The impact of personal stereos on our consumer behaviours

The Apple iPod was introduced in 2001, its innovative features and interface finding a key place in the music industry by combining the technology of computing software and music stereos. Users  could suddenly mobilise their desires upon their own media items: moving, mashing-up, unbundling and sharing.Users of these and other multimedia devices are made to feel that they are increasingly important in the circulation of music and media, and exert control over their own media consumption, perhaps even influencing other people’s media tastes. The consumer identity is being redefined due to the possibilities provided by the availability of media programs and their consequences, and consumers are now often described as ‘prosumers’. New ‘prosumer’ practices created by the personal stereo include:

  • the new methods of consuming music (by altering the original methods of distribution and reception)
  • using the iPod to inscribe our personal experiences onto public and urban spaces (and impacting our interaction with the external world)
  • externalising this consumption as a way of branding the self, exploring identity, and seeking consumer peer approval.

New meanings of music (as well as new consumer identities) can be generated by the methods of ‘moving’ media and music texts between CD’s, computers and personal stereos. Max Dawson (2007) has coined this behavioural tactic ‘unbundling’, in which individual songs are removed from the context that they are provided in – moving the power of distribution from the artist or producer into the hands of the consumer. The programs used to transfer music onto iPods allow users to create new playlists or segments of music, generating new narratives by associating their own preferences or ideas to the songs. Albums are no longer contained within a compact disc in a specific order decided upon by music producers. Nowadays we can segregate and re-package these album tracks, participating in decision-making about the way we consume songs instead of receiving them in a specific package and identifying with music in the way that the artist/producer intended.

For example, a playlist can be created (either in iTunes or through the iPod interface) which combines songs from a specific year, from a particular genre, associated with a particular location or mood, or according to how we ‘rate’ or ‘rank’ them. Subsequently, the ‘unbundling’ techniques used while navigating the iPod make the users feel in control of the music than when using walkmans or stereos. Other brands of mp3 players also allow the user to delete files through the player itself, without the assistance of software. The ‘podification’ of popular culture corresponds to a desire to control the world we live in by becoming our own broadcaster and sound editor (Aoun, pp166-167).

Radio, as well as the personal music collection, is also impacted by this shift in consumer control. The ability to ‘podcast’ (subscribe to specific Internet distributed radio content) changes the position of power from the radio DJ and station broadcaster into the hands of the listener, who can search for preferred programs and receive regular updates which are delivered directly to their iTunes program and able to be moved into the iPod. Again, the shift of music into the mobile sphere is becoming more common and visible, now that the original music mediums or models are challenged by the new devices and software.

As well as using the stereo to consume music, Bull (Kennedy 2008) describes how the use of personal stereos doubles as an urban strategy for controlling interaction. Instead of walking around the streets of the city in the 80’s with a boom box, we now walk the streets of the 2000’s with earphones, wondering what other people are hearing (Richmond, 2006). When we use personal stereos as we move through urban spaces, we alter the way that we relate to our surroundings, others, and ourselves (Bull 2000:2). We only participate in what we choose to acknowledge, and Mosco (Kennedy, 2007) addresses how we can refuse to recognise social contact in favour of remaining within our own personal ‘music bubble’. However, by closing off external experiences, we create boundaries around the self (Bull 2000, p2).

By identifying music consumption as a way out of unwanted social interaction (Oliver, 2007); a way to trigger or inscribe personal experience and create ‘urban comfort’ within new and unfamiliar environments (Aoun, p167); as well as creating individuality within the anonymous crowd (D’Arcangelo, p2); it seems that we strive to stand out within a space we seek to melt into. These contradictory properties seem to announce the way that the iPod allows the user to become more self-involved. The techniques used to negotiate the experience of public spaces and urban environments can affect social interaction, wherein the use of an iPod is a very clear statement that an individual does not want to be interrupted from their listening pleasure.

Displaying or publicising music tastes is also an identity-forming process of approval, in which the privacy and withdrawn act of listening to iPods can now be placed into the public sphere and is intertwined with concepts of social acceptance instead of recreational or leisurely behaviour. iTunes can generate playlists that present our most popular selections (as well as least popular), which encourages us to engage in self-observation and monitoring of our listening habits. Parvaz (2005) explains how a New York nightclub decided to offer patrons the chance to plug their iPod into the music system, giving everyone their ’15 minutes of fame’. Gunn (2008) raises the important point that by enabling individuals to shamelessly self-promote their taste in this way, self-indulgence becomes an aspect of expression of taste. Often mp3 players will utilise online ‘scrobbling’ software, enabling listeners to enter their musical preferences and receive information that suggests new or similar music to their established tastes (D’Arcangelo, p3). Some of these sites also enable listeners to link their ‘most often’ personal playlists with software that generates graphs of their favourite music. These charts can then be inserted into social networking sites, where our personal consumer practices then become consumed by others who compare their tastes with ours.

Listening to music is not always restricted to the private sphere by personal stereos; our habits can be publicised by technological developments that in turn attribute us with social or cultural capital. The social or public act of listening to music in groups is being replaced by new methods of exhibiting the private practice of personal stereo use. By using iTunes, we create paths of communication between the computer and the personal stereo in which we can view, assess and reconsider our music consumption habits. It seems as though we no longer choose to talk about our personal taste or listen to music with friends, yet we are happy to let strangers to view online statistical data of our taste that eradicates the potential for engaging in the personal bonds formerly generated by sharing our taste.


Aoun, S 2007 ‘Idiot’s Box With Steve Aoun: iPod and Youtube and Everyone We Know’, Metro Magazine, No. 152, pp.166-175.

Bull, M 2000, ‘Sounding Out the City: Personal Stereos and the Management of Everyday Life,’ Berg Publishers, Oxford.

Bull, M 2004 in Kennedy, B 2007, ‘Bubbles of Sound in the Public Space’, The Queen’s Journal, January 23 2007, last accessed 12/9/08.

D’Arcangelo, G 2005, ‘The New Cosmopolites: Activating The Role of Mobile Music Listeners’, last accessed 12/9/08.

Dawson, M 2007, ‘Little Players, Big Shows: Format, Narration and Style on Television’s New Smaller Screens’, Convergence, Vol. 13., No. 3., pp.233-245.

Gunn, J 2008, ‘Stick It In Your Ear: The Psychodynamics of iPod Enjoyment’, Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, Vol 5., No 2., p.136.

Kennedy, B 2007, ‘Bubbles of Sound in the Public Space’, The Queen’s Journal, January 23 2007, last accessed 12/9/08.

Mosco, 2007 in Kennedy, B 2007, ‘Bubbles of Sound in the Public Space’, The Queen’s Journal, January 23 2007, last accessed 12/9/08.

Oliver, 2007 in Kennedy, B 2007, ‘Bubbles of Sound in the Public Space’, The Queen’s Journal, January 23 2007, last accessed 12/9/08.

Parvaz, D 2005, ‘iPod night: Clubbers’ 15 minutes of DJ Fame’, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, last accessed 12/9/08.

Richmond, W 2006 in Kennedy, B 2007, ‘Bubbles of Sound in the Public Space’, The Queen’s Journal, January 23 2007, last accessed 12/9/08.