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Music Festival Video: A “Media Events” Perspective on Music in Mediated Life

Les vidéos de festivals de musique : une approche « cérémonielle » de la musique en contexte médiatique
Fabian Holt
Traduction(s) :
Les vidéos de festivals de musique : une approche « cérémonielle » de la musique en contexte médiatique [fr]


Cet essai vise à conceptualiser l’émergence récente des vidéos promotionnelles dans la culture médiatique des festivals de musique, dont les implications vont jusqu’au cadrage disciplinaire des études audiovisuelles (audiovisual studies). Mon argument repose sur l’idée que, contrairement à d’autres formes de clips vidéo, les vidéos de festival à but promotionnel se définissent par une dynamique médiatique cérémonielle, fournissant un cas intéressant pour prolonger la critique du média-centrisme et du textualisme au sein des études audiovisuelles. Dans un premier temps, l’article resitue le discours sur les clips vidéo au sein de l’évolution générale du domaine médiatique et des sciences humaines. Dans les parties suivantes, je développe une approche anthropologique de la culture médiatique des festivals de musique: la deuxième section propose un état de l’art sur le concept de cérémonie médiatique, tandis que la troisième section reprend le concept pour interpréter les médiations audiovisuelles des festivals dans le cadre des transformations musicales et culturelles de l’EDM (electronic dance music), depuis la culture club des années 1990 jusqu’aux grandes scènes des festivals contemporains. Mon argument central est que les médiations des festivals, de la vidéo aux messages téléphoniques, sont façonnées par des processus rituels.

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1Following development of popular forms of house and techno music from clubs into the much larger “dancefloor” of festivals in the 2000s, the EDM festival industry further exploited consumer desire for this mass culture ritual through the new media environment of online social media video. Along with the musical orientation towards medleys of house music with various hit song elements rather than African American groove aesthetics in minimal techno, for instance, the industry developed the visual design of festival worlds and their digital mediation in the form of promotional videos. These video practices have come to define festival identities in particular ways through their mass culture genre structures of encoding and distribution, leaving user-generated videos with the function of enriching the festival experience at the micro-level of the social network of individual participants. In the process, the promotional videos are transforming festival culture further away from an oral culture and into a media culture. However, this media development intensifies a dialectic between media and in-person social experiences within a new economy of social time in contemporary life. For this reason, studies of the media culture of music and music festivals can usefully analyze media practices within broader dynamics in musical and social life.

2This essay conceptualizes this recent development of promotional video in the media culture of music festivals, with implications for the disciplinary framing of audiovisual studies. The argument is that the development of music festival video can be conceptualized as a new form of music video with a promotional purpose, but unlike previous forms of music video it is defined by media event dynamics and provides a case for developing emerging critiques of media-centricity and textualism in audiovisual studies. Media cultures of popular music festivals are fundamentally shaped by the ritual dynamics of the festival and by industry’s exploitation of this mass culture ritual. The essay adopts the concept of media events, originating in media anthropology of live television broadcasting in the 1970s, and adapts the concept for studying music festivals in internet-enabled environments of the 2010s and their role in transforming EDM into a “white” conformist pop culture. The essay contributes to emerging alternatives to textualism in audiovisual studies by suggesting how these critiques might look beyond aesthetics and draw from the anthropology of media and events.

3The essay begins by situating music video discourse in broad developments in the media landscape and in the humanities. I argue for a stronger integrating of music video research with audiovisual studies and media studies. The following sections illustrate an anthropological approach to music festival media culture. Section two reviews the literature on media events. Section three employs this concept in an interpretation of audiovisual mediations of music festivals in the context of the musical and cultural transformation of EDM from 1990s’ club culture into contemporary festival stages. A key point is that all mediations of a festival, from video to text messages, are shaped by the ritual process. A more fundamental insight is that the anthropology of festival media culture highlights broader dynamics in musical culture in contemporary hyper-mediated societies: Even as musical festivals are becoming more intensely mediated, they still offer a unique social and sensory experience of music that highlights the limits of media in music and in social life.

The Methodical challenge to song video discourse

4The apparent continuity in the history of music video practices at the textual level obscures considerable changes in the experience and meaning of these practices within changing media environments. Song videos have evolved from the environment of movie theatres and jukeboxes in the 1920s to satellite television with MTV in the 1980s and beyond to the post Web 2.0 environment of today, which is defined above all by the “free” post-television of YouTube. The Web 2.0 environment has enabled televisual mediations of a wider range of locations and events and for production far beyond broadcasting companies and movie industries. Today, the song video is only one among several forms of media storytelling, with the singer’s persona and celebrity power being co-constructed by social media applications. Lana Del Rey, for instance, illustrates the creation of new intimacies through various forms of video, particularly in the form of Instagram video selfies, diaries, and travelogues.

5Studies of popular song video, however, still tend to be centered on textual aesthetics, even as the explanatory power of textualism is in crisis. Carol Vernallis, for example, observes in the The Oxford Handbook of Audiovisual Aesthetics that scholarship on music video has become uncertain about the definition of music video and that “part of the change has to do with media contexts” (Vernallis 2013a: 2). Vernallis’ monograph Unruly Media (2013b) explores stylistic elements and highlights the deregulation of a formerly TV-based culture through a number of examples. The book makes a convincing case that song video continues to be vibrant, the book suffers from the relative absence of media theory for explaining the dynamics.

6At the “Watching Music Video” conference in Paris in December 2016, Diane Railton argued that Beyoncé’s 2016 Lemonade album moved beyond the song video genre to make a serious cultural and political statement. The implication is that the study of song video is not just a matter of epistemology but also of the politics of representation, specifically of mass culture. In Music Video and the Politics of Representation, Railton and her co-author Paul Watson seek to revive interest in pop song videos (Ibid.: 5) and bring maturation to the literature by perfecting textual cultural studies approaches. These approaches remain useful for analyzing how song videos absorb and feed fashions, identities, and fantasies in pop culture.

7Valuable analytical alternatives to the prevalent textualism in studies of music video can be found in Kiri Miller’s and Holly Roger’s research on video practices. Miller’s research on video game performance explores audiovisual practices across platforms and genres (Miller 2012). Rogers (2013) situates video in a broad history of intermedial practices and takes architectural space into account, for instance, in her study of music in art gallery video performances. The evolution of festival video and the broader changes in the media environments of video, however, require a consideration of media anthropology and sociology. These forms of media theory help overcome textualism and complement the already emerging alternatives. If theory of media events is right that media work differently in ritual events and tell us something about how media work in general, perhaps music festival video teaches us something general about the media culture of music?

Media events

8A literature on media events has developed in media and communication studies since the 1970s with little attention to music, even though music is often involved in media events and events such as The Eurovision Song Contest has been subject of case studies (Couldry, Hepp, and Krotz 2010). Researching the relationship between music and media events would be an obvious task for music studies, but this has not happened, despite the fact that many of its objects of analysis are framed by media event dynamics. Examples include recordings and broadcasts of concerts and festivals. A list of specific media events in music could include The Eurovision Song Contest, Last Night of the Proms, The Metropolitan Opera and Berlin Philharmonic broadcasts, BBC’s Desert Island Discs, and festivals as diverse as The Mozart Festival in Salzburg, New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and Coachella.

9The idea that everyday media routines change in major events was inspired by the rise of live satellite broadcasting. The live broadcast of Anwar el-Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem in 1977, with Sadat praying at the Al-Aqsa mosque, caught the attention of two pioneer scholars, Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz (1992: 26). Dayan and Katz started comparing Sadat with the astronauts in televised moon landings and discovered similar dynamics. This was the age when television broadcasts also played a key role in defining and interpreting political events such as the Watergate hearings and the 1989 revolution in Prague (Ibid.: 157-159). Following more than a decade of research, Kayan and Katz published their landmark book Media Events: The Live Broadcasting of History in 1992. The book is the foundational text on media events and still has broad relevance to scholarship on public events.

10The book’s lasting contribution is the argument that media adapt to the ritual dynamics of events and define them for society. During broadcasting of events, routine programming and rhetoric changes. The broadcast becomes a gateway to and commentary on the event. Media enters the social contract between event organizer and audience as an authority. Broadcasting is in itself a form of endorsement and it has the potential to stimulate define the event as one of society’s imagined centers (Couldry and Hepp 2010: 5). It follows that media can exploit and fetishize events. Another point of lasting relevance in the book is how media co-narrative ritual initiation, immersion, liminality, and myth. By contrast, history has been less kind to the book’s specific typology of events and somewhat rigid neo-Durkheimian framework (Ibid.).

11Interest in the anthropology of performance was a broader trend in popular culture research in the 1970s; in the 1980s it gave way to semiotic studies of media texts such as film, advertising, and music video; but it might be experiencing a minor revival in the mid-2010s in the context of hyper-mediation and with the omnipresence of rapid media in live events everywhere. Events have re-emerged as alternatives, interventions, and sources of unique media content (e.g., Sørensen 2016 and Kraidy 2017). Discourse on an era of post-performance further suggests a new context of valuing performance (Thibault 2012). What these discussions have not addressed is the communal in modern society. Has the media event lost its potential for community with the advent of fragmented digital media environments? Does culture still allow people “to step self-consciously out of social life to negotiate and counterpoise daily existence with moments of high contrast and “anti-structure” (Mukerji and Schudson 1986, 49 and 56)? What happens when media ubiquity turns social events into objects of individualized hyper mediation?

12Music festivals still do not attract much interest in the media events literature. Music festivals are located outside the spheres of formal political, religious, and royal institutions. This does not mean, however, that they have no social significance. Couldry and Hepp mention “popular media events” in “consumer and celebrity culture” but do not discuss them. Popular music events constitute a broad and diverse field with various degrees of scriptedness, audience segmentation, and with different economies in public and private media. Couldry and Hepp do not differentiate popular media events and in principle offer no distinction between events as diverse as Big Brother and Glastonbury. This poses questions for further research. Clearly, reality TV shows and state ceremonies are more scripted than popular music festivals and more of a domestic TV culture, with the living room occasionally becoming a “salon” of cultural politics. With outdoor music festivals, the mediations center on the experience of the biophysical sphere of the festival, which is sometimes distant from official and formal spaces in society. Moreover, these festivals unfold in a landscape with more than one micro-area, and the festival experience is a multiday experience with a daily routine of socializing, dancing, and listening at night. Concerts by star performers frequently involve mythical and spiritual elements, as performers are endowed with the charisma to “heal” and transform audiences into liminal states of heightened emotions. The imagined center is not a disciplined and unified national public but a public defined around taste, with a more abstract sense of belonging and more informal forms of cultural power than television events produced by national broadcasting corporations.

13The media events literature helps explain the motivations and implications of festival video. Studies of the rise of television broadcasts of the Olympics, for instance, showed that the financial benefits were an immediate motivation for broadcasting. Following a broader convergence between sports and television in the 1960s, television replaced ticket sales as the main source of revenue for the Olympics by 1972 and since the late 1970s more than half of the TV rights fees have come from commercial networks in the United States (Real 2014). Mass media broadcasting created the basis for an evolution in corporate sponsorship, which became a major source of revenue with the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. Scholars continue to debate whether the media had a symbiotic or parasitic relationship with sports. Some argued that the growing influence of stars and sponsors challenged the fundamental Olympic values of equality and democracy (Ibid.; Roche 2000: 166). Moreover, television broadcasts altered the ritual, with more emphasis on spectacle. They also boosted the transformation of sports into consumer culture. At the level of audience experience, the capacity of moving images to communicate emotional information intensified the audience experience of crowd emotions and star personae, thus contributing to the rise of celebrity culture, with Michael Jordan as a pioneering example (Kellner 2002: 64).

Music festival video

  • 1 YouTube has removed a 2012 article from its website that announced live streams from music festival (...)

14In the late 2000s, video of all sorts of performances and performers—animals, comedians, educators, gamers, tourist guides, musicians, and many others—proliferated in the realm of popular media and communication. A new form of television culture, YouTube started as a video sharing platform but started to feature live streams of performances in the early 2010s, including live presidential speeches and Olympic ceremonies. Live content has become a way for digital media outlets to provide original content and define themselves as gateways to imagined centers in society. The competition with the television industry and streaming services such as Netflix is obvious. YouTube’s venture into regular event broadcasting in 2012, as part of its “premium content strategy” (Webster 2012), prominently featured world famous jazz and popular music festivals.1

15Music festivals were already experiencing a peak in audience success and interests from city governments and sponsors when this online video boom happened, so the festivals were attractive objects of mediation. The music festival industry had developed since the 1980s when it started featuring star performers, expanding audience capacities, sponsorships, and consumer services. By the late 2000s, even festivals with countercultural origins such as Coachella, Burning Man, Glastonbury, and Roskilde had moved distinctly closer to the commercial mainstreams of commercial radio and Billboard charts. These festivals were now among the most attractive marketing avenues for the corporate music industry, on par with national TV shows. Popular music festivals had generally become a popular vacation form for wider audiences than traditional die-hard festival fans or music nerds. Since the beginnings of the live music “gold rush” in the mid-2000s (Holt 2010), festivals have gained a more dominant role in the corporate live music business, as reflected in the trend of concert agencies developing into festival promoters, as illustrated by Live Nation and Scorpio.

16In the late 2000s, festivals were still doing TV commercials, short presentational videos, and concert broadcasting. Within few years, festivals would go through a digital transformation, creating digital festival and audience identities, experiences, services, and revenues (Holt 2016). This essay focuses on the professional video practices that came to define the mediated experience and digital identity of big industry-based popular music festivals. I have analyzed the evolution of the new genres of the festival trailer and after-movie elsewhere, observing the emergence of more immersive, cinematic mediations, drawing from Disney and Hollywood fantasy movies such as Lord of the Rings (Ibid.). The interpretation could be nuanced by Vernallis’ insights into post-cinema aesthetics, analyzing the energetic style, loud volume, rapid shifts and dramatic effects such as slow-motion, all of which enhances the sense of immersion. However, in the present essay I wish to revise my previous interpretation in a more fundamental way, based on the recognition that it did not fully consider the ritual dynamics of the event. The Tomorrowland festival’s pioneering productions 2009-2011 developed with sensitivity to the ritual dynamics in the festival, developing the main stage DJ set into an event by creating a unique fairy-tale design of the stage each year, with moving objects and fireworks, and with the DJ as a heroic figure in the center. The first stage production for a YouTube video was developed in collaboration with the DJ of that show, with Moby.

17To nuance our understanding of this culture, it is instructive to register the cultural transformation of EDM, as it plays out at these festival stages. EDM pop festivals can be seen as an evolution of big house and techno clubs in the late 1990s in which thousands of people would dance and celebrate the DJ super star (Haslam 2001). These club events started to be developed into arena events more frequently in the first half of the 2000s before the culture boomed in festivals in the late 2000s, peaking in the early 2010s. Star DJs of the 1990s’ club culture such as DJ Sasha, Paul van Dyk, and Carl Cox appear at EDM pop festivals, and the level of festival multitude at some festivals have even included minimal techno pioneer DJs such as Derrick May. However, it is telling that the melodic trance of Paul van Dyk, bordering with Euro synth pop, has enjoyed successes at the main stages, while the more groove-oriented and slowly evolving music of DJ Sasha and Derrick May have often appeared on smaller stages and not received the highest level of enthusiasm. EDM pop DJs have generally developed a medley-style of presentation with more tracks in less time to appeal to more casual listeners, as is typical of festivals across all genres of music (Holt 2017; Montano 2017). The most enthusiastic crowds can be found at pop star DJs such as The Swedish House Mafia and David Guetta when they play hit songs with dance music accompaniment such as “Don’t You Worry Child” and “Sexy Bitch”. These hits have generally elicited euphoric responses at main stages, with mass crowds singing along. These observations support the assumption of Judy Park (2017) that EDM pop festivals produce spaces of white mainstream coolness. Their marketing videos generally construct an image of pleasure mediated through a white middle-class body, although it’s normativity is not only racial but also stylistic and have a visual dimension. There is an element of normcore fashion in today’s corporate popular music festivals from Tomorrowland to Coachella; H&M’s Coachella festival line, for instance, has hippie elements but is framed within the casual and somewhat anonymous and conformist style of H&M.

18Below is an outline of the ritual dynamics that took shape in the early 2010s in flagship EDM pop festivals such as Tomorrowland and Ultra Music Festival. The dynamics display an overall timeline with three distinct phases: 1) a window to liminality, 2) liminality, and 3) farewell. These phases are somewhat loosely connected by consumption and media narratives. They do not form a singular, uninterrupted ritual process. This structure in the event is reflected in the media “texts” distributed by the festivals in each phase and by the media practices in general in each phase. In other words, the event dynamics are reflected both in production and consumption.

  • 2 All references to videos are listed in the videography at the end of this essay.

19Tomorrowland and Ultra Music pioneered the cinematic trailers and after-movies.2 They inspired the media productions of many other festivals, including Creamfields in the UK, Nature One in Germany, and Sea Dance in Montenegro. They also influenced countless pop and rock festivals which started to produce trailers and after-movies in 2012, even if they do not always use the word after-movie. Sziget used the name “official after-movie” in 2012, Coachella started doing a “Thank You” video in 2014, while Glastonbury started using the word “after film” in 2016 in which it distinguishes itself from EDM pop videography by using a narrator with a more educated voice and with fewer images of crowd euphoria and sexually suggestive women. The Burning Man festival represents a distinct alternative by not producing any promotional video and not entering a social contract of videos produced by participants; it does not officially endorse or share those videos on its website, for instance. The only video on the Burning Man website is three features from the period 2009-2013 in Time Magazine, KQED, and PBS, respectively. Even when participant videos adopt the promotional festival video genre of the 2010s, media event dynamics are limited. In addition to not being officially endorsed and distributed by the festival, those videos are generally not watched as much as trailers or after-movies for big music festivals. Moreover, Burning Man is a different kind of event. It does not have a line-up of super stars and big stages. The festival has also never exploited a Facebook and YouTube mass media infrastructure for the event the way that many popular music festivals have. Burning Man started live streaming in 2012, migrating to YouTube in 2015, but unlike many music festivals, these live streams have not centered on performances and close-ups of social situations. The ritual storytelling is strong, one might say overblown, in EDM pop festivals with their symbols and characters of a fairy-tale land. Rock festivals frequently invoke magic moments in their marketing, but they are not as fictionalized, not in the form of a magic world, a fairytale world. They generally tend to invest less in video marketing before the festival. Coachella, for instance, do not have a trailer every year, but instead emphasizes the livecasting. Yet, the basic dynamics outlined in the following can be found in the media culture of most popular music festivals with a daily audience of more than 50.000 people.

One-three months before the festival: A window to liminality

20One-three months before the festival, sometimes posted a few times to the Facebook page, a video trailer composed of footage from the previous edition was launched with the functions of invitation and initiation, creating a window for stepping outside ordinary life and triggering desires for pleasure and adventure. The video exposes viewers to footage of emotional excitement and the ideal atmosphere of summer days and nights at an outdoor festival, thus anticipating the seasonal dimensions of the event. The initiation is evident in the frequent footage of arrival situations and aerial views of the festival in the beginning of the video trailer, encouraging viewers to imagine their own arrival. The video, moreover, serves as a starting point for participation, as users share and talk about the video online. In this process, the video becomes a shared folkloric text that creates a mediated commonality for audiences at the event, an interpretative frame with scripted situations and narratives that audiences can recognize and reproduce. Some of the big rock festivals do not create official video trailers and instead create videos promoting upcoming livecasts or they create short information videos.

During the festival: Liminality

21During the festival, mediations of the festival generally go into a mode of liveness and liminality. The individual festival, media organization, mediating participant, and media spectator outside the festival enter a social contract by endorsing the event and its mediation with the kind of celebration and loyalty that Dayan and Katz identify as a logic of public ceremony. Live video recordings from the big stages are projected on big screens at the stage and online to give more people a view of the action and to enhance the experience through mediated immediacy, liminality, and collective effervescence. These dynamics extend to news media, music media, local media, and audience self-mediations across a large number of other channels.

Two-four few weeks after the festival: Farewell and repetition

22After-movies generally tend to be a farewell gesture in the form of a video that resembles the trailer to a high degree, focusing on moments of arrival and liminal pleasure. There is no sense of mediating dispersal of participants or of their re-integration into the ordinary. In this respect, the after-movie and the media dynamics immediately after the festival differ from traditional ritual processes. The farewell gesture can be interpreted as a form of repetition that fulfills the desire to relive the experience, a time-capsule like a wedding photo and in the form of highlights, not a recording of the entire festival or entire performances. One might ask whether the similarity with the trailer and the emphasis on reliving the experience point to the symbolic function of the industry-based popular music festival of the 2010s as a party rather than a ritual or at least a mass culture ritual that cannot create the kinds of community and transformational experiences of smaller festivals. Even traditional religious rituals such as the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca are challenged when the number of participants reach a certain level. The larger the number of participants, the stronger the media dynamics before and during the event, but not afterwards, as audience and mass media interest decline sharply and mediations of the festival seem to depend on the immediate prospect of the crowd experience. Nor is the music festival part of a complete package of ritual events in the season, as in religious life. Rather, popular music festival culture is marked by changing fashions and ongoing conversations about which cool festivals to attend in the near future, always alert to the advent of the next cool festival, with trailers and after-movies serving the purpose of promotion in this very context rather than only serving the loyal customers or mediating reintegration. This could change in the future because the need for some kind of closure and transition into everyday life is a basic human need. Festival organizers discover the importance of this and find ways of using the potentials of mediating for more personalized experience, developing their use of automatized digital marketing communications.


23This essay began with a critical discussion of discourse on music video to establish the argument that music video can be conceived in more plural terms within evolving media environments. This created a context for the essay’s main argument that video practices and other mediations of music festivals have dynamics that are uniquely different from videos for recorded songs. Genres of online festival video have evolved in the 2010s as part of a booming festival economy to exploit consumer desires. In the process, video may also have had a central role in transforming festivals further from an oral culture to a media culture, as audiences have become familiar with the visual environment, behaviors, and social situations by watching the annual official trailers and after-movies of their favorite festivals, especially since they are watched several times as opposed to the livecast and are circulated in official media channels of the festival as opposed to user-generated videos. Promotional videos create a context for interpreting in-person experiences at the festivals, and this is indicated by the fact that participants immediately recognize and reenact specific crowd rituals and forms of posing shown in the videos. The videos thus participate in the construction and fixation of participatory and interpretative “scripts.”

24While the media event perspective is vital to conceptualizing festival music and illustrate wider dynamics in the media landscape, a more complete understanding of festival media cultures requires other forms of theory as well. Live music cannot be adequately understood from the traces it leaves in the form of electronic mediations. A performance is only a medium in a metaphorical sense; the uniqueness of the outdoor festival cannot be explained by media logics. The growing popularity of festivals and the renewed interest in the value of the festival experiences challenge older dystopic ideas about the impact of electronic media on social life. Music festivals demonstrate that media have not replaced or reduced performance to imitations of media, as Auslander once suggested in a refreshing critique of the media-bias in performance studies in the 1990s. Auslander’s study provided rich insights into media culture but had a strikingly thin account of why people still attend concerts and festivals (Auslander 1999/2008). Music festivals did adapt to media culture in some respects to become more popular, in part by presenting more super stars. However, a fundamental experience among contemporary festivalgoers is precisely that the festival creates the kinds of values specific to a particular in-person experience. In-person communication is being valued in new ways because it is challenged by new technologies, particularly by the smartphone. Music festivals demonstrate a new dialectic between media and performance within an economy of in-person time and attention. In this economy, the live music commodity has gained status as a symbol of privileged time. The broader implication for analytical discourse is that the social study of media opens up for new ways of thinking about music and social life. Specific tasks include intellectual engagement with music in conversations about media events and mediated life.

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1 YouTube has removed a 2012 article from its website that announced live streams from music festivals as part of the premium content strategy.

2 All references to videos are listed in the videography at the end of this essay.

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Fabian Holt, « Music Festival Video: A “Media Events” Perspective on Music in Mediated Life »Volume ! [En ligne], 14 : 2 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2021, consulté le 16 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Fabian Holt

Fabian Holt est professeur à l’université Humbolt de Berlin. Il a été professeur associé à l’université de Roskilde où il a enseigné dans le département Communication et Arts. Il a publié Genre in Popular Music (Chicago UP, 2007), codirigé avec Carsten Wergin Musical Performance and the Changing City (Routledge, 2013) et, avec Antti-Ville Kärjä, The Oxford Handbook of Popular Music in the Nordic Countries (2017). Holt fut post-doctorant à l’université de Chicago en 2003-04 et chercheur invité à l’université de Columbia en 2010-11.

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