On the transformation of everyday culture in an era of liquid modernity

Pitchfork’s social history of the mp3

In history, media ecology, mp3, music on September 3, 2009 at 9:39 am

Glad to see that in the midst of the current journalistic torrent of end-of-decade lists, Pitchfork is publishing two great, rather long analyses. One on the decade in pop, and the other one – of interest for my own research project – a social history of the mp3.

Were the past 10 years in fact the first decade of pop music to be remembered for its musical technology rather than the actual music itself? asks Eric Harvey, in his balanced and very well-considered article. He touches on many of the interesting tendencies that we can spot in today’s technocultural landscape: The historical parallels between for example 7″ records and mp3s (not only did they renew the focus on individual songs, they radically challenged the major labels’ cosy position in the marketplace); Evan Eisenberg and the reification of music; the exponential proliferation of tastemakers flooding the Internet in the form of mp3 blogs; the transparency of the whole music-making, hype-spinning machinery where everyone is supposed to be her own publicist and stylist; and not least Henry Jenkins’s “convergence” thesis, where there is a dire need for fans to play a new role and for the value of music to be re-appropriated.

Harvey also revisits James Carey‘s theories on the bias of communication and the unexpected rifts in time and space that new technology brings about, by proposing a really interesting scenario based on Carey’s groundbreaking interpretation of the telegraph:

Weirdly enough, this particular effect of mp3s and peer-to-peer networks — that information travels much faster than physical goods — most closely resembles that of the telegraph on the 19th century commodity markets. Before that innovation — the Internet’s great-grandfather — individual markets based in major cities were separated by hundreds of miles, and goods could only travel as fast as railroads could take them. Yet because information about crop conditions could travel via telegraph exponentially faster than the actual crops, the exchange of money for physical commodities was largely replaced by a futures market, based on what would happen. In other words, space was eliminated in favor of time by a swift new network. The stakes may be much lower in the way mp3s and peer-to-peer have reorganized the music market, but the basic idea is the same. Within the musical futures market leaks are traded as mp3s through peer-to-peer networks and blogs, often acquiring over-inflated value before their physical counterparts reach store shelves. They’re aggregated on Hype Machine, the Dow Jones for this new realm of musical value in which the primary forms of capital are cultural and social, not monetary.

Could we thus envisage a veritable “futures market” in cultural goods? Is this already happening, in the endless state of future projections that previews, blog hypes and rumours give rise to? When we’ve cynically given up hopes for a real utopia, is “nextopia” as good as it gets?

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