Mobile phones and pop music

Most of us now have a portable music player sat in our pockets that has the ability to access pretty much any song that has ever been recorded, which feels like it will have pretty seismic implications on the way that we consume music. Will it plunge all of us into an endless quest of musical discovery, a desperate quest to hear every note that has ever been recorded? Will we ever be set free from our headphones?

The internet allows us to explore all of our weird passions, hobbies and interests to whichever degree we feel like. While of course it’s not quite truly infinite in its scope, it might as well be. This means that we all have a potentially unique pattern of on-line behaviour. So while my interest in music and the sites I visit might be similar to another music fan, what I do within them will be different and that doesn’t take into account my keen interest in the protocols, plans and processes in place for the release of nuclear weapons during the cold war. It’s certainly possible that every single person in the UK has a completely unique on-line footprint.

I have heard it said at Google, that mobile is like a surrogate brain. It’s certainly the closest technological representation of what we are really like. It’s an immediate medium, so it catches all of our impulses and passions. It’s how we communicate to our friends and family and how we connect to social media to tell the world how we see ourselves.

It’s private and one to one so it reveals our true selves – that’s why people got so annoyed when Facebook started telling people what they were really listening to on Spotify. The word ‘guilty pleasures’ is an irksome one but if there is a home for that kind of thing it’s mobile. And not just in music – I might use my mobile to check spellings or the definition of long words that I want to use that I’m not sure are in the right context. We skip around YouTube, clicking on onto the next video when we get bored and when another whim takes us, rather than diligently watching the whole thing. We skip the Arcade Fire album tracks that we’re supposed to like but actually don’t and hammer the Carly Rae Jepsen one instead. We might have a look at what the Kardashians are up to on Mail Online rather than George Monbiot in the Guardian.

Mobile might give us the truest snapshot of how someone interacts with popular culture.

Actually, over the last year or so, the number of people accessing music on mobile hasn’t changed. It’s the way in which they’re doing that is changing. Fewer of us are transferring music on CD onto mobile through a PC which makes perfect sense. Why would you when you can just download or stream it directly? But that’s not really a behavioural change – people still want to carry their music around with them, they’re just cutting out the middle man. As Eddie Izzard once said about landlines – ‘you used to phone a building and hope that the person you wanted to speak to was in the building rather than just ringing the person’. This time next year, downloading will overtake transfer from CDs and that might prove to be a watershed moment for the world of physical product. Enders predicts a huge increase in downloads and streaming that will both overtake physical by 2017.

There are plenty of new developments that are likely to make streaming even more popular. Both iTunes and Google Play are offering streaming services and with the advent of 4G, streaming could start to become a very important source of revenue for them. 26% of Apple users are on 4G vs. 10% of Android users so Apple users are more likely to stream on the go.

Vodafone are offering Spotify premium as a lure for their 4G service, and if streaming starts to become part of the bundle – effectively ‘free’, or at least less visible, suddenly a huge percentage of mobile users are streaming for free. It won’t be long before other networks follow. Could this mark the point at which people stop consciously paying for a music service, where it just becomes part of the deal?

Is this the point where mobile changes our behaviour towards purchasing music?

There is an on-going philosophical debate about social constructivism and technological determinism. Social constructivism is the idea that technology does not determine human action, human action shapes technology. Technological determinism argues the opposite, that technology drives behaviours, values and social structure. Usually this debate is about video games, or films causing people to behave in a violent fashion, but it’s increasingly the case that is being applied to think about how our media behaviours are changing.

In this example we could say that mobile phones are a cause of changing media habits, but the other side of the debate states that technology doesn’t change people – it enables them to do something they wanted to do anyway. So if people always really wanted to buy songs rather than albums (the existence of the word ‘filler’ and the number of people who have moaned to me about buying an album and only liking three or four songs, suggests that this might well be the case), then the arrival of iTunes just made that possible, or at least easier. Streaming services have made it possible to have all the music ever recorded, but it’s just possible that the majority of people might not want actually want that – it might be a case of too much choice. Too much music.

We have to ask the question – what behaviour is streaming replacing? If it is a solution to the problem of having to carry your entire music collection around instead of having another MP3 device because your phone can’t carry enough songs, then it has an appeal to people like me. But, for a casual music fan who only buys a handful of albums a year, is it really replacing the role of radio? I think that neglects the important appeal of a narrative within music – where music is part of the framework rather than the sole factor. There’s also a question about passive choice vs active choice. A whole lot of people don’t want to spend time choosing music and creating playlists, they just want some music to listen to, from a source that they trust to do the job.

It’s actually difficult to pull apart the effects of technology and the people using it. For example, it’s clear that iPhone owners are “more likely” to be heavy users of mobile internet and buy more apps and so on. The challenge comes in finding out why.

Is it because people who value mobile connectivity are more likely to spend money on a premium smartphone?  Is it because people who buy an iPhone then go on to become heavier users of mobile internet services?  Or is it simply because people who can afford to pay a premium for a phone will also pay a premium for other goods/ services?

A greater percentage of iPhone users – 50.57% – regularly listen to music on their phone compared to around 30% Android, Windows, Blackberry or Nokia users. However, it doesn’t appear that they are more passionate about music than people who use other devices – they are no more likely to agree with the statement ‘music is an important part of my life’ than Windows or BlackBerry users. They buy just as many CDs as anyone who has a different device. It might just be that the iPhone has an easier relationship with music consumption – people are used to iTunes and it has the heritage in music that other devices do not have.

But it doesn’t look like phones are making us listen to more music or less music.

Actually, what might be going on here is that smartphones provoke a greater diversity of interests. Whereas when you used to carry a Walkman, or an iPod around, you were nailing your colours firmly to the music mast. Now, you can play games, watch video, read the news, books and magazines, use social networks. Music is just competing with everything else that the user might want to do. It might mean that we do more but less. More different things but for less time. Our fingers are permanently hovering above the shuffle button, as it were.

Which brings me back to my first point – it might not be that mobile is changing what people want to do, or their habits in selecting entertainment, but rather what they are able to do. Suddenly, all options are available and that opens up the unique nature of everyone’s interests. It means that all entertainment options are open.

The impact that mobile has had on popular culture might be that it is enabling us to be ourselves and to follow our own real interests, whatever they might be. This is about allowing access rather than changing behaviour. So, maybe we haven’t changed all that much, but we are able to act on more of our impulses, the world has become more open and that means we all have a more rich and varied diet of culture and entertainment.