Computer Music Journal Volume 15, Number 3 Fall 1991 MIT Press, 55 Hayward Street, Cambridge, Mass 02142 copyright 1991 MIT ISSN 0148-9267 951w

A New Musical Medium: NetJam

NetJam provides a means for people to collaborate on musical compositions, by sending MIDI and other files to each other via electronic mail, processing them, and re-sending them. All those with MIDI-compatible (and other interesting) equipment, and access to electronic mail, data compression facilities, and Internet (send electronic mail as below for details) who are interested in making music are encouraged to participate.

The forwarding process is simple because it is largely automated. Submissions are translated between varying machine-specific formats and re-sent automatically. If there is interest, the NetJam group may branch out to support software and hardware other than sequencers (e.g., software sound synthesis programs.)

Submissions, participant information and other data are archived on the Internet network machine named scam.Berkeley.EDU (Internet number, where they are available via anonymous file transfer (ftp). To receive the document from which this news item is extracted (and which explains NetJam at length), send electronic mail to netjam-request@xcf.Berkeley.EDU, with a subject line containing the words request for info.

Why and How Did It Start?

The basic idea came about in an increasingly familiar way -- via brainstorming on the USENET news groups, a part of the much-loved "Net." Of course, one of the main topics discussed on the Net is its own expansion. One particular idea, brought up in the network news group by Ruita Da Silva from Berkeley and others, was to start a news group dedicated to musical collaboration. The use of the MIDI standard was quickly agreed upon, by virtue of being a (very pervasive) standard. Various schemes for data compression, file formats, and so on, were discussed for some time.

It took someone to actually say "Okay, let's do it; I'll organize it!" for things to really get started. That someone was K. Richard Magill at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. While people were still enthusiastic about the idea, he set up a simple means of reflecting mail sent to him to a "NetJam list" of other mail addresses. Within a few days, three pieces had started.

Unfortunately, before we knew it, it was time for exams at universities around the world. Many of us were students, so the output of the group dropped off suddenly. When our lives started to simmer down, people were on their way to holidays, new projects, and the like. The NetJam list at Ann Arbor became, for all intents and purposes, dormant.

During the summer of 1990, Craig Latta decided to implement a NetJam mail service at the University of California at Berkeley. Using the Ann Arbor implementation of NetJam as a starting point, he created a scheme for dealing with the differing formats, in which each participant is able to submit material in a format amenable to his or her own machine(s), and retrieve it in that same format, automatically.

He also provided for the organization of different efforts. Each participant (or potential participant) can find out who is involved in each piece, what instruments they play, how they feel about music, and other "vital statistics."

Also available are all the compositions and their documentation, with instructions about how to participate. Since all of this is available through the "come-and-get-it" method of ftp, NetJam takes on the feel of a public library where the shelves are open to controlled modification by the patrons and silence is definitely not encouraged.

How Does NetJam Operate?

Interested people become involved by sending a request to be on the NetJam mailing list to the electronic mail address Upon being added to the group, they will be asked to provide a description of themselves -- what kind of music they write, what kind of equipment they have, etc. This way, any member can find out about prospective collaborators by looking through these descriptions (which are to be kept, organized, and distributed by Mr. Latta, NetJam's current moderator and administrator at Berkeley).

At some point, someone gets an idea for a piece. Then, that person composes something (works out a progression, a riff, a rhythm, some lyrics, sonorities, algorithms for doing any of the preceding, etc.), and mails it to the moderator in two kinds of files. One kind is for the data (MIDI or other), and the other is for documenting the data ("README"). The moderator then sends out the submission to all relevant people in their preferred format, and archives (in a nonduplicating manner) the submission for subsequent retrieval via anonymous ftp. Each composition evolves in that the collaborators incorporate changes to the data file, and append the documentation for it to the README file.

When new compositions start, they have associated with them descriptions of their own. Just as members of the group can see who is available for collaboration, they can also see what compositions are in progress.

The initial composer-instigator has the most creative control over what is assembled (at least, over whatever "final product" is distributed, including his or her original ideas). This extends to copyrights in that everyone in a particular group should agree (tacitly or explicitly) on the phrasing of the copyright(s) for their work, before they start and thereafter, with the original composers having the final say in the matter. Of course, the easiest way to deal with this issue is to put the works in the public domain. The organizers of NetJam hope there won't be much wrangling on these points -- the original idea, after all, is to jam!

Typed by Cheryl Vega 4-28-95