Selling Digital Music, Formatting Culture

Selling Digital Music, Formatting Culture

by Jeremy Wade Morris
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University of California Press


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Selling Digital Music, Formatting Culture

Selling Digital Music, Formatting Culture documents the transition of recorded music on CDs to music as digital files on computers. More than two decades after the first digital music files began circulating in online archives and playing through new software media players, we have yet to fully internalize the cultural and aesthetic consequences of these shifts. Tracing the emergence of what Jeremy Wade Morris calls the “digital music commodity,” Selling Digital Music, Formatting Culture considers how a conflicted assemblage of technologies, users, and industries helped reformat popular music’s meanings and uses. Through case studies of five key technologies—Winamp, metadata, Napster, iTunes, and cloud computing—this book explores how music listeners gradually came to understand computers and digital files as suitable replacements for their stereos and CD. Morris connects industrial production, popular culture, technology, and commerce in a narrative involving the aesthetics of music and computers, and the labor of producers and everyday users, as well as the value that listeners make and take from digital objects and cultural goods. Above all, Selling Digital Music, Formatting Culture is a sounding out of music’s encounters with the interfaces, metadata, and algorithms of digital culture and of why the shifting form of the music commodity matters for the music and other media we love.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 2900520287944
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 09/01/2015
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 1.25(h) x 9.00(d)

About the Author

Jeremy Wade Morris is Assistant Professor of Media and Cultural Studies in the department of communication arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has published in New Media & Society, Critical Studies in Media Communication, First Monday, and various edited collections on music and technology.

Read an Excerpt

Selling Digital Music, Formatting Culture

By Jeremy Wade Morris


Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96293-4


Music as a Digital File


I came along around [Winamp version] 2.03 when MP3 didn't mean anything. It was a time when if we wanted a copy of a song, we would rip WAV straight from the CD-ROM. And then a friend of mine introduced MP3 and Winamp to me and I downloaded it. I loved it ever since.

— Jstalilwyrd 2001

I've been using Winamp since v1.00 hit the scene. I think it was around May 1997. My first MP3s were encoded with L3ENC at 56 kbps, and I was proud. I turned on Creative WaveStudio and click[ed] Record, then I played the song I wanted to "rip."

— Nexxus 2001

I remember the original fraunhoffer l3enc. I remember waiting 1/2 hour to encode an MP3. I remember not being able to play a 128 kbps MP3 because my computer wasn't fast enough (I miss my 486). Those were good times.

— OneJ1Way 2001

ive used winamp since around 1.x i dont really remember. damn that was a long time ago [...] im only 15, but i feel so old.

— s1138 2001

Winamp was one of the first widely used programs for playing digital recorded music files on computers. The comments above come from the user forums on the Winamp website in a discussion thread from 2001 called "Old Timers," where users who remembered the "early days" of digital music could share their experiences. Put aside for a moment the specific technologies they mention (L3ENC, WAV files, CreativeWave Studio, etc.).

You may be more or less familiar with them, and for now that matters little. Consider instead the moment these users are describing: their first memories of recorded music on the computer. At first glance their conversation hardly seems like a very musical discussion, concerned as it is with encoding software and processor speeds. Underneath this high-tech talk, however, these "old-timers" are also bonding over fond memories of early digital audio and expressing the technical and aesthetic pleasures that came with playing music on their computers. One user even half-jokingly admits to getting "tearfully nostalgic" reading through the thread (Dellis 2001).

The user discussion above offers a snapshot of a particular moment in time: a moment when sound, technology, and interface combined in a novel way to create powerful and valuable new experiences of music. This discussion thread thus provides a fitting outline for the two main themes of this chapter. First, their discussion underscores the significant convergence that has taken place in the music and computing industries; a union that has defined the production, circulation, and consumption of recorded music for the better part of the last two decades and one that continues to have implications for how users access and experience music. The fusion of music and computing has made music a "transectorial" commodity, one that is pulled by the competing demands of various industries, actors, and devices. This has long been the case for music, but the last twenty years have intensified music's transectorial status. The resulting changes have been rapid and profound; the "old-timers" above, waxing nostalgic about what sounds like a distant past, are mostly teenagers talking about technologies that at the time of their discussion were barely five years old. The history of digital music on computers was in its opening chapters, yet here was a group of users trying to ensure that the memory of digital music's beginnings did not fade away.

Second, the Winamp users' collective stroll down memory lane speaks to the important role various pieces of software, hardware, and cultural practices played in readying music for its life in digital contexts. The affective relationship these users had with Winamp and other early computer audio technologies that mediated their initial experiences with music on the computer suggests this was more than just new gear for accessing music. The in-depth details about encoding files or the demands digital audio placed on their systems reinforce the devotion these users had for making music playable in a new environment. Their attachment to the work they carried out and to the technologies they used in the process are emblematic of a wider value relationship that was beginning to form between users and music in its digital form, as aesthetic object and as commodity.

Following these two general threads, this chapter begins by briefly reviewing some of the developments in the late 1980s and early 1990s that shepherded popular recorded music on to the computer. Winamp could not have existed without (at least) a decade-long effort on the part of computer manufacturers to create a multimedia machine that could handle the demands of digital audio. It represents the culmination of years of transectorial innovation (Théberge 1997, 58) and is a primary example of the kind of technical and cultural challenges that arise as industries and products converge. Winamp's status as a poster technology for an "MP3 generation" set on disrupting the music industry, despite its creators' ambiguous relationship with early efforts to create a market for the sale and distribution of digital music, is not just the result of technological convergence but is part of a much longer tradition of seeing computers as devices for personal transformation.

The second half of the chapter builds on this transectorial history by considering how the movement of music onto computers called into question the status and the character of the music commodity. Stripped of the physical packaging that accompanied CDs, tapes, or records, music as a digital file was initially an unmanageable commodity that was open to a virtual repackaging, a re-tuning of its interface. Winamp was a cultural interface that presented and represented sound. It filtered how users thought about, interacted with, and experienced music. Through material metaphors, it borrowed from past designs, devices, and conventions of music playback in order to transition users to newer practices (Bolter and Grusin 1999). In doing so, the media player set the context in which a digital music commodity could exist. Winamp and the migration of music onto computers represented a transitory moment that called into question the status of the recorded music product while simultaneously presenting digital music as a viable commodity. Winamp contributed to a new environment, beyond the confines of physical packaging, within which users could play, store, hear, and see music as a commodity.


Winamp launched in 1997 as one of the first and most popular full-featured MP3 and audio software players. It provided a unique and influential visual and sonic interface for users adopting new sets of practices and technologies associated with digital music. The program still exists today, as a property of the online radio network called Radionomy, though it was owned for many years by multinational media company AOL. Winamp is now one of many media players through which users can play digital music (e.g., Windows Media Player, iTunes, Spotify, etc.) though its early prominence and its unique mix of features set the standard for the design of many of today's best-known media players. Moreover, the program's interface and the practices it encouraged and discouraged contributed to one of the first coherent visions of digital music as a commodity. It repackaged music for the computer, embedding it with new paratextual materials.

Winamp's development from hobby project to an offshoot of a multimedia tech giant underscores the difficulties that arise during moments of transectorial innovation. Paul Théberge, in his study of the rise of microprocessors in the music instrument industry, refers to this mixing of diverse sectors as transectorial innovation; it is meant to signify the increasing interrelationship among once distinct industries (Piatier 1987/88; Théberge 1997). This process is more commonly referred to as convergence, though studies of convergence tend to focus on the ways the media products themselves converge. Transectorial innovation focuses on the organizational changes within the industries themselves as "each sector has become more and more dependent for its own development on all others" (Piatier 1987/88, 209). As computing and music entwine, they depend on each other not just for technologies and content but also for people, ideas, and practices (Théberge 1997, 63). Transectorial innovation is not just a technical process then; it manifests itself in all facets of production, distribution, and consumption. For digital music transectorial innovation has meant that the computing industry is now one of the key developers of new means of finding, playing, storing, and experiencing music, while the recorded music industry owns swaths of content that make computers and other high-tech products more desirable.

Transectorial networks complicate the typical view of industries as distinct entities. As convenient as shorthand descriptions like "music industry" or "computer industry" may be, they are misleading representations of the push and pull of the various groups and ideas that make up such networks (Williamson and Cloonan 2007). The "music industry," for example, is often treated synonymously with the "recording industry," when in reality there are publishers, retailers, advertisers, concert promoters, radio broadcasters, critics, journalists, and a host of tangential services that contribute to the circulation and production of music (Williamson and Cloonan 2007, 305). Given the recent amount of transectorial innovation, descriptions of the contemporary music landscape would be inadequate without including computer companies, Internet service providers, online retailers, cell phone content providers, social networks, and an increasingly important army of consumers, bloggers, podcasters, and other new media users who take part in the business of music. The music industries, in other words, extend far beyond simply recorded music to include an increasing array of technology companies with competing or at least divergent interests.

Despite the number of businesses now involved in the business of music, much of the music industries' activities are still dominated by the three main multinational companies that control approximately 70 to 80 percent of all global recorded music sales: Warner Music, Sony Music Entertainment, and Universal Music Group. These companies are "loosely integrated" and "tightly diversified" with the wider entertainment industries (Burkart and McCourt 2006, 29). Together, they own a vast amount of copyrights and other intellectual properties, and they exert significant political influence in matters of technology and intellectual property policy through industry associations and lobby groups such as the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the International Federation of the Phonographic Institute (IFPI). Historically, the dominant players in the music industries have shifted in light of new technologies of production and changing social relations. Music publishing houses gave way to record companies, which then gave way to transnational entertainment corporations (Garofalo 1999). But for the last quarter of the twentieth century the trend moved toward a smaller number of corporations that exerted a kind of oligarchic control over the flow of recorded music (Burkart 2005; Burkart 2009). This is not to minimize the impact digitization has had on the major recording labels but rather to situate the current shifts within the larger history of recorded music. Once worth approximately US$45 billion in 1997 (Hodgson 2007), recorded music has seen its value cut to less than a third of that (IFPI 2013b). Although Winamp did not draw the same kind of music industry ire that Napster would a few years later, it was nevertheless seen as an enabling technology in the movement toward music as a digital file outside the confines of the compact disc (Atwood 1997; Behar 1999; Greenfeld et al. 1999).

Winamp's emergence in 1997, then, comes at an important historical moment, one in which the political economy of the music industries was in the process of shifting as a result of transectorial innovations. But the roots of Winamp's capabilities come from a longer history of transectorial innovations in multimedia computing in the 1980s and 1990s that made a program like Winamp, and the many that would follow it, possible.

While we take sound on computers — and the ability to play CDs in them — for granted today, these capabilities are relatively recent and were not immediately obvious in the 1980s and early 1990s. The computer was not initially a device designed for the playback of popular recorded music. The last two decades of the twentieth century, then, brought not just changes to music but also to the capabilities of both music and computers. Transectorial innovation helped translate a whole series of technologies and practices onto the computer in order to make playback of recorded music possible.

Take, for example, a piece of software called Music Box from a company named Trantor. Released in 1991 for $59, the software enabled users to play audio CDs in the CD-ROM drives of computers. Initially, CD-ROM drives played CD-ROM discs that held video games, encyclopedias, and other large database programs; they were not originally capable of reading audio CDs, with the exception of a few "audio-enabled" or "Option A" drives (Grunin 1991; Manes 1989). Music Box let users play CDs and allowed them to "choose a desired track, randomly shuffle tracks, repeat an entire disk, search forward and backward, pause a track" and more (Grunin 1991). The program also told users how much time was left in a track and on the disc. Music Box, in other words, turned the CD-ROM drive and the computer into a stereo-like device for music playback. Familiar features from CD players — like pause, search, and shuffle — were novel enough at the time to warrant special mention in Grunin's software review, an indication of how impractical the computer had previously been as a playback device.

The very existence of Trantor's program and others like it speaks to how foreign the concept of using computers for music playback was, even in the early 1990s. Sound on personal computers was an afterthought, and using the device for general music consumption was clearly a side interest for developers, at least initially (Petzold 1991). The first personal computers were marketed as office tools, as calculating machines to enhance productivity at work, and the earliest successful programs were spreadsheet applications like VisiCalc (Friedman 2005, 102–21). As personal computers started appearing in homes, consumers usually placed them in the study and treated them as extensions of the workplace with limited usefulness in other realms (Venkatesh 1996; Venkatesh and Vitalari 1987). The machines and their software were not initially designed or perceived as entertainment devices, and their audio capabilities were limited during the rise of the "personal" computers in the 1970s and 1980s (Friedman 2005; Venkatesh 1996, 48).

This is not to say computers had no entertainment purposes or sonic capabilities. Many electronic music composers had been experimenting for decades with computer music (Manning 2004), and early mainframe computers of the 1960s and 1970s were capable of, and in some cases designed specifically for, processing sound. Gaming had also been a focus of early computer development at universities, and the 1980s saw a rise in platforms that called for more capable graphic and sonic hardware and software (DyerWitheford and de Peuter 2005). Again, the innovations were highly transectorial: companies like Apple, Amiga, and Atari developed more elaborate soundcards for games, protocols like the Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) standard emerged in the 1980s to connect computers to instruments, and music instruments themselves became more highly computerized with the addition of processors and microchips to synthesizers (Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter 2005; Théberge 1997, 83–90; MacUser 1989)

Though these developments helped boost the computer's basic sound capabilities, the introduction of CD-ROM discs and drives proved to be Trojan horses for getting recorded music onto the computer. Originally conceived for reference, gaming, and storage purposes — many CD-ROMs were bigger than hard drives at the time — CD-ROMs also introduced users to the possibility of playing CDs on something other than a CD player. At the functional level they made CDs playable on computers. More metaphorically, they helped recontextualize music on a new device and laid the groundwork for the existence of a digital music commodity as a distinct, saleable file.


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Table of Contents

List of Figures
Introduction: The Digital Music Commodity

1. Music as a Digital File
2. Making Technology Behave
3. This Business of Napster
4. Click to Buy: Music in Digital Stores
5. Music in the Cloud
Conclusion: Exceptional Objects

Works Cited

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