Media @ McGill

Jeremy Morris | Understanding the Digital Music Commodity

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By most accounts, the last decade will be remembered as one of extraordinary, though not unprecedented, upheaval for individuals and institutions involved in making, marketing, distributing, selling and consuming recorded music. Understanding the Digital Music Commodity is an attempt to gauge the aftershocks of the transition from music on compact discs to digital music files on computers and mobile devices. These reverberations have implications for music (as art and as commodity) and for other kinds of cultural commodities as well. Books, movies, and a variety of other goods are all in the midst of their own digital shifts. Across the cultural industries, actors and institutions of all kinds are now facing the challenges the music industries have been wrestling with for the past ten years. The case of music is particularly acute and foretelling but at stake more broadly are issues surrounding how we encounter commodities in our culture, and what meaning those commodities have when they assume a digital form.

My project traces the emergence of the "digital music commodity": music files that are packaged, presented and (sometimes) sold in online outlets. As computers became viable sources for music consumption during the late 1980s and early 1990s, music began its complicated migration from compact discs onto computers and mobile devices. Stripped of many of their previous attributes (i.e album art, physical packaging, etc), recordings in digital file formats were initially de-contextualized versions of their former selves. Music underwent an interface-lift, gradually getting re-dressed with new features (i.e. metadata, interfaces, "packaging"). My dissertation focuses on 5 key case studies - or "moments" - in the brief history of the digital music commodity and explores how commodification was part of a re-contextualization process that ultimately sought to prepare music for its new digital environments.

In the first chapter I describe the computer program Winamp, one of the first mainstream "jukebox" players for playing music on computers. Not just a piece of software, Winamp was a cultural interface that introduced users to how music looked and sounded on the computer. By analyzing the software's key features and the press and marketing discourses surrounding the program and the company (ies) behind it, I argue that Winamp was a crucial link between previous and newer ways of accessing, organizing and understanding music.

Chapter two focuses on the CD Database (CDDB), one of the primary online sources for music metadata: data about the data in music files that helps users and software identify and sort music. Started by two hobbyists and developed by scores of enthusiastic Internet users, the database is now privately owned by a major multi-national corporation. A close reading of its emergence and most significant features reveals that the CDDB provides the information backbone for the digital music industry. It is also a prime site of contestation over the form of the digital music commodity.
The third chapter retells the story of Napster, though with a critical eye to a key oversight in most discussions of the file-sharing service: despite its disruptive potential, Napster was, at its core, a business that sought to develop and eventually commodify an audience. Through a critical analysis of the Napster software and literature, I argue that Napster users comprised a commodity community, one that provided benefits not just to Napster, but also to a host of companies that sought to mine value from them.

Chapter 4 details the rise of the most successful online music retail outlet to date: Apple's iTunes Music Store. Through a descriptive analysis of the store itself and the press coverage surrounding its launch, I explore how the presentation of music in the iTunes store affects our conception of music in its digital form. The store is not just an interface for the sale of digital music, but a network of technologies users must navigate in order to access music. The store is an attempt to commodify digital music but in doing so it also commodifies the entire experience of finding, accessing and using digital music.

My final chapter synthesizes the previous cases, and discusses the idea of music in the cloud (i.e. online subscription or streaming services that provide "unlimited" access to music). Online, music's fluid and ubiquitous nature seems to subvert those who seek to profit from the digital music commodity. But while the digital music commodity offers the potential to disrupt the traditional ways of doing business in music, it also offers new forms of control and power (e.g. surveillance, data mining etc).
Ultimately, this research raises a number of important social and cultural issues for media and communications researchers. As digital formats alter music's materialities and capabilities, alternate configurations of consumers, producers, artists, users, and listeners evolve (Théberge 1997, Katz 2004). Digital music commodities also bring structural repercussions (Burkart and McCourt 2006, Tschmuck 2006). The music industries are in a seemingly constant state of re-organization and are hastily responding to the arrival of new or alternate uses for music (e.g. cell phones, satellite radio, mp3 blogs, podcasts, video games etc.). New business plans rise and fall, many of which present divergent perspectives on music's status as a commodity. Digital music files also raise important legal issues that impact how markets function and how consumers experience music in their lives. Existing copyright legislation, technological protection measurements, and similar policies bump up against the fact that, as digital data, music is as readily transportable and downloadable as many other electronic files (Gillespie 2007, Lessig 2004). As these changes unfold in music, they warn of wider shifts across the cultural industries: what we learn from music's migration to digital formats holds lessons for cultural commodities of all kinds.

Works Cited
Burkart, P., & McCourt, T. (2006). Digital Music Wars: Ownership and Control of the Celestial Jukebox. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Gillespie, T. (2007). Wired Shut: Copyright and the Shape of Digital Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Katz, M. (2004). Capturing Sound: How Technology has Changed Music. Berkeley, Calif.; London: University of California Press.
Lessig, L. (2004). Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity. New York: Penguin Press.
Théberge, P. (1997). Any Sound You Can Imagine: Making Music/Consuming Technology. Hanover, London: Wesleyan University Press.
Tschmuck, P. (2006). Creativity and Innovation in the Music Industry. Dordrecht: Springer.