means they are perceived as musical thieves or parasites rather than creative artists. Moreover, as writers like Borschke and Rodgers argue, because remixers make use of digital audio workstations to produce and rework their sounds, their practices tend to be seen as highly automated, offering relatively little by way of musical and creative challenges, especially compared to more traditional (electro)acoustic forms of music-making. An underestimation of skill is problematic, however, because, as my own empirical research shows, creative skills and challenges are important to the way digital remixers themselves experience and value their practice. 

Drawing from virtual ethnographic research within the online remix communities of Indaba Music, this article argues that, not despite but because remixers start from already existing songs and because they rework these songs with the help of digital audio workstations, a particular set of creative abilities becomes foregrounded, namely: ‘fluency’ and ‘flexibility’ (Gouzouasis; Guilford, “Creativity Research”, Intelligence, “Measurement”). Fluency, the way the concept is used here, refers to the ability to respond to, and produce ideas for, a wide variety of musical source materials, quickly and easily. Flexibility refers to the ability to understand, and adapt these approaches to, the ‘musical affordances’ (Gibson; Windsor and De Bézenac) of the original song, that is: the different musical possibilities and constraints the source material provides. For remixers, fluency and flexibility are not only needed in order to be able to participate in these remix contests, they are also central to the way they value and evaluate each other’s work.

Researching Online Remix Contests

As part of a larger research project on online music practices, between 2011 and 2012, I spent eighteen months conducting virtual ethnographic research (Hine) within several remix competitions hosted on online music community Indaba Music. Indaba is not the only online community where creative works can be exchanged and discussed. For this research, however, I have chosen to focus on Indaba because, other than in a remix community like ccMixter for example, competitions are very much central to the Indaba community, thus making it a good place to investigate negotiations of skills and techniques. Also, unlike a community like ACIDplanet which is tied explicitly to Sony’s audio software program ACID Pro, Indaba is not connected to any particular audio workstation, thus providing an insight into a relatively broad variety of remix practices. During my research on Indaba, I monitored discussions between participants, listened to work that had been uploaded, and talked to remixers via personal messaging. In addition to my daily monitoring, I also talked to 21 remixers more extensively through Skype interviews. These interviews were semi-structured, and lasted between 50 minutes and 3.5 hours, sometimes spread over multiple sessions. During these interviews, remixers not only talked about their practices, they also shared work in progress with me by showing their remixes on screen or by directing a webcam to their instruments while they played, recorded, or mixed their material. All the remixers who participated in these interviews granted me permission to quote them and to use the original nicknames or personal names they use on Indaba in this publication. Besides the online observations and interviews, I also participated in three remix competitions myself, in order to gain a better understanding of what it means to be part of a remix community and to see what kind of challenges and abilities are involved.  

In the online remix contests of Indaba, professional artists invite remixers to rework a song and share and discuss these works within the community. For the purpose of these contests, artists provide separate audio files (so-called ‘stems’) for different musical elements such as voice, drums, bass, or guitar. Remixers can produce their tracks by rearranging these stems, or they can add new audio material, such as beats, chords, and rhythms, as long as this material is not copyrighted. Remixers generally comply with this rule. During the course of a contest, remixers upload their work to the website and discuss and share the results with other remixers. A typical remix contest draws between 200 or 300 participants. These participants are mostly amateur musicians or semi-professionals in the sense that they do not make a living with their creative practices, but rather participate in these contests as a hobby. A remix contest normally lasts for four or five weeks. After that time, the hosting artist chooses a winner and the remixers move on to another contest, hosted by a different artist and featuring a new song, sometimes from a completely different musical genre. It is partly because of this move from contest to contest that fluency and flexibility can be understood as central abilities within these remix practices. 

Fluency and flexibility are concepts adopted from the work of Joy Paul Guilford (“Creativity Research”, Intelligence, “Measurement”) who developed them in his creativity research from the 1950s onwards. For Guilford, fluency and flexibility are part of divergent-production abilities, those abilities we need in order to be able to deal with open questions or tasks, in which multiple solutions or answers are possible, in a quick and effective way. Within creativity research, divergent-production abilities have mainly been measured and evaluated quantitatively. In music related studies, for example, researchers have scored and assessed so-called fluency and flexibility factors in the music practices of children and adults and compared them to other creative abilities (Webster). For the purpose of this article, however, I do not wish to approach fluency and flexibility quantitatively. Rather, I would like to show that in online remix practices, fluency and flexibility, as creative abilities, become very much foregrounded. Gouzouasis already alludes to this possibility, pointing out that, in digital music practices, fluency might be more important than the ability to read and write traditional music notation. Gouzouasis’ argument, however, does not refer to a specific empirical case. Also, it does not reflect on how digital musicians themselves consider these abilities central to their own practices. Looking at online remix competitions, however, this last aspect becomes clear.


For Guilford, ‘fluency’ can be understood as the ability to produce a response, or multiple responses, to an open question or task quickly and easily (“Creativity Research”, Intelligence, “Measurement”). It is about making associations, finding different uses or purposes for certain source materials, and combining separate elements into organised phrases and patterns. Based on this definition, it is not difficult to see a link with remix competitions, in which remixers are asked to come up with a musical response to a given song within a limited time frame. Online remix contests are essentially a form of working on demand. It is the artist who invites the audience to remix a song. It is also the artist who decides which song can be remixed and which audio files can be used for that mix. Remixers who participate in these contests are usually not fans of these artists. Often they do not even know the song before they enter a competition. Instead, they travel from contest to contest, taking on many different remix opportunities. For every competition, then, remixers have to first familiarise themselves with the source material, and then try to come up with a creative response that is not only different from the original, but also different from all the other remixes that have already been uploaded. Remixers do not consider this a problem, but embrace it as a challenge. As Moritz Breit, one of the remixers, explained to me: “I like remixing [on Indaba] because it’s a challenge. You get something and have to make something different out of it, and later people will tell you how you did.” Or as hüpersonique put it: “It’s really a challenge. You hear a song and you say: ‘OK, it’s not my taste. But it’s good quality and if I could do something in my genre that would be very interesting’.” 

If these remixers consider the competitions to be a challenge, it is mainly because these contests provide an exercise of call and response. On Indaba, remixers apply different tempos, timbres, and sounds to a song, they upload and discuss work in progress, and they evaluate and compare the results by commenting on each other’s work. While remixers officially only need to develop one response, in practice they tend to create multiple ideas which they either combine in a single eclectic mix or otherwise include in different tracks which they upload separately. Remixers even have their own techniques in order to stimulate a variety of responses. Some remixers, for example, told me how they expose themselves to a large number of different songs and artists before they start remixing, in order to pick up different ideas and sounds. Others told me how they prefer not to listen to the original song, as it might diminish their ability to move away from it. Instead, they download only one or two of the original stems (usually the vocals) and start improvising around those sounds, without ever having heard the original song as a whole. As Ola Melander, one of the remixers, explained: “I never listen to it. I just load [the vocals] and the drum tracks. [....] I have to do it [in] my own style. [….] I don’t want that the original influences it, I want to make the chords myself, and figure out what it will sound like.” Or as Stretched Mind explained to me: “I listen to the vocal stem, only that, so no synths, no guitars, just pure vocal stems, nothing else. And I figure out what could fit with that.”  

On Indaba, being able to respond to, and associate around, the original track is considered to be more important than what Guilford calls ‘elaboration’ (“Measurement” 159). For Guilford, elaboration is the ability to turn a rough outline into a detailed and finished whole. It is basically a form of fine tuning. In the case of remixing, this fine tuning is called ‘mastering’ and it is all about getting exactly the right timbre, dynamics, volume, and balance in a track in order to create a ‘perfect’ sounding mix. On Indaba, only a select group of remixers is actually interested in such a professional form of elaboration. As Moritz Breit told me: “It’s not that you have like a huge bunch of perfectly mastered submissions. So nobody is really expecting that from you.” Indeed, in the comment section remixers tend to say less about audio fidelity than about how they like a certain approach. Even when a critical remark is made about the audio quality of a mix, these criticisms are often preceded or followed by encouraging comments which praise the idea behind the track or applaud the way a remixer has brought the song into a new direction. In short, the comments are often directed more towards fluency than towards elaboration, showing that for many of these remixers the idea of a response, any response, is more important than creating a professional or sellable track.

Being able to produce a musical response is also more important on Indaba than having specific musical instrument skills. Most remixers work with digital audio workstations, such as Cubase, Logic Pro, and Pro Tools. These software programs make it possible to manipulate and produce sounds in ways that may include musical instruments, but do not necessarily involve them. As Hugill writes, with these programs “a sound source could be a recording, a live sound, an acoustic instrument, a synthesizer, the human body, etc. In fact, any sounding object can be a sound source” (128). As such, remix competitions tend to draw a large variety of different participants, with a wide range of musical backgrounds and instrument skills. Some remixers on Indaba create their remixes by making use of sample libraries and loops. Others, who have the ability, also add sounds with instruments such as drums, guitars, or violins, which they record with microphones or, in the case of electronic or digital instruments, plug directly into their personal computers. Remixers who are confident about their instrument skills improvise around the original tracks in real-time, while less confident players record short segments, which they then alter and correct afterwards with their audio programs. Within the logic of these digital audio workstation practices, these differences are not significant, as all audio input merely functions as a starting point, needing to be adjusted, layered, combined, and recombined afterwards in order to create the final mix. For the contestants themselves these differences are also not so significant, as contestants are still, in their own ways, involved in the challenge of responding to and associating around the original stems, regardless of the specific techniques or instruments used. 

The fact that remixers are open to different methods and techniques does not mean, however, that every submission is considered to be as valid as any other. Remixers do have strong opinions about what is a good remix and what is not. Looking at the comments contestants give on each other’s work, and the way they talk about their practices during interviews, it becomes clear that remixers find it important that a remix somehow fits the original source material. As hüpersonique explained: “A lot of [remixes] don’t really match the vocals (…) and then it sounds not that good.” From this perspective, remixers not only need to be fluent, they also need to be flexible towards their source material. 


For Guilford, flexibility is the readiness to change direction or method (Intelligence, “Measurement”). It is, as Arnold writes, “facilitated by having a great many tricks in your bag, knowing lots of techniques, [and] having broad experience” (129). In music, flexibility can be understood as the ability to switch easily between different sounds, rhythms, and approaches, in order to achieve a desired musical effect. Guilford distinguishes between two forms of flexibility: ‘spontaneous flexibility’, when a subject chooses himself to switch between different approaches, and ‘adaptive flexibility’ when a switch in approach is necessary or preferred to fit a certain task (“Measurement” 158). While both forms of flexibility can be found on Indaba, adaptive flexibility is seen as a particularly important criterion of being a skilled remixer, as it shows that a remixer is able to understand, and react to, the musical affordances of the original track. 

The idea that music has affordances is not new. As Windsor and De Bézenac argue, building on Gibson’s original theory of affordances, even in the most free expressive jazz improvisations, there are certain cues that make us understand if a solo is “going with” or “going against” the shared context, and it is these cues that guide a musician through an improvisation (111). The same is true for remix practices. As Regelski argues, any form of music rearranging or appropriation “requires considerable understanding of music’s properties – and the different affordances of those properties” (38). Even when remixers only use one of the original stems, such as the vocals, they need to take into account, for example, the tempo of the song, the intensity of the voice, the chord patterns on which the vocals are based, and the mood or feeling the singer is trying to convey. A skilled remixer, then, builds his or her ideas on top of that so that they strengthen and not diminish these properties. On Indaba, ironic or humoristic remixers too are expected to consider at least some of the basic features of the original track, such as its key or its particular form of musical phrasing. Remixes in which these features are purposely ignored are often not appreciated by the community. As Tim Toz, one of the remixers, explained: “There’s only so much you can do, I think, in the context of a melody plus the way the song was originally sung. […] I hear guys trying to bend certain vocal cadences into other kinds of grooves, and it somehow doesn’t work […], it [begins] to sound unnatural.” 

On Indaba, remixers complement each other when they find the right approach to the original track. They also critique each other when an approach does not fit the original song, when it does not go along with the ‘feel’ of the track, or when it seem to be out of key or sync with the vocals. By discussing each other’s tracks, remixers not only collectively explore the limits and possibilities of a song, they also implicitly discuss their abilities to hear those possibilities and be able to act on them appropriately. What remixers need in order to be able to do this is what Hugill calls, ‘aural awareness’ (15): the ability to understand how sound works, both in a broad and in-depth way. While aural awareness is important for any musician, remixers are especially reliant on it, as their work is centred around the manipulation and extension of already existing sounds (Hugill). In order to be able to move from contest to contest, remixers need to have a broad understanding of how different musical styles work and the kind of possibilities they afford. At the same time they also need to know, at a more granular level, how sounds interact and how small alterations of chords, timbres, or rhythms can change the overall feel of a track. 


Remix competitions draw participants with a wide variety of musical backgrounds who make use of a broad range of instruments and techniques. The reason such a diverse group is able to participate and compete together is not because these practices do not require musical skill, but rather because remix competitions draw on particular kinds of abilities which are not directly linked to specific methods or techniques. While it might not be necessary to produce a flawless track or to be able to play musical material in real-time, remixers do need to be able to respond to a wide variety of source materials, in a quick and effective way. Also, while it might not be necessary for remixers to be able to produce a song from scratch, they do need to be able to understand, and adapt to, the musical affordances different songs provide. In order to be able to move from contest to contest, as true musical chameleons, remixers need a broad and in-depth understanding of how sound works in different musical contexts and how particular musical responses can be achieved. As soon as remixers upload a track, it is mainly these abilities that will be judged, discussed, and evaluated by the community. In this way fluency and flexibility are not only central abilities in order to be able to participate in these remix competitions, they are also important yardsticks by which remixers measure and evaluate both their own work and the achievements of their peers.


The author would like to thank Renée van de Vall, Karin Wenz, and Dennis Kersten for their comments on early drafts of this article. Parts of this research have, in an earlier stage, been presented during the IASPM International Conference for the Study of Popular Music in Gijon, Spain 2013.  


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Author Biography

Maarten Michielse, Maastricht University Netherlands

Maarten Michielse is a PhD candidate at Maastricht University (Netherlands). His research project ‘Rearticulating Sounds’ focuses on the ways in which audiences appropriate popular music online by remixing, covering, and mashing-up existing songs and sharing them on online platforms. Michielse holds a research MA degree in Arts and Visual Culture and BA degrees in Cultural Studies and Journalism.