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How has the use of social media contributed to digital transformations within popular music culture? Are such transformations a pro or a con?

Social media itself may be defined in a variety of ways. It may be an obvious answer such as branded products in the vein of Instagram or Facebook, services that provide a connection and means of interaction via digital technology such as a mobile phone or personal computer. It may too be a means to exchange ideas and inspiration through art or favored imagery as is the case with platforms such as Pinterest. Additionally, social media may well be perceived as a platform to connect with others via the nature of a shared interest. That shared interest may well be popular music.

Since MTV fired into life at a minute past midnight on August 1, 1981, it is suffice to say that the audience’s participation with popular music has changed significantly. Though it can easily be said that participation in terms of music culture has always been explicit, in that the consumer (herein the listener) makes an active and conscious effort so as to engage with the product, prior to MTV’s arrival such engagement was relatively limited. The listener’s interaction with the producer, or musician, even throughout the Beatlemania period of the 1960’s would have been largely limited down to the minimal means of interaction. In order to consume the relevant product, the music, in this case, the consumer would have had to consciously participate in purchasing the physical formatted media product. In order to interact with the producers, the consumer would have had to either purchase a concert ticket or make a dedicated effort, as did many participants in the aforementioned Beatlemania, to wait at airports or hotels. This early instance of fandom has been the subject of numerous scholarly assessments, one such as:

The teenager comes not to hear but to participate in a ritual,” written by New Statesman reporter Paul Johnson in February 1964.

Johnson was, of course, attempting to denounce the fandom phenom that was unfolding in both the United States and America but instead served to provide a concise assessment of a new form of participatory audience culture. In being able to interact with the producer, in this instance The Beatles, as a form of teenage rebellion the audience drove themselves to fervor and further levels of intensity. When The Beatles disbanded in 1970, though it may be said that fandom never matched the dizzying heights of Beatlemania again it did not simply dissipate and return to its dormant stasis. Television, the relatively new digital format of the time when compared to radio, and cinema were becoming an increasingly prevalent means of audience interaction.

David Bowie as an artist, in particular, was quick to capitalize on the seeming increase of importance of the image so as to offer a source of interaction with his audience. Though Top of the Tops as a television programme on the BBC had first aired in 1964, Bowie seized upon his chance to manipulate this new form of digital technology to his own means. Existing fans of  Bowie could step beyond the previous forms of audience-producer interaction adopted by artists such as The Beatles or Cliff Richard by seeing the performer on the show on a near monthly basis. This too allowed for an implicit as opposed to explicit audience participation in that fans of the show, Top of the Pops, were making a conscious effort to consume the product of the show rather than a conscious effort to tune in solely to watch an individual artist. Top of the Pops, alongside channel compatriot The Old Grey Whistle Test, however only aired for thirty or forty minutes at a time. Though this is more of a relatively modern form of audience participation within popular music it is still relatively minimal in comparison.

So in 1981, MTV arrived and it is suffice to say changed the face of both popular music culture and audience participatory culture forever. Whereas aforementioned music television had previously only occupied a small, individual, slot on regular programming timetables Music Television (MTV) served to play music videos 24 hours, seven days a week.  This brought about a significant change in audience participation.

Where as previously mentioned the consumer had to make an explicit, conscious effort to participate with the producer or platform prior to MTV’s arrival, the television channel arguably put paid to that. In flooding, or rather over-saturating the consumer, with content that the consumer did not ask for MTV always ran the risk of turning the audience away. However as a new, novel, concept with minimal competition MTV was a booming success. It also markedly shifted the concept of audience interaction.

“The creation of MTV and the emphasis on videos removed the need to see the artist performing,” Stephen Armstrong wrote for The Face and Arena in 2001.

With this digital transformation in 1981 turning the concept of audience interaction with the producer on its head, coupled with the release of the first Walkman in 1979, music was not only available on a 24/7 basis visually but also audibly with the release of the Walkman. Audience participation was at an unprecedented level of interactivity. Not only was the consumer now able to view their preferred artist near on demand with MTV, they were able to listen to their artist on demand with personal music listening technology. Whilst as aforementioned this led to some cynicism from older generations, arguing that this new digital transformation took away a measure of audience participation, younger generations argued that this transformation was pioneering and deeply influential.

“I was a pioneer in MTV and I was there from the very beginning. So I saw how that developed and how loose it was and how much fun it was in its looseness. And I was influenced a lot by that,” states Daryl Hall, one half of legendary pop duo Hall & Oates.

As the Compact Disc (CD) enjoyed dominance throughout the 1990’s and MTV maintained its dominance in the world of music television, digital transformation did not particularly shift during this time. However MTV did come under increasing criticism, shifting in direction away from solely music-based television and instead providing original programming such as The Tom Green Show, Jackass  and Beavis and Butthead. In its stead audiences sought more options for music video viewing and got them in the form of new music video channels such as The Box and VH1: Music First. These channels strove to please the explicitly participatory audience that had grown weary of MTV by capitalising on the introduction of cable television in more homes, another digital transformation that shifted the landscape of participatory audience culture in popular music of the time.

In the 37 years since MTV promised that the viewer would ‘never look at music the same way again’, and therein seemingly ‘killed the radio star’, the Internet and its accompanying social media platforms have brought about a new digitally-centric audience participation. The introduction of the iPod in October, 2001, set a new precedent for digital consumption of music in particular. Though still relying upon Compact Disc format, the iPod meant that for the first time the participatory audience was not only explicit in it’s participation through choosing what to listen to but with a 1,000 song capacity it stepped beyond the ‘mixtape’ component of previous years and playlists composited by music television producers. The consumer would now be able to listen to a multitude of artists on demand, whenever they so desired, with no need for skipping or waiting.

“It’s never been this fast or this easy before”, Apple CEO Steve Jobs told reporters at the time.

With the iPod, audience and consumer expectations shifted markedly.  Where music to the consumer previously had been an explicit participation, with this particular digital technology this participation became reliant upon its simplicity and ease of access.

This ease of access brought about a chief cause for concern in April, 2000 when peer-to-peer sharing network Napster lost a landmark U.S District Court case against Metallica. Metallica’s aggrievance with Napster lay in what they saw as copyright infringement carried out by users on the Napster platform. This digital technology set a new challenge for artists in that it saw them go against their fans, who desired the aforementioned simplicity and ease of access digitised music had brought about, in order to attain profits for their products.

Though copyright infringement on peer-to-peer networks has not gone away by any means, offering a negatively impactful form of audience participation, social media has remained and arguably grown in impact as an influential force in modern popular music culture.

One chief fashion in which today’s social media and digital technology has shaped explicit audience participation is that of interaction with the artist. This is largely appropriate in that today rather than following their favourite artist on the street, they may now simply follow them on their social media accounts such as Instagram or Twitter. Whilst this is arguably great news for the consumer, being able to observe and participate in their preferred producer’s lives through a ‘like’ or ‘retweet’ it clearly inhibits the daily lives and activities of the producer in terms of privacy. Furthermore the producer is therein under a microscope, their every activity under scrutiny by both those who enjoy their product and those who do not. An example of this came about in the form of Kanye West’s tweets regarding President Donald Trump. When West tweeted his support of Trump, not only did the quote spread throughout Twitter but also throughout the world press.

Another example of digital technology influencing audience interaction with the artist is the usage of personal technology such as mobile phones and cameras at concerts. Artists such as Kendrick Lamar and Jack White have both prohibited mobile phones at their concerts.

“I want people to live in the moment, and it’s funny that the easiest way to rebel is to tell people to turn off their phone. If your phone is that important to you that you can’t live without it for two hours then I don’t know. Maybe it’s time to see a therapist,” Jack White stated in an interview on the matter in 2018.

Artists who have rallied even harder against digital technology within their interactions with the consumer include the band Every Time I Die. In 2014, the band’s guitarist Jordan Buckley was captured on video kicking an audience member’s mobile phone from their hand whilst in 2016 the band’s frontman Keith Buckley was also captured on video slapping an audience member’s mobile from their phone trying to take a ‘selfie’ with him onstage.

“At our shows I see lot of people holding up cell phones. You can look at a screen at home, you can look at your computer or your phone anywhere. You can take your picture but let’s have eye contact, let’s have a human experience right now that you can’t capture on a cell phone,” Keith Buckley said on the matter when interviewed on December 14, 2016.

It is hard to dispute that social media has contributed to digital transformations within popular music culture, in particular in recent times. Whether or not this is a positive or a negative shift in direction is disputable. Some may claim it detracts from the human participatory interaction, others may counter such a claim by reasoning that it allows for further interaction with the artist on platforms such as Twitter and Instagram. Irregardless in a world in which seemingly the whole world is connected via social media in some form or another it seems only logical that popular music culture should be participatory within that.