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Taste in the Digital Age: Music Streaming Services and the Performance of Class Distinction

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Summary of PhD thesis

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Taste in the Digital Age: Music Streaming Services and the Performance of Class Distinction

  1. 1. Taste in the Digital Age: Music Streaming Services and the Performance of Class Distinction Jack Webster PhD Web Science www.jwebster.net
  2. 2. Music streaming services, such as Spotify, Apple Music and Tidal, have transformed the availability of music…
  3. 3. They afford on-demand access to vast catalogues of licensed music at little or no cost.
  4. 4. They are not only a vital distribution channel, but their influential playlist brands are a lucrative vehicle for promoting artists and reaching new audiences.
  5. 5. In addition, through the creation of personalised playlists and recommendations, the experience of consuming music is becoming personalised.
  6. 6. These changes invite us to consider whether music streaming services are disrupting the social dynamics of music consumption.
  7. 7. In the 1960’s, the influential French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu (1984), wrote about how cultural taste and consumption practices are an important part of how social class structures everyday life. Taste, Class & Consumption
  8. 8. He argued that what and how people engage with cultural goods is shaped by class background and cultural tastes serve to affiliate and differentiate people on the basis of class.
  9. 9. Traditionally, a cultivated appreciation for classical music or jazz defined the tastes of the upper and middle classes, whilst popular culture was associated with working class taste. Highbrow culture as legitimate taste
  10. 10. Taste, Class & Consumption in the 21st Century Over time, our understanding of the relationship between cultural taste, consumption and class has changed.
  11. 11. The concept of the ‘cultural omnivore’ was introduced to describe how the tastes of the middle classes have changed, shifting from the exclusive consumption of highbrow culture to a more pluralistic and cosmopolitan engagement (Peterson and Kern 1996).
  12. 12. However, current sociological accounts about the relationship between music taste, consumption and class overlook the disruptive potential of music streaming services.
  13. 13. The aim of my PhD was to empirically examine if and how music streaming services are shaping how class identity and distinction are performed through music taste and consumption.
  14. 14. How did I try to answer this question?
  15. 15. Research Design Phase 1 Phase 2 • 20 semi-structured interviews with music industry expert informants (e.g. music streaming services, record labels, distributors, industry bodies) • Interviews explored how music streaming services are shaping how music is made available to consumers and what opportunities and challenges this presents to incumbents in the recorded music industry • 20 semi-structured interviews with Spotify users from across class backgrounds • Interviews explored how music streaming services are shaping how class identity and distinction is performed through music consumption Research Design
  16. 16. I make no claims to representativeness with the findings I present. I chose to work with a smaller number of research participants and look deeply at their consumption practices and how they relate to class identity. In doing so, I point to some of the ways in which Spotify has the potential to shape the relationship between music taste, consumption and class which require further empirical consideration. Disclaimer
  17. 17. What did I find out?
  18. 18. Key Finding #1 For members of the middle classes for whom musical expertise is an important part of their class identity, using Spotify is closing down opportunities to mobilise their cultural capital: • The rate and scale at which music is made by Spotify (e.g. routine updating of playlists) is undermining the opportunities for individuals to take their time in appreciating music as an end in of itself. • The creation and presentation of personalised playlists and recommendations is undermining opportunities to display musical expertise.
  19. 19. Key Finding #2 At the same time, however, using Spotify is also creating new opportunities to deploy and accumulate cultural capital – especially for younger members of the middle classes: • Some are mobilising their cultural capital by turning to vinyl consumption as a way to oppose the immaterial and ephemeral nature of consuming music on Spotify. • Others mobilise their cultural capital by demonstrating their command over Spotify and their ability to enhance the experience of consuming music on their own terms (e.g. by creating playlists, ‘gaming’ the algorithms).
  20. 20. Key Finding #1: Spotify and its Challenge to Traditional Forms of Cultural Capital
  21. 21. My findings suggest: (1) the rate at which music is made available by Spotify, and (2) its attempts to personalise the experience of consuming music, are closing down opportunities for members of the middle classes for whom musical expertise is an important part of their claims to class distinction to mobilise cultural capital.
  22. 22. Musical Expertise and middle-class identity Alongside wealth, cultural expertise (i.e. cultural capital) is one way the middle classes communicate status and privilege. Cultural expertise is related to class privilege because it demonstrates to others how an individual has the time and resources to pursue cultural activities. Cultural expertise is acquired through immersion in a culturally-rich and confident family environments, or through education, especially higher education. This type of experience and education is not available to all, thereby enabling is to serve as a source of class distinction
  23. 23. Spotify has increased the rate at which music is made available: it routinely updates the contents of its playlists and what is presented to users on their homepage changes throughout the course of a day. (1) The increasing rate at which music is made available
  24. 24. Spotify breeds a more incidental relationship with music The rate at which music is made available is closing down opportunities for cultural- capital rich members of the middle classes to display their musical expertise and appreciation for music as an end in of itself. “I’m not taking as much time to get to know a lot of the music I am listening to because there’s always something good a swipe or a tap away.”
  25. 25. (2) Mass Personalisation The experience of using Spotify is becoming increasingly personalised. Spotify collects vast amounts of data about user behaviour and has invested in the latest advancements in music recommendation technologies to achieve ‘mass personalisation.’ Each of its 180 million users receive personalised playlists and recommendations, such as Spotify’s Discover Weekly playlist.
  26. 26. “I do feel a certain amount of pressure to keep my listening habits wide enough that I am not getting six months down the line and realising that, oh, all I'm ever listening to is this now because this is all I ever discover.” For some, music discovery has been “consigned to the scrapheap” and it is generating a concern that their music tastes are being “pigeonholed” by Spotify’s data collection apparatus, limiting their opportunities to broaden their musical horizons. Music discovery and personalisation
  27. 27. These examples demonstrate some of the ways in which using Spotify is challenging existing class practices. For some members of the middle classes, it is undermining opportunities to mobilise cultural capital through musical expertise.
  28. 28. Yet, the story doesn’t end here… My research also found that using Spotify is opening up new opportunities for members of the middle classes to mobilise their cultural capital.
  29. 29. Key Finding #2: Spotify and its Contribution to Emerging Forms of Cultural Capital
  30. 30. Some more theory…
  31. 31. Emerging Forms of Cultural Capital Recent studies have found that younger members of the middle classes are finding new ways to mobilise their cultural capital (Savage et al 2013; Friedman et al 2015) Use of ‘new media’ (e.g. video games, social media, the Web) and the consumption of popular culture for its own sake are being incorporated into younger members of middle classes’ claims to distinction.
  32. 32. Is using Spotify contributing to emerging forms of cultural capital? If so, how?
  33. 33. My findings suggest: (1) Consuming vinyl has become a way to mobilise cultural capital by resisting the immaterial and ephemeral nature of consuming music on Spotify. (2) Using Spotify itself has become part of how younger members of the middle classes mobilise their cultural capital (e.g. creating and sharing playlists, ‘gaming’ the algorithms).
  34. 34. (1) Vinyl music consumption and emerging cultural capital
  35. 35. Immateriality As music has gone from something we predominantly own to something we access via the Internet, music has become more immaterial.
  36. 36. Ephemerality The anytime, anywhere access to music Spotify affords, combined with the rate at which it makes music available, has made the experience of consuming music more ephemeral.
  37. 37. In contrast to the de- materialising effect of Spotify, owning vinyl re- instates a sense of cultural ownership. This is reflected in the ways people are more selective about what they choose and why. Vinyl as Re- Materialisation “Owning the vinyl, it’s a lot more special and you do have a lot more pride in owning it almost – people do still say, oh, I’ve got that on vinyl, you don’t say, oh, I’ve got that on Spotify. Actually saying that, I’ve got that on vinyl, is quite special.” – Christian (Age 24)
  38. 38. In contrast to the ephemerality of accessing music via Spotify, listening to vinyl records is a way to slow down the experience of consuming music, creating the time and space to appreciate music as an end in of itself. The ‘Slow’ Consumption of Music “with vinyl it’s, I bought this album because I specifically wanted to own this album […] I’m going to sit down and listen to this one album and focus on one single thing for a little while” – Jamie (Age 24)
  39. 39. (2) Using Spotify and emerging cultural capital
  40. 40. Playlist Creation on Spotify Spotify enables its users to create and share playlists. People are able to create their own playlists from scratch, or edit a pre- existing playlist. Users can share playlists publicly on the platform and build a following.
  41. 41. Playlist creation as a way to convert cultural capital Creating and sharing playlists on Spotify is a way for some members of the middle classes to mobilise their cultural capital and convert into social status and prestige. “I take a lot of pride in finding the right situation for a playlist and then putting it on and seeing how people react to it.” - Joel (Age 22)
  42. 42. Indeed, playlist curation has become an occupation in its own right and a way for some people to convert their cultural capital and prestige into economic opportunities.
  43. 43. These examples demonstrate some of the ways in which using Spotify is creating new class practices. For some younger members of the middle classes, it is creating new opportunities to mobilise cultural capital, such as through vinyl consumption and playlist creation.
  44. 44. Summary Music streaming services are shaping how class identity and distinction are performed through the consumption of music. On the one hand, Spotify is undermining existing class practices, closing down opportunities for some members of the middle classes to mobilise cultural capital through music consumption. On the other hand, Spotify is creating other opportunities to mobilise cultural capital on and off platform, specifically in terms vinyl music consumption and playlist curation.
  45. 45. Related Works (Forthcoming) “Spotify vs. Apple Music: Competing and creating value through exclusivity, curation and experiences.” Consumption Markets and Culture. (2016) “Book review: The production and consumption of music in the digital age.” Information Communication & Society. (2016) “Towards a theoretical approach for analysing music recommender systems as sociotechnical cultural intermediaries.” Proceedings of the 8th ACM Conference on Web Science.
  46. 46. References • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Translated by Richard Nice. Oxford: Routledge. • Friedman, Sam, Mike Savage, Laurie Hanquinet, and Andrew Miles. 12. ‘Cultural Sociology and New Forms of Distinction’. Poetics 53: 1–8. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.poetic.2015.10.002. • Peterson, Richard A., and Roger M. Kern. 1996. ‘Changing Highbrow Taste: From Snob to Omnivore’. American Sociological Review 61 (5): 900–907. https://doi.org/10.2307/2096460. • Savage, Mike, Fiona Devine, Niall Cunningham, Mark Taylor, Yaojun Li, Johs Hjellbrekke, Brigitte Le Roux, Sam Friedman, and Andrew Miles. 2013. ‘A New Model of Social Class? Findings from the BBC’s Great British Class Survey Experiment’. Sociology 47 (2): 219–50. https://doi.org/10.1177/0038038513481128.
  47. 47. www.jwebster.net

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