Nick Prior is a sociology lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, specialising in popular music, digital and media culture, contemporary art, cities and social theory. Nick told M3 about convergence culture, live music and the sonic textures of the noughties…
First of all, could you tell us a bit about yourself, and what it is that you do?
Nick – I’m a cultural sociologist who lectures at the University of Edinburgh in the U.K. where I’ve been for the last 14 years. I am a social researcher in the area of the sociology of music, which is a recognized sub-discipline within sociology that examines the complex and dynamic relations between music (of all types) and societies. This includes, for instance, understanding questions of identity, technology, social change, gender, youth and how music is a social force in everyday life.
What inspired you to focus on music? What is your own musical background?
I began making music when I was 14, using a 4 track portastudio, guitars and a cheap synthesizer (a Yamaha DX21). I was the archetypal suburban box-bedroom rebel, listening to early 80s indie, getting angsty over Thatcherite politics and plotting my escape to the city! A few years ago I made the conscious decision to shift my sociological research into the area of music and I haven’t looked back since. Nowadays, my tastes are more eclectic, but I’m no less angsty. My particular interests are in developments in the post-1980s era, a period that is still rather marginalised compared to the “classic age” of rock in popular music studies.
Many people have claimed that there is no longer any money in record sales, and that touring is the most efficient way to earn an income as a band. How much truth do you think there is in this sentiment?
It’s a radically mixed cultural economy at the moment with a blend of material (recorded, analogue, digital) and experiential (live, embedded, streamed) commodities on offer. I see this as a particularly interesting period of uncertainty but it’s unlikely that one musical format will absolutely dominate the other. Indeed, there is contradictory evidence on this question, with vinyl making a minor comeback over the last few years in some places (Australia, for instance) and a rather bloated, over-saturated market for live music, with venues closing and festivals being shelved. Add in some of the new multi (or trans) media channels of distribution like video games and smart phone apps, and one is left with a sense of a very diffuse and expansive set of markets and industries where it makes less and less sense to talk about music as a single, discrete or isolated form.
What would be your preferred medium to listen to music (eg. Vinyl, CD, tape, MP3 etc.), and why?
I have and listen to all these formats for different reasons and at different times. I have a stack of vinyl behind the sofa with a turntable, and it nestles between two towers of CDs, with an iPod facility in the stereo. But I also have an iPhone packed with songs and access to a certain Swedish streaming music service. It’s very much a mix of these media that I choose according to the mood and social context. For instance, I gave a special friend of mine a “mixtape” the other day, the physical object being a cassette box complete with handwritten playlist, but with a USB stick embedded into the mocked-up cassette where the music was recorded. Now that’s convergence culture!
Do you feel the idea of an album, as a piece of art that people will listen to from start to finish, has been undermined or forgotten about in the digital age?
Not at all. Just witness a) the fact that bands still see the album as the unit around which they write songs, yearn for recognition and perform. After all, the live setlist is usually conceived of as an album’s worth of songs; b) record contracts that are still organised around an album deal, despite the move towards hybrid contracts with a mix of live performances / albums; c) awards such as the Mercury Music Award in the UK that acknowledge the album to be a unique indicator of a band’s ability to put together a set of well-crafted songs that are internally coherent and which display talent beyond a single song.
It is worth mentioning that people’s everyday consumer habits and lives do tend to favour grabbing a short snatch of music on the move (as you would an espresso) and the single digital download is perfectly adapted for that reason. On the other hand, there are indications that people are valuing slowing down (the slow food movement, walking and cycling rather than driving, the return of crafting practices such as knitting, and a new sensitivity to quality) and a residual fetish for vinyl and the album format works here too. The concept of the album remains a powerful one and I suspect it’s here to stay.
Much has been made of the supposed death of the record store in recent years. Do you believe the digital age has killed the record store, and if so, do you think that this is a necessary part of progression, or a tragic loss?
This has been one of the most tragic aspects of digitalisation and it is indeed heartbreaking to see so many of these great stores closing. They were much more than places for buying records and I do lament their passing and salute those who are trying to keep them alive. On the other hand, there are still places where these stores are an important and thriving part of local scenes. I visit Reykjavik a fair bit and stores like Bad Taste Records and 12 Tonar are still key landmarks in the Icelandic music scene. The same can be said for Mono in Glasgow. I really hope ways can be found of preserving these stores. Maybe local and civic authorities should do more to slap preservation orders on these local gems, just as they would a country house or palace! Unfortunately, the market is hideously unforgiving.
What is your take on the current SOPA/ACTA controversy?
That this is not just about protecting revenue streams and copyright, but indicates a much broader effort to shape and control digital content and our consumer habits in a volatile and highly politicised context. What I’m most interested to see is the response, tactics and workarounds of a generation of incredibly gifted and creative digital-savvy people – not just geeky fans but whole swathes of people who will not tolerate what they see as their rights being curtailed and their freedom of expression being diminished. The real test will be whether momentum is formed behind companies like Wikipedia who “blacked out” for the day in January 2012 and whether the giants of Facebook, Google and Twitter continue to protest against the changes. Like all things, internet piracy is a complex issue, but it’s certainly not a simple equation of piracy being tantamount to “lost revenue for struggling artists” as portrayed by the corporate media sector.
In a few decades time, what genre or sound do you think will come to define the 2000’s?
It’s always very difficult to look forward in order to look back, but I’m guessing that the noughties will be defined by three key tendencies:
1) a fragmentation and eclectic proliferation of global styles and hybrid forms of music made possible by digital software, where genres are mixed, matched, mutated and reformed. In other words, genre itself is destabilised. I guess the mashup would be a good example.
2) heritage rock, the reformation of bands that should have folded decades ago, the continued existence (against all reasonable logic) of the Rolling Stones!
3) certain sonic textures like auto-tune, the RnB production techniques of producers like Timbaland and the “wobbly” bass of Dubstep will probably become musical signifiers of the era, as will a new emerging integration with Latin music, eastern musics and Bollywood styles.
What do you personally believe the future of music distribution will look like?
I see two key processes here: 1) the “music industry” as such will cease to exist as anything other than a device for the management of copyright, with a residual emphasis on live contracts and mass entertainment. In other words, top-down distribution, based on a 20th century model of mass culture; 2) a much freer, less formalised and more interesting set of networks of distribution that “disintermediate” traditional channels. These will be based on continued processes of digital decentralisation and a yearning for adaptive and creative technologies amongst people across the board who want to do more than consume, but to participate, adapt, write, create, mash, mutate and play. In other words, two economies existing side-by-side, with a cat and mouse game going on between them. Until the music industry stops treating music consumers like criminals then it will not get beyond a punitive model of control, consumption and constraint at a time when digital technologies are being designed and used to do precisely the opposite.
Finally, what does the future hold for Nick Prior?
I am going to be writing a book over the next year or so, titled Popular Music, Technology and Society (Sage Publishers) where some of these ideas will be aired in more detail. Otherwise, I hope to get back to making electronic music and doing some more collaborative work with musicians. More immediately, I’m going to be checking out the music scene in Brisbane, where I am at the moment, and will be returning to Iceland in a few weeks to do the same.