Why Theodore W. Adorno would follow Chris Anderson on Twitter (essay)
At first glance, the reader may wonder what Theodore W. Adorno and Chris Anderson have in common and what that has to do with researching the music industry. On the one hand, a sophisticated German philosopher; a critical theorist of the 20th century; a member of the renowned Frankfurt School and a follower of Karl Marx’s thoughts on capitalism and society. On the other, Chris Anderson, a child of the digital economy, a blog writer, a journalist, a business entrepreneur and, according to The Time 100 , one of the most influential thinkers of the new millennium.
Both were (respectively are) critically reflecting the media landscape of their time.
In this paper I use the ideas of both thinkers and demonstrate the Mediamorphosis in the wake of technological innovations at the example of the music industry. On the one hand a centralized media system dominated by large media conglomerates, on the other side a democratic media system driven by prosumers. Thes two contrasting media environments emerged in between a relatively short time span, challenge our socielty. Each system has its assets and drawbacks that shape our culture. Each system has its proponents and opponents. Most interestingly, today, both media systems coexist and compete with each other. While this paper utilizes the music industry as an example to illustrate the structural changes, in a broader sense, the entire media landscape is affected. The new paradigm challenges the market function, society and public policy to cope with the new situation. Analyzing both paradigms can help us to understand the driving forces behind the dynamics.
First, I will outline the main ideas of both thinkers and put them into the context of the recent developments in the music industry. In section 2 I will synthesize both concepts and put them into the context of recent developments in the music industry. Finally, I will give a conclusion and some recommendations for policy decision makers.
Two thinkers 40 years apart
Theodore W. Adorno (1903-1969)
Theodore W. Adorno can be regarded as one of the founders of academic popular music studies. Even though his work mainly examined broader matters of philosophy and society, Adorno also produced a substantial and influential body of literature on the culture industry and music. He describes the culture industry (including the popular music industry) as “the central agency in contemporary capitalism for the production and satisfaction of false needs.” (Frith 1981)
To understand Adorno’s critical view of popular music and the way it is produced, one has to consider his academic work in a wider sense. As a representative of the Frankfurt School and developer of Critical Theory, his writings dealt with the interaction of economy, individual and culture. Influenced by the philosophy of Karl Marx, Adorno criticized capitalism due to its increasing control over social life. He argued that the centralization of capital and the increasing bureaucratization lead to an administrated world and counteracts creativity, spontaneity, nonconformity and idealism. In the course of the emergence of mass media and mass culture as a result of capitalism, Adorno predicted the loss of individuality. (Adorno and Horkheimer 1977)
Coming from this perspective, it is not surprising that Adorno perceives pop music in a negative way. Pop music, in his opinion, is a standardized product, manufactured to maximize the profits of companies. He compares the production of pop music with the car industry. In such a rationalized industrial system the concept of standardization plays an important role. Using standardized parts in the manufacturing process decreases production costs. For example, the car industry utilizes standardized parts, like engines, car bodies or suspensions in its production process. Therefore, the basic structure of a car is constructed out of standardized parts, while the ‘pseudo-individualization’ is created with the help of minor surface modifications and marketing techniques. Accordingly, wider tires, a bigger exhaust pipe, racing stripes or a spoiler may affect the appearance of the car to the owner, but the basic structure of the car remains the same. Adorno applies this logic to the production of pop music. He describes it standardized in the way that pop songs utilize the same or very similar drum patterns, chord progressions, song structures and lyrics. Accordingly, parts of one pop song are interchangeable with parts of another pop song:
“The beginning of the chorus is replaceable by the beginning of innumerable other choruses”. (Adorno 1941)
The “pseudo-individualization” of pop songs is accomplished through promotion techniques. Marketing professionals create an image of a music group by selecting a specific look, dancing style, music video and stage performance. The main focus lies in addressing the desires and fantasies of a specific target group, whereas the underlying music is secondary and interchangeable. Those presentational features cloud the fact that the music itself is structured in a pre-defined pattern. Minor surface alterations do not alter the essence of the music, which, in Adorno’s opinion, devalues it. As a result, consumers of pop music believe that they are expressing their own individuality, but in reality they are imitating constructed lifestyles.
Thus, Adorno describes how consuming such music effects society. In his opinion, listening to pop music is a passive act and it does not require much intellectual effort to understand a piece of pop music. It consists of easy recognizable types which are known prior to reception and drive out originality and experiments. In this way, popular music reinforces a sense of continuity in everyday living, while its reified structure enforces forgetfulness. In contrast, listening to serious music, which Adorno appreciated, disrupts the continuum of everyday life and encourages recollection (Held 1980). In Adorno’s view, the pleasure derived from listening to pop music, therefore, is superficial and false. He even goes so far as to describe people who fall into this easy pleasure as open to the domination of the industrialized, capitalist system (Longhurst 2007).
“Listening to popular music is manipulated not only by its promoters but, as it were by the inherent nature of this music itself, into a system of response mechanisms wholly antagonistic to the ideal of individuality in a free, liberal society.” (Adorno 1941)
The listeners, on the other hand, were forced to listen to the mass media channels as a result of lacking alternatives. The investment and operating costs of starting up and running a radio station or a record label were high and therefore only a few big corporations split the market between themselves. In 1938 the 4 biggest record labels controlld xx% of the market. The charts diversity was … While radio stations become more powerful and record labels struggled due to xxx in the years xxx were bought by the large radio broadcasting companies. As result, even larger media conglomerates that controlled almpost the hole value creation chain were responsible for what people could listen to and consume. Even if smaller independent labels exist and successfully ran served niche markets, becoming too successful they were bought by the major labels that softened the ecken und kanten in order to make them fit into the mass market.
Adorno could not witness the first diversity explosion caused by the Rock’n Roll Revolution. Around 1964, technological innovations led to more cost efficient As this development, indeed led to a much more diverse and democratized media landscape, it was still dominated by larger companies that controlled the distribution chain and the marketing channels. There was no chance for an individual artist to produce, distribute and promote his own record on a larger scale. Until the digital revolution artists were dependent on investiors in the form of record labels. You can’t drie your own truck and sell CDs to people all over the world. But you can dublicate mp3s and sell it all over the world. The fact that listeners are not passive by nature manifested itself by the web 2.0 which we will turn to in the following.
Chris Anderson (born 1961)
In contrast to Theodore Adorno’s sophisticated academic and philosophical work, Chris Anderson’s work is more practical, business orientated and less academic in nature. He analyzed, how technological innovations changed the way media content is produced, marketed and absorbed. In the wake of the internet and digitalization we see a countermovement to the mass media. In contrast to big media companies which produce standardized media for the masses on a large scale, we increasingly see a significant number of individuals producing customized products for niche markets on a small scale. This can be seen as an enforcement of the individual and a mitigation of the influence of the mass media – an evolution, Adorno would have certainly welcomed.
In his book The Long Tail, Anderson describes how diminishing storage and distribution costs create a business environment where it can be profitable to sell a very small amount of specialized products to a wide range of people with diversified taste preferences (Anderson 2008). His work advanced previous research on the business model of the online sales company Amazon. This previous research illustrated how Amazon makes a significant share of profit by selling rare books which are not available in traditional bricks-and-mortar book stores (Brynjolfsson and Smith 2000). As an Amazon sales employee put it:
“We sold more books today that didn’t sell at all yesterday than we sold today of all the books that did sell yesterday.”
Anderson explains the underlying theory by referring to the principles of the digital economy. The possibility to digitalize information goods like music, movies or books drastically decreases storage and distribution costs. In the old non-digital economy a bookseller needed to calculate shelf rents. Therefore, one item needed to be sold a specific number of times, so that it was worth carrying. If a book only sells one time a year and the rent for the shelf space is higher, it is not worth offering it. As a consequence, the supply of different titles was very limited and mainly aims to address a broad audience. Anderson summarizes this in the following:
“For too long we’ve been suffering the tyranny of lowest-common-denominator fare, subjected to brain-dead summer blockbusters and manufactured pop.” (Anderson 2004)
In this quote, the parallels between Anderson’s and Adorno’s opinion towards the mass media become apparent. The terms “manufactured pop”, “brain-dead summer blockbusters” and “the tyranny” clearly reveals Anderson’s negative view of the system and could likely have been used by Adorno himself. However, Chris Anderson is not a social critic. Instead, he argues from a business point of view. Here lies the interesting aspect of both views. While Adornos critic is driven by the blame of capitalistic systems, for Anderson this exact same system depicts the solution to the domination of the mass media:
“Unlimited selection is revealing truths about what consumers want and how they want to get it in service after service, from DVDs at Netflix to music videos on Yahoo!” (Anderson 2004)
Besides the fact that the digitalisation and the internet decreased distribution and storage costs and thus made it profitable to sell niche products, the new paradigm also has far-reaching impacts on the way digital goods are produced. We see this development in the vast amount of creative works produced by individuals on their digital cameras, music production softwares and digital publishing tools. These artist-entrepreneurs are not excluded from the market by gate-keepers like magazine editors or music managers. These days, their raw and often unpolished works rush on the market and challenge establish media production companies with a new intrinsic motivated “business” model. As a consequence, potential consumers can chose from a wide variety of music of every possible kind. The fact that these artist-entrepreneurs are not driven by a profit maximizing business model and therefore do not have to incorporate lowest-common-denominator-patterns to maximize advertisement profits, it is understandable, that their creative works are not standardized in the sense of Adorno.
Furthermore, the digital age brought about new marketing techniques. Collaborative filter systems (“Customers who bought this also bought this …”) recommend products to potential listeners by collecting taste information from other users. According to Anderson, 60 per cent of movie rentals come from online recommendations (Anderson 2004). Viral marketing uses mouth-to-mouth promotion and online social networking platforms like myspace or facebook brings it to a global scale. Marketing techniques of the 21st century are designed to identify preferences of each individual and address their needs by customized products. In Anderson’s view such marketing methods will support potential buyers in finding new and exciting content apart from the mainstream media:
“ … recommendations are a remarkably efficient form of marketing, allowing smaller films and less mainstream music to find an audience.” (Anderson 2004)
In summary, these developments depict the exact countermovement to Adorno’s criticism of the culture industry. Instead of the standardized mass production of music, we now see individuals who produce and publish songs for niche markets. Instead of superficial marketing techniques with polished advertising messages from business people, consumers nowadays receive recommendations from other users with similar taste preferences. Instead of limited and preselected content, users now can chose out of an immense amount of music and other digital goods of every kind and quality. And rather than consumers passively consuming what media corporations offer them, we now experience active prosumers (a neologism formed from the words producer and consumer), who actively contribute, review, remix and consume digital content.
The following table summarizes Adorno’s and Anderson’s view of the production marketing and reception of media content.
|Theodore W. Adorno||Chris Anderson|
|Marketing||addressing the mass||addressing the niche|
|Reception||limited passive consumption||unlimited active prosumption|
Figure 1: Theodore Adorno’s and Chris Anderson’s view of the production, marketing and reception of media content. * “prosumtion” is a neologism formed from the words production and consumption.
Criticism and Conclusion
In light of their controversial arguments, both thinkers have attracted significant criticisms: Theodore Adorno mostly for his generalizations and his bias and disdain for popular music. His high opinion of serious music is often ascribed to his historical and social background. Coming from a highly educated German intellectual background, he was a serious music composer himself. As such, he was often accused to be constraint by his personal background and blamed to be just a conservative who likes classical music and dislikes popular music. Offensive statements like the following, in which Adorno describes the jitterbug, a popular form of dancing during the 1940s, as a flamboyant and jerky way of dancing, depict an easy target for criticism:
“It [the jitterbug] has convulsive aspects reminiscent of St Vitus’s dance or the reflexes of mutilated animals. Passion itself seems to be produced by defects”. (Adorno and Bernstein 2001)
Such statements show a poor understanding of dancing and the way it is employed throughout history and culture. Adorno often skips the differences in which people relate to pop music. As there exist different sorts of pleasure that are part of the consumption of pop music, not all of them are as superficial as Adorno claims. However, Jay (Jay 1973) objected that Adorno was never a defender of traditional cultural standards for their own sake. With this in mind and his comprehensive work about music, Adorno’s theories cannot be dismissed so easily. In times where major record labels and superstars dominated the market, pop music was always accused to sound formulaic and similar. In this regard, Adorno’s work still provides several interesting aspects and sources of inspiration for popular music studies. Nevertheless, as Chris Anderson and others point out, the digital age lines up to revolutionize this structure.
Anderson’s work has also faced criticism due to its partly naïve and optimistic statements. One of the critics, Andrew Keen, argues fiercely against the new user generated content in his book “Cult of the amateur – how today’s internet is killing our culture” (Keen 2007). In his opinion, the new trend does nothing more than producing useless content of inferior quality:
“For today’s amateur monkeys [monkey here refers to internet users who generate content] can use their networked computers to publish everything from uninformed political commentary, to unseemly home videos, to embarrassingly amateurish music, to unreadable poems, reviews, essays, and novels.” (Keen 2007)
He claims that if anybody, unconstrained by professional standards or editorial filters, can publish, alter and manipulate public opinions, music, movies and all kinds of inner urges, we experience the death of our cultural standards and moral values. The weakness of Keen’s argument is that it is blurred by his usage of provocative and offensive language. In addition, Keen fails to recognise that many individuals benefit from the new possibilities of the web 2.0 to express themselves in any creative, personal or informative way. He also does not appreciate the important role these independent and uncontrollable communication channels play in political education and freedom of speech, especially in authoritarian regimes. Nonetheless, Keen offers a different perspective to the hailed new development of the web 2.0, which is worthwhile to consider.
In conclusion, both thinkers critically analysed the media system and its influence on society. Both thinkers share a negative attitude towards centralised dominating systems. The obvious difference is time. In the 70 years that separates both thinkers, far-reaching technological innovations altered the way media is produced and distributed. While Adorno criticized the system in which pop music is produced, marketed and consumed, Chris Anderson formulated, perhaps unaware, the solutions to Adorno’s points of critique, facilitated by technological innovations. As a consequence, I am sure that both men would have shared a glass of wine together.
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Adorno, T. W. (1941). “On popular music.” Studies in Philosophy and Social Science 9(1): 17–48. Adorno, T. W. and J. M. Bernstein (2001). The culture industry: Selected essays on mass culture, Brunner-Routledge.
Anderson, C. (2004). “Change this – The Long Tail.” from
Anderson, C. (2008). The long tail: Why the future of business is selling less of more, Hyperion Books.
Brynjolfsson, E. and M. D. Smith (2000). “Frictionless commerce? A comparison of Internet and conventional retailers.” Management Science 46(4): 563-585.
Frith, S. (1981). Sound effects: Youth, leisure, and the politics of rock’n’roll, Pantheon Books.
Held, D. (1980). Introduction to critical theory: Horkheimer to Habermas, Univ of California Pr.
Jay, M. (1973). “The dialectical imagination.” Boston, MA.
Keen, A. (2007). The cult of the amateur: how today’s internet is killing our culture, Broadway Business.
Longhurst, B. (2007). Popular music and society, Polity Pr.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1988). Society, culture, and person: A systems view of creativity: Cambridge University Press.
Tschmuck, P. (2003). How creative are the creative industries? A case of the music industry. The Journal of Arts Management, Law, and Society, 33(2), 127-141.
Former academic turned artist. PhD in media & communications with a focus on cultural economics. Composer, producer, sound engineer (SAE), DJ.