As a student, he read PPE at Oxford and earned a doctorate in sociology from UC Berkeley. He is the author of many influential books, including The Sociology of Rock (Constable, 1978), Sound Effects: Youth, Leisure and the Politics of Rock 'n' Roll (Pantheon, 1981), Art into Pop (Methuen, 1987 - written with Howard Horne), Music for Pleasure: Essays on the Sociology of Pop (Cambridge University Press, 1988), and Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music (Oxford University Press, 1996). He has also co-edited key anthologies in the interdisciplinary field of popular music studies, including: On Record: Rock, Pop & the Written Word (Routledge, 1990), Sound and Vision: Music Video Reader (Routledge, 1993), and The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock (Cambridge University Press, 2001).
More recently, Frith has edited a four-volume set, Popular Music: Critical Concepts in Media & Cultural Studies (Routledge, 2004), and published a collection of his key essays, Taking Popular Music Seriously: Selected Essays (Ashgate, 2007). He is the co-author of a three-volume work, The History of Live Music in Britain since 1950, the first volume of which will be published in March 2013[needs update] by Ashgate.
Frith has chaired the judges of the Mercury Music Prize since it began in 1992. His popular music criticism has appeared in a range of popular presses including the Village Voice and The Sunday Times. He taught in the Sociology Department at the University of Warwick and the English Studies Department at Strathclyde University. In 1999, he went to the University of Stirling as Professor of Film and Media. In 2006, he took up his current post, Tovey Chair of Music at the University of Edinburgh. He is the brother of guitarist and composer Fred Frith and neuroscientist Chris Frith.
According to author Bernard Gendron, writing in his 2002 book Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club: Popular Music and the Avant-Garde, Frith "has done the most to lay the foundations for the analysis of rock criticism". Frith was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2017 New Year Honours for services to higher education and popular music.
In The Sociology of Rock (1978) Frith examines the consumption, production, and ideology of rock music. He explores rock as leisure, as youth culture, as a force for liberation or oppression, and as background music. He argues that rock music is a mass cultural form which derives its meaning and relevance from being a mass medium. He discusses the differences in perception and use of rock between the music industry and music consumers, as well as differences within those groups: "The industry may or may not keep control of rock's use, but it will not be able to determine all its meanings - the problems of capitalist community and leisure are not so easily resolved."
Frith (2004, p. 17-9) argued that "'bad music' is a necessary concept for musical pleasure, for musical aesthetics." He distinguishes two common kinds of bad music; the first is the Worst Records Ever Made type, which includes:
The second type is the "rock critical list", which includes:
He later gives three common qualities attributed to bad music: inauthentic, [in] bad taste (see also: kitsch), and stupid. He argues that "The marking off of some tracks and genres and artists as 'bad' is a necessary part of popular music pleasure; it is a way we establish our place in various music worlds. And 'bad' is a key word here because it suggests that aesthetic and ethical judgements are tied together here: not to like a record is not just a matter of taste; it is also a matter of argument, and argument that matters." (p. 28)