Editor's Choice

A "tyranny" of hits

Yesterday I was lamenting about having too much choice in cultural product, and how that has made me take a skeptical attitude toward anything new --I'm too busy keeping up with what I already allegedly like to start liking more and more. (That is, I have a finite amount of desire to invest.) This Economist article from a few months ago brings up a related issue: it looks at how culture industries have become even more dependent on huge-selling hits, which have paradoxically become more prominent as consumer choice has proliferated.

Offer music fans a virtually infinite choice of songs free of charge, and they will still gravitate to hits. That has been the experience of We7, a music-streaming service based in London which has 2.5m users. Only 22% of We7’s 4m songs are streamed in any given week, says Steve Purdham, who founded the company. The top 100 artists account for more than half of all streams. Users of Spotify, another ad-supported music service, are similarly unadventurous. Will Page of PRS for Music, which collects royalties for British songwriters, calculates that the most popular 5% of tracks on Spotify account for 80% of all streams. He is counting only the 3m tracks that were streamed at least once between February and July. Another 1.5m were not touched at all.

Industry people explain this by pointing to the social nature of media consumption; though we tend to hide from this truth, what we like has more to do with what everyone else likes than with the qualities of the product itself. In a sense, though the theoretical range of our choices in culture has become nearly infinite, the real range of options we experience is delimited by who we know and what we read and what we pick up from the zeitgeist. That range may be contracting as the mass media contracts and rallies around the hit products that can still produce profits. That may offset whatever broadening could come from social networking tools that allow people to share their preferences easier. (I'd suspect that such sharing -- the uncompensated brand-building labor I've whined about elsewhere -- also contributes to hit-making.

At the end of yesterday's post I posited the possibility of just loving whatever is hot at the moment and nothing else as a way of evading the trap of having to hate everything in order to protect oneself from becoming overwhelmed. I was sort of joking about that -- seems more like repressive desublimation to me -- but maybe that is what people generally do: Accept hype as a rational solution to questions of taste and search efficiency. If we consume less, and only what is popular, we don't have enough breadth of experience to become disgruntled the products we are consuming and we are popular at the watercooler too. Consider this:

Tom Tan and Serguei Netessine of Wharton Business School have analysed reviews on Netflix.... They find that blockbusters get better ratings from the people who have watched them than more obscure ones do. Even the critically loathed “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” is awarded four stars out of five.... Perhaps the best explanation of why this might be so was offered in 1963. In “Formal Theories of Mass Behaviour”, William McPhee noted that a disproportionate share of the audience for a hit was made up of people who consumed few products of that type.... A lot of the people who read a bestselling novel, for example, do not read much other fiction. By contrast, the audience for an obscure novel is largely composed of people who read a lot. That means the least popular books are judged by people who have the highest standards, while the most popular are judged by people who literally do not know any better. An American who read just one book this year was disproportionately likely to have read “The Lost Symbol”, by Dan Brown. He almost certainly liked it.

These people tell other people about their experience, and "the hit is carried along by a wave of ill-informed goodwill."

This analysis side-steps the question of objective merit, which I think is more or less impossible to determine and is ultimately a red herring in understanding popularity. Objective taste is a myth; those who want to distinguish themselves as cultural connoisseurs merely use the idea of objectivity to differentiate themselves from the masses of Lost Symbol readers. Embracing hits can be a way to opt out of the cultural-capital-accumulation game, which is what seems to be behind the "popist" trend in music criticism. These critics are trying a new approach to objectivity by signaling indifference to the cultural capital embodied in certain tastes, but that signal inevitably becomes its own class marker, becomes a gesture that feels forced, or positional. They don't take it far enough -- to the point of ceasing to be critics altogether and keeping their opinions to themselves and to their word-of-mouth-range friends. Perhaps the only sure way to authentic taste is to abdicate it entirely.

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