Atmosphere Creator: the sounds of the fairground

Ian Trowell

Ian Trowell is a PhD candidate in the School of Architecture in the University of Sheffield, working as part of a wider project within the White Rose College of Arts and Humanities. His recent publications include research on Northern post-punk identities in the journal Popular Music History and a critical analysis of photography in the early punk scenes in the journal Punk & Post-Punk.


The fairground offers a complex soundscape that incorporates both music and non-music in a variety of patterns, frequently pushing towards multiple manifestations of noise through modes of distortion, cacophonous overlay and sheer excess. After proposing a reading of the totality of the soundscape of the fairground, this chapter argues that music is an integral part of the fair, and is listened to in a variety of collective rituals in a heightened state of anticipation. The chapter focuses on the Waltzer ride, and follows the work of a particular ride called Atmosphere Creator, which prioritises modern dance music within its armoury of attractions and effects. An extended film clip of the ride in action is included in the chapter, and a key part of my analysis involves a detailed study of this clip, identifying various actors and their relationships, choreographed through the diegetic soundtrack. I then take the music of the fairground and the Atmosphere Creator as a specific genre and look at its social uses outside of the fairground. The sound of the fairground and the crossover between music types and subcultures is a subject that has avoided academic research or serious documentation, and this chapter is a start to redress that absence.


King’s Lynn Mart Fair traditionally marked the start of the season for travelling fairs in the UK,1 setting out amusements on the Tuesday Market Place from 14 February for a period of two weekends. In recent years, the notion of an end and start to the season has been somewhat eradicated with the preponderance of Christmas and New Year fairs, while the claims of King’s Lynn to be the season opener have diminished under the onslaught of newly implemented Valentines fairs up and down the UK. However, the Mart Fair maintains a sense of importance, including an official opening ceremony and a thickened sense of belonging and history in this economically struggling and isolated market town and seaport.2 In the run up to the fair, talk around the town in the coffee shops and meeting places becomes predicated on the encroaching event. On numerous occasions I have heard reference to the prevailing climatic conditions being ‘fair weather’, such that the vicissitudes and disobedience of the British weather temporarily bend to the will of the Mart Fair. Part of the tradition of this fair is ‘half-price Monday’, or ‘children’s day’, when all attractions run for the day at a heavily discounted price. While this is emblazoned on the posters around the town, it is also engrained into the memories and habits of the populace; the Monday is a busy day, insanely busy.

The content and organisation of the Mart is typical for a twenty-first century UK fair. The rides and stalls are enclosed in the bounded square, overlooked by historical Georgian buildings, encompassing hotels, businesses and the Victorian Corn Exchange Theatre (see Figure 1). The principal element of the fair is the large ride, split roughly between white-knuckle thrill rides and family rides, while a number of smaller children’s rides, round stalls, side stalls and food joints complete the topography. The days of the fair being tightly bounded by an assortment of bawdy and eye-catching shows slowly fizzled out during the latter half of the last century. The magical nature of the fair does, however, remain. The attractions arrive (and depart) under the cloak of darkness and fit together ‘just-so’. Mechanical arms studded with lights extend out and rotate in all directions, creating what appears to be a functional whole. As the fairground rides begin to resemble complex machines-in-themselves, as opposed to simulative devices, the fairground becomes one huge and complex device or contraption.

Figure 1: King’s Lynn Mart Fair 2014 with Albert Evans’ Waltzer, photograph by author
Figure 1: King’s Lynn Mart Fair 2014 with Albert Evans’ Waltzer (Source: Photograph © Ian Trowell)

At the heart of the fair stands a ride that carries its own tradition within the wider tradition of the Mart. Albert Evans’ Waltzer has been attending this event for decades, and since the 1980s has provided the endearing musical experience for the Mart. February 2016 was typically cold, and the ice wind was whipping in from the Wash and River Great Ouse, finding its way between the sealed buildings around the square and the seemingly sealed fair within the square. Evans’ Waltzer – named ‘Atmosphere Creator’ – was thronged with a crowd of teenagers, working to full sensory effect.

The front canopy is studded with colour-changing LED lights and has the strapline ‘Prepared for Peace Ready for War’ picked out in bright letters.3 Underneath the canopy are fitted a bank of ten DMX sharpy lights, prowling and projecting beams across the square and into the night sky, illuminating the high-tech checker-plate steps (see Figure 2). Inside the ride a further ten beams pick out the chaotic motions of the cars and riders. The interior is finished in matt black, allowing the lights, strobes and smoke machines to have maximum impact. Sound is amplified through Martin Audio speakers mounted on uprights, while bass speakers lie underneath the ride itself, creating an earth-shaking sonic experience. The whole ensemble has been carefully assembled to a high standard over many years, and the operator is always looking for something new, something better, something different from the other Waltzer operators.

Figure 2: Albert Evans’ Waltzer steps and canopy, King’s Lynn Mart 2016, photograph by author
Figure 2: Albert Evans’ Waltzer steps and canopy, King’s Lynn Mart 2016 (Source: Photograph © Ian Trowell)

The music played is a relentless happy hardcore merged into new styles such as bounce, donk and power-stomp. The operator, Albert John, oversees proceedings from the centre paybox, interjecting on the microphone to direct customers to empty cars in the brief moments when the ride is stationary, or spieling the patter of the Waltzer operator with demands of ‘I want to hear you scream’ or ‘D’ya wanna go faster?’ Using the modern method of digitally sourced and delivered music, the mix segues into a frantic track peppered with bass and breakbeats around the clearly enunciated sample ‘Who is Elvis?’ For a brief moment over 50 years of pop culture has progressed to eat its own tail, and it is clearly loving every minute of it.

Fairs and their soundscape

In any week there are up to 150 travelling fairs set up across the UK. Each fair may last anything from a single day to a couple of weeks. The fair may occupy a dedicated grassed site such as a common or park, a discrete plot of concrete within the urban enclave such as a car park, or in the best cases it will stretch out in a rhizomatic fashion within the urban space, refashioning dead zones and interstices of the urban epidermis with a new thrill of lights, sounds, smells and anticipation. The perceivable acoustic environment, or soundscape,4 of the fair is complex and seriously understudied. It carries an understanding across time in a diachronic fashion (the cacophony of the event was equally so when contributed to by steam- powered organs as it is today with amplified pop music),5 while also evolving with regard to aspects and essences in a synchronic fashion.

The soundscape of the fair breaks down into three aspects: a collection of elements (sound sources or essences), a collection of effects and distortions accompanying the elements, and a collection of associated synesthetic measures. The elements of the fair include the music itself played on the major rides,6 the noise of the mechanical operation of the ride itself, the screams and shouts of the riders and onlookers, the voice of the showman, and (in the modern era) a panoply of amplified samples. The effects accompanying the sounds include a competitive layering to create a cacophony, the experience of listening to music while in motion (Doppler Effect) and a frenzied collective listening of music. Synesthetic measures include the artwork associated with a fairground ride through the development of iconographic and figurative designs corresponding with music genres, and also a synchronising of the movement of the fairground ride with the music to stimulate an extreme bodily feeling of music.7

A fairground such as King’s Lynn Mart, set out as an uninterrupted and tightly bounded whole, presents a topological paradox. A ride such as the Waltzer will form its own micro-environment in a monadological fashion, with the space between the fairground whole and the iterative whole of the individual fairground ride navigated by illusionistic patterns of circular structures with repeating motifs and designs. The sound of the fairground is concentrated within the outermost whole (the fairground itself) but escapes its boundaries by sheer volume and cacophony. The fairground can be heard (and seen, and smelt) before you enter into its realm. At the level of individual fairground rides we see a mix of acoustic strategies with speakers from some rides positioned outward facing, such that sound is centrifugally amplified into the general fairground space, and inward facing, such that sound is centripetally amplified into the enclosed space of the specific ride. It is clear that the soundscape of the fair is both complex and heteroclite. However, in turning again to Albert Evans’ Waltzer, I wish to diachronically map out a key sound experience of the fairground using examples of element, effect and synaesthesia.

The Waltzer

The Waltzer emerged on the UK fairground in 1930 as part of a new generation of lighter and faster roundabouts, sharing space with a very similar ride known as the Ark Speedway.8 Both of these rides followed from an architectural design tradition involving a standing, circular structure housing a rotating and undulating set of platforms which, in turn, supported either a set of wooden mounts in the case of the Ark Speedway (initially in the form of caricatured animals and then in the form of motorcycles) or revolving metal tubs seating up to six riders in the case of the Waltzer.9 The desired lightness of these rides, to facilitate quick transportation, build-up and pull-down, meant that decorative aspects shifted from an emphasis on carved ornamentation in excess of the essential structure, to painted flat surfaces inherent to the essential structure.10 As Ian Starsmore explains regarding fairground rides in general: ‘a mechanical ride is something which does not readily fall into any one category: art, construction, transport, all three enter into the equation’.11

Initially, both ride types were part of the simulative tradition, with the Ark Speedway clearly mimicking the thrill of riding a fast motorcycle, while the Waltzer referred to the swirling movements of a dance. The Ark Speedway took DeNora’s idea of entrainment even further with the simulation of motorcyles, finding resonance with Willis’ research into biker culture and the linking between music, rhythm and riding a motorcycle.12 The artwork developed for either ride cleverly reflected these simulative purposes, with speed, thrills and bravery alluded to regarding the decoration of the Ark Speedway, and twisting, interlocking patterns associated with the Waltzer. This artwork served a dual purpose, both enforcing the illusionistic and disorienting whole of the fairground through its familiarity and repetition, and signalling the punter towards an individually marked-out ride through nuanced differences of evolving modernity and novelty. As Stephen Walker shows, this artwork was fast and furious, applied, abused and then recommenced when fashion or fatigue necessitated.13

Both the Ark Speedway and Waltzer were social rides with an enclosed space, and benefited from the post-war boom in teenage subcultures and new music scenes. The Ark Speedway and Waltzer became the space to experience new music in both a defamiliarised space and also without the restrictions placed upon the young (age barriers, money, parental governance). As prominent 1960s artist Dudley Edwards comments: ‘When Rock and Roll first came on the scene in the fifties the ONLY place you could hear Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran at loud decibel levels was at the fairground and we would all dance around the edge of the Waltzers’.14 One sound effect associated with old Ark Speedways and Waltzers would be a slowing down of records by about 6 or 7 rpm when the showmen applied the ‘knife’ to start the motion, the generator effectively being diverted from powering the audio equipment to starting the ride.

The synaesthetic nature of each ride had a strong differential, and this seemed to correlate with the experiencing of the music through the aforementioned mode of entrainment. The Ark Speedway evolved a symbiotic relationship with the music through both its rhythm and strong narrative element, while the Waltzer tended to take second place. Rock and Roll and subsequent genres through to Northern Soul told of the thrills and spills of adventures in teenage love, and of the joys of discovering music and all-night dancing. The musical structure was a steady beat, with eventual crescendos acted out through clapping (or stamping) actions. Showman David Wallis recalls an incident on a fair when the crowds were feverishly and collectively stamping their feet to the 1964 hit record Bits and Pieces by the Dave Clark Five with such a force that the wooden gratings around the ride were broken through.15 The Ark Speedway offered a journey with a beginning and an end, corresponding to the forward narrative of many of the lyrics of the time. Importantly, the Ark Speedway combined the social with the individual. Each rider had to compose themself on the ride and was responsible for maintaining a pose within the strictures of the rotating and undulating forces of the ride. This packaged mode of ‘listening-through-acting-out-through-riding’ continued with classic records such as the Shangri-Las’ Leader of the Pack (charting on release in 1964 but also charting on re-release in 1972 and 1976), which referenced motorbikes, through to funk anthems such as Brass Construction’s Movin’.

1977 proves a key musical year on the fairground, whereby the dominance of the Ark Speedway is toppled by the Waltzer under the regime of the disco genre expanding its limits. It is instructive to take three instrumental disco tracks that were all huge hits on the fairground to highlight the emergence of the ‘Waltzer sound’: the Rah Band’s The Crunch, Space’s Magic Fly and the Donna Summer classic I Feel Love. The first of these tracks conforms to the clear rhythmic structure of preceding musical styles associated with the fairground, The Crunch borrowing heavily from glam and glitter beat. Magic Fly almost achieves something else but seems to rein itself in towards maintaining a regular rhythmic structure – you can still clap your hands and stomp your feet to this record. However, Donna Summer’s I Feel Love – her second hit collaboration with futuristic producer Giorgio Moroder – pushed the envelope towards a breathless and frantic polyrhythmic experience. Chambers describes the polyrhythmic method to ‘bend, tease and subvert the regularity of the beat’ such that ‘attention is directed to the interior of the musical experience … drawn to an insistent now’.16 He later generalises disco to have a musical quality such that each track has ‘no beginning or end, just an ever-present ‘now’’.17 My suggestion here is that it would be Summer’s I Feel Love that introduced a significant polyrhythmic dimension. This would signal and soundtrack a move away from the Ark Speedway to the Waltzer ride, and set the trend for high-energy frenetic electronic music. In addition, while the Ark Speedway demands an individual effort to stay composed, the Waltzer is truly social with microcosmic social scenes within each car and the sociality of the whole ride. The individual here gives themselves over to the ride; you are enclosed within the structure effectively immobilised backwards onto the cushioned curvature of the car (see Figures 3 and 4).

Figure 3: Riding the edges of the Speedway Ark, Knutsford 1984, photograph by author
Figure 3: Riding the edges of the Speedway Ark, Knutsford 1984 (Source: Photograph © Ian Trowell)
Figure 4: Waltzer riders, 1984, photograph by author
Figure 4: Waltzer riders, 1984 (Source: Photograph © Ian Trowell)

Fairground music as genre post Second Summer of Love

The Second Summer of Love is usually associated with the year 1988 and the explosion of rave culture as both a genre of music and a new mode of collective engagement with the music. An amalgam of dance music styles from various cities (Chicago, Detroit, New York, London) or scenes of eclectic and experimental partying (the Balearic scene) birthed a full-on new sound that was both distinct and evolving (acid house, breakbeat, techno, and so on). Collective consumption of the music switched to large raves and the resistant free party scene, with subcultural accoutrements including designer drugs, clothing and argot. The fairground embraced this pulsating and energising sound after a decade in the 1980s when music had fractured into various pop scenes. As raves became licensed and larger in scale, fairgrounds began to appear on these sites, augmenting the link between the music and the fairground.

The sub-genres of music that flourished after the initial impetus of rave were swift and complex, reacting against each other as scenes and genres bifurcated in pursuit of either distinction or the continual quest to keep the frantic vibe and energy of the music. The Waltzer sound became predominantly associated with the rave genre, and followed the styles of music that attempted to keep the spirit of rave alive and kicking with genres such as happy hardcore. This music eschewed technical wizardry and atmospheric nuances and structure, instead opting for a fast assault on the ears through intense breakbeats, ‘helium’ vocals pitched high and fast, and anthemic breakdowns and peaks designed to whip listeners in to a frenzy. It was, and remains, a genre that is looked down upon by music aficionados.

The niche genre around hardcore techno, evolving forwards while forever revisiting its own past to create a rhizomatic array of all possible nuances, thrives outside of the mainstream dance music cultures. Small scenes cluster around specific venues in the North of England and Scotland, with specialist genres such as ‘bounce’ and ‘donk’ attaching themselves to dedicated clubs and production crews in cities.18 With an absence of regular club nights, the collective listening to scenes such as donk would be fulfilled through sitting in cars19 or visiting the fairground. In return, the tradition of fairground enthusiasm, which started as a loose network of societies to discuss and share memories and develop amateur research into fairground history migrated into a hybrid mix of traditional fairground fans and hardcore music fans. Discussion hosted on fairground internet forums, considered by Henry Jenkins as ‘epistemophilia’,20 moved from shared expertise on the nuts and bolts of fairground machinery towards dissecting the music heard on hosted video clips of Waltzer rides in action. This dialogue from the All the Fun of the Fair website discussing a clip of Percival’s Waltzer provides a good example:

Poster 1: Scouse house/bounce is the name of the genre. It started in the North West and was most popular around 2000 – 2009, it’s taken a nose dive now because the people that used to like it prefer the electro house these days. It’s had a bit of bad reputation for being not very musically original, personally I love it, but from a production point of view it was very much ‘bedroom production’ hence the term ‘put a donk on it’ – any track sounds good with a banging donk!

Poster 2: At around 2 mins 54 in that video he swaps over to Powerstomp – now this is a relatively new genre of hardcore music pioneered by DJ Kurt and Joey Riot under the Lethal Theory label. It’s very high energy 175bpm hardcore music with a much punchier kick and its becoming more popular these days both in the UK and abroad. The track he plays is Joey Riot & Chaos – Get Down. Hardstyle is completely different, it’s the Dutch version of hard dance at 150bpm (bounce house is 170bpm ish), different kick drum and style. More popular than either of the above genres too.

Evolution of Atmosphere Creator

The Atmosphere Creator began life in 1953, as a brand-new Waltzer from the Scottish company Maxwell for the Yorkshire showman John Ling.21 Its initial decoration was of the classic style of the 1950s Waltzer, featuring an Odeon patterning and architecture of mock structure templates in ascending repetition. Typically, the ride did not use decoration to appeal to a particular music-oriented market, and had a design that celebrated the presence and grace of the ride, the strapline on the canopy reading ‘The Latest New World Thriller’. It maintained this decoration for around two decades, moving on to the stewardship of Albert Evans, who married John Ling’s daughter Joan in 1968. By the early 1980s Albert John Evans, the son of Joan and Albert, was a teenager taking a strong interest in the family’s Waltzer. It was at this point that the ride underwent a radical transformation, adopting an all-over artwork featuring an intense pop melange from the skilled brush of artist Paul Wright. In many ways Paul’s work on the ride echoed back towards the early 1950s figurative artwork featuring Rock and Roll stars such as Bill Hailey and Elvis Presley, a style and approach that had been all but forgotten. Paul sourced Smash Hits and NME to gather portraits of artists such as Yazoo, The Clash, Elvis Costello, Billy Idol, Ian Dury, Fun Boy Three, Blondie, Madness and numerous New Romantic bands (see Figure 5).

Figure 5: Albert Evans’ Waltzer car detail with Banararama, Retford Fair 1984, photograph by author
Figure 5: Albert Evans’ Waltzer car detail with Banararama, Retford Fair 1984 (Source: Photograph © Ian Trowell)

The strapline on the canopy was re-lettered to ‘The World’s Latest Disco Waltzer on Tour’ and the key image on the front of the ride was Donna Summer extending her arms wide to draw you into the interior (see Figure 6).

Figure 6: Albert Evans’ Waltzer canopy detail with Donna Summer, King’s Lynn Mart 1984, photograph by author
Figure 6: Albert Evans’ Waltzer canopy detail with Donna Summer, King’s Lynn Mart 1984 (Source: Photograph © Ian Trowell)

Albert John confirms the importance of Donna Summer’s I Feel Love as a composition that broke free from the existing structures of disco music and, in turn, created the perfect soundtrack for the Waltzer experience.22 From this point on Albert John, as a teenager, began seeking out innovative music from the wilderness years of the mid-1980s, looking for the polyrhythmic structures that would make his ride stand out from the rest as a fusion of sound, movement and machinery. He took his copy of I Feel Love to the record shops on his travels, asking to be provided with tracks that could match it, gathering the sporadic music from that decade that pushed the limits: Grandmaster Flash’s White Lines (1983), Harold Faltermeyer’s Axel F (1985) and New Order’s Blue Monday (1983).

Eventually he developed a following for the Waltzer such that it was remembered and eagerly anticipated on the family’s run of fairs. By the time of the Second Summer of Love (1988) and the sudden growth of the rave scene, Albert John was keyed in to the music he wanted for the ride and the record dealers that could supply it (principally places like Eastern Bloc in Manchester). The Atmosphere Creator quickly doubled as a mobile venue for the latest music and scene, allowing people to experience it with lights, smoke and intense movement. The ride underwent a final transformation in 1989 with the early 80s popstars giving way to science fiction and club imagery. Structural changes were made and innovative aspects such as lights embedded within the steps were added.

Video 1: Atmosphere Creator during Boston May Fair 2011 (Source: Copyright © David Wragg)

The film clip shows the Atmosphere Creator at work during Boston May Fair 2011, a time when hardcore and rave music would be hard to find in the regular offers of entertainment in any city. But here on the fairground the music is still going strong and it is possible to observe various practices on the film clip. It is busy and Albert John is keen to maximise business. His microphone patter at the start of the clip is blatantly towards economic interests within the frenzy of the occasion: ‘All these front cars, let’s go’, ‘Don’t forget it’s only £2.00, if you need some more keep your seats’, ‘Hurry up girls, get in’, ‘Three or more in a car please, come on’. In the space of less than a minute, in what looks like an accelerated game of musical chairs set to industrial strength music, the ride is ready to go again with a full complement of customers. As the speed picks up Albert John sets the tempo and anticipation with a shout of ‘Hold tight’, only to have to quickly admonish an over eager customer with a command of ‘No, don’t come over the hand-rail’.23 The ride cycle is short (around two minutes), as clearly the crowd are desperate to take centre stage and experience the ride (or experience the music through the ride). As the camera pulls away from this first complete cycle of business and the next cycle commences, we see flame effects shooting vertically from the canopy and the interior of the ride shrouded in dry ice. Immediately Albert John is forced into remonstrative mode as he spots a rider trying to stand up: ‘Sit down, idiot, sit down. You will come out if you stand up, this is fast’.

Stephen Walker, looking at the complexity and fluidity of the territorial inside and outside of the fair, considers the Waltzer at Loughborough Fair as an eventual zone or region of its own autonomy within the fair itself. He writes:

As the evening wears on the ride closes in on itself, closes itself off from its surroundings while attracting a predominantly under-18 audience with the promise (and delivery) of pseudo-transgressive hardcore techno music and a rave environment that they would not otherwise (well, legally, or with parental consent) be able to access.24

As we see from the film clip, the atmosphere that the ride creates pushes behaviour towards frenzy and transgression, daredevil performativity from young males, and the operator must be eagle-eyed. Albert John switches between pushing the atmosphere up by orchestrating acts such as putting hands in the air and screaming, and having to watch the action unfold.

The sequence between 7-20 and 8-00 minutes is shot from a fixed viewpoint and this allows us to see the operation in full effect with the gaff lads set out as a circular phalanx spinning the cars. There is a small amount of rushed dialogue spoken by Albert John in this sequence, where he appears to be addressing the gaff lads with a command to spin cars 2 and 8, making sure that each customer gets the maximum pleasure and experience from the short ride, in the hope that they will ride again (and again). Using the method developed by Wendy Fonarow25 for mapping ‘zones of participation’ at indie gigs, and applied further by Geoff Pearson26 to study British football crowds within the stadium, Figure 7 shows the layout of the Waltzer from the twin perspectives of the operator and his staff and the punters. Each mode of punter determined by their spatial positioning necessitates a certain relationship with the operator: those in the cars are customers who require the best experience, those standing on the gratings are quasi-customers who require close control, while those loitering on the steps are potential customers who require encouragement. Albert John can be heard around the 10-05 mark appealing to the group of people on the steps, urging them to come ‘Up the steps’.

Figure 7: Crowd and staff positions on the Waltzer
Figure 7: Crowd and staff positions on the Waltzer

Music, and the listening of music in a collective fashion, forms the heart of this operation, working at a new intensity of expressive entrainment beyond simply clapping hands or stamping feet. The raucous and energising nature of the music selected by Albert John functions at various levels: it provides an added reason for going on the ride itself for the group labelled A (and so complements the economic imperative of the operator), it encourages transgressions of behaviour through hyperbolic performance both on the ride and around the ride (group A admonished for standing in the cars, group B admonished for standing on the barriers), for which the operator has to keep a sharp eye out, and it attracts people to the ride – initially to the front steps (group C) and eventually up onto the ride itself (group B). Some of those on the steps and standing on the gratings need to be converted to riders (group A), but the operator knows that a crowd on the fair attracts more people. There is a complex balance to be kept, and the economic weighting of that balance is short-circuited if the ride forms simply a gathering place to listen to music in what might be a ‘traditional’ fashion of downgraded interactivity.

Club spaces and fairgrounds

The collective or social enjoyment of dance music evolved through venues and nightclubs catering for the specific scenes that flourished in post-war British popular culture. Research in this area tends to focus on the structure of the scenes and the testimony of participants, rather than structural, technical and aesthetic nature of the building and space itself.27 Certainly during the mid-1970s under the regime of Northern Soul venues were spartan and functional, with an emphasis on providing a surface for expressive, acrobatic dancing. Again, the nature of this subcultural scene with regard to its sheer dedication and transgressive vectors prioritises a literature drawn from, and deconstructing, social participation.28 The Northern Soul scene crossed over with the disco scene during the 1970s, and here an emphasis on a structured atmospheric was evident with considered effects through multiple forms of lighting (flashing sequences, lasers, light panels in structures including the dancefloor itself), smoke machines, mirrors and advanced sound-systems. While fairgrounds are said to provide a version of a nightclub space, it is important to separate out between the provision of an opportunity for those not able to go to a nightclub and the simple copying of a nightclub, which would suggest a vector running from the nightclub to the fairground ride.29

The modern (post-1988) movement of accelerated dance culture manifested initially in raves and then in new clubs (and designated super-clubs) is analysed at a spatial level by Ben Malbon, though again there is an emphasis on the social practices afforded by the space of the nightclub with regard to a tribal identification and the claiming of a space.30 Malbon extends this analysis of the dance music club away from the spatial-in-itself and towards the affordance of the spatial, to draw on ideas developed by both Maffesoli, proposing identification (against identity) and unicity (against unity), and Canetti, regarding exstasis and the loss of self, in the search for ‘spaces and experiences of identification or affective gatherings’.31 An earlier key work by Thornton provides a similar mapping between the rave/club and the fair at both a spatial level and social practice level: ‘Clubs offer other-worldly environments in which to escape; they act as interior havens with such presence that the dancers forget local time and place … Clubs achieve these effects with loud music, distracting interior design and lighting effects’.32 These interior accoutrements and their associated affects can be mapped over to a Waltzer such as the Atmosphere Creator. Thornton continues: ‘Classically, they have long winding corridors punctuated by a series of thresholds which separate inside from outside, private from public, the dictates of dance abandon from the routines of school, work and parental home’. While this last statement possibly conflates the singular room (and its affordances) and the enclosed network of rooms, it is possible to map this onto the fairground whole and its interior spaces (such as the Waltzer). The work of Malbon and Thornton concerning the spatial arrangements of the club is suggestive rather than prescriptive and exhaustive, though I include it here as a preliminary dialogue between the fairground and the club.


Listening to music on the fairground is a fully embodied and polysensory experience, taking DeNora’s theory of entrainment into new realms of energetic performance. I have introduced the total soundscape of the fairground and this forms one of the sensory excesses that define the experience. The purpose of this chapter is to focus on the particularities of the fairground sound, with specific regard to the ride called the Waltzer. As I pull apart the sound of the Waltzer a synergetic shift is revealed; the sound of the fairground as listened to through the distinct performative arena of the Waltzer becomes a fairground sound in itself. Precise genres such as donk and bounce flourish and are appreciated through evolving collective practices on the ride.

Elsewhere, the spaces between the fairground rides, the ‘ground’ of the fairground, are cacophonous in the extreme as rides compete with each other to offer the best sound and experience. I would further argue that this cacophony is not just heard, it is engaged as meaningful. It is listened to in the way that discernible music is listened to on individual rides. Such a cacophony forms a natural fit with the fairground, and it stands out in an age when a joyous heteroglossia is being pushed onto the margins of social life (old-fashioned markets being replaced by modern shopping malls is a key case in point).

Fairground art’s natural parallel in the art canon is the school of Pop Art, with ideas and influences flowing both ways, though seldom acknowledged in the vast swathes of literature on this genre. Hal Foster has recently authored another collection of considered thoughts on Pop Art and turns to Andy Warhol’s 1963 work Elvis Six Times. In this picture we see Presley as a gunslinger fading from view as we scan from left to right, a process Foster describes as ‘deterioration through seriality’.33 Other writers link Warhol’s depictive method of slow fade of expired celebrities to his obsession with fame and death, and his own insecurities that plagued his life. Seriality of figurative (and non-figurative) art was part and parcel of the fairground painter who illustrated rounding boards and shutters for circular rides and stalls. Furthermore, fading of the art generally followed production, as fairground art is unacknowledged as part of the valuing system attributed to Pop Art and fairground art is set out exposed to the elements for the public to enjoy. Elvis, and all the depicted stars, fade, many times. They then get painted over. Over 50 years later Albert John Evans entertains a crowd of immersed and exhilarated teenagers on his Atmosphere Creator Waltzer. In the midst of an array of lights and smokes, donk noises and breakbeats, he plays the sample Who is Elvis?

Select bibliography

Braithwaite, David. Fairground Architecture. London: Hugh Evelyn, 1968.

Chambers, Iain. Urban Rhythms: Pop Music and Popular Culture. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1985.

DeNora, Tia. Music in Everyday Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 2000.

Fonarow, Wendy. Empire of Dirt: The Aesthetics and Rituals of British Indie Music. Middletown: Weslayan University Press, 2006.

Schafer, R. Murray. The Soundscape: The Tuning of the World. Rochester VT: Destiny Books, 1994.

Starsmore, Ian. English Fairs. London: Thames & Hudson, 1975.

Thornton, Sarah. Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital. London: Polity, 1995.

Weedon, Geoff and Ward, Richard. Fairground Art. London: White Mouse Editions, 1981.

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The listening experience of the classical concert hall: the value of qualitative research with current audiences

Lucy Dearn, Jonathan Gross, Sarah Price and Stephanie Pitts

Lucy Dearn has recently completed an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award project with the Sheffield Performer and Audience Research Centre (SPARC) at the University of Sheffield under the supervision of Professor Stephanie Pitts. She has been working in partnership with chamber music promoter Music in the Round to conduct research with classical music audiences across South Yorkshire. Her research investigates community formation around a concert series and the views of younger people often underrepresented in the regular makeup of audiences.

Jonathan Gross is based in the Department of Culture, Media and Creative Industries at King’s College London, working on the Get Creative Research Project as part of the BBC-led Get Creative campaign. He previously worked on collaborative research projects at the Universities of Leeds and Liverpool, and at the Sheffield Performer and Audience Research Centre. His PhD was an ethnography of audiences at the BBC Proms, which he completed at The London Consortium.

Sarah Price is a postdoctoral research associate on the Sheffield Performer and Audience Research Centre’s new project, Understanding Audiences for the Contemporary Arts. Prior to this, she was a postdoctoral researcher at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and completed an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award project with SPARC and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Her research interests are in audience development, the value of cultural experiences for individuals who engage with the arts, and the role of academic research within the commercial arts industry.

Stephanie Pitts is Professor of Music Education and currently Head of Music at the University of Sheffield and Director of the Sheffield Performer and Audience Research Centre. She has research interests in life-long musical engagement, including amateur musical performance and live music listening. She is the author of Valuing Musical Participation (Ashgate, 2005), Chances and Choices: Exploring the Impact of Music Education (Oxford, 2012) and, with Karen Burland, a jointly edited book on audience experience, Coughing and Clapping (Ashgate, 2014).


Drawing on studies with audiences in three different cities and across multiple genres, this chapter considers the contribution of empirical research to understanding the experience of live music listening. We evaluate the potential of qualitative research tools ranging from life history interviews to art-informed visual methods, and present some of the findings from our recent work, which highlights the interconnectedness of the personal, social and musical elements of listening experience. Conclusions are drawn about the usefulness of these approaches for arts organisations, academic researchers and audience members themselves.


Understanding how and why people listen is a central aim of the Listening Experience Database (LED) project, which has taken a mainly archival approach to documenting experiences with live music across a wide range of settings and centuries. Interpreting the call for evidence from ‘any historical period’ to include ‘now’, the work of Sheffield Performer and Audience Research Centre makes a distinctive contribution to LED by considering how orchestral concerts, chamber music and contemporary classical music are experienced by their audiences, by asking: who attends and who does not?; how is live listening experienced musically, personally and socially?; and what are the challenges for researchers in understanding what people do when they listen?

Research with today’s audiences, rather than their historical counterparts, brings some advantages in being able to ask people about their motivations and experiences. However, other challenges are the same across the decades and centuries, most notably in the difficulties for audience members of finding the language to explain and evaluate their listening experiences. Audience research takes many forms34 and has shown in recent years an increasing awareness of the limitations of talk-based, retrospective reporting of the live arts experience, turning to visual methods,35 digital technology36 and social media37 in the attempt to capture the immediate impact of being in an audience. The longer-term impact of concert listening is of significance too, and life history approaches that take account of past arts experience and learning are also contributing to the debate.38 Understanding audience experience has obvious benefits for arts organisations, for whom the additional insight on how and why their audiences attend is of value in increasing access, growing and sustaining audiences, and building community. For academic research, greater understanding of how music intersects with people’s lives is also valuable, bringing fresh perspectives on cultural engagement, social interaction and ‘ways of listening’.39

In this chapter, we draw on our ongoing collaborations with Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) and Music in the Round (MitR), using empirical findings to explore the varieties of listening experiences among regular audiences and new attenders in those settings. We show how, through the use of a range of qualitative methods, researchers can investigate the hopes, anxieties and expectations that today’s audiences bring to the concert hall, and we consider the usefulness of eliciting and understanding these perspectives, as a way of enriching and sustaining audience experience. Each section of the chapter focuses on one of our recent studies, indicating the methods we have employed to study live listening experiences in the concert hall today, and illustrating the kinds of insight that these approaches can help generate.

Beyond language: the ‘Write-Draw-Tell’ method

When making empirical enquiries into classical music audiences, it is vital to question how such an ephemeral listening experience may come to be understood by researchers. In recent years, there has been a move from the demographic segmentation of audiences towards a deeper understanding of their lived experience, which prompts the need for a further investigation into how current methodological toolkits may be advanced in this field.

Empirical studies have begun to explore classical music audiences using quantitative methods, underpinned by a theoretical framework which investigates experience and is not limited to demographics.40 These studies questioned audience members before and after the event; however, participants were not able to reflect on the experience as it was happening. Other studies that consider classical music audiences have used more qualitative, talk-based research methods.41 Nevertheless, despite a growing body of data gathered with audiences, current qualitative methods used in this field are not without limitations and could be developed further.

A key consideration when using talk-based methods with audiences is the frequency with which commercial organisations request demographic information and ‘audience feedback’. This may result in greater familiarity with such research questions and standardisation of responses, resulting in a risk that participants may have become over-‘sociologised’ in qualitative methods.42 Another issue highlighted in the field is the way participants are often asked to reflect retrospectively, away from the listening experience, and therefore can be ‘influenced by partial memory, cognitive filters such as selective memory and peer pressure’.43 It could be the case, therefore, that researchers are not able to ‘entirely rely on oral or written accounts of the audience’s experience to provide a whole picture of this experience’.44 Finally, the level of literacy and technical language available to audience members when describing an arts experience, particularly when researching with newcomers or younger attenders, can greatly affect individuals’ confidence and ability to respond to the questions they are asked.

Lucy Dearn’s research at Music in the Round has focused on developing new methods for understanding the audience experience. Considering the issues outlined above, Dearn has applied a method termed ‘Write-Draw-Tell’ to the study of listening experiences of regular and new audiences. This method translates well across varying age ranges and attendance levels, is unfamiliar, sanctions participants to give an instant response simultaneously with their listening and allows participants to use some form of non-verbal response when describing the concert experience.

The art-informed creative method ‘Write-Draw’ has its origins in children’s health education.45 The method was developed to allow children to feel a greater sense of involvement and ownership in research investigating their use of health services. The method is based on provoking a written and drawn response to a research question. Later developments of this method have also introduced a ‘Tell’ phase, which encourages participants to explain the verbal and visual elements they have produced becoming a metaphor for discussion, often about sensitive or conceptual topics.46

The use of creative methods to study arts audiences is not without precedent; ethnomusicology and more recent applications in audience studies have used verbal or visual elements.47 Matthew Reason uses drawing and discussion-based methods when investigating primary school children’s experience of live theatre,48 and the development of a non-verbal methodological toolkit has been used with art gallery visitors in research by Lisa Baxter et al. 49 Bonita Kolb’s study investigating young people’s first attendance of a classical music concert also uses some visual activities as part of the pre- and post-concert focus groups.50 However, in Kolb and Baxter’s research these visual artefacts are not analysed as part of their studies and are used solely as a stimulus for discussion. Hence, the application of an arts-informed method like Write-Draw-Tell to classical music audiences, particularly simultaneously with the performance, is a new addition to the methodological toolkit currently used with arts audiences.

Presented below are two brief examples of the data collected using the Write-Draw-Tell method with newcomers under the age of 25 and regular audience members. The first response is by a 15-year-old female of Black Caribbean ethnic origin who is new to classical music concert attendance.

Figure 1: Write-draw response from a 15-year-old female audience member
Figure 1: Write-Draw response from a 15-year-old female audience member


The written response suggests this newcomer was lacking visual clues from other audience members as to how to listen and react to this type of music. A strong sense of ‘still and silent listening’51 was shown through the drawn responses, signifying that for this participant the idea of not being able to communicate with others during the concert was uncomfortable or confusing. A sense of alienation is also seen through this Write-Draw card. Firstly, a disparity between the age of this listener and the age of others in the audience is highlighted. Ideas of nationality are also present, with a strong sense of British nationalism seen through the drawn response, despite the programme for this concert not including any British composers. During the ‘Tell’ phase the participant was not sure why she had drawn these symbols, stating: ‘I don’t really listen to this type of music; I just thought it was really British’.

The second example is representative of the responses of regular audience members.

Figure 2: Write-draw response from regular audience member
Figure 2: Write-Draw response from a regular audience member

Many of the drawn responses by adult members were far more fluid than the fragmented replies from under 25s. They also relied more heavily on literal representations of the players, rather than abstract or metaphorical drawings. The written side often included musical terms but was also used by regular audience members to give feedback to the arts organisation, for example, the programming choices of the arts organisation, seen through the statement that Ligeti is ‘not really chamber music’ according to this audience member.

Although the application of this method to the study of classical music audiences yielded new insights, in particular an instant non-verbal response to concerts, it also brought its own challenges: firstly, distraction and an alteration of the arts experience; secondly, a degree of participant reluctance to make use of the method; and thirdly, the lack of established analytical frameworks to use when handling visual data.

Beyond the present: the life history approach

Among the many methodological challenges that face the study of listening, perhaps the most intractable is the problem of how to study experiences that are ‘beyond’ language. As the previous section illustrated, the innovative use of drawing techniques suggests new possibilities here. More conventionally, it is of course possible to study listening through the laboratory methods of experimental psychology. But as Clarke, Dibben and Pitts point out, one of the major drawbacks of experimental approaches is their disregard for the (often highly consequential) social environments in which musical listening takes place.52

As previous studies have shown, the value of even the most rarefied and seemingly ‘interior’ modes of listening – such as the still and silent attention of the classical concert hall – need to be understood within the contexts of everyday life.53 In studying the individual or personal value of concert hall listening today, we need to examine this value within both synchronic and diachronic contexts. In other words, we need to address both the immediate social environments in which the listening takes place, and the accumulated experience and attitudes developed over the course of each listener’s lifetime – aspects of biography that constitute key contexts to the value that audiences’ listening experiences have for them.

These points can be illustrated through a recent research project conducted by Jonathan Gross and Stephanie Pitts in collaboration with a range of organisations presenting contemporary arts in Birmingham. Our work in Birmingham was initiated by the marketing manager of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG), Tim Rushby, seeking to know if there are current and potential cross-overs between audiences for ‘contemporary’ arts across art form (contemporary craft, dance, music, theatre and visual arts).54 In order to address this overarching issue, Gross and Pitts established a series of research questions concerning the experiences audiences have of the contemporary arts: these focused on routes into the contemporary arts, facilitative conditions for audience engagement, and cross-arts experiences of access and engagement.

To address these questions, Gross and Pitts made use of a combination of ethnography, an ‘audience exchange’ method of group conversation, and a biographical or life-history approach to semi-structured interviews. Ethnography, or participant observation, is the anthropological method of studying a practice or people through spending time with them and joining in. This is a particularly valuable way of examining the synchronic contexts of listening. For example, we were able to attend BCMG concerts and rehearsals with members of the audience, speak with them in the immediate surroundings of the musical event, and invite them to reflect informally on their present experiences, while observing audience behaviours and the uses made of the auditorium and foyer spaces.

Our second method, the audience exchange, involved research participants signing up to attend a performance or exhibition at a venue (or art form) they would not typically go to. In groups of between six and ten, we attended the performance or exhibition together, and then had a semi-structured conversation about our experiences of the show.55 Audience exchange participants spoke often of the usefulness of these conversations for enriching their experience of the live arts event, allowing them to hear other people’s responses to sometimes challenging or confusing work, and to explore their own responses by considering and articulating them in the group discussion. Within the subsequent 2015/16 and 2016/17 seasons, BCMG have programmed audience exchange conversations after four of their concerts, each chaired by Jonathan Gross. BCMG’s decision to respond to the research project in this way indicates the potential value of the audience exchange method not only as a way of more fully understanding listening experiences, but as an enjoyable activity embedded within the creative programme of arts organisation on an ongoing basis.

Beyond the group setting of the audience exchange method, the one-to-one life-history interview provides a particularly powerful opportunity to dig deeper into audience experience. Life-history interviews have been employed within sociology since the 1930s,56 and yet, despite the recent ‘biographical turn’ observed in the social sciences,57 there is still little use of this type of interview method to study audiences. One important reason for this may be the fact that conducting interviews in this way is time intensive (for interviewer and interviewee); it produces very rich qualitative data that requires complex and time-consuming analysis; and requires particular research expertise and resources that many arts and cultural organisations do not have at their disposal. But, as our work with BCMG shows, the use of life-history interviews has the potential not only to illuminate the personal value of listening experiences, but to thereby help inform how musical institutions might develop new and deeper relationships with their audiences.

The specific version of semi-structured interviews that Gross has developed in his work with audiences is carefully designed to address the value of listening experiences within the biographical contexts of each interviewee. A combination of very open questions (such as ‘tell me about the last concert you went to’) and very targeted questions (‘how did you hear about this concert?’) provide opportunities for interviewees to articulate their listening experiences in their own terms, while ensuring that the conversations address specific points of interest for the research. Opportunities are also provided to answer questions more than once (‘is there anything else you’d like to tell me about the last concert you went to?’). This allows participants to think out loud and so provides opportunities – and a sense of permission – to go beyond the most readily available vocabulary. This can result in a richer, more personal account of listening experiences and their value to individuals, thereby addressing (at least partially) some of the challenges of mediating listening experiences through language, noted as a limitation in earlier research.

Another distinguishing feature of Jonathan Gross’s approach to interviewing is the use of an explicitly biographical framework, which, again, combines very open and more targeted questions: giving interviewees the opportunity to articulate their listening experiences – and the value of these – in relation to any other part of their life they choose to, including work, family, friendship, education or any other aspect of everyday life. Questions include, for example, ‘how have your interests changed over the course of your life?’, ‘tell me about your school’ and ‘what jobs have you done?’ These are asked alongside more targeted questions, such as ‘when did you first attend a concert?’ and ‘how has your concert going changed over the course of your life?’

To give just some indication of the kinds of findings this approach can generate, we offer the example of Dave (not his real name), a teacher in his 40s and a regular audience member at BCMG. Dave explains that his principal passion is twentieth-century classical music. He first became interested when hearing a piece on television as a child, and then sought out more by listening to BBC Radio 3. Teaching himself about music in this way, he first started going to orchestral concerts as a teenager, and was always very comfortable attending on his own or with others. Since that time, he has listened to a large amount of twentieth- and twenty-first century classical music. Dave normally attends several performances each week, and at times this can be as many as five events – spanning contemporary music, opera, dance and film. He explains the central place that attending live contemporary arts has for him, saying ‘this is what I do’.

Dave describes missing the sense of ‘difficulty’ he first experienced when listening to contemporary classical music as a child. He liked that difficulty – and the pleasures he found in struggling with strange and new ‘sound worlds’. He no longer experiences difficulty in this same way – but continues to take great pleasure in the ephemerality of the new music he is hearing. In combination with his employment as a teacher, attending the contemporary arts is how Dave lives his everyday life. He describes the experience of attending midweek, having just seen a brilliant performance, sitting waiting for the post-show talk to begin, and thinking to himself ‘this is the life’. Attending the contemporary arts is a central activity for Dave, and a key source of enjoyment and satisfaction. He particularly enjoys opportunities to attend pre- and post-concert talks, and to feel ‘part of that world’.

Dave’s example illustrates the capacity of this approach to open up the value of listening experiences within the broad contexts of people’s lives. If musical experience is well-recognised to be enmeshed with biographical memory,58 there is much more scope to investigate the ways in which the complexities of our lives are active within the present of listening and its value.

Beyond the individual: qualitative interviews and social experience

The qualitative methods employed by SPARC researchers in these projects offer a deep understanding of an individual’s engagement with classical music. The data produced by these methods is often highly complex and can even contradict itself. This can be difficult to reconcile with research conducted within the arts industry.59 Commercial research is heavily reliant on quantitative data, both collected through questionnaires and data gathered from ticket sales transactions. Although there is a long history of qualitative focus groups in market research, they are often conducted to address specific business decisions, and are rarely as open-ended and exploratory as the research conducted by the SPARC team.60

In her doctoral research at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Sarah Price has conducted semi-structured interviews with audiences at a range of different concerts and across various levels of engagement. These interviews aimed to understand how audiences choose the concerts they attend and their experience in the concert hall, and asked them to reflect on how they perceived themselves as listeners. Price has also worked closely with the marketing team to analyse their extensive customer database and ticket sales history. She has had first-hand experience in how in-depth qualitative methods can complement quantitative data analysis in helping arts organisations better understand their audiences.

One way in which qualitative methods go beyond the reach of booking data is in understanding the role of companions. Ticket transactions data only captures information about the person who physically bought the tickets, the ‘initiator’ in Alan Brown’s model.61 This leaves a ‘ghost audience’ with whom arts organisations have no contact, despite the potential for them to be regular, highly-engaged attenders. Price’s interviews at the CBSO draw attention not only to the variety of companions that initiators bring to concerts, but also the many ways in which these companions can influence their choice of concert. Whether an audience member regularly attends with the same person, has an occasional companion, or attends alone, can be as important as aesthetic factors for selecting a concert to attend.

Regular companions

Some interviewees had a companion with whom they regularly attended concerts. This was often married couples who regularly attended with their husband or wife, though there were examples of friends and family members being regular companions. Yvonne62 is a regular CBSO attender who always goes to concerts with her husband. They have been attending CBSO’s core classical concerts since Yvonne retired a few years ago. Yvonne’s husband is rather more conservative in his musical tastes and therefore she admits to ‘manoeuvring the paperwork’ to hear music she likes. During the interview, Yvonne realised that the CBSO were playing Britten’s War Requiem at the BBC Proms that same evening:

Yvonne: Oh it’s today! Don’t remind me! I did want to go because it was… we went to Coventry to hear the War Requiem and I was just blown away by it but you see [her husband] wasn’t that keen and I thought ‘he’s not going to like going down to hear it again’. And we probably would have had to book a hotel when we got back as well so it would have turned into an expensive trip but I would have liked to have done it. Perhaps next year.

Yvonne was clearly disappointed not to be going. Having been ‘blown away’ by the Requiem the first time, she was keen to see it again. Her husband, however, was not impressed and therefore she assumed that he would not want to travel to London to hear it again.

Yvonne and her husband are classic examples of Brown’s ‘initiators’ and ‘responders’.63 Yvonne, the initiator, finds concerts to attend and pitches them to her husband, the responder. Developing Brown’s model, Dearn and Price have shown through their combined research data that initiators are often more adventurous in their musical tastes than responders, but that responders’ conservatism can mean they have the final say.64 Yvonne pushes her husband outside his comfort zone by taking him to concerts that he would not ordinarily want to attend. However, in always wanting to attend with her husband, Yvonne limits herself to concerts she can persuade him to attend and on some occasions, as with the War Requiem, misses out.

While Yvonne’s complete attendance history is recorded on the CBSO customer database, the organisation has no record of her husband’s attendance, despite him regularly going to CBSO concerts. In addition, bookings data cannot capture the effect of their different tastes on their choice of concerts. Qualitative investigation is necessary to expose the impact of socialising on concert selection.

Occasional companions

Audiences who are willing to go alone or who have a variety of companions are of course less likely to miss out because of the tastes of companions. However, the desire to share concerts with friends and family means that companions still influence their concert choice. Nicola is a very frequent attender, going to around 40 CBSO concerts a year and more besides at other organisations. She is more than happy to go alone, but tries to find concerts that her friends would enjoy:

Nicola: I go [to concerts] with different people. Some friends won’t try much beyond Beethoven and Mozart (oh, how they do miss out!) and some will try everything and anything, if they’re available to do so. Some only like Friday Night Classics too. Some will only go to CBSO or other symphony orchestras; others prefer chamber music. Some will only go to the opera in concert ones. So, since I love lots, it is about finding the right person for each particular concert – and sometimes nagging them to try something outside their comfort zones.

Nicola ‘loves lots’ of different types of classical music and so is able to find concerts to suit the tastes of a number of friends. Like Yvonne, Nicola is an initiator. She has broader tastes than her responders and consequently tries to push her companions to try new things. Unlike Yvonne, however, Nicola is willing to attend alone and therefore is not restricted by the tastes of her companions. Finding concerts for companions is Nicola’s way of sharing the concert experience. Most participants looked for opportunities to share concerts with companions and would only attend alone when no-one was available or interested. Despite the sacrifices being made for companions, no participants said that they would rather attend alone. Attending with other people seems to add social value to a concert which can be more important than the aesthetic engagement.

Attending alone

The small number of participants who frequently attended concerts alone reported talking to other audience members. Trevor is a long-term subscriber at the CBSO. He talks to ‘all sorts of people’ at concerts and describes concerts as a ‘social event’. Trevor’s subscription allows him to sit in the same seat for every concert and consequently he has become friends with attenders in the surrounding seats:

Trevor: There’s a guy that sits next to me on my left and he’s extremely knowledgeable about music. […] He’s enhanced my knowledge of music quite a lot. […] He’s very good at explaining what’s happening, you know. […] I know he’s a very keen Bruckner fan, and if it’s a Bruckner symphony, he’ll tell me all about it. I don’t read the programme [because] he’ll tell me all about it.

Over many years of attendance, Trevor has become friends with other audience members. The value of friendships and ‘like-mindedness’ to creating a sense of audience community has also been found in research at Music in the Round by Stephanie Pitts and Chris Spencer.65 As Ruth, another CBSO audience member, described it: ‘I’m not very good at chit-chat [but] when you’re meeting people here, you know you’ve got something in common to talk about’. Because these friendships are based on a mutual interest, they can also be a source of learning about classical music. Trevor will draw on his neighbour’s knowledge of Bruckner rather than buying a concert programme. The conversations he has with his fellow audience members shape the way he listens to the music. Therefore, whether or not these social interactions influence his concert choice, they certainly impact on his concert experience.

At the end of the interview, Trevor expressed how much he had enjoyed taking part in the research:

Trevor: It’s lovely to talk to someone about classical music! Because I’m afraid in the circles that I mix in, so very few … I’ve got nobody to talk to! […] There is nobody else, it’s sad! And that’s why I think socially, here, it’s good to be able to talk.

Despite regularly talking to other audience members at concerts, Trevor still wishes he was able to have more conversations about classical music. His comment highlights how much audiences want to talk about what they have heard. The real value of socialising, and the reason why audiences are willing to compromise on their choice of concerts in order to bring companions, is that it allows attenders to discuss and reflect on their concert experiences.

Semi-structured interviews offer new insight into how the social context of listening influences concert selection. Talking to participants for around thirty minutes each allowed them time to consider all the factors that went into their decision to attend. In addition, as in Jonathan Gross’s life-history interviews, participants were asked about their route into classical music attendance, whether they participate in music, and their engagement with other cultural events. Throughout the conversation, participants would return to the question of ‘how do you decide which concerts to attend?’ They provided examples to prove their points, clarified earlier responses, and described anomalies in their decision making. Yvonne, Nicola and Trevor’s comments begin to reveal the complexities of the decision to attend and the importance of social interactions in shaping concert attendance.


Our illustrations of work with audiences at Music in the Round (MitR), Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG), and City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) have highlighted the diversity of empirical methods used within the Sheffield Performer and Audience Research Centre to explore the personal, social and musical value of live arts listening. In each of our studies, our chosen methods involve exploring ‘listening experience’ in its many facets – from the decision to attend a particular event, the ways of listening and engaging in the moment, and the process of articulating and reflecting on that event and its relationship to other aspects of the listener’s life. No single method achieves a perfect understanding of the listening experience, but by employing and exploring different methods, and by encouraging in all of them a reflexive approach, in which the listeners themselves grapple with the challenges of articulating and interrogating their responses, we come closer to having a sense of what it means to listen as part of an audience.

The research presented by each of the four authors in this chapter involves close collaboration with arts organisations. Dearn and Price’s three-year associations with MitR and CBSO, respectively, have each been enabled through AHRC collaborative doctoral awards; while Gross and Pitts’ work with BCMG came about through an invitation from BCMG to extend Pitts’ past work with classical music audiences to the different contexts of attenders at contemporary arts events. Such close associations are mutually valuable to arts organisations and researchers, bridging some the historical divides between commercial and academic research,66 and prioritising research questions that can not only increase understanding of audience experience, but also affect positive change. We have been fortunate in that our partner organisations have shared our interests in the complexities of audience experience, not looking for the quick answers of how to increase ticket sales or repeat attendance (though those suggestions have been welcome, where we have found them), but instead welcoming the insight that rich, qualitative research can offer on how and why newcomers and regular attenders are drawn to live listening and encouraged to return.

Our headline findings show that the personal, social and musical aspects of concert listening experiences are inextricably linked – and this has implications for the potential value of qualitative research methods of the kinds presented in this chapter. Even when it comes to deeply personal or private listening experiences, the opportunity to reflect on these through conversation (including conversations initiated by researchers) helps to embed, articulate and understand the experience in ways that have the potential to influence research participants’ future patterns of engagement and experience, including, potentially, an expanded receptiveness to a wider range of musical activities and experiences. In turn, these conversations can inform the future development of organisational practice – suggesting new ways in which musical institutions can respond to how the personal value of concert listening can be enabled, thereby developing relationships with audiences, contributing to and building new, valuable listening experiences through innovative concert practices.

We have aimed in this chapter to show the value of empirical methods for understanding listening experience, and have welcomed the opportunity to set this alongside the archival approaches of the Listening Experience Database to prompt interdisciplinary discussion of the ways in which listeners talk, write and think about their live arts engagement. There is scope for the questions at the forefront of our research to be applied to the historical evidence of the LED: analysis, for example, of the topics addressed by Samuel Pepys as he wrote his diary entries on the cultural life of seventeenth-century London would demonstrate that the effects of venue, the presence of other listeners and the expectations drawn from prior arts engagement have shaped audience experience over many centuries. Empirical research with arts organisations offers the chance for an understanding of audience experience to shape the cultural life of future generations, and will need to remain responsive to changes in technology, private listening habits and educational change. Through the use of multiple, flexible research methods, understanding of the many factors involved in listening experience can continue to grow, and with it the ability for researchers and arts organisations alike to articulate the value of live listening in the contemporary world.

Select bibliography

Baxter, Lisa. ‘From luxury to necessity: the changing role of qualitative research in the arts’, in O’Reilly, Daragh and Kerrigan, Finola (eds) Marketing the Arts: A Fresh Approach. Abingdon: Routledge, 2010, pp. 121–140.

Burland, Karen and Pitts, Stephanie (eds). Coughing and Clapping: Investigating Audience Experience. Farnham: Ashgate, 2014.

Dearn, Lucy, K. and Price, Sarah M. ‘Sharing music: social and communal aspects of concert-going’, Networking Knowledge, 9(2), 2016, pp. 1–20.

Gross, Jonathan and Pitts, Stephanie. ‘Audiences for the contemporary arts: exploring varieties of participation across art forms in Birmingham, UK’, Participations, 13(1), 2016, pp. 4–23,, accessed 9 April 2017.

Price, Sarah M. ‘Academic and commercial research: bridging the gap’, Participations: Journal of Audience & Reception Studies, 12(2), 2015, pp. 168–173,, accessed 9 April 2017.

Radbourne, Jennifer, Glow, Hilary and Johanson, Katya (eds). The Audience Experience: A Critical Analysis of Audiences in the Performing Arts. Bristol: Intellect, 2013.

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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.’67 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,68Keith 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.’69 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’70 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.’71 The general corporate conservatism72 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.73

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’74 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.75 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.76

In the post object era,77 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’.78 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.79 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.’80 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.81 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.’82

Despite these considerable industrial and social upheavals83 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.84

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.’85

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’86 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.’87 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’88 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.’89 Solving these music selection problems has become a key aspect in the battle for subscribers between competing streaming services,90 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 viability91 of selling music access, as opposed to units, as a business.92 This means convincing enough consumers to pay to subscribe by converting freemium93 users to become premium subscribers.94 Competing streaming services have adopted different corporate strategies toward securing sustainable and successful businesses.95 However, the diversity and divisiveness of approaches remains a contested area of debate96 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.97

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.98

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.99 Jose van Dijck proposed that ‘The indexical function of the musical sign is bound up with its auditory materiality.’100 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.101

The granular level at which digital platforms can assess and predict user taste calls into question if genre remains ‘A driving, meaningful force’102 corporately and culturally or if, as Kassabian suspects, ‘Genre has receded significantly in importance?’103 Collins and Young argue that digitisation has dissolved the mass market into a multitude of smaller niche markets that are accessed via genre cultures.104 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.’105 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.106

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.107

More recently, Nowak theorised individual music taste as an, ‘Assemblage of preferences, social connotations, material engagements with technologies, and the roles assigned to music.’108 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,109 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 formats110

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 software111 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 eleven112 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.113 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.114

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 categories115, 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.116 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’.117 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.’118 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.’119 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 data120 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.’121 Kassabian has termed this type of music use ‘ubiquitous listening’, music as ‘Background accompaniment to their routines and activities.’122 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.’123 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.124

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.’125 Frith’s assertion that authenticity relates to some kind of sincerity or commitment126 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.’127 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.128

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.’129 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.’130 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’131 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.132

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’133 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.’134 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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