Ewa Mazierska, Leslie Gillon, & Tony Rigg (Eds.). Popular Music in the Post-Digital Age: Politics, Economy, Culture and Technology
KeywordsPostdigital Music Politics Economy Culture Technology
This significance reflects the widespread perception that music is at the forefront of technological, political, economic and cultural change, and therefore what happens in music should be of interest to everyone. This idea was captured by Jacques Attali, who pronounced that music ‘is prophetic. It has always been in its essence a herald of things to come’ (Attali 2014: 4). ‘It runs parallel to human society, is structured like it, and changes when it does. It does not evolve in a linear fashion, but is caught up in the complexity and circularity of the movements of history’ (ibid.: 10). (1)
From this starting point, Ewa Mazierska, Leslie Gillon and Tony Rigg carefully interweave authors’ insights within three broad themes: ‘The Music Industry’, ‘The Musicians and their Music’, and ‘Music Consumption’. While all authors in Popular Music in the Post-Digital Age: Politics, Economy, Culture and Technology arrive from the USA, the UK, and continental Europe, its editors ‘believe that such an approach allows us to uncover global trends, which are typically located in or extrapolated from situations in the Anglo-American world, and account for the dynamics between the geographic centre and the periphery of the popular music industry’ (19–20).
The first part, ‘The Music Industry’, captures postdigital developments in political economy of music production. Authors explore a wide variety of topics: what is an ‘independent’ record label in the postdigital age (Galuszka and Wyrzykowska), the promise of blockchain infrastructures (Magaudda), the changing landscape of music festivals (Forbes; Kuligowski) and precarious work at underground music scenes (Rymajdo). These chapters bring out telling examples of a general neoliberal shift towards precarization of work and analyse its connections with specific technological challenges pertaining to music production and dissemination. Importantly, these analyses reach beyond mere theorising and delve right into the burning question of today: How should we shape these emerging trends? Certainly, music is just as commodified as any other area of (cultural) production. However, commodification is not all there is. Galuszka and Wyrzykowska confirm Christopher May’s (2007) definition of ‘a two-tiered market for music: one casual, the relatively uncommitted and volatile tier, served by the established companies, and a smaller, although lively tier of enthusiasts and artist led enterprise’, and show that the second tier of music industry exhibits a vitality which has the potentials to disrupt and offer radical alternatives (39).
What the past trajectories of technological innovation show us is that the actual consequences of blockchain on the music sector will not depend on the much celebrated positive intrinsic features of this technology, such as decentralization, the bypassing of intermediaries or the transparency of data, but on how digital capitalism processes select, adapt and shape the multiple possibilities offered by this new technology, and by how far listeners and consumers embrace this new step of commodification and monetization of musical contents and data. (65)
In this sentence, Magaudda captures the complexity of postdigital reality captured in a recent editorial for Postdigital Science and Education: “The postdigital is hard to define; messy; unpredictable; digital and analog; technological and non-technological; biological and informational” (Jandrić et al. 2018: 895). Within this complexity and mess, shows Magaudda, there are indeed no simple problems and/or magical solutions.
The second part of the book, ‘The Musicians and their Music’, explores the artistic trajectories of two musicians spanning over five decades (Mazierska and Rigg); the future of the composers and composition (Bröndum); the changing relationships between the centre and the periphery (Mazierska); and the relationships between genres old and new (Inglis). Based on deep personal insights into lives of people working in the music industry, this section is also unable to escape ruthless postdigital political economy which reveals in “aspects of a fractured lifestyle where they have to be a ‘Jack of all trades’” (168). However, while it is clear that ‘the success in music, probably more than in most professions, is an outcome of many factors that are outside of the musician’s influence’ (152), and that “most successful musicians need to endure a long period of ‘apprenticeship’, accepting not ‘seeing money’ age thirty or working for ten years as an amateur before becoming a professional” (152), these testimonies glimmer with optimism of people who think that their music will somehow hit the jackpot of economic sustainability. It is especially interesting to see postdigital transformations of complex networks of influences to (commercial) success: relationships between local languages and English as today’s lingua franca, relationships between geographical centres and peripheries, and relationships between professionals and amateurs. In the postdigital reality, which ‘is both a rupture in our existing theories and their continuation’ (Jandrić et al. 2018: 895), these relationships are deeply contextual. Singing in a small national language can be good and bad for commercial success (182; 185); ‘for provincials the local scene matters now more than ever before, because it is only in their own country or even their own city that they are able to compete with music coming from the Anglo-American centre’ (188).
Today’s music industry cannot escape promises and threats of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (Peters 2017) including but not limited to the technological displacement of human workers (Peters et al. 2018). In this context, Bröndum writes: ‘One possible fallout from the post-digital economic hardship is that professional artist will be replaced by amateurs, which in turn may be replaced by digital algorithms’ (168). While he provides a sophisticated analysis of the relationships between amateurs and professionals, Bröndum’s answer to the algorithmic challenge firmly prefers human beings over technologies: ‘If we stop and take a minute to think and do not blindly rush into digitalization of all things man made, we may start to appreciate, empower and help fund the wondrous quirky and non-replicable unique art and music that only the ‘analogue human’ can express’ (168). In sociomaterialist and postdigital approaches, this type of asymmetry between human beings and artificial intelligences has already been replaced by more nuanced approaches which ask: ‘How could we do our jobs better with artificial intelligences?’ (in Jandrić 2017: 207; see also Jones 2018) However, fear of technological displacement of human labour is a legitimate human emotion, which should not be taken lightly.
The third part of the book, ‘Music Consumption’, proposes a heuristic for predicting the future of recorded music use (Flynn); explores relationships between music and media (Huber); explores postdigital curatorial practices (Barna); and discusses echo chambers of algorithmic curation and personalised listening (Fry). Music is ephemeral by nature—it can be consumed only while somebody is playing or singing. With the advent of technologies of sound reproduction, however, consumption of music has irreversibly moved from concert halls into people’s everyday lives. This brings about a strong dialectic between consumption of music and technology, and it is hardly a surprise that the music industry has always been keen to implement new technological means of reproduction. However, not all technical inventions have been widely accepted by the industry and by the consumers. ‘Essentially, that market-dominant music playback technologies increasingly improve situational control, personalise choice, but continually reduce the demands of knowledge, skill, labour and time on the part of consumers’ (325). In the postdigital age, this has peaked in streaming services such as Spotify which offer millions of songs at a single click; in turn, they brought about significant challenges related to choosing music and curating (own) music experience. It is unclear whether these consumption models will remain in the future. However, it is clear that ‘the future of music listening in the digital era hinges on the internet and how people use it for information, communication and receiving music’ while ‘experience shows us that established music reception channels are not completely sidelined by new technology’ (248). This combination of a rupture and a continuation of music consumption patterns (again) represents a typical postdigital situation.
‘In today’s capitalist societies, we increasingly define ourselves, and our relations to other people, through acts and choices of consumption’ (256). This is where taste in music becomes much more than an aesthetic preference, and Pierre Bourdieau’s theories become increasingly relevant for studies of music. In our postdigital age, a lot of symbolic power traditionally held by knowledgeable music critics has been transferred to new intermediaries such as ‘digital retailers, digital distributors, aggregators, online independent labels, as well as streaming services’ (260). The act of curation, and the associated symbolic power, has moved away from single individuals and towards the realm of the market; therefore, we can now speak of these curators as ‘taste entrepreneurs’ (262). However, as online music lists become increasingly automatized and algorithmic, data-driven personalisation has brought about not only commodification of people’s musical choices and their personal data but also algorithmic filter bubbles and echo chambers. ‘As the experience of the user is specifically personalised, with different products, profiles, web pages or songs, visible and invisible, the individual may become intellectually unaware of their wider environment, isolating them within a bubble controlled and designed by an algorithmic filter’ (277). Algorithmic systems are hugely beneficial, yet algorithmic echo chambers bring about numerous problems. ‘Rather than being captivated by apparent innovation, we—the listeners of today—need to proactively assert control over our own experience in order to form a more perfect soundscape of our lives’ (286).
Popular Music in the Post-Digital Age: Politics, Economy, Culture and Technology is an important book. It confirms the position of music at the forefront of the postdigital transformation and provides telling insights into this transformation on individual and social levels. Unfortunately, however, the book remains somewhat short of possible directions for resistance towards negative trends such as rampant commodification of digital data (including, but not limited to music), precarization of labour (including, but not limited to, various forms of labour within the musical industry) and the challenge of automatization (including, but not limited, to algorithms and their echo chambers). This book, and music scholarship in more general, is hardly isolated in this general lack of solutions: in the current historical moment, people working in diverse fields from information sciences to philosophy are still grappling with describing our postdigital reality. However, this book clearly indicates that the phase of ‘primitive accumulation’ of symptoms and questions of our postdigital age has slowly but surely passed its peak. Sooner rather than later, postdigital challenges will require postdigital answers—and Popular Music in the Post-Digital Age: Politics, Economy, Culture and Technology testifies that music and its theory will have an essential role in their development.
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