Limited Edition: The Consumption of Music Box Sets and the Politics of Distinction

Andrew Bowsher, D.Phil Candidate at the Institute for Social and Cultural Anthropology at Oxford University
My research project explores the production, marketing and consumption of boxed-sets of recorded specialist music in Europe and North America. Boxed-sets collect archival materials pertaining to musical genres, eras and artists in elaborate packaging. They run in limited numbers, and are highly sought-after by music fans and collectors, who view them as valuable cultural artefacts and tributes to artistic legacies of cultural importance. Through an ethnographic investigation of practices surrounding these nostalgic goods, I examine the complex creative processes involved in producing these specific commodities, the dynamics of collecting practices, and the specific forms of sociality created through participating in fan culture to question anthropological theories of value creation in commercial marketplaces and consumer lifestyles (Graeber 2001) from a new perspective.
By questioning why boxed-sets are so prized and important to consumers, my methodological and theoretical consideration of anthropological debates creates a perspective for understanding how the value of boxed-sets is produced, negotiated and sustained. My study on boxed-sets questions previous anthropological research into the industries of cultural goods, which has suggested that producers can engender specific consumer reactions to goods through advertising (Moeran 1996), or that producers’ efforts have little impact on consumer behaviour (Miller 1997). By understanding how musical nostalgia and memory are packaged for, utilised by, and become symbolically powerful for consumers of boxed-sets, my research anthropologically analyses cultural industries by novelly researching the sociality of boxed-sets’ consumers, and their relationship with music producers, to anthropologically explore market dynamics, consumer agency and the creation of inalienable, culturally dense valuables (Weiner 1994). My study employs ethnomusicological literature (Frith 1998, Seeger 1986), but adds a pertinent new dimension to anthropology’s study of music by investigating music as a commodity within the context of cross-cultural transmissions and sociality (Hannerz 1987). My research on boxed-sets also critiques current shifts in the anthropological research agenda on consumption from focussing on shopping, fashion, and taste to consumption in the home and commodity disposal.
Methodologically, my research combines the biographical model for studying objects grounded in anthropology (Kopytoff 1986) and the commodity-chain approach developed by geographers. I am currently conducting a multi-sited ethnography that examines the specific social and economic practices surrounding boxed-sets as they move from their production in the US to their consumption in the UK. I will conduct ethnography where boxed-sets are consumed in the UK and North America, in spaces ranging from concerts and conventions to Internet sites and fan literature.
Moreover, in a six-month internship with Revenant Records in Austin, Texas, I aim to gain insights into the multiple creative processes crucial to designing their unique boxed-sets, and to understand how this influences the value that consumers perceive in their commodities. Thusfar in Austin, I have come to realize the importance of authentic aesthetics in the city, and have further realized the trend-setting capabilities of this local music-market in the wider marketplace. It is clear therefore that Austin’s local characteristics impact upon industry-wide concepts of authenticity from production through to consumption, and these factors appear to bear influence upon the viable production of box sets by companies such as Revenant Records. Austin’s magnetism within the global music industry has made it the heartland for many subcultural styles; how this melting-pot of a city has prized musical authenticity and simultaneously nurtured many musical genres and modes of production is something I wish now to understand as part of my research; to understand how the local aesthetic for the ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ has affected the reception of Austin’s products in the global marketplace. My research has therefore benefited from immersion in a local music industry with worldwide influence. I anticipate to finish this research and my D.Phil by the end of 2010.
Any interest, comments or suggestions would be most welcome to this work-in-progress.