Rosalie Wind - Ethnography


In this report, I will identify and investigate how the public lives through digital technologies in music, discuss my fieldwork that allowed me to understand the effects of digital technology in music, and conclude on how digital technology transforms us and our fundamental understanding of technological efficiency. As my chosen field, digital advances in music provided me with dual-sided evidence. My research began under the belief that digital advances in music sharing and acquiring has made the public lazier to search for new music. Because of the convenience of downloading music anywhere and anytime, the public uses less effort to gather music. I believed they now experience music solitarily, not seeing music as a concept to be shared with others. This does not deplete music quality, but it raises listener expectations: We expect music to be available to us more often than not, and get frustrated when faced with downloading troubles.

I will discuss if technology has affected the aesthetic and social experience of enjoying music. Digital advancements in music collecting and sharing have allowed music to reach listeners who it normally would not. The public now has numerous options on listening, sharing, and downloading music that we did not have before. We can send SoundCloud links, send YouTube videos, use DropBox, play shows, use AIM, file sharing, and play our music choices on the radio. These advances in technology have brought us new pleasures in music: freedom to listen to anything we want, at any time, in whatever wanted capacity, and almost always for free. Critics who value music as social and not always accessible to all public see these digital technologies as cheapening to music experience. They treasure live shows and word of mouth to tell friends about new music, and they discover new bands on their own. This population often believes we enjoy music less when alone; we skip from track to track because we can, and we do not absorb the full “album” experience because we do not have to. If we only want to hear two tracks off an album, we can. Though this devaluates the wholly listening experience, we appreciate certain tracks more, gaining what we lose.

I conducted a survey, my main motive to question what other people thought about downloading music. Participants agreed that being able to listen to free music online has made their lives easier and thus they will not search as hard for new music, but others explained that they expanded their tastes, discovered more about music, and now experience it in new ways.
I will discuss digital technology in today’s music, its effect on music acquisition, and I will share what I learned from the survey.

Digital Technology in Today’s Music

Seemingly, the new technologies in music downloading and sharing have changed the fundamental ways we experience music. In Mark Katz’s Capturing Sound: How Technology has Changed Music, we learn that one’s tangible music collection of CDs, vinyl, and cassette tapes used to signify a “display of wealth,” and an “accumulation of expertise” (11). Current, rapid uses in digital music have reduced one’s material music collection, and what we learn about an album through album artwork and notes. Cheaper and more accessibly acquired, digital music provides ease of portability and the “freedom to travel,” seen by some as a disservice to music (Katz 14). These critics feel this way because it minimizes the physical collection of music, as they often prefer music’s material value.

Katz discusses ways we used to typically experience music, and we modified our behavior as listeners when digital technologies advanced. Listeners place less value on live music, once primary in receiving and experiencing music, because of the ability to download both bootlegged and official live performances. Live shows allow listener and performer to communicate with each other, and when listening to digital copies of live music or recordings, we remove this important connection (Katz 20). We grow used to recordings, so songs get cut for radio play, destroying the song’s original meaning and intent (Katz 36). Recordings become manipulated, raising our expectations of the music’s sound and wanting to experience it on our own.

Katz summarizes resulting benefits we receive, including increased opportunities and new ways to learn and acquire music. Digital technology in downloading and sharing has given us increased affordability and accessibility regardless of “ability, wealth, and location” (Katz 55). These advantages serve the individual and not the group, given the “flexibility to customize… [our] musical experience” (Katz 168). By sharing music online, we connect with each other, even though we often never meet (Katz 172). This positivity means we can globalize different kinds of music, reaching people who would never be able to hear a certain song otherwise. We share purposes with other music listeners, emphasizing the value of the music, the musician, and the listener experience.

The Effects on Music Acquisition

Listeners likely gather most of their music intangibly; and they share the files across the world with people they never meet. Digital music files, “nonrivalrous [sic], endlessly reproducible, extremely portable, and frequently free,” result in the public overall accepting music downloading (Katz 165). In a study, approximately 19 percent of Americans twelve and over “recently downloaded one or more music files from an online file-sharing service,” adding up to about “40 million users in the United States” alone (Katz 165). They may “change their consumption of CDs, rethink their ideas about musical authenticity, and form virtual communities around shared musical interests” (Katz 166).

Users can “explore unfamiliar territory,” and a “June 2002 study found 29 percent of American respondents reporting that their favorite genre of music changed since they began downloading, while 21 percent indicated that they developed new radio listening habits” (Katz 167). Enjoying new genres creates new approaches for discovering music. Though downloaders often miss out on the “gestalt of the commercially produced album,” they “decide how to group songs based on their own criteria” (Katz 168-169). The digital music downloader gains self-confidence in music choice and collection, but neglects the material value of music.

This marks a fundamental shift in public behavior. New ways to collect music conveys a change in the way we view music acquisition. Previously, normal music collection consisted of hundreds of vinyl, CDs, and cassette tapes. Today’s public sees music acquisition through the use of MP3s, one’s YouTube account, and what new artists they have found through Pandora.

The Effects on Public Mindset

I conducted a survey that took into account new uses of digital technology. My questions pertained to music experience and music collection.

I asked what music medium surveyors used most. MP3s came first, the internet second, and CDs third. Surveyors use 8 tracks the least, but 20% also cited vinyl as their second least used medium. Most shared music by burning CDs, “word of mouth” and file sharing being second and third. Surveyors share the least through AOL Instant Messenger and SoundCloud. Almost 60% percent agreed that they listen to music, share music, and buy music primarily online because of its efficiency and usability. When asked if they are less willing to search for music in stores, at the library, and from friends because it's so much easier to do this online, almost 60% percent disagreed. 74% disagreed that they see music as more of a solitary act and less of something you enjoy with friends.

When asked to share thoughts on digital technology increases in listening to and sharing music, and that some feel this has reduced the valuable experience of enjoying music, most surveyors stated they still value music, but they see it as less present in our public mindset. Music has become more accessible, the convenience of digital music far surpasses the cost of the music industry, and they enjoy being able to share their music with more people. One surveyor stated live music as the best medium, and that digital technological advances have stifled the live experience. Another believed in the more personal experience one receives when using music as a social experience.

One surveyor stated: “I can see how it does cheapen the experience of a personal connection with a live show or act, but I don't think there's any way around the trend of digital technology considering its tremendous ease and efficiency regarding the sharing and access of music.” Another stated:

If anything, having music available at the click of a button increases the chance that people will become interested in wider varieties of music and small time bands that would not otherwise be heard globally. Not only can people get music quickly, but they can also look up information on the genre and band to further understand and appreciate what they are listening to.

A third surveyor has never bought anything off iTunes because “I like having the artwork and CD notes. It’s easier to buy online, but I prefer physical copies. The material value is more worth it than the easy access.”

More succinctly, a surveyor believes:

In a way, yes, this has reduced the experience of enjoying music. Why do you think vinyls are the hip thing to buy right now? It brings a lot of us back to a more simple time that we know existed before we were even born. Technology is terribly overwhelming to some of us, and yeah, we can have 60,000 songs onto our 160G iPod, but vinyls are reserved for the music that is actually special to us. It's what you show off when your new friends come into your room. It's the music that you want to define you. Music is not a simple thing; throwing digital technology into the mix only complicates it. On the other hand, brilliant bands that would have never been available to us are now at our fingertips. I guess I'm trying to say that technology is not a bad thing, but my generation might be the last to appreciate a more simple time.

From the survey answers, I learned a new perspective to my initial beliefs. Changes affect our self-understanding and what makes us human in that we enjoy certain parts about music sharing and listening more, while ignoring our previous behavior in music acquisition. We acknowledge our past actions, but recognize the accessibility and convenience to online sharing and downloading. As a result, we use this medium more.


Changes in today’s music experience give the public more freedom of choice, more accessibility, and more ways to share music with others. More people can appreciate the effort it takes to make music, more people can give musicians feedback on their work, and unknown musicians can make their talent known and worldwide by being able to upload their work online. Because of these changes, we listen to music by ourselves more, we depreciate the talent and hard work it takes to produce music and to make it known to the public, and we expect music to be always available, free, and quick to obtain. Having music conveniently downloaded straight to one’s computer reduces our tolerance and patience, but raises our expectations in the music we download and share online.

Our behaviors have changed fundamentally as a result. Though we place less value on concepts once seen as essential, the public has overall accepted this change. A new understanding of music collecting and sharing has taken place, and almost everybody follows this: We accept that we download music digitally because its convenience and benefits rule out its costs.

Works Cited

Katz, Mark. Capturing Sound: How Technology has Changed Music. University of California Press: Berkeley, 2004.