The Consumption of Music and the Expression of VALUES: A Social Economic Explanation for the Advent of Pop Music

Article excerpt

WILFRED DOLFSMA [*]

ABSTRACT. By consuming pop music, people want to express who they are, to which group they belong, what their identity is. People's identity, however and contrary to what many believe, is not strictly individual. Instead, people's identity is highly social and draws on the socio-cultural values (what I here propose to call VALUES) in society - VALUES that become 'objectified' or institutionalized and may thus be communicated to others. If such institutionalized socio-cultural values are not conceptualized, and if one is not able to understand how institutions work in signaling people's identity, one is not able to explain a phenomenon such as the advent of pop music. In this paper, I apply and develop ideas taken from institutional and social economics, to understand the consumption of a symbolic good such as pop music.

I

Introduction

WHAT EXPLAINS THE reactions to Blackboard Jungle, the movie that appeared in 1956 and featured Bill Haley's song "Rock around the Clock"? Why were young people attracted to it and older people shocked? Why did Elvis Presley make such an impression? The advent of pop music in the 1950s and 1960s in Western societies is in dire need of an explanation. An aloof and clear-minded look at the lyrics of Elvis' songs does not suggest that deep thoughts or emotions are involved that merit the hysteria. What then explains the antagonism between people who liked Elvis and those who enjoyed music by Cliff Richard? (Or just a little later the Beatles versus the Rolling Stones?) Answers to these questions would interest economists too, since the consequences are economical in a strict sense, and not just cultural or social. Within a period of two years after 1955, for instance, the music scene in the USA changed dramatically (Peterson 1990, p. 97). Record companies are major players in the economic sphere nowadays (Vogel 1 998), and pop music is used extensively in places or fields that seem at first sight not directly related to it. What concerns me here is to explain the 'sudden' advent of pop music and the institutional changes that accompanied it and made it possible at the same time. The phenomenon has strictly economic aspects, some of which are measurable, [1] but also has aspects that might be better called 'social' or 'cultural'. These different aspects are intertwined. Since the late 1950s and early 1960s pop music has become an important way for many people to distinguish themselves from others (Frith 1983, 1987a). They consume music as a way of showing who they are, and what they want to be. I will argue that from an institutional and social economic perspective (cf. Ackerman 1997), explaining the advent of pop music requires recognizing that pop music represented these socio-cultural values for its consumers. Though I will focus on development in the Netherlands in particular, I indicate that these behaviors were i n many cases similar to those in other countries. Moreover, the explanation of consumption behavior suggested here is relevant for other analyses of consumption, particularly for consumption of symbolic goods. In arguing for an explanation along institutional and social economic lines, I must, in Section 1, first persuade the reader that other, more mainstream explanations are inadequate.

II

The Need for a Different Explanation

CONSUMPTION OF POP MUSIC has, for the purposes of this study, broad connotations; it includes the consumption of material and immaterial goods related to pop music. [2] Examples are records, radio programs, music magazines, and concerts. There are a number of explanations for the sudden rise in the consumption of pop music. Most of the explanations reviewed here are economic explanations. Some scholars address the problem of the advent of pop music explicitly (DeBoer 1985; Peterson 1990), while other explanations are more implicit. These can be rephrased such that they become relevant for the issue at hand. …