What the digitalisation of music tells us about capitalism, culture and the power of the information technology sector

Hesmondhalgh, D. and Meier, L. (2017). Information, Communication and Society

This article examines a striking but under-analysed feature of culture under capitalism, using the example of music: that the main ways in which people gain access to cultural experiences are subject to frequent, radical and disorienting shifts. It has two main aims. The first is to provide a macro-historical, multi-causal explanation of changes in technologies of musical consumption, emphasising the mutual imbrication of the economic interests of corporations with sociocultural transformations. We identify a shift over the last twenty years from consumer electronics (CE) to information technology (IT) as the most powerful sectoral force shaping how music and culture are mediated and experienced, and argue that this shift from CE to IT drew upon, and in turn quickened, a shift from domestic consumption to personalised, mobile and connected consumption, and from dynamics of what Raymond Williams called ‘mobile privatisation’ to what we call ‘networked mobile personalisation’. The second aim is to assess change and continuity in the main means by which recorded music is consumed, in long-term perspective. We argue that disruptions caused by recent ‘digitalisation’ of music are consistent with longer term processes, whereby music has been something of a testing ground for the introduction of new cultural technologies. But we also recognise particularly high levels of disruption in recent times and relate these to the new dominance of the IT industries, and the particular dynamism or instability of that sector. We close by discussing the degree to which constant changes in how people access musical experiences might be read as instances of capitalism’s tendency to prioritise limiting notions of consumer preference over meaningful needs.

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