It’s not politics, it’s cultural identity.
I’d say this is why you should never believe someone when they say they’re independent, but this is a cultural signifier too… They don’t want to be aligned with either side, they want to be seen as independent thinkers, even though they almost always vote for one side or another.
Have you been combing the Best of 2022 lists? It’s overwhelming, because of so much you do not know. And there’s so much you do not know that you don’t even bother to check out that which you’re unaware of. And the more product there is, the worse it is. Since TV is so expensive to make, there’s less of it, it’s easier to get a handle on it. And you know if you watch a popular show, you’ll bump into others who’ve seen it. But music? There’s so much of it you don’t know where to start. And the dirty little secret is music is no longer cohesive, it’s all a bunch of verticals, and oftentimes the verticals are very narrow. And the big verticals punch above their weight, just like in politics, people are vocal about their passions, they belong to the tribe, whether it be the BTS Army or the Swifties… You marvel that you don’t know anyone who is a passionate member, and if you cross those who are passionate, you get extreme blowback, just like with politics.
Once again, it doesn’t have much to do with the underlying product, it’s all about belonging.
This is what the internet has wrought. There are so many niches that we feel isolated. People tell us to disconnect from the internet, but that’s even worse, then we’re positively alone. Don’t tell me about everyday conversation, because it’s all about what’s going on on the internet. Like this past week it’s been about ChatGPT. It was mentioned by an advertiser in Aspen and then I got e-mail about it and when I got back to the news after four days at Lewi’s conference, there it was. And if you’re isolated…
Is ChatGPT a big deal? Actually, it is. We’ve been hearing about AI intensely for half a decade. But it never really arrived, at least not in a way it was embraced by the public. It’s akin to digital photography. It was coming, it was coming, and then it was here! ChatGPT is a big deal, and if you want to be part of the discussion, you’ve got to check it out. It’s a cultural unicorn. That’s what’s truly important today, not finances, but whether there’s a huge cultural footprint, that’s what makes a difference.
And what used to provide cohesiveness no longer does. Like sports. Aaron Judge was just re-signed by the Yankees and unless you follow sports, you’re unaware and don’t care, even though the same media hyping BTS and Swift tells us it’s a big deal. But the media has lost touch with the public. Network news programs keep declining in viewership and so are cable outlets. As for Fox and MSNBC, they’re not about news, they’re about rallying the tribe. They’re where you go when you want to check in with your buds, to get fired up, to find out about the perceived enemy. That’s part of cultural identity, you need somebody or something to hate. Which is why if you aren’t on the Swift train, or god forbid you say something negative about her, you’re derided, vociferously.
And when it comes to hard news, it’s all about the “New York Times.” You may think it’s irrelevant, but it’s got the most boots on the ground, so if something really happens it’s delineated, and then word spreads and… It’s all about reacting to what is said. But when it comes to anything but hard news, the “Times” is irrelevant. Its arts coverage… You may feel good that your soft news story is in the paper, but it will have little effect, like an appearance/mention in gossip TV or online gossip or the gossip rags. Those appeal to the vertical. And since there’s so little to hang on to in today’s world, people are addicted to the gossip. Which means you’re constantly exposed to stories of people you’re unaware of. Of course you don’t know them, only the gossip-mongers do, it’s a full time job just to know who the players are!
And then there are the corporate verticals. You either love Apple or hate it. No one shrugs their shoulders, because you have to have an iPhone or Android to survive.
And the billionaire verticals. Most people don’t really care about Twitter, but they’re interested in Elon Musk. That’s a movie they can follow, because most people don’t see the ones in theatres, and those that do play are all about superheroes anyway. And everybody marvels that unless it’s a superhero or sequel flick it fails, especially adult fodder. But they don’t get it, there’s no vertical for new movies, it’s too hard to start. Used to be going to highbrow movies was a thing, you could go to parties and discuss them or feel superior that you saw them. But then your peers dropped out, got addicted to streaming television, and now if you go to foreign films you’re a party of one. Read the “New York Times,” which famously reviews each and every film that opens. You’ve never heard of them and never will. It’s almost like they don’t even exist. Like those records in the Top Ten lists. Yes, the reviewers are deep into the culture, but is anybody else? They’re scanning the landscape, partaking of the smorgasbord, but no one else does this, because it’s literally a full time job. It’s no longer a badge of honor to know the music landscape, it’s much more granular than that. You’re aware of this or that, but not everything else. Even in tours. You know when your favorite is coming to town, assuming you’re passionate… This is what the cognoscenti and media don’t understand, we’re only passionate about a very few verticals, the rest we ignore. The news junkies may know the truth, but most people just know what their tribe tells them, true or false, and it doesn’t matter if you correct them, they can’t admit they’re wrong, because then they wouldn’t be true blue members of the tribe.
And oldsters and establishment players keep lamenting the change and say we’re going back to the old days. Never ever gonna happen. Steven Spielberg said he thinks theatrical movies are coming back. But even his well-reviewed “Fabelmans” stiffed. The world changed, streaming won.
And Zaslav thinks making less product is the way out. That’s death. Everybody has different tastes, is into something different, and if you don’t provide it they’ll go somewhere else. In other words, people either believe in HBO Max or they don’t, the name is bigger than the product. But you’ve got to have a plethora of product to believe. Zaslav still thinks we live in the cable era. Right now HBO Max doesn’t mean that much and he’s going to change the name? Don’t change the name today, most people don’t care and will never get the message.
As for dripping out product week by week…
You do not try and control the public, that’s anathema. Give it all to them and pray that it lights a fire and the conflagration continues. All you read in the press is about “White Lotus.” I might watch it now that’s it over, but I’m already behind the conversation. And the conversation is everything, you want to belong. Which is why you give everybody the same starting point. You see the narrow vertical, the believers, they’ll watch week by week, but you can only survive if you grow that mass.
The record labels understand it’s about hit product, so they reduced their offerings, akin to the movie studios. And what happened to the studios? Theatrical is dying. And the share of major label product is dying. The hits mean less and indie keeps growing its share and if you’re not providing for everybody, your enterprise is inherently niche and will have trouble growing.
It’s kind of like SUVs. Do most people need them? Are they practical? No, but everybody else has one and you want to be a member of the tribe. The grossest example being the G-Wagon, an off-road masterpiece that is most seen in the city. It’s signaling, because that’s one place you still can do this, even though younger people don’t care as much about cars as oldsters. Otherwise, we have the same phones, the same smartwatches, standing out is nearly impossible.
But standing out today is all about lording it over others, which causes a reaction. Being fiercely independent in your cultural choices leaves you alone. Do what you want, but nobody will notice.
So either cling to the hive or disconnect. You’re passionate about a few things, no matter what you say. They establish your identity. Nerds used to be ostracized, now they congregate online. Everybody’s got their group, even incels. People didn’t use to be proud of having no sex, but today…
And you don’t have to know the big verticals in detail, you just have to be aware of them, so you can have an opinion on them. And if you’ll never impact us personally, we don’t follow you and we don’t care. Which is why politics transcends everything these days. Because it might ultimately affect us. Will a hit record affect most of us? No. Because the records, like the movies, are all about embellishing the brand, keeping it strong, and if you don’t care…
There used to be music fans who saw all the bands in clubs, before they were big. And that’s still a vertical, but ever smaller. Most people wait until the act can fill arenas before they even pay attention.
So life is chaos with a few defining elements but everybody keeps acting like nothing has changed, that we still live in the pre-internet twentieth century. Everything has changed. People are clinging on to verticals in order to make sense of their lives. And there are just a few mass verticals. Primarily politics and online life. No movie, no record, no book reaches anywhere near this mass. Trump, Musk, Zuckerberg, TikTok…we understand and pay attention to them, if for no other reason than everyone else does, it makes us feel like we belong to the culture, are a member of society. But we care less about individual influencers on TikTok, we no longer even go to Facebook, are abandoning Instagram… Like with Elon Musk and Twitter, we’re interested where the platform is going, but what’s actually going on on the platform? None of it is mass, there are a few verticals, but we only have so much time, we can only pay attention to so many verticals, and we want to spend time with those that are mass, so like I just said, we can feel like we belong, are a member of society.
So there are major, overwhelming subjects, and then just narrow verticals. No record, film or book reaches everybody, not a single one. They keep telling us otherwise, but they’re wrong. This is the worst element, traditional institutions are breaking under the weight of the new paradigm. Congress can’t address internet issues because it can’t understand them. You see raising money and getting elected takes so much time that these people have no idea what is going on in most of the world.
As for news… If it doesn’t happen here, if it doesn’t directly affect you, it’s like it’s not happening. There’s a war in Ukraine but it’s like it’s not even going on. Your life hasn’t been affected. It’s cognitive dissonance, isn’t war terrible and should be stopped? Maybe not. Meanwhile, you’re so busy trying to catch up in your own life you’ve got no bandwidth for anything else. Which means there can be a school shooting and a week later it’s no longer top of mind. To stay top of mind you have to continuously be in the news. Kanye, Elon and Trump have figured this out, but they’ve been revealed to be critically flawed. Meanwhile, the reasonable pooh-pooh the internet and fighting for attention which is the only way you can succeed, get your message across. Either you’re part of the maelstrom each and every day or your audience is experiencing attrition. You are inherently niche. You’ve got to play to have an effect. And to move mountains you’ve got to have something to say. When has music last provided this? As for online influencers… They’re selling humanity, they know they’re niche, they’ve figured it out. They know identity is more important than production values. In today’s world we like the visceral not the shine.
But the boomers and those running institutions won’t admit all this. Because if they do, they’ve got no idea where to go! First you must assess the landscape, then you can adjust. Putting your head in the sand…no one even knows you’re doing it. Protesting against change is fruitless, all you can do is dive in. Then again, there’s a tribe of Luddites. You see there’s a group for everyone. And one thing is for sure, most people have no idea and if they do don’t care about your tribe. Protest all you want, but no one is listening, you’re basically irrelevant. And that is the conundrum, no one wants to feel irrelevant, so they hang on to their verticals, to the few mass items, to make life worth living. Because we are social animals, and left alone we want to die. Find out where you belong, that’s where the strength is. As for those telling you to pay attention to what they’re doing… You’ve got to convince people it’s beneficial for them, which is nearly impossible to do. The hardest thing is to start from zero. Don’t get depressed, find out where you fit in and strengthen the bonds. As for those complaining about it, ignore them.
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