Theme in Focus: The Music Industry in the Digital Age

Explore the various ways in which the music industry has adapted in response to the digital revolution in recent years through the featured content links below. To explore previous topics, artists, and countries in focus on the Bloomsbury Popular Music platform, visit our new featured content archive page.

Amazon Music application displayed on an Android Sony smartphone in front of old 33rpm vinyls. (Photo Illustration by Guillaume Payen/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The death of the record industry

“In terms of the death of the record industry, it is a story, a media story. That’s all . . . a story that is being fed through the media.” -- Jim Carroll, journalist and ex-MD of the Lakota Record label

The digital revolution has driven radical change in the music industry. Back in 2013, Jim Rogers asked 30 industry professionals how the industry had responded to its changing technological environment. Whilst all of them signalled the arrival of the internet as a medium for the circulation of music as the most significant development, they also pointed to other factors in record industry decline, including employment trends, the decline of ‘bricks and mortar’ retailing, a failure to grasp opportunities early enough, and the effects of supermarket retailing. However, as Rogers went on to discuss, the crisis in the record industry did not amount to a crisis in the music industry as a whole.

Learn more in 'Evolution, not Revolution…'' in The Death and Life of the Music Industry in the Digital Age.

Spotify logo displayed on a phone screen (Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Copying and culture

“Copying … is real enough and we do not have the luxury of describing whether we like it or not. The question—in the words of Buddhist poet John Giorno—is how we handle it” -- Marcus Boon

Kim Dotcom’s arrest in 2012 was just like a movie: helicopters swooped in; hounds were unleashed; and semi-automatic weapons were waved in the air, wielded by the New Zealand police who stormed into the rural mansion where the Megaupload billionaire, his wife, three children, and house guests were sleeping. On the day before his thirty-eighth birthday, Dotcom was charged with numerous offences including copyright infringement, racketeering, money laundering, and piracy.

Subsequently, the influence of the MP3 blog on popular music culture began to fade. The chilling effect of the Dotcom raids and other antipiracy efforts took its toll. Simultaneously, streaming sites like Spotify and Apple Music produced yet another change in listening habits, away from the downloading, collecting, and the virtual hoarding that characterized the first decade of the twenty-first century, towards on-demand streaming and ‘social’ listening. And yet, copying remains functionally essential, one of the central practices of digital culture. Again and again, we see culture transformed and sustained by reproduction and repetition.

Learn more in 'This is not a remix' in This is Not a Remix: Piracy, Authenticity and Popular Music, in which she considers the relationship between media and culture, by focusing on the social and material histories of copies and their circulation.

The Minitech Project recording a DJ set in a studio to be broadcast on social media on October 11, 2020 in Amsterdam, Netherlands (Photo by Pierre Crom/Getty Images)

Crowdfunding and alternative modes of production

Crowdfunding has rapidly gained exposure as a new way for musicians, composers, record producers and all manner of music creatives to find new ways of realizing their work. Among the general excitement, there is often considerable media interest in musicians or producers who succeed in crowdfunding a project that has been neglected by the mainstream. When a music creative uses crowdfunding successfully, it throws light on crowdfunding as a credible and effective way for new music to be brought into a form wherein it can find an audience. In this way, there is often as much excitement about crowdfunding and the particular platform used as there is about the project itself.

Learn more in Mark Thorley’s 'Crowdfunding and Alternative Modes of Production' in Critical Approaches to the Production of Music and Sound.

Beastie Boys at Trans Musicales 2004 in Rennes (WikiMedia Commons)

Live music: artist and audience collaboration

The 2006 Beastie Boys concert film Awesome: I Fuckin’ Shot That, documenting a New York show by the band at Madison Square Gardens, explicitly recognizes the arena audience as participants. The film also discusses the role audiences can play in documenting an arena experience.

Awesome is an attempt to include the experience of the ‘common people’, however banal at times, within an official record of an arena show. This practice of recording a personal experience, banality included, is now part of the fabric of arena shows, for better or worse. The film declares that arena experiences should be as much about the audience as the artist if not more so and that the event should be collaborative. The experience should be made together.

Neil Fox explores the practice of recording arena experiences through portable devices and sharing them online via social media platforms. Learn more in his chapter We Made This Together - How Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That! Foresaw Changes in the Live Concert Experience Brought about by Digital Technology and Social Media in The Arena Concert: Music, Media and Mass Entertainment.

The Futureheads perform during Unconvention at Niamos Radical Arts & Centre on March 06, 2020 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Shirlaine Forrest/WireImage)

How online networking inspired a face-to-face independent music community

In the first few years of the 21st century, a number of social networking platforms such as MySpace began to achieve widespread popularity and these were quickly embraced by some in the independent music sector as platforms for promotion. By 2005, a number of public forums, blogs and websites emerged that discussed the ways in which the independent music sector could approach and make use of these new technologies and adapt to the online environment.

However, the advice and insight was not universally embraced by the industries, and despite the comparative popularity of these blogs, that knowledge was not widely accessed. To a large extent, the independent music practitioners making use of the knowledge available online were something of a self-selecting group: by definition the ones who were already both active internet users and those seeking new, alternative methodologies.

From this context, Un-Convention arose as a grassroots series of independent music knowledge events that bring together music workers and musicians in a hybrid conference and music festival format. While these sorts of conversations were taking place online, Un-Convention provided a geographically specific site for face-to-face conversations and dialogue about strategies for independent music as well as a celebration of that music and culture.

Learn more about this international platform in Andrew Dubber’s 'Everybody talk about pop music: Un-Convention as alternative to festival, from DIY music to social change' in The Pop Festival.

Country in Focus

Kraftwerk in concert (ULI DECK/AFP/Getty Images)


At the end of the nineteenth century, a commercial song form called schlager was firmly established as the first genuine German musical genre of national importance. It was rooted in several urban musical developments including an urbanized form of folk song called gassenhauer, whose songs were frequently directed against authorities.

Following the start of the Nazi dictatorship in 1933, famous artists such as Marlene Dietrich and the Comedian Harmonists left Germany. Many Jewish musicians disappeared forever in the concentration camps, and foreign guest performances were resisted as ‘un-German’. After World War II, despite opposing political systems in East Germany and West Germany, the development of popular music and youth culture took a similar course. Beatles-inspired bands pushed at the limits of the musical mainstream established by the representatives of traditional German popular music.

In the 1970s, (West) German domestic rock music became known as ‘Krautrock’. Bands like Amon Düül, Tangerine Dream, Can and Faust created a highly experimental and influential electronic form of rock music. In particular, the band Kraftwerk, with its minimalistic sequencer-driven concept of music, proved to be of lasting influence, providing one of the roots for the electronic dance music of the 1990s.

After reunification in 1990, an outburst of creativity resulted in the emergence of techno as a distinct German version of electronic dance music. The global spread of hip-hop culture stimulated the creation of a strong German-language version of rap music represented by acts such as Die Fantastischen Vier and the all-female Tic Tac Toe. German popular music also continued to retain a distinct East German strand. One of the most famous German rock bands of the 1990s, Rammstein, was established by former members of several GDR punk bands and became a strong symbol of identity.

Artist in Focus

Fela Kuti (David Corio/Getty Images)

Fela Kuti

The Nigerian multi-instrumentalist bandleader and activist Fela Kuti brought the sound of radical African jazz to a global audience. Born into a politically active family, he understood the fundamental connection of music and politics.

In the early 1960s he began playing in a style inspired by the American soul/proto-funk of James Brown that he termed 'Afro-beat'. Later, he travelled to the United States to tour and record and there he was introduced to the Afrocentric activism of the Black Panthers and the writings of Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, and others and began to compose unabashedly political music.

In Nigeria, Kuti founded a recording studio, the Kalakuta Republic and toured West Africa. In 1977, he released Zombie, an extended attack on the state of Nigeria’s military. This led to a government-sanctioned attack on the Kalakuta Republic resulting in great personal and professional loss.

You might also be interested in the chapter 'Art at the Cutting Edge: Class, Cultures, and Globalization in African World Music in The Bloomsbury Handbook of Popular Music and Social Class.

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