“Popular culture” as a term is nearly a tautology; it follows that if we share a common culture, the elements that make up that shared culture are popular. In use, “pop culture” refers to the art that, in the free market, gains ascendency to the point where knowledge of it becomes part of the common culture. This idea only has meaning in contrast to other origins of culture—constructs such as “high culture,” “fine art,” “literary fiction,” and my favorite tautology, “art music.” These later ideas are defined primarily by not being popular culture and, therefore, in an unfortunate truth for the academy which promotes them, unpopular. This isn’t unpopularity by design; it is just the effect of a sub-culture that doesn’t rely on popularity for its survival. It’s a patronage system closer to what existed before the corporate period, with the addition of academic positions for artists as a kind of pseudo-patronage.
Popular culture, meanwhile, is defined by the hits, by the most popular bits of art, which then make it into the shared social matrix. Getting Star Wars references is a cultural universal just as going to the prom is in America. But how does something become popular? There are three ways: chance, marketing, and brute force.
Winning the Lottery
Chance is what has produced some of the largest and most profitable franchises in the corporate period: multi-media empires like Star Wars and Harry Potter. The stakeholders in the creative work don’t know they are making something that will define culture, and sometimes (as in the case of Star Wars, which only opened in a handful of theaters in 1977) don’t even expect the work to be popular. Sometimes art captures the culture’s consciousness, gains a reputation, and explodes. Despite what marketing gurus might suggest, this level of success cannot be predicted or planned and is only possible because of the reach of mass media, allowing a single work to be experienced by many.
Post-hoc analysis of art to determine why it was a hit does not serve as a reliable method of predicting future success. If Harry Potter had been a predictable success, every publisher would have been putting out books just like Harry Potter. To a subject existing prior to the event, it’s a black swan. The connection between the art’s qualities and its success is only understandable after the fact. Attempting to repeat the event using the same elements usually fails. It’s like trying to get lighting to strike twice. Moreover, many people become baffled when massively popular art doesn’t meet their own standards, so they assume it must be a rigged system. In reality, mega-success is due to quality that isn’t of the artistic or literary variety but rather that of the market. In other words, popularity is the result of how art connects with people in a time and a place, not its objective, critical quality.
Most explosively popular forms of art get their start in marketing or by corporate fiat (especially as the period progresses) but grow out of bounds, such as the Beatles (originally part of the clean-cut “British Invasion” directed toward teen girls, they quickly became associated with the 60s counter-culture) and Nirvana (part of the corporate “grunge” trend when there was no such thing as grunge). Books like The DaVinci Code may start as standard genre fiction, but their readership grows beyond those bounds because of some unpredictable but appealing aspects of the product. “Twilight Moms” is another late-period example of this growth beyond intended market segments, in this case, a teen-focused romance becoming popular with adult women.
What is also important to understand about cultural mega-success is the Pareto nature of distribution. The Pareto principle, named after economist Vilfredo Pareto and otherwise known as the 80/20 rule, is an observation that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population, and this principle also applies to many other domains. In media sales, 80% of sales come from 20% of artists, and this may be fractal, so that, for instance, half of all books sold are written by a scarce handful of writers. In order for something to define pop culture, it must reach this level of popularity, and that means at the macro level, finances are dominated by a few highly successful market actors.
This sort of explosive and unpredictable success is part of what defines both Pop Culture and the corporate period and is something that is much more difficult to reproduce after the year 2000 for reasons we will get to later on. What is important to understand is that most of the big hits have some degree of randomness associated with them.
Making a Product for the People
Marketing is the path to popularity for most mass-media products in the corporate period, and that is usually of a limited degree based on who is being marketed to. Most people, when they hear the word “marketing,” think of something synonymous with advertising and will often use the two interchangeably. Marketing, however, has a different meaning in this context. Marketing is serving a product to a group of people that want it; advertising is informing that group of people that the product they want exists. Making an entertainment product is not much different than making any other “thing” for an end consumer.
First, you identify a need in the market (“need” broadly defined as a thing people will pay for), determine how great the need is, and how much people are willing to pay to fulfill it. Then you design a product to meet that need, distribute the product to places consumers can buy it, and inform the potential customers of it (advertising). For a product like a sedan, this would involve market research in the form of determining how many people might want to buy a sedan in a given year, what features they are willing to pay for, designing a sedan to meet expectations and be sold at a price the market can bear, then distributing the sedan and advertising to make consumers are aware of the product.
Media works similarly. Consumers have preferences for entertainment, whether it is a type of book, movie, or style of music. A media company attempts to make a product that meets their expectations while providing enough novelty for the consumer to purchase it and enjoy it.
It is from marketing that the many genres of popular fiction, cinema, music, games, and comics arise. Based on prior sales, a publisher can expect that a certain number of people want to buy, for example, mystery books, and so they will print a number of titles and copies to meet that expected demand and select books for publication that, again based on sales, will be enjoyed by the section of the market that wants to buy mysteries.
A group such as a corporation is necessary for this arrangement because of the large amount of capital needed to begin a mass media operation, the capacity to hold cash reserves necessary for more complex projects (movies in particular), the ability to sustain short-term losses without ceasing operations, and the ability to fund the large numbers of artists required to meet market demand. Even the most prolific writers like Walter B. Gibson, who wrote 10 thousand words per day, could not keep up with the demand for The Shadow, much less the entire crime and detective genre. With his extreme success, he would still have found it enormously expensive to print all his own books and ship them if he could have managed to acquire the knowledge and interpersonal connections necessary to do so.
A publisher fills a natural role as a patron-for-profit. The company selects novels it thinks will sell well, edits them to market expectations, prints them, distributes them (often to other corporations such as retailers), advertises them, then collects revenues and shares them with the writers in the form of royalties. The company can hire specialists: story editors, copy editors, proofreaders, marketing specialists, typesetters, buying managers, shipping specialists, advertising specialists, and engineers to design printing presses, etc. By concentrating assets and diffusing knowledge, a class of experts called “writers” can exist and work for the publisher, creating books that potentially millions of readers will enjoy. If you’ve had a dream of being a professional novelist, it is because the corporate model (even extending before the 20th century) created a world where that is possible.
Other media work similarly but with different market segments and monetization strategies, but what is common is a large and diverse set of products meant for diverse groups of people that make up “the market.” Skilled market assessments will lead to products that meet the approval of the various market segments to be exploited. This diversity is sometimes called the “Nash Strategy,” after economist and mathematician John Nash, who was the subject of the hit 2001 film A Beautiful Mind. The gist is that companies will elect to target smaller sections of the market for less money but a higher certainty of return rather than engaging in winner-take-all action. One corporation will make cartoons for kids while another makes soap operas for their mothers, rather than all production companies trying to make the biggest blockbuster possible.
As mentioned, most breakout hits begin as products designed for a specific subset of the market with an expected range of popularity. Recently, Harry Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games were books designed for children that then experienced popularity outside of the intended market segment. Fifty Shades of Grey (which began as Twilight fan fiction) was an erotica novel that broke out into the mainstream. The Sixth Sense was a paranormal mystery movie that exploded because of word of mouth regarding its twist ending. It’s rare for anything not already part of the genre model to become massively popular (and even then, it can be argued that things like “Lit fiction” and “Electronic Music” are themselves genres).
The exception is the blockbuster movie, a cultural product designed not to appeal to a certain segment of the market who is very likely to buy it but to appeal to everyone, or nearly everyone. This sort of marketing is very much a winner-take-all scenario. Families are not likely to go to more than one movie in a given weekend, so your movie needs to appeal not just to genre fans but to everyone if you want to make the big bucks. Blockbusters are movies with massive investments necessary to compete, and they also, therefore, require massive returns. Thus, a large corporation with many assets is needed to make them, especially since there is always the possibility that the movie will bomb and the company will need to float losses.
As time went on and corporations grew larger and more influential, another kind of route to popularity emerged and became dominant, which was to decide by fiat what would be popular—to make hits via brute force.
The Corporate Dream Fulfilled
The last method for hit-making is the most insidious and also the most difficult to nail down: brute force. Like the movie Inception, the purpose of this form is to plant the idea of something artificially, not to serve the wants of a pre-existing market segment. With its constantly shifting mainstream trends, music is the industry where this form of business is most common. Music is popular because it is on the radio, not because people want to hear it; they buy music because they already heard it. This means that whoever controls the airwaves controls the trend and has massive influence over what gets purchased.
The term coined for manipulating this arrangement is “payola,” where a record company pays radio stations to play their songs and thus boost their sales. There is a kind of “priming the pump” action to payola, where if a song is played enough, it will gain sales and become a certified hit. Once it’s a hit, other radio stations that didn’t get paid will play it for free because the audience wants to hear it. Popularity is circular, and payola is the way to enter into the feedback loop.
It’s been illegal not to disclose pay-for-play arrangements since the 1930s, but this formality hasn’t halted the practice. Life will find a way, as they say, and so will crooks. Congress did a formal investigation into payola in 1959, but record companies continued to find loopholes, including hiring third-party promoters to leverage airplay from radio stations as well as equity shares between corporations. The feedback loop reached its zenith (as did the entire music industry) in the 1990s when the deregulation of radio station ownership in the U.S. brought about the de-facto monopoly group Clear Channel Communications. The company bought the majority of F.M. radio stations in the United States and instituted national playlists, forcing every station across the country to play the same set of songs a certain number of times per day. Where once a company could own only 20 stations, overnight, a single company could own them all, but the FCC continued to regulate the airwaves so competitors couldn’t enter the market to compete with Clear Channel. One could not, for instance, start a rock station if he was unhappy with the local Clear Channel broadcast because the FCC would not grant a license for a radio station of the same type in the same market. The internet obliterated the payola feedback loop, as well as the radio and music industries, almost overnight in 1999, the first casualty of the end of the Corporate Period, but more on that later.
When considering “payola” arrangements, it’s important to note that, like marketing, there is an element of it in everything. Getting Barnes and Noble to put a new book prominently on display will put it on a “best seller list,” which is often just an editorially curated list of books anyway, and that will, in turn, get more stores to display it and more people to buy it. There have even been schemes to “prime the pump” in the book world by authors or publishers buying large numbers of their own books to put them on a bestseller list, thus making popularity a foregone conclusion. This strategy was popular with conservative talk show hosts, who would buy mass copies of their own books and give them away as part of a fan club membership. There have even been accusations of movie studios buying tickets, as seen by moviegoers posting sparse theaters of supposedly “sold out” showings of the latest blockbuster.
There is a social element to popularity, and if something is seen as liked by others (we call it “social proof” in marketing), then people use that as a vote of confidence and assume they will like it as well. The lack of an organic market is the result of the corporate arrangement itself. There are limited mass media outlets and limited resources for producing media, so the corporations which own radio and T.V. stations, record companies, publishers, and Hollywood studios wield an enormous amount of power over artists, with the ability to decide who can and cannot make a living in the field, and they also wield colossal influence over what the culture consumes and values.
There were many trends within the corporate period and within each type of medium. The film industry has moved between various emphases, from gimmicks like 3D in the 1960s designed to compete with the nascent television industry to auteur art pieces to high-concept films in the 1980s and back to gimmicks in the 21st century. Music has had nearly as many trends as there are years, and the literary landscape was likewise always shifting. All of these details are beyond the scope of this essay, but within each trend, the corporate model persisted. It was a large corporation that funded and distributed artistic works with the aim of making a profit from their production. Outsiders were allowed in according to the will of the corporations that already dominated the market. The paradigm didn’t change for nearly 100 years though there were whole industries that emerged in that time, including the video game industry toward the end.
Things would change, eventually. There were two main contributing factors at the end of the corporate era: cultural ground zero and the internet.
The next section will deal with the factors that brought about the end of the corporate period and, therefore, pop culture. In the meantime, read my creativity manual and my recent fiction: