Streaming Culture: Subscription Platforms and the Unending Consumption of Culture

by David Arditi, Emerald Publishing, 2021, 174 pp. 
Paperback, $23.99; Ebook, $19.99. ISBN: 9781839827730 

For several cultural industries, the mode of consumer consumption has shifted from product ownership to product rental in recent decades. We have transitioned from owning a music collection of vinyl records, cassettes, CDs, and even MP3s, to paying a monthly fee to have access to a seemingly unending music library via a music streaming service. It is this process of the move to streaming of culture, and the implications of this move, that David Arditi takes on in his book Streaming Culture: Subscription Platforms and the Unending Consumption of Culture. Along with music, Streaming Culture also focuses on film, TV, and video games. 

Arditi is clear that the point of the book “isn’t to provide normative value judgement about streaming services but rather, to demonstrate how things changed and infer the consequences of these changes” (5–6). Arditi, an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas at Arlington, has clearly approached Streaming Culture as a work for use by academics and students alike. He applies personal anecdotes about his relationship to the culture industries he analyzes in this book. As a media studies professor, I appreciate his pedagogical approach to help illustrate concepts to students. 

Streaming Culture first establishes a framework, through the historical analysis of disruption, distribution, and disintermediation, to explore the culture industry that is being streamed. Disruption is described as how the Internet “changed the way businesses function so they can make higher profits” (33). Distribution would be the various intermediaries that move a product from the producer to the consumer. Before streaming, and even before the creation of the World Wide Web, several parties could be involved in distribution. Finally, disintermediation is outlined as the process of eliminating intermediaries within the distribution chain that decreases “costs to Culture Industry producers” (35). However, these savings are not passed on to the consumer, but rather increase the profits for large corporations. Through the genesis of streaming of music, film, TV, and video games, Arditi explains that this sea change has created “unending consumption” among consumers of culture. 

Music is the first cultural industry Arditi examines. He reviews a brief history of recorded music products and underpins the review by adding his experiences with some of these products over the years. Arditi states, “Music was the first popular cultural form to embrace streaming” (57). Referring back to his framework he adds, “digital disruption causes more problems for distribution and retail than it does for content creators” (61). As I noted above, there have been several formats of an album one could have found in a record store. Because of music streaming services, not only are these physical music format choices eliminated, but so are their supply chains. Thinking through the relation of music being the shortest (in time) and easiest consumed of the four culture industries examined in Streaming Culture, the music chapter acts as an excellent comparison for the next three chapters. 

COVID-19 has clearly made impacts on culture globally and perhaps more so by the streaming, instead of theatrical release, of films. Arditi address the effect of COVID-19 in the film chapter and how the pandemic changed and seems to have re-shaped film consumption as we move out of the pandemic. As more streaming services have been launched focusing predominately on a film catalog, the structuring of these applications have impacted the TV industry as well. 

Throughout Streaming Culture there is a build to the political economy of media ownership versus rental. The TV chapter addresses how the “freemium” models of streaming TV applications can coax consumers into a multitiered payment structure; these monthly payments are often not calculated by the consumer over time. The unending consumption model is amplified by the wide variety of TV streaming services that have become available. The chapter ends by noting that we can experience a “cultural effervescence”—“when groups of people come together for ritualistic purposes and feel emotional energy from the gathering” (99). 

Finally, in the video games chapter, Arditi states, “as the first 100% digital cultural form, video games seemed the perfect place for streaming culture to take root” (120). Combined with the fact that video games are designed to monetize multiple aspects of game play through prevailing models of “subscriptions, in-game purchases, and surveillance of gamers” (106), consumers of streaming cultures should be conscious of not just their gaming skills, but of the financial impact of these endeavors. 

After the review of the streaming of the four culture industries, Arditi inserts one more chapter, offering another framework for looking at these different, yet parallel histories by reflecting on the cultural products from music, film, TV, and video games through Raymond Williams’s notion that cultural texts can be divided into “dominant, residual, and emergent” status at any point in time. This second framework allows for Arditi to not only reflect on the history he has laid out for these cultural industries, but to think about where the emergence of streaming might be going. As a media studies scholar focusing on music, I appreciate that the chapter allows me to better explain how vinyl, cassettes, and CDs presently sit alongside the streaming of music. 

Streaming Culture is a quick and concise read that reviews the history of four key cultural industries and outlines how they have all used the Internet to create not just a new distribution channel for media through streaming, but how the companies involved have capitalized on the shift to streaming. I found the read refreshing in that not only does Arditi approach this book as a media studies scholar, but also as a consumer and fan of some of this media as well. Streaming Culture is an excellent resource in its totality, or as separate chapters for specific pedagogical needs.  

Franklin Bridges, Rutgers University