The Judgement of Taste in the Age of Digital Reproduction
20 years ago, the recorded music industry was booming, having enjoyed an unprecedented decade and a half following the effective replacement of the vinyl record as the main medium of the technological reproduction and dissemination of recorded music, by the compact disc, an innovation that the industry was able to market as a premium product, with – supposedly – better sound quality, longer playing time and greater durability. Not only was the industry selling more records than ever to what had always been the core market for popular music, the consumer in her teens and twenties, but had also managed to re-engage an older audience by effectively selling them the music of their youth all over again. Add to this the increasingly global reach of the live music circuit, aided by the opening up of new territories in eastern Europe, in the far east and in South America, and all prospects seemed fair.
The crash, when it came, was rapid, and was made possible by a feature of digital reproduction that appears to have escaped the attention of its advocates as a medium for the reproduction of music: its limitless and almost cost-free reproducibility. Whereas the information encoded in a vinyl record, or on analogue tape can only be copied in that form, with attendant production costs, digital information is, simply code, and can be housed on any number of devices and, more importantly, copied any number of times without loss of quality, and at a negligible unit cost. The harbinger of this was Napster and other such companies, operating of the fringes of piracy and who were able to exploit this reproducibility and the rapidly expanding web to bring about a situation whereby, within a very short space of time, much of the entire canon of recorded to music was available for free – or close enough – to anyone with a broadband connection.
“The crash, when it came, was rapid, and was made possible by a feature of digital reproduction that appears to have escaped the attention of its advocates as a medium for the reproduction of music: its limitless and almost cost-free reproducibility.”
The major record companies managed, in the end, to neutralise Napster and its ilk, but the genie was truly out of the lamp, and now, less than two decades later, the entire structure of the industry has been reconfigured, the intricate relationships between copyright and collection societies, the position of the gatekeepers, such as radio and print, that used to play a decisive role in what music people got to hear and most importantly, the role of record companies have all been flattened and to an extent sidelined by, first, the ability of consumers to download songs directly to their computer or phone, and later, by streaming, provided by such as Spotify.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that this revolution in the means of production, consumption and distribution of popular music is as significant as the move from sheet music, performed by the amateur drawing-room pianist, as the primary mode of reproduction and revenue generation, to the gramophone. That shift, which solidified the sense of music as a commodity, much deprecated by Adorno, has been replaced a sense that music is no longer an object to be paid for, but, something where the unit cost is more or less free, and what you pay for is the convenience of delivery. As Will Page, writing as the chief economist with the Performing Rights Society in the UK, in 2011 – and now, significantly, working for Spotify – wrote, music has moved from being a private good to a public one, akin to water, electricity or TVi.
“That shift, which solidified the sense of music as a commodity, much deprecated by Adorno, has been replaced a sense that music is no longer an object to be paid for, but, something where the unit cost is more or less free, and what you pay for is the convenience of delivery.”
It might be argued, from a somewhat ideal viewpoint, that none of this showed make any difference to the way in which we understand, appreciate, and value music as aesthetic subjects: Das Lied von der Erde or Pet Sounds remain what they essentially ‘are’ whether played on vinyl, on CD or streamed. Adorno knew that the authentic artwork was not thus, independent of the means of (re-) production, but in the face of it – its autonomy was asserted and defended in full awareness of all that could, and did, compromise it. I would like to suggest here that the recent shifts in the way in which the market for popular music works have fundamentally altered the place that such music occupies within the social realms it both reflects and to an extent, informs.
There are many aspects to this change: the migration of listening from the home stereo, as an object of attention in one’s leisure time, to the personal listening device, now most commonly the smartphone, and listened to while commuting and, often, at work, and the democratisation of the means of production, with the ability to produce professional sounding recordings, without any instrumental skill, by anyone with a decent laptop and the consequent flattening of the distinction between performers and audience, at least in certain genres . What I would like to argue for here is that the new ecology of music production and consumption has profound implications for what we mean by taste and for what taste means as a determinant of value and as reserve of cultural capital.
For Kant, in the Critique of Judgement, a judgement of taste aspired to being singular, to identifying the features that all men – always men – of discernment could agree to. Taste both exemplified and relied on a sensus communis, a feeling that allowed us to presume the consent of others to that which appeared to us to be beautiful or sublime. Later, taste became ‘personal taste’, a technology of the self, a way in which one defined one’s social position, one’s perspective on the world and, most crucially, something about which one argued. One of the most pertinent features of the streaming habitus is that it has made (almost) everything available at once, which, at a stroke, removes what was at once the most frustrating and the most rewarding aspects of popular music consumption, the creation and maintenance of one’s personal canon.
“Taste both exemplified and relied on a sensus communis, a feeling that allowed us to presume the consent of others to that which appeared to us to be beautiful or sublime. Later, taste became ‘personal taste’, a technology of the self, a way in which one defined one’s social position, one’s perspective on the world and, most crucially, something about which one argued.”
The problem being, of course, that navigating this vast reserve is impossible if one hasn’t already acquired a sense of the landscape in the old-fashioned way. The solution is the playlist: Spotify and its competitors employ algorithms that will identify what you might want to listen to from what they already know about your choices, effectively outsourcing the act of discrimination and aesthetic judgement to a machine. More that this: whereas, in the analogue world, all the record company would know is that X number of people bought a certain record in a certain city, Spotify probably know, or can guess, where you live, your gender, age, income and, even more importantly, know about all the other music you like and how many times you have streamed a particular track. This almost impossibly vast store of data begins to constitute a kind of sensus communis technologicus, a resource that not only knows what people like, at micrological level, but can use this data to, for example, plan tour itineraries, work out marketing campaigns and deliver already receptive audience to a product. Adorno would, of course, argue that the popular music industry in the 1940s worked this way; as I suggest in On Music, Value, and Utopia there was always a small, but decisive gap between the industry and the audience where taste as a kind of dissensus was arrived at through argument that encompassed all aspects of a piece of music, including the production process and its social resonancesii. The question now is whether this new, outsourced sensus communis has finally rendered the moments of the judgement of taste, vital to the construction of the bourgeois individual – for Kant – and the autonomous artwork – for Adorno – redundant.
[i] Page, McKie, “A House Divided: Economic Insight 24”, PRS for Music, 2011, https://www.prsformusic.com/what-we-do/influencing-policy/research
[ii] Erraught, On Music, Value, and Utopia: Nostalgia for an Age yet to Come?, London and New York: Rowman and Littlefield International, 2018