Session 12 – Music and Audio Culture

Slides for today’s lecture here and a list of the songs we heard in class here.

Congratulations to the team who won my favourite Beastie Boys record with their home-made gramophone! Please post up your pictures and videos of the process.

It seems most of you had never played with a vinyl record before… Has making a sound-producing machine in just a few minutes changed how you think of sound in any way? How about technology?

If you’re interested in early recording technology, this website is a good place to start:

And if you want to contact me personally on any of these matters, go here: 

Main point from the lecture!

Please think about how our understanding of the world is informed by the particular time and place we are in. Things that were invented a long time ago, or which are imported from another cultural context, may seem ‘natural’ because we experience them fully formed. But we saw today, with the history of recording, how these are constructed slowly, over time, by many people, in line with a particular set of cultural values.

This is really important to remember in the case of legal copyright frameworks, which developed in line with Western capitalism. They have adapted to the particularities of a Western set of social-legal-moral-economic values and practices. This means that, by now, they are well established, very complicated, and are easily taken for granted – they seem obvious; ‘natural’. But they are also being challenged all the time by new technologies and different practices (e.g. P2P software; piracy).

Changes in China (some of which mirror changes in the West) have occurred very rapidly over the past twenty years. Read this article on the Chinese Music Business. The author describes very recent changes to the law and industry regulation as ‘progress’, because they will bring China into line with the global economy (recall what we said about Enlightenment values).

As some of you noted in class, however, what happens on the small scale, in local communities – the practices of local cultural contexts – may not be the same as what happens elsewhere in the world. So: how would you describe ‘progress’?

Finally, here are my thoughts on the video I asked you to watch.

There are two main ways to think of ‘value’ – economic value (how much money something is worth) and cultural value (how important something is socially). The relationship between the two is often a difficult one.

– Many people will say that the amount of money a piece of music makes has nothing to do with how culturally important it is.

– On the other hand, many people (often the same people) will say that if music is available for free then people will think it is less socio-culturally important.

Try watching it again and see if you agree with my answers to his questions.

The video argues that if we cannot easily measure economic value, then the music industry has more power to influence our perception of cultural value.

  • The economic value of a piece of music is not immediately obvious. Its production costs and the profit it makes do not seem to have a pattern. Some albums cost very little and make lots of money; some are very expensive to make and do not sell many copies.
  • Its cultural value – whether people like it or not; whether they think it is good or bad music; whether they think it has a positive or negative social impact; whether it’s moral or immoral – is also less obvious. Therefore it is more open to interpretation and easier to influence through, e.g. repetition on the radio, forming emotional connections, brand association, etc.
  • Value (or maybe: ‘desirability’) is thereby created – in other words, a musical product is made more likely to be purchased – by creating cultural meaning.

Key questions:

1) Are mainstream pop music songs everywhere because we like them and buy them – or do we like them and buy them because they are everywhere?

  • Clearly both. However, the word ‘like’ assumes individual choice; we want to hold on to the concept of ‘liking’ and ‘disliking’ music, because it suggests we are independent, with individual decision-making power.
  • Yet, if a product’s desirability is culturally/socially constructed, whether we ‘like’ a piece of pop music or not may be more to do with our cultural context and its social meaning: hearing the music in a social context, seeing it associated with particular fashions, or brands, advertising, etc.
  • So the paradox of the music industry (and any cultural industry) is that its ideology is based around individual choice being the most important aspect; while its economic model is based on social construction being more important.

2) How much is music worth?

  • In these market conditions, cultural value and economic value become the same thing. A piece of music is ‘worth’ just as much as how desirable it is; i.e. how socially important it is and, in principle, how ‘popular’ it is.

3) The market (i.e. what people will buy) is unpredictable. How does a music company predict what to spend time and money on?

  • The popular story is that some people have talent and others don’t; some people have ‘good ears’ and others don’t; some have market instincts, others don’t. Historically, a small number of key individuals have been most influential in developing the music industry.
  • However, another story might be that companies try to create the conditions in which the music they produce is desirable.

They use market research to understand the habits and opinions of particular communities and ‘types’ of person (demographics);

Then they construct marketing campaigns to make their product as ‘meaningful’ as possible for those demographics (to ‘reach’ their ‘target audience’).

  • With digital technologies, these processes become much more efficient.
  • In addition, there are structural means (i.e. money, influence, ownership) to make their product as ‘visible’ as possible, and as easily available as possible. Big companies profit more from this than small companies.

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