NEW YORK, NY; JANUARY 19, 2016 — “Stars” — and by extension, hits — “can’t do it alone anymore,” concludes Concurrent Media’s Paul Sweeting in a dead-on analysis of 2015 movie box office and music sales. And his argument could easily extend to books, video games, TV shows, and other entertainment media.
It’s hardly news that fewer than 4% of movies released last year would have accounted for 23% of all tickets sold, or that Taylor Swift and Adele dominated the declining CD market (in part by withholding their new music from streaming services). In the publishing world, 21 adult coloring books accounted for 13.5% of total positions on the trade paper bestseller lists last year, according to Publishers Weekly.
In any given week, check out the Monday morning reports to see how much the prior week’s No. 1 movie, album, book, etc. outdistanced the No. 2. It’s pretty dramatic — unless you happen upon a week that’s setting a new record for lowest sales of a No. 1. (Bottom fishing is a contest no one is proud of winning, but it’s happening with increasing frequency.)
None of this is a new phenomenon, though the annual headlines as the full-year data rolls out never seem to recognize that fact. Consider this year’s Wall Street Journal headline earlier this month: “Hollywood’s Banner Year at the Box Office Masks a Procession of Flops.” Was there ever a year when that wasn’t the case? And not just for movies. The thrust is no different than that for the headlines we would have run in the trade magazine Record World when I worked there in the mid-1970s (think Carole King’s “Tapestry” or Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours”) or that you’ll find in any of today’s movie, music, TV, game, or other trades.
Those headlines reflect the fact that entertainment is a hit-driven business. The “long tail” of the Internet was supposed to change that, because everything (or nearly everything) could be available forever and because fans would find their way to offerings beyond what the studios, music labels, mainstream publishers and others released.
But nothing suggests that the mass audience cares about the long tail. It’s the hits that dominate Youtube and Spotify and Kindle and all of their relations, just as they dominate the box office, and just as they once dominated the now-dying packaged media businesses of LPs, CDs, DVDs, video games, and more. (Important exception: Printed books are regaining momentum from ebooks.)
This isn’t necessarily a bleak scenario. But building a more resilient entertainment business, says Sweeting, “requires a lot more data than most studios or record labels currently collect or effectively analyze, and the sort of data-driven, audience-focused marketing and release planning that runs counter to the hits-driven, star-making machinery the movie and music businesses have long-relied on to drive the business.”
I agree to a point. However, it’s also true that too much of what is produced and released by mainstream entertainment companies has been corporatized to a point of little distinction. It’s interesting that Don Henley’s statement following the death of Eagles bandmate Glenn Frey earlier this week said, “We were two young men who made the pilgrimage to Los Angeles with the same dream: to make our mark in the music industry.” I suspect he was using today’s terminology, because I doubt in the 1970s they wanted to make their mark on the industry. They more likely wanted to make music —and a living doing so.
The bottom line: Entertainment takes talent and industry, as it always has.