Book Review of Social Media and Music: The Digital Field of Cultural Production


Book Review of Social Media and Music: The Digital Field of Cultural Production

H. Cecilia Suhr

Digital Formations 77. New York: Peter Lang, 2012. 139 pp. $139.94/hardcover; $34.95/paperback

published 8 November 2013



by Mark P. Bruce

H. Cecilia Suhr sets out in Social Media and Music: The Digital Field of Cultural Production, to “present an overarching view of [social media] sites’ impact on musicians and the music industry while recognizing the musicians’ individualism and power” (1). Working loosely, but usefully, from Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of the cultural “field,” Suhr sets forth a broad characterization of social media sites that eschews previous characterizations of the relationship of social media to music as either purely utopian or exploitative, and instead, maps complex interactions within the field that involve both qualities. Suhr largely succeeds in showing that the “digital field” is one in which the efforts of individual musicians and corporations can align as well as conflict: the labor of musicians and fans can be both exploited for corporate gain and utilized to the benefit of musicians and the music industry; and, while adding new cultural intermediaries, the digital field remains a space in which the more traditional intermediaries (record companies and agents) are still important forces. Interestingly, Suhr takes a decidedly non-digital approach to her exploration of these virtual communities, preferring what amounts more to ethnographic description rather than to comprehensive theorization of the subject, or even data analysis a la the “digital humanities.” Therein lies much of the unique value of the book, as well as some of the problems it encounters in dealing with its protean subject.

The book’s initial chapter lays out the broad purposes mentioned above. The second chapter presents a large-level portrait of the “digital field” and its interactions with traditional music production. Suhr notes several important aspects of the digital field, the most important is the way in which the roles of artists and their traditional cultural intermediaries overlap as musicians and become more active participants in their own promotion and “branding,” acting both as producers and (to borrow Bourdieu’s term) “consecrators” of their art. The digital field adds another new intermediary, as well, in the efforts of networked fans who provide various kinds of immaterial, affective, and free labor through voting, “likes,” and participation in online discussions. Suhr also notes the current controversy concerning labor in the digital field: is it, ultimately, a form of corporate exploitation in which the mainstream industry exploits the unpaid labor of both musicians and fans to generate publicity and marketing data? Or, does the digital field free both musicians and fans from traditional, profit-driven industry gatekeepers? Suhr sees both forces at work and seeks to explore their interactions.

The next four chapters each take on a different virtual neighborhood within the digital field. Chapter Three focuses on MySpace (which, as Suhr acknowledges, is currently of more historical than contemporary importance). Suhr explores, here, the labor both musicians and corporate entities have used on MySpace in order to turn its social networking capabilities into forms of cultural capital. On the one hand, the egalitarian ground of social networking is apparent as musicians’ reputations are enhanced through gaining networks of “friends” and higher rankings on the site. Such a system also creates new cultural intermediaries in the fans who “step into the roles played by corporate executives and artists and repertoire scouts” (47). On the other hand, the proliferation of books and software tools designed to help artists (or corporations) artificially enhance artists’ rankings and friend networks demonstrates ways in which the digital field changes the nature of musician labor (they become their own electronic agents, engaged not only in the labor of making music but also of mastering the technologies necessary to promote their “brands” online), and also the ways in which the supposedly egalitarian structure of a site like MySpace can be “gamed” by those with the monetary and technical resources to do so. Ultimately, Suhr blames this very phenomenon for the demise of MySpace’s centrality: with so many entities glutting the field of MySpace with (often automated) attempts at self-promotion, the very new musical voices users sought were lost.

Chapter Four takes on YouTube, where again the interplay of “grassroots” and corporate activity is apparent. Whereas the popular conception of YouTube is that of a space in which even a musician with scant resources can post a video that can go “viral” via fan efforts, the field is actually a great deal more complex. Paradoxically for Suhr, the very un-curated structure of YouTube that would seem to create such an egalitarian ground also allows it to be gamed by corporations with the resources to flood the system with certain kinds of content, thereby artificially creating “grassroots” popularity. Where YouTube really does become a more hybrid field, for Suhr, is in the more structured opportunities it creates, such as contests for new artists to be “discovered” by traditional industry agents. Interestingly, Suhr claims that YouTube seems to work best when its more egalitarian network structure is intentionally melded with more traditional corporate interests.

Chapter Five examines the culture of live performances on Second Life. Suhr concentrates here on her own interactions with artists and audience members in various Second Life performances in which a musician, within a virtual venue, streams a live concert for other users. Again, Suhr notices the interplay of both corporate and grassroots interests: On the one hand, the structure of Second Life creates easily-arranged opportunities for performance, allowing musicians to expand their audiences. On the other, the virtual venues take real money and effort to manage (owners of the venues pay real money, for example, for the virtual real-estate on which the venues are located), and, in many ways, the unpaid efforts of both musicians and fans alike work to promote the visibility of Second Life to the benefit of its own corporate owners.

Suhr takes a more favorable view of Indaba Music in Chapter Six. Indaba Music is a set of digital tools facilitating collaboration between musicians, allowing, for example, musicians in disparate parts of the world to combine tracks of their individual performances. Suhr notes the ways in which such a site can change the nature of musician labor, redefining the notion of the “band,” for example, as an entity that need not require physical proximity. Suhr spends most of the chapter focusing on several contests run on Indaba that have combined corporate and grassroots interaction, such as the 2009 competition in which musicians were invited to add their own tracks to a solo track performed by cellist Yo Yo Ma, with the results then judged by Ma himself. While Suhr acknowledges the positive possibilities of such interaction in offering a new way for unsigned musicians to be “discovered” and for the creation of new cultural intermediaries (such as the owners of Indaba who, to an extent, curate the site), she also notes that the contests themselves still create publicity for both the site and the record companies involved through what amounts to unpaid musician labor.

The final chapter forms a coda to the individual studies and reiterates some of the broader themes of the book. While Suhr acknowledges that the digital field has certainly brought new factors into play, she concludes that traditional mediators are still influential to the degree that “nothing should be considered drastically revolutionary in the digital field of cultural production” (120). The digital field, for Suhr, harnesses the energy of the sense of potential it offers—potential success and popularity—which spurs new kinds of labor on the part of musicians that ultimately benefit the traditional music industry and—sometimes—the individual musician-laborer, but not to the point that the traditional industry is either overthrown or dominates entirely.

Social Media and Music makes a number of interesting contributions to the study of its subject: For one, the book provides a welcome corrective to characterizations of the digital field that have, perhaps, over-emphasized either its egalitarian possibility or its exploitative power. Suhr’s work usefully puts aside such polemical assumptions in order to map, rather than occlude, the interplay between both forces. For another, Suhr’s concentration on the ways in which the digital field changes the nature of musician (and fan) labor is both fascinating and useful in its exploration of the concrete effects of these virtual media on what working musicians actually do, and the ways in which that labor can be both liberating and oppressive.

Perhaps the book’s most interesting and valuable contributions lie in what may also perplex some readers as liabilities: namely, the book’s largely ethnographic approach to its data and a potential disconnect between that approach and the book’s stated purpose of theorizing—via Bourdieu--the “digital field” as a broad cultural phenomenon. As Suhr readily admits, the majority of her research is experiential and qualitative: her own observations of and interactions on the sites under study, knowledge of the music industry, conversations with musicians on the sites, articles written about the sites by industry critics and experts, etc. While Suhr presents a more or less convincing argument for the decision not to use quantitative tools such as formal surveys (8-9), it may still seem curious, for instance, that a book published as part of a series on “digital formations” would avoid the kinds of data analysis tools developed for use on/within precisely the kinds of media Suhr examines. If tools for the analysis of “big data” are commonly used within the field of “digital humanities” for medieval documents, for example, it would seem that much more relevant to apply such tools to the study of phenomena that began life as ones and zeroes encoded on magnetic and optical media. If nothing else, such analysis may well suggest a useful direction for complementary study.

Additionally, some readers may puzzle over what seems like a shift in emphasis. The initial chapters promise an attempt to fully theorize this cultural phenomenon, but later Suhr emphasizes the more qualitative and ethnographic observation of the individual. In short, cultural theory a la Bourdieu quickly becomes something more like ethnographic “thick description” a la Clifford Geertz, with Bourdieu simply supplying some convenient conceptual terminology. The different qualitative methodologies used in the various chapters may also feel scattered to readers looking for a uniformly systematic approach. On the other hand, these very qualities may also be the source of the book’s most valuable contributions, and certainly produce the most engaging and satisfying reading to be found therein. Suhr’s position as both a theoretically-aware academic and an accomplished digital musician situates her as a uniquely sensitive interpreter of the sites the book examines. As a result, Suhr’s analysis remains always cognizant—in ways that a more detached and quantitative study may not—of the deeply human persons engaged in this virtual field, of their efforts as creative artists to find expression and recognition within that field, and of the triumphs and anxieties those efforts produce. In so doing, Suhr creates not only a cogent analysis of these several sites, but also what may be, in the future, a revealing snapshot of a vital historical moment in the interaction between digital technologies and creative artists.

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