The End of the Mega Star

A couple days ago, I went snorkeling for the first time in my life. There, in the turquoise waters of Thailand’s Andaman Sea, I realized the age of the mega star was over. What brought on this realization? The serene beauty of the coral reefs? A lack of oxygen to the brain? An anemone sting to the heart?

No, it was the fish.

But first, who were the mega stars? People like Michael Jackson, Stephen King, the Backstreet Boys… people known and loved (or loathed) by millions. Call them the mass-culture equivalents of Old Faithful. Every time they signed multi-whatever deals, people lined up to buy whatever they put out.

I’m not saying Jackson and King aren’t talented individuals. They are. But, like the Dodo, slap bracelets, and tribal tattoos, their time is coming to an end. Just take a look at record sales numbers.

In the 80’s, Jackson sold hundreds of millions of records.

Even in the 90’s, no one even came close. And, since the end of the ’90s, overall album sales have steadily declined. In 1999, the Backstreet Boys sold over 9.4 million records. In 2009, Taylor Swift, best-selling artist of the year sold over 3.2 million records. While 3.2 million is a lot of records, it’s nowhere near the pre-internet numbers.

While P2P piracy is partially to blame for this decrease, in my armchair opinion, I think many people just don’t want to buy what the culture companies are selling.

Yes, all these artists have put in a lot of work. They have some talent and appeal to mainstream tastes. However, the remaining big media can only support a few of them.

Let’s go back to the fish.

Most of the fish I saw were small, no bigger than my hand, and wildly colorful. Some looked like psychedelic zebras, others like they’d been attacked by a fluorescent-paint-wielding Jackson Pollack. I lost count of the types and varieties of small fish I encountered.

On the other hand, I saw only a couple big fish. They were a little smaller than house cats and either rainbow-colored or white. Kind of pretty, yes, but not nearly as interesting as the rainbow of small fish.

If Michael Jackson and Susan Boyle are the big fish, then people like Ani Difranco and Will Oldham are the little fish. Young writers selling self-published novels from their websites or the trunks of their cars are also little fish. Bloggers selling whatever, they’re small fish too.

Small fish have one thing in common: they have found a place in the reef, and they don’t need to get bigger to survive. They have a spunky, DIY-ethic and don’t need or expect a huge company to sweep them up and propel them to the heights of whatever.

To support a mega star in the culture industry, you need two things: centralized, corporate-controlled media and narrow channels of distribution. Since the birth of television and the nationwide conglomeration of newspapers and radio, you’ve had both. Susan Boyle (over 3 million albums sold in 2009) is a great example of a mass-media-created celebrity.

When most people get their information from only a couple of sources, it’s most profitable to create only a handful of mega stars.

Today, though, you have decentralized (and often consumer-created) reviews, a million distribution channels (many free or very affordable), and terabytes of ways for artists to communicate directly with people who want to experience their work.

With thousands of arts & entertainment blogs out there, tastes are fragmenting and specializing.

Thousands of arts & entertainment blogs are catering to fragmented, specialized, uber-niche-icized tastes. Quality but lesser-known artists have almost as much opportunity as the Kings of Leon to get a review on a site like Pitchfork. With a few ironic Amazon reviews, a small company can sell tens of thousands of freaky shirts originally intended for marginal rednecks (see Three Wolf Moon).

The major media companies and gatekeepers are becoming irrelevant. Like a wizard without his staff, they have lost their power. People now have the ability to seek out what they want.

Curse you, interwebs! (say the CEOs of many major media companies)

What does this mean for small fish?

Marketing

No longer can artists and creators rely on multi-million dollar ad campaigns, payola schemes, and bookstore/record store placement. Instead, each artist has to find ways to connect with fans. Word of mouth is still the best form of advertising, and the internet makes those words travel that much faster.

If creators can reach the Sneezers (people who tell their friends about amazing work), they have just done what a thousand dollars worth of advertising most likely cannot: connect with people who care.

People love to share good work, and that’s the best part of the new culture marketing paradigm: the creator wins because they get ‘free’ advertising, and the sneezers win because they have a chance to share the good things they’ve found.

Distribution

Let’s jump over to book distribution for a few minutes. Music distribution is way too easy and obvious: make mp3s and share them with your friends. Books still are a physical, tangible good, so they’re a little trickier (let’s exclude ebooks for a moment).

In the past, a few companies (Ingram, Baker & Taylor) controlled the book trade. If you wanted to get your book into a bookstore, you had to go through them. This came at a price: wholesale discounts, uncompensated returns (of often damaged goods), warehousing fees.

Today, you have at least a hundred companies that offer print-on-demand services. Some will even offer dropshipping (or print-and-ship) via Amazon.

If you have a quality product and you’ve got the time and skills to hustle your book, if you can build a platform and do the marketing, you’re better off without a traditional publisher. If sales take off, you might get a good book deal, but that’s only an option, not a necessity.

Even before the internet, people were having great success self-publishing. Books like A Time to Kill and The Celestine Prophecy sold hundreds of thousands of companies. Later, they were picked up by the big boys.

Other considerations

  • Geography is becoming irrelevant. NY, LA, and London are still important places, but as long as creators are able to connect with people interested in their work, they’ll have plenty of markets. Another benefit: a lower cost of living means people will have more time to do what they do best.
  • Creators will have to wear more hats. The artist must take care of marketing, distribution, PR, bookings, etc. While this means more work for the individual, they will at least have more control over how their work is presented.
  • When word of mouth becomes more important, marketing costs decrease. Not only that, but when people are sharing good stuff, a greater diversity of voices will be heard.
  • Overall, as the age of the mega star winds down, more opportunities will arise for more individuals. Why? People will always crave, seek out, and share quality work.

All this isn’t to say the big media companies have no place in the new, post-mega star culture economy. They do, so long as they do three things: adapt to the way things are, accept the things they can’t change, and stop suing their customers. The last is ugly and will probably kill them in the long run.

For everyone else, there’s never been a better time than now to be a small fish. Anyone can reach a million people. The gate keepers are no longer the unassailable arbiters of culture they once were.

The reef is large enough for a couple big fish…but its the little ones who make it interesting.

Photo credit: nrbelex

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • JA Lineberry

    I think declining album sales have more to do with the shadow trade than you think – p2p, cd burning, websites that allow you to stream the music for free, etc. There’s also I-tunes, which allows people to pick and choose which songs they want to purchase, rather than purchasing a CD of 14-15 songs (of which, you’ll only really like 4 or 5). What you’re getting at is the increasing democratization of entertainment, or even leisure (many more things competing for our attention these days). But anyway, I think you’re probably correct that dissatisfaction with the mainstream is a major factor – the internet has played a large role, sure. The fat cats can’t control the conversation so well anymore, but typically the independent successes are still co-opted into their system (by choice, sure).

    Great read!

  • Hey JA, thanks for stopping by.

    You make a good point about buying single tracks. Way back in the when, record companies made a lot of money off single sales, a 45-rpm plus some kind of b-side, an extra incentive for buying the single andthe record. I wonder…is the album dead?

    Are we back to one-track wonders?

    I do hope not, because I love the form of the album. Anybody can make a good song, but to make a cohesive album that you can listen to over and over and over again, that’s when you know a band has something special going on.

  • JA Lineberry

    Seth,

    I was wondering today about the potential opportunities things like Kindle and the I-Pad mean for those looking to self-publish. If people are increasingly reading electronically – a lot of noise has been made about the decline of print media, for instance – what does this mean for the book industry? Will the increasing democratization allow more people to make a modest living doing what they love, or will they be marginalized by the string-pullers at the top?

  • JA,

    In Korea (and I hear in Japan), a lot of people have started downloading and reading novels on their cell phones. Many of these are self-published, though more accurately they’re like blogs. A lot of them are free, but I think there are a few pay sites.

    Micropayments could be a way for people to make a little coin, especially when you cut out the publishing company. The thing is, writers will have to be terribly good (and ruthless) self-editors.

    As for the rest of the book industry, I have no idea. The old guard is crying about the demise of the printed, physical book, and its replacement by the kindle. But people still crave content. The question is…will they pay for it?

    Digital content seems somehow cheaper, mostly because its not a tangible thing you can hold in your hand.

    I think and hope for the former, that we’ll have more people able to make modest incomes from their work. I don’t think the string pullers at the top have the means, will, or power to stop people from posting whatever they want and selling it to their friends.

  • I don’t know. I’m not sure the era of the mega-star is over just yet. Things are definitely changing and the internet is playing a big role in leveling the playing field for the little fish. I’m pretty disenchanted by all the commercial art being pushed by corporate entities that are vying for dollars instead of entertainment, expression, or artistic integrity. It’s getting old, so I think the new models have arrived just in time. What bums me out is that eventually the big fish will take over these waters too (just like they did with radio). Unless we find a way to prevent it.

  • Welcome back, Melissa.

    You’re right about commercial art being pushed, but they’re aiming for the mainstream. In my opinion (and it’s probably skewed), enough people lay outside the mainstream to support people who are appealing to their interests.

    The question is, how can we prevent the big fish from taking over the wild west of the internet?

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  • Backstreet boys is a very popular band during my teenage years, they are great performers too.-:;

  • Coloring Pages

    Great post, thanks. Like your blog design, too.