Rock Culture and the Academy

Posted Monday September 21, 2009 by John Gunders in |

The definitions of rock culture used by academics and critics all presuppose a fan culture of consumers whose main engagement with the culture is through the purchase of CDs, DVDs, concert tickets, entry to clubs, and so on, or through the free consumption of music texts on the radio, television, or other media. Nowhere is it acknowledged that the consumers of the culture might be producers in their own right. In fact, Simon Frith goes so far as to state that most pop fans are “technically, non-musical” (139).

William Bielby’s sociological account of the emergence of popular music in the southern suburbs of Chicago between 1958 and 1963, laments that of the limited number of published articles on popular music in Sociology Abstracts up until 1999, “with only a few exceptions, this scholarship is mostly about commercially produced music and the music industry, not about grassroots performance” (1).

Nevertheless the 1999 study of Australian cultural taste by Bennett, Emmison and Frow showed that nearly thirty percent of the households surveyed owned a guitar—the archetypal rock music instrument—and that seventeen percent of respondents played a musical instrument of some sort “often” or “sometimes” (198). This is not to suggest that everyone has a stake in, or even equal access to the means of musical production, but it does show that a significant proportion of the population have some degree of musical knowledge, and have the potential to produce informed critiques of the texts they consume.

This also ignores the explosion of digital music, often produced in cheap home studios and made available on websites such as or Bandcamp: some of it of surprisingly good quality (see, for instance, //End of shameless self-promotion//). Timothy Warner points out that the distinction between professional and amateur is increasingly blurred by the ubiquitous “home studio”:

One result of this has been a breakdown of amateur/professional status in the production process. And this breakdown is also evident in the equipment itself: manufacturers now rarely distinguish between “professional” and “domestic” products. (20)

All this would suggest that the main difference between professional and amateur musicians is less the specifics of the recording contract as the specifics of the distribution opportunities.

A second point is related to the first, in that I suspect that the writers I have discussed in my thesis and elsewhere are unconsciously conflating “rock culture” with “music industry”: the artists described are all professionals with recording contracts and, for the most part, successful and lucrative careers. Frith, for instance, implies that the “traditional rock career path” was one in which the artist “worked their way up a career ladder from live performances at the local and regional levels, to ever more prominent recordings, perhaps to eventual stardom” (cited in Auslander 86).

They talk about the stadium rockers, or the concert hall tours, but not about amateur bands “gigging” in small pubs, looking for a break. They do not mention the garage bands playing for their mates, or churning out covers on tiny stages at the back of clubs; or the buskers and street performers playing for pleasure and a few spare coins; or the middle-aged professionals who jam old rock standards with their friends, simply for the love of the music.

All these things are inseparable aspects of rock culture, both drawing on the themes of (commercial) rock culture and modifying that culture in imperceptible ways, and yet the success stories we hear are full of references to some sort of idealised past, when the star was poor and unrecognised, but full of joy and potential, like those nameless musicians who exist on the periphery. This is something like trying to present a history of Britain which only discusses the actions of the nobility.

I believe that these two lacunas at the heart of the theory are what give much of the writing its industrial focus: the rock performer is seen as a professional working within the music industry, who uses all the means at his or her command to resist the suffocating pull of commercialism, and maintain an integrity and creative authenticity separate from the corporate structure. When all the time, outside, or on the fringes of those structures, musicians creating and performing music are routinely ignored, not only by the industry, but by the academy as well.


Auslander, Philip. Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture. London and New York: Routledge, 1999.

Bennett, Tony, Michael Emmison and John Frow. Accounting for Tastes: Australian Everyday Cultures. Cambridge: Cambride UP, 1999.

Bielby, William T. “Rock in a Hard Place: Grassroots Cultural Production in the Post-Elvis Era.” American Sociological Review 69.1 (2004): 1-13.

Frith, Simon. “Towards an Aesthetic of popular Music.” Richard Leppert and Susan McClary, eds. Music and Society: The Politics of Composition, Performance and Reception. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987. 133-49.

Warner, Timothy. Pop Music – Technology and Creativity: Trevor Horn and the Digital Revolution. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003.

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