Popular Music, Digital Technology and Society
University of Leeds (UK)
Nick Prior sets out to investigate the complex relationships between contemporary popular music, digital technology and society. His aims are ambitious, and the breadth of topics covered in the seven chapters (including online music consumption, digital music production, mobile listening and the connections between music and video games) is evidence of the author’s broad and in-depth knowledge of relevant fields and debates, as well as the importance and ubiquity of digital technologies in the worlds of contemporary popular musics. The premise of the book—which the author freely admits he is not the first to observe—is that music and technology are intrinsically connected; in Prior’s words, “all music is technological in the sense that it is mediated by technological material, forces, and processes” (3). However, the starting point in Prior’s approach is his suggestion that, from the early 1980s onwards, changes associated with (largely digital) technologies “have dramatically reshaped . . . [the] landscapes of popular music” (5). Prior has argued in previous works about the importance of the early 1980s in understanding the development of contemporary popular music (see Prior 2010), but this latest book is his most sustained and successful effort in analysing the developments of digital technology (for music) and its complex relationship with the broader issues concerning popular music at large and society in general. Moreover, he must be credited for addressing these difficult topics using clear and accessible language—particularly useful for undergraduate students—and avoiding simplistic views about the role of technology in social, cultural and historical change in general.
Readers interested in debates about technology, including many scholars of dance music culture, will probably be familiar with the theoretical framework used in the book. Prior draws largely from science and technology studies (STS), and follows the tradition of scholars from popular music studies (Jones 1992; Théberge 1997) and sound studies (Taylor 2001; Pinch and Bijsterveld 2004; Sterne 2006) in highlighting the importance of user agency—yes, the classic discussion of turntables as machines for music (re)production and the (re)appropriation of Roland’s TB-303 as evidence of user agency is on page 9. Nevertheless, given the long history of electronic dance music and technology, as well as Prior’s background as an electronic musician, there are surprisingly few direct references to the genre through the book. In fairness, this is not a genre-focused work, and the strengths of its contributions to relevant theories relies on its effective use of theoretical concepts in the analysis of the selected cases and topics (chapters two–six), and how these theoretically-informed analyses drive forward contemporary debates about the interplay of music, technology and society (see the discussion about the Japanese cyborg pop star Hatsune Miku on pages 138–41 for a good example with regards to issues about authenticity, performativity, representation and simulacra). Prior’s able use of theory shines in his discussion of the incorporation of sampling as a standard compositional process across genres of popular music, including pop and rock. Furthermore, he offers the compelling argument that widespread use of sampling is evidence of a broader process of naturalisation of technology (understood as the assemblage of devices, practices, and associated socio-cultural meanings) in society. Thus, while Prior argues this book is not a deeply theoretical work (15), one of its most significant contribution lies in retaking and updating many of the classic debates that have framed our understanding of society and technology using contemporary data and cutting-edge musical works, and showing how widely these digital technologies relate to socio-cultural changes.
The breadth of topics that the book touches on is commendable, and it was a pleasant surprise to read a chapter dedicated to music and video games alongside an in-depth analysis of software for audio manipulation and circulation (an often overlooked yet important element of contemporary digital music production). But as I read the book, I was frequently left wondering about the underlying implications of digital technologies for those most deeply invested in it; for instance musicians, producers, committed fans, and the music and tech industries. In other words, what are the positive and negative aspects associated with digital technologies for each group of stakeholders? Take the debates about democratisation of cultural production and digital technology as an example. Drawing from “third-age” internet studies, Prior rightly acknowledges that digital technologies—such as online platforms—have been normalised and integrated in most of the (post)industrial Western world. However, recent research about the “platformisation” of cultural production (Nieborg and Poell 2018) and the political economy of digital technologies (Wittel 2017) highlight the contradictions between a higher concentration of power by tech industry giants and the potential benefits that digital technologies offer to democratise cultural production. On the music consumer side, given the business model of online platforms (such as music streaming) based on the commodification of user data and privacy concerns, it may well be the case of bringing question about users’ rights, power, transparency and a more critical assessment to the forefront. It is true that STS have contributed to understand the intricacies of complex technological assemblages, but the field is not traditionally concerned with issues of power and agency, and Prior does well to bring the latter into the forefront by touching upon many critical elements throughout the book, even if briefly. The passages where he brings up issues such as gender, race, power and agency to the analysis add valuable contributions to the book and provides some of the sharpest insights in the book. However, given the author’s informed analysis of the complexities about the relationship between popular music, digital technologies and society, alongside his in-depth knowledge of the fields, it would have been very interesting if he were to have offered a more detailed critique with a normative view that takes into account these increasingly pressing issues.
Overall, this is a significant contribution to the study of popular music, and its focus on digital technology offers valuable insights that help unpack the complexities between music, technology and society. It will be of interest to scholars from the fields of popular music, media and communication, video game studies, music production and sociology of music. Musicians and practitioners will also find the book useful to understand the landscape they operate in as cultural producers. Lastly, music educators and researchers interested in methodological questions will find the discussion in the last chapter insightful, as Prior describes his efforts to teach and research music-production processes using a collective practice-led research approach.
Jones, Steve. 1992. Rock Formation: Music, Technology, and Mass Communication. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Nieborg, David and Thomas Poell. 2018. “The Platformization of Cultural Production: Theorizing the Contingent Cultural Commodity”. New Media & Society: 1–18.
Pinch, Trevor and Bijsterveld, Kevin. 2004. “Sound Studies: New Technologies and Music”. Social Studies of Science 34(5): 635–48.
Prior, Nick. 2010. “The Rise of the New Amateurs”. In Handbook of Cultural Sociology, ed. John Hall, Laura Grindstaff and Ming-Chen Lo, 398–407. New York and London: Routledge.
Sterne, Jonathan. 2006. “The mp3 as Cultural Artefact”. New Media & Society 8(5): 825–42.
Taylor, Timothy Dean. 2001. Strange Sounds: Music, Technology & Culture. New York: Routledge.
Théberge, Paul. 1997. Any Sound you can Imagine: Making Music/Consuming Technology. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press.
Wittel, Andreas. 2017. “The Political Economy of Digital Technologies. Outlining an Emerging Field of Research”. In Digitisation. Theories and Concepts for Empirical Cultural Research, ed. Gertraud Koch, 251–75. New York and London: Routledge.
 Exceptions to this include: the meanings associated with discovering music in dance cultures as a form of symbolic capital (53), which could explain contemporary hierarchies of musical taste online; the discussion about the significance of sampling and drum machines as both devices and compositional practices in electronic dance music (68); the use of the vocoder by Detroit techno pioneers as an example of digital manipulation of the human voice (129), and how the genre normalizes heavily processed vocals (135); and, how the designer of the 2002 video game Rez, an early example of music as games, was influenced by the sensorial (and arguably synesthetic) experiences associated with 1990s raves.
 For examples, see the discussions about the limits of technology in the democratisation of music production (88–9), lack of transparency of online music streaming’s recommendation algorithms (45–6), concerns about “free labour” in participatory cultures (49–50), a critique of the ethics of sampling (127), and an analysis of the gendered roles of female singers in the digital manipulation of vocals (137).