The Creator Paradox: Cultural Stasis Amidst Creative Surplus
How reboot culture keeps winning despite the Creator Economy & Long Tail
There’s a new dilemma.
Only it’s not that “new” of a dilemma.
At the beginning of this summer, decades of glacier-paced cultural change was captured perfectly in a single weekend. The top of the charts revealed our endangered media ecosystem.
You’ve heard this song plenty before. Thanks to inclusion in Netflix’s fifth season of Stranger Things, Kate Bush’s 1985 song “Running Up That Hill (Make a Deal with God)” found itself back in the zeitgeist. It went from 22,000 streams per day to 5.1M. Momentarily, a 37-year-old track was the most streamed song on Spotify.
Meanwhile, Top Gun: Maverick, a sequel to the 1986 original, broke box office records, banking $156 million the same weekend. This was right before Jurassic World stomped in — the seventh installment since 1993. Then came Minions 2 — a sequel and a spin off to the Despicable Me franchise, which in itself already had three installments.
Further, in video games that weekend, 9 out of 10 best selling titles were from franchises. And the New York Times Best Sellers list saw James Paterson, the Guinness World Records holder for the most #1 New York Times bestsellers, taking up two of the top five spots in fiction.
It was the summer weekend for big premieres. But in fact, nothing about these releases were particularly that new.
Most noteworthy though, this pattern of mega-successful reboots stood against a backdrop of another story...
These titles were released at a moment when more people are creating more content than ever before in history.
Spotify boasts 70,000 tracks uploaded every day. YouTube is uploading 30,000 hours of new content every hour. Nearly 3M unique podcasts exist. Twitch is broadcasting +7.5M streamers, indie game releases and play are both growing year over year, and roughly 4M books are published annually in the U.S. — nearly half of those self-published, a +250% increase over just five years.
On one hand, we have a booming Creator Economy, with an ever-expanding democratization of tools for production to anyone with an idea. So much so, that according to 1,000 surveyed Americans by Zine, 86% of people believe there is an overwhelming amount of entertainment available today.
Yet meanwhile on the other hand, we seem to have also found ourselves culturally stunted. Our box office and streaming platforms are soggy with the same regurgitated franchises. Reboots rule the roost, and familiar faces hog our charts, while notable newcomers redefining genres feel few and far between. With this, 64% of people declare they are getting fed up with today’s reboots, sequels and remakes.
How is it that during a moment of radical creator liberation and audience frustration, we’re finding ourselves with the same tropes and hooks?
Chris Anderson’s 2006 optimistic Long Tail vision promised us that “specificity” — the shallow and obscure — would be economically feasible as the internet would connect the niche to its audience. Aggregators will win, the odd would thrive, and those on the edges would celebrate. Creators could finally connect to their 1,000 true fans.
But as seen from the macro view, a diverse, bottom-up media ecosystem is in fact not thriving.
Instead, the inverse is happening.
Homogeneity is winning.
In an analysis by Adam Mastroianni, a postdoc scholar at Columbia Business School, “the same” keeps rising to the top — across all media.
Simply, there are fewer winners.
Mastroianni calls this our Cultural Oligopoly. “A cartel of superstars has conquered culture,” he writes.
“Until the year 2000, about 25% of top-grossing movies were prequels, sequels, spinoffs, remakes, reboots, or cinematic universe expansions. Since 2010, it’s been over 50% every year. In recent years, it’s been close to 100%.”
“Since 2000, about a third of the top 30 most-viewed shows are either spin offs of other shows in the top 30 (e.g., CSI and CSI: Miami) or multiple broadcasts of the same show (e.g., American Idol on Monday and American Idol on Wednesday).”
“In the 1950s, a little over half of the authors in the Top 10 had been there before. These days, it’s closer to 75%.”
“In the late 1990s, 75% or less of best selling video games were franchise installments. Since 2005, it’s been above 75% every year, and sometimes it’s 100%.”
Software engineer Azhad Syed identified the same “Cultural Oligopoly” in his analysis of the music industry.
“The number of different artists that crack the Top 100 is decreasing over time. In conjunction with fewer and fewer artists on the charts, each of those artists is charting 1.5x to 2x as many songs per year.”
Meanwhile, “old” music — defined as having been released more than 18 months — now accounts for 72% of the market in the U.S. And though 18 months is admittedly a flawed definition of “old,” more widely, the consumption of old music is growing, while demand for new music is also declining.
In assessing this record for The Atlantic, music critic and historian Ted Gioia writes,
“Never before in history have new tracks attained hit status while generating so little cultural impact.”
The old is winning financially, but it’s also winning creatively. Rolling Stone Magazine forecasts the continued rise of “interpolations” — the cousin of sampling in which song structure is borrowed and made “new.”
“Don’t expect interpolations to slow down anytime soon — rather, the total opposite is likely. Publishing companies are sitting on mountains of instantly recognizable songs [...] Now that the business is focused around streaming singles, they have a chance to juice them once again.”
As a result, the hottest private equity investments as of late have been the publishing catalogs of accomplished artists. In fact, according to VP of Business and Legal Affairs at Sony Music Publishing, Dag Sandsmark,
“The world’s largest music publisher has received twice as many requests for samples and interpolations from its catalog two years in a row.”
Which translates to this: today, from film and TV, to books, video games, and music, there’s statistically less diversification rising to the top. And while it’s given that everything in culture is a remix, the intensity of today’s reliance on what’s come before seems worthy of our attention.
What’s causing this systemic malfunction?
Causes of Creative Collapse
Most obviously, we’re discussing two very distinct and seemingly competing media environments.
For creators, there’s the bottom-up, democratized access to tools, enabling massive amounts of content to be made and syndicated frictionlessly. In the Creator Economy everyone can be a player and “make it.”
On the other hand, there’s the top-down, institutional power of filtering and recommendation, held by establishments incentivized by outsized financial returns. Large, risk-averse institutions — arguably just run by in-house lawyers and accountants at this point — play it safe to “protect shareholder value.”
These divergent models are currently inconducive. It’s this fundamental dynamic that sits center stage at our paradox.
When there are two drastically different sets of environments, incentives, and breeds of “Creators” today — everyday maker vs. established institution — it’s hard to expect normies to be plucked out and be bet on by gatekeepers already in power.
It’s (Mostly) Trash
Then there’s the question of quality.
While the Long Tail is certainly diverse, it’s also made up of a lot of... noise. Amateurs are amateurs, no matter how many there are.
A reason we don’t see new creators’ work rise is simply because the majority of it isn’t even worthy (or because there’s just too much to sift through).
Another angle here is the lack of funding for emerging creators, fueling pursuits. For a young, talented artist today, where are grants or opportunities for backing outside of peer crowdsourcing?
In the absence of infinite time but facing infinite content, we actually need some gatekeepers. Further, we need financing for those who aren’t... trash.
By its very nature, the Long Tail of content is segmented into ever-smaller pieces for ever-more discerning audiences. But as the Long Tail lengthens where more create, the classic bell curve forms: the obscure gets more obscure, while the largest common denominator gets more... basic.
Look no further than Netflix’s most recent pivots, which make it clear they’re no longer interested in many, risky, artistic bets, but instead, “Bigger, better, fewer.”
Ironically, this is no different than what preceded them. Also, Netflix was once seen as the promising example for the opportunity of the Long Tail. Instead, over the last decade, Netflix has been slashing its library of titles. As of 2010, Netflix housed 6.7K films. Today, a decade later that number is down -45%.
Much of today’s mass-produced work aims to satisfy the average. As a result, we’re left with average. The middle is saltine-cinema: the largest financial opportunity.
Take or leave Martin Scorsese’s critique of Marvel, his take on the state of film — this “consolidation” — shouldn’t be controversial:
“The art of cinema is being systematically devalued, sidelined, demeaned, and reduced to its lowest common denominator, ‘content.’”
This dovetails with one of Mastroianni’s own hypotheses for today’s Cultural Oligopoly: a systemic reflex towards concentration. The big habitually eats the small. Movie studios, music labels, TV stations, and publishers of books and video games have all consolidated. And this concentration is simultaneously occurring across religion, political parties, language, top visited websites, newspapers, cities, and most discussed: wealth and businesses.
The winners we’re left with today are so large, they have to satisfy that largest possible common denominator in order to survive.
More choice isn’t always a good thing.
In The Paradox of Choice, Dr. Barry Swartz writes,
“The fact that some choice is good doesn’t necessarily mean that more choice is better.”
Presented with an avalanche of opportunity, especially with entertainment — something meant to bring joy — we stick to what we know. After all, what we know feels good.
In Derek Thompson’s book, Hit Makers, he explains this tendency,
“Most consumers are simultaneously neophilic — curious to discover new things — and deeply neophobic — afraid of anything that’s too new. The best hit makers are gifted at creating moments of meaning by marrying new and old, anxiety and understanding. They are architects of familiar surprises.”
As creatures of comfort, the unknown is scary. We opt for the familiar. And this selection solves two things for us: choice analysis paralysis, and emotional turmoil. We’re relieved.
A collective longing for the past might explain this paradox’s recent acceleration. The pandemic has triggered a mass re-appreciation of the old — safe and unthreatening. We also had plenty of time to explore catalogues while production was paused.
As Dylan Viner, Managing Partner at TRIPTK, a cultural research and brand consultancy, points out,
“Hateful of the present, and fearful of the future, we long for the past.”
And this is true even when the past isn’t our own. According to Spotify’s own research, 68% of Gen Z enjoy media from prior decades because it reminds them of when times were simpler.
History is a reassuring comparison to the unpredictability of what tomorrow may bring. So what if it’s played out? At least we know the words.
Influence of the Aged
As users of today’s media platforms grow older, so too will the age of the content being consumed.
According to market research by Ampere Analysis, Netflix's core subscription base is already saturated with 18-34 and 35-44 viewers — 80% and 70% respectively. Growth within these age brackets has been stagnant. Now, Americans 50+ are driving the growth of the entertainment juggernaut, which now inevitably must keep luring and satisfying these older consumers.
The growth of mature users on today’s content platforms recalibrates what’s surfaced and produced, diminishing the attention placed on the youthful, emerging or rebellious.
We, the audience, have less control over this paradox than we think. Chris Dancy, an author and speaker on living with technology, remarks,
“Technology has moved from Big Brother to Big Mother... Our quest to create the most frictionless experience is leaving people devoid of autonomy and longing for the feeling of 1st person living.”
Faced with AI-customized playlists, “We think you may like” recommendations, and “Just for you” nudges, it’s up to once agnostic platforms to determine what’s now streamed... and popular.
Algorithms were believed to untether us from the masses and offer paths for personalization, but instead what’s pushed today still emanates from the original institutional power we thought we were escaping.
The consultancy Music Tomorrow researched how playlists are impacting emerging artists and found:
“Over the last four years, major labels accounted for nearly 70% of the music featured in the ‘New Music Friday’ playlist on Spotify, 86% for ‘Rap Caviar’ and 87% for ‘Pop Rising’ playlists. Even though making and releasing music has become easier than ever, the support of a major label — and its marketing powerhouse — is one of the top determinants (if not prerequisites) for getting access to some of the most valuable streaming real estate.”
Further explaining our disillusionment with algorithmic personalization and escape from the mainstream, Rob Horning of Real Life magazine writes,
“Streaming services work strenuously to shape customers' disposition toward consuming if not specific tastes, making them more passive in their consumption, more willing to go along with what is trending and what is being surfaced on landing pages and home screens. It's no accident that searching these sites for something to watch is often an arduous and fruitless chore, inducing a learned helplessness and a pre-emptive predilection to surrender to the feed.”
“For You” is not about pushing the limits of our artistic palates, as much a device to serve us what the platform projects — and wants us to be satisfied with, herding us into more predictable siloes that can then be targeted with more “precise” recommendations. Anything other than this is a liability to the business model.
Ted Gioia also comments on this practice,
“Algorithms are designed to be feedback loops, ensuring that the promoted new songs are virtually identical to your favorite old songs. Anything that genuinely breaks the mold is excluded from consideration almost as a rule. That's actually how the current system has been designed to work.”
Algorithms’ are not designed to radically free us through superior discovery. They’re made to categorize us into more predictable buckets with predetermined labels. “New” is just a wrench in this machine.
Creators ≠ Consumers
Finally, a less validated hypothesis as to why we have an unrecognized Long Tail is perhaps that we find more value in making than consuming.
With the tools of creation democratized, it’s never been easier to produce... but that doesn’t insinuate there’s a proportionate eager audience.
Many may find more value in the creation of work, than the discovery and consumption of it. And further, much of today’s “creation” is in fact informed by existing IP.
Kevin Alloca, YouTube’s Global Director of Culture & Trends, explained to me,
“So much of user generated content today is still about a franchise — reactions, reviews or remixes. While there’s never been so much creativity and content, it’s not to say it’s all entirely removed from existing IP. It's fairly common now to see more media about, or related to the original work and consumption of it, than there is of the original work itself.”
We’re duped by a mirage of new media today. In fact, we’re in a feedback loop of meta reactions. It’s a reaction video to a movie trailer which is a sequel, or a walk-through stream for the latest in a video game franchise. We have videos about a video about a video. Today, so much of bottom-up creations are nodding to legacy material. There’s less originality out there than we perceive there to be.
In a culture where creating can be more satisfying than consumption, we’re left with a glut of both unwanted content, and new content that’s actually just about existing content.
We’ve Got A Problem
So we’ve established the existence of this creativity paradox, along with its spread, intensity and many causes. Hands turned up, we can accept this is just how it all turned out. So be it.
But we can’t. Absolutely. Can. Not.
We’re in a corrosive media ecosystem where the top 1% of bands and solo artists earn roughly 80% of all recorded music revenue — and by some estimates, the share for established artists is only getting larger. If this trend continues, we risk sabotaging both the opportunity and incentive for new artists to even participate.
As Mastroianni writes,
“Movies, TV, music, books, and video games should expand our consciousness, jumpstart our imaginations, and introduce us to new worlds and stories and feelings [...] Learning to like unfamiliar things is one of the noblest human pursuits; it builds our empathy for unfamiliar people.”
If we stop watering “the new,” the new will die. Substitute “new” with whichever genre or medium you prefer. It’s the (originally) foreign, weird, edgy, counter-cultural and antagonistic that drives a healthy society forward. Or for another metaphor: suffocate today’s sparks of “the new,” and we’re left in the dark.
For Gioia, we must breathe life into the Long Tail as it “creates a more pluralistic, diverse and multifaceted society.”
The Long Tail vision hinted at making the blockbuster less pronounced... but the exact opposite occurred: the fringe is now endangered.
So what can we do?
Part V: Solutions
Acknowledge New vs. New For Them
We need content from today and for today.
For Adrian Hillekamp of A&R Management with Concord,
“Every generation needs its soundtrack and that can’t come from a back catalog. It has to come from the time, the moment, and have a particular feel.”
And yet in 1986, the R&B singer Ben E. King had his second #1 chart placement with “Stand By Me,” a full 21 years after it first topped the charts. Propelled by the success of the film of the same name, King’s sudden reappearance on the chart was as unexpected and remarkable as Kate Bush’s renaissance this summer.
Compounding the similarity to today’s phenomenon: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, famously capped by a parade-float performance of The Beatles version of soul hit “Twist & Shout,” and the same-summer soul-soundtrack of boomer nostalgia vehicle The Big Chill, which was eaten up by kids and their parents alike.
Perhaps content for today can be existing content that some just discover today. Contemporaneity isn’t a guarantee of innovation or inspiration. The current spike in interpolation isn’t novel. In fact, it might actually be cyclical. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less new to eyes and ears experiencing it for the first time.
But this is not from today. We need that too.
One simple way to break out of our cycle of reboots is to distinguish between what’s net-new vs. what’s new for a new audience. Multigenerational third-acts of media aren't all that bad... but for as long as there's also content produced from today.
(Re-)Build for Search & Exploration
An underlying problem in 2022 is not a lack of great talent — it’s just that we can’t easily find it.
The discovery, curation, distribution and amplification of quality content desperately needs a reassessment. In 1986 it wasn’t possible to discover everything. Today we have the technology to move far beyond traditional, monocultural points of discovery. But we seem to have stopped leveraging it — hypnotized by convenience, preferring to receive rather than search.
An easy dismissal here is that the market will do its work — award the deserving — the good will inevitably rise to the top. But that’s simply not the case.
The Long Tail is failing to identify, and connect the fringe to its eager audience. Ask yourself: when was the last time you found a new artist that you became an instant fan of? Was it an easy journey? Can you find your new favorite emerging author this afternoon — effortlessly?
We can push our systems further. A manual override is required, this time hand on the upstarts’ side of the scale, ensuring increased reach. This is not to make all artists “mainstream,” but to connect more potential fans to their next favorite creator.
In our research, 64% of people trust a streaming platform's recommendations to surface content which they’d enjoy. But, 3-in-4 people believe streaming platforms can still do a better job at surfacing unpopular entertainment which they may enjoy. The kicker: 62% want streaming platforms to recommend more unpopular content... even at the risk they may not like it.
We’ve solved the barrier to entry, but we still haven’t cracked the barrier to discovery.
Historically, one could effectively work their way up the Long Tail with ad spend, but today, so much congestion makes this tactic futile.
Thomas Klaffke, Head of Research at TrendWatching, connects our paradox to Kasey Klimes’ thoughts on the opportunity to Design for Emergence (or really just "Design for Exploration.”)
“In design for emergence, the designer assumes that the end-user holds relevant knowledge and gives them extensive control over the design. Rather than designing the end result, we design the user’s experience of designing their own end result.”
Rather than surfacing the same to all, platforms should trust their users to chart their own discovery paths — and not exclusively by disembodied, algorithmic means.
For today’s creators, we need to redesign the on-ramps for potential audiences. And for consumers, we need to ask: what does falling down the rabbit hole of exploration feel like when it's actually enjoyable and not against our own will?
Rewrite the Rules for Top-Down Risk
Anita Elberse, a professor at Harvard Business School and author of Blockbusters — an analysis on this very phenomenon, simplifies our predicament,
“Of course I understand concerns about the diversity of content, and the fact that certain elements people like are disappearing. But overall I'm not that pessimistic. It's not a hobby, it's a business.”
Again the truism: “the market will do its work.” But what Elberse and others at the top fail to remember is that risk and diversity can drive business. And further, we’re in control of these business decisions. We set our own rules here. “It’s a business” is the opportunity, not the excuse.
We found that across all age demographics, 81% of people say they want entertainment to better reflect unique experiences and tastes similar to their own, while 76% want TV, film and music producers to take more creative risks in what’s produced today.
Risky is safe.
We can reward creative risk-taking at an executive level. We can incentivize creative moonshots, and financially or emotionally support the underdogs. We can satiate unknown or unstated appetites by creating crowdsourced competitions or allocate funding for student works. We can iterate upon models to make the Long Tail even more financially appetizing.
Some of the most beautiful works this year — Turning Red, Everything Everywhere All At Once and Marcel the Shell — are template and trope-defying pitches. They’re pure outliers. But their creative (and financial) success is in part due to the fact there are no comparisons to them. Creative differentiation, in itself, is a winning strategy. A24 for one has zagged, refreshingly embracing the financial upsides of originality and friction.
Back to Scorsese. As he explains,
“[Today’s films] lack something essential to cinema: the unifying vision of an individual artist. Because, of course, the individual artist is the riskiest factor of all. [Historically], the tension between the artists and the people who ran the business was constant and intense, but it was a productive tension that gave us some of the greatest films ever made. Today, that tension is gone, and there are some in the business with absolute indifference to the very question of art and an attitude toward the history of cinema that is both dismissive and proprietary — a lethal combination.”
What plagues the music industry is no different. Today, some artists and insiders fear even listening to unsolicited demos, which could make them vulnerable to future lawsuits. Example: If and when a hit of theirs coincidently sounds similar to something they’ve heard previously — like the landmark Robin Thicke, Pharrell, Marvin Gaye “Blurred Lines” case.
We find ourselves in a moment where some are beginning to shy away from creativity.
Nick Littlemore of Australian trio Pnau agrees:
“[Today, culturally] we’re afraid of new ideas. They’re not road tested. So we’d rather do something that maybe has a little bit more of a guarantee of being successful.”
What does tip-toeing around “the new” do to a generation? Nothing good, at a macro level.
Creativity must be seen as a freedom, not feared.
Reframe Success & Reevaluate the Charts
We need to shout from the rooftops that it’s okay to be a creator without a billion views. Mr. Beast and Dobrik-fame is singular — not remotely available to all.
Deciding to write a newsletter for 100 people is not just okay, but an incredible feat. Conversely, optimizing for attention to mimic and (un-)intentionally contrast ourselves to institutional celebrities at “the top” helps no one.
We must reevaluate reach, views and ad-revenue as our go-to metrics of success, and instead aim towards the worth of depth. Call it the invaluable intensity of love. After all, we only care about what we can measure. And passion is a murky metric.
Why again do we still have award shows? Research reveals, barely half of people believe top music charts and box office numbers accurately reflect the quality of today's entertainment. Surprisingly, it’s younger generations who are more likely than anyone else to trust these charts. Why? These audiences are dangerously more impressionable...
According to Sari Azout and Jad Esber,
“For the creator middle class to rise, we need to see higher resolutions of taste preference and a breakup with singular, discriminatory platform algorithms and the opinion of the ‘few’ that arbitrate taste and force today’s dominant aesthetic. With that, individuals can decide on ‘what’s best’ for themselves, allowing for the talent power law to play out across more taste vectors and spreading the opportunity to be perceived as ‘the best’ — and, with that, spreading the opportunity to profit from that.”
We face a massive opportunity to rewrite not just the rules to incentivize risk, but to also redefine what a “successful creator” looks like.
Culturally, we’re stuck on traditional metrics (more money or more eyeballs), and stuck on a traditional lineage through traditional milestones of success. Even for new creators today, legacy occasions like Late Night interviews, brand endorsements, commercials, SNL performances, award show trophies, and even YouTube Play Buttons are still seen as the aspirational markers of success. Why?
We’re mistakenly still using dusty indicators of success in a contemporary media environment.
Where are the awards celebrating the small and mighty? Who are the megaphones to draw more attention and financing toward marginalized creators? Where is the campaign reminding us that creativity dies in the shadows of reboots, and that merely making something is a celebration in itself?
As Mastroianni shared with me,
“It’s a naive and optimistic thought to think that the Long Tail is meant to fairly compete with Tom Cruise and that he should be dethroned on the same chart by a TikTok. In reality, he loses quite often, however it’s just not clearly documented [...] Perhaps this is a story about a continued and questionable value of ‘the charts.’ They don’t reveal the whole picture of what’s happening in culture.”
We need new charts, new records, and new metrics to compare ourselves to, and more importantly, more healthily reach towards.
Seek the Odd with Bottom-Up Risk
We’re not off the hook here. We entertainment consumers must also be held responsible.
For “consumer risk,” this means being open to a little bit more experimentation. Mix things up. Diversify your media diet. Foreign subtitled B&W documentaries are not required, but repeating familiar patterns or acquiescing to the algorithm should be exercised out of our habits.
We can’t expect diversification if we first don’t at least taste it, signaling a desire for it. Scorsese's qualms with Hollywood today are rooted in this dilemma.
“If people are given only one kind of thing and endlessly sold only one kind of thing, of course they’re going to want more of that one kind of thing.”
To break out of this system, it’s up to us to express interest in anything other than Fast & The Furious 30. We can have that... but also more.
It falls on the audience as well to zag, making demand for the unique unquestionably clear.
When reproduction is rewarded, monotony becomes omnipresent.
When creativity — or lack thereof — is primarily driven by financial returns, risks are minimized. Audiences are left malnourished.
And when the fringe doesn’t reach its audience, it dies without attention. Newcomers question the system, and bow out before even trying.
Relevancy and reach are at tension. We must find ways to strike equilibrium. And if we don’t, our future literally becomes our past.
We face a daunting opportunity to better support the niche, and introduce the new to its awaiting fans.
Mind you, this is not a declaration to kill off the Minions, but a recognition that we have equally enjoyable — and richer — content waiting for us, just without direct lines of access. Thankfully, this is not an all or nothing scenario.
We can have Tom Cruise mega-hits and freaky, indie artists both thriving concurrently. And moreover, superhero installments with provocateurs exploring underrepresented communities or toppling taboos in more nuanced ways.
We have choice. Choice in what we consume. And choice in whether we author new rules to get there.
For as long as we remain mindful that there’s more out there to enjoy...
So let's choose for ourselves. And celebrate others who do so for themselves.
Thanks to Ben Dietz, Josh Chapdelaine, Jad Esber, Adam Mastroianni, Ted Gioia, Kevin Alloca, Sarah Unger, Dr. Marcus Collins, Dylan Viner and Chris Dancy for their ideas in both expanding and distilling this analysis. Thank you.