Bonus Tracks

Earlier this week, I came across a group of people talking about an interesting aspect of collecting music that I had never given much thought. As I took a seat at a table next to this group, one of them was lamenting the current practice of releasing different versions of albums on different platforms, through different retailers, and in different packages. The concern the person voiced was that they tended to be what they referred to as a “completionist” wherein they sought to acquire all the recordings of a given artist or artists, but as a result, they often needed to purchase multiple versions of the same album / record to acquire all the different bonus tracks released in various ways.

While I had never given this aspect of music sales much thought, recent years have witnessed an increased tendency for the contents of a record or album to vary in relation to where and how it is purchased. If, for example, one wanted to buy the new album by artist X, they might get the same 10 core tracks wherever or however they purchased the album. However, if they bought the Target exclusive version they would also get 5 more tracks that were only released on the Target version, or if they bought the Itunes deluxe version they might get a separate bonus song or three that is only available when purchasing the Itunes version, but Amazon might also have a deluxe version with another separate set of extra tracks only available through Amazon, and Walmart may have another exclusive version with their own 5 live unreleased tracks not available on the other versions. Someone could thus get at least 4 different packages simply by going to 4 different retailers for the same album / record. For someone seeking to acquire all the tracks released by a given artist, this could lead to quite a bit of purchasing of materials one already has (i.e., since generally all versions come with the same standard 10 core tracks and just have different bonus materials).

Since I had never really considered this possible conundrum, I decided to do so and thus spent the week looking at various releases in terms of similarity and difference. As I went through releases, I counted how many times one might need to buy the same core release to gather all possible bonus material from that release, and in some cases the effort might mean gaining 10 copies of the core release. I also noticed that it is often not possible to just buy bonus material (though in some cases one can do this), and thus such material often requires the purchase or re-purchase of the whole. This experience led me to a handful of questions that could lead to interesting discussion and debate concerning musical marketplaces within society at given times and in given contexts as well as how people respond to and interpret such marketplaces.

For example, in what ways are current tendencies to release multiple versions of a record within the same market similar to or different from the experience of international music collectors and casual buyers in previous years? For an international fan (i.e., someone interested in artists not in their own country or the international releases of artists from the country they live in) this is not a new issue since releases in different countries often have different track listings, different bonus materials, and even different production contents. Is this the same issue people run into when they have to purchase imports to listen to their favorite band because their favorite band is in Germany and they are not, or is this current tendency for in-market differentiation of releases something different or is it both different and similar in varied ways?

Another question that kept coming up in my deliberations involved the effectiveness or lack there of for such attempts. Do people actually go buy the Target (or other retailer) version for the exclusive content even if they don’t normally get their music from that source? If so, it might be interesting to understand why and how people make sense of these patterns, and if not, it might be interesting to explore why retailers engage in this practice if it is only likely to garner the attention of customers they would already reach without doing so?

The overall question stemming from the first two is what role do “bonus” tracks and materials play in people’s decisions about music purchase? When someone comes across “bonus content” or an “exclusive release” by a retailer, how do they interpret that label, what does it mean to them in practice? Over the years, I have met people who considered “bonus tracks” to be unworthy of purchase, and preferred to only have the core materials. At the same time, I have met people that crave every possible bonus offering, and go to lengths to get everything. I have met others that exist somewhere between these two options (myself included) over time. How do people make these decisions, develop these preferences, and act upon these interpretations in the course of their engagement with music, musical retailers, and the broader musical marketplace? What lessons might scholars learn from systematic investigation of the social interpretation of bonus material in a wide variety of contexts and among different groups of people?

J. Sumerau

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Cassette Store Day

This past weekend, people in a handful of countries celebrated the third annual Cassette Store Day. Inspired by the format and success of Record Store Day, Cassette Store Day is an annual event set aside to celebrate compact cassette tapes, release new and rare items on compact cassette for collectors and appreciators of the medium, and promote a specific medium of musical creation and consumption. Unlike Record Store Day, however, Cassette Store Day is not designed to highlight the importance of local record stores (though it may in some cases accomplish this as well), but rather is primarily focused on promoting the cassette medium.

While I look forward to Record Store Day every year and plan out my whole day to catch musical performances, look for interesting releases, and enjoy the sales and conversations that take place in the crowded shops throughout the day, I have barely noticed Cassette Store Day for the most part. This might be because I am less interested in compact cassettes than I am in other (i.e., vinyl, compact disc, and digital) music mediums, but it might also be because – as I learned this past weekend when I accidentally stumbled into Cassette Store Day events while taking an unplanned trip to a handful of record stores I go to regularly – there is not as much promotion or as many elements to Cassette Store Day offerings in my area.

As I walked into one of my regular destinations the other day, for example, I noticed a very small set up out front offering cassettes and playing music. At this same spot, the sidewalk is packed with merchandise, performers, people, and signs every year on Record Store Day. Inside, the store looked like a regular day, and if the workers had not said it was Cassette Store Day I don’t think I would have known. In comparison, on Record Store Day it is hard to move in the space because of how packed it is with people, and it often feels funny to see the store so crowded. Finally, I noticed that the merchandise (or releases) for the day only took up one small space and only took me about five minutes to look through. In comparison, on Record Store Day the merchandise takes up most of the space and has to be sorted throughout the store to fit. For someone not all that concerned about cassettes, it simply seemed like a normal day in the store.

This observation became even clearer when I arrived at the next shop I wanted to visit that day. On Record Store Day, the next shop often has food trucks, live performances, and even space where one can make their own t-shirt. On Cassette Store Day, however, the place appeared mostly empty, did not seem to have any of the special releases for the day, and best I could tell, was not even participating in any real way. This made me wonder about a few things throughout the day as I continued to notice much less activity tied to Cassette Store Day than I am used to with Record Store Day.

On the one hand, I wonder if the disparity is tied to the age of the events. While I wasn’t at any Record Store Day events in the first couple years, it is possible that they were just as low key and this is just how an event looks before it really takes off in a given market or area. On the other hand, I wonder if the disparity is tied to the focus of the day wherein record shops got behind Record Store Day in a big way since the focus was on saving local record shops, but have less concern for Cassette Store Day thus far since its focus is not really about the record shops themselves. In either case or any other possibility, I think the disparity speaks to the meaning of the events in the minds and lives of sellers, buyers, and others involved.

In my case, for example, the two days mean very different things. Even without any interest in a given set of vinyl releases, Record Store Day matters to me because I rely on the shops themselves throughout the year for my (possibly obsessive) music collection endeavors. I also understand the usefulness of vinyl releases beyond simple sound difference (i.e., part of the driver in vinyl and cassette sales is that analog recordings sound different than digital (i.e., compact discs and downloads) recordings) because the size of the packaging is rather useful for artistic, decoration, and other purposes. I cannot, however, say the same thing about Cassette Store Day (i.e., since its not geared toward promoting record shops explicitly and since Record Store Day is so successful, I’m not sure recognizing this day does much for the record shops at present) or about cassettes as a medium (i.e., they are even smaller in packaging and format than compact discs, and I can’t think of other uses for them beyond listening to analog recordings). As a result, the days mean very different things to me – as do the mediums released on said days – and my guess is that such meanings influence how I respond to the two days.

This makes me wonder how others interpret these days and other widespread (in this case internationally recognized and celebrated) events concerning music. How do our meanings for certain events and mediums influence our engagement (or lack there of) with specific events and mediums? As someone who actually likes cassettes (I have a few myself), it would have been logical to expect me to find interest in Cassette Store Day when the idea emerged. Yet, I have yet to really care about it at all. At the same time, I’ve met people who never owned cassettes before who are now enthusiastic celebrators and collectors of the medium as a result of Cassette Store Day. It might thus be sociologically interesting to tease out – as has been done at times with some music festivals – the meaning making and interpretation that exists within people’s reactions to varied musical events, celebrations, and mediums over time.

J. Sumerau

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Couch-Stone Symposium 2016 – Call for Papers #sssi #sociology


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Just over two weeks ago, Ryan Adams released his cover version of Taylor Swift’s 1989 record. As I noted on this blog prior to the release, I was delighted by even the idea of this project and spent quite a bit of time looking forward to the release due to my admiration of and interest in the work of both of these singer-songwriters. After two weeks spent listening to both of these records (one of them is playing as I type this actually), I would like to discuss the two in this post as they provide an interesting case for reflecting on the social aspects of music.

Before turning to observations about the two, however, I must begin by noting that I was a little nervous about using this example on the blog when I first learned of the cover project. The reason for such nerves arose from the fact that while I enjoy and appreciate much of Swift’s work, referring to myself as a huge fan of Ryan Adams would be a dramatic understatement. For example, an entire wall in my home is devoted to nothing but Adams’ album art, I own everything he has ever released (officially and bootlegged) including hundreds of concert recordings, and I have paid to see him in concert over a dozen times in my life. I have also spent hours upon hours learning how to play many of his songs. In comparison, I have not seen Swift live yet (I intend to) and I had only purchased one of her albums before the news broke about 1989 (Fearless). To put it mildly, I walked into this experience with a base of knowledge and interest leaning heavily toward Adams’ work.

Aware of the above while also seeking to compare the two releases as fairly as possible, I decided the best approach I could take (and the most fun honestly) was to purchase the two albums at the same time. While I had heard a couple of the Swift songs around since the record was released and a couple of the Adams’ versions of Swift’s songs online, I thought it best to approach both albums together since that would allow me to look at them both at the same time. To this end, I purchased both records two weeks ago, and I have spent the past two weeks listening to them in tandem in two ways. First, I would play one version and then play the other version back to back to hear both types (I reversed the order regularly). Second, I created a playlist that integrated the two (i.e., track one from Swift, track one from Adams, etc, etc) to listen to the two versions as one collection and hear the different versions of each song side by side. I also followed the multitude of media discussion and comparison between the two records during this time, and compared these opinions to my own reactions to the works (simply Google the two names together for a multitude of examples).

In the process of such comparison, I noticed a handful of things that speak to Symbolic Interactionist analyses of music as well as the ways music may become a medium for broader social conversations and experiences. I would thus like to use this space to outline these observations. To this end, here are three observations (I came up with about 10) about 1989 that may be useful for Interactionists interested in music to consider in their work.

Inequalities: A foundational element of interactionist analysis involves the ways inequalities become embedded in and reproduced by the meanings deployed by social beings. The emergence of Adams’ cover project provides an interesting example of such a process in relation to gender inequalities. Media coverage surrounding the release often suggested that Adams’ work somehow granted legitimacy to Swift’s work. The argument rested upon the notion that indie music (an often male dominated genre) was somehow more valuable than pop music (an often female dominated genre), which reflects patterns of gender inequality embedded in our contemporary society. It appears that such reviews forgot that (a) Swift has quite a few multi-million selling, critically acclaimed, and other-artist-praised works under her belt already and thus does (or should) not need anyone else to claim legitimacy as a successful artist, and (b) Adams himself kept asserting the Swift is one of the greatest songwriters he has ever seen, and in no way felt her work needed any improvement for recognition. Alongside many other details I could offer, it appears the reviews lost sight of anything other than that Swift is feminine in a female dominated genre whereas Adams is masculine in a male dominated genre.

This gender bias becomes even more obvious when we note at least one MAJOR record that the reviewers never compared Adams’ 1989 too (that I have seen). We saw comparisons to the Smiths, Springsteen, and other male artists or bands over the years, but the version Adams’ offered just as vividly recalls Taylor Swift from a couple of years ago. Take the album she released called Red, and you have a deeply emotional and at times humorous record that (aside from a couple tracks, 22 for example) is the exact same style of heartbreak, guitar driven, singer-songwriter depth that Adams turned 1989 into this year. Reviewers (if they wanted to look to female stars) could have noted that Adams’ 1989 offers a striking resemblance (and celebration of I would say) what might have happened if Swift had done 1989 the way she did Red or Fearless instead of shifting genres (i.e., the same type of shift Adams did years ago from the Americana of Gold to the harder sounds of Rock n Roll), and further recalls other talented female singer songwriters in its style and execution (see, for example, Neko Case’s latest record and Jenny Lewis’ record that Adams’ c0-produced – there are many more examples including but not limited to work by Natalie Prass and (if we want a classic going back a couple decades who had mainstream (pop) success like some of the male artists noted) Melissa Etheridge). Rather than noting these influences (which Adams himself has noted at times concerning this and other recordings in his career), reviewers created a distinction based on gender to suggest Adams’ was offering a more authentic or legitimate form of art.

These patterns in the interpretation of musical releases by mainstream and online critics suggest possible research avenues for understanding music in relation to social inequalities. How do critics respond in ways that prop up dominant systems of social status and devalue minority contributions to the wider culture? How do other so called pop records get reviewed in relation to other so called indie, rock, or otherwise mostly male genres in the mainstream? These are important questions that could shed much light on the role of music in the ongoing meaning making embedded within inequitable social relations.     


Emotions: Another longstanding component of Interactionist analyses of social life concerns that role of emotions in creating and explaining social phenomena. As noted in a recent SI article by Janelle Lynn Wilson, a powerful component of emotional experience exists in the form of nostalgia. When we find a connection that recalls the past, grants meaning to the present, and / or anticipates a desired future, we are experiencing nostalgia. Although not often the source of systematic study, music can be a powerful mechanism for triggering nostalgia and other powerful emotional reactions (see, for example, DeNora’s recent book on Music-in-Action for examples or check out the review of this work in SI).

1989 offers at least two examples of the power of nostalgia at work in music. First, the record itself is (admittedly via Swift) an act of nostalgia wherein Swift sought to (and I would argue did so impressively) capture the feeling of music in the late 1980’s. I will be the first to admit that upon first listen I automatically thought of (and smiled) Rhythm Nation, Like a Prayer and many other late 1980’s records I enjoyed as a kid. I remember the first time I heard Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” I almost automatically started humming the Bangles “Eternal Flame” and wondering when the last time I heard that record was. Considering that Ryan Adams has long been noted for being drawn to and obsessed with 80’s music, I was only halfway through Swift’s 1989 when his desire to cover this record made perfect sense to me in terms of nostalgia and emotional connections to hit songs from the past.

Another aspect of the exercise where nostalgia plays an interesting role concerns Adams’ version of 1989. More than a few Taylor Swift fans I spoke with noted, as suggested above, “it sounds like old Taylor,” and I actually bought my copy of Red because many of them told me that if I liked Adams’ 1989 I would love Red (they were right). For these fans, as suggested above, Adams’ captured what used to be a Taylor Swift album before 1989 and allowed them to relive “old Taylor” alongside new Taylor on their stereos and / or phones. One can simply look to the popularity of classic covers (i.e., when newer versions of songs appear and are embraced by multiple generations) and reunion concerns for other examples of the ways people often react when they are reminded of the “old” versions of artists they like who have shifted their styles over the course of a career.

These observations suggest nostalgia might, as Wilson suggests, a powerful social force in need of more systematic analysis and scrutiny. They further suggest some ways examinations of music could provide a lever for furthering such analysis and scrutiny. What role might nostalgia play in our embrace or rejection of a given musical offering? What role might nostalgia play in the success or failure of new records and musical styles? What might people’s interest in this or that musical offering tell us about how they recall the past, interpret the present, and / or anticipate the future?

Subcultures: Another longstanding interest among Interactionists – and even within the study of music – concerns the existence and boundaries of subcultures. Similar to observations concerning genres in previous posts on this blog, researchers often note the fluidity and nuance in subcultural boundaries and what counts in terms of style, substance, and value for different groups. As is likely the case with many other records based on existing Interactionist studies of subcultures (see here, here, and here for examples), 1989 provides an example of such variation. Within the mainstream, Swift’s 1989 was a smash hit upon release, garnered significant attention across genres, and was an incredible success by every conceivable measure. Within other musical subcultures, however, it barely made a dent in the conversation. Within some indie subcultures and within groups following Adams and other Americana or alternative country acts, however, Adams’ 1989 generated tremendous buzz.

When looking through postings in various online communities, these distinctions provided a fascinating demonstration of subcultural boundary making. In many of the Adams’ forums and communities, for example, people expressed concern that Adams was going pop, losing touch, or otherwise making a mistake. At the same time, there were people in these communities expressing significant excitement about the project, and looking forward to a new Adams record whatever it contained. At the same time, if one looked over at fan forums for Swift there were many people with no clue who Adams was, many who found it insulting that someone was covering Swift’s work, and many others who were sure it would be a disaster. At the same time, there were people posting in these communities who were incredibly excited about the release, who hoped Adams would join Swift in concert, and who suggested Swift could launch Adams’ career beyond the indie shadows. In both cases, in fact, there were some of the same people in both communities who were (like myself) somewhat familiar with and interested in both artists, and (like myself) looked forward to seeing what this integration of Swift and Adams abilities could produce.

These variations remind me of many other sources of debate and consideration in subcultures concerning styles, values, and other signifying devices of community membership. How do subcultures react in other cases where unexpected cultural artifacts find voice within their communities? How are the boundaries of a subcultural style or taste redefined or guarded in the face of new materials and offerings? What happens when people exist with two or more subcultures that assert different tastes and styles as the most authentic or important? These are simply a few questions I began considering as I watched the reactions to the 1989 records in both Swift and Adams related forums.

These are simply a few of the observations I noted while listening to both 1989 records. As one can likely tell from all of the above, I personally think they are both masterpieces – Swift wrote and recorded an amazing album with depth, sincerity, and powerful songs that has not surprisingly captivated many people, and Adams re-envisioned Swift’s creations in ways that captured other elements of 1980’s music while also utilizing some of the techniques of some of today’s most talented female singer songwriters (“old Taylor” included). As others have noted, I would be incredibly happy to see Swift now do an Adams record in her own way or to see another act with immeasurable creative talent and their own style (maybe Beyonce, Alicia Keys, or Pearl Jam for some examples) do an interpretation of Swift and / or Adams’ music as well. In any case, what strikes me is the way an event like this (i.e., two artists creating two versions of a successful record at different times) reveals interesting relationships between music and society that could facilitate some fascinating lines of research and reflection.

J. Sumerau

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What makes a classic?

The Title of this post is a question I have been wrestling with for a while now.  As noted in a previous post, I often use music in my classes to illustrate points, demonstrate the transmission of ideas and practices over time, and otherwise engage students.  In so doing, however, I am constantly reminded of the variations in what people are exposed to and what people are not for a wide variety of reasons.

This observation has been especially relevant in my mind this semester because I organized my qualitative research methods class around music and how to study and analyze music in terms of trends, lyrics, and settings.  As a result, I have – as has happened in other classes – noted that some things I think of as classics are also things many students have never heard of, but unlike in other classes, I have also gotten to watch students wrestle with the realization that things they consider essential or classic or major in music are not necessarily agreed upon by their classmates.

As I ponder the idea of a “classic” or an essential artifact of a given tradition or canon, I find myself remembering my shock when I encountered students who had never heard of Alice Cooper, when I came across students who had never seen Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” when I came across students who never heard of the Rolling Stones, when I came across students that struggled to name 5 female musical artists or even 1 LGBTQ musical artist, when I came across students unfamiliar with any musical artists or genres located outside of the United States, and many other examples.  What do these knowns and unknowns say about how one establishes the “greats” or “most important works” in a given field of creativity?  Considering that I learn of new (to me at least) artists and styles fairly regularly, why was I so surprised in these moments that students did not know this or that artist?  What level had I placed these artifacts in my own head that my reaction to others who did not recognize them was sadness or concern?  How do things become “classics” for a given person?

These experiences keep leading me to ask what makes a classic?  What is it about a song, about exposure, about distribution, about an aesthetic that leads this or that artifact to become more well known and regarded than others?  What elements of social variety – generations, race/class/gender/sexuality/nation/age/religion, regional context, etc. – shape what one feels is an essential element of the musical (or any other artistic or even academic canon)?  How do these ideas form, and what happens when we engage with people who do not know our classics?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I find them fascinating and I continue to discuss them with students and others in my life.  As noted in other posts, musical selections, tastes, and meanings often suggest quite a bit about people socially and personally.  I wonder what the things we deem “classic” or “essential” say about us to ourselves, to others, and in relation to our interactions and interpretations of the world.

J. Sumerau

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Call for Session Proposals – Annual Conference SSSI 2016 (Seattle)

Originally posted on Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction Blog:

Environment, Body, and Other Complex Systems in Symbolic Interactionism

August 19-21, 2016

Seattle, Washington

Conference Theme 

The complexities of social life have been interactionism’s playground since the very earliest expressions of the perspective. Mead’s understanding and treatment of complex social systems, and the historical manner in which pragmatist scholars explored the complexities of large social and institutional forces have promoted the growth and development of symbolic interactionism in dynamic and robust ways. The theme for the 2016 Annual Meetings “Environment, Body, and Other Complex Systems in Symbolic Interactionism” is envisioned as one way contemporary symbolic interactionists can explore the dynamic and robust nature of our contemporary perspective relative to complex social and natural systems.

With respect to the environment and environments, the theme focuses our attention on the uniquely flexible manner in which the symbolic interactionist perspective can be used to explore human action and interactions within, as well as…

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The Difference a Plug Makes

While I was in Chicago recently, I purchased a used copy of REM’s recently released MTV Unplugged concerts on compact disc. As has always been my experience with REM, I did not really know what to expect at the time of purchase because while I appreciate the artistry of the band throughout their careers, their music is generally hit or miss for me. There are generally two to three songs I like a whole lot per record and the rest are usually “well this was a neat idea that I appreciate, but I’ll probably never listen to it again.” As I listened to my newly acquired REM record, however, I found myself thinking about what a difference musical accompaniment can make in the evaluation of artists and songs because I found myself – for the first time – head over hills in love with an entire REM release.

Upon reflection, this experience is not all that surprising, and in fact has happened before with other artists I appreciate but do not necessarily enjoy all that much. I’m reminded of my own boredom mixed with appreciation for the style with Nirvana until they released their own unplugged record, which remains one of my favorite albums. I’m also reminded of my experience with metal music that I absolutely love to see and hear played live, but that I absolutely cannot stand to listen to (much of the time) when not experiencing the performances live. I am also reminded of how much I enjoy Aaron Lewis’ country and acoustic recordings even though I cannot stand most of his electric and rock work with Staind. I also think about how much more I love acoustic covers of old classic rock songs than the songs themselves, and how much I enjoy live and acoustic renditions of Hip Hop and Soul compositions that I cannot stand in their glossy, (in my opinion) often overproduced forms. I also think about Beck and the way my appreciation for his work rises and falls depending upon which musical style he is playing with on a given record. I also think of my experience early this year after a friend recommended Brandi Carlile to me, I got a studio recording, I was bored, and then heard a live acoustic performance of hers on the radio one evening and was floored and have been collecting all her work ever since.

I also realize that I’m not alone in this regard. I remember clearly a friend who collected every Hip Hop record that came out while I knew her, but would not go to a live show because it just didn’t sound right no matter the acoustics of the venue. I remember the friend who only liked Phish live, but would not listen to their studio recordings because, as he said, “it killed the feeling.” I remember the friend who complained about as much as I celebrated whenever a rock band did an acoustic record because, as ze put it, “that is not rock n roll anymore, just soft old people shit.” I also remember a friend who lost interest in one of her favorite recording artists because when she went to see a live performance she realized the artist’s voice was adjusted (or produced) on the records in ways that the live experience did not even come close to replicating.

All these observations lead me to wonder what’s in a plug, or any other technology used to change the sound of music from one thing to another across the spectrum of possibilities. How do people react to plugged in verses unplugged music in varied ways, and what aspects of each type of music speak to a given set of listeners? For me, I realize as REM transforms from just another group I kind of appreciate at times to one of the greatest sounds ever by simply removing the plugs, this type of variation in the interpretation of music seems fascinating, and I cannot help but wonder how it plays out in our world.

J. Sumerau

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