STREAM goes to London

The STREAM team, or at least four fifths of it, has been to London. Hendrik Spilker, Anders Fagerjord, Marika Lüders and Terje Colbjørnsen went to the Media Industries Conference at King’s College 18-20 April 2018. We presented some first findings from the STREAM project and had a splendid good time, and not just because London was in full summer and we got to sing karaoke in the basement of a pub.

We found a festival, too. Left to right: Anders, Marika, Terje, Hendrik. Photographer unknown. People in the background also unknown.

This blog post contains Terje’s remarks on how and why this was a good conference, what we can take from it and what media industry studies means. So, here is a set of comments: first some general remarks, followed by some STREAM-related comments and finally some personal reflections.

Media Industries, qu’est-ce que c’est?

What are media industry studies, exactly? A field, a sub-field, a problem space? These were some suggestions from the plenary panels on day one and two of the conference. A look at the organizers, the participants and the papers would reveal that it is a something located at the intersections of media and communication, cultural studies, media management and economics, film studies, global media studies, cultural sociology, and internet studies. To be honest, I didn’t think any of the luminaries at the plenary panels were quite able to define it properly. Or rather, were not willing to. Despite some insightful comments from speakers such as Georgina Born, Bernard Miege, Jennifer Holt, David Hesmondhalgh and Ramon Lobato, my overall impression was that the plenary panelists were content with outlining quite broad intellectual genealogies (plenary 1) and sketching out broad challenges for media industries researchers (plenary 2). Unfortunately, I missed the third plenary on Media Industries and the Academy.

Personally, I would have liked for someone to express clearly what constitutes media industry studies (and what doesn’t). That could have sparked interesting discussions beyond personal and local reflections. I was not alone in my lack of enthusiasm for the plenaries. Aswin Punathambekar‏ (@aswinp on Twitter) was far sharper, calling the plenary sessions “an unmitigated disaster”.

It was in fact the first time the conference was organized. Some 250 people were registered participants (out of 400 contributions). That kind of interest is quite remarkable for a first time event. In that sense, it was clear that the conference served a purpose and that people found it worthwhile to take a few days in London. Eight parallel panel sessions meant that we all were bound to miss lots of tempting sessions. Altogether, it was a very well organized event with a friendly and supportive atmosphere.

All in all, I found the quality of panels and individual presentations to be excellent. In the panels that I was present for, there was wide variety of original empirical studies detailing everything from negotiation of sports rights to datafication of music management to organizing feminist game jams. Not surprisingly, what was lacking in many of the paper presentations was clear theoretical groundings and clearly conceptualized studies. The Media Industries Conference 2018 did not offer much in the way of theoretical papers or discussions, at least not what I saw. That’s probably a feature of the field/sub-field, and I was doubtless guilty of the same in my own presentation (see below). An exception (not the only one) to the rule includes Vilde Schancke Sundet and Kari Steen-Johnsen who really impressed with a concise presentation on Norwegian media coverage of digitalization and policy over the last 20 years. Amanda Lotz ‏(@DrTVLotz on Twitter) called it “A master class in approach and incredible model to follow”.

What’s in it for STREAM?

The STREAM team organized a panel session on the sustainability of streaming media services. Departing from the fact that streaming is often pitched as a possible model for all the cultural and media industries, we asked whether it actually represents a viable and sustainable option. Anders outlined the STREAM project, and I followed with a presentation on the business models of streaming media services, seen through the lens of buffet economics. Marika presented findings on customer retention and users maintaining several streaming subscriptions, before Hendrik put streaming into context by way of his five logics of music distribution. You can find the presentations here. Our panel saw about 25 people coming, several of whom engaged in a lively and critical Q&A after presentations. The STREAM team was very pleased.

Streaming is evidently now a central concept and object of study for many media industries researchers. A rough count indicates that four panels mentioned “streaming” in the headline, and altogether 18 papers used “stream” or mentioned Spotify, Netflix, YouTube, or Amazon in the titles of presentations. More importantly, we could gain insights on actual methodologies and take inspiration from other empirical studies of streaming providers. It was also very nice to see how cross-industrial work of the kind that we attempt to do in STREAM, was highlighted as important. This was particularly true for the excellent panel on the conference’s closing day, when David Hesmondhalgh, Lee Marshall, John B. Thompson, Daniel Herbert and Amanda Lotz compared digital transformations in the music, book publishing, film, and television industries. Comparisons bring out similarities and common challenges, but also helps us to identify where the differences are, they argued.

My own personal conference

Jennifer Holt pointed out in one of the plenaries, that this was a conference where she didn’t feel like the odd one out. Derek Kompare (@d_kompare on Twitter) who saw this as his “academic sweet spot”, hinted at the same thing. I felt much the same way. By joining forces, the conference managed to bring together people from the communities of Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS), International Communication Association (ICA), International Association of Mass Communication Research (IAMCR), European Network for Cinema and Media Studies (NECS), European Communication Research and Education Association (ECREA), European Media Management Association (EMMA), British Association of Film, Television and Screen Studies (BAFTSS) and Gesellschaft für Medienwissenschaft (GFM). At large conferences such as ICA, the interest group for media industries research is fairly small; here, the combined forces proved a vibrant field of inquiry.

The Media Industries conference 2018 provided a setting where research interests that can often feel marginal and out of touch with the mainstream (e.g. Norwegian media policy, audio book consumption), was completely at home. It’s a good thing the organizers have already planned for a follow-up conference 16-18 April 2020.

You can find the Twitter quotes under the hashtag #MILondon18.

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