Paul Harkins (Edinburgh Napier University, UK)


For many commentators over the last two decades, digitisation represents nothing short of a watershed moment in how music is produced, stored, and consumed. Just as the era of the fluid, non-degradable perfect digital copy has undermined the ability of a centralised industry to control music content, so what gets made, and by whom, has been opened up with the advent of software studios, virtual studio technologies, and Internet protocols. The ‘digital age’, from this perspective, has intensified and accelerated processes of democratisation, leading not just to a further flattening of hierarchies in culture at large but to a rapid dissolution of prohibitive barriers to making music and participating in music cultures. In this paper, I address claims around the digital democratisation of music making with the advent of virtual studio technologies, digital audio workstations, and mobile apps. Focusing on the genre of grime, I argue that the availability of software like Music 2000 and GarageBand have certainly been instrumental in opening up music making with digital, computer-based, and DAW-type technologies to wider communities, such as impoverished black neighbourhoods in East London. They therefore hint at a more inclusive mode of cultural production and a collapse of boundaries between amateur and professional. But, when one accounts for residual inequalities, particularly those related to race, class, and gender, discourses of democratisation still have to be tempered. I therefore strike a cautionary note and call for a precise and critical analysis that asks detailed questions about who is participating in the cultures of music making, how, and under what socio-economic conditions. I finish with a call to move beyond the term democratisation in its normative and idealised sense to an application that is situated, concrete, and specific to the field of popular music.