Demographics of the Disquiet Junto

I’m currently working on a book chapter about the Disquiet Junto, the internet’s most innovative creative music community, run by author and blogging inspiration Marc Weidenbaum.

Disquiet Junto

As part of my research, I conducted a survey of the Junto mailing list. Here’s a summary of the first 130 responses. 

Junto participants are 94% male. Their ages are distributed fairly evenly from 18 to 70, with a peak in the late 30s and a slight concentration through the 40s. The large majority are American, British, Canadian or Australian, with the remainder scattered across the world.

SoundCloud has been the most common way for participants to learn about the Junto, with 27% of respondents citing it. Another 25% report finding it via other social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Like me, 19% of people learned about the Junto directly from Disquiet.com, and 15% came in through word of mouth.

Marc’s Junto mailing list goes to more than 1100 people. Between 20 and 50 people participate in each project. Fifteen survey respondents report not having posted any tracks, although several of those report starting projects without completing them, or completed projects without posting them. Another 48 respondents report having completed between one and ten projects. Fewer (18) have completed between 11 and 20 projects, and fewer still (16) have completed between 21 and 50 projects. My subjective impression is that a small core of participants have contributed the bulk of the submissions, and the survey supports that, with 11 respondents having completed 51 to 100 projects, and nine obsessives (myself included) having done more than 100 of the 281 projects so far. Only one person reports having done more than 175 projects.

By far the two leading style/genre descriptors that respondents used for their music were ambient, with 57 mentions, and experimental, with 46. The two terms usually occur together. This result is unsurprising, given Disquiet’s editorial focus and the conceptual nature of the Junto prompts. The other largest categories named were electronic (25), drone (15), noise (11), techno (8), contemporary classical/modern classical/modern composition (7), electroacoustic (6), and generative/algorithmic/adaptive/procedural (6). There were four mentions each for hip-hop, avant-garde, dark/dark ambient, field recording, improvised/free improvisation, jazz, and sound art/sound collage; three mentions each for classical, folk(sy), IDM, indie/indie pop, rock, and blues; two each for dance, downtempo, eclectic/other, industrial, lo-fi/trash electronics, new age, radio art, and soundtrack; and one each for “abstract story”, acousmatic, computer music, exploratory, homemade, installation art, landscape, meditative, minimal electronic, musique concréte, muzak, punk, post-punk, R&B, tape music, trip-hop, world, world funk, progressive rock, glitch, alternative, harsh noise, synthwave, plunderphonic, fusion, illbient, beats , abstract, pop, singer-songwriter, whimsical, and “classic 1950s tape studio.”

Like all experimentally-minded artists, Junto participants make their eccentricities a point of pride. Several survey respondents pushed back at the very idea of using genre descriptors, and others offered miniature essays:

  • “Experimental using Psychoacoustics, Generative Music, Composition, Sound Diffusion, Interactive Art, Installation, Sound Design, Radiophonic Art, Field Recording, Electroacoustics, Sound Art, Performance, Sound & Image”
  • “Post-classical ambient minimalism for crepuscular airports”
  • “Mostly the genres that make my wife give me that ‘Are you serious?’ look: Experimental, Drones, somewhat weird 3-minutes songs and the occasional 4 on the floor electronica.”
  • “My songs are ‘indy pop’ I guess. First album they were within the rock/pop idiom with (I hope) some audio inventiveness (think Eno’s first three albums). My instrument stuff is bass-centric dance stuff. Not EDM (I tend towards actual electric bass guitar). Quirky post-funk or something. Along the lines of, say, if Jah Wobble played with Talking Heads, but the band came from Kinshasa and they grew up listening to Reich, Glass, and Kraftwerk. My current songs are acoustic guitar with some effects, filtering, pitch/tempo shifting. Catchy (I hope) melodies but some with contrasting electro-acoustic stuff as a backdrop. (You probably realize that asking a musician to describe their own style/genre is like asking them to pull their own teeth.)”

Just as Junto participants use a variety of stylistic vocabulary, so too do they use a broad array of tools and instruments. Software was the largest category, with 131 mentions. Of these, 46 were unspecified DAWs, soft synths, and VST plugins. The most-mentioned software by far was Ableton Live (26), followed by Max/MSP (7), Logic Pro (6), Pure Data (5), and Audacity (4). There were three mentions each for FL Studio, Renoise, SuperCollider, Pro Tools, Acid Pro, and assorted notation software. There were two each for Sound Forge, Samplr, Reaper, and Audition. Finally, there was one mention each for NI Komplete, Bitwig, Aalto, Arturia V collection, Numerology, Figure, Mathematica (!), GarageBand, Paulstretch, Harrison Mixbus, and “coding.”

The next largest category was acoustic instruments, with 111 mentions. Guitar led, with 31 mentions (most respondents did not specify electric or acoustic.) There were nineteen mentions of unspecified or miscellaneous instruments, fifteen for piano, thirteen for voice, eleven for homemade instruments or found objects, nine for electric bass, three each for drums and flute, and two each for hand percussion, harmonica, and “birds” (your guess is as good as mine.) Finally, one person specifically listed “using instruments the wrong way.”

Electronic hardware had 109 mentions, including 22 for unspecified synthesizers. Others included modular synths (17), iPads or iPhones (10), guitar pedals and effects units (8), digital recorders (8), drum machines and grooveboxes (5), samplers (5), contact microphones (4), miscellaneous controllers (4), tape recorders (3), various keyboards (3), hardware sequencers (3), and Ableton Push (2). There was one mention each of the Nord Electro, Nord Rack, MicroKorg, Octatrack, MS20 mini, Axoloti Core, Monome, Korg Wavedrum, Kaossilator, unspecified electronic percussion, shortwave radio, power tools, cassette loop, turntable, PlayStation Portable, GameBoy, theremin, unspecified outboard effects units, and tape delay.

There were 23 mentions of field recordings and found sound, and 13 mentions of pencil and paper. Several people specifically listed happy accidents or randomness. Finally, two answers were particularly long and detailed; I reproduce them in full below because they so well embody the Junto ethos.

  • “Anything that makes noise: piano, guitar, wind instruments, bowed stringed contraptions, handmade percussion, power tools, birds. Yesterday we created a makeshift amplified marimba out of electrical junction boxes. Regardless, the process nearly always starts with something on piano to get the basics down: what key it’s in, how the chords go together, any polyrhythmic changes, potential for phasing (we love phasing), etc. Occasionally we might use a digital emulator on the iPad to recreate “classic” instruments like vintage drum machines, analog synths, a Mellotron or theremin, and we’ll run that through a rig of effects pedals to deform the sound. Other times, we’ll tap a piece of paper with a chopstick or wallop a sofa cushion with a wooden spoon, or we’ll bang a pipe with a hammer for just the right acoustic timbre. These single-hit samples are then sequenced to sound like an actual percussion kit, and as long as everything is running at the same tempo the timing works (for the most part — we just started a new piece with one rhythm at 110 and another half-tempo at 55. Math is our friend). Everything is then played live in a room until it starts to sound coherent. In some instances, the piece is “scored” using a block notation system on paper — this is necessary for remote contributors on saxophone, violin, guitar or flute to work out their part of the arrangements. Other times, they ignore the brief altogether and just play whatever they want, and somehow it gets worked in. Upon reaching a quorum, all the bits are recorded straight into the mixing board and assembled using a really old version of ProTools that frequently crashes.”
  • “DAW is Renoise. Also Reaper for editing samples, and for the final ‘mastering’. Instruments are the Renoise built-in virtual instruments, plus a few I’ve created on my own from assorted percussive guitar sounds. I often will mix the synthetic instruments with my own playing of electric and acoustic guitars, and an electric bass guitar. Most typically I record a number of riffs or chord sequences, edit the comps in Reaper, import these samples into Renoise, and add various process effects there. It is rare for me to record and release what might be akin to a “live” recording. Almost everything is recorded, split to samples, then looped and mutated. The exception (somewhat) are my vocals. I will do dozens of takes and then comp them in Reaper for import into Renoise, but most of the time I end up with a series of comps all from the same take. Home recording makes the endless quest for perfection an amazing lure.”

The most important means of music education for Junto participants was self-teaching, with 61 respondents mentioning it–several of them have learned in no other way. Private lessons were common as well, with 50 mentions. There were 28 mentions each of college-level courses or ensembles, books and magazines, and online resources, including videos, forums, and tutorials. There were 27 mentions of high school ensembles and classes, though presumably many of the people who studied in college did these as well without mentioning them specifically. The next most cited learning tool was production software, with fifteen mentions, including both reading manuals and unstructured experimentation. There were thirteen mentions of playing in bands, and twelve mentions of learning from peers separately from online forums. Eleven respondents did graduate-level music study, and five specifically mentioned attending a conservatory. These summaries do not do much justice to the variety of music-learning experiences reported by respondents. To give a richer sense of the responses, here are some representative quotes.

  • “9 years of piano lessons growing up, played in the school band. My music destroys much of that education and I just make weird stuff.”
  • “Band from 4th grade to 12th grade on 5 different instruments (clarinet, bass clarinet, Sousaphone, baritone, alto sax). Never played to a level above mediocre. Rarely practiced. But I liked being part of a group as long as others listened and were respectful. Had good band directors. Gave everything up for 15 years after high school and then got back into it on the night of Y2K via loops and DAWs through a programmer co-worker.”
  • “Self-taught with a strong ignorance deliberate of music theory.”
  • “Self taught. Best way to unlearn is to never learn in the first place.”
  • “Theory, performance ensembles, private lessons throughout school. BM in music technology. Lots of YouTube once I started gravitating away from concert band toward rock music and experimental/electronic music. Some of the more meaningful lessons come from listening/copying and informally learning from friends.”
  • “All of the above. Picked up piano by ear and by watching father play Ray Charles tunes, followed by 20+ years of formal training on classical guitar & composition theory (not that this influence is noticeable in Suss Müsik’s output). Played in awful punk bands before graduating to not-so-awful shoegaze bands. Got into the digital music space in late 90’s, starting with Opcode Vision and the Unity DS-1 softsynth engine running on Macintosh OS 8. The Suss Müsik library is heaving with books of all types, but usually we just figure things out on our own with a simple rule: ‘If it sounds wrong, it’s wrong and if it sounds good, it’s good’ YouTube is a great resource when confronted with a tricky situation — for example, determining what compression to use when recording the sound of ice cubes clinking around in a bowl (Disquiet Junto 0262).”

Finally, I asked the respondents if they had anything else they wanted to share about the Junto and their participation in it. Some selected responses:

  • “Junto is a wonderful way to sharpen one’s techniques, consider new ways of working, and focusing one’s attention to previously unconsidered aspects of sound creation.”
  • “When one struggles to find connection IRL, the Junto stands as a beautiful testament to online community and collaboration.”
  • “Seriously wish I had more time to participate but listening to everyone’s work is itself a launchpad to musical creativity.”
  • “I may not have any finished Junto projects to show, but it’s been inspiring me for years anyway.”
  • “As a longtime listener to Disquiet Junto, and an appreciator of the whole project, I have been brewing an idea for some time. I am not a musician, though I do create some small generative ambient sounds, using the great program Numerology. I am mostly a deep listener, an appreciator of sound, however it is created or recorded or witnessed.”
  • “As an experimental musician the sky is the limit on creativity, which is as much overwhelming as it is liberating. The Junto had help add the element of limitation to my music with out hindering its avant garde intentions.”
  • “Duke Ellington is attributed with saying ‘I don’t need time, I need a deadline’ and I think he would’ve enjoyed the Junto for a similar reason.”
  • “The Junto has been hugely influential, opening me up to new music that I would otherwise have not heard and vastly expanding my appreciation of music in all its forms. The challenges are an excellent means of kick starting my creativity, having an external idea, a constraint, and a time limit has pushed me to create works that I would not have otherwise made, learning new methods and tricks along the way. Describing my thought process and methods each time is also extremely useful, forcing me to confront and think about what I am doing instead of just noodling. Sharing methods with each other is a key part of the Junto, I have learned so much from reading how others approach each challenge, and I hope that others have learned from my efforts. The community based approach means that I have also made many new friends, whose opinions I trust and value.”
  • “As a professor of music, undergrad and graduate composition/performance, I have assigned Junto projects to my students, we did a group project once, and several of my students have continued to participate in Junto. I think it is absolutely wonderful and I always hip my students to the site, and encourage them to participate.”
  • “I’ve always viewed The Junto as music school, weekly assignments featuring ideas and approaches I’d never consider on my own.”
  • “I find the Junto’s weekly assignments to be both motivating and freeing — the motivation comes from the deadline, and the focused, small-scale nature of each challenge. But because each week’s project is ‘just’ an assignment, I also feel free to experiment, try things out and take risks, without worrying too much that I don’t ‘know what I’m doing.’ The Junto’s participants are self-selected, but there is such a wide range of practice and interpretation that I don’t feel intimidated, or that I must conform to any particular direction of noise or sound pursuits. In addition to the music, the comments and conversations with other Junto members lead off into other fruitful directions. Marc has developed a community space that encourages creativity, and a creative space that encourages community — it is welcoming, but with constructive criticism and comments — resulting in the very best kind of studio review space and practice. I also think the fact that it is voluntary, and self-selected (interest-wise), with no registration/setup/financial barriers, is key to how it thrives.”
  • “It inspired my own weekly vocal improvisation prompt: singthis.org!”
  • “Charming thing, strange ideas, interesting people there.”

That last quote is a perfect tagline for the group. I’ll add for myself that the Junto has been extraordinarily valuable for me, for many of the same reasons listed above: as a source of inspiration and deadlines, as a community, and as a model for my own music teaching. We all owe a huge debt of gratitude to Marc for making it happen.