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Defining the Mainstream of Music with Professor Andrew Mall

Professor Andrew Mall

Music is an art form that constantly changes and evolves. Nearly 60 years ago, the world saw the emergence of rock and roll with stars such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Who, who were widely different from the music style of just the decade before which was primarily jazz and artists like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. It was in that instance, the face of popular music changed. Consumers went from listening to the smooth sounds of a saxophone and an upright bass, to the sounds of synthesizers and an electric guitar. From then, similar changes have occurred in the face of popular, mainstream music. However, whereas the transition of popular music from jazz in the 1940s to rock and roll in the 1960s was a turgid shift, it is more difficult to pinpoint exactly what is the popular zeitgeist of music in present day.

Andrew Mall, PhD, an Assistant Professor of Music and a coordinator of the MS in Music Industry Leadership program at CAMD, researches the classification and analysis of popular mainstream music, and how it affects his current project around Christian rock. Here are his thoughts on this.

What made you interested in mainstream music as an area of research?

About halfway through graduate school, I had a moment of enlightenment when my advisor asked me to consider why certain types of music/artists were overrepresented in popular music and ethnomusicological scholarship. I think an interesting question to ask of academia — especially humanities fields — is why do some research topics and subjects become popular (in academia) while others do not? My current book project is about Christian rock — undoubtedly an unpopular topic in academia, especially compared with other genres such as punk rock or EDM, but quite a large sector within the music business itself — and thinking about the larger issues of academically legitimate topics has helped me realize that scholars could potentially have a larger impact on society if our research interests better aligned with “mainstream” interests.

The other thing that I would say is that I’m interested more in border cases than in the center of the mainstream. Like, how can you tell when your musical tastes are no longer mainstream? What makes that so? If we valorize (for example) indie labels for being provocative, underground, DIY, whatever, does it matter if their artists sound like they could be mainstream artists? In other words, are there issues other than sound, musical qualities, aesthetics, etc. that distinguish between mainstream and periphery?

In your research, have you found that people view pop music as an almost
disposable genre?

Of course, and this has long been one of the ways that scholars, audiences, artists, and cultural intermediaries have thought of pop music: its first goal is to be accessible, and often this means that it is also ephemeral and not transcendent (in multiple definitions of that word). That said, two observations quickly follow: (1) Are pop music audiences also disposable? And (2), what do we do with pop music that is not so easily disposed, that becomes transcendent? The Beatles are the obvious first case study in the modern era, here: their primary audience was comprised of teenage girls, they played disposable pop songs (so many covers, early in their career!), and yet they are the paradigmatic, canonical model for rock and roll bands. I think that one thing taking pop music seriously requires us to do is to take seriously audiences, listeners, and markets that have often been maligned and otherwise looked down upon. To me, then, this also becomes an issue of equitable representation and social justice in the academic music fields.

“Even the least engaged music listener/consumer can be engaged by a song or piece of music — no matter how mainstream — that can communicate something vital to them about their life and connection to other lives
around them.”

What does the term, “mainstream pop music” mean to you? Does it have a positive or negative connotation?

Well, I don’t think “mainstream pop music” means in 2016 what it meant in 2001 or in 1996 or in the late 1980s when I first started buying cassettes. One issue is that in previous eras of the record industry, observers and participants talked about “the mainstream” as a monolithic, homogeneous mass, perhaps best represented by the top-selling artists of the major labels, whom you read about on the top-40 charts and heard on the top-40/CHR radio stations. Using those metrics, we still indeed have a mainstream, but it is really only one of many. Pop music scholar Eric Weisbard has demonstrated that, even in the 1960s and 1970s, the diversity of radio formats meant that we actually had several mainstreams based on genre, market, audience, etc. In the decades and generations since, the mainstream has only fractured further.

I use the term mainstream in a couple of ways. I definitely use it in its old sense: referring to the music, songs, and artists that have the strongest presence in popular culture. And I use it in a more hermeneutic sense: as a way to categorize music markets based on their size relative to each other. Mainstream markets are bigger than niche markets, but they are not necessarily mutually exclusive or even always separable categories. Again, thinking about my research, mainstream Christian pop is a good example: as a market it is pretty large, especially when compared with more niche markets like Christian metal or Christian punk, but it is also on the periphery of (non-Christian) top-40 and thus is itself a niche. No one rallies around “mainstream” as a desired taste community — so I don’t think there’s a way to argue that “mainstream” has a positive connotation other than commercial success (or the potential thereof) — and indeed music scenes have been more inclined to define themselves in opposition to some mainstream, perceived or not.

Do you think there is a measurable way to discern how “seriously” an audience listen to their music? Do you feel there is a certain culture of elitism within music?

Even the most serious music fan cuts loose to guilty pleasures from time to time. Even the least engaged music listener/consumer can be engaged by a song or piece of music — no matter how mainstream — that can communicate something vital to them about their life and connection to other lives around them. So, to begin to answer that question, we need to operationalize the abstract concept of “taking music seriously” by considering how this is reflected in observable and measurable behavior. We could probably come up with a dozen (or two or three) criteria: things like duration spent listening to the same artist (or genre), repeating songs, spending disposable time reading lyrics, discussing the music with other fans, learning to play it on your own instrument, creating your own (derivative) art based on that music, etc.

Can we identify elitism within music? I wouldn’t say that any music itself is inherently elitist, so literally speaking the answer is no. But if we’re talking about musical cultures, taste cultures, fan cultures, then absolutely we can identify a type of elitism based on (for example) familiarity with the music, strength of one’s fandom, the amount of money spent on an artist, etc. Pierre Bourdieu demonstrated (in 1970s France) that classical music, literature, fine art, ballet, and other types of “highbrow” art are correlated to elite social status. Based on this correlation, he developed the concept of “cultural capital”: essentially, that one’s familiarity with culture is tied to one’s ability to generate economic capital, and (in some senses) is even convertible to economic capital. Sarah Thornton argued that underground music in the 1990s operates along similar lines, although she disrupts the traditional highbrow/lowbrow distinction. She suggests that “subcultural capital” operates similarly to cultural capital by defining the ways in which insiders to underground music police the boundaries of their scenes (she was looking specifically at early EDM culture, including the semi-legal warehouse rave scene in England). So, if we define elitism in part as a non-meritocratic ability to control access to social, cultural, and/or economic resources, then there is indeed plenty of evidence that elitism is present in music cultures.

“I think that one thing taking pop music seriously requires us to do is to take seriously audiences, listeners, and markets that have often been maligned and otherwise looked down upon.”

How do you think today’s Spotify/Pandora algorithm driven new music discovery engineering changes the music market?

Well, the hope is that it further democratizes access to the ever-expanding celestial music library. Especially if that library includes everything already recorded and released. Doing so can only be a good thing, right? Except there are at least two problems. The first is that these music technology companies operate within the same capitalist system as the record labels, and thus there is not and will not be completely unfettered, democratic access to all music. Access remains controlled and influenced by the interests of the powerful corporations. I don’t think that tension is going away anytime soon, although perhaps what comprises “the powerful corporations” will shift as record companies lose power while tech companies gain power within the entertainment industries.


The second problem is that, even if technology does enable a greater degree of access to music, how does that benefit your average consumer who does not have significantly more time to sift through her/his ever-increasing listening options? Do you trust discovery algorithms to be less biased than their human counterparts? Recently, scholars who have adopted a critical approach to studying recommendation algorithms have argued that they benefit consumers and artists (in terms of access and exposure) no better than the low-tech versions (humans). (I’m thinking of the work of Nick Seaver at Tufts and others.)

Any new projects coming up soon? Or any areas of research that are interesting
you currently?

My current book project is titled Marginalia: Niche Markets, Christian Rock, and Popular Music. In that book I consider the ways in which specific issues affect the boundaries and contents (music, institutions, and individuals) of music markets. The issues I’m most concerned with in that book are corporate consolidation, ethics, crossover, and resistance. I’m also co-editing a volume of collected chapters that address theoretical and methodological issues of researching congregational music. My research into Christian rock is dovetailing into my interests in music festivals. I’m planning ethnographic fieldwork at a couple of Christian music festivals this summer — not the big one (Creation, recently featured in a Noisey documentary and feature article) but a couple of smaller ones: AudioFeed in central Illinois and Wild Goose in western North Carolina. That will contribute to my current book project on niche markets and Christian rock, and it will also provide a core for a future large-scale research project on music festivals in general. Smaller projects include archival research to learn about how fans of Christian rock felt about the industry’s consolidation and mainstreaming in the 1980s/90s, the political economy of worship music, and pedagogical issues of teaching the history of music industries.