Production perspectives in the sociology of music

Production perspectives in the sociology of music

Poetics 32 (2004) 235–246 Production perspectives in the sociology of music Timothy J. Dowd Department of Sociology, Emory University, Atlanta, GA 30...

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Poetics 32 (2004) 235–246

Production perspectives in the sociology of music Timothy J. Dowd Department of Sociology, Emory University, Atlanta, GA 30322, USA Available online 2 July 2004

Abstract The emergence of the Production of Culture and Art Worlds perspectives in the 1970s was a pivotal moment in the study of musical production. In subsequent years, the musical production literature experienced a notable growth – both in the number of works and theoretical perspectives. This paper surveys these recent works and, by attending to specific examples, provides some indication of the various perspectives now employed in the literature. It proceeds by attending to six constraints that shape the creation, performance, and dissemination of music. # 2004 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction Despite its potential contribution, sociology has historically devoted little attention to music – with a smattering of works addressing musical production in the early and mid1900s (Dowd, 2002). In recent times, however, a burgeoning literature shows, in Becker’s (1986: 276) words, the ‘‘utility of studying music as the result of the collective activity of people involved in the musical process.’’ This burgeoning owes much to developments in the 1970s and early 1980s, when the ‘‘Art Worlds’’ and ‘‘Production of Culture’’ perspectives emerged from the works of Becker (1974, 1982), Hirsch (1972, 1975), Peterson and Berger (1975), and Peterson (1976, 1978). From their respective beginnings, both perspectives focused on similar concerns, and both showed a willingness to bring insights from non-musical theories and apply them to musical production. While these two perspectives did not necessarily bring theoretical unity to the subsequent literature, they did offer important touchstones for works on musical production. This paper reviews recent sociological work on musical production – a literature within the sociology of music. Limited space prevents me from detailing the nuances and assumptions of its perspectives. Instead, I discuss examples of perspectives that have E-mail address: [email protected] (T.J. Dowd). 0304-422X/$ – see front matter # 2004 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved. doi:10.1016/j.poetic.2004.05.005


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appeared in the past two decades, thereby complementing previous reviews of the Art Worlds and Production of Culture perspectives (e.g., DiMaggio, 2000; Gilmore, 1990). These examples hint at the breadth of the musical production literature. The discussion highlights six factors that constrain or facilitate musical production: organizational structure, industry structure, occupational careers, markets, technology, and law (Peterson, 1990). Heeding these constraints illuminates strengths and gaps in the musical production literature. Several caveats deserve mention. These ‘‘constraints’’ are not merely external factors that penetrate musical production; instead, their respective impact emerges from within a given musical context. Moreover, these constraints are often empirically intertwined; given the brevity of this paper, I treat them as analytically distinct. Finally, I use ‘‘production’’ in a broad sense, denoting the creation, performance, and dissemination of music.

2. Six constraints and examples I begin with constraints that are most elaborated in the musical production literature – organizational structure, industry structure, and occupational careers. This elaboration is not surprising, given the historical emphasis placed on each in the literature (e.g., Becker, 1963; Mueller, 1951; Peatman, 1942). I then turn to those that are least developed in the literature – markets, technology, and law. 2.1. Organizational structure and classical music Despite romantic notions of the isolated artist, organizations have shaped much of music-making (see DeNora, 1995; Salmen, 1983). The emergence of the Art Worlds and Production of Culture perspectives shifted attention away from the isolated artist and toward the organizations in which musicians are located, be they informal – such as the connections by which studio musicians find work (Faulkner, 1971; Peterson and White, 1989) – or formal organizations – such as orchestras or opera companies (Arian, 1971; Martorella, 1985). In the wake of this shift, some examine how organizational structure impinges on musical production, drawing on a range of perspectives in the process. Consider DiMaggio’s (1982a, 1982b, 1987, 1991, 1992) institutional project on the construction of high culture in the U.S. – particularly the portion that deals with classical music. DiMaggio argues that classical music had no ‘‘organizational base’’ in the U.S. before the late 1880s. Although certain individuals and groups spoke glowingly of the esteemed music that flowed from Europe, few organizations offered only this music for sizable audiences. Instead, commercial organizations that dominated concert life typically sought the largest possible audiences and offered a mixture of ‘‘serious’’ and ‘‘light’’ music. Classical music took root in the U.S., he argues, when its performance was paired with an organizational form insulated from commercial concerns – the non-profit symphony orchestra. He points, in particular, to the efforts of the Boston Brahmins. In the late 1800s, the Brahmins faced an influx of immigrants and nouveaux riches, developments that challenged their control over Boston’s social and political life. They responded by establishing non-profit organizations, including the Boston Symphony Orchestra

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(BSO); its founder – Henry Higginson – and others were committed to covering its financial losses. Thus, began a process wherein the BSO cordoned off exalted works from commercial entertainment and developed an audience for classical music. Others eventually followed the example of the BSO. Non-profit symphony orchestras sprung up across the U.S., and the non-profit form also diffused to U.S. opera companies. As non-profit music organizations proliferated in America, DiMaggio argues, the emphasis on an exalted body of musical works became established by the early 1900s. As university curricula celebrated classical music, and as media industries disseminated orchestral and operatic music across the nation, the category of ‘‘classical music’’ was now distinctive in the U.S. Several theoretical points deserve mention regarding DiMaggio’s institutional project. First, aesthetic classifications do not adhere in music and other cultural objects. Instead these classifications result from a collective social process that varies along a number of dimensions. Second, classical music, in particular, and high culture, in general, are institutionalized when actors (e.g., organizations, audiences) widely agree on the superiority of certain works and when they separate those works from mundane entertainment. Third, the logic by which particular organizational forms operate plays a fundamental role in aesthetic classification. The non-profit organization – with its logic of debt reduction rather than profit maximization – provided the organizational base for the institutionalization of classical music (and high culture) in the United States. Finally, organizational forms and logics are historically situated and, as a result, may vary in impact across settings. DiMaggio fears that, from the 1960s onward, the non-profit form provides a less stable base for classical music and high culture (see Dowd et al., 2002). Though not always cast in institutional terminology, other scholars likewise explore the interplay between the logics and structures of organizations (e.g., Glynn, 2000). Some address the small recording firms that pursue a logic emphasizing aesthetic concerns and de-emphasizing commercial considerations – and how that logic can become difficult to maintain in the face of competition and success (e.g., Gray, 1988; Lee, 1995). Negus (1999) details a logic endorsed by multinational recording corporations, whereby their leaders attempt to manage a portfolio of musical genres – establishing a variety of internal divisions to that end. However, this portfolio approach disadvantages certain genres, given the biases of the leaders and the evaluation criteria that they use. Such works demonstrate the palpable impact of organizational structure on musical production. 2.2. Industry structure and decentralized production Much research shows that an organization is shaped by its environment, including its competitors (Scott, 1995). Music sociologists heed this point by examining the impact of industry on musical production. Hirsch (1972) argues that the recording industry – as well as other cultural industries – is marked by uncertainty given the aesthetic nature of its product; one result is that firms tend to emphasize musical products that resemble past successes. Others point to the commercial nature of the recording industry: large corporations seek to profit from musical acts and events that once flourished in the periphery, commodifying that which was once communal (e.g., Hesmondhalgh, 1998;


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Seiler, 2000). Peterson and Berger (1975) call attention to industry structure (e.g., the number of firms and their relative size) and, in turn, pave the way for the open system perspective. I turn to these for illustration. Peterson and Berger (1975) draw on both industrial organization economics and historical materials to account for diversity in the U.S. recording industry. In economics, a notable camp argues that ‘‘bigness’’ among firms – which includes extensive hierarchy – often leads to inertia rather than innovation. By logical extension, Peterson and Berger predict an inverse relationship between concentration and diversity – where ‘‘concentration’’ refers to the extent that a few firms dominate the industry. They ground their prediction by drawing on historical materials (and the work of Sorokin), positing a cyclical pattern: long periods of high concentration and low diversity are separated by short periods of low concentration and high diversity. Long periods occur as large firms (‘‘majors’’) thwart small firms (‘‘indies’’) by commandeering artistic talent and dominating distribution channels. Fearing no competitive reprisals, conservative majors stress the types of musical products that generated past success rather than attending to demands of current consumers. Short periods of competition occur when historical factors produce a gap in the majors’ control, as when transistor radios and radio stations provided teens with nascent rock’n’roll. Indies that exploit these factors attract a flurry of attention from consumers whose tastes are not served by the majors (e.g., teen fans), initiating a period of competition and diversity that lasts until the majors absorb this new challenge – as when majors began offering rock and R&B. Beginning in the late 1980s, researchers find that diversity measures did not decline when concentration was high (e.g., Burnett, 1992; Frith, 1988). Lopes (1992) argues that, in the era described by Peterson and Berger (1975), the majors operated a closed system of production; they relied on centralized bureaucracy to generate musical product. In the subsequent era, however, the majors operate an open system of production. They have dismantled once-sizable bureaucracies by turning to freelance producers, establishing a host of semi-autonomous divisions (subsidiary labels), and by pursuing contractual alliances with numerous independents. The shift to decentralized production allows the majors to emulate the adaptability of indies without sacrificing advantages associated with size. Recent work (Dowd, 2000, 2004; Dowd and Blyler, 2002) demonstrates the open system argument. The surprising success of indies in the early 1950s spelled the doom of the closed system. By 1955, each major had made moves toward decentralized production, establishing labels that specialized in particular genres. As decentralized production grew more pronounced in subsequent decades, the majors grew less conservative: emergent genres were readily addressed via subsidiary labels and contracts with indies. Under the open system, concentration’s negative effect on various types of diversity – the musical dissimilarity of hit songs, the racial diversity of performers, the number of new firms and new performers – is either reduced or eliminated. This is not to say that high concentration is desirable; instead, it is more benign when dominant firms pursue decentralized, rather than centralized, production. The open systems perspective has relevance for other work in the musical production literature. Scholars note rising levels of concentration in various settings, including the global recording industry (Taylor, 1997), the radio industry (Ahlkvist and Faulkner, 2002),

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and music retailing (du Gay and Negus, 1994). If centralized production accompanies this rising concentration, then diversity will likely suffer. However, if decentralized production accompanies this consolidation (e.g., dominant firms relying on extensive webs of subsidiary divisions and contractual alliances that span numerous genres and locales), then the negative effects of concentration might be offset. 2.3. Occupational careers and gender The life-chances of individuals are often shaped by the organizations and industries in which they work (e.g., Haveman and Cohen, 1994). Not surprisingly, music sociologists examine how musicians negotiate opportunities found in various settings, including those of patronage (Abbott and Hrycak, 1990), string quartets (Murningham and Conlon, 1991), movie studios (Faulkner, 1983), publishing (Ryan and Peterson, 1982), and recording (Dowd and Blyler, 2002). They find, among other things, that most opportunities accrue to a few. A small percentage of musicians enjoy stable ‘‘occupational careers,’’ whereby they move from one position to another. While music sociologists offer multiple explanations for this pattern, I highlight two who theorize about how notions of gender limit opportunities for female musicians and how such limits may change. DeNora (2002) tackles conventional wisdom which suggests that certain instruments and genres correspond to the ‘‘feminine’’ and others to the ‘‘masculine.’’ Drawing on the work of Antoine Hennion, DeNora argues that music is a bodied activity that ‘‘affords’’ a variety of conceptualizations – whereby the musical and non-musical become intertwined. However, this intertwining is not obvious a priori but instead requires an historical perspective. DeNora illustrates her argument via the ‘‘gendering’’ of the piano that occurred in Vienna at the turn of the nineteenth century. Prior to the late 1790s, women did not play instruments that violated decorum of the day (e.g., cello); they did, however, play the piano. Given that playing the piano was a genteel activity, women performed in public as often as men and typically performed comparable works. This would change with the arrival of Beethoven. His individual performance marked a dramatic move toward the athletic. Furthermore, his compositions required aggressive play rather than refined repose. In the wake of Beethoven’s arrival, gender segregation began with regards to public performances on the piano. When this segregation was combined with emergent notions regarding the ‘‘masculinity’’ of both Beethoven’s music and genius, women no longer enjoyed the same relationship with the piano that they did before the late 1790s (e.g., works performed in public). Clawson’s (1999) work compliments DeNora’s, as she examines the emerging trend of female bass players in rock bands. Just as Beethoven was cast as masculine, so too were rock bands. The number of women in rock bands has been historically low, and the numbers of female instrumentalists is lower still. Clawson points to watershed moments when a slight but notable shift occurred. The rise of punk in the U.K. during the 1970s provided women with opportunities; female vocalists and bands that flouted gender roles and embraced musical simplicity burst on the scene. The subsequent emergence of punk, new wave, and ‘‘alternative’’ music in the U.S. likewise opened the door for women. Perhaps most notable were women bassists in a number of bands.


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Clawson primarily draws on the queuing theory, which predicts that women move into positions having both low status and disinterest among men. As men musicians glorify the position of guitarist and discount the bassist position, this opens opportunities for women. Yet as women moved into the bassist position, Clawson also finds that they ‘‘re-gendered’’ the instrument by noting the affinity that women have for the role of bassist (e.g., providing the musical foundation that holds the band together); that is, they constructed the bass as a ‘‘feminine’’ instrument. The work of DeNora and Clawson extends studies of occupational careers. Whereas some examine the beginning of potential careers, when musicians learn their crafts (Bennett, 1980; Curran, 1996; Sudnow, 1978), future work could consider the gendered nature of this process in which females may face barriers in learning certain instruments (see Bayton, 1998). Whereas some highlight authority relations in performance organizations (Faulkner, 1973; Glynn, 2000), others could also heed the gendered nature of such authority (see Allmendinger and Hackman, 1995). Finally, studies of occupational careers could heed other status characteristics (e.g., ethnicity) that, in a particular context, provide resources for a few and barriers for many. 2.4. Markets and worker insurgency The musical production literature is sometimes criticized for its inattention to audiences (DiMaggio, 2000). This criticism overlooks how the production literature highlights the ‘‘construction’’ of the audience (i.e., market) – if not the accuracy of this construction – by personnel involved in the production process (Anand and Peterson, 2000). Becker’s (1963) classic work shows the antipathy of musicians towards local audiences; pivotal publications by Hirsch (1972) and Peterson and Berger (1975) emphasize the role of audience demand, with recording firms facing uncertainty over this demand and sometimes failing to satisfy it. Nevertheless, a group of production studies does bring the audience to the fore. It includes work on critical reception of music (e.g., Appelrouth, 2003; Cruz, 1999; Glynn, 2000; Lopes, 2002) and on audience building for musical genres and events (e.g., DeNora, 1995; DiMaggio and Mullen, 2000; Peterson, 1997). Notable work also weds musical production with social movements (e.g., Eyerman and Jamison, 1998; Roy, 2002; Watkins, 2001). Consider the following example. Roscigno and Danaher (2001) and Roscigno et al. (2002) focus on Southern textile workers in the late 1920s and early 1930s. These workers endured poor working conditions, low wages, and the exploitation permitted by residence in mill-owned villages. Given such conditions worker unrest was not uncommon; some 400,000 of these workers walked off the job between 1929 and 1934. Drawing on social movement theory, Roscigno and Danaher highlight the mechanisms by which music contributes to opposition and collective action. First, music provides a ritual that contributes to group solidarity through performance and through familiar melodies and rhythmic intensity. Second, music lyrics can provide a critical view of the world by calling attention to social problems and the sources of such problems. Finally, music can foster mobilization to the extent that its lyrics suggest actions by which to address social problems. Roscigno and Danaher piece together music’s impact in the textile South. They offer a content analysis of songs of the period that dealt with the life and conditions of textile

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workers. The lyrics highlight deplorable conditions that workers confronted, blame the work process (e.g., lengthy work days) and managers/owners for these conditions, and sometimes, encourage workers to collective action. Roscigno and Danaher then turn to important ‘‘carriers’’ of these songs, detailing the biographies of professional musicians in the South. These musicians were well acquainted with the travails of mill-life and targeted mill workers with songs about these travails. Furthermore, given that the Depression had ravaged the recording industry, these musicians mostly turned to concerts and radio performances for their livelihood. Roscigno and Danaher then note the music practices of Southern workers, including their frequent and collective usage of radio. Finally, they document the notable proliferation of radio stations that occurred in Southern locales during this period. They find considerable overlap between areas with radio station foundings and those with worker insurgency – strongly suggesting, among other things, that the musicians and the music broadcast (and promoted) on these stations motivated the audience to action. The work of Roscigno and Danaher adds to the musical production literature. For those that emphasize music’s role in social solidarity (e.g., Bergesen, 1979; Cerulo, 1989), Roscigno and Danaher point out how such solidarity can arise and grow. Their work likewise complements those that emphasize the role of cultural entrepreneurs in the formation of musical communities (e.g., Gray, 1997; Santoro, 2002), especially as they point to entrepreneurs with relatively low rather than high status (i.e., a ‘‘bottom-up’’ vs. a ‘‘top-down’’ view). Finally, their work shows sociologists the benefits of linking the production of music to its audience, as the synergy between creation and appreciation in one time can substantially shape musical production in a later time. 2.5. Technology and Hebrew music videos Randall Collins (1986: 77) suggests that technology ‘‘is one of the unexplored dark spots in the social sciences.’’ To a certain degree, his comment does not apply to the musical production literature. Given that various devices enable music-making, music sociologists have not shied away from technology. They note, for instance, how technologies alter the options available to musicians (e.g., Bennett, 1999; Kealy, 1979; Ryan and Peterson, 1993). However, Collins’ comment does apply to the extent that music sociologists have not theorized about technology, thereby treating it as a phenomenon that shapes musical outcomes rather than as a phenomenon to be explained. Fortunately, a group of studies provide a corrective by focusing on the diffusion of technologies for reproducing music – including the phonograph (Maisonneuve, 2001; Seifert, 1995), radio (Leblebici et al., 1991), cassette (Manuel, 1993), and Walkman (du Gay et al., 1997). Such studies cast light on ‘‘dark spots’’ by showing the contested process by which uses of these sound reproduction devices are constructed as acceptable and, eventually, as legitimate. I illustrate with one example from this group – the diffusion of music videos to Israel. The appearance of MTV in Israel signaled the opportunity for local musicians and others to exploit new technologies. How they did so is Regev’s (1997) concern. MTV’s arrival in Israel could have launched a number of developments – including the complete domination of U.S. and British videos in the Israeli marketplace. However, Regev found a notable


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‘‘local’’ response. Hebrew videos became commonplace and became increasingly sophisticated in terms of film quality, plotlines, and other attributes. Regev argues that the growth of Hebrew music videos was due, on the one hand, to a new dissemination channel and, on the other hand, to the intersection of disparate logics. Regarding the former, a new television channel in Israel offered a venue for programming that featured Hebrew music videos as alternatives to the U.S./U.K. fare on MTV. Regarding the latter, different actors pursued the production of Hebrew videos. Some actors, Regev argues, followed the market logic highlighted in institutional studies of musical production. Israeli recording firm executives seized upon videos for product promotion, while aspiring filmmakers made music videos to demonstrate their craft and skills (i.e., self-promotion). Other actors, he maintains, pursued aesthetic logics highlighted in cultural studies: certain musicians and artists created music videos to offer critiques and, in turn, promote social change; film and music critics used music videos to expand their domain of cultural authority. Given the simultaneous pursuit of these logics, as well as the new dissemination channel, Hebrew videos were eventually legitimated in the face of MTV’s onslaught. Regev’s study is one of several attending to the process by which new technologies are incorporated into musical production. This is significant because, as Hennion (2002) argues, the technological form that production takes also shapes the manner in which audiences appreciate music. Moreover, Regev’s work resonates with others that likewise explore how a variety of actors make sense of other technologies related to musical production. Anand and Peterson (2000), for example, demonstrate how new technologies for tracking CD and cassette sales have reshaped ideas about what musical genres are commercially successful; this has implications for which genres business personnel choose to record and promote. Hesmondhalgh’s (2000) ethnographic study of a British record firm shows how its personnel grapple with the uses of digital sampling (e.g., remunerating the third world individuals who sometimes serve as the musical sources for samples). Such works highlight the lesson taught long ago by Weber ([1924] 1958), when discussing musical instruments and notation: the production of music results from the interplay between actors and the technology at their disposal. 2.6. Law and the R&B market Certain literatures in the social sciences gloss over the importance of law. They do so by undertheorizing its impact or by bracketing it from empirical consideration (Dobbin and Dowd, 1997; Potter and Dowd, 2003). Unfortunately, the musical production literature is among those that devote relatively little attention to this important constraint. This tendency is troubling because much musical production bears the imprint of copyright law (e.g., Ryan, 1985) and industry regulation (e.g., Leblebici et al., 1991). A recent study (Dowd, 2003) demonstrates the salience of the legal environment by examining emergence and expansion of what was initially called the ‘‘race’’ market and later called the ‘‘R&B’’ market in the U.S. recording industry. Despite signs of ample supply and demand, recording firms had not targeted African-American consumers with recordings made by African-American musicians. This would change in 1920, with the emergence of the race/R&B market. In the decades that followed, the R&B market would expand considerably. Drawing on economic sociology, Dowd shows how this was, in part,

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an unintended consequence of legal struggles in the three industries: recording, performance rights, and radio. Dominant actors in each of the three industries initially embraced a production logic that stressed both classical music and popular music with broad appeal; they did not view ‘‘race’’ music as fitting either category. Legal developments, however, undermined both the dominant actors and their respective logics. In the recording industry, two firms maintained their dominance, in part, because of their key patents. When those patents expired – and when court cases did not uphold extension of these patents – a flurry of small firms exploited phonograph technology and, in the process, competed by releasing the ‘‘race’’ music that dominant firms had previously ignored. As this shift in logic occurred in the recording industry, the race market emerged. When antitrust action curtailed the power of a monopolist in the performance rights industry (ASCAP), a new organization (BMI) emerged as a challenger and favored the ‘‘race’’ music overlooked by ASCAP; the race market rebounded from the Great Depression. When among other developments, broadcast regulations limited the power of NBC and CBS, the radio industry was populated by stations featuring R&B that was largely absent from network radio. As the shift in logic finally occurred in radio, the R&B market enjoyed a remarkable expansion. Dowd’s (2003) study compliments a small number of works that explicitly consider copyright law and its implications for the circulation of music (e.g., Frith, 1993). However, it reminds us that copyright law is but one element of the legal environment in which musical production is embedded; broadcast regulation, patent law, and antitrust, for example, have and will continue to play notable roles. The R&B case also resonates with the current conflict regarding online music (see Jones, 2000). Indeed, it highlights that this conflict is not reducible to a struggle between a few powerful corporations and a mass of music fans; the conflict also rests squarely around legal issues, including the rights of various parties (e.g., composers, publishers) for remuneration.

3. Conclusions The Production of Culture perspective emphasizes that music is shaped by the environment in which it is created, performed, and disseminated (Peterson and Anand, forthcoming). Similarly, the Art Worlds perspective emphasizes the resources, networks, and interactions involved in the collective production of music (Gilmore, 1990). Both perspectives play to sociology’s strength by problematizing the socio-cultural context. In the years that followed the emergence of these two perspectives, the musical production literature experienced a notable growth – not only in the number of works but in the perspectives employed. The examples featured in this paper draw on theories from the new institutionalism in organizational sociology (DiMaggio on high culture), industrial organization economics (Peterson and Berger on diversity), queuing theory (Clawson on women bassists), social movements (Roscigno and Danaher on worker mobilization), cultural studies (Regev on Hebrew videos), and economic sociology (Dowd on R&B). While the substantive focus of these works resonates with the initial concerns of the Production of Culture and Art Worlds perspectives, the non-musical literatures from which they draw expand the range of explanations. These multiple perspectives show the


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intellectual vitality of the musical production literature, if not its relevance to the broader sociological literature. However, proponents of these various perspectives need to remain in dialogue, so that the musical production literature may produce works that build upon each other. The above discussion shows the analytical salience of six constraints, yet it does not do justice to the complexity of the real world, where these constraints act in combination rather than isolation (Peterson, 1990). Proponents of both the Art Worlds and Production of Culture perspectives have demonstrated the combined impact of these constraints (e.g., Becker, 1982; Peterson, 1990) and proponents of recent perspectives have done so as well (e.g., Dowd, 2003; Roscigno and Danaher, 2001). Nevertheless, the musical production literature would benefit from concerted attention to factors that too often it ignores – audiences, technology, and law. Theorizing about and researching how these six constraints intertwine in a range of empirical settings will strengthen the musical production literature and will make clear its relevance for the sociology of music, the sociology of culture, and music scholarship in general.

Acknowledgements I thank Pete Peterson and Claire Peterson for their valuable feedback.

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