3 April 02005

Researching use of personal stereos: Sounding out the City

A year ago, I said that, in order to anticipate models of listening to music in the future, "We need long term and longitudinal ethnographic studies that chart how [music listening] habits change in response to changes in format and economics". In 02000, Michael Bull, a senior lecturer at the University of Sussex, published a book based on ethnographic interviews from ten years ago with users of Walkman personal stereos. A follow-up book on use of iPods is expected to be published soon.

From reading the first of these books, Sounding out the City: Personal Stereos and the Management of Everyday Life, Bull's focus and research may be useful to people concerned with iPods and competing MP3 players. However, people concerned with the take-up of digital music services in general or of 'à la carte' (e.g. iTunes Music Store) versus subscription (e.g. Napster) services will find little of use. Bull's research and theories have little interest in music per se, and concentrate on people's instrumental (if you'll pardon the pun) use of music to manage their everyday lives in metropolises.

What follows is a review of Sounding out the City, from the point of view of a slightly disappointed reader who is more interested in how people select, listen to and enjoy music qua music than in the use of hardware to re-define social relations, or in the application of Critical Theory to aural experience of urban life.

Michael Bull's ethnographic study is based on research with sixty users of personal stereos, interviewed between 01994 and 01996. He is clear from the outset that his concern is with "cognitive, moral and aesthetic space in urban life" and that he seeks to redress the overwhelming emphasis on the visual domain in urban life by focusing on the aural sense.

The first two thirds of the book are devoted to chapters on particular themes uncovered by the research. Bull argues convincingly that it is better to distinguish between different types of use of personal stereos rather than different types of user.

With the aid of extensive quotes from his interviews, Bull shows how users repossess what might otherwise be 'dead time' (e.g. commuting to work) by making it their own through their use of a dedicated personal soundtrack. They may also use their personal stereos to re-appropriate their environment; taking space back from the public realm and effectively "never leaving home". As many critics are fond of saying, these people travel in their own private cocoon.

The book describes at length how people use personal stereos in tandem with their visual sense, both to manage eye contact with other people and to shift how they experience urban landscapes. The interviews show how people in buses and on trains look at others as though through a one-way mirror, reducing chances of unwanted interactions, and Bull also examines different kinds of 'cinematic' experience that are brought about by people listening to music as they walk through the city.

Helpfully, the conclusion of the book includes a typology, listing the observed behaviours of people using their personal stereos to:

  1. block urban sound, controlling their aural environment;
  2. provide a source of absorption (like a book or newspaper), used to mark boundaries in crammed social spaces;
  3. create a personalised, intimate soundtrack whenever alone in public;
  4. promote aesthetic or 'filmic' experience (for which personalised choice of music is important);
  5. fill 'dead time' with personal memories and narratives;
  6. provide a sense of companionship and ward off loneliness;
  7. clear a space, block unwanted thoughts, and manage moods;
  8. make public space more habitable and ward off disturbances (especially for women);
  9. reclaim or repossess time in the face of oppressive routine;
  10. promote a sense of purpose and raise energy levels;
  11. share an exclusive experience with a friend.

Bull suggests that visually-based theories of the management of urban life only describe first two of these — hence the value of researching the aural sense.

As I read through these accounts of using personal stereos to gain solace, energy or privacy, I found myself wondering: Does anyone ever use a personal stereo for the sheer pleasure of listening to music? The book makes passing references to whether the study participants are listening to popular music, classical music, audio books or (commonly) film soundtracks. But it shows no interest in users' specifically musical experiences — rather in how the music helps them add aesthetic dimensions to their visual and social experiences.

One of the interviewees, the book tells us, has 7,000 albums — Soul is his favourite genre — and listens to music all day at work, not using his personal stereos, as well as while commuting to and from work. Though we are told that he makes his own mix-tapes for use on his personal stereo, and has a CD Walkman as well, we learn nothing about how this listening differs, in his perspective, from the listening he does the rest of the day, nor about how it affects his relationship to his music collection. Surely this person's fanatical engagement with his favourite music must be a major factor in determining his behaviour with a personal stereo? If it is, that is one place this study does not go.

The perspective of the dedicated music fan is an important one for parts of the music industry to understand. At a practical level, for example, it affects the premium that providers like Napster might be able to charge for their 'to go' service. Anecdotally, you might expect that some fans — especially the older ones, including us 50-quid-blokes — would experience considerable pressure on their listening time at home and at work. Music only gets a look-in as an accompaniment to work, reading or washing up — because there is always something to do and no time to 'just listen' — so perhaps walking through the city with a personal stereo provides the best opportunity for these fans to listen to recent purchases, or sample potential new purchases, with almost full attention. As the mix of models for purchasing and 'renting' music expands, understanding these patterns becomes more valuable.

Michael Bull has not tried to develop that understanding, and there's no reason why he should. Nevertheless, his account in Sounding out the City is less fully rounded than it could be in that the musical dimension of users' behaviour comes across as desiccated and hollowed out. The reasons for this may be tied up with Bull's reliance on the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory and particularly Theodor Adorno. He argues that, "Critical Theorists were amongst the first to analyse and articulate the formation of structurally determined forms of escape through the constitution of the the [sic, see below] 'culture industry'" (p. 163). But this heritage seems to lead Bull to retain some of Adorno's sniffiness about the cultural industries, as though they are purveyors of 'false consciousness' that conceal from the proletariat their true self-interest. When he suggests that "Music increasingly fills the gap left by the absence of any meaningful sense of the experienced social... [It] becomes a substitute for community, warmth and social contact" (p. 129) there's a strong whiff of Adorno's cultural conservatism that comes across, in our New Labour era, as almost fogeyish. There's little space for an appreciation of the 'innocent' pleasures of tapping your foot to a good tune or an exciting rhythm in this perspective.

The final third of the book leaves the details of the ethnographic data behind and embarks on a largely theoretical discourse on an "auditory epistemology of urban experience" and what Bull sees as his distinctive contribution to the Critical Theory tradition. This includes some interesting passages: for example, drawing comparisons between use of personal stereos and other technologies for mediating the senses, from cameras to telescopes.

However, this kind of theory is tricky at the best of times, and risks being impenetrable to non-specialists. Unfortunately this section of the book is undermined by bad editing: in fact many times I wondered whether there had been any editing or even a full reading of the text. This manifests itself at several levels. There are relatively trivial surface issues, whereby almost every page features misplaced apostrophes or commas, confused plural nouns ("this phenomena"), confused tenses ("need to understood"), inconsistent italicisation, or typos. Then there are instances where an editor ought to have spotted an over-complex vocabulary that serves only to obscure a complicated argument. For example, the words "auditative" (which isn't in any paper or web dictionary I have), "auditive" and "auditory" are all used, apparently identically — in opposition to "visual" — in the space of two pages. Why use three words when using one would make the argument easier to follow? Finally, a good editor might have encouraged a review of the development of the line of the argument made over sixty pages, to make it less circuitous.

Reading Critical Theory is always a dense experience, the literary equivalent of listening to the Mahavishnu Orchestra. But reading the later section of Sounding out the City is like hearing a demo recording of one of their rehearsal jams, with a bum note every six bars.

For more links about Michael Bull's research, go to my Music Devices bookmarks, and search for 'Bull'.

As Wired News reported a couple of months ago, others are now getting in on the act of ethnographic research of iPod use. Markus Giesler's research is more concerned with marketing of consumer electronics than socio-cultural theory. He has previously researched use of (the old file-sharing version of) Napster, but his focus in his current iPod research is again more on people's experience of the hardware than of the music, as can be seen from the questions he's asking.

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Future of Music, Music and Multimedia, Reviews on 3 April 02005 | TrackBack

Sound Moves. ipod Culture and Urban Experience - the first international study of ipod users is published this week in the UK and on Febreuary 18th in the US. Publishers web link attached:

Posted by: Michael Bull on 20 December 02007 at 2:21 PM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?