We are currently part of something that is bigger than all of us. The speed and magnitude of it are overwhelming. Some people believe we can do nothing about it, that it is out of our hands. Others think we are able to engage more actively in it, that we can actually change and shape it. I am talking about the Internet revolution, spurred by globalization. During the previous century, technological developments surpassed all predictions. An obvious indicator of this revolution is a recent development in music. Before the Internet came along, people had to buy cd’s or listen to the radio. Now music has digitalized onto the Internet, it is like dust in the air flowing above our heads. People can listen to whatever they want and whenever they want to. As a consequence, the music that artists make these days is influenced by the Internet. The orientation of music is now much more global. Because of this, popular music has become commercialized even more. It seems to me that a lot of artists primarily think about the commercial possibilities when writing new songs. Still, a lot of people like the music, that is why it is so interesting from a commercial point of view.
However, I have noticed that some young people think differently about this. They do not like commercial music and look for an alternative. They start listening to music that is not primarily made for mass consumption or music from past periods. This trend is not only found in music, but in social media as well. Many people feel that the speed and magnitude of the revolution and globalization is too much. They simply do not like it. So, as a reaction they put off their iPhones and listen to alternative types of music. The mainstream thoughts and ideas are simply not shared by everyone. I have noticed this phenomenon among youth especially. I recognize it in myself as well. I definitely do not listen to today’s popular music, I wouldn’t even dare to guess who is leading the Dutch Top40. So, my choices in music are influenced by this digitalization and commercialization. I like to think that I rather listen to music that is made to be music instead of a commodity. This subject therefore speaks to me. This is just one example of a reaction to this ‘new’ society and I am very curious to see how other young people might react to it, especially in the field of music. To try to satisfy my curiosity I drew up a fitting research question: ‘To what extent do youth experience aversion to the ongoing commercialization and digitalization of society, in particular in music?’
The reason I focus on youth is that they actually grew up and are still growing up in this era of digitalization, commercialization and the Internet. Furthermore, by looking at youth, we can gain an interpretation of how this trend is developing in society. So, it is especially interesting to look at this subject from their point of view. To answer my research question I have conducted semi-structured interviews with three young people in Amsterdam. I selected these respondents, because beforehand I noticed a hint of this aversion in their music choices, which seemed to make them suitable respondents for my research. My focus in the interviews was on how they looked upon commercialization and digitalization in society and if indeed they felt aversion to it. Therefore, my first subquestion is: ‘How do youth feel about the ongoing commercialization and digitalization?’ Furthermore, to answer my research question, I needed to know how their views of the ‘new’ society affected their taste in music. Here, I wanted to see how they acted as individuals in the context of society. Therefore, my second subquestion is: ‘How does this reflect in their music choices?’ By conducting interviews with my respondents in which these questions were discussed I hoped to come to a complete answer to the research question.
Digitalization, commercialization, and rationalization
To create an understanding of the commercialized and digitalized world as I intend to explore, it is important to revisit a few classical scholars, namely Weber and Habermas. Even though their theories date from the first half of the 1900’s they are not so outdated, because they discuss modernity and are very useful when used in combination with newer, recent theories. An important underlying theory of Weber is his theory about rationalization. He describes in his book about Protestantism and capitalism that the spirit of capitalism is characterized by formal rationality (Ritzer, 2010, p. 148). This is (social) action that is focused on means-end calculation (Ritzer, 2010, p. 137). The purpose of this action in the context of capitalism is to create profit in a manner that is most effective. Habermas elaborated on these ideas. He distinguished between a system and a life-world (Ritzer, 2010, p. 225). The system is the world in which economics and politics are dominant. According to Habermas, purposive-rational action (comparable to Weber’s formal rationality) is the central point of the system. All (social) action in the system is strategic; to get the best for oneself. The life-world refers to culture, social networks and community, briefly value. Communicative action, in which discourse is central, is dominant in this world (Ritzer, 2010, p. 291). Habermas writes that the system could take over the life-world (‘colonization of the life-world’) (Ritzer, 2010, p. 225). Communicative action, then, gets partly replaced by purposive-rational action and this creates a loss of value. Habermas argues that modernity constantly carries this tension between the system and the life-world. It can be argued that this is more or less what is happening in the contemporary music industry. Music is part of culture and community; it is supposed to contain a certain value and meaning. It seems that rationalization, alongside modernity, in a sense has colonized the music industry. The system is now more dominant in the music industry, which makes this a fitting example of the tension Habermas describes. The colonization has led to commercialization of music. Everything is now for sale. Music has been made into a commodity from which record companies want to create wealth. The big industry is almost void of substantive, qualitative value.
When combining these theories of Weber and Habermas with recent theories about digitalization and globalization, we come to an understanding of the subject. Jordan (2013) elaborates in his book how Internet has changed society as a whole. He starts with a description of the influence of the Internet on society: “With the Internet came not just email, electronic discussion boards, social networking, the world wide web and online gaming but across these, and other similar socio-technical artefacts, also came different identities, bodies and types of messages that changed the nature of communication and culture” (Jordan, 2013, p. 1). Furthermore, he divides this society into two historical periods, a pre-Internet and an Internet-dependent historical period. He hypothesizes that the dividing factor between the two periods is communication. In his research he tries to compare the communicative practices of these two periods (Jordan, 2013, p. 15). Many scholars share his view and so do I. Like Jordan writes, the Internet-dependent historical period has significantly changed people and their cultures. Everything is now Internet-oriented. Music is also influenced by this digitalization of information. With the upswing of the Internet it is much easier to spread music over the world. This puts an extra dimension to the rationalization described by Habermas and Weber. The Internet and digitalization have made purposive-rationality even more dominant; people can create even more wealth from it.
This point is illustrated once again by the quantitative research of the impact of digital music distribution conducted by Ahn and Yoon (2009). One of their conclusions is that digitalization has an unambiguously positive influence on the consumer surplus (Ahn & Yoon, 2009, p. 306). This notion coincides with my interpretation of contemporary society. Since music is much easier to obtain for people from all over the world, producers create music for the masses. This is the rational option to create wealth from music. So, music gets more and more commercially oriented. It is made into a commodity much more easily.
“Artists just do it for the big audience”
My findings from the interviews generally give the same idea as these theories. From what my respondents say can be inferred that they have a similar interpretation of modern society. When I addressed this subject to Loran, a 24 year-old student, he immediately sighed and started speaking in a more cynical manner. With this attitude he said:
“Yeah, this might be a good reason why I definitely do not support the Dutch Top40 and all that commercial music, because of the whole commercial thought behind it. I mean, everything only seems to evolve around making money and thinking ‘oh, I’m going to make this kind of music, because this’ll make me popular or this’ll make me a lot of money.’”
So, his idea of the popular music industry in modern society is that it is purely focused on money. He addresses this commercialization very often during the interview. This quote adequately demonstrates the rationality Habermas and Weber talked about. Loran gives an example of a thought process of artists in the popular music industry: if an artist makes a certain kind of music, he will become popular and make money. This illustrates perfectly how the system, with its strategic action, could be dominating the life-world.
I interviewed Loran in his room in an apartment in Amsterdam. I knew beforehand that he sometimes deejays himself, so I was not surprised to find a lot of vinyl records on his shelves. On top of his desk stood two turntables surrounded by a few large sound speakers and in the background a percussive beat was playing. Loran seemed very comfortable talking about his music taste and style, but when it came to the topic of commercialization and digitalization he had a harder time putting his feelings into words. The first thing I noticed during the interview was that he immediately felt a recognition of this aversion to digitalization. He was not hateful towards it, but he simply did not like the music it brought forward. He tried to describe it in a very music-technical way. He prefers analog music over digital music. This is probably the reason for his large vinyl collection. His aversion also became very clear in his party life. He generally tries to avoid the large commercial parties and he often frequents underground house or techno parties. One reason he does this, he says, is:
“I personally think that’s real, it’s not that deejays start playing music here that is expected of them. (…) I deejay sometimes myself as well, a party now and then, mostly with friends, so a lot of people know now that I have deejaying as a hobby. So, I’m often approached like ‘do you want to deejay at our party?’ Well, the first questions I ask them are ‘what kind of party are we speaking of?’, ‘what kind of people will be there?’ and most importantly ‘can I play my own music?’ (…) And if the answer is no, I won’t do it. Not even if they offer me 300 euros! I won’t do it because I do not support it.”
So, Loran refuses to play at parties where he cannot play his own music, where he cannot be real. He says it is about the consideration that a deejay has to make between staying authentic and making money when he feels he’s getting more popular.
The Internet-dependent historical period is characterized by an increase of scale in which music is distributed. Loran definitely sees the advantages of this. He thinks that it is now easier for anyone to start producing music. From his tone, though, I could notice that he considered the disadvantages more important than the advantages. According to him, this increase in scale, has led to the fact that there is “much more crap available”. Before digitalization, he says, it was much harder to get noticed, so you had to be really good as a deejay to become popular.
From the beginning of the interview with my second respondent, Milja, it was obvious that she agrees with Loran’s opinion on commercialization and digitalization. However, she had a somewhat less outspoken opinion. When I asked her if she thought artists nowadays write music for money, she let it sink for a while, then nodded and said:
“Yes, I definitely think you can notice that, I mean, that artists just do it for the big audience and just to sell. (…) This is probably because there is a lot more money going around in the business these days. A big influence on this must have been the Internet. (…) So, I do think artists are too commercial.”
I met with Milja at her parents’ house. She is a student at the University of Amsterdam and 19 years old. When I entered the room, she put on a song by U2, ‘I Will Follow’. She told me her father was a big fan and that they had been to a few concerts together. She spoke about her feelings and opinions with a kind of restraint, as if she wasn’t really sure about what to tell me. So, most of the time her answers were a little short, but they were actually very clear and useful. The biggest problem for her with commercialization was that it seemed like artists do not really write songs with their hearts anymore, they just write for the money. Writing with the heart is what makes music authentic for her. This is one of the reasons that she is somewhat against commercialization. Another point she cites is that music these days becomes much more alike. She sees a homogenization of music:
“I mean, digitalization and the contemporary commerciality have obviously made music much more monotonous, that it all sounds alike. So, the main thing for me is the music itself to which I have developed something like an aversion. I know that this music is more or less a consequence of commercialization, but it’s not that I’m against commercialization and digitalization per se.”
Thus, it is clear that she is not really against commercialization, but more against the music it puts forward, although she indicated that she liked commercial music now and then as well. So, it is important to remember that she doesn’t have a direct aversion to commercialization and digitalization, but more of an indirect aversion via music.
To get back to the phenomenon of homogenization of music Milja suggested, it is useful to hear what Ricardo has to say about this. He also sees this homogenization as an important aspect of commercialization of the music industry. To answer my question about the influence of commercialization and digitalization on music, he says the following:
“Music is being put into some kind of cluster now. So, that there’s more like one certain kind of music and less different kinds of music. People just write that which falls in a certain type of genre, you know. You see this on software like Spotify as well. If you want to be placed in a playlist of a certain genre on Spotify, you have to write in that genre. So, there’s a lot less experimenting by artists these days in my opinion.”
An important thing Ricardo mentions in this quote is Spotify. With the rise of the Internet there have been many commercial corporations that allow people to stream music. Ricardo is a loyal user of Spotify. To him, this is a very important advantage of digitalization of the music industry. Throughout the interview Ricardo seemed a bit more optimistic than the others. My observation of this might have been a bit biased, because Ricardo was constantly laughing about everything. He even cracked a smile when we talked about the negative sides of the contemporary music industry. I interviewed him in the living room of his apartment. A bit further down the hall, we could hear Loran deejaying. Ricardo played ‘Cucurucu’ by Nick Mulvey, a catchy, yet well composed song, to my opinion. Through the use of Spotify and comparable software, he said, people are now able to easily create their own playlists. According to him this is a great way for youth to express themselves in an overwhelming digitalized industry.
“I think it’s enhanced the possibilities of giving your own twist to music. People used to buy cd’s and tapes and I think they then quickly bought a cd that’s easily applicable, like ‘oh, there’s a Top40 cd, there have to be some songs on there which I like’. Plus, I think that it’s much easier to browse on Spotify than in a music store. (…) I actually really like to search for new music. And this is so much easier on Spotify, because then you hear the first 20 seconds and then you click on the next.”
So, what is clear about this quote is that digitalization gives youth a new way to get to know new music, and a new way to express their individuality in their music choices. It might even be argued that it gives youth a sense of agency in this digitalized and commercialized industry. Nonetheless, Ricardo does give some arguments against the industry. For instance, he says that most of the music that is made with a commercial goal in mind lacks purity. It is not authentic to him and the songs do not last long. On top of that, he suggests that the radio and other media screw up most of the songs, because they play them over and over again. Just like Milja, Ricardo doesn’t have a direct aversion to commercialization and digitalization of the music industry. He actually sees the advantages of it. But he does think that most of the music it produces is all the same, not authentic and that it gets ruined by the media.
Authenticity and nostalgia
As I’ve made clear in the introduction and with the help of the interviews, some young people are developing some aversion to this ongoing commercialization and digitalization of the music industry. They feel that the value and the meaning of music have been lost. This concurs with Habermas’ idea mentioned earlier, about the system taking over the life-world, in which communicative action makes place for Weber’s purposive-rationality. Some young people are starting to look for alternative music. Music that actually keeps its value and is not made into a commodity by the record companies or the artists themselves. In this respect, the notion of authenticity in the article of Pennycook (2007) can be very useful. He describes it as “being true to oneself (…) with relation to social contexts” (Pennycook, 2007, p. 103). It is all about the question what real music is. To me, real music is when artists write what they think is beautiful; when it keeps its substantive value. So, when music becomes to commercial it loses its realness, its authenticity, for me. Although this is a very personal interpretation, I think a lot of young people can relate to this idea. They feel they cannot relate to commercial music nowadays, because it has lost its realness. This can lead to a preference for contemporary alternative music, which is not primarily made with a commercial future in mind, as well as nostalgia for music produced before the digital era.
Hayes (2006) elaborates further on this authenticity. He questions why a lot of young people actually reach back to old LPs to satisfy their desire for ‘authentic’ music (Hayes, 2006, p. 52). Also, he discusses the term nostalgia. According to Hayes, young people look back at old times and see a time in which artists could express themselves in their songs with a certain autonomy, without much influence from their label and economic commercialization. This gives their music a degree of ‘authenticity’ that music from the contemporary, digitalized period often doesn’t have (Hayes, 2006, p. 52). Furthermore, nostalgia “has enabled these young people to operate with a reinvigorated sense of agency in an arena of cultural production and consumption largely overdetermined by corporate interests” (Hayes, 2006, p. 67).
“It’s just a feeling that comes with the music.”
Thus, authenticity and nostalgia are important concepts in discussing alternative music tastes. Authenticity is a very personal, subjective notion. It is what makes music ‘real’ to people. Furthermore, nostalgic feelings that the respondents carry make it clear to interpret their attitude towards the contemporary society. These two terms were the basis of my questions about music choices in the interviews.
An important influence in Loran’s music choices is his party life. When he, as a teenager, went to some parties where they played house and techno, he became a fan. He even managed to organize some underground techno parties with some of his friends. He was so interested in this kind of music that he turned to deejaying himself. He now has a very large vinyl collection. An important part of his music taste is his preference of analog vinyl tapes over digital music. Furthermore, he doesn’t like the commercial music these days. To the question in what way his favorite music differs from commercial music, he answered:
“I’ve noticed that Top40 music is pretty simple and often sampled or sort of cleverly stolen from other songs. And what a lot of people say about house and techno is that they think it’s monotonous, well that’s part of it, but it’s often also technically very well produced and it’s just a certain sound you do or do not appreciate. And this might be hard to explain, but it’s just a feeling that comes with the music.”
So, in his opinion, commercial, popular music is somewhat simpler than his favorite music. I tried to get a more accurate description from him about what makes his music so good. When I introduced the notion of authenticity to him, he found it easier to explain. To him, authenticity means to play whatever you want as an artist. You shouldn’t be influenced by anything other than love for your music. If that is the case, the music is real. This is important for him too when he deejays himself. He often finds this ‘realness’ in older styles of music:
“The instrumentals are a bit more technical I think. The songs possess more depth and I definitely like the vocals much more. These days, much more gets made electronically and not analog, I think that is a real pity. So, yeah, older music subconsciously has my preference I guess.”
It seems that nostalgia is very important in his music taste. He has adopted a lot of music styles from his father, such as classic rock and jazz. They even share vinyl records and discuss music. Loran finds autonomy to be important for an artist. So, his opinion on nostalgia concurs with the findings in Hayes’ research (Hayes, 2006, p. 52). To conclude, Loran also has an indirect aversion to commercialization and digitalization. This aversion is expressed in his music tastes, especially house and techno. He thinks commerciality corrupts the authenticity of an artist and this is why he listens to a lot of alternative and nostalgic music.
Just like Loran, Milja has an indirect aversion, although her music taste is very different from Loran’s. She actually begins by saying how much she dislikes techno and house, because there are barely any lyrics in the songs. Her opinion is that digitalization and commercialization have resulted in homogenization of music, which in turn has resulted in techno and house. It is interesting to see that this view differs greatly from Loran’s view, because Loran actually finds his escape from the commercial and digital society in this techno and house. This difference is probably the effect of different interpretation of the genres. So, Milja doesn’t like techno and house but she does like a lot of other styles. These styles do not necessarily have to be alternative to commercial styles, because she sometimes likes these as well. She thinks, however, that commercial songs from this society lack depth and good lyrics. For these things she reverts to older music, that her mom and dad listen to. This is music that she really finds authentic. She describes her personal interpretation of authenticity as follows:
“I do think it’s very important that music is pure in a sense. The musician really has to mean what he writes, if you know what I’m saying. It doesn’t just have to be a song that he knows will sell good, like Pitbull or anything like that. It has to come straight out of an artist’s heart. (…) Sometimes, nowadays, artists lose their authenticity. Songs get written for them and music starts to sound alike. (…) So, I don’t really listen to that music very often.”
In contrast to Loran, her aversion to commercialization and digitalization of music isn’t that pronounced. She is a bit more optimistic. This becomes clear when she laughed and said that she does listen to some commercial music sometimes. However, from her answers and the way she talked about popular music, it became obvious that she does feel this aversion now and then. But this aversion is not really against commercialization itself, it is more about the music that it creates. This is a theme that comes up with Loran and Ricardo as well. It seems as if they do feel this aversion to commercialization subconsciously and they express it through their music taste.
It is interesting to see that my three respondents have a very different taste in music. Loran primarily likes techno and house, Milja likes everything except techno and house and Ricardo likes music with “just a guitar, like folk and indie music”. He doesn’t like music that is in the Top40, because the songs very often have catchy and cheap melodies. Furthermore, he says that the radio (which he listens to a lot) plays these songs over and over again and this ruins the music. What he finds important in music is that it is made with standard instruments, not electronic ones, and the singer has to have a great voice. This is what makes music authentic and real to Ricardo. He elaborates on this by saying:
“It has to be pure and real. Just keep it simple, you know. Just a guitar and a voice or another instrument and a voice. Those songs without too much decoration, those songs that you hear live and think ‘oh, it’s that song’. (…) Artists just have to make music like they’re sitting at a bonfire or something, haha.”
As I’ve explained earlier in this essay Ricardo feels that as a consequence of digitalization youth have the possibility to find more freedom in their selection of music. With software like Spotify, people are suddenly able to find all the songs they like and put them in a playlist. This gives Ricardo a new way to find those songs that he finds authentic and good. He can even find some old, durable songs. He finds durability to be a quality that some old songs possess and new, popular songs do not. So, in that way he does try to find alternatives to commercial, popular songs in a feeling of nostalgia. According to him, older music has not really been influenced by commercialization. However, he does stress that his music choices are just a matter of taste. For him, he doesn’t listen to alternative music to rebel against the modern music industry. So, again, we see that Ricardo has an aversion to the music of commercialization and digitalization and not against society per se.
In my interviews I examined how youth feel about the ongoing commercialization and digitalization and how this reflects in their music choices. Loran was the first emerging adult I spoke too. He is a deejay himself and has a strong opinion about the contemporary music industry. Firstly, he thinks the business is purely focused on money. According to him, this is a bad thing, because music should not be about money. As a deejay, he said, you should be able to play your own music. There is a point in every deejay’s career where they can either go for the money or for authenticity. He clearly indicates that the right thing to do is to stay authentic. His music choices support his opinions about the contemporary music industry. He loves techno and house, mainly because of underground parties he used to frequent and organize himself. As a deejay and a listener he finds it important that an artist makes music he wants. He frequently finds this authenticity in older music and this is the reason for his nostalgia. So, Loran has an aversion to commercialization and digitalization, because he thinks the focus of music is wrong. This aversion can also be clearly inferred from his choices in music and parties.
Milja has a much less outspoken opinion than Loran and is quite reserved. Her opinion is that music should be written and played from the heart, while it is predominantly written for profit nowadays. She also agrees with theories from scholars who have said that the Internet has played a big role in commercialization and digitalization of music. She suggests that this has led to homogenization of music. She says that this is clearly visible in techno and house and this is primarily why she doesn’t like these styles. She does like a lot of other styles however, especially when they have depth and good lyrics. For her authenticity is when music is written from the heart, which can also include commercial music. So, the most important conclusion from her interview is that she doesn’t have a direct aversion to the ongoing commercialization and digitalization. She does, however, have an aversion to some of the music it brings forth, because it is written with a focus on money.
Ricardo is the most optimistic of the three respondents. He reminds us that there are a lot of positive aspects of commercialization and digitalization. Most importantly, it has given youth a lot of new possibilities to express their individuality and freedom. They are able to easily search for music and thus assemble their music taste. However, Ricardo states just like Milja that popular music has become more homogenized. Furthermore, he thinks that the overload of commercial music isn’t really authentic to him. Real music to Ricardo is simple, with standard instruments and a great voice. It is important to see that Ricardo doesn’t have an aversion to commerciality, he actually sees the advantages of it. However, he doesn’t really like the music it produces.
These findings lead to a conclusive answer of my research question, which was as follows: ‘To what extent do youth experience aversion to the ongoing commercialization and digitalization of society, in particular in music?’ Well, on the one hand my respondents recognize the negative aspects of the contemporary society. This becomes especially clear in their music choices. All three of them simply do not like the commercial music, because it lacks authenticity and is focused on money. They have different ways of dealing with it, Ricardo uses Spotify and Loran reaches back to vinyl records. On the other hand, Milja and Ricardo have only to some extent a direct aversion to commercialization and digitalization itself. They realize that it also has many benefits. Nonetheless, Loran does have this aversion to commercialization and digitalization of music to a greater extent. Furthermore, authenticity has proved to be an important component in the construction of young people’s music tastes. Returning to Weber and Habermas, my respondents often find authenticity in nostalgic music, because they feel this music has not yet been polluted by rationalization. According to them, this music has been created in a period in which the system has not yet colonized the life-world.
Finally, it is important to reflect on a few things. Firstly, at the beginning of this research my opinions about the contemporary society were a bit biased. I didn’t really give the positive aspects a fair chance. I knew they existed, but the interviews have made me realize that they are as important as the negative aspects. Society is very complex and there is not just one interpretation. Secondly, in future research it might be helpful to organize a focus group. This will create a discussion in which the respondents can build on their opinions. Such a focus group might also create a sphere in which respondents are eager to contradict instead of please me. Lastly, I think it is important to remember that everyone is an individual with their own tastes and choices. People are active beings that have their own interpretation of commercialization and digitalization. There is no right or wrong and people should respect others for who they are.
(Research paper written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context, ASW)
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Jordan, Tim. (2013). Internet, Society and Culture: Communicative Practices Before and After the Internet (1st edition). London: Bloomsbury Academic.
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