This is an interview with Dr. Michael Bull, a leading university lecturer who considers the sociological and societal meaning of digital music players. It’s a few years old, but there’s probably some interesting elements.
The evolution of digital music shows how personal technology, such as Apple’s iPod, creates its own social community, said Dr. Michael Bull.
The New York Times describes Bull as “the world’s leading, perhaps only expert on the social impact of personal stereo devices.” He took time out to speak with us.
“Given that one aspect of iPods is one of privatization – it is also a social device – playing music at home through the sound-system, or at work through your computer – it also gives us an insight into the limits of privatization and the desire for community.
“iPod users often express interest in what other iPod users might be listening to. Music is seen as something ‘personal’. It’s an operationalization of the social through new technology,” Bull explained.
Music ‘inherently social’
Greenwich Village in New York last year led the pack with a new manifestation of the co-mingling between social and private space, when reports in the New York Post talked about a new trend. This trend manifested when people with iPods began swapping headphones in the street.
Music is inherently social, the doctor agreed: “John Coltrane said that when he played an ‘I’, the audience heard a ‘We’,” he explained.
“‘We’ is built into all harmonic music, whether it’s aimed at religious piety, social status or popular muisc in all its forms,” the Doctor said.
And it’s simplicity and ease-of-use that have made the iPod so popular, he agreed. “The iPods mixture of function and pure technological beauty in an age in which we still get fed-up with impossibly complex technologies makes it iconic,” he said.
Bull has been collecting anecdotal accounts from iPod users for a new book he is writing. He told us: “One of my correspondents calls his iPod his ‘digital sherpa’, and I can’t beat that description.”
Sony ‘lost the plot’
Sony once defined this space with its epoch-making Walkman product. Bull said: “(Sony) accidentally touched on the cultural zeitgeist – the power of privatized musical-pleasure – control!
But the consumer electronic giant’s lost the plot, he said. “It’s like they stumbled on something – the technology was very simple – but they failed to understand the music industry and technology.”
He’s critical of Sony’s attempt at catching Apple’s market: “Witness their new MP3 player – three years too late, and more complex to use than the iPod. The Walkman and its derivatives seem very old by iPod standards. Only the less well-off will buy them now.
“iPods do everything Walkmans did, and a whole lot more, making music listening qualitatively different.”
Some use iPods to help them think, to help them manage their way through stressful urban environments. Bull said: “With busy lives we like to carve out islands of solitude – but accompanied solitude.”
Music has an inherent value beyond its use, the doctor agreed. Music may be a commodity, but its a commodity of dreams: “Music incorporates people’s dreams of life as it should, or could, be lived. It can transcend its own commodification.”
Off itself, music is both background and crucial to the soul. “It gives us a background to the everyday, yet it’s also biographical. Its part of the distinctive moments in our lives, bodily movement and the pleasure of dancing.
“Music has often functioned like this – deconciousnessing – giving oneself over to the body while leaving the mind behind,” he said.
It’s all about the music: “People often say that music is central to their lives and one of the most pleasurable activities they engage in.”
“All personal things are risky when they are made public,” he said.”It’s difficult, like showing someone your book collection, or explaining why your favourite movie is Casablanca.”
The inherent collective shared experience and community-building elements of digital musuc clubs have been understood by Bull, and he welcomes the social spark it represents.
“A joint celebration of music and musical taste in a setting where most people participate seems like a good idea,” he said.
“It speaks of a certain tolerance for others and a mutual recognition of both the individuality of taste and the vulnerability that this brings with it.
“We are more complicated than the cultural industry would like us to be – hopefully beyond commodification.
“I say Herbert Marcuse would probably have liked it – which is fine by me!” Bull concluded.