A long running gag in popular culture is one where the adults complain about the fads popular with the younger generation. Adults supposedly have been complaining about the kid’s music since the birth of pop culture in the 20th century. The same is true of clothing styles and haircuts. Of course, part of that is the marketing of popular culture. The people peddling this stuff try to feed on the normal youthful rebellion, so an ideal result, if you’re in the business, is for the adults to really hate it. Then the kids will love it.
The assumption underlying this gag is that there is no objective difference in quality between pop culture trends. The perceived quality is relative. From the perspective of a teenager, the new thing is useful because it translates to status within their peer group or allows them access to a desirable youth subculture. For adults, these new trends have no social value. There may be some small value in hating it, but since all adults are tuned to not like teenage fads, the value in not liking it is minimal.
The makers of pop culture made up for this lack of qualitative difference in fads by maintaining a monopoly on the supply. Hollywood was controlled by a small clique from the start and remained a family business of sorts until recent. Music was similarly controlled by a relatively small number of record companies. Read the book The Wrecking Crew and you see how this used to work. This bottleneck on the supply side allowed the makers to keep down costs and therefore maintain a profit margin.
Technology has made it much more difficult for the people controlling the supply side to maintain this bottleneck. That’s mostly because technology has lowered the barrier to entry into pop culture. A great example of this happening in front of our eyes. Talk radio became a thing in the 1980’s. Conservative Inc. controlled middlebrow conservative opinion by controlling the radio networks. If you wanted to talk politics on the Right, you had to play ball with the people controlling the talk radio industry.
Today, some of the most influential voices on the Right are podcasters and live streamers. If you’re under the age of fifty, you’re probably close to abandoning the old radio model entirely, maybe listening to some of the old guys on-line. The audience for Rush Limbaugh is half of its peak now. Most talkers have seen their audience shrink and they are now seeing competition from below. People like Stephan Molyneux can produce high quality, professional content, from their home and reach a broad audience on-line.
The thing is though, supply does not create demand. Just because you can now produce your own music from a home studio, it does not follow that you become a pop star. That old assumption about there being no qualitative difference in trends works in the macro sense, but talent still counts. The fact that young people may prefer pop music from their grandparent’s generation suggests there is a qualitative difference in this area. To these young ears, that music is better, so they prefer it over what the style makers produce.
Alternatively, another way of looking at this phenomenon is that like the consumer electronics business, pop music is now fully commoditized. There’s little or no value added to the music from the producers and creators, so the only thing that matters in the music market is price. Since streaming is the platform of the future, producing new music makes less sense, when there is this vast library of existing music. The kids have not heard these old songs, so selling them the old stuff is possible.
Another aspect to this is the cultural one. Pop music had a peak in the 1970’s and has been in decline ever since. This tracks with the overall decline in the culture. This turns up in per capita music consumption. The aberration was the introduction of the CD, which had everyone re-buying their catalog of music. Otherwise, Americans have listening to less music than fifty years ago. Young people may simply prefer that which was created in peak America over that which is produced in post-America.
Putting aside the cultural angle, which is not unimportant, the economic issue raised by trends in popular culture is how does a market economy work when everything is a commodity? If technology makes it impossible to create bottlenecks and control artificial monopolies on supply, how can concepts like entrepreneurship and market competition still exist? After all, business is about creating scarcity and exploiting it. What happens when the Peter Theil model is no longer possible?
It sounds fanciful, and maybe it is, but it is worth thinking about, as the people who rule over us are thinking about it. The author of this book on the subject is an adviser to the European Union and is read by the western political elite. They are not worried about a world of zero marginal cost. They want to create it. The world of zero marginal cost is also a world of zero marginal culture. More precisely, it is post-culture world, in which things like pop music are simply things supplied by the system on-demand.