Music tastes, “fervent eclecticism,” and cultural omnivores

A review of the new TV series High Fidelity suggests musical snobbery has changed:

So how are we to think about the key motto—“What really matters is what you like, not what you are like”—referenced in all three versions of High Fidelity? Hornby’s aphorism might sound outdated in the era of identity politics, when Twitter’s brawls over art can make independent aesthetic judgments seem secondary to proudly lining up with one’s tribe. Hulu’s High Fidelity does, refreshingly, correct the exclusionary spirit that went with the original’s lack of diversity. Yet crucially, the series retains the assurance that music preferences reflect something individual, ineffable, soul-deep, and in need of sharing. Kravitz’s Robin—a brooding biracial and bisexual space cadet enamored of the Beastie Boys, Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book, and the folk singer Nick Drake—eludes any image neatly tied to race, gender, or sexuality. In one hilarious subplot that highlights taste as an idiosyncratic proxy for identity, Cherise posts a flyer looking for bandmates in sync with her ideal sound: “Think Brian Eno producing Beyoncé fronting Soul Coughing but with Daniel Ash on guitar.”

Such fervent eclecticism is countercultural in any era, because by definition it flouts paradigms. Here it represents another way in which the new High Fidelity audiophiles feel they have, as Cherise puts it at one point, “opted out” of their own algorithm-obedient generation. But they’re not quite the oddballs they think they are. Genre boundaries have been melting in popular music lately, and the quest for self-definition through sound is no niche practice. As I write this, my social feeds are full of people sharing their personalized Spotify report on their most-listened-to songs of the year. Some users are LOLing at the quirkiness of their habits (one friend’s top five artists of 2019 included ultra-glossy contemporary country, hard-edged underground rap, and the Barenaked Ladies). Others cheekily revel in the stereotypes it turns out they’ve fallen into (“so gay,” texts someone whose No. 1 was Carly Rae Jepsen). I’m not seeing a lot of mockery; I am seeing a lot of curiosity, amusement, and discussion. The tools of High Fidelity’s rankers and curators have been democratized, and of course not everyone is going to use them for esoteric adventures. If you’ve got a problem with that, you might be a snob.

This reminds me of sociological research on “cultural omnivores”:

The term cultural omnivorousness was first introduced to the cultural consumption literature by Richard Peterson, in 1992, to refer to a particular cultural appreciation profile. According to his definition, this profile emerged in the late 20th century, in accordance with macro changes experienced in the socioeconomic and political spheres. Omnivorous consumers have an increased breadth of cultural taste and a willingness to cross established hierarchical cultural genre boundaries. In other words, the concept refers to a taste profile that includes both highbrow and lowbrow genres…The omnivore thesis is extremely important for contemporary cultural theory because it pushes researchers to scrutinize the current status of the relationship between culture and power. The contributors to this debate have provided competing answers to the following crucial questions: What is the strength and direction of the association between socioeconomic status and cultural taste? Are we witnessing the decomposition of cultural-class boundaries and snobbishness? How far does cultural omnivorousness bring tolerance and cultural inclusion? These questions, asked within the debate, demonstrate the concept’s significance for our understanding of sociocultural change. Many case studies have shown that eclectic repertoires are more likely to be embodied by the educated middle classes. Peterson himself argued that the employment market has begun to seek this kind of wide-range awareness and cultural inclusiveness. It seems that being a true omnivore requires certain skills, investment, and prior cultural knowledge, which can be translated into advantages in other social fields. Moreover, empirical research is now sufficient enough to show that omnivores are selective and they show little tolerance for the genres associated with lower social/cultural status. Therefore, this repertoire may very well be considered a new form of distinction—a strategy the economically and culturally advantaged use to “make” their identity and distinguish themselves from others.

In short, research shows that tastes in music and other realms is connected to social class. A way to differentiate your tastes from someone else is to have a wider repertoire, particularly for those with resources. Extending this review a bit, then perhaps cultural omnivorousness has spread from those with educational and financial capital to broader segments of society. Could being a cultural omnivore be something more people now aspire to or admire?

Becoming a cultural omnivore and expressing this in daily life is another avenue worth exploring. In High Fidelity, this took place within a record shop where selling music provided the backdrop for ongoing conversations about music. In daily life today, cultural omnivores or those who want to be might have different experiences. Is it easier to be an omnivore with all the streaming music services that allow access to different artists, genres, and songs? While the music supply has expanded, where do conversations about music or extended interactions regarding music now take place?

Finally, fitting these kinds of tastes in music and other cultural products with broader senses of identity (race, gender, class, etc.) could be fascinating. Is being a cultural omnivore still elitist or tied to particular kinds of people? Or, are there multiple ways to be a cultural omnivore that draw on different identities?

Argument of the movie Yesterday: Beatles songs would wow everyone regardless of who performs them or when they are performed

The movie Yesterday takes away all knowledge of the Beatles and their music and puts the songs into the mouth and guitar of regular musician Jack Malik. And the music previously unknown becomes massively popular.

Ignoring the other parts of the plot, this is an interesting basic argument: the songs of the Beatles, their music, is so good that it can be put it a different time period and with a solo singer-songwriter and they can create a stir. Is this true? What made the Beatles such a phenomena? A few of the popular theories that have been debated for nearly six decades:

  1. They came at the right time and right place. Rock music already existed (see Elvis) but the Beatles energized people in a different way. The broader cultural milieu was open to them in a new way: from Britain needed a cheeky group in a period of still trying to dig out of the aftermath of World War Two to Americans wanting a diversion from the Kennedy assassination to a postwar adolescent generation looking for heroes.
  2. The sum of the parts – some talent among the individual members of the Beatles – added up to something spectacular. This is a good analogy to what sociologists would say about social groups or social networks: these collectives can do things that individuals on their own cannot. The Beatles together, the combination of their skills and thoughts, made something magical.
  3. The Beatles made multiple advances in music, ranging from original songwriting to psychedelic sounds to innovations in the recording studio to excellent songs. They started with songs like “Please, Please Me” and “From Me To You” and made numerous changes along the way.
  4. The songs themselves are simply good. The combined songwriting talents of Lennon and McCartney plus the development of Harrison made music that has stood the test of time.

All together, few bands or musical acts have made music where such a film could be made. It is hard to imagine a world without the music of any number of major musical acts but the reach and influence and staying power of the Beatles is hard to match.

I have bought hundreds of music albums for less than $5 each

I still purchase CDs. I am buying more than just a few CDs a year; I have over 1,000 albums total. I have not purchased any digital tracks nor have I joined the recent vinyl bandwagon and I have barely used any streaming music service. Isn’t this an expensive (and space taking) habit?

As I thought about all of these albums, I realized that in the last 15 years or so I have bought at least two hundred albums for less than $5. These cheaper CDs primarily come from two sources:

-Used book/music stores.

-Library sales.

This means the music I am buying tends to fall into several categories:

-Music people are looking to get rid of. It is always interesting to see what people are willing to sell and donate and what people do hold on to. Just as a quick example: certain classic rock bands always have plenty of CDs on hand for sale while others are hand to find. I am not buying all the extra copies of Top 40 albums people quickly ditched but I can find good albums by worthwhile artists.

-Music that does not command a high price. This usually means I am purchasing music that is not currently popular (it takes a while for music to filter down to lower prices) or music that was never that popular.

And here is why I will likely continue in this pattern of buying cheap music (even with all the space the songs take up):

-The purchase is usually cost effective. If I can get a CD for under $5 and I like more than 4 songs on the album, I come out ahead. (This assumes people still want to purchase music rather than pay a monthly fee or deal with advertisements to stream from over a million tracks.)

-I have a physical copy of the music. I find the trend toward streaming/renting all content a bit concerning for consumers and if I can find cheaper CDs, I will purchase them to help insure I have a copy.

-I generally like the process of going into stores to look at music. I know online shopping is convenient but finding an unusual and cheap CD is still a fun experience (and I do not devote too much time to this).

At some point soon, this might all end if CDs are phased out. Until then, I will keep looking for good music for cheap prices.

Wanting to preserve the past, music masters edition

A long piece details the calamitous fire that hit an important vault of music at Universal Studios Hollywood on June 1, 2008:

Eventually the flames reached a 22,320-square-foot warehouse that sat near the King Kong Encounter. The warehouse was nondescript, a hulking edifice of corrugated metal, but it was one of the most important buildings on the 400-acre lot. Its official name was Building 6197. To backlot workers, it was known as the video vault…

The scope of this calamity is laid out in litigation and company documents, thousands of pages of depositions and internal UMG files that I obtained while researching this article. UMG’s accounting of its losses, detailed in a March 2009 document marked “CONFIDENTIAL,” put the number of “assets destroyed” at 118,230. Randy Aronson considers that estimate low: The real number, he surmises, was “in the 175,000 range.” If you extrapolate from either figure, tallying songs on album and singles masters, the number of destroyed recordings stretches into the hundreds of thousands. In another confidential report, issued later in 2009, UMG asserted that “an estimated 500K song titles” were lost…

The vault fire was not, as UMG suggested, a minor mishap, a matter of a few tapes stuck in a musty warehouse. It was the biggest disaster in the history of the music business. UMG’s internal assessment of the event stands in contrast to its public statements. In a document prepared for a March 2009 “Vault Loss Meeting,” the company described the damage in apocalyptic terms. “The West Coast Vault perished, in its entirety,” the document read. “Lost in the fire was, undoubtedly, a huge musical heritage.”…

Today several of the company’s nearly 1,500 facilities are devoted to entertainment assets. Warner Music Group stores hundreds of thousands of master recordings in Iron Mountain’s Southern California facilities, and nearly all of Sony Music Entertainment’s United States masters holdings — more than a million recordings — are reportedly kept in Iron Mountain warehouses in Rosendale, N.Y. The Boyers, Pa., facility where UMG keeps most of its United States masters is a 1.7-million-square-foot former limestone mine. The facility offers optimal archive conditions, climate control and armed guards.

The boom in cultural products in the last 100 years or so with the rise of mass media and new technologies presents unique challenges for corporations, the public, and preservationists. How should all of this material be preserved? The amount of space needed for storage could be huge – even for digital files (see the Library of Congress efforts to collect tweets). Keeping all of that material safe from fire, temperature changes, water damage, and other forces is costly and requires constant vigilance. Technology changes and renders prior productions difficult to utilize. There may need to be an obvious payoff for whoever is storing this material in order to go through all the effort.

One solution to all of this is to get mediocre copies of things. The example at the end suggests music listeners can access so much through streaming services. One expert profiled in the story describes it this way: “The music sounds like it was mastered in a Coke can,” he says. “But on long drives, it’s the best.”” I suppose it could be argued that having access to music and films and other items is worth it, even if the quality is not that great.

But a bigger question is this: just how much material is worth saving? What will people in the future want to look back on? Will future people see big benefits from the most preserved material ever compiled by previous generations? How will future preservationists, historians, and others construct cultural narratives about life today based on so much material (both tremendously popular and not)?

Arms race among new luxury apartments includes live-in musicians

If you have the resources, you have some options in shopping for a nice new apartment including a building musician:

Amenities for high rise buildings are generally culled from a well-honed list of known popular offerings—a lounge, gym, a pool, an outdoor deck, and grilling stations wouldn’t really lead anyone to blink an eyelash. Being LEED certified is often expected.

At the 34-story, 298-unit Exhibit on Superior, amenities for the studio, convertible, and 1 to 3-bedroom units include those, as well as keyless entry with smartphone integration, stainless steel appliances, in-unit washer and dryer and more. Quite nice—but the downtown luxury apartment market glut has led to an arms race to attract new residents and keep rents from being slashed.

And even though the price point is comparably lower (and the floor plans are comparably smaller) than other neighborhood offerings to attract a younger demographic, developer Magellan Development Group and MAC Management wanted to bring some artistry and magic to their building (and to their other properties, if this catches on). Here’s the idea.

A contest is open for the best acoustic guitarist and vocalist to live and play for one year at Exhibit on Superior. The winning musician gets free rent at an unfurnished studio for a year, the title of Musician in Residence, and the chance to hone their skills while playing against any number of cool nooks and spaces in the bKL Architecture-designed building. The residents get in-house live entertainment and bragging rights to live in a building with the first so-called Exhibit A-Lister.

My first thought was that sounds like the arms race among colleges to provide amenities for prospective students ranging from excellent food, state of the art gyms, and private and luxurious dorms. Then it hit me: these luxury apartment buildings may be going after that same demographic: college graduates who want the excitement of the city. If we could narrow it even more, perhaps they are employed in a creative industry or field.

After thinking this through a bit, it is clever to pair residential real estate with music. We might expect something like this in commercial spaces or privately-owned property that is trying to operate like public space (perhaps a park like area outside a major office building). But, this continues the trend of some of the other “weapons” in this residential arms race: providing building amenities that encourage sociability while simultaneously offering well-appointed private units. Let’s hope all the residents like the acoustic guitar scene…

No “musical ensemble that was more sociological” than the Beatles

Looking back at the Beatles playing Shea Stadium in 1965, one radio personality the group was a sociological phenomena:

Fifty years ago, the Beatles changed the way America witnessed live music by performing the first stadium show of its size and scope. On Aug. 15, 1965, the boys from Liverpool played a record-shattering concert at New York’s Shea Stadium, which would be televised on BBC and ABC, immortalized in a documentary, and further the massive reach of Beatlemania in the ’60s. Legendary radio personality Cousin Brucie served as the announcer, and now, 50 years later, he says it still stands as the tipping point for turning concerts into must-see live spectacles…

The Shea Stadium show broke records in terms of profits and attendance; promoter Sid Bernstein said the event made $304,000, and 55,000 fans were at the stadium. Ed Sullivan’s iconic documentary about the event, The Beatles at Shea Stadium, culled footage from 12 cameras that documented the day, and captures the band at their peak of fame…

1965 was a pivotal year in both music history and American history, and Brucie remembers the Shea Stadium performance being one of biggest events that brought young people together for something that was pure enjoyment. “At that time in our nation, we needed something desperately to get our minds off some of the tragedy that was happening, the assassinations, racial strife and political problems,” he said. “Anybody who was at Shea Stadium, it’s like someone who was at Woodstock. You have to have been there.”

Experiencing live music has changed nearly completely since the Beatles took over Shea Stadium, and Brucie attests today’s music festivals and arena tours would not have existed without that one day in New York. “The [show] was really the beginning of major events that we we have today at stadiums. It was a precursor of everything. It was an experiment that worked very, very well. Today when people go to concerts, they go to listen to the music. There has never been a musical ensemble that was more sociological and garnered the emotion than this particular group, the Beatles,” he said.

Similar arguments have been made by many: the Beatles came about at the right time, the group was more than the sum of their parts and was able to amplify the hoopla (which also burned them out as they stopped touring one summer after the Shea Stadium concerts), and concerts in the 1960s were the place to be (from Shea Stadium to Woodstock).

But, the statement that “There has never been a musical ensemble that was more sociological” is interesting. What exactly does it mean? That they shaped broader society more than any other group? They are more fascinating to study and ponder than other groups? Everywhere they went was an interesting social scene? Their innovations were way ahead of other artists? Not too many groups could claim similar things and perhaps the time is past when a single music act or musical/social experience could truly get the attention of the world.

Listen to the full Shea Stadium concert here.

Claim: nightclubs closing due to new Millenial social patterns

The number of nightclubs in the UK has declined in the last decade and here is one possible reason why:

Even famous London dance-music clubs such as Turnmills, Bagley’s and The End have succumbed to a process that has seen the UK’s total portfolio of nightclubs shrink by almost half from 3,144 in 2005 to 1,733 a decade later.

The statistic from the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers (ALMR) is a signal not just of the effect of the smoking ban and the imposition of student loans but of a fundamental shift in the way a new generation chooses to spend its entertainment budget…

A night out at a pop-up restaurant or a secret cinema feels more adventurous than yet another club night, which will only drain finances needed for that ambitious summer holiday trip. According to Yakob, nightclubbing has become for many young people a “couple of times a year” experience, hearing the best DJs on the best sound systems…

Twice a year punters aren’t going to pay a nightclub’s bills. But even for some dedicated music fans, the lure of a night of House music could be reduced by their long hours of listening to playlists on a premium streaming service during daily commutes. The UK is among Spotify’s strongest markets. Felim McGrath, analyst at market research company GlobalWebIndex, says: “In years gone by you would go to a nightclub at the weekend to discover music played by a top DJ. Now you can do that online via a curated playlist.”

While this isn’t good news for the nightclub economy, the social ramifications are interesting. For pre-teens to young adults, music is often an essential part of the social experience. It is part of creating an identity, burn off steam and/or transgress boundaries, and unite with other people. All of this can be done with music online – it just takes different forms. For example, instead of going to nightclubs or as many concerts, users can post in forums and comment sections about their favorite artists. Instead of interacting with strangers (who may share the same music interests) at venues, the music is now more privatized as users can select what they want wherever they want. Like many experiences with the web, users get more choice in more places but lose embodied experiences with others.

At the worst, in the future no one will emerge from their headphones and personalized experiences. At the best, perhaps the music listened to and discussed online can lead to new kinds of unique experiences outside of the typical nightclub and concert experiences.

I like the band name “Big Data”

Band names can often reflect societal trends so I’m not surprised that a group selected the name Big Data. I like the name: it sounds current and menacing. I’ve only heard their songs a few times on the radio so I’ll have to reserve judgment on what they have actually created.

It might be interesting to think of what sociological terms and ideas could easily translate into good band names. One term that sometimes intrigues my intro students – interactional vandalism – could work. Conspicuous consumption? Cultural lag? Differential association? The culture industry? Impression management? The iron cage? Social mobility? The hidden curriculum?

Almost 25% of Spotify songs skipped in first five seconds – and other song-skipping data

Here is some fascinating data about song-skipping patterns from Spotify users:

  • Nearly a quarter of all songs on Spotify get skipped within five seconds of starting.
  • More than a third are skipped within 30 seconds.
  • Nearly half of all songs are skipped at some point…

Lamere then broke this down into the last-second-listened frequency. If you’ve made it past the 12th second, you have demonstrated amazing commitment…

Lamere concludes:

“When we are more engaged with our music – we skip more, and when music is in the background such as when we are working or relaxing, we skip less. When we have more free time, such as when we are young, or on the weekends, or home after a day of work, we skip more. That’s when we have more time to pay attention to our music. The big surprise for me is how often we skip.  On average, we skip nearly every other song that we play.”

One interpretation: people simply don’t take much time to decide whether they like a song or not. Those opening seconds are crucial.

A second interpretation: another example of shorter attention spans today. Quickly moving through songs, scanning Internet headlines and viral videos, always have to be entertained…

A third interpretation: services like Spotify make skipping easier. Spotify has over 20 million songs and it is easy to just move on to another track.

A question: It would be interesting, however, to see if people consistently skip the same songs when presented with them – how much of this is dependent on their immediate context versus a skip representing a longer-term dislike for the song? Or, if people had to listen to a song for a longer period of time – like it was playing in a store they were shopping in – would they come to like it?

Earbuds have led us to a decade of treble over bass

Listening to music through earbuds tends to favor treble over bass and this has social consequences:

“At the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, with the possibilities for high-fidelity recording at a democratized high and ‘bass culture’ more globally present than ever, we face the irony that people are listening to music, with increasing frequency if not ubiquity, primarily through small plastic speakers—most often via cellphones but also, commonly, laptop computers and leaky earbuds. This return to ‘treble culture,’ recalling the days of transistor radios or even gramophones and scratchy 78s, rep- resents a techno-historical outcome of varying significance for different practitioners and observers, the everyday inevitability of ‘tinny’ transmissions appearing to affirm a preference for convenience, portability, and publicity, even as a variety of critical listeners express anxiety about what might be lost along with frequencies that go unheard (and, in the case of bass, unfelt). From cognitive and psychological studies seeking to determine listeners’ abilities to distinguish between different MP3 bitrates to audiophiles and ‘bass boosters’ of all sorts lamenting not only missing frequencies but also the ontological implications thereof to commuters complaining about noisy broadcasts on public transport, there has already been a great deal of ink spilled over today’s trebly soundscapes.”

And the concluding lines from the full chapter:

As mobile devices, especially phones, make sound reproduction—however trebly—more commonplace and perhaps more social than ever before (hotly contested as that sociality or sociability may be), we can only wonder about, as we try to take stock of, the effects on listening as a private and a (counter?) public activity, not to mention the implications thereof (Warner 2002).
Imagining unheard bass calls attention to the active possibilities in treble culture. And indeed, as perhaps my own narrative offers, a lot of the dyads through which the public debate plays out—active versus passive, progressive versus regressive, public versus private, sociable versus individualistic—might be easily enough flipped depending on one’s perspective. This reconcilability suggests that treble culture, especially in its contemporary form, offers what writer and artist Jace Clayton (aka DJ /Rupture) calls a “strategy for intimacy with the digital” (2009). In the ongoing dance between people and technology, treble culture opens a space where imaginary bass can move us as much as tinny blasts of noise. As participants in today’s treble culture attest, the MP3 may play its listener, but people imagine a lot more than missing bits when they listen. Ironically, the techno-historical convergence that Gilroy mourns, in which “community and solidarity, momentarily constituted in the very process, in the act of interpretation itself ” (2003:388)—a lament which issues also from the anxious discourse around today’s treble culture—may yet find some resuscitation thanks to trebly audio technologies. For what do such acts of interpretation require if not listening together? And isn’t listening, perhaps more now and more collectively and publicly than ever, what treble culture is all about?

This seems to be an interesting counterargument to those who argue earbuds ruin public spaces because everyone is off in their own worlds. This may be temporarily true as one is listening – and it seems to be even more prevalent on college campuses, though I remember doing this with my own Walkman or Discman during college – but Marshall is talking about broader music culture and the sociability it fosters. People could be brought together by their trebly experiences as basically everyone with a smartphone can carry thousands of songs, if not access millions of songs through streaming services, from everywhere.

Another thought: the Beats headphones have been quite popular even with higher price tags. Is this due to an ongoing battle between treble and bass culture?