What we can learn about systems change from the breakthrough of rock’n’roll?
Change is complex and it’s not always obvious how it comes about. We often talk about creating change when, when in fact, it’s happening all around us all the time. In living systems the interactions between small organisms and their environment can trigger and create the emergence of new structures and patterns that can be radically different to the system that existed before. Society is part of this living system.
As humans and societies we are constantly learning, adapting and developing, modifying our world. We are constantly trying out new ideas, actions and interacting with our past structures and environment, continually creating change. These actions can sometimes create the emergence of a new pattern of organisation or system structure — a system change. Unpacking the ways in which change happens in society is key to unlock our understanding of the dynamic state of the world.
A great example of this is the emergence of rock’n’roll in the 1950s.
How did change come about?
It all goes back to the 1920s, when radio broadcasting triggered widespread enthusiasm, leading to a radio mania. People were stunned by the ability to hear invisible sound, and radio diffused rapidly. Radio sets appeared in living rooms all over the country and in 1933 60% of American households owned one. The simultaneous expansion of broadcasting stations created chaos due to interference of radio waves. The Radio Act of 1927 signalled federal involvement, and advertising soon established itself as the dominant convention to earn money.
The challenge from radios led to declining record sales in the early 1920s. The Great Depression was an external paradigm level crisis, which almost decimated record sales. The sales decline exacerbated the record companies’ economic problems.
Because of the combined problems, most record companies went bankrupt. The shakeout and takeovers led to a consolidation in the record industry, with entertainment empires such as Warner Bros, RCA/Victor and Columbia. Two of the Big Three recording companies were thus closely associated with radio organizations, resulting in integrated ‘Empires of Sound’: huge business organizations based on the reproduction and transmission of sound.
Creative artists took advantage of the opportunities that became available to them, with names such as Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry being ceaselessly promoted. Meanwhile, post-WW2 America saw the emergence of an affluent teenage market, youth culture and a growing generational conflict.
The 1950s saw further changes: that television rapidly substituted radio as the main family entertainment device. As a result, radio moved from the central place in the household to the kitchen, children’s bedrooms and the garage. Hence radio listening became more private and individualised.
Teenagers could listen to radio alone or with friends, free from parental control and for the first time, assert their own musical interests.This change in listening practices was reinforced by the technological development of transistor radios, which were smaller, lighter and portable.
The 1950s and 1960s were decades of economic prosperity and an expansion of free time. All these conditions coming together created the fertile ground for the breakthrough of rock’n’roll into a mainstream genre.
Despite the relative short life of its first wave (from mid-60s onwards it became know as ‘rock’), rock’n’roll had a lasting impact, influencing racial discourse, the growing youth movement, as well as the many dance and music genres that followed.
What can we learn from this story?
It challenges the myth of the hero. Breakthrough rock’n’roll came about as a coalescing of socio-cultural events and trends, as well as repeated waves of technical innovation. No single individual, not even Elvis could have done this alone.
Change didn’t emerge overnight, but was embedded in broader change processes at play, such as the repeated reconfiguration of different systems. Social and technical developments in the 1930s and 1940s helped set the stage for the music revolution of the 1950s.
Change is continuous. After its breakthrough in the 50s, rock’n’roll continued to change and mature, undergoing further changes and mutations, developing new sub-genres and influencing others.
These insights could be true for how we might understand both systems change in the past but also if we are seeking to create systems change in the future. It gives us some clues about how might we act if the systems we are working with are constantly changing, emerge over many years through multiple interventions combining technical innovation through to the wider socio-cultural changes of our time?
We’d love to create more stories of #systemschange for the School of System Change — if you have an idea for a story or are interested in collaborating for storytelling — we’d love to hear from you! But perhaps the video inspires you to do something else — if it does, we’d love to hear from you about what that is.
Join the conversation #systemschange.
This #systemschange animation was produced by Forum for the Future in collaboration with Glider and is based on on the academic paper “Analysing the breakthrough of rock ’n’ roll (1930–1970) Multi-regime interaction and reconfiguration in the multi-level perspective” by Frank W. Geels (2007)