The New State of Music

How technology and digital consumption patterns affect music’s place in our world and the individual’s relationship to it

One poet from Duluth, Minnesota once wrote the line; “the times they are a-changing”. Those words and appurtenant music was part of his saga to become a rather involuntary front figure of a cultural and political counter culture. Indeed, the times for music goes through dramatic changes, and we’ve come a long way from the context that particular Noble Prize winner rose to fame within. As these changes proceeds, it’s not unusual, at least if I talk out of personal experiences, that representatives of an older generation who lived through times with music not being the digital commodity as it is today turns a skeptical eye towards the development, with a belief that the world of music is becoming a hollower place with reduced intellectual substance. It was out of this premise I formulated the aim of my bachelor thesis during the final semester of Media and Communication studies at Malmö University; the soul and life of music in the digital era, how our relationship to music has evolved and furthermore how we experience it. Over the course of ten weeks, I visited secondary schools in southern Sweden to meet with pupils as well as teachers to discuss and hear them reflect upon what music means for them and motivations for their consumption and interaction with it. As it turned out, it’s not that simple to just dismiss the value of music in our digitally permeated contemporary context. Still one thing is certainly clear; the changes are profound on many levels.

What’s ahead of you is a discussion and presentation of some of the central findings in my research. More precisely, I’m going to narrow it down to music as an identity marker and what the future potentially have in store for the actual music in itself. These areas seem to be the two that affects the most by digital technology, with the behavior and consumption patterns it produce. This area of research, the individual’s relationship to popular culture, is a well visited and exciting one for media and social science researchers like myself. With this article, I wish to invite you to this exciting world, and let you peek over the edge of what we are able to observe on an everyday basis, and instead look at the process through the lens of academic activity and perspectives.

And by the way, pay attention to the underscored words and sections throughout the article, they’ll take you to further complementary reading or other relevant stuff!

Possible concerns expressed by potential aforementioned generational representatives regarding the deprivation technology has brought on perhaps manifest itself the clearest in aspects of identity. One of music’s strongest ties to identity has been, and to some extent one can argue still is, its close ties to phenomenons like sub-cultural groups and political activism. These are both rooted in a form of collective identity with a belonging to something bigger, where music often has been considered to be the vantage point. But how often nowadays do you encounter a punk-rocker on the street or some other explicit, ‘hard to be mistaken’ member of a distinct collective? It sure could and happens from time to time, especially if you, like me, live in a progressive town like Malmö. But it’s hard to argue with the fact that it isn’t as widespread as it used to be, and it’s not just about what you’ll notice on merely appearance. It’s also about the mark and influence these groups historically had on society and culture. As I will show, advancements in technology and a digitized musical industry is correlated with the decline of collective identities with music at its core and primary ideological means.

I’m twenty-five years of age, which means that I graduated secondary school about six years ago. Even though six years isn’t a significant period of time, while strolling through the halls of the schools we visited, I was nonetheless able to notice differences in comparison. In my years, you only had to sweep your eyes over the daily flow of pupils to make out certain groups that obviously had their common denominator and point of departure with respects to style and attitude in music. If we go even further back, and in my case recall stories of my parents, this state was even more evident. According to them, and also many of the teachers, the older participants in my study, different groups not only looked different, but also engaged in conflict with one another about issues that didn’t necessarily was about music in itself. Of course, music was the drive and the foundation, but out of that, very specific ways of life and attitudes emanated, which could collide with other demographics with other kinds of music as engine, hence other attitudes and perspectives and recipe for discourse. This clearly illustrates the centrality for music with regards to the individual’s overall identity, and not just what music that’s being preferred. It was therefore unthinkable to identify oneself with multiple genres, because if so according to one of the teachers; ‘then you would’ve been a nobody’. When I use the word ‘conflict’ in this sense, it doesn’t necessarily imply a violent, physical conflict, even though that certainly has occurred. It’s rather about the music fueled ideology these collectives, some more fixed than others, stood upon, which meant that the link between music and identity became highly apparent. But this, shared identities steeped in music, seems to be a declining phenomenon, which both I and other researchers have found to be correlated with technology and a digitized industry.

Kurt Cobain (1967–1994) was with the music of his band Nirvana, but also philosophical ideas and attitude towards society in general, a big reason for the emergence and spreading of the subculture ‘grunge’ and Cobain is considered to be one of its founding fathers.

So what are the actual effects of technology that bring about this development and changing societal and cultural landscape? Well, it both seems to be about the ways in which we access music and how we listen to it. Because, when basically an unlimited amount of music nowadays is available in each and every one of our pockets, and we seemingly can listen to whatever we want whenever we want, that abundance and ubiquity of music makes it more difficult to connect and group individuals to certain genres. Moreover, no one that participated in the study regardless of age claimed that they listened to one genre or a certain kind of music exclusively. Rather, adjectives like ‘complex’ and ‘diverse’ were frequently mentioned while describing a musical taste or orientation, which gets interesting if seen to the fact that exactly this previously would make you a ‘nobody’. This tells us that it’s not just about and a consequence of the access to an unprecedented extensive music catalogue. It also seems to be just as much about the ways in which we listen to music and how we integrate it in our social lives, or perhaps the absence of not integrating it. It turned out that today everyone, especially according to the young participants who pretty much were born into the digital, seems to create their own, private musical universe which solely expands through the digital. The digital in this sense is the services we make use of to navigate through the world of music, where Spotify turned out to be extremely dominant, near exclusive regardless generational belonging. Therefore, from here on out, I’m going to pretty much only be mentioning Spotify while talking about music, technology and the digital. The talks were initiated as discussions about music in general, but it nevertheless always turned out that the topic obviously, according to the participants, were synonymous with Spotify. Therefore, it gets highly relevant to take into account the attributes and functionality of Spotify as specific service. But besides Spotify, the discussion also concerns the physical artefacts we make use of to interact with music, like the smartphone. As will become clear, these are the fundamental aspects for this process and change.

When I state that the ‘musical universe expands solely through the digital’, I mean that quite literary. Because the thing with Spotify that became evident during my days in the schools, was that it’s a highly multifunctional application, and that aspect has major consequences. More precisely, Spotify, with its functionality and design, decides what kind of content that’s being consumed and also induces a certain kind of behavior, which doesn’t conform well with the concept of collective identities and sub-cultures that stems and derives out of music. Basically, Spotify incorporates traits from traditional mass medium as well as new digital social ones, which means that Spotify is what exclusively being used for the exploration of music, as well as the discovery of new music via friends with the use of different sharing functions within the application. It’s in this sense, Spotify’s power over content and behavior gets rather obvious. We use and accept the functions and design and therefore also let aspects like our relationship to music and social lives being influenced by it. Out of this, the most prominent change and impact seen to the decline of music as identity marker is that today, we don’t seem to need real-world social aspects to experience music. This leads to, as previously mentioned, that all of us are free to shape our own musical world, which according to the participants in my study never seems to be limited to a certain kind of genre. Again, this is a direct consequence of how applications like Spotify functions, and the strongest evidence for how it changes our behavior are to be found in the the death of the Jimi Hendrix — Woodstock hippie or the London Punk Rocker which were, or if you like ‘are’, an outcome of music based communities with an absence of digital and services like Spotify’s influence. Sounds dramatic and far-fetched? Well it’s not strange that it does, and depending on your perspective can make that fact troublesome, which I will return to later on. Spotify’s impact and these processes are fairly unnoticeable and not something that the average user notices on the everyday basis. Still, as my research among others have found, it constitutes the decisive factor for the diminishing relationship between music and shared collective identities.

This, Spotify’s impact and molding of our relationship to music, is something that progresses over time, something that became clear while contrasting how two different generations used Spotify and reflected upon it. Spotify’s previously mentioned ‘multifunctionality’ is the key here. The younger people that we talked to did all utilize some aspect of Spotify where they were being presented for new music directly by Spotify. This could for example be that Spotify recommend content that they believe the user will enjoy based on an understanding of the user with algorithms, but also top-lists, related artists etc. This process was so ingrained and such a natural part of how music circulated and was being consumed by the younger participants that hardly any problems or obstacles with it surfaced during our talks. At the same time, representatives of the older generation didn’t express to fond feeling about those functions, with the belief that it wasn’t possible and enough to satisfy their musical needs, it rather just infringed negatively on their consumption of music and overall experience. When they tuned into digital music streaming services like Spotify, they always had a clear image of what they wanted to achieve and consume, which meant that if some artist wasn’t on Spotify or was taken down; concerns, discouragement and distrust toward the service as a whole were not seldom expressed.

The younger participant’s relationship and use of Spotify may imply that we’re going to see more of this in the future:
If that’s a good or bad thing, I leave to you.

What this essentially tells us is that services like Spotify, with its digital distribution of music, is in the midst of reshaping how we experience music, with the disappearance of music fueled cultural demographics also results in more far reaching cultural and societal consequences. But there’s also about mobile technologies, with the most obvious example being the smartphone, that enable Spotify’s impact. When we possess this ocean of opportunities in our pockets, and with music consumption seemingly a predominantly on-the-go activity and individual action, collective identities that emerges and circulates solely around music are doomed to turn extinct.

My research at this point aligns well with J. Patrick Williams, who investigated sub-cultures that originated from specific genres and artists on the internet. What he found is that the internet, which constitutes a forum for the circulation of ideas that previously were associated with certain kinds of music, reduce the centrality of music for alternative ways of life and perspectives. With this result in mind, another factor, except from how we nowadays consume music digitally, is that digital communication technologies offer other and arguably more efficient arenas for the establishment of sub-cultures and collective identities which previously were pretty restricted and dependent on music. In fact, this development makes a lot of sense. If sub-cultures are all about the circulation of ideas, then internet with its vast possibilities for communication in various of fashions obviously is a far better mean for their existence and maintenance than merely shared beliefs in music. The title ‘cyberculture’ is being more frequently applied nowadays rather than sub-cultures to talk about this phenomena. This strengthens previous sections in this article and at the same time shows that sub-cultures and collective identities are far from dead, it rather just seems to be leaving the world of music and instead flourish and thrive within other digital arenas.

But if this is the case, what place does music hold for us today and what kind of needs and purposes does it fulfill? Well, even though music can be perceived as not being the ‘social glue’ that it has been in previous historical eras, a life without it, as I will show next, seems to be unfathomable.

That music is an essential part of our lives became clear when the group sessions were about to end and I asked one last question: How do you think your lives would have looked like if music became illegal? This extremely hypothetical question was met by both laughter and disturbance. A life without music almost seemed to be a life not worth living, and everyone agreed on that it was a legislation they would by all certainty violate. This question and consensual response aptly reflects our relationship to music nowadays. The majority of us regardless of age, as identified in my research, listens to music close to constantly, and we have grown so attached to it that we almost can’t seem to live without the possibility of always being a few taps on our screens away to access it. The majority of the students explained that a bus ride or walk without music, which could only have been if the battery ran out, was almost a physically painful experience that elapsed extremely slowly and resulted in feelings of stress and anxiety.

For many of us, it can be hard to endure commuting or getting from door to door without music pulsing through our ears. In that sense, our relationship to music has never been as intense and intimate as it is today.

This finding gets interesting in the light of what I previously discussed about music and identity where music can be perceived to have lost in significance. What this tell us, on the contrary, is that music itself hasn’t lost in levels of significance and value, it’s just changing and deploys to other aspects of identity, but also to serve other purposes in general. Rather than using music as a mean to display for others who one is, what values and views one possess or perhaps political orientation, it more seems to be used as an introspective action which address aspects of identity and well-being that isn’t concerned with external communicative aspects, but more about dealing with oneself and everyday situations. Moreover, this finding is substantiated by the fact that music consumption in many instances functioned as the individuals own portable shrink, as a mean to sort out emotions and quell unwanted feelings like worries and anxiety. Actually, state of mind and context turned out to be the most prominent aspects regarding how the participants consumed music. And this particular revelation seems to be affecting the use and function of the traditional set of genres as we know them today.

When technology and mobile devices as previously discussed enable us to listen to music without the constraints of time and space, and also provide us with pretty much unlimited amount of musical content, this also results in that our consumption of music and motivations for it to a higher degree seems to be a result of context and state of mind than has been the case in previous historical and technological eras. Out of this, there’s another aspect to highlight which turned out to be one of the major findings of the study, which also is connected to my previous discussion about the diminishing centrality of music for the participation and establishment of collective identities. That is, when music is more consumed after context and state of mind, the necessity of categorization and exploration of music where traditional genres are used as indications for what music one might like becomes, according to the younger participants, clearly obsolete. This goes back to what I mentioned earlier, that no one listened to one genre exclusively, and when asked to describe and evaluate on their musical taste, it turned out to be a rather difficult task, which often landed in that it was best labeled as ‘complex’ and ‘hard to describe with genres’.

So rather than choosing music or putting together a playlist out of genres, it occurred more frequently that emotions and feelings was the decisive factor. What the participants focused on while discussing what kind of music they consumed and motivations for it, words like ‘sad’, ‘happy’ and ‘worried’ were being applied rather than ‘rock’ or ‘hip-hop’. Moreover, if asked to describe the music of choice while feeling, for example, ‘angry’, that choice could span between everything from ‘hardcore’ to ‘pop’. I actually put together a playlist which I named ‘Angst’ a few weeks ago. This playlist, though, doesn’t consist of multiple genres. If you don’t like raw, bone-cracking hardcore, it’s probably not for you. Or maybe it is, if you feeling angry as a bull in front of a red cloak.

In the light of how services like Spotify looks like and operate and the new possibilities it has resulted in when coupled with the properties of mobile devices like the smartphone, this outcome is not hard to grasp. The human race is, at least I still like to believe, explorative, curious and inventive. If we get handed new technologies to interact with music, then the current musical landscape by all probability will change, and the death of the traditional character of genres seems to be one outcome well underway. After all, genres, even as we know them today, are ever-changing and evolve constantly.

Here it gets interesting to stop a minute by the concept of genre. Could it be that genres in the future, as a consequence of this technological influence, will look completely different? If we look to genre as something that’s not being fixed in the music itself, but rather something that is determined by social rules and the perceptions of it by the audience, this can surely turn out to be the case. Rock is labeled as just rock because there is a common understanding what rock sounds like. In that sense, our understanding of that particular genre is only in our heads, and we can see how it has changed from being pretty limited to Elvis Presley to nowadays reach completely different acts like Metallica. Two very different musical expressions, but nonetheless can be labeled as rock-acts.

Bands and artists grouped together according to genre; how we’re used to sort out and find our way through the vast musical universe.

So in this sense, is it possible that genres in the future will be labeled exclusively after emotion? Imagine if we will come to produce music after how it will be consumed. If we take into account the breakdown of the concept of genre as I presented above, that is far from an unrealistic scenario. Maybe while visiting the local record store, if those still are going to be around, the shelves and boxes will be having names like ‘Life is good!’ or perhaps ‘On the brink to suicide’. Those genres can then possibly carry strains from all kind of previous traditional genres, but the main goal would always be to appeal to our emotions, context and state of mind. Moreover, areas exist other than just listening in to the participants of my research where we can identify symptoms and tendencies of this process, and possibly peek into my hypothetical, but personally, realistic future. Namely, Spotify is already putting a lot of focus into this, and they have a big section where they offer playlists with music after what they call ‘mood’. Some examples are ‘Songs to sing in the shower’, ‘Wake Up and Smell the Coffee’ and ‘Confidence Boost’. In addition to previous discussion, these playlists contain all kind of music regardless of genre or aesthetic character, and turned out to be rather popular among the participants in my research. This only give us even more reason to get behind these arguments of a near possible new future for the music genres.

So what to make of all of this talk about identity, genres and music? Depressing? Exciting? Uplifting? Personally, and as mentioned earlier, the fact that a very few set of commercial actors, like for example Spotify or Apple with its iPhone, possess such an immense power over the ways in which we interact with culture and music, and with that also how our relationship to it looks like, makes up for very ambivalent feelings. Because at first glance, and what’s consistently been apparent in this article, this new development can seem to reduce boundaries that previously encapsulated us in a limited environment to engage with music. This can only be positive, right? A more diverse world, which the decline of collective identities potentially can point towards. But on the other hand, structures, and with that inevitably to some degree certain confinements, can still be seen as highly present, but only because they take on more global forms, goes by unnoticed. This is the other side of the coin that I’ve continuously been trying to emphasize between the lines.

It has by now become clear that we act and are being formed according to the properties that these services offers without necessarily reflecting upon it, and the younger ones in the majority of cases gladly accept and appreciate the content that’s being fed to them and overall functionality of Spotify. Here, it’s important to bear in mind, which close to all the research on this matter points out, that the commercial nature and interest in profit of these new masters of cultural distribution is something that can’t be overlooked in this discussion. For example, content is constantly handed to us with the use of algorithms that are designed to calculate and find out what content we’re going to enjoy. But no one knows how these processes actually work and how they’re being put together. If these functions are going to play a bigger role in the future with regards to our music consumption, imagine all the music we’re possibly going to miss out on because of how services like Spotify choose to design their service as a whole, but also as a consequence on what grounds and variables they choose to understand their audience according to. Moreover, if we once again return to claims out of previous research, if everything that’s going on Spotify must been seen as an action of commercial interests, that includes the actual music we’re being presented for. So in this case, even though it’s easy to perceive this process as making us freer than ever, aspects like this can point towards the opposite consequence. With previous sections in this article in mind coupled with these facts, our overall culture in the longer run will inevitably be more influenced by commercial interests. Then, if we’re so unaware of these process, and if music historically has been such an imperative part for the circulation of different ideas and perspectives, does this mean that we as human beings are increasingly going to be formed after commercial templates? Will we therefore possibly unwittingly stagnate in our overall societal and cultural improvement where music has helped us getting to the rather progressive and liberal state of today? It’s interesting to try and place a Bob Dylan or John Lennon in our digital musical context, and imagine if their philantropical and political achievements would have been accomplished to a lesser or greater extent if seen to how the consumption and industry looks like today.

But, does this really matter? As long as we’re happy and get what we want, is there really an actual problematic to consider? From here on, I’m not in position to answer those questions. This, I believe to be all a matter of perspective, and how much faith or cynicism the light you’re perceiving this development and processes in is made up from. For me, it all comes down to one question, originally posed by Aldous Huxley; is it better to be free than happy?

But to be ignorant and naive is not something that is consider desirable, and the purpose of this article has been to shed light on this area, and hopefully provide some insights on how our contemporary culture and way of life is being influenced by technology and new services. Maybe, this enlightenment will influence your own choice regarding how you interact with music, digitally or not, and because of it, contribute to the shaping of our overall culture in ways that you want and on your terms.