The History of Grime Music: A Bristol Perspective

Where does Grime come from? This question has been posed to Dizzee Rascal, Wiley, So-Solid or Heartless Crew and many others. DJ Target from Pay As You Go Cartel has recently begun an interview series on BBC One Xtra to address this very question. With UK artists such as Skepta and Stormzy breaking into American markets, and international newcomers introduced to the rawness of Grime Music, there has been an emergence of interest into the roots of this raw, underground sound. This blog will offer a Bristolian perspective on the roots of Grime – Bristol being an hour and a half drive away from London, and my hometown. This blog will discuss various, interrelated factors that caused Grime to emerge. The most significant include: cultural and musical influences, advancing technologies, tensions between social classes and the establishment, and shifts in levels of wealth and prosperity.

To understand how Grime Music evolved it is important to understand the social and political atmosphere within which Grime emerged. In most accounts of the emergence of Grime these factors are easily overlooked. The most crucial factor, I feel, was Nine-Eleven (9/11) terrorist attacks across America in 2001.  From the perspective of a young, working-class youngster, particularly young black youngsters, it seemed that 9/11 gave Tony Blair and George Bush a green light to conspire, declare an ‘Axis of Evil’ and send troops and bombs into the Middle East. The Global War on Terrorism also enabled national leaders to activate police forces against urban youths on the streets. Operation Trident, new stop and search laws handed to the police, and the introduction of Anti-Social Behavior laws, seemed to target and victimize urban youngsters of lower-income households, particularly of African, Muslim or Afro-Caribbean decent. In Bristol I remember a row of around ten police helicopters flying in a straight line over ‘ghetto’ districts of Bristol City. Residents were told that the police were scanning these city areas using infrared cameras to identify council houses where crops of marijuana were being grown. Rightly or wrongly, for those growing weed to earn an alternative income, the state-system was clamping down on any potential earnings.

Tighter government control, authoritarian at times, generated an atmosphere and feelings of tension at a street level. If Tony Blair and George Bush were prepared to lead the UK into an oil ‘War on Iraq’, considered by many demonstrators an act of daylight robbery, then at a street level, gang warfare, robberies, stabbings and even killings were somewhat justified – if the ruling powers are doing it, why shouldn’t we? Since the police are targeting us, criminalizing us, then what commitment do we owe to the state or acting according to ‘civilized’ or socially acceptable rules? The political and state-system was hypocritical every time it told gang members to back down or disarm. Different cultures of violence emerged: gang culture, knife culture and gun culture. There is a famous video online of a clash between Dizzee Rascal and Crazy Titch (Titch, later imprisoned for 30 years for murdering a ‘disrespectful’ MC with Mach 10 machine gun).


The Dizzee vs. Titch clash is still a tense video to watch. Looking back it is easy to see how hostile things were at that time. Undeniably, this was a clash of egos; a fierce lyrical battle between competing MCs that got out of hand. At the same time, gang wars; international war and police hostility would have amplified tensions within this pirate radio studio in East London. For those living in deprived areas during this time, targeted by a hypocritical state system (‘Islamophobia’), then it did feel as if the UK was reduced to a ‘dog eat dog’ culture. This provided the background for the aggressive sound and violent content of Grime Music; ‘grime simply gave East London’s disenfranchised youth a platform; it was the Fight Club of London’s underground youth subculture’.

Another factor in the emergence of Grime was technological, a shift from analogue to digital media formats. Vinyl records, cassette tapes or Technics 1210 turntables were being slowly replaced by CDs, mini-disks and MP3s. Whereas pirate radio stations were once the main outlet for underground music, gradually digital cable channels such as Channel-U became another outlet for unsigned urban talent. Underground acts such as So-Solid Crew or Pay As You Go Cartel that who blew up on cable network channels, were signed and pushed into mainstream markets, eventually performing on BBC Radio or Top of the Pops. Later on, MySpace offered music producers and MCs a free forum for connecting with fans, promoting events and distributing music. Throughout this transition, no longer was an MC or group of MCs a host to the DJ as the main act, but MCs started to become musical artists and the main act over the DJs. Ravers would go to events to see Baseman, Skibadee or Shabba D as much, if not more, as the DJs they were performing with.

In the analogue era of decks and vinyl records, listeners and fans typically stuck to one genre of music, had a favorite music shop or a favorite radio station. Youth culture was separated into clicks of ‘Hip Hop Heads’, ‘Junglists’ or ‘R&B Fans’ with their own languages and fashions. Sound systems and DJs began to change this. From a Bristol perspective, London sound systems such as Boogie Bunch, Rampage Sound or Heartless Crew were more popular because they mixed of genres of urban music. I remember Boogie Bunch’s DJ Swing playing a Ragga track at an R&B night and considering that groundbreaking and revolutionary – normally dancehall music was played in the ghetto areas of the city alone. No longer did urban music fans need to go to a strictly R&B night but you could hear a sound system spin Jungle, Garage, R&B, Hip Hop, Dancehall and Soca. Were the DJs becoming more selective, and setting new musical trends, or were the crowds becoming more picky, wanting more variety from DJs? As analogue culture slowly transformed into digital culture, it was more likely a mixture of the two (supply and demand).

In the digital era and the Internet, made music free and more accessible and merged cultures and sounds. Like music fans, MCs did not want to be restricted to one pirate radio station or one specific genre of music. MCs wanted to diversify and embrace a wider range of musical tastes, as well as tap into and make money from different musical markets. General Levi was an early example of a lyricist able to perform across genres, embracing Jungle, Hip Hop and Ragga music. Multi-genre music went in two creative directions. On the one hand, MCs such as General Levi became mixed-genre artists, performing on Jungle, Hip Hop and Ragga tracks. On the other hand Grime Music began to mix and amalgamate different genres into one distinct sound. As I remember, East Connection, Heartless Crew or Pay As You Go Cartel were some of the first distinguishable example of Grime Music to hit Bristol, Swindon or Cardiff. Later down the line, Nasty Crew or Roll Deep with DJ Slimzee, Dizzee Rascal and MC Wiley were to develop that raw and dark sound we know today as Grime Music.

The emergence and evolution of Garage Music played a fundamental role in setting the foundations for Grime Music. Deriving from Soulful House, borrowing baseline elements from Jungle and Drum & Bass music, Garage Music radically transformed the R&B, Dancehall and Hip Hop nightclub scene. The Garage Scene was all about wearing expensive designer shoes, dapper suits, looking intelligent, wearing crisply ironed shirts whilst drinking champagne (‘champagne bubbly’). What came with Garage Music was a real feeling of emancipation, liberation, freedom and joy. Night clubbers felt set free and empowered by this celebratory sounds of Garage. Any aggression associated with badman-Dancehall music (e.g. Bounty Killer’s “Anytime” or “Can’t Believe Me Eye” (1998)) or New York Hip Hop (e.g. The Lox ” We Are The Streets” (2000), DMX “Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood” (1998)), was momentarily suspended by the smooth vocals and skipping beats of UK Garage (e.g. Roy Davis Jr ft Peven Everett – Gabriel (1996), Tina Moore – Never Gonna Let You Go (1997), MJ Cole – Sincere (2000)). UK Garage or Speed Garage was a motivational music. People would work hard, save hard, dress up ‘stush’, travel long distances and spend hard-earned money in order to enjoy a Garage rave. The clientele was sophisticated, upbeat and intelligent, with less chance of outbreaks of trouble associated with Dancehall or D&B music scenes.


Gradually UK Garage Music got darker as it evolved from its Soulful House roots to what has become Grime Music today. It merged a lot more with the darker elements of Drum & Bass music. MC Bushkin of Heartless crew recently made an interesting point of how Garage DJs began to reduce the vocals on garage tracks, and extend the break beats; amplify the baselines, to allow Ragga, Jungle and D&B MCs to spit vocals on over the tracks. This allowed a greater integration between D&B and Garage. But the mixing, merging and integration was as much social as cultural and musical. In several interviews Wiley or Dizzee, mention being that the tracksuit wearing, under-class, street-youth they represented were often barred from entering the black-middle-class Garage raves by nightclub bouncers. Essentially, in the eyes of the Garage Music scene these Drum & Bass MCs and their fan base represented trouble. Both Wiley and Dizzee would be the first to admit to that.

Gradually, Garage Music became darker, more aggressive, more troublesome, and later evolved into Grime Music. Wiley’s anthem “Wot U Call It?” (2004) is the most noticeable point in the transition from Garage (2-Step, UK Garage or Speed Garage) to Grime. With people speculating about names for the new genre, such as “Eski Music” or “Sub-Low”, it was eventually termed “Grime” by either music journalists or industry employees. Heartless Crews’ MC Bushkin mentioned that nigh clubbers would say to him: “Your music sounds Grimy!” That was a popular term at that time with N.O.R.E.’s thug-life anthem “Grimy” (2001) or Dillinja’s ultra-dark Drub & Bass anthem: “Grimey”.

Whereas UK Garage seemed to represent a cultural celebration of new wave of wealth and middle-class prosperity entering into black communities within the UK (from mid-1990s to 2001), post-9/11 Grime Music signified marginalization, despair, anger and rage against the establishment, as the title of Dizzee Rascal’s cornerstone LP “Boy in the Corner” suggests.

Grime can be considered a by-product of political and military Blairism. Grime has now become a sell-out scene, not as in watered-down, but sell-out as in commercially successful. Not only are Grime MCs making their mark around the world, but selling out huge stadiums within the UK – for example, Red Bull’s Culture Clash or Dizzee Rascal’s opening of the British Olympics. Any anger, rage and despair embedded within the sound has evolved into mainstream sound; a part of British national consciousness. The fury that Grime expressed, which stemmed from poverty, class and racial tensions, aimed at the corporate and social state-system, is paradoxically vented and celebrated at a national-level.

The views in this blog are mainly my own. Please a comment below if you see the emergence of Grime from another perspective. Thanks for reading.


A Sociological Interpretation of the Bobby Shmurda Case

Sociologically, the recent arrest of overnight musical sensation Bobby Shmurda highlights a whole new set of interrelated social issues caused by social networking media, whilst also drawing our attention to a more historical set of race and class issues that seem as prevalent today as they during in the industrial revolution and the British Imperialist epoch.

Still photo from Bobby Shmurda's viral video Hot Nigga
Still photo from Bobby Shmurda’s viral video Hot Nigga

The opening lyric of Shmurda’s viral hit Hot Nigga (2014) – as Shmurda’s opening introduction to the world – announced:

In Chewy, I’m some hot nigga
Like I talk to Shyste when I shot niggas
Like you seen em twirl then he drop, nigga
And We Keep them 9 milli’s on my block, nigga
And Monte Keep it on him, he done dropped niggas
And Trigger he be wilding, he some hot nigga
Tones known to get busy with them Glocks, nigga

These were the lyrics that fans sang out all across the US and around the world. Within a matter of month he appeared on stage with Drake, had his dance performed by Jay-Z and Beyonce Knowles, Rihanna and Justin Bieber. What more could a young teenage from Brooklyn wish for?

Some translation work needs to be done here. At that time nobody actually knew who these people, “Shyste”, “Monte”, “Trigger” or “Tones” were, other than the fact that Shmurda pointed some of them out in his music video. What we did know, if we were to accept that nineteen-year old Shmurda was telling the truth and keeping it real, was that these youngsters had guns, had shot people and were prepared and threatening to shoot more people. It should not have come as much a surprise then when the police eventually arrested Shmurda’s gang with twenty handguns between them. What is strange, and what is peculiar, is that the news did come as a shock to the Hip Hop, urban and popular music communities around the world. Why does his arrest come as such a shock to us all when he was so openly real and transparent about his background and criminal activities?

Realism: the politics of keeping it real: There has always been a tension between representing reality (realism) and fiction or fantasy-fiction in hip-hop music. The general public had always gotten some level of insight into urban, ghetto life in the videos of Grandmaster Flash (The Message) or breakdancing videos such as Beat Street (1984) or Breakdance (1984). That there was some intrinsic link between the ghetto streets and the raw sound of the music being produced there became apparent. The mid-nineties is often referred to as the pinnacle era of Hip Hop. What had come before this peek in music production were several hip-hop acts that were potentially real (e.g. Big Daddy Kane, KRS-One/BDP and N.W.A.) and then another set of more commercial hip hop acts that were clearly products of the music industry (e.g. Vanilla Ice, MC Hammer). At that time there was also a third trend of organic, “hippy” hip-hop acts, such as De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, PM Dawn.

Two things developed from this situation in the middle of the 1990s. Firstly, whole new generations of hip hop artists came out onto the mainstream whose aim was to “keep it real”. Nas’ debut LP Illmatic (1994) is the best example of this new, artistic realism. Both in terms of the lyrical content and the gritty sound of the musical production (including samples of subway train and groups of youngsters speaking on the street corners), the album attempted to represent urban street life in Queensbridge as best as possible. Nas took onboard the title of an urban poet in his special ability to accurately represent ghetto life to a much wider, mainstream audience. In his diss song directed at Nas, Jay Z claimed that: ‘It’s only so long fake thugs can pretend Nigga, you ain’t live it
. You witnessed it from your folks’ pad
. You scribbled it in your notepad and created your life’. Nevertheless, Nas was of a generation intent on representing the real. This trend took off and other acts such as The Wu Tang Clan and The Notorious BIG also had the aim of representing the hard realities of life in inner city New York. Being able to represent reality, or “keep it real”, became a big selling point.

Wu Tang C.R.E.A.M.
Wu Tang C.R.E.A.M.

A paradoxical turn came when artists who had set out to “keep it real” about street life became successful and financially prosperous in doing so. If these artists were to keep up the promise of “representing the real” then they could no longer write about backstreets and alleyways, drug addicts and dealers, when their social environments had changed so dramatically. In order to keep it authentic, rappers then had to represent their newly found cultural environments of prosperity, lavishness, security and comfort. Rap became bourgeoisie. Therefore, keeping it real or resenting the real became a success story of champagne and caviar, Rolls Royces, D&G and Armani. To keep it real, however, the narrators had to maintain some kind of ghetto mentality in these non-ghetto environments. Being a success, as might be a norm for any well-to-do white American, was only achieved as a result of a “gangster mentality” – “criminal minded” as KRS-One called it. White people were simply successful, black men and women were forced to become successful only by being dons, or ghetto-gangsters.

Christopher Wallace aka Notorious BIG aka Biggie Smalls
Christopher Wallace aka Notorious BIG aka Biggie Smalls

There was a whole backlash against black realist rappers who tried to remain authentic in their new, upper-middle-class or elitist cultural conditions. Those left grinding on the streets argued that they were “sell outs” and had become far removed from the essence that gave hip-hop music that raw, gritty edge. These rappers were so concerned about keeping it real, representing the real, or representing the people (community members in ghetto neighborhoods) that they swore never to sell out on the streets. This movement morphed into a new black “left-wing” mentality in hip-hop culture.

The most monuments political and ideological turn in the hip hop movement – I believe – was when Tupac Shakur announced his “Thug Life” legacy. This was the idea that as young, entrepreneurial black men, and gangsters, living in an oppressive, white capitalist social system, then power could be claimed and wielded to support black people and black communities. Being successful; being a success, meant empowering black people in an ongoing race war, this was the new ethos of “keeping it real”. This philosophy did not just mean: “to make a change, you need to get involved”, but rather do not just get involved but take power and dominate. “Get Money”.


This economic and cultural philosophy and set of values was where the white, “capitalist-carnivores” of Wall Street and the black drug dealers of US ghettos could – eventually – see eye to eye. This philosophy and ethos solidified even more when 50 Cent released his LP Get Rich of Die Trying after being shot nine times in a drug-related gang war. The obvious difference between white America and black America’s social Darwinism was that for the majority of white people the struggle for financial success and power would not include being shot or shooting at opposing gang rivals.

Networks and viruses: In the year of 1995 the Hip Hop Top 10 was dominated by a few groups: namely, Mobb Deep, KRS-One, Show & A.G. (D.I.T.C.), Wu Tang (Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Genius/GZA, Method Man, Chef Raekwon), Gangstarr (Guru and DJ Premier), 2Pac, Cypress Hill and Goodie Mob. With the slow rate of mastering, record pressing and vinyl distribution it was possible to count the successful artists in a year on two hands. It is much more apparent that in the age of the Internet and digital music production and consumption, newcomers spring onto the hip-hop seen and claim some level of success on an almost weekly basis. It is almost impossible to keep up with not only the amount of new artists in the US, but also now in local areas (e.g. East London, Toronto), and also the various sub-genres of Hip Hop (Trap, Southern, Crunk, etc.).

Vibe Magazine's cover for 2014 displays the new up and comers.
Vibe Magazine’s cover for 2014 displays the new up and comers.

Bobby Shmurda burst onto the hip-hop scene, literally spreading his video, song and dance like wildfire. He went viral. In the following six months of his YouTube video, fans and industry celebrities produced vine videos in homage to his success. The way in which his video was produced – low cost production with the instrumental downloaded from YouTube – and consumed – by consumers on the Internet or using mobile phones – and the viral nature of its distribution was entirely symptomatic of computerised society or The Network Society. In such a vertically organised market supply and demand are almost real time phenomena. It was clear to everyone that Shmurda, with his distinctive Shmoney Dance, was exactly what the music industry wanted and needed. He was immediately made “hot on the block”. The most interesting sociological question, I feel, is what made him so hot in the first place?

Charisma, bureaucracy and The Golden Ticket(s): One way to understand Bobby Shmurda’s hotness is in terms of the sociological concept of ‘charisma’. This was an idea and framework developed by German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) in trying to distinguish different ‘factor’ that exist between ‘specialized types’ on the one hand, and ‘neutral undifferentiated species-type’ on the other hand (1964: 105). Shmurda stood out as a charismatic, “special type”.

Before trying to understand his charismatic qualities, lets understand first the music scene that he appeared onto in terms of bureaucracy. Many have complained that fake gangsters and frauds have saturated the hip-hop scene. These are people who have appropriated the symbols and actions of non-bureaucratic, charismatic leaders of the past (N.W.A., Biggie Smalls, 2Pac, 50 Cent, Diplomats, etc.) but do so only to formally replicate the rules set in place by their charismatic authority and leadership. However, it is not so much the “fake rappers” themselves as the record industry, which has its own rules, conventions, norms and procedures, that have extended different levels of bureaucratic control over the artists that the industry has recently been signing and promoting. What these bureaucrats desire is artist that can enact the different rules set in place by former charismatic leaders, but without the radicalism. In terms of fake gangsters then Rick Ross was exposed by 50 Cent as an ex-correctional officer. Radio DJs complained the Canadian rapper Drake was representing a thug-life but at the same time producing smooth R&B songs for the radio. More recently the controversy turned to a white, female and Australian rapper Iggy Azalea or white, lower middle-class rapper Riff Raff’s appropriate of ghetto-fabulous or ghetto-flamboyance in the construction of his postmodern identity and pursuit of money and “fun”. The sentiment put about by mainly radio DJs on the radio in the US is that while these rappers are entertaining, the original black hip-hop culture has lost its substance, depth, direction and purpose. There are implications here in terms of class struggle also. There is a threat that these “well-to-do” artists might extinguish the voices of ghetto America in expressing the deplorable living conditions of urban, ghettoized America. These different sociological factors set the background and conditions for Shmurda’s eventual emergence.

Iggy Azalea: real or fake?
Iggy Azalea: real or fake?

“Charisma”, as a term, is defined by Weber as ‘a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at lease specifically exceptional powers or qualities’. Charisma is ‘sharply opposed both to rational, and particularly bureaucratic, authority’. There were several factors that set Shmurda apart from other hip hop acts on the scene when his video Hot Nigga went viral. Firstly, his age and youthfulness gave him enough energy and vitality to appear as fresh and vibrant as he actually was. Secondly, his multi-cultural background gave him the hip-hop knowledge requires to enter the game legitimately as a legitimate, street-wise, black American teenage. However, his family roots in Miami and Jamaica not only gave him appeal in Southern and Caribbean markets, but also added to his charisma within the cultural environment of New York. Elephant Man’s reggae-dancehall remix of the Shmoney dance helped to leak the immerging trend to foreign, non-US markets. Although comparisons have been made between his Shmoney dance and Puff Daddy’s dance in the 1990s, many have overlooked the fact that it is also based around a Jamaican wine and skank developed in the 1980s – as still occasionally performed by English reggae DJ, David Rodigan. Then, there is his expression of frustration; this was most apparent in his aggressive facial expressions in the Hot Nigga video; what Shmurda possessed and expressed was the same level of rage that 2Pac expressed in the mainstream media limelight. Lastly, and more sadly, the main distinguishing factor in his charisma and appeal was his unique quality of “realness”. In reference to Iggy Azalea, Power FM’s DJ Charlamagne made the claim that: ‘when you talk about people that are fake, and are not representing the culture, this is how you know that 95% of rappers aren’t doing any of the tings they say they do in their raps. Because if they were, they would be in the same situation that Bobby Shmurda is in now: prison!What contributed to his charisma, what mad him stand out from the fake rappers (the bureaucrats), was his conviction, his honesty, and his realness. When he said: “Monte Keep it on him, he done dropped niggas”, his audience – and the police – were convinced that he was keeping it so real that this meant that his friend had actually murdered someone. In an interview Shmurda was asked: “Now a days rap is like the WWF, people throw up gang signs was mention a whole lot of other stuff, but there is a lot of truth to your raps… what’s probably the realest lyric you’ve said?” To which he smiled into the camera and answered: “Like I talk to Shyste when I shot niggas” (4:13). It is difficult not to make judgments on this, but the aim of the sociologist for Weber is to ‘abstain from value judgments’ but recognise that ‘according to conventional judgments’ of whatever community this charismatic leader is recognised as ‘the ‘greatest’ heroes’ (1964: 358; 361; 359).

Conclusion: This blog in no way presents a formal analysis of the Bobby Shmurda case. Many have expressed their sorrow about the situation concerning Shmurda. It is an unfortunate case because it highlights several problems with the current hip-hop scene in American popular culture and subcultures. Firstly, the politics of realism has been shifting between “art representing life” and “life imitating art”. The benefits of realism in hip hop has been that it has given a platform to socially and economically deprived classes to speak directly to general audiences in American about class and racial tensions. In turn, the power struggle for fame and prosperity has managed to economically empower black Americans from impoverished backgrounds so that they can help to reinvest into America providing a proactive and capitalist form of charitable aid. However, realism has pushed its limits and there is now a fundamental difference between rapping about killers and rapping about killing. The problem is that the last, more direct form of realism has gained greater value as a form of legitimacy and cultural capital on the market.

When asked: “What’s a typical day like in New York?” Shmurda responded: “(It’s) a jungle man! (I’m) a lion in the jungle; king of the jungle baby”. This is the sad state of affairs. While developmental issues such as social welfare, social and food security, are discussed by the power elites of societies around the world, we are constantly reminded about the underprivileged underbelly of modern society. While it has often be considered the case that giving underprovided a platform to express the unfairness of this situation, the only way for them to take the stand and speak to the majority by proving – beyond all reasonable doubt – that they are legitimate enough to represent the hood, the ghetto, or the crime-world. To access this cultural capital, proving their “realness” as authentic, charismatic leaders, then these young, black, gang-members are already guilty by association.

Weber M. (1964) The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, New York: The Free Press.

The Future of Music-as-Information



The Future of Music-as-Information 

iPod Nanos - The Future of Music-as-Information
The Future of Music-as-Information

Music in the form of information is being set-free by material cybernetic technologies of the music industry. Frith (1998) describes this process; historically music was ‘musicians and their instrument’ where ‘musicians would perform for ‘music in return for payment’ (28). ‘The first revolution in musical storage’ he states, ‘was the combination of notation and printing’ – ‘Music could now be stored, and that score could be reproduced any number of times’ (ibid). The printing press, he continues, was the basis of the music industry with the development of publishers, composers, and a distinction between commercial and non-commercial music types. Following this development, Frith argues that notated music was ‘commercial music’ and non-commercial, or unnotated music was regarded as ‘folk music’ (30). Frith then recalls the ‘second major music industry revolution which ‘followed the technology of recording’ and enabled the ‘commercialisation of folk music’ (31). Finally, the last revolution in musical storage is describe by Frith as ‘the storage of music as information’, which has caused three industrial effects, the questioning of ownership of music, changes the nature of musical composition, and lastly ‘disintermediation’ means that musicians can ‘send their world to their listeners directly’ (32). Now, music-as-information is comparable to liquid or water (see Kusek and Leonhard, 2005; Wikström, 2009). Technological shifts in the production and consumption of music-as-information have led to many industry workers wondering what the future will hold. Therefore, the question this essay will address is: What will the structure of the music industry be in 2020? To achieve this, it will critically examine current transformations and likely developments resulting from recent technological innovations such as the iPod. In response to Bull’s (2005) work on the iPod, will present the thesis that classical sociological studies often neglect the cybernetic forms, which are increasingly more relevant to contemporary sociological debates. To achieve this, the debates will be contextualised the within Hayles’ (1999) posthuman view.

Defining “The Music Industry”

Trying to critically examine transformations in ‘The’ music industry is from the outset a dubious task since its definition is problematic. In light of the music industry’s information-age dilemma, Kusek and Leonhard still argue that ‘the music business is still in very good shape today. The problem is with the record industry and CD sales’ (6). Whereas, Williamson and Cloonan (2007) argue that the ‘notion of a single music industry is an inappropriate model… Instead it is necessary to use the term ‘music industries’ (plural)’. They argue that the term ‘Music Industry’, ‘suggests simplicity where there is complexity and homogeneity where there is diversity’ (305). Alternatively, in an attempt to capture the same sense of diversity, Wikström rejects the Frankfurtian notion of the ‘culture industry’, or ‘cultural industries’, or ‘creative industries’ (Caves, 2000; Hartley, 2005) or ‘experience industries’ (Pine and Gilmore, 1998) and argues that ‘a useful way to categorize the music industry is to consider it as a copyright industry’. By labelling the music industry in this way, he argues that it emphasizes ‘the nature of the product that are created and traded in within that industry’, and furthermore the ‘term also has a clearer definition… which makes it more useful during analyses of the dynamics of these firms and industries’ (2009:17). Kusek and Leonhard (2005) seek to mythologise the ‘vastly outmoded canons of copyright law’ (51) by pointing out how complex the process of copywriting “original” material, and furthermore, how web-technologies enable creative processes and ideas to morph into each other at an increased rate: ‘We will likely need to get used to the fact that copyright is becoming nonlinear, that the paces of exploitable ideas has vastly accelerated, and that most of the content, media, and art is never finished because the process itself is also part of the “art”’ (51). On one side of this apparent dualism stands a conservative, bureaucratic, and homogeneous “Music Industry”, and on the other is a liberal, flexible, fluid dynamic of creative social processes which seems too slippery for a fixed label. For the purposes of this essay, the term ‘music industry’ will be deployed broadly in an attempt to capture both sides of this solid vs. liquid dynamic.

Material Music vs. Music-as-Information

Since music has lost its material body then selling it as a commodity has become problematic. However, Frith (1998) points out that ‘(m) Music is, by its nature, non-material. It can be heard but not held…How to turn this intangible, time-bound aural experience into something that can be bought and sold is the question that has driven popular music history’ (6). Similarly, Kusek and Leonhard (2005) argue that ‘(t) The distorted view of music as a product is a manifestation of the late Industrial age, when companies were able to fix music in time on sound carriers, then control and exploit it to their benefit’ (38). As music commoditised as a material product looses its body, the question for the future is what will be left for the music industry to produce, manufacture, retail and profit from?

Music-as-information can be sold as a service. Hayles notes about information that ‘the contrasting factor separating the haves from the have-nots is not so much possession as access’ (1999: 39). A similar line of thought leads Kusek and Leonhard (2005) to their idea of on-tap music. They relate paradigm shifts in the music industry caused by the digitalisation or informationisation of music to the way water is commoditised as sold. Taking the metaphor of information as a water almost literally, they state, ‘music was only sold in “Pellegrino” bottles, but customers are starting to discover the unstoppable “tap water” music that seems to be flowing freely on the ‘Net’ (11). Wikström (2009) strongly objects to, ‘both water and electricity as metaphors of music’, and argues that, ‘(m) Music is an art form – it is not water. Great art which moves people is created by unique individuals which exceptional talents and is defiantly not chargeable by the minute or the megabyte’ (6). He has a point, if you are given some of water from a glass, the glass is half empty and not half full. Hayles points out that ‘If I give you information, you have it and I do too’ (39). Despite the dispute over appropriate metaphor, by asserting that music is no longer sold as a material commodity but more of a service, Wikström meets eye to eye with Hayles, Kusek and Leonhard. Wikström continues: ‘In a world where information is abundant, people may not be willing to pay a premium for basic access to that information, but they are most likely willing to pay for services which help them navigate through the vast amounts of information’ (7). Therefore, servers (Logic, Spotify, YouTube, SoundCloud) and service provision (ISP) are becoming the money earners.

However, since the invention of the instrument, music has also has a material dimension, and thinking of music only as information is as problematic. Auslander, in his definition of the reproducing affects of the CD, argues that, ‘(a) Although digital technologies are based on binary logic, they have had the ironic effect of dismantling cultural binaries, including distinctions between original and copy, producer and consumer, music and nonmusic… human being and machine’ (104). Auslander is close to the posthuman mark in this statement. Hayles’ reminds us that, firstly ‘Information wants to be free’ (2002: 235), and secondly, ‘cybernetic systems are constituted by flows of information’ (1999: 84, italics added). Although the bites of information are relevant, it is the material systems the information flows through is also relevant. In this sense, Auslander is observing just one part of a greater whole; the content devoid of the form. The binary nature of digital information is far less significant as the way in which that information moves; Frith (1988) recognises that what is important is the way music is stored (29). Auslander’s work is slightly restrained by his considerations of ‘digital technologies’, rather than viewing them as information-communication-technologies. It is precisely because of the fact that information can flow within communications systems, that unreleased records, celebrity sex-tapes, or important governmental information, can be ‘leaked’ onto the Internet or become viral. If any one phenomenon can be credited or blamed for dismantling, fragmenting, bypassing, or travelling through, cultural and linguistic binaries, then it is not only digital information but its role within cybernetic systems (such as the iPod) – of which, digital information and technologies are just one small buy-product.

Cybernetics & Posthumanism: The Human and Machine Merger

As communication-technologies such as the iPod, iPhone and iPad evolve a question pops up: how are these technologies reshaping the human users? For Hayles ‘Cyborgs actually exist’. In 1999 she argued that, ‘(a) About 10 of the current U.S. population are estimated to be cyborgs in the technical sense, including people with electronic pacemakers, artificial joints, drug-implant systems, implanted corneal lenses, and artificial skin’, moreover, ‘(a) A much higher percentage participates in occupations that make them into metaphoric cyborgs, including computer keyboarder joined in a cybernetic circuit with the screed, microscopy during an operation, and the adolescent game player in the local video-game arcade’ (115). With the introduction of wireless technologies, advancement of computing technologies and music, communication technologies such as the iPod, iPhone, iPad, it would be naïve to consider that her argument has not but strengthened over the years.

Since 1999, evidence of cybernetic music consumption is everywhere. Kassabian (2002) refers to the Computer Research Group ‘have built a wearable “DJ” that tries to select music based on a feature of the user’s mood’ as in indicated by skin conductivity data collected by the wearable computer’ (Picard, 2000: 176, in Kassabian, 132).

In its technological evolution the iPod itself have become more cybernetic. Bull’s (2005) research into the iPod reveals a ‘desire for solitude’ that is revealed when the iPod is considered as technological remediation of the mechanical personal stereo. Since his article was accepted in 2004 and published in 2005 Bull can be forgiven (slightly) for not anticipating the evolution of the iPod. Bull almost picks up on the inevitable evolution of the iPod by mentioning that, ‘(u) Users now take their whole music collection with them in a machine that is not much larger than a small mobile phone’ (344). However, in 2005, Kusek and Leonhard had the foresight to predict the inevitability of the iPhone: ‘(c) Cross an iPod with a cell phone and you have an networked mobile music player’ (70). With the release of the iPhone in 2007 Apple announced that their new product “iPhone” ‘is a widescreen iPod with touch controls that lets music lovers “touch” their music by easily scrolling through entire lists of songs, artists, albums and playlists with just a flick of a finger’ (Apple 2007). The iPhone itself would communicate more directly with the users (vibrations, interactive displays, fingertip scrolling, sonic notifications) while at the same time allowing them the ability to ‘share’ music with their virtual social networks and wireless transmissions via Bluetooth. Furthermore, the ability to download an App like “SoundCloud” allows users to upload, download, and share independent and commercially produced music with friends the iPhone (and iPad) enables them to network access – at a premium.

Nodes in The Cloud

Wikström’s refers to the Internet using the classical metaphor of the ‘Cloud’ that is accessed by nodal arrangement of users. He states, ‘(a) A cloud was considered to be a useful and vague enough symbol which could be used to summarize all the resource cables and gadgets which connected the computers at the nodes of the network’ (2009: 3, italic added). When speaking about the future Kassabian (2002) mentions that: ‘The same music will be sold yet a third time, in more flexible packages, precisely because it makes it easier to use the music as an environment technology, conditioning and conditioned by a new kind of subjectivity’ (139). This subjectivity is created by the formation of a new information age network. She explains that, ‘In this extreme model of distributed computing, each home computer is a little lump of node in an enormous array of computing activity. Likewise, we are each nodes in an enormous array of listening’ (139). In a nodal arrangement activities like torrent or P2P file sharing are made possible; as well as the outbreaks of musical viruses.

This concept of nodal or monad like social formations was explained and rigorously discussed at the advent of cybernetics during and after World War II (see Hayles, 1999: 94). Norbert Wiener’s cybernetic vision was one that envisioned men, women, nonhuman animals and technologies as nodes in a communication matrix. Galison (1994) explains that, ‘Black boxes, as Wiener used the term, meant a unit designed to perform a function before one knew how it functioned’ (20). He continues on to explain about Wiener’s monadic philosophy that ‘(w) We are truly, in this view of the world, like black boxes with inputs and outputs and no access to our or anyone else’s inner life’ (256). Thus, ‘I would argue that the associations of cybernetics (and the cyborg) with… the black-box conception of human nature do not so simply melt away’ (260). From this technological deterministic and posthuman viewpoint, Wikström’s allegory of the human ‘node’ in the information ‘cloud’ is very fitting. This concept of nodal distribution of social members, and subsequent isolating affects, are best celebrated in the concept of the “silent disco” where people gather to listen to music with headphones on iPod-like technologies. It also explains the matrix of torrent networks, or P2P networks where music files are dispersed and shared. This paints the picture of the future posthuman paradigm.

Feedback: The Future of Music Production?

In terms of the material technologies, the dialect between the posthuman and the nonhuman is achieved through a feedback loop; much like the biological process of homeostasis. Hayles explains the historic process in which feedback became relevant:

Like animals, machines can maintain homeostasis using feedback loops. Feedback loops had long been exploited to increase the stability of mechanical systems, reaching a high level of development during the mid-to-late nineteenth century with the growing sophistication of steam engines and their accompanying control devices, such as governors. It was not until the 1930s and 1940s however, that the feedback loop was explicitly theorised as a flow of information. Cybernetics was born when nineteenth-century control theory had joined with nascent theory of information.
(1999: 8)

Feedback has always played a role in music production. Théberge (2011) explains that ‘(w) When a microphone or guitar pickup is placed in close proximity to a highly amplified loudspeaker the phenomenon know as ‘feedback’ occurs’ (8). In this example, the relationship between the human and nonhuman is governed by the feedback that the musical equipment produces – referred to by Théberge as the ‘‘proximity effect’ (2011: 5). However, feedback is not such a bad thing and artists such as Jimmy Hendrix have incorporated electronic feedback into their live and recorded performances. Théberge notes that, ‘the sound of amplified guitar distortion has become a key aural sign of the heavy metal and hard rock genres and an important signifier of power and the emotional intensity in the music’ (6). Therefore, feedback can be used in the analogue creative process.

There are many forms of feedback. Artists look to their crowds for feedback as a form of performance evaluation; record companies might also consider ticket and album sales in the same light. Wikström takes note of how recording artist Imogen Heap has used feedback from about 50,000 fans who, ‘regularly followed the blog and commented on what they saw’. He continues to explain that; ‘Heap picked up these comments, entered into a conversation with her fans using different types of digital channels, such as Twitter and Facebook, and allowed the feedback to influence her creative process’ (2009: 176-177). Thus, the feedback that an App like SoundCloud can provide the producer (in an almost real-time feedback-loop) could be taken onboard to shape the sounds produced.

Feedback: The Future Marketplace?

The business model of an organisation competing in the music industry can also incorporate feedback into its systemic design. When Bauman points that in the liquid modern world, ‘Today’s business organization has an element of disorganization deliberately build into it: the less solid and the more fluid it is, the better’ (154), there is a reason. In terms of organisation theory, Hatch (1997) outlines the ‘cybernetic model of control’ that can be adopted by organisation and business alike. By comparing the business model to that of a thermostat she states, ‘organization control processes… are designed to recognise differences between current and desired levels of performance and to trigger adjustments when discrepancies are noticed’ (1999: 328-329). Hatch offers the analogy of student feedback in a classroom dynamic to demonstrate how feedback can change to shape of an organisation. To obtain their goals, corporate organisations need to adjust in accordance with the feedback they receive from customers. Chaos, disorder, or negative feedback and be measured as noise therefore making a business model more flexible, customer focused, interactive and therefore more fluid, and as a result more cybernetic. It the cybernetic model is but one choice from many models a record company could choose from and tweak if required.

Thus, if feedback plays a central to a corporation’s business model, it can therefore be considered more interactive, cybernetic, communicative, and democratic and therefore what Bauman would refer to as “liquid-modern”. However, if a record company is sterner, more authoritative, or tyrannical then we could use the term “solid-modern” to describe it.  The latter solid-modern model was the Colonel Tom Parker (Elvis Presley’s manager) model, which is described by Kusek and Leonhard as  ‘a textbook example of the traditional music-business operating mode’, since, ‘Parker in many ways can be considered the personification of the larger than life manager, and he profited from audaciously exploiting Elvis’ (2005: 7). Exploited or not, how big would Elvis have been without the Colonel?

The dialectic between solid-structure and light-liquidity is apparent in the work of Frith (1998) and Negus (1999) on the music industry. Frith analysis paints a Marx-inspired picture of a “Colonel Parker-style” market controlled by the music industry, whereas Negus paints a more ‘liquid’ picture of record companies struggling to maintain control of the markets they are consequently – to some extent – controlled by. While Frith recognises that the music industry is a business ‘organised around the bureaucratic organisation of chaos’ (33) he also argues that, ‘(m) Mass markets are in the hands of, controlled by, large corporate powers’, and, ‘pop records, commodities, a technological and commercial process under the control of a small number of large companies’ (19). Negus, on the other hand, argues that: ‘Corporate strategy aims to control and order the unpredictable social processes and diversity of human behaviours which are condensed into notions of production and consumption and which riddle the music business with uncertainty’ (31). Divisions of large record companies are established or dissolve in response to shifts in what is essentially a musically inspired buyers-market. While Negus notes that at present the record industry’s marketplace is essentially shared between a handful of major record labels (EMI, BMG, Warner Music Group, Sony Music Group, Universal/PolyGram), who have since the 1980s have shared 80% of the worlds music marketplace (35). He also states that, ‘whole divisions of a company’s structure and either fold and collapse or expand and develop: the delivery of a good album from a major artist can significantly affect a company’s market share’ (46). In Negus’ argument, music or sound plays a role in the industry, whereas in Firth’s argument, music itself, the popular sound, is a product of the industry.

In Negus’s text there is less of a sense of corporate control, manipulation and domination (described as ‘top-down analyses’ by Bennett, 2008: 425) that is more inherent in Frith’s work (although Bennett points out that Frith was aware of the importance for the music industry to maintain ‘an engagement with the aesthetic practices and value judgements of music audiences themselves’ (2008: ibid)). Negus’s text also points out how the industry is vulnerable to the buyers-market, and the stresses the importance of the sonic relationship between composers and audiences. To cite Negus: ‘(a) Although companies continually engage in market research, and seek to persuade and manipulate public behaviours, they find it difficult to predict which new artists are going to succeed and how successful they are likely to be’ (33). This idea of market research, as a posthuman form of communication and control between label and marketplace, can only increase in the information-communication age where companies will have access to greater levels of individual demographic information and continuous (increasingly real-time) customer feedback.


 What will the structure of the music industry be in 2020? In the future, cybernetic technologies will be programmed to adjust themselves in accordance with the feedback their users offer; users will adjust themselves to the feedback their technologies provide. The information these users transmit from their communication technologies will offer feedback for artists and record labels. This feedback will provide real-time demographic profiles for both corporate and independent bedroom producers can use (if they should choose to) to accordingly shape their sounds and marketing strategies in real-time. In a global environment of inter-looping feedback loops producers, consumers, and marketers will have the option of taking onboard feedback (as an open system) or disregarding feedback (as a closed system). Since feedback lies at the heart of cybernetic control; it would be easy to conclude that companies which direct market their products in accordance with marketing feedback will maintain control. However, was Jimmy Hendrix made famous for responding to the feedback of all his fans? Ultimately, if we attend the main stage of Glastonbury musical festival we are subjecting ourselves to a solid-modern form of tyrannical control or benevolent dictation. While the solid world is melted into liquid information this dogmatic approach will still hold a place in the future marketplaces. I would rather loose myself in a sea of Glastonbury fans than find myself in a silent disco of iPod shufflers.


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