August 10, 2016

Robert Prey


Although he has played in a couple of bands, Robert Prey considers himself more a fan than a musician. “I’m not a very good musician, I’ll be the first to admit. I just love music. I’ve always been fascinated by the indescribable connection people have with music,” he contemplates.

For his PhD research, Prey combined his interest in music with his academic focus on the political economy of new media technology. The result was an innovative look at the rise of the music streaming industry, titled “’Now Playing, You’: Big Data and the Production of Music Streaming Space.”

Access to music on streaming services such as Spotify is supported by revenue from listener subscriptions and advertising. In order to target music and advertising, music streaming services “datify” listeners by “learning everything they can about them.” While data mining and analysis has often been critiqued from a privacy perspective, Prey instead examines the role of “big data” in the commodification process on streaming services, and its implications for the wider cultural industries.

“Increasingly it’s the spaces of media consumption that are being commodified, rather than the actual media content itself,” Prey notes. For Prey, this suggests the need to theorize the political economy of media space. Prey’s dissertation examines how these spaces are produced, and the tensions between what the philosopher Henri Lefebvre called “social space” (the spaces of everyday interaction), and “abstract space,” (the spaces of capital). On music streaming services, Prey argues, the drive to predict listening preferences and to increase advertising revenues necessitates the segmentation of listeners and content, as sociability is turned upon itself to fulfill the dictates of capital.

In recognition of his outstanding achievements as a graduate student, SFU awarded Prey with the Dean of Graduate Studies Convocation Medal. In an earlier article, his supervisor, School of Communication professor Yuezhi Zhao, described Prey’s dissertation as “by far the most exceptional, most original and best-written dissertation I have ever had the pleasure to read.”

Prey applied for his current position at the University of Groningenwhile he was still a PhD candidate living in Vancouver. After a conversation on Skype, he was invited to Groningen for an interview. Arriving in Groningen, Prey was immediately impressed by the city’s cycling culture. A vibrant university town located northeast of Amsterdam, Groningen has the highest travel mode share of bicycle users anywhere in the world. Deep in conversation with the program director while crossing the street, Prey almost collided with three cyclists. After demonstrating his abilities as a nimble pedestrian (and scholar and lecturer), Prey was offered a position as an Assistant Professor.

A year later, Prey is acclimatized to his new home. The Research Centre for Media and Journalism Studies where he works is expanding, and Prey finds it a “dynamic and interesting place to be.” Dr. Robert Prey still has moments of nostalgia for Vancouver, like missing the mountains, and cherry blossoms in spring, but he’s happily finding new roots.