Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Pop is dead. Long live pop.

Seth Godin believes that pop culture is dead. Or at least on its 
way out. 

His theory is that the long tail effect facilitated by the internet is allowing us all to pursue our individualism and fragment into increasingly niche markets. The growing number of alternatives to mass media mean we are no longer necessarily experiencing our culture en masse. And we will increasingly choose to align ourselves with more and smaller tribes.

While I have no doubt that his predictions about the effect of 
these mechanisms are correct, I wonder if he is right about the 
final outcome. 

Did the Big Hit evolve because many people’s exposure to culture 
and entertainment has been limited to what is shouted the loudest by mass media or is there something we like about being united in 
our appreciation?

I love the World Cup. Not just because football is a beautiful game but because I love the way it takes over – flags in the street, my Dad calling me at half time from Australia to complain about the referee. When we watch at home we open the windows so we can hear the cheers of the neighbourhood every time a goal is scored.

I’ve never watched Big Brother or the X Factor but I imagine that for people who love them, the reasons are similar to my feelings about international soccer. It’s live and you know all your friends are watching it at the same time and will be talking about it in the morning.

New media has the potential to conglomerate as well as granulate audiences. The abundance of runaway YouTube hits like ‘David After the Dentist’ are bizarrely compelling examples of this. So it’s possible that (as with so many of the changes that the internet has facilitated) things will continue to expand in both directions – big hits will get bigger and the long tail will get longer. 

What does seem likely (and I think what Godin is really getting at) is that betting on big hits as a business model will get harder to justify simply because it will get easier to identify and nurture small but enthusiastic audiences and tailor content specifically for them. This means the possibility of reducing the wastage that’s built into the business models of most entertainment and culture enterprise. The ‘one blockbuster to subsidise 100’s of tankers’ model that was invented by Hollywood and promptly adopted by the music, publishing and television industries, starts to seem very profligate.

So while it seems unlikely that the phenomenon of global hits will disappear altogether, business models structured around the expectation of achieving them will start to look like anachronisms in a market that favours leaner models.

Godin believes that the Avatars and Harry Potters of recent years are the exceptions that prove the rule.

I believe that these kind of hits will continue to happen but we – both as business people and as consumers – may no longer have to throw our lot in with them in order to sustain the production of other options.

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