A cartel of superstars has conquered culture. How did it happen, and what should we do about it?
Barely hinted at is the problem of algorithmic content selection, across the various media. For years, I’ve felt that Spotify has trapped me into a musical ghetto, just feeding me more of the same stuff I’ve “liked” in the past, so I set about to teach Spotify that I’m not the listener they think I am. The “how” of that is too complicated for a comment, but it might be an interesting avenue for you to explore. I knew it was working the other day when my wife said: you’re sure listening to a lot of weird stuff these days. Exactly!
A marvelous work. Let me add one thought / caveat, though:
It is hard to square your findings with the increasing fragmentation of taste observable *uniquely* on non-traditional specialized streaming distribution channels such as Spotify or Netflix. There is evidence that what's happening on these platforms (and on these platforms only) strongly diverges from the picture you paint in your article (see here: https://twitter.com/emollick/status/1521674942928064512?s=20&t=cdkHWrB0mBurNS0MpH1R0w)? That is: while media consumption overall exhibits a pattern of rising uniformity and oligopoly, if one focuses exclusively on streaming platforms the opposite is the case.
My own hunch is that what we are facing is best described as a sort of "audience bifurcation": while a more demotic public continues to frequent the movies and has a pretty uniform cinematic experience, their more elitist peers consume motion picture content uniquely or primarily via streaming platforms and have a much more variegated and fragmented media diet. This also creates a sort of feedback loop: if the most novelty craving part of the audience migrates away from movie theaters (and from radio and cable television), Hollywood and Co. have fewer incentives to cater to that public, thereby contributing to an even greater chasm between the world of mass media and the world of streaming. This "audience bifurcation" could also help to explain Hollywood's loss of prestige, the growing irrelevance of the Oscars (as described masterfully by Ross Douthat) etc.
Great essay. This ties in with my thoughts about today's culture: We are living in hauntological times: a stagnant period in which the past is being plundered and it seems impossible that the future will ever arrive.
Had I found this sooner I would have referenced some of the great facts assembled here.
Great essay. Have you read any Mark Fisher? He wrote a lot about this trend, focusing on a very broad scope where huge innovations in the 60s through 80s in pop culture across many mediums hit a huge wall of stagnation starting in the 90s and increasingly intensifying. He's been proven more right in every year since his passing. His explanation is mostly economical - without reliable social support that allows people to freely pursue and experiment with art, art has become a rich person's business again, with only the most reliably profitable projects being invested in or promoted. It's as convincing as it is tragic.
This is a superb essay, well researched, with an astonishing thesis, and supported with beautiful graphs. I kept saying things like, "Surely not! I was in second grade when Gunsmoke came on the air and shopping for nursing homes when it went off!" I arrogantly turned to Google for support only to find that 7 of the top 10 longest-running TV shows are still on the air. So you won again. But I found your paragraph on proliferation to be a persuasive explanation of the phenomenon. How often have I opened YouTube, only to immediately click it off in bewilderment and pick up a beloved P. G. Wodehouse story for the tenth time.
Adam, thank you for this fantastic analysis and more than few insights.
Couldn’t agree more with the notion that trusted entertainment franchises/sequels/brands makes for easier, less-fraught decision making.
But why? Rather than risk choosing something unknown and possibly bad, choosing something known and possibly bland is the safer course.
We now live in a world where safety is heralded above all else. Understandable as we navigate a deadly pandemic but an abundance of safety rules and restrictions is not making us feel safer. Instead they’re contributing to our culture of fear.
Seeing the future as inherently unsafe limits our freedom to explore, experiment and make our own choices. Rules and restrictions implicitly communicate to us that we’re incapable of making our own risk assessments and assuming responsibility for our own life.
The modern cult of safety is infantilizing us, ensuring we remain dependent on overbearing authority figures - be it presidents of movie studios or presidents of countries - who promise to keep us safe from what we’ve been socialized to believe is a dangerous world.
Avoiding risk and dangers and anything new (even in our entertainment choices) is avoiding life.
I don't know where you'd get the data, but I'd love to see this same work done with ROI. So not just top grossing or selling, but greatest return and maybe greatest return as a percent of investment.
In thinking about video games in particular major studios are able to produce projects on a completely different scale than indy developers. They sell way more copies, but also spend way more money on producing and, in particular, marketing their products to make sure they align with (or, more accurately, shape) the zeitgeist. Yet the Game of the Year isn't always a huge budget title. Hades was made by Super Giant Games who have a reported staff of 20 people. Compared to Rockstar who made Red Dead Redemption at over 2,000 employees. Hades sold a million copies and Red Dead 2 about 42 million. So 100x the employees but "only" 40x the number of sales.
To me it's less that there are only so many "successful" media producers, after all the team at Super Giant made incredible money on their game in relation to their investment, and more that there is an Oligopoly on our time and our eyeballs. Smaller media producers can make it, they can do well, heck they can make the best video game of the year and yet they'll only reach 1/40th of the audience.
Unfortunately, this "vibrant anarchy" you point us toward is in the realm where dwells those crap efforts by amateur ninnies. There are no signposts of "quirky and weird, but done with talent" and "quirky and weird but unwatchable dreck" to help the wandering prospector.
I think there's a definite time-investment calculation going on consciously or unconsciously in a person. Wading thru the tedious drivel online for three hours to find one marvellously odd song feels like poor time management. (Especially when an excited search only discovers the deflating news this amazing song was done eleven years ago and the artist never did anything else, ever.)
Escapism has to be a huge driving force to endless sequels. A few decades ago, books that ran beyond a trilogy were given a suspicious glance and/or derisive snort. In the modern day, it's almost impossible to find a standalone novel. A mere trilogy is practically quaint. But I guess the desire to escape a big, nasty world is nothing new. So, we circle back to your essay as to why "reading" is no longer a sufficient escape, but reading serialized stories.
I wonder if this might not be a problem of data availability and not looking into the full range of competitors. To take an example, let me talk about about my "TV viewership".
I used to watch exclusively TV shows that were either on a broadcast channel or a streaming service (e.g Netflix and Hulu). These days however, the majority of my short to medium format video consumption is channels on Youtube, and my consumption there is probably 50% a small number of channels that I watch nearly every video they produce and the other 50% smaller channels from topics the algorithm suggests.
The traditional TV shows that I still watch have definitely decreased in variety and novelty, but this doesn't reflect a decrease in variety novelty in my video consumption, but rather a shift in where I'm getting my video consumption and what portion of it remains in the old "channel" (for lack of a better word).
A similar thing has happened to my reading habits where I read many fewer traditionally publiished novels but probably spend more time overall reading long form blog posts (like this one) for non-fiction and various web serials for fiction.
Basically, what I'm arguing is that the metric we should be concerned about is not how much money is going to who in the traditional media methods but rather how much consumption time/effort is going to who for a given media _category_.
Unfortunately, this kind of data is much harder to come by, but I think that if one could get it, it would significantly complicate the story.
Loved this read- thanks for your research & writing!
One thought to add to the balance: I wonder if the social consequences are not given enough weight. More homogeneity has downsides but also means individuals are more likely to have common interests- shared culture to bond over and discuss. A common diet has more appeal when you value sharing your meals.
Thanks to Roth Douthat's tweet I found this excellent essay. I tend to agree with Douthat's Decadent Society thesis, and here, where the apparent oligopoly phenomenon reflects a a general sclerotic and repetitive devolution of Western society and culture. My belief is that the underlying psychology is that most people like to be TOLD WHAT TO THINK. This seems especially true when our best thinking, our best successes, appear to be behind us, and we've become truly sheltered and unchallenged. Politics, for instance, is a hard topic. But we don't have to struggle to be objective or curious when we can be told what to think by Fox News, Twitter, or MSNBC. These become friendly, self-reinforcing places. But they are shallow and vacuous places that have germinated into a more menacing thought police pervading our institutions and national dialogue. Not quite so dark for music, movies, books, art, etc. But the same psychology is there: 'Relieve me of the burdens of objectivity, curiosity, originality, and growth - just tell me what to like and think!"
I have a lot of thoughts on this and will try to write something more substantive later, but I wanted to point out that there's an irony to your "Tom Hanks movie" example -- the conventional wisdom for several years at least has been that "star power" has been declining in significance, at least in the US and other English-language film markets. See, e.g., https://www.bbc.com/news/av/entertainment-arts-46813717 and https://observer.com/2018/02/will-smith-tom-cruise-jennifer-lawrence-box-office-movie-stars-are-dead/
Very cool! One other explanation on the demand side might be increased demand for shared experiences. As communication costs have come down, it has become easier to know what everyone (and with the internet, it really can be almost everyone) is watching/reading/listening to. Perhaps in the past a greater variety of products could each catch fire in different communities while today our social networks are more interconnected. A cool economics paper related to the desire for shared experience in moviegoing is “Something to Talk About” by Gilchrist and Sands.
I just love this sentence: "Big things like to eat, defeat, and outcompete smaller things."
And I have suspected this for some time: "Indeed, maybe cultural oligopoly is merely a transition state before we reach cultural monopoly."
And this blew my mind: "There are now 60,000 free books on Project Gutenberg, Spotify says it has 78 million songs and 4 million podcast episodes, and humanity uploads 500 hours of video to YouTube every minute." (Think of the internet pollution!) As did much of the other research bursting from this blog. WOW. For someone who left not only Ohio in 1996, but also participation in the vast majority of pop culture, this blog contained an astonishing amount of information. You conquered my steep learning curve in a snap! Thanks, birthday boy!
Hm I'd like to hone in on that last point a bit more - I'm not sure to what degree "oligopolies are claiming larger and larger share of different mediums" is alarmist because it's a zero-sum framing, whereas the size of books/movies/video games has just grown overall.
Maybe the zero-sum/fixed attention pie framing is better for some mediums like music, and worse for rapidly growing fields like video games? My question would mostly be "for a small time creator, how does it feel to be creating things in today's economy?"
Your explanations for the phenomenon of cultural consolidation make some sense. "As options multiply, choosing gets harder," strikes me as particularly relevant.
But when I come up with an intuitively satisfying but non-rigorous explanation for something, I strive to ask myself, "How could I test this hypothesis? What sort of data, analysis, or experiment could confirm or refute it?" Many plausible hypotheses turn out to be wrong. Any ideas for how we could put your explanations to the test?
Also, l don't think you addressed the following question. For those graphs that have a constant slope followed by a dramatic upturn, why did the upturn occur when it did? Is there some factor we can point to that triggered the change in slope for that medium? (Depending on the medium, it looks like the upturn occurred anywhere from 1970 to 2010.)
P.S. Love your blog. I just became a paid subscriber.