Adult MP3 Users’ Perspectives on Past and Present Consumer Audio Technology: Does the Music Still Matter?

Introduction

On an average day, as we navigate through our lives in city or suburb, we encounter a fairly ubiquitous sight:  audio consumers plugged into their digital audio MP3 player by means of earbuds or headset, enjoying a world of sonic programming all to themselves.  We hear news accounts of the Apple iPod from all corners: twenty-two million units sold between October and November 2008 alone; a queen receives an iPod as the ultimate gift of diplomatic friendship; a young living Buddha destined to guide Tibet forgoes the typically quiet monastic lifestyle and listens to hip-hop music on his iPod; people consider running back into a burning building or jumping on subway tracks to save their beloved iPods.  You can find an online photo gallery at ipodlounge.com featuring pictures of iPods around the world.  You can order your own iPod LEGO toy tribute at PodBrix.com – “1000 brix in the pocket.”  The list goes on. This simple digital audio player has played center stage since its arrival on the market, and it still demands our attention and captures our imagination today.

How can we characterize the MP3 format’s cultural impact on the world?  How has the iPod changed audio and how we listen to it?  Ten years after Apple’s introduction of the iPod in 2001, the dust only now begins to settle.  A rich swath of unexplored territory of scholarly study beckons, and the audio consumption revolution’s cultural fallout will most likely produce years of research.  Already, many studies of MP3 technology have explored youthful users and their consumption habits and attitudes (LaRose, Lai, Lange, Love, & Wu, 2005; Shade, Porter, & Sanchez, 2005; Emanuel, Adams, Baker, Daufin, Ellington, Fitts, et al., 2008; Sinha, & Mandel, 2008).

However, none of these studies address questions of a more historical nature, such as, does the music or audio programming still matter as much now than in the past?  Does today’s consumer audio technology offer a completely new listening experience than did older technology? Does listening to audio still constitute the main event in audio consumer culture, or do other things related to the MP3 revolution possibly dilute or strengthen the listening experience?

This paper argues that the MP3 audio consumption experience may differ from that of the past – particularly with regard to cultural elements of MP3 that have little or nothing to do with the actual act of listening to sound.  This study argues that experiential peripherals may play a more significant role in MP3 technology than in past music consumer technologies.  The term “experiential peripherals” refers to experiences connected to but not directly involved with the listening function in audio consumption.  If peripherals indeed play a more significant role, the peripherals would also probably affect the core experience of listening in some way.  As a result, the audio consumer armed with MP3 technology could not listen to the recorded audio in the same manner as was done in the past, and relevance of the audio content, therefore, might possibly change.  For example, do peripherals distract the audio consumer?  Could peripherals enhance the act of listening?  Do record production practices impact the influence of peripherals?

Qualitative interviews of adult MP3 users were conducted for this study, because adult MP3 users have often used older audio technologies (such as phonograph, 8-track, cassette, and compact disc) in addition to the new, and therefore stand at unique technological crossroads.  Therefore, this study asks the following research questions:

RQ1:  How do adult MP3 users view their experience with the MP3 format in general?

RQ2: How do adult MP3 users perceive this experience in relation to their experience with older consumer audio technology?

This paper will first attempt to clarify an original concept of “experiential peripherals” in audio consumer technology usage.  The paper will then describe some of the existing literature addressing these peripherals in relation to MP3 technology. The method of the study and the study’s results follow, and finally the paper will discuss the findings and conclude with a look toward future MP3 culture studies.

Experiential Peripherals in MP3 Consumption

Coolness factor (brand, status), ease of use and ease of music acquisition, psychological mood benefits, and the control of personal space constitute some of the most significant or influential experiential peripherals in regard to MP3 technology, as supported by the MP3 literature.  However, before this paper addresses these topics that appear in the literature, I will offer some of the reasoning that contributed to the notion of experiential peripherals.  During my professional record production work taking place over the past twenty years or so, I noticed that many conversations about recorded-music consumption seemed to transition from a focus on the music itself to a focus on concepts that did not directly relate to the music, that is, to things that “surrounded” the main event of listening.  For example, people more frequently talked about how cool their iPods were and what color device they chose, or how many songs they could download from what websites, or how they could ignore everyone at the bus stop by plugging themselves into their MP3 player, etc., and less frequently discussed what songs made what impressions on them, or what new lyrics had shocked or thrilled them, or most important to me, how wonderful the latest recording from their favorite artist sounded. This transition occurred during shifts in popularity of particular music consumer technologies: the popularity of vinyl and cassettes eventually surrendered to the popularity of CDs, and then MP3 technology all but supplanted the music consumer technology that preceded it.  As a consequence of this observation, I wondered if the music that I was recording and producing was somehow becoming part of a new (and perhaps worrisome) music consumption “reality,” or culture — one in which the act of listening to music was somehow shifting in relative importance to other experiences connected to but not directly involved with listening.  And if this held some truth, I subsequently asked myself if — and how — my record production practices might play a role in this new consumption equation.

The idea of naming these unrelated concepts ‘peripherals’ came from the concept of the computer and its relationship with peripherals and accessories.  The CPU, or central processing unit of the computer, performs the ‘thinking’.  All of the other equipment, such as the cables, printers, screen, mouse, etc., comprises the peripherals and accessories related to the CPU.  Helpful to the system, indeed, and sometimes utterly necessary (hard to use a computer without a screen or monitor), these items serve a secondary purpose to the primary function of the central device.  But this “peripheral” metaphor cannot be applied to music consumer culture without one inconsistency: manufacturers create computer peripheral equipment with the clear intent of functionally supporting the computer system, in particular, supporting the main CPU.  In the case of MP3 technology, I argue that the question remains open as to whether experiential peripherals support the main act of consuming music.  Herein lies the philosophical heart of this paper’s inquiry.

Please see figures 1 and 2, to examine a graphic conceptualization of experiential peripherals.  Two listening technologies appear in the diagrams:  phonograph and MP3, which stand far apart from each other in the historical development of consumer audio technology.  The relative sizes of the peripherals do not describe specific data in the study; rather they reflect the author’s perceptual distributions or ‘weightings’ of importance assigned to different experiential aspects of music consumption by technology type.  Five of the diagrammed peripherals, mood control (psychological manipulation), ease of use and ease of acquisition, brand and status, and control of personal space appear in the MP3 literature, and this paper offers further explanation of the concepts in later sections.  Other peripherals in the diagrams, such as additional program information (liner notes, recording credits, photography, and album art) and companionship (the perception of the music player as a beloved friend, worth risking one’s life to retrieve from train tracks or a burning house) come from the author’s exposure to news stories and conversations about music consumption technology. In a future study, actual data could replace speculative data in this kind of display, including thematic data derived from further qualitative inquiry or survey data obtained by quantitative means.

Figure 1. Experiential peripherals and phonograph technology.

Figure 2. Experiential peripherals and MP3 technology.

In summary, with regard to experiential peripherals, we would consider listening to music or audio as the primary function of the technology, both for current and past consumption.  Other effects, experiences or phenomena connected to the usage of the specific technology at hand would constitute the “experiential peripherals” of the technology.  The previously mentioned peripheral areas specific to MP3 technology that appear in scholarly communications literature merit discussion in the following sections of the paper.

Coolness factor: brand and status

Ferguson (2008) and Hayes (2006) both discussed music media branding and status.  Ferguson blasted iPod culture in her assessment of the device’s purpose:

The tactile encounter with the product may be the one that is most often mentioned in reviews, but the    iconic advertising and somewhat staged performances of wearing the device – not to be tucked into any pocket, although this is simply a personal observation – suggests that the pleasure is one of managed social stratification.  There is the pleasure of similarity with an advertised ideal of silhouetted hipsters, as well as with fellow consumers, and there is the delight of difference, always a part of personal stereo use and particularly obvious in the display of status through commercial brands.  Is it this which tugs at our heart strings and renders us less interested in the sound to be heard therein [italics added] than in the touch, the visual display and the kinaesthetic satisfaction of a body in sync with the normative values of late capitalism? (2008. p. 75)

Ferguson supported the notion that listening possibly becomes secondary to peripherals surrounding the technology.  Hayes (2006) described a counter-culture of younger vinyl users who actively attempt to resist the very “coolness” that MP3 culture embraces.  Because “coolness” has a presence in the literature, and also impacts technology sales, the concept was included in this study.  Specifically, this study explores the possibility that the “coolness factor” doesn’t play as large a role in older music consumer technology as it does in today’s MP3 culture.  Also, portability plays a potential role in the significance of the “coolness” factor, because carrying a portable player in public inherently means the display of brand and the conferring of that brand’s perceived status.  The next section addresses this experiential peripheral, and two related concepts.

Ease of use: acquisition, sharing, and portability

The ease with which the music fan acquires new music media via MP3 can override the need to actually listen to it.  Acquisition and sharing of music files becomes a habit instead of a means to an end, and the music that in days past played for the consumer today can sit untouched (LaRose, Lai, Lange, Love, & Wu, 2005).  Indeed, data gathered in the first interview for this study supports this idea.  Sterne (2006) implied that much of the cultural significance of MP3 technology lies in its simplicity: “…this is the mode in which MP3s work: they are important precisely because they are useful but do not call attention to themselves in practice” (p. 828).  However, young members of vinyl counter-culture embrace exactly that which MP3 users avoid: active participation in the work of successful playback of music on their devices (Hayes, 2006).  This study consequently examines the ease-of-use peripheral to explore whether it impacts the “main event” – the act of listening to audio.

Psychological manipulation: shuffle

Apple created one of its later iPod versions to function only in this important manner:  random playback, meaning no predetermined or logical order to the songs.  Never before have we seen such a powerful change in listening habits, and the literature, both scholarly and otherwise, attempts to describe the cultural fallout. Steven Levy (2006), a technical journalist by trade, wrote a fascinating account of the iPod, and as a tribute to the significance of shuffle mode, “shuffled” the chapters in his book so that they can be read in any order. (Other copies of the book also might have the chapters in a different order.)  He declared that shuffle mode defines the “iPod generation” (p. 4), and described a new consumer mind-set that demands choice, subsequently turning pre-existing modes of thought about media consumption on its head.  Some studies revealed that music consumers go as far as attributing the random selections played by their MP3 players to a spiritual synchronicity or other force beyond the technology (Levy, S., 2006; Ferguson, 2008).  These consumers felt that because of their close relationship with their devices, the devices would “know” what to play for them. Vinyl enthusiasts of many ages report a special relationship with their medium of choice by attributing human characteristics to the medium (Yochim and Biddinger, 2008).  However, the difference between the two technologies lies in the ideas of “imperfection”, like vinyl, compared to the “randomness” of shuffle mode.  Shuffle trumps any flaw or imperfection in the listening process.  Joe Levy (2007), writing for Rolling Stone, described his own technical shootout between vinyl, CD, and MP3 (actually AAC iTunes files – similar to MP3) and concludes that they absolutely don’t sound the same as they were intended in the vinyl and expressed discomfort and disappointment.  Despite the letdown with the digital formats, he finishes his experiment by returning to his iPod: “Now I was just jumpy and eager for the sound to change.  So I pushed ‘shuffle’.  And suddenly everything was fine” (p. 2).  The gratification of immediate and random playback ultimately superseded the primary goal of listening; “shuffle” won over the sound of the music itself.  One possible implication of this is that random ordering of music brings about an entirely new structure in the listening of music.  The significance of the psychological peripheral could then clearly differentiate MP3 listening from older music consumer technology consumption.

Portability and space control: personal and public spheres

Michael Bull (2001) set the stage for music portability studies just prior to the release of the Apple iPod in his study of Walkman personal stereo technology.  He argued that users manipulated their personal space in public places by keeping the headphones in place and music turned on.  (In one ethnographic interview-like moment, my stepdaughter admitted to me that she often plants her earbuds in her ears with no music playing to keep people from interacting with her in public.  Now, that’s managing personal boundaries with a culturally accepted visual mode of self-containment.)  Other studies that addressed portability and socialization include Ferguson (2008) and Emanuel, Adams, Baker, Daufin, Ellington, Fitts, et al. (2008).  The bulk of the studies argued that portability and control of personal space constitute the most significant changes to society as a result of MP3 consumer culture. This study looks for similarities in MP3 portability as compared with older Walkman technologies (cassette and CD), but at the same time assumes that the portability peripheral plays a much larger role in MP3 music listening than it did in any other time in the past.

Now, having reviewed some of the scholarly literature in the area of MP3 experiential peripherals, the next two sections of the paper will describe the study’s method and results.

Method

Research design

This exploratory investigation utilized the qualitative interview method because of its “ability to travel deeply and broadly into subjective realities” (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002, p.170).  The study sought to explore the meaning of old and new audio consumer technology in the everyday lives of the study subjects, and to capture those descriptions in the subjects’ own words.  The interview guide for the study appears in Appendix A of this paper.  I did not follow the interview guide verbatim, but the guide served as a good tool for keeping the interviews (for the most part) on track.  I asked the participants about experiential peripherals only in an indirect manner, to determine if the subjects would raise the peripheral topics on their own.

Participants

Three adult males MP3 users served as interview participants. The participant pool was purposely limited to three subjects due to the exploratory nature of the study.  The age of the subjects varied: two of the subjects were thirty-years old and the other fifty-four-years old. The first thirty-year old called himself a music fan, (“music fan”) the second thirty-year old made a living in the recording industry, (“audio engineer”), and the fifty-four-year old described himself as a singer-songwriter (“songwriter”).  All three were chosen for the study because they specifically identified themselves as regular, daily users of MP3 technology.  They also identified themselves as users of older audio consumer technology from the past.  The subjects were not paid in cash, but given food and drink.  No females participated in the study, nor did any MP3 users under the age of thirty-years old.

Procedure

I conducted the interviews in an informal setting with privacy. I recorded the interviews and subsequently reviewed the recordings for salient points.  I noted specific thematic data, and included them at the end of the results section of this paper.  Subjects were allowed to expound upon any MP3 topic that they found intriguing or particularly important.  The shortest session took forty-five minutes to complete; the longest ended after an hour and a half.  I promised anonymity to all participants.  A primary goal of the interviews was to foster uninhibited and candid discussion about the full range of topics related to MP3 usage.  The institutional review board for human subjects research at Johns Hopkins University approved the research protocol for this study.

Results

This section will detail the findings of the interviews in sections specific to the individual interview subjects, or in other words, in the order of “music fan”, “audio engineer”, and “songwriter” interview results.  A brief summary will conclude the results section.

The first thirty year-old male (“music fan”) served as the initial interview subject for this study.  He said that he collects a large number of songs from the internet to determine what live shows to attend. He felt that MP3 offers him the ability to expose himself to a much greater amount of music in general.  He admitted collecting songs that he never listens to, just for the satisfaction of collecting.  The interview subject related to me (with what I perceived as pride) the affinity he has with non-Apple MP3 players; he refuses to use iTunes to acquire his music or create MP3s from his CD collection.  He has a large CD collection, which he rarely listens to, unless he’s auditioning one for possible transfer to MP3.  He used cassette technology as a youth and never had much exposure to vinyl.  He has no special affinity for any older music consumer technology.  For him it still is about the music, and for him listening has changed but little; the listening itself still plays a central role in his consumption, and he just simply listens to music all the more than he used to.

The second thirty-year old male (“audio engineer”) revealed that he only used the MP3 format when necessary in his professional work.  He never uses the format for personal listening, because of what he regards as poor sound quality.  Clients that use his engineering services often need their work formatted to MP3 for release on the internet, and also for submission to song contests and the like.  In his earlier audio consumption years, he started caring about the sound quality of his personal listening experience when he first owned a car.  From that time, car ownership and the listening format that came with the car at purchase helped determine his audio consumption habits.  8-track tape, cassette, minidisc and CD formats constituted his experience with past consumer technology. He believes that the quality of music in general suffers because of cheaper digital recording technology, and because the newer format does not require the care or thought that older technology did from its users, such as the cautious handling and cleaning of vinyl records.  He also believes MP3 simply provides another way to distribute music, nothing more, nothing less.

The last interview subject, (“songwriter”), also attributed his past experience with audio consumer technology to using whatever came with his car at purchase.  However, this subject also had experience with phonograph technology, unlike the other interview subjects.  He used 8-track, cassette, and CD in his cars, and recently purchased a car radio with a dedicated input for a portable MP3 player.  (Many current car adaptors for MP3 players require an FM transmission technology, subject to interference and other extra noise.)  He expressed concern for the disappearance of “album listening” in the MP3 age. He remembers the many songs he grew to love only after being exposed to them as they played between his other immediate favorites within album sequences.  He also spoke of the old mode of audio acquisition in the vinyl age – he enjoyed going to a real store and talking to real people about the music he was looking for, and how that process lead to a great sense of satisfaction as soon as the new album hit the phonograph platter at home.

A few emerging themes found in the interview data include cars and consumer audio technology, willingness to embrace new technology and abandon the old, and a somewhat detached and unaffected view of MP3 and the buzz that surrounds it.  None of the three interviews yielded much data suggesting that peripherals influenced the subjects’ current MP3 audio consumption experiences.

In the final section of the paper I will examine the results of the interviews as they relate to the study’s research questions and thesis.

Discussion

The interviews provided rich accounts of past and present audio consumer MP3 habits and culture among the interview subjects.  However, this study does not find support for its assertion that experiential peripherals play a more significant role in MP3 audio consumption compared with audio technologies of the past.  The paper will discuss a number of possible reasons for this, and will then offer suggestions for other future MP3 culture research.

First, limitations of this study’s research method contribute to the lack of support for the study’s thesis.  The interview schedule reads more like a survey, and certainly many of the topics included in the schedule were left alone because of the total number of topics in the schedule.  Also, the questions could have specified the particular experiential peripherals under scrutiny in the study, and the subjects could have commented directly upon them.  The attempt of the interviewer to “stay out of the way” and see if the peripheral topics came up during the conversational exchanges probably proved too distant an approach to get to the central issues of this study.

Second, limitations of the study’s interview participants also contribute to a lack of support for the thesis.  Three respondents constitute an extremely small pool of MP3 culture informants, and if the number of respondents increased, the variability of responses would probably increase as well.  In addition, younger members of MP3 culture would possibly express more interest in the cultural experiential peripherals than older adult members, because adults bring their old listening habits and culture from the past with them.  Older MP3 users served the historical inquiry of the study well, but they possibly could not divorce themselves from their behavioral roots in phonograph, cassette and CD consumption.  Finally, one other issue of interview subject selection involves the question of gender.  No female interview subjects participated in the study, and therefore, the element of gender and audio consumption culture remains unknown.

Yet, the literature mentioned earlier in the paper supports the notion that experiential peripherals play at least some role in MP3 culture, as well as in general audio media consumption.  Further scholarly inquiry can help determine the degree to which this rings true.  Future studies of MP3 culture and experiential peripherals could include a larger sample of the population.  A survey might serve as an excellent method for investigating cultural experiential peripherals.  The relative size of the peripheral “spheres of influence” in the earlier diagrams could represent actual survey data, and studies could make clear analytical claims, transferable to a larger population, based on reliable data.  MP3 culture studies could also make a point of asking respondents directly, not indirectly, about these experiential “satellites” that orbit the center of their MP3 cultural system – the act of listening to audio.

In the end, the data collected here support the notion that MP3 still just simply means listening to audio, or in particular, to music.  As Steve Jobs, chief executive officer of Apple said, “It’s not like we’re making a gizmo and taking it out in the world and trying to convince people that they love music.  People know that already.  So all we’re doing is reinventing the experience of enjoying music…”(Levy, 2006, p. 255).  In other words, the experience of listening changes as technology changes, but ultimately the audio content, especially music, can still “matter.”

About the Author

Heidi Gerber
Johns Hopkins University
ruffmix@aol.com

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Appendix A

Interview Outline

I. Usage Patterns:

Please describe your daily usage of your MP3 player.

How many times do you use your MP3 player each day?

Do you usually engage in other activities while listening to MP3s?  If so, what activities?

What time of day do you use your MP3 player?

How often do you listen to MP3 files without a portable player?

How does your MP3 usage differ from listening patterns of the past with other technologies?

II. Listening Attitudes and Perceptions:

How does your MP3 listening satisfy your music listening needs?

How do you perceive your MP3 listening experience?  Please describe your feelings and attitudes.

If you could improve anything about your MP3 experience, what would it be?

If you lost your MP3 player, please describe what you would do.

How did earlier changes in older consumer technologies influence your listening habits or experience?

III. Specific Comparisons with Older Music Consumption Technology:

What other consumer technology have you used to listen to music?

Is the MP3 a superior format to older formats, and if so, why?  If not, why not?

Do you ever use older technology for your music listening, and if so, what format and why?  Have you left older formats completely behind?

How were you introduced to MP3 technology?

How did you learn to use MP3 technology?  What help, if any, did you receive from others?

What is the best thing about the MP3 format when compared with other formats?  What is the worst thing?

From the past to the present, is there any musical genre, particular song, or other recorded material that relied in part or whole on its original technological format to attain its full artistic or aesthetic impact?

IV. MP3 Culture Issues & Controversies:

A.            Sociability and Public Spaces

Do you use your MP3 player in public spaces?  If so, where?  Did you ever use older audio players in public?  Was the experience different?

Do people in public places ever give you cues that they don’t approve of your use of the technology in public spaces?  If so, how do they communicate their disapproval?

Do you ever use your MP3 player to avoid socializing with people in your immediate surroundings?  If so, how often?

Does MP3 use facilitate any increases in your social interaction with others?  If so, how?  If not, why not?

Did older forms of consumer audio technology enhance or diminish your social interaction with others?

B.            Purchasing files

What websites have you used to purchase MP3 files?  What site(s) did you use, and what was your level of satisfaction with the purchase?

How did you acquire audio material with older technology?  How was it similar to or different from the downloading experience with MP3?

C.            Image and Group Context

Do you own an iPod or another type of MP3 player?  If you own other than an iPod, what?

What or who influenced you to obtain the MP3 player you use?

Do you feel any rapport with other users of MP3 technology?  If so, please describe.

Do you share your MP3 files with any other MP3 users?  If so, how do you share your music?

Do you have a brand loyalty to any consumer audio manufacturer? If so, why?  Also, if so, what forms of their consumer audio technology have you used in the past?

V. Closing Questions:

What else is important to you about using MP3 technology?

Did this interview change any of your attitudes about MP3 technology?  If so, please describe.