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Selling Digital Music, Formatting Culture

by Jeremy Wade Morris
University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2015
288 pp. Trade, $29.95; paper, £22.95
ISBN: 9780520287938; ISBN: 9780520287945.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

I may be overenthusiastic -the future will tell us whether I am mistaken or not- but having read Selling Digital Music, I am truly convinced that this may become an influential book, as important as, for instance Raymond Williams's study on Television (1974), Bruno Latour's work on Science in Action (1987) or Paul DuGay's edited volume on The Sony Walkman (1997). In this book Jeremy Wade Morris analyzes the digitization of commodified music, from the first audio files of the CD era till the current transformations of the music industries in the cloud. But he is also doing much more since the book is in the first place a cultural analysis of technology. Morris examines with great care the intertwining of the "technological" -that is, the various inventions and artifacts of the period under scrutiny - and the "cultural" - that is, what people actually do with all these things. Selling Digital Music strikes the right balance between both approaches: It is a thoroughly researched study that uses both academic (often SCOT inspired) research and non-academic sources (corporate policy documents, no longer available digital material, journalism, fan an hobbyists testimonies on social networks, etc.). At the same time it never loses sight of the bigger picture, the permanent reflection on the link between commodity and culture as well as the attempt to rethink digitization in larger terms. Approaching the music as the canary in the digital coalmine he thus uses the case of digital music as a springboard towards a philosophy of digitiazation of culture in general, the central issue being the shift from artefact and ownership to participation in life style communities.

It is both easy and impossible to summarize Selling Digital Music. But it is first of all easy to do so, because of the extremely clear structure and argumentation of the book. Morris defends three major ideas: one, the digitally revolution is technically speaking not a matter of immaterialization or loss of materiality but of "detuning" and "retuning," that is of stripping away certain aspects of music as commodified sound and the progressive invention of new aspects and dimensions that enable new forms of commodification. Example: We lose the information offered by the artwork on the cover of an album (or CD), but we are now being offered new metadata and new interfaces when doing something with music on our computer. Two, economically speaking, digitization was not the countercultural disruption of the music industry we still think it was - despite of course many disruptive effects, for instance on the sales figures of musical artefacts. It was on the contrary, Morris argues, a logical and perfectly rational aspect of the music business, which is always looking for newer and better ways to commodify music. Example: the infamous practice of free file sharing paved the way to the use (i.e. the selling) of music as part of the data mining industry. Three: culturally speaking, the digitization of music was not only a musical revolution, it was also and above all a cultural revolution, a watershed moment in the shift from musical artefact (the music as an independent item: a composition, a performance, a recording, for instance) and ownership (buying and thus owning such and artefact used to be used the traditional way of experiencing commodified music) to something completely else in which notions such as musical experience and participation are key. Example: instead of purchasing a song or an album to add it to our personal music library, contemporary users arrange playlists in order to join certain communities that also enjoy music via nonmusical items (such as for instance clothing, furniture or the participation in certain events).

To summarize, Selling Digital Music is also easy because of the clear timeline it proposes and follows. Morris convincingly demonstrates that the digital file of the CD may have announced the digitization of commodified popular music, but that they it was not yet really part of it since it did not modify existing commodified forms. One had to wait for other changes, namely the encounter with the PC, a device that had not been programmed to function as a musical device but which rapidly proved the ideal channel for new forms of distribution and production of music. The story of this digitization is told by Morris in five chapters, each of them built around a particular technology that discloses the possibilities of detuning and retuning of commodified music and thus new opportunities for the selling of music: 1) Winamp, a music player software that pioneered a visual interface for playing music on a PC and helped understand that music could really be sold as a digital file, 2) The progressive construction of metadata, which replaced the suddenly missing metadata of the traditional record industry while allowing a more active use of the digital audio files (this chapter and the previous one inevitable contain fascinating discussions of the skeuomorphism), 3) Napster, which Morris analyzes as a venture capital company trying to build a new business models aiming at the exploitation of datamining via the traffic generated by file sharing, 4) iTunes, which Selling Digital Music does not interpret as the answer to the crisis of collapsing sales figures but as a successful strategy of integrating music in new lifestyles (based also on the purchase of new equipment that offered something more than just the possibility to enjoy cheap but legally acquired artefacts), and finally 5), cloud applications such as Spotify, where participation and collaboration visa user-generated content is at the heart of the commodification business.

The difficulty of summarizing Morris's book has to do with its exceptional richness. The wealth of archival material is breathtaking, but so is also the depth of the cultural and historical discussion of this material. Despite the sometimes highly technical aspects of some of its pages, Selling Digital Music is not at all a book for computer geeks or music nerds. It is instead one of the most sound, no pun intended, and though-provoking analyses of culture I have read in recent years -hence the enthusiasm expressed in the opening sentence of this review. It is a book that has the courage to ask fundamental questions on the changes of culture in the digital era, while also managing to avoid many currently hegemonic views on digitization and commodification. In short, a book that helps us think afresh what Raymond Williams would have called some of the "keyords" of the cultural debate.


Last Updated 1 June 2016

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