As my old PhD supervisor has observed, the end is different from an ending, and for a while now I’ve been thinking about endings in popular music and the literal end of a broader popular music culture.
In my thinking here, the first idea of endings in popular music can be explained in terms of the manner in which popular music – its songs, scenes and critical literature, has often been occupied with the mortality of pop itself.
There are endless examples in song by which this trope might be illustrated although Don McLean’s mournful American Pie strikes me as a key example. While one should be cautious about looking for literalness in pop lyrics, in my reading of the song MacLean links a boyhood memory of the death of Buddy Holly (who died with the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens, lest we forget) to what I hear as a lament for the decline of popular music in general:
Now for ten years we’ve been on our own
And moss grows fat on a rollin’ stone
Interestingly, this song has become one of the stock of resources that lazy programmers and researchers across media forms reach for when they wish to underlay any reference to pop deaths in their features. Death is always recyclable.
To be clear here, I’m not thinking of songs with a mere mention of ‘the end’, as in The Doors’ interminable song of that name. I’m thinking of songs that are, in some specific or general sense, about the end of popular music itself. One example here is John Lennon’s God in which the very personal perspective translates to a broader pronouncement:
The dream is over,
what can I say?
the dream is over.
I was the dreamweaver
But now I’m reborn.
I was the walrus,
But now I’m John.
And so dear friends,
you’ll just have to carry on:
the dream is over.
Both songs are useful here in that they illustrate aspects of how the idea of the end has figured in the broader practices of popular music culture.
McLean’s approach is indicative of a repeated sense that the end of pop is a protracted one: what was once good is now in terminal decline if one examines the bright shining past in comparison with the debased present. This is an idea expressed at length in by the concluding section of Ian MacDonald’s book on The Beatles Revolution in the Head. In a final polemic MacDonald suggests that:
the difference between Sixties pop and what came after it are epitomised by the loss of one vital element: the unexpected. From functional drum-and-bass dance grooves to histrionic Heavy Metal ballads, the lack of melodic/harmonic surprise in Nineties music is numbing. Indeed, in terms of form, pop has almost come to a halt, displaying few originalities in structure, metre or melody over the last ten years.(MacDonald, 1995: 340).
Lennon’s song illustrates an aspect of popular music that my colleague Tim Wall has written about concerning the way in which the development of sounds, scenes, individuals and so on, is often narrated as a series of ruptures between old and new, between exhaustion and reinvigoration. Thus, Elvis and rock n’ roll ‘appear’ in the 1950s and ‘change’ music and the world; in the 60s, the Beatles likewise, change music and lead young people into generational rebellion; in turn, Lennon splits from his epoch-defining band and is reborn as a shaven-headed radical: the dream is over. Lennon’s scorched-earth reinvention in the ‘Year Zero’ manifesto of God prefigures the terms upon which which punk is habitually narrated. Here, the characteristic schism of past and (no) future in punk was established from the outset in song - ‘No Beatles, no Elvis, no Rolling Stones’, and in the critical literature – for instance, Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons’ The Boy Looked at Johnny (1978) is subtitled The Obituary of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
In continuing, it is important to consider the way that ‘the end’ (sometimes expressed as a new beginning) is signalled not only in lyrical content (as if that can be isolated in any meaningful way) but in the tones and arrangements of the sound of pop music too. While MacLean’s tune achieves a jauntiness at times, the lamenting tone underlines the loss it evokes. Lennon’s song is funereal in its pace and textures – layered with a gospel piano courtesy of Billy Preston. In punk, some of the iconic songs were presented as an antidote to the overblown and virtuoso rock of the 70s: rough and ready, playing down musical dexterity, stripping down the aesthetic as an aural rebuttal of the pomposity of over-produced stadium bands.
Discussion of the end of pop is a familiar topic amongst consumers, as a survey of online forums will demonstrate. Discussion of genres such as jazz seem to be permanently focussed upon the autopsy table. The terms of fan discussions (and those of fan critics in the press) are rich with evidence about the various ways in which we collectively construct the meanings of popular music culture in terms of decline, rupture and reinvigoration.
While I intend to pick up this point in more detail in developing this work elsewhere, I want to suggest that endings are a familiar and productive feature of popular music culture: one of its constituent parts. To talk about the literal end of popular music culture is a different matter and relates to the condition that we find ourselves in at the moment as a result of the ‘digital age’.
More able people than me have written about the impact of ‘digital’ for the music industries in recent years but the focus for my theme here concerns the fact that we seem to be amidst a shift in the terms upon which popular music culture as a historical phenomenon has been constructed. These terms relate to the way in which familiar organising principles, e.g. singles, albums, b-sides and so on – mean less and less. Likewise, the role of labels and the wider industries as cultural intermediaries between musicians and consumers are challenged by new modes of communication, distribution and consumption. Everywhere I go of late, I see the empty ruins of record shops. Just last week I was on a work trip to London and passed the now closed Mole Jazz while this week, in Manchester, I stood on Bridge Street before Vinyl Exchange’s old premises.
Of course, and as the example of Vinyl Exchange demonstrates, some of these places have moved off the high street to other locations and, if they have not otherwise gone out of business, this means moving into online retail. For consumers this means that the very fact of being in a record shop (which, in their various ways, are spaces that have defined the meanings of pop and how we encounter it), is not only an increasingly niche pursuit, it often appears to be something that those who grew up before the digital age cling to in spite of the availability of more ‘efficient’ and generally more economically viable means of shopping. I should mention that this broad sector and the challenges it faces is is dealt with in Graham Jones’ interesting book Last Shop Standing. Closer to home, some of these changes and their implications are outlined in this impressive audio slideshow produced by my colleague Sam Coley which explores the history of the Birmingham record shop The Diskery (no link, they are emphatically not online):
What is happening in retail then is indicative a range of changes affecting the material make-up of the music business and impacting upon the wider culture and its various practices. As critic Sean O’Hagan has suggested, this seems to be a qualitatively different moment to those that have come before in which pronouncements have prematurely heralded the ‘end’ of popular music. As he has written, in an obsequy for, amongst other things mix-tapes and album covers:
In the past few months, I have read several articles about the demise of vinyl and the accompanying death of the record shop. It seemed to be that I had read these articles, or variation of them, several times in the past couple of decades. I had read them when the Sony Walkman was supposed to sweep all before it in the early Eighties and when the CD was almost certainly going to sound the death knell of the album and the single later in the same decade. This time around, though, the context is dramatically different.
(Sean O’Hagan, ‘Wear your heart on your sleeves’, Observer, 28 Jan 2007: pp.8-9).
The context here is the digitisation presented by the MP3 format, the organising principle of the digital library and the interface of the I-Pod (or less iconic variations thereof), and online libraries – personal or shared such as Spotify or Last FM. O’Hagan suggests that this conjunction, manifest in the artefact of the I-Pod specifically ‘has made experts and collectors of us all. Everything can be tracked down and disseminated in mere moments … we are finally free to listen to whatever we want whenever we want wherever we want. Utterly, blissfully, emptily free of everything but the music, itself ghostly, dismembered, intangible.’(Ibid, p.9).
I don’t wish to make myself a hostage to fortune and to offer some objective statement about the totality of this sense of ending, or the utopian paradigm shift indicated by O’Hagan. Instead, I would make the very idea of this ending the object of scrutiny and mapping for what it has to say about how we make sense of the changes wrought by digital production, distribution and consumption.
The ideas of the great British cultural theorist Raymond Williams offer one means of making sense of this moment – whether for popular culture or more broader claims about the social in with the advent of the ‘digital’.
In Marxism and Literature (1977) Williams develops ideas that had long been present in his work about power relations and how we might map social history in productive ways. For instance, after Marx, Williams found it useful to understand historical periods in relation to their defining modes of production – feudal, capitalist and so on, but such labels lacked nuance for dealing with the transitions between eras and how one mode or organisation and thought gave way to another. In this way, and in dealing with cultural ideas in particular – encompassing concepts of ideology and the material practices of everyday life, he introduced the formulation of the dominant, residual and emergent. At any time, dynamic change, conservatism and contradiction is what characterises social organisation and culture in general and in specific areas, event though they might seem way below the lens of class politics and struggle.
Thus, it is possible to employ Williams’ framework for thinking of those consumers in places like The Diskery as evidence of popular music’s residual practices, although some of what happens in music label practice and organisation can be considered in this way.
While contemporary commentators are hyperbolic in their statements about what we are ‘all’ doing nowadays with ‘our’ I-Pods and websites, the practices of digital consumption – as technological processes and a field of related cultural conventions, are not quite ‘dominant’ but rather ‘emergent’.
So then, instead of taking on a position from ‘within’ popular music culture and lamenting the passing of vinyl, Mr Sifter’s, B-sides et al, I am interested in how we can make sense of a particular ‘moment’. This refers to a historically defined period in which popular culture was defined and defined around a particular set of practices that, once dominant and integral to its understanding, are disappearing and giving way to new ones.
As Brian Eno has suggested:
I think records were just a little bubble through time and those who made a living from them for a while were lucky. There is no reason why anyone should have made so much money from selling records except that everything was right for this period of time. I always knew it would run out sooner or later. It couldn’t last, and now it’s running out. I don’t particularly care that it is and like the way things are going. The record age was just a blip. It was a bit like if you had a source of whale blubber in the 1840s and it could be used as fuel. Before gas came along, if you traded in whale blubber, you were the richest man on Earth. Then gas came along and you’d be stuck with your whale blubber. Sorry mate – history’s moving along. Recorded music equals whale blubber. Eventually, something else will replace it.
(Paul Morely, ‘On gospel, Abba and the death of the record: an audience with Brian Eno’, Observer, 17 January 2010, pp. 7-8).
Whatever the ‘new’ practices of popular music culture are, they are imbued with familiar tropes such as ‘authenticity’, ‘margins’ and ‘mainstream’, concepts which, I would argue, have no objective meaning. Nonetheless, they are constitutive of the meanings and pleasures of pop. In turn, and however much the ‘new’ is trumpeted, I feel that it too, in all of its variety, is also already imbued with a sense of mortality. As some one else has surely said: ‘Pop is dead! Long live pop!’
A blog by author Paul Long.
Photo by cotidad.
I’m getting worried about social media listening strategies. Not in a paranoid, surveillance society way. I’m worried about social media listening strategies because corporations reward me every time I moan; whinges are the new currency, and companies are incentivising me to be grumpy.
Discounting spammers who @ me on twitter every time I mention Apple, iPad, or X Factor, I’ve had three moments where I’ve had a corporate interaction as a result of social media listening and each one has come off the back of a moan.
- When I moaned that Coffee Lounge’s wifi was unreliable and their coffee pretty poor, Urban Coffee Co tweeted me, luring me over with a free croissant.
- When I tweeted a whinge that a Virgin Wines / uSwitch freebie case of wine I’d received wasn’t up to scratch, Naked Wines contacted me with an offer on a case of much better wine that was pretty hard to refuse.
- When I fired off a 140 character rant about a lousy coffee in Pret, they @ replied me back asking for an address. On Friday I got a £5 gift card and a handwritten note of apology.
All three examples suggest that moaning pays. It’s no wonder online communities are often seen as negative places full of “angry young men”.
The Urban Coffee and Naked Wines examples were surprising, but pretty welcome. I don’t think in the grand scheme of things they gave up anymore than they normally would to gain a customer, and they’ve continued to look after me and delight me with every “moment of truth” (as the brand people call transactions and interactions). I’m putting them in the column for “good practice” because they show a bit of entrepreneurial nous. I find the Pret example a little more concerning.
While I’m incentivised to whinge, companies are incentivised to act disproportionally by super serving social media users. I often see comments from those who are making complaints via blog posts and tweets where authors and commenters say:
Well the product and service was terrible, but at least brand X tweeted me about it which shows they’re listening.
The classic case studies of companies doing social media are all about this listening. Pret gave me a fiver to show that they were listening. They’ve rewarded a childish petulant and passive aggressive rant with cash, probably more cash than I put through their tills in a year. Why would they do that? Is that good customer service? Or desperation to tie up every loose end on the Internet? And is that even sustainable?
That’s why I’m worried about social media listening strategies. Brands are far too worried about what the Internet is saying, and every time they smooth the Internet’s furrowed brow by offering treats and rewards, they make the Internet a more negative place because they have incentivised moaning.
A blog by Jon Hickman, originally published here.
I keep seeing this retweeted and it’s doing my head in a bit.
Image is copyright © 2010 University of Southern Indiana.
It’s a derivation from Bloom’s Taxonomy, which I guess every teacher (certainly every HE teacher) has come across if they’ve done a teaching qualification. The diagram maps Web 2.0 tools onto types of learning outcomes, to show which tools you can link to what objectives.
Basically my problem with it is that it suggests restrictions on uses of things, that are a bit detrimental. Consider Wikipedia first of all. Here it’s stuck in understanding, but it’s also a great tool for evaluating (getting students to consider sources, think through complex issues about authority to publish, etc.). Seen as a platform to publish not read, it could also be creative; it could be used in an exercise to synthesise (a level that is placed on some of the Bloom models) a great deal of information and produce an authoritative encyclopaedia article.
Evernote seems most suited to remembering, and Delicious could just as easily move up the pyramid as a site of analysis around the way we organise personal data through tags, or to demonstrate a student’s understanding through the way in which they annotate their links.
So it’s interesting as a marker, to show how some of these tools can be used in the classroom, but it’s very limited and possibly a bit misguiding to teachers who might follow it too strictly.
A blog by Jon Hickman, originally published here.
While archiving some old files just now I came across this article, which I wrote for Viewfinder magazine last year. Viewfinder is the magazine of the British Universities Film & Video Council, and the article is pitched at helping academics think about how they could (should?) use a tool like Twitter in their academic life. It leans a little towards being for my subject area, but I think generalises out pretty well. Also, it seems to still make sense even after a year, which is good going for an article about social media.
I can’t remember if this is the final version I was sent back by the Editor, or my initial submission, so it may be slightly different to the published version. Enjoy, and feel free to add some thoughts in the comments.
A blog by Jon Hickman, originally published here.
For the past few years I’ve been getting Prize Draw letters from Reader’s Digest. They are quite incredible things. The whole thing is painstakingly designed to suggest that (a) I’ve won (b) I’m being written to personally. Neither of those things are strictly true.
I’ve been meaning to analyse some of the design, perhaps as a case study for a design class, or perhaps as a resource for when we teach textual analysis with the first years. As I’ve never got around to it, this year I decided to film myself as I open the mailing. This is all a bit rough and ready, but represents a first pass through the text as I consider how it has been put together, how I’m being asked to respond, and what social context the text exists within. I don’t do a great deal of textual analysis, but this is pretty much how I would go through any first reading – I’d then take these ideas and frame them more precisely with the appropriate analytical tools, and begin to build a more nuanced reading. It’s easy enough to list what you see, but the more interesting part of the analysis is thinking about what that might mean, and why it could be important.
During the video I allude to RD being censured in the past about their mailings. Here’s a link.
A week or so ago I started following Josiah Bartlet on Twitter. Turned out he was already following me, as he likes to follow people who are tagging tweets #westwing. I don’t get a lot of the references to contemporary American politics in his tweets, but there’s the occasional reference to the show and a good attempt at some of the classical witticisms and bon mots of the “Former Fictional President, Nobel Prize Winner”.
But then I spotted something: Jed’s talking to other West Wing characters, who in turn are having conversations with other characters. Josh & Donna (now Donna Moss-Lyman) are chatting about their kids and other domestic niceties, swapping baking tips with Leo’s PA Margaret. CJ & Charlie are still engaged in an escalating battle of one-upmanship, which is currently focussed on their follower count. Meanwhile, Ron Butterfield, head of the POTUS security detail is obsessing about how to keep these Tweets secure (Ron’s also a dab hand at hashtagging, probably those years of protocol).
There are a few duplicated characters out there, but this list consists of accounts which are talking to each other, creating their own narrative world (the list view is the best way to track their chat).
Now it could be that some or all of these accounts know each other in real life, or this could be some spontaneous role play. My guess it’s somewhere down the middle: some people have real life connections, some don’t and have just been drawn into the conversation either by chance or by design. I’d also guess they’re all alts for people who have their own personal Twitter accounts (they all seem to get Twitter, so they won’t have come on board just to do this). Some of the accounts might even be run by the same person (it’d be a bit creepy if Donna and Josh are the same person).
It would be interesting to find out how this fan fiction came about, so if you’re one of the “actors” do drop me a line.
In the meantime if you’ve always fancied working at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, The President has suggested a few roles that need to be filled.
A blog by Jon Hickman, originally published here.
Here’s an interesting one for you. I got a message from Facebook today that said: “Chris is chatting with Facebook friends using AIM, try it now”.
Now I’ve mentioned that to Chris, and it’s not something that he asked Facebook to send out for him; point of fact he doesn’t use AIM for Facebook chat. So that’s a bit weird then. It’s also a bit clever of Facebook.
The more time I spend on Facebook, the better that is for Facebook – I might click on an advert or something, and clock up a few more pennies in their bank. I don’t use chat at all, so that’s a way they could get me to use the service more. If I were to use Chat, and use AIM to do it, I’m guessing that would be a way to hook messenger friends neatly into Facebook, connecting a few nodes of my social graph, shortening some things in Facebook’s favour – they might get a few more members, some more page impressions, etc.
Automatically sending out a message that links this activity to a Facebook friend provides some authenticity, and adds a certain cense of urgency and appropriateness to the task that Facebook want me to do – “Hey Chris is cool, right? He’s doing this – we’re not telling you to do it, Chris is!”. That’s a neat example of the way in which Facebook members are a form of labour, employed by the network, to help gain advantages for them. Chris is actually being used to generate capital for them. He gets a pay off – playing Farmville or whatever he does on there – but in doing so our connection can be exploited by Facebook.
The really clever thing is that they chose Chris as the front man for this. You see the strange thing is, Chris and I don’t talk on Facebook. Could that be why he was used? Now I concur that it may have been a random match, but think about it: I trust Chris enough to be friends with him on Facebook, but I don’t talk to him much on Facebook, therefore, based purely on our Facebook activity, I’m unlikely to be able to validate that the message is genuine. That means that Chris is unlikely to know that his identity is being used within this exchange, and he’ll sleep walk through the whole thing. That would sound pretty neat, particularly if you’re a company that has a user base which is a bit twitchy about privacy right now.
But here’s the problem. If Facebook’s algorithms have matched Chris and me in the way outlined above then it’s a gambit that shows a lack of regard for the other ways in which people connect. As far as Facebook is concerned, we’re not very close, but in fact our connection is active in so many other fora e.g., Twitter, email, classes, tutorials. The world isn’t polarised neatly, but I can see how when you’re working in a corporate silo, or focussed purely on code and people, you might not be able to see that bigger picture.
As I say, it may have been a random pairing, but it’s a useful thought experiment. If you’ve had any similar emails, do let me know in the comments.
Most of the ideas aren’t mine, but like all academics, I’m standing on the shoulders of giants in order to see a little further. The particular giant carrying most of the weight in this instance is Marshall McLuhan.
The central premise of this is that media are environments. That is, we don’t consume media – we inhabit them. That sounds a little needlessly obtuse, but it’s really quite simple: throughout history, we have lived in a world saturated by one media form or another, and that changes over time. And by ‘media form’ I mean ‘the main way in which we take in our information’.
Our brains get information about the world through our senses. Our senses are connected to whatever the main media happen to be at the time. And when those media change, we change. And like a frog slowly boiling, we generally don’t realise it’s happening to us while it’s happening.
The five ages
We have been through five main ages of media, each with its own unique characteristics. As we move from one age to another, the media environment alters, and the organism of our brain has to adapt to its new environment. It evolves. Not metaphorically – it actually changes. Our wiring is different in response to the different technological context we find ourselves in.
This isn’t complex, but it is important – in particular when it comes to everything I have to say about music and the internet… but also in general. It affects culture, society, law, politics, art, commerce and our own fragile psychologies.
I’ll take you through it.
1) The Oral Age
Human beings are hardwired for narrative. Always have been. As soon as we figured out how to make words, we’ve been telling each other stories – and some of our most compelling and enduring myths come to us from the Oral age.
The medium was speech. It was the campfire storytale. The oratory of Homer. The story was present before us, and we could interrogate it as it played out.
And in the oral age, the main way in which music happened was communally. As part of celebration or mourning, gathering or ritual. In this context, music’s an extension of speech. In many oral societies, there are actually no musicians, because music is just something everyone does. It’s not a profession.
Now, that’s not universally true for all cultures, of course, and over time, there are some oral cultures that turn music-making into something else. They are the troubadours and buskers. They show up and they entertain with songs and stories from their travels – and they are rewarded for their craft.
The oral age pretty much starts at the dawn of human civilisation, and unless you want to make the case for a gestural age before it (grunting and pointing to communicate), it marks the first media age. The first period through which human beings had a means by which they tended to communicate, and take in information and form an understanding of the world in which they lived.
The Oral Age lasted, to make it a crudely round figure, about 10,000 years.
2) The Scribal Age
And then we invent writing. Writing’s great. We can now take those stories, and we can preserve them. No longer do they have to be passed down from generation to generation by painstaking repetition and rote learning. Now they can be captured in a permanent form and recalled at will – brought back to life from the page.
Writing was more complicated than mere speech though. For a start, it required the skill of literacy, and that wasn’t evenly distributed for the most part. Besides, there were very few texts.
In order for a copy of a text to be made, what would ordinarily happen is that some scribes and monks from my monastery would come and visit your monastery in a different part of the world. It would take them months to travel there, they would copy a book by hand – character by character, line by line – and then they’d make the journey back to my monastery where it would sit in my library, where only my monks were allowed to read it. And only the important ones at that.
Sadly, when texts are so precious and rare, sometimes great calamities can befall them. Like the fire that wiped out the Alexandrian Library, taking hundreds of thousands of irreplaceable scrolls containing a large chunk of all recorded human knowledge with it.
But writing allowed for stories to be captured, studied and repeated faithfully in one telling to the next. The guy with the literacy could stand up the front and read in sermons to a congregation of illiterate and accepting attendees. After all, you can’t question a text. It says what it says.
And there were, of course, musicians who not only possessed this skill of literacy, but were able to compose and create works by making marks on paper. And so the profession of composer emerges – and before long a man named Bach is making copies of his works, handing them out to his assembled team of musicians, and they would perform for the entertainment and dancing of the guests at the party of Mr Bach’s rich patron.
Roughly speaking again, the Scribal Age lasted around 1,500 years – depending on which continent you happen to live.
3) The Print Age
So, along comes this Gutenberg guy and makes a machine that uses the concept of movable type (hundreds of years after the Chinese first think of it, as it happens) and before long, he’s mass producing books.
This turns out to be the biggest revolution in human history since the development of writing. Because not only can speech be captured in text on a page, it’s now almost a trivial exercise to make and distribute multiple copies of that knowledge.
Now everyone can have their own Bible. Everyone can come to have a personal relationship with their saviour – or print and distribute leaflets suggesting that perhaps they don’t need one… or that the saving that needs doing is one of political reform, or an intellectual and cultural enlightenment project.
At any rate – the message is now in everyone’s hands. Literacy spreads like wildfire. Before long, people are nailing their edicts to church doors, or sitting in private taking in information at their own pace – the words going into their brains like beads on a string.
Our brains change radically. We develop an unprecedented sense of the individual. We discover sequential logic and cross-referencing. And with mechanical reproduction, we invent the industrial age.
Music, as a business, of course, flourishes – and before long there is a real industry. The industry is called music publishing – and the main way in which money is made from music is through the creation, distribution and retail of dots on pages. People can go into a shop, buy a famous song, take it home, and play it badly on the piano in the parlour.
The Print Age lasted a good 500 years. You’ll notice that number keeps getting smaller.
4) The Electric Age
Then suddenly – Bam! Marconi, Edison, Franklin, Faraday, Volta, Tesla, Morse and Bell change the world again with their magnets and sparks and whatnot.
Not only can culture be mass produced, it can now be captured as audio or images – and mass broadcast. It’s one thing to read a book that someone else is also reading and be able to have a conversation about it. It’s something quite different again to simultaneously witness man setting foot on the moon along with millions of other people all across the globe.
The radical shift in media environment that the Electric Age brings about is what exercises McLuhan the most. The effect of that media shift on our minds is something that he is now perhaps best known for: “The Global Village” – which is not, as you might think, some sort of caring, sharing ‘hands across the water’ thing (villages can be quite problematic and claustrophobic collections of people).
At any rate, the Electric Age completely transforms our media environment again. The main way in which our brains take in information about the world in which we live and how we can make sense of it is fundamentally altered.
And for music – with electricity, of course, comes recording. Now you can not only have a famous song in your living room on a piece of paper – you can have an idealised performance of that song, by an international artist… and unlike the piano in your parlour, it will sound the same every single time you play it.
Of course, this was a massive challenge to the music industry that came before it. The sheet music publishers WERE the music industry – and these recording companies threatened their livelihoods. Besides, how were local musicians going to make any money in concert halls if a single artist in another country could record one performance of a song and sell it all over the world?
And the answer is – pretty much everyone had to adapt. The old sheet music industry fought the recorded music industry tooth and nail. Hell, the recorded music industry even fought radio. Who was going to buy records if people could hear them for nothing on the wireless?
But just as the previous models of music business had survived in some marginalised form from one age to the next, it’s still possible to buy sheet music today – and it’s still possible to make money making and selling it. It’s just not the main way that happens anymore.
The Electric Age is characterised by TV shows, radio airplay, records, tapes, CDs, retail stores with display shelves, top 40 charts, superstars, the dream of being signed to a major label and the album and single as the main ways in which music is produced and consumed.
The Electric Age lasted for about 100 years. It’s over. We think it’s still the main thing, but it’s not. We’re in a new age now.
5) The Digital Age
We’re in the Digital Age now. This is an epochal change, just as the other ages represented fundamental differences in our media environment and – more importantly – who we were as human beings.
We can’t see how different it is yet, because of what McLuhan called the ‘Rear View Mirror’ effect. We always look at our media environment in reverse – and certainly in the early days. We see where we’ve come from – and not where we’re going, or even where we are.
The content of any new medium is its predecessor. We might think we’re watching TV online, listening to internet radio or reading newspapers on the web. That’s not what we’re doing. We’re on the internet and that’s different.
Sidebar: There’s no such thing as internet radio
Just as our great-grandparents coined the term ‘horseless carriage’ to talk about those strange motorised buggies that noisily made their way up and down their streets – and used the phrase ‘wireless telegraphy’ or just ‘the wireless’ to talk about radio – we use transitional phrases to demonstrate our lack of understanding about what’s really going on.
Cars aren’t carriages without horses, and radio isn’t telegraphy without wires. Telegraphy may be communication over distances, but it’s point-to-point communication, not broadcasting. When we try and describe a new medium in terms of its predecessor, it just shows we haven’t understood and internalised its real meaning yet.
Internet radio, web newspapers and online television are similar misunderstandings and transitional phrases that reveal our ignorance.
Almost everything about radio changes in the digital environment. How it’s transmitted, what the production process is, the political economy of it, the professional practice, the mode of reception, the audience configuration, the legal framework, its linear and time-bound nature, the geographic constraints, and so on. About the only thing that’s the same is the fact that noise comes out of a speaker at one end.
Put it online, and it’s not radio. At least, not in any way that we’ve previously understood it.
You could fill a blog with all that’s different about the media environment in the digital age. It so profoundly and radically impacts upon everything we do that it’s once again changing our brains.
The way in which we take in information and how we make sense of the world around us is increasingy digital, rather than broadcast or print. It’s quite literally reshaping us and rewiring our brains.
From mobile phones to laptops, sat navs to digital cameras, YouTube to Skype, iPods to USB keys – what we surround ourselves with – the media environment we’re immersed in – has fundamentally changed.
And while the record industry, the film industry and the publishing industry remind us that we are consumers and they are the content providers – we have the opportunity to remember that it wasn’t always this way, and it needn’t be a characteristic of the Digital Age. In fact, it probably can’t be.
Like sheet music when recordings came along – recordings are now becoming marginalised. CD sales are not declining because of piracy, but because CDs are the last hurrah of the electric age.
But don’t forget: you can still walk into a shop and buy sheet music – it’s just not the main way in which music is produced and consumed anymore. Likewise CDs.
The dwindling record business
I saw data last week that showed that the record industry now represents the economic value of just less than a third of the music industry overall. And that’s the countable and counted music industry, which is far from the full picture.
But we have a choice. Despite the fact that it seems I’m saying that technology makes us what we are – in fact, if we understand the process, we can choose the adaptations that we make, rather than simply have them happen to us. This is not an entirely deterministic process.
That’s a much longer discussion. The point I’m trying to make here is that digital is different. It’s as revolutionary and game-changing as writing, print, or the discovery of electricity.
The internet is not a marketing platform for bands and nor is it merely a marketplace for content. It’s the current media environment.
The way to make meaningful musical content in the 21st century is not simply to make records and then point the internet at them – any more than you would put on a play in a theatre, point cameras at it, and call it a TV show.
Of course, people still want recordings of music. People still want broadcasting. People still want sheet music. It’s just not the main way in which music is produced and consumed anymore – and increasingly so. Make an album, by all means – but do consider the fact that you’re deciding to operate in an increasingly shallow end of the pool, economically – and even culturally – speaking.
We’ve been in the digital age for about 20 years. Our media ages are getting shorter. History’s speeding up. So whatever it is you’re going to do to adapt to the Digital Age – do it now.
So how is the Digital Age different exactly?
I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating – the shift to the online environment is not a shift in format. This is not like the change between vinyl and CD. It’s more like the shift from printed sheet music to recordings and broadcasting. This is a complete transformation of the media environment, and of the ways in which people behave, adapt and operate in that media environment.
And this new media environment is not set up in a broadcast, mass production paradigm. This is not a one-to-many medium, like radio, television, newspapers and so-called ‘traditional’ music distribution.
This is a conversation.
Our brains are evolving again. As our new environment envelops us, we become involved in the biggest conversation our world has ever known. That’s different and it radically changes who we are, and what we say, make and do.
There are only two types of content of any value online: conversation, and the things about which the conversation takes place.
Stop making Electric Age media – start doing Digital Age stuff. Stop making records, start having conversations.
Photo: ‘Multimedia Message‘ By rockcreek
Ofcom is the independent regulator and competition authority for the UK communications industries, with responsibilities across television, radio, telecommunications and wireless communications services. As part of its legal obligations it has published annual into consumers’ use of media and communications for the last seven years. ‘The Communications Market’ survey involved 1138 adults aged 16 and over.
- Some of the headline features in the report are familiar developments of trends that were notable some time ago:
- Nearly a quarter of people (22 per cent) say they have bought a HD-ready TV set in the last 12 months.
- Some 31 per cent of households with internet access used it to watch online catch-up TV – up 8 percentage points over the year.
- The proportion of time-shifted television viewing has more than tripled since 2006, from 1.7 per cent to 5.9 per cent.
- Last year UK TV revenue as a whole contracted for the first time since 2003, down by 0.4 per cent to 11.1bn.
TV then clearly figures as a major focus point for this organization, not surprising as it is still dominant in the lives of so many people, playing some part in the media consumption of almost everyone. Underlying these observations of course is that bottom line figure on the economics of the TV industry which reflects a wider trend that continues to worry the communication industries (telecoms, TV and radio):
Overall communications revenues fell by 2% year on year to £52.8 billion as income in each of the three communications industries contracted during 2009. Telecoms revenue fell by 2.7% to £40.6bn, the first year-on-year fall in recent history; the reduction was driven largely by the first-ever reduction in retail revenues from mobile services (-3.5%). Despite growing revenue from subscription television services, TV revenues declined by 0.4% to £11.1bn, reflecting a 9.6% contraction in net advertising revenue to £3.1bn. Radio industry income also fell over the year, by 4%, to £1.09bn, driven largely by commercial radio revenues falling by 11.5% to £432m. (Communication Markets Report, 2010, p. 17).
One aspect of the report which featured prominently in Ofcom press releases and picked up by media outlets concerned digital media usage in an analysis of ‘The consumer’s digital day’ (section 1.3, p. 23 ff. in the report). The basis for this analysis was that while Ofcom subscribes to a wide range of industry research such as BARB for television, RAJAR for radio, and Nielsen NetRatings for internet usage this offered limited insights. Individually, industry research allows some understanding of broadcast media consumption and web site usage: ‘However, there is little in the way of insight into how people use media and communications devices together and the relationship between them.’ (p. 23).
The key findings in this respect are summarized thus:
Nearly half of people’s waking hours are spent engaging in media and communications activities. The average person spends 15 hours 45 minutes awake per day, and seven hours and 5 minutes of this time is spent engaging in media and communications activities, amounting to 45% of waking hours (page 30).
People spend about seven hours a day consuming different media, but they squeeze more into this time by media multi-tasking. A fifth of the seven hours and five minutes of media activity is spent using more than one form of media at the same time. This allows people to squeeze in more media and communications activity into the time – on average 8 hours 48 minutes. The amount of time that 16-24s spend consuming media is lower than older age groups (6 hours 35 minutes). But 29% of their time with media is concurrent; the result is that they use more media and communications than any other age group, fitting 9 hours 32 minutes’ worth of activity into this time (page 31)
Some of this aspect of the report is represented graph form by Ofcom which sets media usage throughout the day against other activities.
Findings such as these prompt reflections on the way in which communication media are so thoroughly integrated into our lives as to make the modern world one defined by media technologies, content and modes of cultural consumption.
For media scholars, reports like this might aid our arguments about the relevance of what we do in all its guises, particularly as this modern mode of living has prompted some rather worried responses that hint at a moral panic that, in its essential state, has waxed and waned since the advent of the modern mass media.
Opinion and concerns have been expressed about the very fact of media consumption that takes place to the extent revealed in this survey which suggests that it is not a secondary form of activity but one which defines social activity. In addition, the very idea of ‘multi-tasking’ over several media forms over such extended periods prompts concerns about attention span, ‘dumbing-down’, the decline in literacy (at least as defined by reference to the book) and so on.
Other than examining the terms of responses to such reports (how have its insights been generated, how have they informed the interpretations of those who have reported it?), we could use such data a springboard for further qualitative research. Given the absences noted in the industry-generated research, and a tendency for commentators to leap to conclusions about the majority, we could develop Ofcom’s insights perhaps by examining what people actually do when they multi-task. How do people manage different media? How do they work at a cognitive level to manage and make sense of the flow of information they receive and generate?
Either way, the starting point is to read the report and generate your own questions, observations.
1. What kind of responses were generated by the Ofcom report? (e.g. read this BBC article). How were the findings reported and how did various media reports use its evidence?
2. What is your own response to the report? What other avenues of investigation does it prompt for media scholars?
3. How would you evaluate your own media use? When and where do you multi-task? How do you manage your media use over the day?
A blog by author Paul Long.
Photo: ‘Who’d Live in Stratford, Eh?’ By DG Jones
What are the responsibilities of the press and what do we expect of our news reporting agencies? Do journalists and the organs they work for have a social mission as well as a mission to sell newspapers?
The very fact of presenting ‘news’, of defining what constitutes the news and circulating it creates enormous expectation amongst the audience and by default places a great deal of responsibility on the shoulders of the journalists, editors and publishers of newspapers and of course those who run broadcast news organizations. That there are rules and regulations as well as professional standards underline this sense and the background for thinking about the following media issue and the questions it generates.
On 21 July 2010, The South African Times published a shocking front page story and image. The story concerned the body of a baby found dumped in a rubbish tip, which was shown in the picture taken by Halden Krog. Responses to the cover were extensive and divided. Many praised the newspaper for leading with the image and drawing attention to the urgent social issue of unwanted pregnancies in South Africa. Many too castigated the newspaper for transgressing the boundaries of taste and for cynically creating a sensation designed to attract attention to the newspaper itself and to generate sales.
While the wider social issue was a focus, the actions of the newspaper too became the subject of the story, one that carried around the world and which was framed in terms of the responsibilities of the press.
Certainly, the editorial team anticipated the furor that this would create, underlining the way in which the practice of the media in dealing with sensitive social issues in graphic fashion can make media forms themselves the story. In fact, the front page contained this comment from editor Phylicia Oppelt:
THIS is a horrific image by anyone’s standards. Taken yesterday by The Times’ photographer Halden Krog, we deliberated carefully about publishing it on the front page of this newspaper. Will you, our readers, think it gratuitous, or will you find the abandonment of an innocent as outrageous and horrifying as we did?
Take a look at the newspaper’s website and the range of readers’ comments.
1. What is your reaction to such practices and the presentation of news in this way?
2. Are newspapers and other current affairs outlets justified in enjoining campaigns with reportage?
3. Are there other incidents that you are able to identify that have generated such reactions?
A blog by author Paul Long.