Streaming’s Effects on Music Culture: Old Anxieties and New Simplifications

Hesmondalgh, D. (2021) Cultural Sociology

This article identifies five key themes, or sets of criticisms, that have emerged in online commentary on the new musical system centred on streaming platforms, and in related academic research:

  • Streaming encourages ‘functional’ rather than meaningful, aesthetic musical experience.
  • Streaming encourages bland, unchallenging music.
  • Streaming makes musical experience passive and distracted, and music recedes into the background (here the article also discusses limitations of the widely used concepts of ‘ubiquitous music’ and ‘ubiquitous listening’).
  • Streaming makes music tracks and songs shorter, and musical experience more fragmented.
  • Streaming discourages and/or limits musical discovery and adventurousness.

The article addresses each of these themes in turn, examining the degree to which criticisms of streaming’s effects on musical experience along these lines might be considered valid, and the degree to which they might genuinely enhance critical understanding of contemporary musical experience. It also considers these themes in relation to older forms of evaluation, particularly those that developed in the 20th century in response to the industrialisation of music, and argues that many recent criticisms problematically reproduce older anxieties and assumptions.

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