Prof. Hanrahan Presents Paper in Paris, France

Professor Nancy Hanrahan is presenting a paper titled "Musical discovery and its discontents" at the Musimorphoses Symposium in Paris, France, November 11-13, 2015.   

Paper Abstract: How do digital music platforms undermine the potential for new aesthetic experiences – the very potential they claim to deliver? The promise of open-ended discovery – that “everything” is available, music is free or easy to access, and the critical establishment no longer holds a monopoly on recommendation - should be a great boon to musicians and listeners alike. But while the technical means for such discovery are available, something has gone terribly awry. In conditions of overabundance, we seem to be experiencing a form of musical anomie, with potential listeners overwhelmed by choice and rarely satisfied because there’s always something more, and perhaps better, out there. While we still rely on friends and people we know for listening recommendations, young people are increasingly turning for guidance to the streaming services that promise to replicate or predict their taste, or to the quantified measures of popularity so visible across digital media platforms. The former limits discovery by returning us irrevocably to ourselves, while the latter steers listeners toward the middle, the conservative, and the known as opposed to the innovative or simply different. What is more, the promise of discovery is also the promise that our experience can be personalized, that we can have the perfect song for every mood, moment, or setting. But this expectation frequently results in disappointment and frustration as listeners skip through song after song that the algorithms select in the endless search for one that ‘fits’.

These are some of the findings from a research project on the decline of professional music criticism and its aesthetic consequences. Rather than an ethnography of listening or a study of taste, it is a critique of ideology that examines the contradictions inherent in the promise of digital musical discovery. As part of my exploratory research, J.L. Johnson and I conducted focus groups with students and young professionals in the Washington, DC area both to map their experience of musical discovery and to generate categories I could take forward in my analysis. The research shows what I call a dialectic of discovery; that is, a profound set of contradictions between openness and closure, between the promise of the new and the reality of proliferating sameness.

Nancy Weiss Hanrahan is Associate Professor of Sociology at George Mason University. Her research specializations are cultural sociology, sociology of music, and critical theory. She is co-editor of The Blackwell Companion to the Sociology of Culture (2005). Her current book project, Musical Discovery: Aesthetic Value in the Age of Digital Reproduction, considers how music, musical discovery, and modes of critical reflection about music, have been transformed in the new digital economy.