Online networks and the production of value in electronic music

Daniel Allington, Anna Jordanous, Byron Dueck

[Cross-posted from]

This project began with Pierre Bourdieu’s argument that cultural value is a form of belief. Drawing on Marcel Mauss’s work in the anthropology of religions, Bourdieu (1993 [1980]) argued that a painting or a poem is a sort of fetish: that is, a ‘magical’ artefact whose special status derives from the fact that believers hold it to be magical. So, for Bourdieu, cultural production involves not only the production of artefacts, but also the production of belief in the value of those artefacts. It’s easy to see how this would apply to what Bourdieu called the ‘field of large scale production’, i.e. the commercial culture industries: big businesses such as major record labels and Hollywood film studios invest both in the production of what is now called ‘content’ and in advertising and other forms of publicity through which to generate demand for that content. But what most interested Bourdieu was what he called the ‘field of restricted production’ or the ‘field of art and literature’, which puts little emphasis on the audience, is embarrassed by excessive commercial success, and appears to operate on the principle of ‘art for art’s sake’.

According to Bourdieu, those who participate in the field of restricted production – whether as producers, critics, publishers, or whatever – share a belief in the special value of what the field produces, and compete to convince their peers that certain particular works possess more of this value than others. The victors in this competition come to define the ‘legitimate culture’ of the future, thanks to an institutional apparatus of value transmission that encompasses private businesses such as publishers, public institutions such as museums, and of course the educational system, and through this means, what Bourdieu calls ‘symbolic capital’, or the ‘specific capital’ of the cultural field – which is to say, peer esteem – becomes convertible into economic capital – although only for a minority, and even then, after a delay of many years.

Such ideas are likely to seem familiar to many cultural producers and consumers who would think of themselves as having little stake in ‘legitimate culture’. For example, as David Hesmondhalgh (2006, 217) points out, ‘ “alternative” seem[s]… to be a vernacular term, within the field of popular musical production and consumption, for what Bourdieu calls… restricted production…. constantly defined… against a pop “mainstream”, a vernacular term for… large-scale production.’ This is one way in which Bourdieu’s opposition between the field of restricted production and the field of large scale production has recently been complicated through recognition that nonelite culture can also function on the basis of ‘art for art’s sake’. Where it does, we again discover situations in which a producer’s intended audience is composed, in the first instance, of his or her competitors. And this appears to be as true of jazz or grime as it is of opera, regardless of the fact that the former two are largely disconnected from the institutional structures that support the latter, both financially and symbolically (see e.g. Perchard 2014, paragraphs 10–11).

So if one takes the position that the specific capital of cultural fields is the same thing as cultural value, one is necessarily led to an understanding of cultural value as inherently and inextricably a matter of inequality and exclusion. And inequalities and exclusions – not only within, but also between social groups – are among the things that social network analysis and ethnography are best equipped to unveil. We are using both in our study of electronic music.

On the one hand, then, we are engaged in social network analysis of interactions between producers on the SoundCloud website. SoundCloud is both a social networking site and a music publishing site. It’s like YouTube without the visuals and without the piracy. We’re looking at who follows who – where a follow is a one-directional arc (i.e. arrow) from one individual to another, and represents an implied act of valuing – and at who comments on whose tracks – where a positive comment is also an arc, and the great majority of comments are positive. Having scraped data from the website, we can visualise networks of many thousands of nodes. We can then study these networks in various ways in order to get at the question of who is valuing whom, and whom that valued person is valuing in turn (for explanation of the principles involved, see Allington 2013; for preliminary findings, see Allington, Dueck, and Jordanous 2015, in press).

On the other hand, we are simultaneously carrying out interviews and observational research in offline contexts. This is important because relationships between producers are only partially lived out in public online spaces. Much valuing takes place through private online interactions, for example email. And face-to-face interactions are probably the most important of all. This helps us to understand the continued importance of physical location in producing cultural value, even in an age of instant global digital distribution – and in turn helps us to make sense of our quantitative data. Many music makers on SoundCloud appear to have a tendency to follow others who are based in the same city. Why, when they can follow people anywhere in the world – and when the SoundCloud website doesn’t organise producers’ accounts geographically, or provide helpful lists of ‘DJs near you’? While following an electronic music producer on SoundCloud is a way of publicly valuing his or her work, it may also reflect a pre-existing belief in the value of that work: a belief that may well have been formed through offline interactions – for example, attending a club night where a DJ (perhaps also a respected producer) plays one of that person’s tracks in his or her set.

So the problem we are dealing with now is not that, when we look at the interactions on SoundCloud, we are not seeing the production of cultural value. Rather, the problem is that a whole spectrum of different interactions is involved, and that these public online interactions are at the lower intensity end of it. And the solution to that problem is, we would suggest, more offline data collection – including for social network analysis – bringing the qualitative and quantitative sides of the research closer together.

See the valuing electronic music website for more details.

Allington, Daniel (2013). ‘Intrinsically cultural value: a sociological perspective’. The #culturalvalue Initiative, 5 December.

Allington, Daniel, Dueck, Byron, and Jordanous, Anna (2015, in press). ‘Networks of value in electronic music: SoundCloud, London, and the importance of place’. Cultural Trends 24 (3).

Bourdieu, Pierre (1993 [1980]). ‘The production of belief: contribution to an economy of symbolic goods’. Trans. Richard Nice. In: Bourdieu, Pierre. The field of cultural production: essays on art and literature. Cambridge: Polity Press. 74-111.

Hesmondhalgh, David (2006). ‘Bourdieu, the media, and cultural production’. Media, Culture, and Society 28 (2): 211-231.

Perchard, Tom (2014). ‘Insipid International Jazz Day whitewashes a fractious past’. The Conversation, 30 April.

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