More than meets the ear: on listening as a social practice

Simon Frith

Simon Frith is Tovey Professor of Music at Edinburgh University and a Fellow of the British Academy. He has been a leading figure in the academic study of popular music since the publication of his first book, The Sociology of Rock, in 1978. As a music journalist he wrote for many magazines in Britain and the USA before becoming rock critic of the Sunday Times. He chaired the Mercury Music Prize from 1992 to 2016, and is presently writing a history of live music in Britain. The first volume, covering 1950–1967, was published by Ashgate in 2013.


Listening is something we do for ourselves. Sounds reach us through our ears but the musical experience happens inside our heads; it is something to be studied by psychologists and neuroscientists. In this chapter, though, I approach listening as a sociologist, treating it as a social fact. In doing so I address a number of issues.

First, there are many different ways of listening to music: silently, noisily, individually, collectively, by participation and dancing. Second, the differences between ways of listening are often the effect of different listening ideologies. This is well illustrated in social histories of the classical world’s notion of ‘proper’ or ‘serious’ listening, but in popular music studies too we are familiar with the ideological assumptions shaping the different listening conventions of jazz, folk and rock clubs, stadium rock shows and Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals. In both public and private spaces listening disputes are routine. Third, listening is not just what happens in people’s heads. It is a form of social behaviour: to listen is to perform ‘listening’.


I have spent much of my life saying to people – parents, friends, colleagues, readers, students, partners, children – ‘listen to this!’ (this being a piece of music). And the question that interests me here is: when we ask people to listen to music what are we asking them to do?

In the context of this chapter, I need to draw a distinction between listening as a musicological skill – to be taught, acquired and assessed, a technical form of musical appreciation, as developed by Donald Francis Tovey, in whose honour my Edinburgh chair is named – and listening as a kind of social skill.1 Implicit in saying to someone ‘listen to this!’ is the command ‘listen to this as I listen to it!’

‘Listen’ here means ‘listen properly’, but this does not necessarily refer to musicological listening. To say to someone, in exasperation (something else I’ve done repeatedly throughout my life), ‘you’re not listening properly’, is not to refer to what is happening in their heads but, rather, to their inappropriate listening behaviour. In social situations ‘listening’ is not an activity that you hear but that you see.

In thinking about listening in this general way, there are three obvious analytic problems. First, listening to music is both a very strange and an absolutely taken-for-granted aspect of human behaviour. Second, there are very many things going on when we are listening: biological, physiological, neurological and psychological, as well as musicological, sociological, and so on. Listening is thus a topic that can be addressed by a variety of disciplines, methodologies and hypotheses. Third, what listening involves cannot be disentangled from the question of who is listening (their knowledge, experience, purpose, personality, and so on), in which places and circumstances. Music listening, in short, involves so many different kinds of activity that any generalisation about it is dubious.

That said, I am a sociologist and generalising is what I do! Let me begin, then, by referring to T. W. Adorno. In his Introduction to Music he wrote:

Asked to say offhand what a sociology of music is, one would probably start by defining it as knowledge of the relation between music and the socially organised individuals who listen to it.2

In practice this meant, as Peter Szendy suggests, that Adorno treated the sociology of music as, in effect, a typology of listening attitudes. This typology depended in turn on a history, ‘the history of the progressive emergence of the notion of a [musical] work.’3

Adorno thus distinguished between the expert listener, the good listener, and the fallen listener. The expert listener is characterised by ‘entirely adequate hearing’:

He would be the fully conscious listener who tends to miss nothing and at the same time, at each moment, accounts to himself for what he has heard … Spontaneously following the course of music, even complicated music, he hears the sequence, hears past, present, and future moments together so that they crystallize into a meaningful context. Simultaneous complexities – in other words, a complicated harmony and polyphony – are separately and distinctly grasped by the expert.

This fully adequate mode of conduct might be called ‘structural hearing.’4

Next we have what Szendy calls a degraded version of the expert listener, the good listener:

Under the prevailing social conditions, making experts of all listeners would of course be an inhumanely utopian enterprise … This is what bestows legitimacy on the type of the ‘good listener’ as opposed to the expert. The good listener too hears beyond musical details, makes connections spontaneously, and judges for good reasons, not just by categories of prestige and by an arbitrary taste; but he is not, or not fully, aware of the technical and structural implications. Having unconsciously mastered its immanent logic, he understands music about the way we understand our own language even though virtually or wholly ignorant of its grammar and syntax.5

And, finally, we have the fallen listener (actually Szendy’s term), for whom music is simply entertainment. These listeners pay no attention to ‘the work’ whatsoever, and it is with reference to fallen listeners that Adorno bemoans the decline of the good listener: ‘The tendency today is to understand everything [the expert listener] or nothing.’6

As many critics of Adorno have pointed out, Adorno’s argument here depends on his particular ‘objective’ concept of the music work, rather than on any kind of study of the subjectivity of listeners themselves. He was uninterested in ‘scientific’ studies of what happened to listeners as they listened (increasing pulse rates, and so on) as leaving out the aesthetic, and would have had even less interest in the Listening Experience Database (LED), dismissing sociological methods based on people ‘verbalising their own musical experiences’ since ‘verbal expression itself is already pre-filtered and its value for a knowledge of primary reactions is thus doubly questionable.’7

I have some sympathy with this view, to which I will return, but, nonetheless, Adorno’s overall argument does point to the conclusion that what listeners do does not much matter, a view he shared with the composer he most admired, Arnold Schoenberg, who famously said he had few if any concerns for the listener or potential listener to his music:

I have as few for him as he has for me. I know only that he exists and that, to the extent that he is not ‘indispensable’ for acoustic reasons (since an empty hall does not resound well), he disturbs me.8

In Adorno’s typology I am certainly a fallen listener both because of my interest in popular music, or entertainment, and because I’m musically illiterate, incapable of listening structurally. But as a sociologist I do find Adorno’s approach useful for raising the three issues that I want to discuss further.

  1. First, he suggests that there are different ‘ways of listening’ to music, and that these can be organised into typologies, even if not those determined by Adorno’s concept of a musical work.
  2. Second, he shows that the differences between different ways of listening are the effect of different listening ideologies, different ideas of what music is for.
  3. Third, he describes listening as a form of social behaviour. Listening, that is to say, is something performed according to particular cultural conventions and as an effect of particular social and technological conditions of listening possibility.

For the rest of this chapter I will explore these issues, though not in such a schematic order. But I’ll end this introductory section with a quote from the wonderful autobiography of Prince Rupert Loewenstein. In 1968 Loewenstein, a merchant banker, was approached by Mick Jagger to see if he would be willing to act as the Rolling Stones’ financial advisor. Loewenstein had no interest in rock and pop music at all. This is his account of listening to the Stones. He had come across the Beatles when, in his words:

we stayed with some cousins in Kitzbühel and as a gift Josephine brought along the latest Beatles LP for our hostess, Sunny Auersperg – later to become, after remarrying, Sunny von Bülow – who was delighted to have it. Sunny played the record while we were there and so I had heard some of the Beatles’ music. Their music was sufficiently harmonic to be acceptable to people like me who only liked classical music. I only really took against rock’n’roll when I heard the Stones.

One of the first times I heard the group play live was very shortly after meeting Mick, at one of the theatres in London’s West End which had started putting on rock concerts … I remember being amused by one aspect of the show that night. At a point when Mick was completely energised and excited, he told the audience, ‘What are you all sitting down for? Get up and let us know what you think.’ How odd, I thought. Surely he must be impressed by us sitting here in silence to admire and take in everything that was going on, rather than getting on our feet and not being able to see properly.9

Ways of listening

Adorno’s typology of listening was determined by his theory of the musical work. Mine is determined by the research I’ve been doing for the last decade on the history of live music in Britain since 1950, involving, among other things, interviews with music promoters. One of our questions was what they thought they were selling as ‘a live music experience’ and how this had shifted over time. One of the things that emerged from their answers is the significance of ideologies of music listening. What promoters have to organise is a musical event that enables audiences to listen to music in an appropriate way. What’s appropriate depends, in turn, on the type of event and the type of music, but what interested us were the circumstances in which this becomes a matter of dispute. Such disputes can take various forms and their resolutions have had significant effects on how events are presented, staged, performed and received.

Our research suggested that there are two different (if overlapping) areas around which most listening arguments have taken place over the last 70 years. The first can be understood as silence versus noise; the second as watching music versus dancing to it. It is from these disputes that I derive my own typology of listening: serious listening, participatory listening and secondary listening. I will discuss each of these in turn.

Serious listening

Serious listening is akin to Adorno’s good listening, but, whereas for him the ‘good’ listener is taking the musical work seriously, for me the ‘serious’ listener is taking the work of listening seriously, which, from a promoter’s perspective, means removing distractions to the listening process. Serious listening is listening in silence; distractions from this, of whatever sort, can thus be described as ‘noise’. This is obviously the ideology of listening in the classical music world and has been much written about, with reference to concert hall behaviour, how serious listening was learned, and so forth.10 I don’t need to go into these arguments here, but will draw from them a couple of points.

First, this is a very self-conscious way of listening; it involves listening to oneself listening. (This is sometimes characterised as ‘musical’ as against everyday listening, but I think this is misleading.) Second, serious listening actually describes listening behaviour – or listening etiquette – rather than what actually may be going on in people’s heads. What matters here is that, whatever is involved in such listening, it must seem to happen in the head. This is the meaning of ‘autonomous reflexive listening’, an understanding that the proper music experience is entirely individual even when it is happening in a public place.11 Such listening has to be displayed for us to know that it is happening, although, from looking at other people listening, we don’t really have any direct knowledge of what is actually going on internally. Eric Clarke describes this well in relation to ‘serious’ listening to the early gramophone in the home:

… the predominant physical attitude in this kind of listening is of people’s eyes fixed to the floor or the elevated middle distance, or closed. Not only does this solve the problem of where to look, but it also reproduces the quasi-religious demeanour that is seen in representations of the audience at concerts and salons in the early nineteenth century, and thus persuades others in the room (who may glance surreptitious around for reassurance) of the significance of each listener’s inner experience.12

But while distractions – noise – can be removed from the listening event, distractions in the head, so to say, can and almost certainly do happen. Listening involves a flux of different degrees of concentration and awareness – consider, for example, Max Richter’s eight-hour work Sleep and people’s accounts of listening to it. From this perspective, ‘serious’ listening is not so much opposed to ‘distracted’ listening as another way of dealing with or thinking about it.

For Adorno, the ‘goodness’ of good listening was determined by the quality of the musical work being listened to, and there is a tendency among classical world people to assume that ‘serious’ listening goes with what they call ‘serious’ music. This is clearly not true. Twentieth-century music technology made possible serious listening to all kinds of music, getting rid of distractions through electrical rather than acoustic means. Radio was thus the key medium in training listeners who were not concertgoers how to listen seriously, and records of popular music could be and were listened to seriously, silently and individually – even in public places. The original jazz clubs in the UK, for example, were places where people gathered to listen to records in silence, before earnestly discussing them.13 More recently, headphones can be understood as a new technological way of making the listening experience private, in the head, even in public. Nowadays, indeed, we don’t even know what someone else is listening to, let alone how they are listening to it. I don’t know of any research on this, but it is surprisingly difficult watching someone on a bus, say, with headphones, to tell from their behaviour what kind of music they are listening to (or, indeed, whether there is any sound coming out of their headphones at all).

Two final points on this.

First, Keith Negus has written an entertaining article on the suspicions of the classical music world (Benjamin Britten, for example) of classical music on television, on the grounds that television was inherently distracting, both as a visual spectacle and as an uncontrollable domestic environment. Britten suggested to the BBC that it would be impossible for listeners to listen seriously to music on television, a point made equally vehemently by a later generation of rock performers and critics.14

Second, colleagues on the Live Music Project, carrying out research on concert audiences at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh, found surprisingly little difference between audiences for different kinds of music in their accounts of what makes for a good event or a special musical experience (in terms of being emotionally moved, ‘taken out of oneself’, and so on), despite very different accounts of what counted as being ‘distracted’ from the music (in terms of noise, movement, audience set up, performance space, use of lighting, and so on).15 ‘Serious’ music listening and its counterpart, distracted listening, is not just a feature of classical music ideology, but also an aspect of listening ideology in all music worlds.

Participatory listening

Participatory listening is listening by participating in music-making. This covers a range of activities, from the most direct to the most indirect kinds of participation. Most directly, participatory listening is the listening done by musicians when they are making music – listening to themselves, listening to the other performers, in orchestras, choirs, folk groups, rock bands, and so forth. Note that such listening is an aspect of all music performance, but is indicated differently in different genres and circumstances.

But audiences can also have a sonic participation in musical events, which means that they too listen as musicians, as in the case of call and response, rhythmic clapping and movement, joining in the chorus, or even taking over a verse completely (as at some rock gigs). And there’s also what we might call emotional participation through noise – whooping, screaming, cheering, oohing, shouting, and so on. Again, this is both conventionalised and learned behaviour: such ‘noise’ is not noise in the sense of an interference with the music. This depends what kind of noise is made when: the musical appropriateness or not of the noise made by listeners participating in a musical event depends on the musical genre involved.

Let me cite two examples from other people’s research, published in a special issue of Social Semiotics on live music. Karen Burland and Stephanie Pitts’ concern in their paper on ‘the rules and expectations of jazz gigs’ is what it means to listen to music ‘as a jazz fan’, that is with a particular kind of identity which is brought by an audience to a jazz club but also learned in – and shaped by – their jazz club experience.16 Burland and Pitts suggest that appropriate listening at a jazz club involves: a combination of commitment (fans need to indicate their commitment to jazz as a musical form by their continuous response to what they hear); the right level of comfort (provided by the promoter) with good sound and sightlines, sociable seating and easy access to and from the bar; and connection, a sense of a tangible relationship with both performers and other audience members. What seems to matter most to the jazz audience is that a gig has the right ‘atmosphere’, something that is determined by how the venue is organised and managed, by the behaviour of other audience members, and by the ‘quality’ of performance in terms of its direct engagement with the audience as well as its skill.17

Burland and Pitts’ research also suggests that jazz audiences, at least, must expect a degree of improvisation in how they listen, must decide when to be silent, when to be noisy, when to be still, when to be exuberant – ‘serious’ listening occurs in a context of a deliberate display of emotion. There is thus more audience dissatisfaction at jazz than classical gigs, more irritation with people in the next seats, more grumbling about organisers’ carelessness, more criticism of musicians for misjudging the occasion (whether being too introverted or too extroverted). Participation at a jazz gig is, like improvised music itself, a more unreliable pursuit of musical expectations than attendance at a classical show.

By contrast, Lucy Bennett’s paper on audiences and social media examines the construction of listening behaviour from a quite different angle. Bennett is concerned with a new kind of ‘live’ audience that has emerged in the last decade for pop and rock events, an audience which is present at the events not bodily but via mobile phone access to the internet and on social networking sites.18 For such listeners physical absence from the show itself is compensated by a more intense engagement with what is going on, expressed through a running commentary on the music as it is played. This is an exceptionally noisy audience, but it can’t be heard at all in the auditorium itself. Online, though, such audience exchanges are conventionalised: this kind of fandom involves a strong sense of what is appropriate to say and what kind of fan knowledge gives one the right to say it. The meaning of a musical event has always been shaped by anticipation and recollection; social media both socialise and formalise this temporal arc, condensing the process and making even the most individual emotional flow a matter for public policing. Because this virtual audience can’t be seen listening, their musical response has to be continuously articulated in words. For an absent audience, silence is not an option.

The final kind of participatory listening I want to consider is dancing. Dancing is probably the most important way of listening to popular music; it is certainly the way of listening that is least understood or studied. Anthropologists have always understood that music and dance in many societies cannot be understood as separate activities – see John Blacking’s work, for example19 – but popular music studies have tended to ignore dance altogether or to associate it with particular genres or to treat it as just an interesting but not very significant adjunct to their business of making sense of the music itself. In fact, though, the history of popular music in Britain cannot be disentangled from the history of dance – who dances, where, when and how – this is certainly true of pop music since the 1950s and, indeed, for the whole of the twentieth century.20 I don’t have space to go into this in detail here, but will focus on the consequent listening issue that I have already mentioned, the dispute between people dancing to music and people watching it.

The most familiar of such disputes occurred in the 1950s and 1960s when rock’n’roll acts were put on in all-seater cinemas or town halls; these were the routine battles between ushers and youthful members of the audience, the former trying to stop the latter from standing up and/or dancing in the aisles (although I suspect there were other sections of the audience who would also have liked people to sit down).

But there were other kinds of dispute too. 1950s jazz promoters began to distinguish between two kinds of audience for jazz: those who wanted to watch the band and those who wanted to dance to the music. Having both audiences in the same place – dance halls, for example – caused problems. The watching audience cluttered up the space for dancers and promoters had to decide what sort of venue would best suit a particular act, while some performers (Humphrey Lyttelton, for example) might put on shows for the different audiences in different venues on the same or successive nights.

Note that, while the tensions here (between ‘trad’ and ‘modern’ jazz, for example) might have involved the emergence of serious listening to serious music (the issue therefore still being silence versus noise), initially this was not the primary issue which, rather, concerned the spectacle of performance, sightlines and audience engagement with the musicians on stage rather than with their other audience members on the dance floor. ‘Noise’ was still shorthand for inappropriate listening, but what was being described involved, equally, inappropriate movement.

This was an issue for the new kind of pop idol/record star too. As Melody Maker reported, acts were not always happy about being moved from theatres to dance halls. Bobby Darin, for example, complained that ‘British audiences were the noisiest I have played to anywhere in the world’, making it difficult for him to perform; Heinz gave up playing ballroom dates altogether because he felt their audiences ‘just want a sound’ rather than the ‘visual’ performance he was trying to put across; The Hollies complained that ballroom audiences were too noisy and thus incompatible with the kind of musical experience the band wanted to create. Group members Graham Nash and Eric Haydock preferred the cabaret scene:

I know that the fans like to see us in ballrooms where they feel they can get closer to us, but I would like the future of the Hollies to be in the field of cabaret. We recently played a week in cabaret at Mr. Smith’s Club in Manchester, and we feel we did very well. It gave us a chance to play things like ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’, ‘Stewball’, ‘Taste of Honey’ – numbers we could never do in ballrooms.

‘When we work cabaret it’s different altogether,’ said Eric. ‘Proper dressing rooms, and lighting – and attentive audiences who have come along to listen, and to applaud what they like.’21 The implication here being that in ballrooms fans are not there to listen or, rather, not there to listen in the right way.

For dancers the long-term solution was technological, discos and dance clubs, in which the only performer, the DJ, is usually not there to be seen. Indeed, as Peter Szendy suggests, the DJ’s art may imply ‘less a knowledge of how to play than a knowledge of how to listen’ (just as orchestral conductors are, in effect displaying their listening expertise).22 One could certainly describe the club dance floor as a public performance of a particular kind of music listening.

In the broad shift of dance venues in the 1950s and 1960s, from dance hall to dance club, there were disputes that involved not just generational conflicts, as the needs of young dancers began to inform commercial decisions, nor simply new kinds of etiquette for new kinds of dance – jiving, for instance. The big change was, rather, the rise of dancing as individual expression and the decline of the authority of the dance band leader and dance teacher, the end of dancing as a matter of following formal, collective rules of how to move. The established dance halls felt this as a threat of disorder though, in practice, as autobiographical accounts of Northern Soul make clear, such individualised dancing took place in spaces with new social conventions of listening and dancing that had to be learned.23

Secondary listening

I’ve been discussing listening as watching and I need to clarify this concept, given that all live music involves performance, involves something to see as well as something to hear. To put it too simply, one could say that, for serious listeners, sound is more important than sight (it doesn’t seem odd for a member of the audience at a classical concert to listen to the whole thing with their eyes shut). For participatory listeners, sight and sound are equally important, although musicians may not be the sight or performance that matters as against, say, other members of the audience or, indeed, the use of lights in a club.

For secondary listeners, by contrast, what’s heard is subordinate to what is seen. This is most obvious in the way we listen to music while watching a film in the cinema or programme on TV, but there is a long tradition in popular culture of music listening being related to spectacle, whether as an aspect of popular entertainment such as circuses and fairgrounds or in popular theatrical forms such as melodramas and vaudeville (and, of course, both opera and musicals remain problematic for ideologues of serious listening, whether from classical or popular music studies). These are the kinds of musical performance in which direct communication from star to audience is most apparent. For serious listeners of all sorts, the trappings that make a musical performance spectacular – the ‘show’, the ‘got-up-glitter’, the ‘vulgarity’ to use Hubert Parry’s words – are what makes certain kinds of music trivial or corrupted, what leads them to be dismissed as ‘entertainment’.24

Parry was contrasting music hall to ‘true folk-songs’ (though his argument is not dissimilar to the punk-inflected critique of the stage excesses of post-prog rock bands in the 1970s), but the point here is that spectacle doesn’t take anything away from ‘real’ musical experience; rather, it offers a different sort of musical experience, in which the pleasure lies in the sensual overload (as, for example, in the contemporary stadium show, with its complex lighting board, sound design and use of video). It is impossible to describe what it means to ‘listen’ to a performance by Pink Floyd or Beyoncé, by Muse or Madonna, without simultaneously describing what is seen.


I want to end on a different note, by returning to the issue of serious or musical listening and the suggestion that the musical experience is something that happens inside the head. For all the analytic problems of this argument, it remains the common sense of much academic and non-academic discussion of what we are doing when we are listening to music.

Now, in one sense, a sociologist is not well equipped to explain what happens in people’s heads, although there is such a thing as phenomenological sociology, but I can say something about the social and ideological conditions that enable music listening to be understood like this, in terms of self-analysis, and the cultural conditions in which the musical experience becomes so closely related to our sense of identity. To put it simply, it was the development of societies in which the sense of the individual self was important that has created our ability – and the necessity – to listen to music this way, as a means of self-analysis.

Still, in reading various accounts of music ‘in the head’ I have been struck by the vagueness of the descriptions. The philosopher Peter Szendy writes of the importance of a certain inattention, a wavering of concentration, to the way in which we make sense of music. The music psychologist Eric Clarke describes the listener’s ‘contemplative perceptual attitude’ in terms of the ‘inner reality of virtual structures, journeys, narratives and action.’ The popular music scholar Franco Fabbri describes music listening as akin to the Italian concept of dormiviglia, a mental vigil in between consciousness and sleep. In each of these accounts there is, then, a suggestion that listening to music is something like dreaming, something apparent in LED too.25

One aspect of this is something that Adam Smith described, the analogy we draw between the movements of sounds as we listen to music and the movement of the mind as we experience or express different feelings.26 Hence the way that the musical experience is often made sense of in terms of emotions, in language of feeling into which the musical experience is translated, as it were.

The pleasure of music for Smith was that it gave us a way of reflecting on our own emotions and the brain work that they required, without the usual distractions of cause and consequence, and Smith was, after all, a key figure in putting individual self-consciousness and desires at the heart of moral philosophy and political economy. Following his lead, one could certainly argue plausibly (if against the usual critical approach) that all those people sitting in silent intensity through, say, a Mahler symphony are actually thinking about themselves rather than about Mahler.

But this doesn’t feel quite right. If serious listening to music is like dreaming, then it is with a clear sense that something – the music – is in control of that dream, even if we are peopling it with our own vague feelings and imagery. I take from Szendy’s work the implicit suggestion that, while listening is not reading, a comparison between the two can shed light on both. We can point, for example, to the historically parallel emergence of ‘serious ‘or ‘literary’ reading as also being something silent, concentrated, in the head. We find too in reader-response theory the suggestion that reading, like listening, involves the use of the reader’s own imagination, what is being imagined triggered by the words out there but filled out by our own imaginative work in the act of reading.

Novels, poems and pieces of music thus all involve a myriad of individual forms of ‘completion’, which explains how we can feel that a performed version articulating someone else’s imagination of the work – a TV adaptation, a particular arrangement or performance, has got it wrong (which is why the listening accounts in LED tell us things about the listener rather than about the music to which they were listening).27 But there is an indication here too of the differences between listening and reading. What we hear is music as performed by someone else; as readers we perform the work for ourselves (and this is, of course, also the difference between novels and plays).

There is much more to be said about this, and about the possibilities and the difficulties of applying reader-response theory to musical experience. But my final point concerns another difference between music and literature or, rather, between music-without-words, instrumental music of all sorts, and literature and other word-bound art forms. Instrumental music is not obviously or even essentially about anything; listening does not necessarily involve a relentless pursuit of meaning.

Adorno’s ‘expert’ listener apparently rebuffed this suggestion by saying that the meaning of the music, what needs to be understood, is its structure. The ‘work’ has to be heard in order to understand what we are hearing. Such analytic listening is possibly a way of listening necessary for composers, conductors and certain kinds of musicologists, but I don’t think it describes what serious listening means as an aesthetic experience, as something pleasurable.

Serious listening, unlike other forms of musical listening, for me involves putting myself in a position to be able to listen to music without thought, not trying to control what’s happening in my head but, rather, letting the music do that. Perhaps, to return to the typology of listening, ‘serious’ listening should be retitled as ‘thoughtless’ listening, listening without the distraction of thought.

Select bibliography

Clarke, Eric. ‘The impact of recording on listening’, Twentieth-Century Music, 4(1), 2007.

Szendy, Peter. Listen. A History of Our Ears. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008.

Social Semiotics (Special Issue on Live Music), 22(5), 2012.

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Accounting for genre: how genre awareness and affinity affects music streaming use

Mathew Flynn

Mathew Flynn is a lecturer in music at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (LIPA), where he has taught business skills, the music industries and professional development since 1999. He previously had a career in the music industries, owning and managing rehearsal rooms and an independent record label. His publications include a co-authored chapter with Dr Holly Tessler entitled ‘From DIY to D2F’ in the 2015 Bloomsbury published book Music Entrepreneurship and a related paper to the below research entitled ‘Accounting for listening’ in online journal Kinephanos.


The focus of this chapter is to address current debates around the impact of music streaming on music use and listening. In particular, this research explores the application of genre as a way of codifying, categorising and choosing music on music formats and digital platforms in 2015. With reference to previous research on genre, I will predominantly draw upon the work of Frith (1996), Negus (1999), Borthwick and Moy (2004), Holt (2007) and Avdeeff (2013) to apply the broad idea of genre as a fundamental organising principle in the production and consumption of music. The chapter will first provide a short history of genre’s changing relationship to digital music use (Kibby 2011, Kassabian 2013 and Nowak 2016) and place genre in the wider context of industry and technology (Sterne 2012 and Anderson 2014). This historical analysis provides a rationale for the primary research, which assesses the music use of 45 music users to ascertain, since the emergence of music streaming, the relevance of genre to the practice of choosing and listening to music. The chapter concludes by proposing that the number of genres a music user expresses an affinity for could broadly align with different attitudes toward, and ways of engaging with, music streaming.


1985–1999 – the CD

As Anderson has stated, ‘From the late-1900s to the late 1990s the U.S. music industry had been built around the production, distribution, and sale of mass produced and mass distributed objects.’28 As the last mass-produced object and first commercially successful digital audio format, the CD rose to commercial prominence in 1985. In 1999, when the CD dominated consumer use and drove what was to be the peak of annual global record sales,29Keith Negus published Music Genres and Corporate Cultures. In this exploration of the workings of the record industry, Negus argued that record company strategy was structured around the portfolio management of music catalogues. He then sociologically analysed the music genres of rap, country and salsa to establish that genre cultures played a significant role in how new recordings were selected, created, acquired, financed, managed, marketed, promoted, distributed and sold to consumers by major record labels. Negus defined genre as: ‘The way in which musical categories and systems of classification shape the music that we might play and listen to, mediating both the experience of music and its formal organisation by an entertainment industry.’30 In many aspects of the present day record industry, Negus’s theory remains evident. As Rossman concluded, in his 2012 analysis of how songs become popular on American commercial radio, ‘Genre conventions and record label promotions’31 continue to be the primary forces that drive hit records.

This conservation of the twentieth-century corporate hit culture operated between record companies and radio stations, and other mainstream mass media, continues to deliver a ‘Narrowness of playlists and the exclusion or otherwise of particular idioms.’32 The general corporate conservatism33 of the object era record industry persists in many aspects of the record industry today. However, as Warner Record executive Stan Cornyn reflected on the corporate culture Negus described:

The CD and MTV made our world juicer than ever. Underlying weakness in the business had been well covered by a ‘double the price’ rise in the CD and the euphoric product demos by MTV … in a few years we’d realise our business still stood on underlying weakness … for now however the eighties was the decade to rake it in.34

The weakness the CD initially shrouded was that digitisation enabled almost perfect replication of master recordings. By the late 1990s, as consumers acquired more user-friendly and ever-cheaper digital copying technologies, the major label strategies that relied on the maintenance of product scarcity, media conservatism and used genre distinction to ‘Weed out whatever does not fit into this framework in advance’35 began to weaken. Furthermore, as Taylor has observed, this weakness in the unit-based business model was compounded by the wider socio-economic issues of globalisation and the emergence of a neoliberal capitalist ideology. Both of these market forces served to empower consumers and intensify competition amongst producers.36 For the music economy, the impact of these changing market conditions was most evident in the rise of the MP3.

1999–2014 – the MP3

In the very year that Negus defined how the record industry strategically operated a unit-based business model that delivered huge sales and profits, Napster, the illegal file-sharing site, launched. Napster ushered in the popularisation of the MP3. The limitations of availability, affordability and accessibility, which defined the unit sale of physical music formats and their related corporate structures, were replaced by virtually instantaneous, unlimited, and often free, digital song choice. As Sterne observed:

MP3s act as if they had been received in exchange for money – and yet in most cases, they were not in any direct sense acquired for a price. By definition, a thing is only a commodity when its exchangeability for some other thing is its socially relevant feature.37

In the post object era,38 the MP3 changed how the experience of music was mediated, which challenged the formal organisation of the music industry Negus had defined.

The major labels’ strategic response was to attempt to impose ‘An artificial scarcity of intellectual property on the internet’.39 As Hesmondhalgh recognises, up until this point the ownership of the retail and distribution channels had enabled the major record labels to ensure a scarcity of availability of recordings was achieved.40 However, even as iTunes emerged in the mid-2000s as a legal and effective retailer of audio files, Apple’s ‘A thousand songs in your pocket’ promotional strapline encapsulated how the shift in the format, from CD to MP3, had irrevocably affected consumer behaviour. As Tschmuck observed, ‘The change from pure bundles (albums) to mixed bundles, where the user has the choice to buy the whole bundle (album) or just parts of it (single songs) causes a sales decline.’41 Moreover, this new disaggregated immaterial experience, which enabled music users to carry their entire record collection with them, had moved the cultural emphasis on recordings from the physical unit to the MP3 player.42 As O’Hara and Brown observed of this phenomena, ‘Not only does this change listening behaviour and circumstances, it also affords the social value of the portable device as a projection of a person’s musical identity.’43

Despite these considerable industrial and social upheavals44 Fabian Holt’s Genre in Popular Music, published in 2007 just as legal downloading was becoming economically significant, asserted:

The concept of music is bound up with categorical difference … and genre is a fundamental structuring force in musical life. It has implications for how, where, and with whom people make and experience music.45

From an industry perspective, Hesmondhalgh argues, copyright, the star system and genre remained key ways of artificially maintaining scarcity. ‘Many cultural products promoted and publicised primarily via genre also carry author names, but until the author becomes a star, genre is paramount.’46

Seemingly, the shift from a tangible to intangible music format had not diminished genre as a system of classification for producing and consuming music. As Leyshon reports, ‘By 2009 the iTunes catalogue had indexed more than ten million songs’47 and one of the iTunes key characteristic identifiers was, and remains, genre. As Kibby reported when analysing how young people used their iPod’s in 2011, ‘The ease of acquisition and intangibility of the format (MP3) did not appear to lessen the affective attachment to the collection.’48 Either as actual objects or digital files, the fact music was sold and stored as individually identified units meant genre distinction remained an effective way in which to categorise catalogues, both as industry inventory and individual collections.

2015 and the emergence of streaming

By 2015, 30 years after the CD digitised music consumption, smartphones were challenging MP3 players as the primary mobile device for digital music playback. Since 1999 the exclusivity of music’s relationship to a device and format has diminished. On constantly web-connected ‘always on and always on you’49 mobile devices, storing and listening to music becomes just one choice consumers have, among many other applications, to enhance and manage their day-to-day social experience. Streaming music services complement smartphone use by enabling access to recordings without the need to fill the limited data storage capacity of the multifunctional device. This shift from MP3 format to streaming platform means music users no longer need to acquire recordings. While access is a more passive act than acquisition, the hyper-choice the streaming platform presents poses new questions for choosing what to listen to. As Wikstrom observed, ‘The music consumer’s problem is not to access the content, it is how to navigate, manage and manipulate the music in the cloud or on their digital devices.’50 Solving these music selection problems has become a key aspect in the battle for subscribers between competing streaming services,51 as they seek to deliver curated listening experiences that keep customers connected.

Despite competition for subscribers, the key challenge for all streaming services remains establishing the long-term economic viability52 of selling music access, as opposed to units, as a business.53 This means convincing enough consumers to pay to subscribe by converting freemium54 users to become premium subscribers.55 Competing streaming services have adopted different corporate strategies toward securing sustainable and successful businesses.56 However, the diversity and divisiveness of approaches remains a contested area of debate57 and, at the time of writing, is the cause of an ongoing tension between the record industry and the competing technology companies that have assumed the role of music retailer.58

For the 2015 music user, increasingly, the functionality of the mobile device enables them to deliver information to the streaming service, as to the location and context of their listening. The algorithms of the service then serve up a playlist of music that fits the user’s taste and situation, predicated upon preferences previously expressed by the user’s prior listening on the platform. As Anderson describes:

This ecosystem devoted to capturing user interactions and feeding them back into systems dedicated to optimising user experiences are the key to social networks, search engines and the likes of iTunes, Spotify, and Pandora as they make their services much more flexible and attentive to specific user needs and desires.59

The streaming access model can flip the formatting of music preferences from the user to the platform – a function that has considerable implications for a user’s motivation to identify an artist or act as the performer of a song, a process that was implicit in format acquisition. Likewise, for streaming services, music is just as readily categorised by the contexts in which it is played, as much as by the artists who perform it or genres by which it is identified. Arguably, streaming services are diminishing the primacy of the actively chosen listening experience by promoting experience listening, where identifying the artist and even the song is secondary to the activity and situation of the listener. Of Spotify’s top 100 used playlists, in 2014, 41 were named by context, whereas only seventeen were named by genre.60 Jose van Dijck proposed that ‘The indexical function of the musical sign is bound up with its auditory materiality.’61 If so, then streaming platforms are moving the index beyond genre by enabling systems of classification based directly around individual user situations and experience. This data mining and interrogation also aggregates out across platforms. As Alex White, of online music analytics company Next Big Sound, explained:

We now have six-plus years of data and trillions of data points and can finally build a statistical model of the music industry, as well as access a kind of ‘social crystal ball’ about which artists are likely be popular in the future.62

The granular level at which digital platforms can assess and predict user taste calls into question if genre remains ‘A driving, meaningful force’63 corporately and culturally or if, as Kassabian suspects, ‘Genre has receded significantly in importance?’64 Collins and Young argue that digitisation has dissolved the mass market into a multitude of smaller niche markets that are accessed via genre cultures.65 They use the online dance music store Beatport, which listed 23 sub-categories of music genre EDM, as an example of how the internet was ‘Accelerating the splintering of popular music into a range of distinctive genres.’66 This fragmentation of genre into increasing numbers of sub-genres begs the question whether this ongoing nuancing of genre distinction renders genre increasingly meaningless as a form of categorisation. Avdeeff’s focused research, on digital music engagement and taste, explored how music users navigate the genre complexities of the digital music landscape. Her findings propose:

Just as the subjective nature of genre definitions results in eclecticism promoted by immense musical choice, various technologies promote differing ways of listening and interacting socially.67

Avdeeff’s iPod research suggests that many music users have less awareness of their taste and a more varied taste than they are able to self-report. Therefore, in line with van Dijck’s and Avdeeff’s proposition that musical classification and categorisation is closely bound up with, and potentially masked by, the mediums and formats of use, the following sections of this chapter will present some semi-structured empirical research on the impact of music streaming to how listeners apply genre classifications to their music use.

Asking musicians about music use

Definitions of genre and technology within this research

As Holt asserts:

Genre draws attention to the collective and the general, and a great deal of genre research forgets that a culture cannot be adequately understood without paying attention to the individual and the particular.68

More recently, Nowak theorised individual music taste as an, ‘Assemblage of preferences, social connotations, material engagements with technologies, and the roles assigned to music.’69 Therefore, this small initial survey, on the broad self-reported music use of individuals, assessed how individual taste aggregates collectively in an attempt to better understand the relationship between genre, as a categoriser of taste, and the use of technologies. The research primarily considers the two aspects of genre Negus identifies in his 1999 definition. Firstly, genre’s formal organisation by the record industry will be assessed through the participants’ combined genre awareness. By comparing the total number of genres the participants collectively identified to the numbers in previous studies, the genre awareness section will evaluate the effects of genre fragmentation on genre’s continued usefulness for categorisation. Secondly, the survey analyses how participants mediate their own musical experience. Referred to as ‘genre affinity’, this element explores the relationships between the formats and platforms participants use and the number of genres they personally identify with. For the purposes of this research, I will use a variety of terms to describe mediums and technologies. References to devices will mean iPods, record players, smartphones, and so on. Formats will mean CD, vinyl, MP3, and so on. Platforms will refer directly to digital music services, whereas services will broadly refer to streaming platforms and broadcast media combined. The actual genres each participant named, their genre preference, will be discussed to a lesser extent. Finally, Tschmcuk’s (2012) distinction between pure bundles for album listening and mixed bundles for playlist listening will also be employed.

The research design

Building upon the approach and findings of previous research by Juslin and Isaksson,70 I considered musicians a feasible group to survey. As part of a seminar task, I had 60 second-year BA Honours music students observe and record their recorded music use in the third week of October 2015 and prepare a short presentation that recounted their experience. Each student presented their findings to me and a seminar group of eight fellow students. During each presentation I recorded within individual fields on an Excel spreadsheet: which devices, formats and platforms the participant used and how and why they used them; which music genres they listened to; and the context of their listening. Each set of presentations was followed by a ten-minute audio-recorded group discussion, which I opened with the same question, ‘What have you learned from the process of observing your own listening?’ I then loosely facilitated voluntary contributions from participants as to similarities and differences in music use, and their observations and opinions of the various technologies and methodologies they employed.

After completing the task, 45 students voluntarily agreed to be participants in the research, allowing me to draw upon the data they had presented and use the comments I had recorded. Among the participants there was an even gender balance, ages ranged between nineteen and 27 and, although all participants resided in the UK, the group represented a range of nationalities. The majority were from the UK, but a significant number of Norwegians and lesser numbers of Americans, South Koreans, Japanese and Singaporeans were represented. Having listened to the discussions and matched individuals’ comments with their presentation data, I removed students who did not want to be included in the research before anonymising all the participants in the Excel spreadsheet.

Dealing with design flaws

Obviously, all the issues of the accuracy of the data in self-reporting and my own subjective reading of the data and opinions expressed pose potential problems for the impartiality and validity of the research. I recognise there are numerous empirical constraints to my methodological approach. However, this was exploratory research designed to establish if genre awareness and affinity affects the choice of devices, platforms and formats of music listening in a nascent streaming driven record industry. The findings provide some direction as to where future research could focus on how genre preferences imply preferred mediums of music use. The results and discussions as to how the findings relate to the existing literature and what can be learned from the analysis are considered in the following sections.

The genre awareness of streaming users

Demonstrating that streaming is a default medium for most of these music users, all but two of the 45 participants used at least one music streaming platform, either Spotify, YouTube or Soundcloud, in the week surveyed. In fact, streaming was so ubiquitous that 39% of the participants used more than one streaming platform. The table below shows how many participants used each platform, service or format at least once in the week.

Table 1: Participants’ use of platforms, services or formats71

Playback source Total % of at least one use
Spotify Premium – monthly paid for unlimited service 33%
Spotify Freemium – free version with limited functionality and adverts 35%
YouTube – free video streaming service 44%
iTunes – repository for ripped and purchased audio files 37%
Soundcloud/Bandcamp – free streaming platforms 25%
Vinyl – LP format 13%
Radio – broadcast and online 8%
CD – album format 4%
Shazam – phone app music recognition software72 2%

In their presentations the participants reported listening to a total of 40 distinct genres, almost one genre for every participant. The table below lists each genre reported. Then the No. column shows the number of participants who recounted listening to music in that genre in the week surveyed.

Table 2: Genres listened to by participants

Genre No. Genre No.
1 Pop 10 21 80s session players 1
2 Rock 8 22 Alt Rock 1
3 Indie 6 23 Chart 1
4 Jazz 5 24 Cinematic 1
5 Singer/songwriter 5 25 Composers 1
6 Blues 4 26 Dream rock 1
7 Hip hop 4 27 Experimental 1
8 Classical 3 28 Female artists 1
9 Folk 3 29 Film soundtrack 1
10 Musical theatre 3 30 Grime 1
11 R&B 3 31 Grunge 1
12 Soul 3 32 Indie pop 1
13 Dance 2 33 Indie rock 1
14 Electro 2 34 J-Pop 1
15 Electro pop 2 35 Jazz fusion 1
16 Metal 2 36 Krautrock 1
17 Rap 2 37 Motown 1
18 Psych 1 38 New music 1
19 Punk 1 39 Post hardcore 1
20 Trip hop 1 40 Prog rock 1

Given that Holt’s genre research considers nine mainstream genres, Borthwick and Moy’s book Popular Music Genres counts eleven73 and Avdeeff’s research includes 20, 40 is a result that chimes with Collins and Young’s assertion that popular music categorisation is splintering into ever-increasing niches. The Echo-Nest blog listed and mapped 500 genres in 2013 and referenced 1,461 genres on Spotify in total.74 As Borthwick and Moy assert:

Genres have a degree of elasticity, but there invariably comes a point when they split under the pressure of some force or another – be it musical, technological, commercial or social.75

The downward pressure of technology on genre classification could be part of the explanation for the number of genres reported, but a closer reading of the data also suggests musical and social possibilities. Of the 40 genres reported, only seventeen are cited more than once, with only five genres – pop, rock, jazz, indie and singer/songwriter – being listened to by five or more participants. One perspective on the 23 genres singularly identified is that digitisation has brought about the personalisation of taste classification. Although Lena would consider these non-genred categories76, the self-naming of categories is evident in some of the genre titles expressed. Some are too specifically named, for example, 80s session player, Motown and female artist, whereas others are too generic – new music, composers and chart. However, seventeen of the 23 once only identified genres, such as grunge, grime, indie rock, punk and trip hop, would be widely recognised by most music consumers. Furthermore, some of the more specifically named non-genre categories could be a symptom of musicians’ greater attention to detail in stylistic and performative musical distinctions.77 Conversely, this same enhanced awareness could explain why this very small sample group of 45 musicians, compared to the 689 general participants in Avdeeff’s research, identified 40 genres as opposed to just the twelve listed in the self-reported section of Avdeeff’s survey. As Avdeeff summarised about her participants, many ‘Were confused about genre classifications’.78 This certainly is not the case with these musician participants. As one participant in this survey observed of the results in their presentation group, ‘Musicians are more willing to listen to other genres.’ These results may indicate that levels of genre awareness play some role in how ‘Musical categories and systems of classification shape the music that we might play and listen to.’79 Therefore, the next phase of the research was to explore if there was any link between genre affinity and the technologies used for consuming music.

Genre affinities and their mediums of use

Levels of genre affinity across the survey

Given the complexity of 40 genre classifications, I started by simply assessing the number of genres each participant had self-reported having listened to in the week. I used the filter function on the spreadsheet to isolate participants into groups by the number of genres they had listened to. I then looked for any commonalities in the formats and platforms used for listening within the distinct groups and any significant difference between the groups. The data suggests a potential theme between the number of genres participants identified with and the mediums used for listening.

The table below shows: the number of genres; the number and percentage of participants who reported listening to that number of genres; the most and second most used mediums by each group; and what they are mainly used for. An overview and explanation for each category is given in the following section.

Table 3: Participants’ mediums of use

Genres listed Number of participants As a % of the total participants First medium Second medium First use Second use
0 7 16% Free/premium Spotify YouTube Playlists New Music
1 6 14% Free Spotify iTunes / Vinyl New music Genre-specific albums
2 12 27% Premium Spotify YouTube Artists Channels
3 13 30% YouTube iTunes Live music and channels Tracks
4 6 13% iTunes/Vinyl YouTube Favourite albums New music

No genre reported

Those participants who didn’t identify any specific genre affinity all used freemium or premium streaming to predominantly select playlists and channels that support their social experience. This genre-neutral group mainly ‘Felt their preferences changed according to mood/location/other outside factors.’80 A feature of this group not represented in the table was that they spent a lot of time listening. Several of the premium paying participants presented their Spotify year in music data81 that totalled between 20 and 55,000 minutes of listening, between one and two and half hours a day. These findings further suggest, as Avdeeff’s already has, there are groups of music users who ‘Would listen to anything.’82 Kassabian has termed this type of music use ‘ubiquitous listening’, music as ‘Background accompaniment to their routines and activities.’83 These listeners use streaming like personalised radio and view its function much like controllers of daytime radio programmes, with music as, ‘A secondary activity… to what they’re doing.’84 However, unlike radio, the playlists aren’t narrow but as diverse as the user wants them to be. Marshall has been critical of this type of experience listening. He protests:

There is no time for desire, and no time (or need) for labour. Think of a song, play it instantly. But when everything is equally available, rarity as a form of distinction disappears.85

Arguably, this group doesn’t even think of a song, they request algorithmically pre-designed playlists that suit the context of their listening. And, as long as the music doesn’t offend them or their situation, they are happy to ubiquitously listen. This approach to listening is very different to that of the group who identify with the authentic rarity of one specific genre.

One genre reported

This group identify very specifically with one genre and collect it on vinyl or iTunes, and only use freemium streaming for discovery and general listening. Again, Avdeeff’s research recognises this type of listening behaviour as ‘Those who only listen to one type, but are open to suggestions.’86 Frith’s assertion that authenticity relates to some kind of sincerity or commitment87 is clearly evident in this group, as identifying with a single genre is clearly a very individual process. As one participant observed, ‘Most of the stuff I have on vinyl is 70s or 80s, so it feels a bit more authentic listening to it.’ This personal commitment is demonstrated by the fact that of the five genres identified – 80s session players, jazz, rock, indie and grime (which was collected as playlists on Soundcloud not iTunes or vinyl) – only rock was reported twice. This is a group that passionately collect and catalogue their genre, a process that is, somewhat surprisingly, quite distinct to those that identified with two genres.

Two genres reported

Seventy-five percent of the twelve participants that reported two genres use Spotify premium as their main platform for listening. Of the other four participants, two use Spotify freemium and the rest a combination of YouTube and Soundcloud. Two participants also bought vinyl albums of music that was a particular favourite or special edition. Like the genre-neutral users, this group uses Spotify’s personalised radio discovery functions or specific YouTube channels, such as Majestic Casual or the Mahogany Sessions. However, they then select tracks by artists who they like, which they then almost exclusively access through and within Spotify, as mixed bundles organised by artist. Unlike the genre-neutral group, who treat streaming like personalised radio for background to a secondary activity, this group exerts some degree of labour in their music choice. They use the unlimited access of premium streaming to toggle between the radio and their virtual record collection. As Atton states, ‘Curation is concerned with taking care and taking control.’88 In paying a monthly subscription, clearly these users care about music. However, unlike the participants who identified deeply with one genre, they are not interested in rarity. Moreover, there was a clear divide in attitudes and practices between this group and the group that identified with three genres. The two-genre participants collect music by building playlists within the streaming platform. They favour being able to access music over those who identified with three genres who seem to, quite clearly, prefer acquisition.

Three genres reported

The group that named three genres predominantly use freemium streaming to access live versions of songs, but then mainly collect tracks by artists on iTunes for quality off-line listening. As Kibby observed of young MP3 listeners:

Their collection was not defined as the music currently being played, but as the music owned, even if it might never again be accessed. It had been tagged and classified and belonged to the collection.89

Even though they are building largely intangible music collections of mainly mixed bundles of tracks separated out from the originally released formats, the notion of ownership is important to these participants. They are ‘Treating the music as a thing when they discuss it in terms of possession.’90 This approach to listening is very similar to the final group, which aligned with four genres, with one small but notable difference.

Four genres reported

The small group that identified with four genres each use YouTube to discover music but also privilege ownership and spend most of their time listening specifically to favourite albums they have collected on iTunes, CD or vinyl. It is the dedication to pure bundle album listening, and a value system that dictates that music should be programmed and listened to the way the artist intended, which demarcates this group as distinct. Psychologically, if not always physically, this group is invested in maintaining the sanctity of the album format because they place a high value on the listening experience. This participant comment on buying albums sums up the attitude of this group, ‘It depends on what has come out that month, if it’s a good month I can spend thirty to forty pounds.’

Genre affinity analysis

The groups that identified with either one or four genres, a combined 25% of the survey, share a commitment to collecting and a sincerity in their approach to cultivating a listening experience. These two groups accounted for four of the six participants who used vinyl during the survey, and generally both had an affinity for listening to the album format. As Shuker has observed of these types of music connoisseurs, ‘Many collectors appear to value the process of gathering music more than the actual possession of it.’91 Likewise, for participants who had an affinity for one or four genres, music streaming was not considered an authentic listening experience and only deemed useful for discovering new music or convenience. These participants represent music users that will be difficult for streaming services to convert from freemium to premium subscribers, as they value collecting and cataloguing units, mainly in the pure-bundle album format. For these participants, ‘A collection without order is not a collection’92 and genre continues to play a significant role in the ordering.

The two largest groups that associated with either two genres, 27% of the participants, or three genres, 30%, exemplify the shift from format to platform listening that music streaming has heralded. Those that identified three genres had much in common with the album dedicated groups but they predominantly collected artist tracks as mixed MP3 bundles (not albums) stored on iTunes. Although there was no physical format collecting, treating music as a thing that belonged to them was fundamentally important. As Kibby has observed of MP3 collectors:

The music that they possess all holds certain meanings specific to each individual and all serves as a connection to their pasts or a reminder of different people or events in their lives.93

They mainly used streaming, and specifically YouTube, to access otherwise unavailable live recordings or to listen to genre-specific music channels. Only two of the thirteen participants subscribed to Spotify premium and one used it for album listening; the other used it for discovery but had iTunes for albums. Again, this hunt and buy group will be difficult to convince that paying a £5–10 monthly subscription is good value for money. Why pay to access music they either already get for free, prefer to buy as downloads or already own and have organised in a way that connects with them?

Conversely, the group that identified with two genres paid to stream access and only one of them still used MP3s. For this group the concept of ownership is almost redundant. For these users, ‘Sharing on Spotify and watching what my friends are listening to’94 is what is important. These users are ‘Constantly listening to music’ and have bought into the streaming model fully, so much so, that 65% of the fourteen participants that subscribed to Spotify premium used it exclusively for all their listening in the week. For their volume of music use, the subscription fee offers good value for money. This type of user lock-in is what the streaming services are banking on long term. However, at its current £5–10 per month price point, perhaps what premium streaming has to offer only appeals to around a third of streaming-savvy heavy music users, who know the few genres of music they like, but remain keen to be regularly introduced to new music.

The other type of user the premium tier appealed to was half of the 16% of the survey that expressed no genre affinity. This risk-free approach to listening is far removed from the principled dedication to the album expressed by those with one or four genre affinities. However, this group are heavy music users, but for genre neutrals music is a labour-less, inoffensive soundtrack to other social experiences and neither ownership nor curating their own music is important. As one participant expressed, ‘I listen to music all the time and if I don’t have my headphones with me I’m devastated, I’m always listening to playlists of chart music.’ This type of user is ideal for the contextually-based curatorial features of the streaming platforms, but on this evidence the platforms have work to do to convince them all that the services they offer are worth paying for.

The need for further research

The distinctions drawn between genre affinity could also be to do with the genre preference. There is anecdotal evidence within the data that those who named two genres predominantly favour pop and indie. This is contrasted with those who identified three genres, who seem to lean towards an array of niches such as hip hop, rap, jazz, R&B, soul, singer/songwriter and folk, whereas the four genre group identified with various idioms of rock and metal. As Frith asserts in his exploration of genre rules, ‘Genre discourse depends … on a certain shared musical knowledge and experience.’95 While entitling classifications of new combinations of sounds and styles aims at greater clarity, the seeming simplicity of sub-genre names masks the complexities behind the derivations of the actual musical and aesthetic combinations. Without clarifying my shared understanding of the genre titles expressed, I could only guess at the types of sounds, styles and, more importantly, acts and music to which the participants refer. Therefore, further research would seek to have participants allocate the diversity of genres named in the genre awareness section into a smaller number of broader classifications, so genre preference themes could be written into the research. Until then, this survey suggests that despite a shift toward music streaming, and the algorithmically and personalised music choices those platforms offer, genre remains a core way of mediating the experience of music.


While genre fragmentation increases the number of genres to unfathomable amounts, this research suggests it is the number of genres a music user mainly identifies with that is significant. The survey data shows a breadth of listening behaviour and mediums used by all the participants. However, there were broad identifiable collective patterns of use apparent within distinct groups of music users defined by the number of genres they recalled listening to. This research suggests that music users who express an affinity for none or two specific genres of music are far more likely to pay to stream music than those who identify with one specific genre, or who have tastes that extend to three or four. These groups still prefer to pay to acquire music on vinyl and MP3 and use free streaming for discovery and convenience. Despite a drive toward facilitating music choice predicated upon the mood, location or activities of the listener by streaming platforms, on this evidence genre remains a core concept in how music users identify with music and themselves. As streaming access challenges unit ownership to become the dominant medium for music use, the number of musical genres users have an awareness of and affinity for may not only shape the music we play, but also the mediums we use to play it and whether or not we pay for it.

Select bibliography

Anderson, Tim, J. Popular Music in the Digital Age. Problems and Practices for an Emerging Service Industry. London: Routledge, 2014.

Avdeeff, Melissa. Challenges Facing Musical Engagement and Taste in Digitiality. IASPM, 2011,, accessed 20 June 2016.

Borthwick, Stuart and Moy, Roy. Popular Music Genres. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004.

Frith, Simon. Performing Rites: Evaluating Popular Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Holt, Fabian. Genre in Popular Music. London: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Kassabian, Anahid. Ubiquitous Listening: Affect, Attention and Distributed Subjectivity. London: University of California, 2013.

Kibby, Marjory. ‘Collect yourself’, in Information, Communication and Society 12(3), 2009, pp. 428–443,, accessed 20 June 2016.

Negus, Keith. Music Genres and Corporate Cultures, London: Routledge, 1999.

Nowak, Raphael. Consuming Music in the Digital Age. Technologies, Roles and Everyday Life. Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan, 2016.

Sterne, Jonathan. MP3: The Meaning of a Format. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2012.

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