Sunday, 31 January 2016

Reformatted Again

My review of Andrew Leyshon’s book Reformatted: Code, Networks and the Transformation of the MusicIndustry is available in the January 2016 edition of Popular Music.
            Reformatted is a decent book but much of it is dated. It is largely compiled from journal articles that were published between 2001 and 2009. This is of interest in itself, as we get to see the preoccupations of the music industries in the recent past. What is missing is as significant as what is present. Leyshon was an early chronicler of downloading. He states that he was fortunate that internet file sharing was brought to his attention ‘when it still remained below the horizon of most economic commentators, let alone social science researchers’. He has not always been a visionary, however. When he talks of the industry being ‘reformatted’, he envisions it being remade in the shape of a download. This book fails to predict the impact of streaming.
            It would be unfair to single out Leyshon in this respect. There have been numerous books written about music technology in the last 15 years, each of them taking pride in their modernity and each of them concentrating on downloads rather than streams. People from the music industry too, seemed to view the rise of Apple as inexorable.
            So did anyone other than Daniel Ek envision that we would be reformatted again? I have been thinking back to my PhD interview, which took place in 2004. My original proposal was for a project that would explore the differences between analogue and digital formats; I told the interview panel that I planned to investigate vinyl and downloading. My supervisor, Steven Connor, responded that I should look at vinyl and streaming instead. In his opinion it clearly represented the future of music consumption.
            Steven Connor is nominally a Professor of English. Really, he is a polymath. Even so, how come he was so prescient about streaming when most of those studying the music industries had less foresight? I recently quizzed him about this and he replied by suggesting that ‘everybody was assuming at the time that anyone who could get the streaming model to pay was going to clean up’.
            I think he is being modest here, but there is also truth in what he is saying. There certainly were people who visualised the success of streaming at this time. And then iTunes came along. Its rampant success had a hypnotic effect. My PhD interview took place in March 2004; iTunes was launched in the UK in June of that year.

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