Disrecognized Space

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Convergent music: Users versus corporations

Digitization and convergence have had a dramatic impact on how media is produced and consumed. This is especially noticeable in the field of music since this is one of the first media to be affected by the internet, and the one which most dramatically shows the contrast between previous methods of control and production, and new methods of production and consumption. This essay will examine these contrasts and how they have developed, and show how the opposing forces of corporations and users highlight the changes being brought about in other media as well.Before addressing music specifically, the meanings of digitization and convergence need to be defined.

Digitization is fairly obvious: data (including media) now exists in a digital form of ones and zeros. The implications, however, are far reaching: perfect copies can be made over and over with freely available tools and distributed easily via the internet in a process of ‘transgressive potential’ (Strangelove, 2010, p. 171) which digitization facilitates. This binary transformation of information has also led to a binary conflict of corporations and users, both of whom have very different expectations, standards and responses to one another and which will be discussed further below. Oberholzer-Gee and Strumpf (2007, p. 2) also point out that digitization allows nonrivalrous sharing since copying doesn’t remove the original (so piracy isn’t correctly ‘stealing’ but rather duplication).

Henry Jenkins (2006b) sees convergence as driven by a number of forces: cultural, technological and social. He describes convergence itself as “the flow of content across multiple media platforms”. For Jenkins, convergence is not a teleological concept, but a description of a process that is being played out everywhere we use media (Jenkins, 2006a) – and the places where we use media are expanding dramatically. Jaokar (2006) in discussing convergence points out two points he considers fundamental: digitization and communication. He is also careful to point out that ‘convergence’ appears differently when viewed through different lenses (such as software, or hardware, or consumption). A useful definition of convergence, therefore, is a social flow of media that is enabled by digitization.

The rapid and disseminated changes enabled as a result of convergence are seen in many fields, and most noticeably music, in an increasing dichotomy between corporations and users. Jenkins and Deuze (2008) describe this tension as playing out between the democratization of media by users for sharing, learning and telling stories, and the concentration of power by media companies as they seek to reinforce their roles as gatekeepers.

Kot (2009, p. 29) notes the music industry’s response to the internet was not unprecedented: in the face of new technology industry has invariably treated it as a threat and attempted to control and limit it. In the face of the internet, and increasing bandwidth and peer to peer services, this was most famously (or notoriously) exemplified by the industry’s legal action against Napster, along with action by Metallica (Kot, 2009, p. 33). While ultimately successful in shutting Napster down, the music industry’s resort to legal action was seen as draconian by many fans. Wikstrom (2010, p. 153) also notes the music industry’s response to the internet and file sharing was, rather than creating new revenue sources, to restrict the possibilities by both technological means (such as Data Rights Management to restrict copying) and legal means (by suing organizations and individuals, particularly in the United States). Whether the music industry is attacking a real target or not is also questionable: Oberholzer-Gee and Strumpf (2007, p. 38) concluded from a survery of users in 2002 that file sharing had no statistically significant effect on legitimate music sales. Sinnreich (Jenkins, 2010) states that we are witnessing the undermining of “a system that reserves the power to determine what is true and false for a privileged few”. Such systems do not acquiesce easily or soon.

In contrast to the legal constraints that corporations are relying on, users and consumers refuse to be limited to a single narrative regarding digital music. Nancy Baym (2010), when interviewing musicians, found that every musician has a different way of using social tools and engaging with their audience. She argues that online audiences want to participate and to form a community that reaches beyond just the music.

Damien Kulash Jr (2010) contrasts these two approaches. He relates how a YouTube video in 2006 of his band acted as an advertisement, successfully promoting his band. A few years later his record company had tightened restrictions on the band’s videos since they perceived it primarily as an income source. As a result, views of the band’s videos decreased dramatically.

Berry (2006, p. 144) specifically addresses podcasting, but his ideas have wider ramifications across all digital convergence. He argues that podcasting was an unplanned technology which not only thereby challenged traditional media, but remains unpredictable. A further aspect of convergence is that users receive media in so many ways they no longer perceive the boundaries that existed (between, for example, CD, radio or concert).

Sturken (2009, p. 189) discusses visual technologies, but her comments are also equally applicable to music, noting that new technologies both utilize the codes of preceding technologies while each creates an ‘epistemic shift’, recoding the meanings of those technologies. It is this epistemic shift that is unpredictable, which is created as an ongoing process by the users of the technology, and which (in the case of music) the guardians of the old models are resisting strongly through the use of primarily legal means. While these guardians represent one particular way of using (and controlling) music, the people using and playing with the new technologies are myriad and as Sinnreich (2010, p. 70) points out, every one contributes in some way to creating new permutations of media and thus opening out the possibilities rather than limiting them as corporations often try to do. Furthermore, the internet ensures each of these users doesn’t just operate alone, but creates a network synergy (Sinnreich, 2010, pp. 71-72) that exponentially increases the possibility of these new uses.

Convergence, in this respect, is both a top-down and a bottom-up process (Jenkins, 2004, p. 37) though it is only so where corporations (the top-down actor) choose to participate rather than limit the options. Jones (2011, p. 442) notes that the music industry has been a reactive force, while consumers have been proactive. The music industry has, by default, largely chosen to deny the changes happening around them. Jenkins argues that consumers – the other half of this dyad – are “fighting for the right to participate more fully in their culture, to control the flow of media in their lives and to talk back to mass market content.” The consumer is no longer passive, but an active participant. If the music industry fails to fully embrace the technology and implement new ways of marketing and distribution, then the only actor left shaping new uses of media will be the consumer.

The new digital network paradigm does not, of course, mean that commercialization is no longer possible. Many companies are profiting from convergence and digitization, such as Spotify (www.spotify.com) or Apple with its iTunes store (www.apple.com/itunes/), while music industry revenues are increasing driven, in a large part, by digital downloads (Toro, 2011). Yet the contestation between the rigidity of the old paradigms and the flexibility of the new is still a voluble battleground. Eugene Kaspersky (2011), in a rather emotive post about the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) makes a couple of important distinctions between these two models: copying in a digital form and delivery cost virtually nothing. The middlemen (sic) are redundant. The forces behind the SOPA wish to, in Kasperky’s terms, return the internet to a ‘vinyl age’ where these things were significant costs and controlling factors.

Behind these opposing forces there is also a political and capitalist dimension. While corporations and consumers are reacting differently to the new opportunities and affordances, Verstraete (2011, p. 541) examines the politics of convergence, and argues that media have become ‘objects of consumption’ which reinforce, rather than eliminate, consumerism. In this way, post-capitalist consumerism is actually reinforced by convergence. Furthermore, the costs of piracy are often over-simplified and illusory, as Vernik, Purohit and Desai (2011, p. 1022) demonstrate. By modeling a more nuanced version of traditional, online and illegal music sources they find that, in some cases, removing DRM can lead to increased digital download sales and decreased piracy. Part of the reason is attributable to the way DRM disadvantages legitimate purchasers rather than pirates (Vernik, Purohit & Desai, 2011, p. 1012). Mylonas (2011, § 2.2) examines the politics of piracy, noting that it is a ‘criminalising discourse’ that shuts down discussion of how culture (and the people who form culture) operate daily and in multiple ways.

Digitization and convergence have sown the dragon’s teeth of an army of technological options, all of which can promulgate new and different ways of using that technology, often in ways not even considered by the designers. Rapid uptake of the internet and its tools has destabilized preexisting dominant social forces in a relatively short time, rather in the manner that technological developments in the Industrial Revolution created change and conflict. Industry and consumers have different spheres of interest (and influence) which may or may not intersect at various points, and which may or may not be being drawn further apart by a refusal to engage with the new technology on industry’s part. The conflict between corporations and users will clearly continue for some time, but the multiple ways users find and invent to play with music in a convergent environment will always be challenging the dominant discourse of capitalism and legislation.

References
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