1. Channel Overload
Used to be there were 5,000 albums a year and only a few got on the radio and if you didn’t get airplay or press, you were doomed. Now there are a zillion products, all easily promoted online, and unless your friend verifies quality and interest or a track becomes a phenomenon, you don’t care, and suddenly most people don’t care, and it’s gone. There’s a fiction perpetrated by the record labels that terrestrial radio reaches everybody, but the truth is with so many other options for hearing music, radio is a sliver of the marketplace. To make it everywhere you need not only radio, but video and…
Actually, that which is ubiquitous lives online, not on terrestrial radio. Terrestrial radio is a ghetto. You can cross over from terrestrial radio to the internet, you can rise simultaneously from both, but to be gigantic, known by everybody, you need to make it on both terrestrial radio and the internet, whereas you can spike quite nicely online and function well without terrestrial radio, terrestrial radio is the dollop of cream atop the sundae. Online is on demand, terrestrial radio is not, and that’s why it’s doomed amongst youngsters, who don’t want to wait, who believe everything should be instant. The only thing no longer instant is sex. You can hear anything online when you want, research anything online when you want, connect with all your friends instantly via a plethora of communication techniques, but sex is still something you yearn for, although the internet has made porn ubiquitous, one can argue we live in a masturbatory fantasy culture.
2. Limited Time
They’re making no more time, everything has to fight for attention and very little sustains, because there’s constantly something new in the offing. Everyone is going ever faster, so the old paradigm of needing time to digest something is taboo. Industry has accepted this, art has not. Industry realizes the product has to be perfect in the first iteration and continue to work thereafter. Not buying a car in its first year is history, as is the fear that the electric windows will break. And with manufacturing so cheap, repairs (and repairmen!) have fallen by the wayside, why not buy something shiny and brand new! Yes, we all treasure some old favorites, but very few. So if you’re an artist, yelling may get you noticed for a day, but it won’t keep you atop the pyramid.
I used to read “Rolling Stone,” now I read “Fast Company.” Oh, I still get “Rolling Stone,” it’s just that the magazine no longer knows what it wants to be, and covers the travails of too many nitwits. I remember when I salivated over the words of musicians. Now I salivate over the words of entrepreneurs, because they’re thoughtful, they’ve got something to say. I’m a media junkie, so I’ve got all my magazines and all my websites and constant updates on my phone, so this squeezes out available time for competing media.
4. Howard Stern
He has single-handedly diminished my satellite radio music listening by hooking me. Many of us are hooked by something that pulls us down the rabbit hole, leaving little time for anything else. Used to be Howard Stern was on just a few hours a day, if you missed it, you had to wait for tomorrow. Now Stern is available 24/7, and I’m not driving 24/7, so most of the time I’m in my car there’s new Stern programming. We see this phenomenon in television. The late night talk show ratings have been decimated by the DVR, never mind on demand. We’re no longer victims of what’s on the tube, everything’s available all the time.
5. Cultural Norms
We used to go to the movies to be part of the cultural discussion. But once we realized no one else was going, we didn’t either. Furthermore, there is no cultural discussion left, because we all share different experiences, there’s very little commonality. This makes that which is successful even more so, because we want to talk about it with others, leading to a superstar and no-star world.
With everything at our fingertips, we gravitate to the few that break through. Look at smartphones, there are multiple competing ecosystems, but iOS and Android dominate, Windows phone is an also-ran and BlackBerry is a joke. We only want the very best all the time and therefore it takes an incredible effort to penetrate our consciousness and stay there. Furthermore, the more successful something is, the more it continues to grow, reinforcing its success. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
With so much new music, many people stop paying attention to the whole sphere, they go back to their favorites if they listen at all. Yes, when everybody yells, it becomes a noise you ignore. And you just retreat and burrow down deeper into the hole you already inhabit.
Easy to recognize, hard to achieve, especially when it comes to art. Good used to be good enough, today good is awful, something no one cares about. We’re all in search of excellence, and if we don’t find it we don’t waste time, as we did in the three network and limited terrestrial radio world, we move on. This is why major labels use the usual suspects to create obvious hit singles, anything less, and the product is doomed. Sure, you can come from left field and dominate, but this is too scary to creators who grew up in a world where your personal network is everything, they’re fearful of being ostracized, left out, even worse in today’s connected society, ignored. But since art is not quantifiable, creators blame the system and the audience when the truth is people are surfing for greatness 24/7 and if they find it they tell everybody they know about it.
A great media campaign can gain notice for a day, but it cannot sustain the underlying product. For that to happen, the product must be exceptional. Purveyors want to deny this rule, they believe smoke and mirrors still work. Cynics want to say promotion is everything. But the truth is once distribution has been flattened, which is the essence of the internet, only true excellence rises. As a result, you can remember Avicii’s “Wake Me Up,” it becomes the most played track in Spotify history, but you cannot remember number two, never mind number ten. And that which spikes and lasts, however temporarily, is usually a twist, it’s usually innovative. “Wake Me Up” merged acoustic and electronic, “Gangnam Style” introduced a whole new style of pony dancing and made fun of consumption.
The sieve rejects nearly everything but that which titillates, usually because of its cutting edge newness. Your past history will gain you attention, but it won’t make you sustain. You can either play with the usual suspects, the Max Martins and Dr. Lukes, or you can risk failing on your own, like Lady Gaga. But Gaga didn’t realize it’s about product, not revenue, she stayed on the road, out of the internet spotlight, for far too long, and then she overhyped that which did not deserve it. It’s damn hard to create innovative excellence, but that’s what we’re all looking for, that is what lasts.