The ‘Broken’ System: Deconstructing Consumption

Kyle Bylin, Associate Editor (@kbylin)
Edited by: Refe Tuma (@refeup) of Creative Deconstruction


In our previous post we wrote about the barriers of music consumption, gave an overview of how those barriers shaped the experiences of previous generations, and examined in great detail why the removal of such barriers recontextualized the ways in which those who were born digital consumed music.

The next step is to deconstruct the traditional music consumption system.

The traditional system is biased towards hoarding and scarcity; it promoted the gradual development of taste and encouraged the act of collecting music. So that each fan could have their own access point to the artist's songs, and scrutinize and divine meaning from them in isolation.  To listen to music independently—in the absence of the artist—meant that each individual fan could develop their own perspective of the artist and their music.

In doing so, many fans formed a rather intimate, parasocial relationship with the artist—where they knew of the emotions of the artist and filled in the details of their lives, but the artist didn’t know of theirs.  The artist spoke to the fan through their music, but the fan did not “speak” to them. 

And, through specific delivery mechanisms—primarily commercial radio, MTV, big-box retail, and print—their music was advertised to the fan

These institutions stimulated demand for their music—over other artists—in the marketplace. They established a sense of trust between fans and their corporate-created brand, and elevated them from performer to idol.  This transformation allowed for a common musical, yet commercial culture to form—where fans belonged to something bigger than themselves, and socially identified with each other through the relationships that they had with these abstract, top-down artist brands.  The act of collecting their music, owning it, and displaying it—this is how fans signaled their preferences, taste, and identity.

In this consumption system, since the taste in music of each fan developed gradually—if not stayed the same—over the course of most their lives, the artist could disconnect themselves from the fan and create new albums without fear of losing their audience.  And since the artist’s creativity time line, more often than not, lasted several years, a new album was to be anticipated, cherished, and hoarded.  In turn, fans viewed the artist's music as a scarcity, which is why they waited outside of the store—hours before it opened—to purchase the new album.

Biased Mediums

Fans did not, however, have any control over the traditional system. As individual fans—and by definition “passive” listeners—they didn’t actually know what they music they wanted to listen to.  Nor did they want to take the time to find it.

Therefore, the artist's music had to intersect with “their physical or psychological environment.”1 Their newest album and its hit single had to “intrude on their day to day existence and generate a strongly positive association.”2

To penetrate their environment, the single would have to receive heavy rotation on commercial radio, the video played on MTV, the album would need to be available at all big-box retail outlets, and a review would have to appear in Rolling Stone.

These mechanisms—when utilized together—formed an abstract consumption system that major labels used to influence passive listeners and their taste in music, and to regulate the flow of culture into their lives.  This often resulted in a bond between the mechanisms and the individual that grew stronger than their connection to the actual music that they delivered.

If you focus on these specific mechanisms and how they convey commercial culture—rather than on the particular songs that the major labels use them to deliver—it becomes clear that we essentially miss the effect of their structural influence. How they promoted the gradual, yet subtle development of taste in music over long periods of time.

These mechanisms are biased towards familiarity and conformity.  Even more so, they’re biased towards major label interests and the needs of their advertisers.

Commercial radio, for instance, typically cannot play “new” music.  In order to keep the listener’s attention for the longest period of time—so that they are exposed to the station’s advertisers—they must achieve the lowest tune out rate possible.  And, what is required of them to accomplish this feat is that they must maintain the least objectionable programming possible.

When these stations do introduce new music, it can’t be radically different from the current playlist—so the comfort of the listener isn’t obstructed to the degree that they tune out.  The artist’s hit single, then, must be familiar to the fan and conform to the rest of the stations programming and that of the current popular music trends.  In other words, the music that they play can be new for as long as it offends the fewest people and serves as a buffer between two advertisements.

As for MTV, “They are,” in the words of media critic Douglas Rushkoff, “not dedicated to creating new kinds of music and entertainment in order to promote a richer culture.  Corporations depend on understanding trends so they can sell people whatever it is that they already have.”3

Together, these specific mechanisms created a focal point in the mindless feedback loop between production and consumption in the traditional system—where industry executives researched teen culture for indications on what music they should play—while teens themselves scoured these mediums for models of new artists to imitate and for the theme songs of their generation.4

Taste in Music

Thus, when a fan discovered music through these mechanisms, it is quite likely that their taste in music would only broaden ever so slightly.  And, due to the biases of these mechanisms—that their taste would constantly be reinforced, but never challenged; it would evolve along the taste continuum, from one finite state, to the next, without dramatically changing.

For the passive teenage listener—whose taste in music was primary influenced by specific delivery mechanisms—the Internet changed all of this.

Prior to the digital revolution, we tended to think of taste as something that goes through a gradual transition from one condition, to a different condition—with very few abrupt changes. During our teenage years, interest music peaks and we move through the states more rapidly, which carries onward to college—where we were confronted with a multitude of new influences and musical tastes.

After these critical stages in our development, it is understood that this process slows down, and, for the most part, that our musical tastes are fully formed.  Yet, this conventional model of how musical taste develops isn't representative of the personality of each individual fan as much as it is the biases of the consumption systems they interacted with and the ranges of social behavior they promote.

This raises an important question, that if the traditional system facilitated an environment where taste develop gradually, what did the Internet enable?

In short, it permitted a population of digital youth to rethink their role as passive listeners in the traditional system, and to become more actively engaged in their culture experiences in a way that wasn’t possible a decade ago.  First, came file-sharing.  Then, in an attempt provide legal services that were more in step with the emerging social norms of those who were born digital, many companies began inhabiting this new landscape.  This lead to the rise of the personalized music experience and the networked audience.

Finite to Fluidity

Through this ‘social ecology of music culture’ that formed online, listeners could now exercise a higher degree of control over how they discovered, acquired, consumed, and discarded music.  And, out of this chaos and transformation, an ‘unplanned and unforeseen’ Internet era consumption system emerged.

Where the traditional system operated on the assumptions that a fan’s taste developed gradually; where collecting music consisted solely of the ownership of physical albums; and where the biases of the consumption system promoted compatible ranges of social behavior, the Internet era system did not.

In contrasting the traditional music consumption system with that of the ‘Internet era’ system that those born digital also experienced, what becomes clear is that it is biased towards different things.

The traditional system and its specific mechanisms—commercial radio, MTV, big-box retail, and print—are biased toward familiarity, conformity, and façade, and facilitate the gradual developmentof taste. On the other hand, the Internet era system and its equivalent mechanisms—YouTube, Pandora, iTunes and blogs—are biased towards personalization, specialization, and relevance, and enables a much more rapid evolution of taste.

Therefore, the ranges of social behavior that it promotes are different too.

As a result, those who were born digital—who  actively engaged with and readily immersed themselves in this ‘Internet era’ system—have shifted from finite to fluidity, both in the terms of how their taste in music develops, and how it reflects upon the music they collect. What this means is that their tastes no longer progress gradually along the continuum from one finite state to a different state. Instead, they evolve continuously, ultimately reaching a constant state of fluidity.

Also, where the traditional system is biased towards hoarding and scarcity, and encouraged the act of collecting music in the physical or finite form, the Internet era system is biased towards sharing and abundance. It thrives on the collecting of music—across multiple channels—in the digital or fluid form.

The 'Broken' System

In conclusion, the traditional system is optimized for a different era than the one we are living in today. The Internet era music consumption system has promoted ranges of social behavior in those who were born digital which are incompatible not only with the traditional system, but with the assumptions that the record industry currently operates under.

In the digital age, there will only be many different systems, promoting evermore complex and different ranges of social behavior.  If each fan personalizes their own consumption system to their needs, then, their behavior will no longer align with any one particular system.  In a sense, how their taste in music develops, and how it reflects upon the music they collect will be unique to them.

The traditional system has broken, for good.  And, by treating it as if still defines how those who were born digital consume music, we are only denying ourselves access to its ongoing redesign.


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  1. A thoughtful and interesting article, Kyle. And thank you for not assigning a value judgment to either mode of consumption (developmental or evolutionary).
    I do think that, with the rise of social sharing around music, one’s musical taste remains a marker of identity. Witness, for example, Last.fm’s most unwanted scrobbles list.

  2. “Thus, when a fan discovered music through these mechanisms, it is quite likely that their taste in music would only broaden ever so slightly. And, due to the biases of these mechanisms—that their taste would constantly be reinforced, but never challenged; it would evolve along the taste continuum, from one finite state, to the next, without dramatically changing.”
    Most people who were fans of boy groups or girl groups during their teens are quite embarrassed later by their teenage taste in music, which is where the term “guilty pleasure” comes into place. So they basically challenge their taste by themselves. And that’s just what music lovers would do by following a certain producer or favourite studio musician as a means of discovering new music and trying to find out if they like the soundscape of the next big stylistical niche that their producer of choice is building. So there is dramatic change within the audience at all times.

  3. I find the list of most unwanted scrobbles to be a very interesting idea. I am trying to determine exactly what this tells me about the songs listed or what is says about the marking of one’s identity. I would like to see how it compares to the list of songs that are most scrobbled.
    debcha, can you share some more thoughts on the topic?

  4. This is a great, thought-inspiring piece. I would LOVE to see an article that focuses on the social changes that correlate with the changes in media consumption. Can you share any links or some of your own thoughts that relate to the topic?

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