The Rise and Fall of the Hit

Wired ran a pretty good article entitled “The Rise and Fall of the Hit,” that discusses the change from the marketing-driven hits of the ’90s (in the movies, television and music) to the niche market we’re seeing today. The entire article is worth a read, but this passage was especially on the money.

If it’s not a hit, then it’s a miss. It has failed the economic test and, therefore, never should have been made. This Hollywood mindset is now how we allocate space on store shelves, fill time slots on television, and build radio playlists. It’s all about allocating scarce resources to the most “deserving,” which is to say, the most popular.

Ultimately, our response to hit culture is to reinforce hit culture. The world of shelf space is a zero-sum game: One product displaces another. Forced to choose, each link in the entertainment industry naturally selects the most popular products, giving them privileged placement. By putting our commercial weight behind the big winners, we amplify the gap between them and everything else. Economically, this is the same as saying, “If there can be only a few rich, let them at least be super-rich.”

But now the audience is turning to a distribution medium that doesn’t favor the hits alone. We are abandoning the tyranny of the top and becoming a niche nation again, defined not by our geography but by our interests. Instead of the weak connections of the office water cooler, we’re increasingly forming our own tribes, groups bound together more by affinity and shared interests than by broadcast schedules. These days our water coolers are increasingly virtual – there are many different ones, and the people who gather around them are self-selected.

The mass market is yielding to a million minimarkets. Hits will always be with us, but they have lost their monopoly. Blockbusters must now compete with an infinite number of niche offerings, which can be distributed just as easily. Justin Timberlake still makes albums, but today he has thousands of bands on MySpace as rivals. The hierarchy of attention has inverted – credibility now rises from below. MTV and Tower Records no longer decide who will win. You do.

This is not meant as a reply to The Chauffeur’s post, as I believe he’s mourning the loss of the face-to face camaraderie and the information gleaned from the workers at Tower Records, not the death of the huge marketing forces behind such brick & mortar chains. Instead, the “new” music industry (and to a lesser extent, television and film) takes the best from the old model (word of mouth from store employees/other customers) and uses the internet to make it easier than ever to spread the word about your favorite band, or to find a new one.

The truth is that this “new” market is actually a return to the niche market that existed before the advent of television, when hits would sweep the nation via the unstoppable word of mouth. But instead of bringing our records over to our friend’s house for a listen, we’re shooting them an MP3 or directing them to a MySpace page.

I love it.


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