Commentary

The Dream Of Democratization Is An Illusion

Ever since Al Gore invented the Internet, one of the most popular words in the industry has been “democratization.” The Internet was going to democratize the music industry, the media industry, the video industry.

It was a utopian vision, one that offered hope to millions of struggling artists. All of a sudden, creators around the world could get direct access to potential audiences -- no more need for agents, labels, or middlemen! Success was just a viral YouTube video away!

Almost no one epitomized this ideal better than Justin Bieber, who, at the tender age of 13, was discovered when talent agent Scooter Braun came across his YouTube videos. With his debut album “My World,” Bieber shot to superstardom, becoming the first artist to have seven songs from a debut record chart on the Billboard Hot 100.

The Internet made that possible! He just uploaded his videos to YouTube! If it happened to him, it can happen to anyone! It can happen to ME!

Twenty-five years ago, David Hesmondhalgh wrote that the democratic media system was characterized by “collectivism, collaboration and co–operation amongst media workers," which results in “more equal patterns of rewards and status for participants.” (Italics in original.) A decade ago, Patryk Galuska noted, “Structures of the democratic media system are less hierarchical and the division of labor is less rigid. Consequently, talented artists have fewer problems with being noticed, appreciated and rewarded.”

That’s the dream. It’s not the reality.

The reality is that, when everyone can upload their content to Spotify, YouTube and TikTok, everyone does upload their content to Spotify, YouTube and TikTok.

And when everyone uploads their content, all of a sudden it becomes way harder to be discovered -- almost as hard as it was before you could upload your content to these public platforms.

When everyone uploads their content, the role of discoverer becomes more important, not less.

At their investor day a few weeks ago, Spotify vice president and head of music product Charlie Hellman reinforced this point, saying, “Whatever your mood, your style, whatever the occasion, Spotify has something for you… Spotify drives around 22 billion discoveries a month. On top of that, 1/3 of all new artist discoveries happen on personalized algorithmic playlists. Listeners love this exposure to new music, as well as the personalized touch. Discovery is our bread and butter, and it’s driving a level of engagement that no streaming service can claim.”

In his analysis of the presentation, Ben Thompson of Stratechery observed that, “in a world of scarcity distribution was the most valuable; in a world of abundance it is discovery that matters most.” (Emphasis mine.)

Note that neither the scarcity nor the distribution model works on democratization. And while, yes, we have access to far more information, media, and content than we ever did, the channels through which we access it remain just as concentrated as they ever did.

Justin Bieber may have been discovered on YouTube, but he was discovered, by a talent agent who shone the full force of his amplifying power on the young talent. And, yes, there are those, like world’s-most-followed TikToker Khaby Lame. who achieve “democratized” fame, with no intermediaries or middlemen. But the power law -- the one that says very few achieve breakthrough status while the vast majority toil in obscurity -- that law hasn’t changed in the slightest.

I have a friend who manages rock bands. Years ago, I asked him whether the dynamic had changed now that they had to please the YouTube algorithm instead of label executives.

“Nope,” he replied. “Nothing has changed. It’s just a case of meet the new boss.”

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