Cultural expression – art, music and fiction; films, TV and theatre; comedy; sport; gaming – isn’t top of the agenda in most public policy discussions, including digital. But cultural expression matters to the way that we experience our life and experience the digital society.
Why cultural expression matters?
The cultural choices that we make are a key part of the identity we have as individuals (jazz lover, for example; football fan) as well as the identities of our communities and our societies, including national identity (look, for instance, at how local and national victories in sport are celebrated).
They’re part of the way in which we understand (and children learn to understand) our societies – what we laugh at, what terrifies us, what bonds us, what comforts us, what we think of as success or failure, what we want to hand on to the next generation.
And they provide much of the entertainment that makes life enjoyable and hard life tolerable. They’re central to the way that we make friends, find love, handle depression, cope with grief.
So cultural expression matters. And, like everything else in our society, it’s affected by digitalisation. It’s worth reflecting on the impact of the digital on culture, and what that tells us about other changes that are taking place.
This week, a look at one cultural medium – music – and what has happened to it. Some thoughts first on why music matters and on earlier technologies.
Music matters for all the reasons that I’ve mentioned. It’s part of the background to most lives and to the foreground in their key events and rituals (courtship and celebrations, weddings, funerals).
Musical styles and musical traditions are or can be central to many people’s sense of national and cultural identity (gamelan in parts of Indonesia, griot traditions in West Africa, reggae in Jamaica, the folk songs of different districts in my own country, Britain).
They express political affiliation (from national anthems to songs of rebellion), class (the dress codes associated with European classical music), the fight for racial equality and justice (generations of music in America, from jazz and blues to rap), generational independence (rock ‘n’ roll and punk).
And music is experienced differently by different people. A minority play instruments, more sing and dance, most listen. It can be attuned, in other words, to individual desires and talents, which is one reason one might say that it belongs to everyone.
Music’s produced and consumed in different ways – in recent generations in particular, as technology (first analogue, then digital) has opened up new opportunities.
Until a century ago it needed to be live. People came together to participate – sometimes performing, sometimes joining in through singing and through dancing, sometimes just listening in seats (going to concerts).
Two technologies – recording and radio – radically changed music consumption from live experience to something that could be owned, curated and deployed at times of choice.
Radio turned music into background, always on tap to leaven times of drudgery or fill the gaps in conversation. It became the norm in many workplaces. Music While You Work was broadcast by the BBC in the belief that it would make wartime workers more productive back in 1940, and continued until 1964. Muzak has pervaded many stores.
And radio enabled people to hear music they would never otherwise have heard. My grandmother, in her coal-mining village, would never have encountered European classical music if my father had not made a radio for her back in the 1920s. My love of blues began by exploring obscure corners of radio broadcasting forty years on from then.
And recording made for greater diversity, because it made music cheaper to broadcast and to consume. Radio stations didn’t have to pay live musicians all the time; they could just put another record on the turntable (terms, I know, that are now mostly out of use).
Recording meant that people could own musical performances, keep them and choose when to hear them at their leisure. Music became less communal as an experience as a result, more individual; less often something to perform in public, more often something to be listened to (or merely heard) at home. You could build up your musical collection.
Performance became less immediate. Live performance is exhilarating thanks to its spontaneity, musicians playing off one another, improvising, making mistakes but also making magic. Every gig is different. Recordings, by contrast, are the same each time they’re heard.
Few recordings now are made ‘as live’. The mixing desk’s their most important instrument – changing balances between performers, splicing bits of different performances, putting together instrumental tracks that can be made at different times in different places, making music that was not made live and sometimes could not be made live.
The music collections people made have also changed in format over time. When I was small, my older sisters’ rock ‘n’ roll – the first records I knew – had come on fragile shellac discs that hurtled round their turntable at 78 revolutions every minute (rpm). Then came vinyl (45 rpm for singles, 33⅓ for LPs, which enabled artists to curate a longer musical experience). Cassettes, which made personal collections portable. CDs – which made the music digital. Then digital downloads and streaming, which has digitised the means of musical consumption.
So what has digitalisation done to music?
My points so far have been to say that music matters, and that technologies – first analogue, then digital – have played a big part in the changing way it’s been experienced over a century. Digitalisation’s impact’s important and ongoing. Here are five ways that seem to me important.
First, diversity. The range of music that’s available to everyone, in different forms and formats, is far greater than it used to be. It's no longer limited to what is in the record store or on the radio. I can find almost any music that I want to find, from anywhere, online – on subscription streaming services like Spotify or free-to-use platforms like YouTube.
But greater choice does not mean people experience greater diversity. Two other changes have affected that: the extent to which we own our music, and the extent to which we let others decide for us what we’re going to hear.
Second, ownership. When I was young, my friends and I would cherish the recordings that we bought. They were expensive. There was a ritual to playing them. We loved the artwork that came with them. We shared with reverence.
I’m of a generation that still likes music to have physical form. I still own and buy much music, and there’s been a revival lately in vinyl (not CDs) in some cultures which is partly down to sound quality and partly to those factors I’ve just mentioned. But, like everyone around me, I also use those online services, with no sense of ownership. Our music’s less personal and more disposable as a result.
Third, curation. When we were owners, we were our own curators. We read reviews, we talked to friends, we browsed in stores, we bought with care because of cost.
Today, we can, of course, still be our own curators, making our own playlists for example. But music online’s also increasingly curated for us. DJs did that on radio. Streaming services are more than willing to take on that role for us through their playlists and through recommendations made by algorithms that feed us what they think/know we like because they know what we have previously chosen. One reason why more content does not necessarily mean more diversity in listening.
One other aspect to that is that artists have lost curation power. The shift to streaming's meant we listen more to individual tracks these days than to the carefully compiled collections of the kind that were on vinyl and CD. It's harder for an artist to make much of a statement in a track. Spotify has recently taken a step back from this following demands by one of the few global artists with the power to make it change: if you want the album its default is now the artist's order.
Fourth, intellectual property. Strict IP rules have been broken for decades, thanks to private tape and cassette recorders, but online’s made it more pervasive, causing disputes over content regulation.
Fifth, economics. Music’s business models have been changing. In the era of LPs and then CDs, for many artists in the North at least, recording (not performance) became the main source of their income. Streaming offers artists much less money – a common cause of dispute – which has made live performance more important to musicians’ income streams again (and caused them greater problems during COVID, when live gigs were few and far between).
Music’s not alone
Of course, changes like this aren’t unique to music. They’re affecting other forms of cultural expression too, often in ways that make them more widely available, less expensive and – as a result – perhaps less special, less unusual experiences.
Cinema’s been revolutionised by streaming. Films used to be available upon release and then, some time afterwards, from time to time on television. Now I can find the vast majority of films I’d want to watch, from any time in movie history, on streaming services, and pay to watch them in an instant.
Television too has been transformed. When I was very young, there was just one channel on British television. Now I have a choice of hundreds (though admittedly there’s few I’d want to watch). In the past TV programmes had to be viewed when they were broadcast. Now they’re also streamed for viewing at viewers’ convenience.
Theatre’s begun to move online as well. Some larger international theatres showed some big shows in cinemas and occasionally online before the pandemic. Since COVID, online’s become commonplace, at least in some countries, not just for plays but also operas, dance and musical performance, sometimes live and sometimes not.
Art galleries have put collections online. No longer are they only open for those who can afford to travel and to visit. You can now see their collections online any time. Of course, the experience of a painting isn’t quite the same online, though sometimes, with imagination, it can even be enhanced. Take a look at van Eyck’s Ghent altarpiece, for instance: much of the detail’s barely visible in Ghent’s cathedral but online it can be right in your eye.
So, in conclusion
The arts – or cultural expression – are changing in the digital society. Far more ‘content’ is available, much more cheaply, than used to be the case. That’s changed the way we are consuming music and other forms of culture.
What’s happening with culture’s also happening in other sectors. The digital society enables and requires changes in the ways that we produce, consume and value things. Those changes will bring benefits but will also be uncomfortable and difficult, particularly for those whose lives relied on older ways of doing things.
More content means more choice, but greater choice doesn’t necessarily lead to more diversity. Artists may be interested in experimentation, but algorithmic recommendations prioritise the familiar over the unfamiliar. Streaming services that want to maximise their revenue, at present, find that what's familiar to people is more profitable.
As we head towards more digital societies, we should reflect on the implications of changes such as those described above. I’ve said that music matters because it’s important to our sense of cultural identity and personal well-being. That’s true of many aspects of society.
Changing the way that something is produced and is consumed affects not just production and consumption, but also those deeper foundations in society. We need to understand those impacts if we’re to make the ‘human-centred’ digital society that the United Nations talks about.
Image: Friday Morning by Robb Hohmann via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).