Research

Taste in the Digital Age: Music Streaming Services and the Performance of Class Distinction

Setting the Scene

Music streaming services, such as Spotify and Apple Music, are transforming the way many of us access and consume music. Not only do these platforms facilitate access to vast catalogues of licensed music at little or no cost, but increasingly they are curating our encounters with it. These firms are gathering large volumes of very granular data about who we are and what we like to listen and combining this information with the latest advancements in machine learning technologies in order to shape what and how music is made available to us through the creation of playlists, recommendations and other forms of curated content. These transformations to way music is made available invite us to consider if and how music streaming services are disrupting the social dynamics of consumption.

Aim

Drawing on over 40 semi-structured interviews conducted with music industry key informants and Spotify users, this research considered if and how music streaming services are shaping how class identity and distinction are performed through the consumption. Interviews with music industry key informants, including actors working at streaming services and major record labels, were used to better understand what, why and how music streaming services are shaping how music is made available to consumers. Interviews with Spotify users were used to better understand how using Spotify is shaping how class identity and distinction are performed through the everyday practice of music consumption. Key informants interviews were combined with interviews with Spotify users to begin to examine why and how Spotify is shaping how class identity and distinction are performed through the consumption of music. 

Theoretical Backdrop

In the 1960’s, the influential French sociologist, PierreBourdieu, wrote about how cultural taste and consumption practices are an important part of how social class structures everyday life. What and how people engage with music is shaped by class background and cultural tastes serve to affiliate and differentiate people on the basis of class. The middle and upper classes are engaged in an endless pursuit of distinction, seeking to redefine what counts as tasteful or fashionable as older markers of distinction are appropriated by the working classes. Traditionally, a cultivated appreciation for classical music or jazz defined the tastes of the upper and middle classes, whilst popular culture was associated with working class taste. 

Over time, our understanding of the relationship between cultural taste, consumption and class has changed. The concept of the ‘cultural omnivore’ was introduced to describe how the tastes of the middle classes have been changed by cultural abundance and mass circulation of forms of high and low culture. Declining is the image of the dominant classes as cultural snobs, engaged in the exclusive consumption of highbrow culture, instead replaced by a more fluid and cosmopolitan cultural consumer.

However, these accounts pre-date music streaming services’ transition from a niche to the dominant mode of music distribution. The ways in which music streaming service shape how music is made available has the potential to change what and how people consume music in everyday life.

Findings

My research produced several findings about how using Spotify is shaping the performance of class identity and distinction.

Key Finding #1

I found that for members of the middle classes for whom musical expertise is an important part of their claims to class distinction, using Spotify is undermining opportunities for these people to mobilise their ‘cultural capital’ (i.e. the cultural assets (e.g. cultural know-how, education) which underpin middle class privilege). The rate at which music is made available by Spotify (e.g. the updating of playlists, the refreshing of the homepage), and its attempts to personalise the experience of consuming music, are closing down opportunities for some people to distinguish themselves through their musical know-how.

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Key Finding #2

I found that Spotify is, at the same time, opening up new opportunities for the performance of class distinction. Consuming music in physical formats, such as vinyl, is a way to resist the ephemeral (i.e. the rate) and immaterial nature of consuming music on Spotify. In addition, using Spotify itself has become a part of the mobilisation of cultural capital, especially through the user-generation of playlists. I found that these practices privilege younger members of the middle classes, who have both the cultural know-how and time to engage with music in this way. 

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