Dr Daniel Allington, Dr Anna Jordanous, and Dr Byron Dueck: Online networks and the production of value in electronic music

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. http://culturalvalueinitiative.org/2013/12/05/intrinsically-cultural-value-sociological-perspective-daniel-allington/

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. https://theconversation.com/insipid-international-jazz-day-whitewashes-a-fractious-past-26022

Dave O’Brien – Cultural Value and Inequality: A Critical Literature Review

2015 has seen an extensive discussion of inequality in the media. This has been about the ‘traditional’ concerns of social inequality, such as who gets top jobs, but there have also been headlines about culture.

In the UK, the prominence of actors and singers from more affluent backgrounds caused something of a furore, particularly during the film and TV awards season, while the announcement of the Oscars shortlist again raised questions about inequalities based on gender and ethnicity.

Inequality has often been raised by an older generation of artists, such as the actor Julie Walters, opining that, ‘the way things are now there aren’t going to be any working class actors’, or Stuart Maconie mourning the ‘creeping blandness,’ of much indie music.

However, whilst the subject only seems to have hit the headlines recently, the relationship between inequality and culture is clear in the academic literature. It is clear whether we think about cultural consumption or about cultural production. In our recent review of the literature, we have tried to summarise what all of this academic work means for our understanding of cultural value. We can distil the discussion down to three points.

First, the literature suggests a clear relationship with what sort of culture is

seen as valuable and the broader social inequalities within British society. This is reflected by who attends which cultural forms; the patterns of employment in the jobs producing those cultural forms; and the specific content of those cultural forms.

The literature suggests that cultural production is dominated by white males from affluent backgrounds. In turn, there are a range of criticisms of what is on stage and screen (in all its forms) and how those who are not white, middle class, men are represented. Finally those forms of culture funded and supported by the state, for example by Arts Council England, tend to attract audiences that are whiter and well educated.

The idea that the questions raised in the previous paragraph might be related to a hierarchy of culture, with some cultural forms seen as more valuable than others, is an uncomfortable one in modern Britain. Indeed, it is commonplace to argue against this idea in favour of an attitude that rejects cultural snobbery and tries to insist on cultural production and consumption being meritocratic.

However, when placed in light of the inequalities of consumption and production of culture discussed in our literature review, this ‘omnivorous’ attitude seems to be part of the problem, obscuring the social structures of class, ethnicity and gender (as well as disability and geography) that exclude individuals’ and communities from cultural value.

Finally there are still lots of areas where researchers (and therefore policy, practice and popular discussion) just need more data. Whilst there have been recent projects drawing on surveys about wage levels in particular cultural industries, there hasn’t really been a definitive research project connecting consumption, production and cultural value. It is here that the Cultural Value Project has uncovered, and has set, the agenda.

The report written by Dave O’Brien and Professor Kate Oakley of Leeds University on Cultural Value and Inequality can be downloaded from the AHRC website here