Digital music and subculture
First Monday

Digital music and subculture

Digital music and subculture: Sharing files, sharing styles by Sean Ebare

In this paper I propose a new approach for the study of online music sharing communities, drawing from popular music studies and cyberethnography. I describe how issues familiar to popular music scholars — identity and difference, subculture and genre hybridity, and the political economy of technology and music production and consumption — find homologues in the dynamics of online communication, centering around issues of anonymity and trust, identity experimentation, and online communication as a form of "productive consumption." Subculture is viewed as an entry point into the analysis of online media sharing, in light of the user–driven, interactive experience of online culture. An understanding of the "user–driven" dynamics of music audience subcultures is an invaluable tool in not only forecasting the future of online music consumption patterns, but in understanding other online social dynamics as well.


Mass, subculture and identity
Technologies of production and consumption
Online identity and trust
Understanding online music sharing





Media sharing networks such as Gnutella, Kazaa and Napster have received enormous attention for their potential to disrupt conventional regimes of media distribution, and in turn, to threaten the profitability of popular music. The ongoing, high–profile legal campaign by the Recording Industry Association of America to nix filesharing applications, and to discourage Internet users from sharing music over networks, draws attention to our misunderstandings and collective regrets over the widespread and loosely regulated deployment of networking technologies, especially the Internet. In all the attention heaped upon MP3 filesharing, rhetoric on both sides of the debate has been primarily focused on weighing the relative social values of freedom to produce and share information, and the protection of authorship and remuneration in culture industries. While these are serious questions that demand serious consideration, debate, and resolution, few serious attempts to understand the dynamics of online music sharing networks have been carried out.

Adar and Huberman [1] statistically analyzed the Gnutella network over a 24–hour period to compare the number of files offered for download to the number of files downloaded. They found that very little sharing actually takes place in networks such as Gnutella, pointing out how approximately 10 percent of users actually share files with others. Their work suggests that anonymous online music sharing networks are dependent on a small number of "power–users" for their sustenance. Viewed through this lens, MP3 file sharing networks are hardly social environments at all. Instead, they appear as impersonal, anonymous, environments populated by citizens (those making files available) and leeches (those who take without contributing) [2].

Cooper and Harrison [3] observed MP3 sharers in a non–anonymous IRC chat environment. Like Adar and Huberman, they observe a social hierarchy built on citizen and leech behaviours. They also observe how the ability to share (and in turn, social status) is partly dependent on socioeconomic factors — hard drive space or bandwidth, and Internet connection speed. The authors go on to argue that this sort of community is akin to "gift economy" societies, wherein trust and status are built through demonstrations of generosity or "citizenship" (how much users are willing to share) [4].

Both of these studies provide a rare, but limited view of online file sharing behaviour. Both dichotomize users into altruistic "citizens" and self–serving "pirates" or "leeches." Adar and Huberman’s study is something of an oversimplification because file sharers are represented by the quantity and size of files that they consume and share. In Cooper and Harrison’s study, interest in the music being shared is secondary to concerns about relative status according to how much one does share. However, in both cases, it is not clear whether the lack of in–depth analysis of sharing behaviours is due to a methodological bias of the researchers, or to the tendencies of the specific groups under study. In both cases, these studies presume that sharing files might be either good or bad, for individuals or for online communities, without delving into some of the richer meanings in online music culture that may be discovered.

While the effect of this style of online MP3 file sharing — the "citizen/leech" styled community — on music consumption practices is probably very significant, other forms of music sharing take place in a diversity of online fora: Chat clients, messageboards, and FTP posts, among others. Some fora are more dialogue–driven than others. And relatedly, the sharing of music between peers is nothing new to scholars of popular music audiences. Music audiences have been sharing music for decades through other formats, such as cassettes and CD–Rs. They have been active in dialogues about value in music. Music fans have actively sought one another out, through face–to–face communion in live music settings or record stores, through genre–specific dance clubs and events, through fanzines, through mixtape exchanges, and through online discussion groups, message boards, and MP3 Web sites. They have split into a number of social groups, identifying with particular styles and subcultures. Simply put, music sharing practices traditionally constitute a locus for negotiations of meaning and identity among music fans.

In this paper I situate online media sharing networks as a new forum for the development of subculture, style, and identity. I give attention to the ways in which the dialogue accompanying exchanges of music (in the form of peer recommendations, playlist–sharing, and other practices) highlights the role that music sharing practices play in the definition of subculture and style among audience groups. Turning to look at the maturing field of cyberethnography, and many of its findings about online network dynamics, I come to some conclusions about online environments as locations for music sharing, and for the negotiation of subculture and style. The resonances between online network dynamics and subculture dynamics are many; here, I describe a framework for analyzing these resonances. I further suggest how this analysis can be of service in the construction of a successful online music sharing community — one of beneficial value to both consumers and producers of music.



Mass, subculture and identity

"Mass culture" models of media and audiences were most explicitly articulated by Adorno (1941) and Benjamin (1936), both exponents of the Frankfurt School of social theory. Adorno and Benjamin were both interested in the emergence of mass media and its social impact, and how social organization is related to the techniques of media production and dissemination. Their approaches to the subject of the mass audience were distinct, with Adorno focusing on music aesthetics using an underlying critique of Enlightenment philosophy, and Benjamin oriented toward aesthetics of visual art and film. Still, their analyses of mass audiences were rather consistent, in that they characterized mass audiences as passive, merely receiving music and film from entertainment producers and companies.

Adorno [5] describes early twentieth century popular music as an industrial craft process, employing standardized forms, and intended for wide replication and consumption. Popular songs by different composers are "pseudoindividuated" to give an artificial impression of individual artistry. Popular music gives audiences less material to "read" than serious music does. Pop music audiences also listen with what Adorno describes as "distraction" — the desire to divert their attentions from the strains of work during leisure time, only to have that leisure time filled with monotony. Adorno argues that popular music reinforces the hegemony of early twentieth century industrial capitalism, characterizing mass audiences as "kneaded by the same mode of production as the articraft material foisted upon them," and as "customers of musical entertainment ... themselves objects or, indeed, products of the same mechanisms which determine the production of popular music," whose leisure time "serves only to reproduce their working capacity" [6].

Benjamin [7] was concerned with the loss of "aura" (transcendent qualities of art — its individual being, its irreproducibility, its being rooted in a historical origin) in an age of mechanical reproduction. Emphasizing the examples of photography and film, Benjamin sketches out a paradigm that sees art losing its transcendence and meaning as soon as it is mechanically reproducible, and disseminable to mass audiences. Simultaneously, though, art becomes more widely accessible, and its appreciation and consumption become decentralized. The analogy to popular music would be that mass produced recordings deprive the original musical performance of aura (loosely, its "meaning" or "history"), but make the music accessible to a wider audience. Like Adorno, Benjamin describes audience consumption rather monochromatically:

"Mechanical reproduction of art changes the reaction of the masses toward art. The reactionary attitude toward a Picasso painting changes into the progressive reaction toward a Chaplin movie ... the conventional is uncritically enjoyed, and the truly new is criticized with aversion." [8]

In the context of the late twentieth century, Adorno’s and Benjamin’s views do not account for the manufacture of audiences through intensive marketing by large music companies. It is very difficult to distinguish between music that is widely popular because a large audience appreciates it, and music that is popular because audiences have very few choices due to the flooding of radio and TV airwaves by a small number of successful artists. As well, neither Adorno nor Benjamin makes a concerted effort to particularize audiences. It was not until some two decades later that scholars of popular music embraced such approaches.

The British cultural studies tradition flourished in the late 1960s and 1970s. Scholars directly involved in or influenced by this tradition have at least one consistent feature in their approaches to understanding media audiences: The notion of the "active audience." Audiences are particularized and diverse. As such, their writings provide a postmodern counterpoint to the Frankfurt scholars’ "mass culture" model. Whether the approaches they use are rooted in semiotic analysis [9], an emphasis on "the culture of the everyday" [10], cultural materialism, feminism, or postcolonialism [11], [12], most of the authors falling in this group are concerned primarily with media consumption as a conspicuous, symbolic, and politically meaningful activity. Unlike the Frankfurt scholars, British cultural studies pays close attention to the ways in which music, film, and other cultural materials are shaped and influenced by the audiences who consume and use them. As well, these authors often point out how expressions of youth identity are inscribed in music fan culture and style.

In Hebdige’s analysis of punk identity, he describes some musical subcultures as symbolically open and some as symbolically closed — by contrasting the symbolic practice of punk subculture and the Teddy Boy revival. Whereas the ‘Teds’ revived cultural accoutrements in order to effect a "magical return to the past" [13], or an "authentic" stylistic aesthetic, punks deliberately assaulted meaning entirely: Mocking not only meanings ascribed by persons outside their group, but meanings they developed themselves, as well — in an attempt to evade closure on meaning of their emblems [14]. Hebdige considers the punk adoption of the swastika as a particularly troublesome moment in the negotiation of punk subculture. At first adopted as an oppositional symbol, one guaranteed to inspire anger, the punks themselves were of no fascistic inclination, allying themselves instead with anti–poverty activists, the Labour party, and radical left political culture. The wearing of a swastika on one’s T–shirt, then, became a symbolic opening: An invitation to negotiate meaning. In contrast, the Teddy Boy revivalists of the early 1970s developed a style of nostalgic values, wearing bouffant hairstyles, long coat tails, and listening to rockabilly and skiffle music in an attempt to hail a bygone historical period (albeit in opposition to mod and punk subcultures as well). Yet, the Teds were symbolically closed. Meanings ascribed to their symbolic adornments were fixed, and the same whether viewed from inside or outside the group. Subcultures that "say what they mean" may tend to have longevity, possibly because they are easier for younger audiences to "read," understand, and adopt.

Subcultures like "punk," while historically memorable, are sociologically vulnerable to the sands of time, possibly because of their very "openness." They are highly unstable, and vulnerable to co–option from outside. Rose [11] describes a similar process of identity and style negotiation in the case of inner city American hip–hop culture. Rose also succinctly describes how identity becomes inscribed in style:

"... hip–hop artists use style as a form of identity formation which plays on class distinctions and hierarchies by using commodities to claim the cultural terrain. Clothing and consumption rituals testify to the power of consumption as a means of cultural expression." [15]

Referring to self–naming in rap, the territorialism of graffiti tags, and the often furious confrontations between breakdance crews, freestyle competitors, and graffiti artists, Rose describes identity and style negotiation in hip–hop rather interchangeably.

As well, hip–hop’s opposition is directed outward, toward dominant structures: The mockery of the dominant culture’s symbolic assemblages reaches ridiculous heights with the gaudy collages of fake jewellery, enormous pants, and designer patches stitched onto wallets and other accessories. Rose describes this as a kind of "sartorial warfare" against Fifth Avenue haute couture, "for teenagers who understand their limited access to traditional avenues of social status attainment." [16]

So construed, subcultures are subject to transformation and negotiation. Much of this negotiation centers on notions of authenticity and hybridity. Gunn [17], in his unpacking of the "goth" genre label, explores the ways in which a genre of popular music may be defined or refined in terms of the act of canonization:

"Canonizing simultaneously broadens and fixes generic boundaries, making room for the inclusion of new music in reference to the old. The "logic" here operates metonymically by fixing previously recognized bands of historical significance ... as the "core" or "originators" of a given musical genre, so that future musical acts with similar sounds may expand generic boundaries with the legitimate value of difference." [18]

Within a genre, a work may be considered "authentic." An inauthentic "goth" band or song would not be comfortably categorized as goth. Simple enough, it seems. However, there are reasonable claims that genres can be, and are, continually negotiated by their participants (artists, companies, critics, and fans) [19], and that genres themselves are products of hybridizations of preexisting genres. And, genre categorizations seem to function in order to authenticate a work (a band, or a song) within a distinct cultural space. Without a genre label, a work exists in a limbo–like state in what Gunn proposes to call an "antigeneric moment" [20]. This is, apparently, the moment that an uncategorizable song or band exists before a genre can be invoked to describe what it is. There, the work is strange, marginally understood, and (according to most major label A&R reps) marginally saleable at best.

Gunn’s analysis of authenticity sheds some light on our understanding of the negotiation of identity within musical subculture. Genre can be very territorial because of the pronounced degree to which youth self–concepts are tied up in identifying with genres or subcultures. And the "antigeneric moment," seen in this way, is something of a collective identity crisis that calls for resolution, so that music fans can again make sense of their world, and themselves. Rivalries over new artists, and whether or not to include them under a genre label (hybridity), express the competition between unlike identities in what might be called a "canonization of selves."

In their way, musical subcultures are continually recombining old symbols in new combinations, in a sort of consumption–driven kaleidoscope of youthlore. Youth identity is seen to shift in concert with these genre transformations.

While it easy, in retrospect, to dismiss Adorno’s and Benjamin’s views for their inability to address features of popular music consumption in the late twentieth (and early twenty–first) century, their views may still offer some wisdom for the present analysis. Despite the specificity of subcultural analysis, many individuals never participate in such social worlds, preferring to rely on well–known sources of music (widely distributed, mainstream CDs) and official sources of information (MTV, radio, and high profile pop music magazines such as Rolling Stone or Spin). Perhaps where specificity is not claimed (vis–à–vis music–centered identity and difference), the features of subculture are far less important. Perhaps the "mass culture" models have better explanatory power for such relatively "inactive" audiences. "Mass" and "subculture" appear to be conceptual points that are useful for interpreting diverse audience groups, more so than they appear to be real things we can point to.



Technologies of production and consumption

Several well–known authors consider the ability to reproduce music as audience participation in redefining meanings of forms through consumption. Hebdige’s writing on youth subcultural theory [9] gives some attention to how portable cassette recorders "decentralize" music, allowing a wider range of people to participate in musical practices. Frith [21] and Chambers [22] both concur — that the struggle of audiences with the cultural power of capital and the state is embodied in "the continual appropriation of pop’s technology and reproductive capacities" [23]. According to Frith, the cassette recorder is one of the audience’s most effective "weapons" against the version of culture capital imposed on them [24]. That is, making home recordings, compilation recordings, and pirated copies of pre–recorded music are counter–hegemonic practices by an active, politically–charged audience. Remixing prerecorded music, and record–scratching are also oft–cited examples of public re–appropriations of popular culture [11], whereby impoverished youth become culturally empowered.

However, Ramos [25] takes issue with the idea of the active audience, making a careful distinction between "consumptive audition" and "appropriation with music making" [26]. Ramos argues that music making and audition have been separated, removed from local cultural context, and reintroduced as consumptive acts through control of distribution [27]. A better understanding of how consumption and production practices actually differ merits some detailed analysis here, if we are to assume that practices of "consumptive audition" are indicative of the "active" character of audiences.

Elsewhere [28], I have suggested that music and technology may be organized along a continuum of music use and practice (see Figure 1 below). Near one end of the continuum is the custom playlist of MP3 players and the mix–tape, which may be exported, exchanged, or transported. Here, music is rearranged and recontextualized, but the original recordings are not altered. In the middle of the continuum are the users of samplers, turntables, and mixing decks. This group remixes prerecorded music in ways that alter the original, and creates a new original out of the source material. At the other end of the continuum are the users of computer software, MIDI, and conventional recording equipment — who, in the most extreme "producer"–type cases — record entirely new sounds from physical audio sources, and arrange them into compositions.

None of these practices are exclusive (as I have pointed out, some computer recording software users also engage in remixing or turntablism, and many users who begin with consumptive audition move into serious musical production practices within a short period of time. Different technologies tend to shift the boundaries between producer and consumer. Digital technologies (MP3 format audio and computer recording software), in particular, tend to blur this distinction significantly.

Figure 1: Continuum of production and consumption practices.

Rather than coarsely characterizing the exchange of mixtapes as a "weapon" against mainstream culture, this continuum describes music consumer practices in terms of their relative activity or passivity. The significance of such a model is in its ability to account for subtle shades of difference between musicians and audiences. This is an extremely important point as it applies to online networks, as the ease of distribution afforded (through MP3s) to amateur musicians has inspired a deluge of online amateur musician communities, and has made possible more numerous points of contact between musicians and audiences than previous media structures allowed. The related convergence of home recording and other music–making practices with home computer technologies heralds even more numerous points of contact between music production and consumption. Certainly, current technology is empowering to many amateurs and semi–professionals, and may work to blur distinctions between production and consumption. But what social formations might emerge from this new configuration of people and technology?



Online identity and trust

Obviously, in thinking about how communities form around the online consumption of media content (in the present case, music), we must not only consider the processes of music fan culture, but also the dynamics of community in online environments. Research into computer mediated communication (CMC) has made significant strides in its nascent phase.

One of the earlier paradigms of computer mediated communication studies is that of reduced cues theory [29, 30, 31, 32]. This school of thought argues that the major differences between CMC and face–to–face (F2F) communication reside in the narrower "bandwidth" of CMC's primary medium, text:

"Awareness and sensitivity to others will be related to the number of (sensory) channels or codes available for linking them. Face–to–face communication should breed greater awareness and sensitivity because of its multiplicity of channels, while online communication should be more impersonal, less inhibited, and less adaptive." [33]

"Reduced cues" theory thus explains why CMC often includes more overt expressions of hostility, "flaming," blunt disclosure, and nonconforming behaviour than is witnessed in F2F communities. However, users are observed to adapt through their use of "smilies" and other techniques that replace aural and visual cues. Later CMC studies (in non–laboratory settings) reinforce this critique, arguing that CMC is much more similar to F2F communication than previously thought, albeit relationship formation slows down in the virtual, text–based world. One study [34] found that when interactions were not temporally limited (as in unstructured field studies of CMC), emotional content in exchanges increased. Hence, the "reduced cues" interpretation of early CMC studies was probably influenced by the Heisenberg–like effect of the laboratory setting (time restrictions).

Field–oriented CMC studies of online communities point to the specific value of online relationships, as distinguishable from the values of offline relationships. For many individuals, relationships established through chatrooms, discussion boards, or MUDs (multi user domains) are better suited for emotional support [35, 36], and for identity formation [37; 35]. Online communities allow a degree of security in, and can hence facilitate, the declaration of socially marginalized or tabooed identities, such as gay, lesbian or various fetish orientations [38].

Other research into CMC relationships has tested various theories of cursory interest here, which pertain predominantly to the formation of online romantic relationships. In brief, these positions range from Walther’s [39] information–processing perspective (mentioned previously — in which reduced sensory cues merely retard the process of relationship formation), to social penetration theory (in which relationship formation is primarily dependent on a cost–benefit forecasting process that the user undertakes [40]), and uncertainty–reduction theory (wherein the critical locus of relationship building is the process of reducing ambiguities in the character of an online partner [41]).

A more recent approach is that of Haythornthwaite [42], in which the social "tie" is posited as the primary unit of analysis in CMC. Haythornthwaite argues that using this framework sheds light on how the relative strength of social ties influences the dynamics of computer mediated communities. Strongly–tied communicators (e.g., offline friends and acquaintances) are more adaptable to changing media situations, while weakly–tied communicators (e.g., anonymous communicators in a message board) are more reliant on the organizational structures provided by others.

Early CMC research, despite its methodological biases, contributes much to the present discussion. While building trust between online communicators may take longer online than in F2F environments (due to reduced cues), online communication environments are in many ways a safe refuge for the expression of identity and self–concept, even when that identity is viewed as taboo in the offline world. As well, the concept of social "ties" draws attention to how communicators with varying degrees of affiliation to one another will interact differently online (strongly tied pairs are more autonomous and resistant to changes in media, and weakly tied pairs are dependent on organizational structures).

A few recent studies seem particularly helpful in clarifying the question of how to approach a taxonomy of online content communities. These studies follow the cyberethnographic approach popularized by Turkle [43]. Mitzuko Ito’s [44] work on cultural expression and ubiquitous computing among Japanese youth (a highly mobile, affluent segment of Japanese society) reaffirms the idea of virtual spaces as ripe for the development of youth identity and subculture. One of Ito’s key findings is that among ketai–equipped youth, the computing power of an Internet–connected cell phone becomes an engine for the creation of a shared teenage space outside the home — where, for many Japanese youth, strict parental supervision of activities is de rigueur. In the constant exchange of brief text messages, and the reading of romance novels on card–sized Web pages that display in a cell phone’s screen, ubiquitous computing has become a potential new locus for the negotiation of culture, and identity — in an oppositional space, self–organized by the swarm of youths occupying it.

In terms of a comprehensive approach to online communities of all sorts, the work of Daniel Pargman [45] is very informative. Pargman studied a Swedish–speaking MUD for nearly four years, and came out with some compelling interpretations about the idea of online "communities," generally understood. Differentiating "communities" from "cities," Pargman notes how the SvenskMUD was developed in adherence to a romanticized view of community (close–knit, mutually supportive, personal). Pargman believes that one of the primary reasons for the success of online MUDs is that they are user–driven. In contrast, he argues, "virtual city" building is better carried out by business interests — although, he qualifies this with the statement that these "cities" should permit the development of "communities" within them, to counteract the effects of depersonalization and alienation inherent in cities (virtual or real).



Understanding online music sharing: A synthesis

Music audience communities are conventionally considered under the rubric of "mass," "subculture" or "genre." Genres and subcultures are negotiated by participants through talk, actions, clothing, and other behaviours. By taking part in the negotiation of culture, youth who are engaged with a genre are really refining their self concept or identity as they mature, and learn more about their situation in the world. As such, genre can be hotly contested, is taken quite personally and seriously, and is often most visible when expressed in "opposition" to something else — parents, authority figures, or other subcultures, predominantly. Over time, new influences lead to experimentation in the cross–pollination of genres, resulting in hybrids. The technology used to share music is highly influential on the scope or rate of cross–pollination and identity negotiation. And the level of involvement of fans in amateur production makes the question of "identifying with the music" even more pronounced (as such individuals are actually creating their "own" music).

Online communication technologies facilitate media sharing at an unprecedented rate, but potentially slow down the formation of familial bonds due to reduced cues. This may be overcome by "enriching" the communication media with other sensory experiences (sound, voice, image, video), which can help reduce uncertainty about unknown communicators more quickly. A further enticement to using online communication for music communities is the "safeness" of identity expression in anonymous environments. Perhaps there will always be some tension between the safety that the anonymity of the Web provides, and the desire to connect intimately with like–minded individuals (who perhaps share musical tastes). Identity is negotiated in online settings at this critical conceptual crossroads.

The negotiation of genre and identity is dependent on information sharing about music. When affective bonds are strong, communicating pairs will likely disregard official information sources in favour of the opinions of peers. This is the argument for user–driven chat and music review systems as attached to music sharing: Fan groups as interpretive communities. When affective bonds are insignificant or nonexistent (wider groups of communicators with infrequent contact), there will be heavier reliance on official sources (such as, or Rolling Stone, or Punk Planet), and audiences will more closely resemble the "passive receiver" model described by Benjamin and Adorno. With any musical fan culture, there will be a degree of tension between both extremes. In almost all cases, popular music fans seem to want to talk to each other about music, to some degree.

The control features of online communities are also relevant. While musical subcultures are generally best left alone for youth to determine themselves (seeing that this is likely an important part of the pleasure of pop music), administrative authority has limited application, except to introduce new things into the community. But formal organization is something many young netizens may take pains to avoid, possibly viewing it as somehow akin to parental or societal authority, things toward which many musical subcultures are built in opposition. If Ito’s ethnography is any indication, youth culture will flourish in a user–driven, "swarm"–type fashion, and will migrate away from spheres in which they cannot interact freely with peers.

Online music communities may be moderated by the influence of "file hoarders" and "file sharers," who see filesharing in a very different light — not really related to the sharing of music so it can be listened to, but instead for some sort of "virtual status" which affords them access to better networks, higher quality files, and sometimes free hardware in exchange for access to their "digital wealth." Is it possible, as these studies (referred to in the Introduction of this paper) suggest, that the formation of online sharing communities is solely influenced by empty accumulation? Or, is it likely that the features I have observed that relate to genre and identity formation in music fan cultures can play an important role as well?

The answer to this question rests primarily in the modes of communication afforded by peer–to–peer and Web–based media for distributing media online. Many Gnutella users prefer to "share" files anonymously, and few (if the social aridity of Gnutella forums is any indication) actively seek out chat or information sharing through Gnutella clients. On the other hand, fan–driven music message boards (such as Yahoo or Google groups, often very genre–specific, and in which genres are often hotly contested) are one of the prevailing platforms for much identity negotiation in online music culture. In this scenario the content (the music) is somewhat distanced from its discussion (seeing that anonymizing networks like Gnutella and Fasttrack are still the dominant modes of music sharing).

And, as recent cyberethnography tells us, carving out self–organized spaces for free discourse is the hallmark of a sense of "community" online. An online music–sharing community may be cemented by trust relations based on knowledge, territorialized tastes and opinions, and initiative (trust accorded to those who own large collections of records, have a vast knowledge about records, and espouse well–reasoned opinions about music). This arrangement of features closely resembles the "taste leadership" of critical spheres in music consumption communities described by Frith [46], Scott [47], and Hills [48]. As Scott argues, music becomes influential in production spheres through "a circle of auditors that is gradually widened" (outward, that is, from band to producer to record label to promoter to local audience to radio to distributor to TV channel to mass audience, with numerous intermediaries, negotiating trust and meaning, betwixt) [49]. In this sense, taste in consumption communities may be seen as an extension of taste in production communities.

But also, the practices of audition, interpretation, and communion involved in music consumption are only potentially synchronous (simultaneous music listening and chatting) as conventional structures allow. In foreseeing this scenario, something new may be taking place. As CMC studies teach us, relationship formation is slowed online because of reduced cues. But as Cultural Studies informs us, the value of music is, psychologically, inextricably related to identity, difference, and social group consciousness. Music provides the missing sensory cues for CMC, while CMC reinforces identity in a more private environment.

What might emerge here then is some form of "enclosed public" of individuals sharing music and chat. It would not be "public" in the conventional sense of the term, bringing with it social responsibility and consequences, but it may be "public" in the sense that members of an online sharing group create the meaning and purpose of their community. Emergent self–organizing online music communities might be tentatively described as subculturally–driven "ad hocracies."




Subculture and genre may be seen as emergent properties of communication within and between audience groups. Communication is here defined as not only the exchange of textual and visual information, but also recordings of the music itself. Using this assumption, MP3 filesharing, online chatting, personal image sharing, and blogging (where they are primarily concerned with the subject of music) are all considered forms of dialogue about music.

Subcultures, inscribed with identities, and often formed in opposition to something else, would seem highly compatible with media rich, user–driven, "group narrative"–type online communities, fostering and reproducing strong ties between communicators. Even individuals who do not identify as members of a subculture may desire a high degree of control over the circumstances of their participation in an online music community, as this tendency is observed in online communities of many non–musical orientations.

But because not everyone identifies as a member of a subculture, "mass culture" or "passive reception" models deserve serious consideration here as well. For some (younger people, people who desire convenience over intensiveness of involvement in online culture, or individuals without much knowledge of music), "top–down," centralized, "city–like" community frameworks (involving static "genres," centralized taste leadership, and official opinion sources) may be a more attractive option than the dynamism and autonomy offered by a subcultural community model. It is possible, then, to conceive of at least two kinds of audiences (or consumption styles), distinguished by their degree of personal identity investment in music, subculture, or genre.

But yet another factor demands some attention here, relating to the culture of anonymous filesharing "communities" in which status and social relationships depend not on subculture or genre at all (networks outside the present empirical study, but well within the purview of modeling online content communities). Status in this sort of community is related to the ability to contribute to a filesharing community through much bandwidth and gigabytes of MP3 files [3]. While the potential impact of this kind of "citizen/leech" behaviour in online media communities is not yet known, it is one small example of how my original thesis — that genre and subculture are emergent properties of communication within and between audiences — may be reversible. In other words, the structure of communication practice may to some extent predetermine the expression of subculture or genre taking place in the community environment.

In articulating a vision for the future of online media sharing communities, it is vital to appreciate the variegated morphology of music audience communities, whether mass or subcultural, whether driven by the online communication environment or moreso by face–to–face interaction and communion. All types of peer interaction will likely make themselves known, to some degree, in any new media environment, and all types may peaceably coexist no matter what the rules of the prevailing delivery model are. In a word: Diversity. Diversity and flexibility in the ways in which interests may be declared, personal identities may be represented, peer connections may be made, musical tastes represented, and even GUI personalization are the fundamental considerations in the deployment of a successful and profitable media sharing system with wide appeal. End of article


About the Author

Sean Ebare is a Researcher at the New Media Innovation Centre in Vancouver, Canada. He holds an M.A. in Communication from Simon Fraser University. He is also a member of the electropunk band aLUnARED, among numerous other musical projects.



I thank Dr. Richard Smith, Michael Koch, Rodger Lea, Florence Chee, Sara Bailey, and Marina Stamboulieh for their comments and support during the research leading up to this paper, and for their comments on earlier drafts.



1. E. Adar and B.A. Huberman, 2000. "Free riding on Gnutella," First Monday, volume 5, number 10 (October), at, accessed 30 May 2003.

2. Ibid.

3. J. Cooper and D. Harrison, 2001. "The Social organisation of audio piracy on the Internet," Media, Culture and Society, volume 23 (January), pp. 71–89.

4. Ibid.

5. T.W. Adorno, with the assistance of George Simpson, 1941. "On popular music," Studies in Philosophy and Social Science, volume 9, pp. 17–48.

6. Ibid.

7. W. Benjamin, 1936. "The Work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction," In: H. Arendt (editor). Illuminations. Translated by Harry Zohn. New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1968, pp. 281–300.

8. Ibid.

9. D. Hebdige, 1979. Subculture: The Meaning of style. London: Methuen.

10. I. Chambers, 1986. Popular culture: The Metropolitan experience. London: Metheun.

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Editorial history

Paper received 23 September 2003; accepted 30 January 2004.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2004, First Monday

Copyright ©2004, Sean Ebare

Digital music and subculture: Sharing files, sharing styles by Sean Ebare
First Monday, volume 9, number 2 (February 2004),

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2019. ISSN 1396-0466.