How do US college students find out about new music in the digital age?

From Crooked Timber‘s Eszter Hargittai and Steven Tepper from Princeton’s Centre for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies comes a fascinating paper in Poetics: “Pathways to music exploration in a digital age” (Poetics 37 (2009): 227–249).

This paper is several things in one: a lively introduction to the literature on this topic (particularly the sociology of taste), a presentation of novel data, and a stylishly-written discussion of an important topic which contains many minor gems (my favourite was the description of The Wire magazine as “an expensive British magazine for eclectic rock aficionados.”

What is the paper about? The authors explain the aim of the paper in this paragraph:

This paper considers the impact of new digital technology on music consumption, a subject that has drawn considerable attention frompundits, scholars, legal experts, and the music industry. The terrain is contested, messy and difficult to sort out. Traditional social and economic arrangements surrounding intellectual property are breaking down. Business models are shifting daily, and markets are becoming more consolidated. Consumers are facing a mind-boggling array of gadgets and services that allow themto access and enjoy art and entertainment in novel ways. In the face of such a daunting set of issues, we are going to focus on just a small part of the puzzle: Howdo college students – whoare both heavy consumers ofmusic and of technology – go about finding new music in a digital age?

Tepper and Hargittai surveyed 328 US college students on how they find out about new music. I won’t go over the results in detail here, but there’s an interesting discussion about the difference between “top mavens” and ordinary music listeners (“top mavens” are highly networked music gossipers who are always recommending music to their peers) but you could sum up the data with that age-old phrase so beloved of marketers: “Word of mouth”:

The use of technology for discovering new music and culture may become more pervasive in the future; but, based on evidence presented here and historical work on the relationship between technology and culture, we suspect it will be used to reinforce existing social patterns and relationships, rather than transform them.

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