The Creative Amateur and Productive Mediocrity
In the last year or two, I've come across different versions of this claim: it has never been easier to share one's work with the public, but finding a public to pay attention is as difficult, if not harder, than ever.
Spotify has tens of thousands of artists who have probably never been heard by anyone outside of family and close friends.1 Video streaming services like Amazon Prime find a place for movies filmed on small budgets with few studio or distributor connections. Substack lets any writer create a newsletter, and even collect payments for what he or she writes. Seemingly everyone, no matter their day job, wants to have their own podcast. If you want to see work under your own name on the internet, there are effectively no barriers to entry right now.
On the consumer side, for all of us with limited time who just want to discover new things, this eruption of new "content" means more potential great finds in ever-more targeted niches--but also more time spent searching. No algorithmic recommendation system can save you from a mediocre movie or a plodding podcast. Still, one unexpected side benefit I've found from having to sift through it all is this: a work needn't be good to be useful.
For example, most podcasts are bad. Not because they are poorly produced, or because the people responsible lack some sort of talent at the medium, but because the host is unprepared: they don't ask good questions; they don't listen to the responses; they don't have any special expertise on the topic, or they don't know how to get out of the way and make a guest open up. In the age of podcasts, it has never been more clear that interviewing is a skill.
But as the number of podcasts I listen to has grown, I've been consistently surprised at how often a low-profile host or show can get a much bigger name to come on the show. Why is this? A bad podcast can still be valuable, at least for one episode, because the show is much harder to screw up if the guest has a lot of good things to say. Just get out of their way.2
This phenomenon of useful mediocrity is a testament to, first, the newfound popularity of the podcast format, and second, somewhat counterintuitively, to the amount of good work being created that is still searching for its rightful audience. Even a mediocre podcast can help with that.
This may also help explain the podcast format is so broadly appealing, to both hosts/creators and guests. Podcasts are supposed to entertain, but they are also uniquely good at spreading what is already out there in sports, entertainment, news, politics and culture generally. Podcasts are sociable. The value of the podcast is not just about the draw of the podcast itself. Podcasts are the pollinators, the honeybees, of the media world.3
This also shows that in the new creative "economy" (where, granted, only a fraction of people are making appreciable money), you needn't be producing good work to make a contribution. A lot of participants in the creative economy (especially those doing it as a side gig, people who fit my "bad hosts" description) are, in effect, cultural middlemen. These people serve a recommendation and curation function on top of the work they produce.4 While your Facebook or Twitter feeds may suggest we live in bad times, it is also reasonable to see this as a cultural golden age, where there is so much worthwhile work that even the great stuff can't always find an audience. We need creators to produce that work, and we need people who create the space to help that work be found.
- Detailed data on the distribution of listener time on Spotify was hard to come by quickly, but one related indicator may be the amount of attention Spotify steers to its own curated playlists. From a 2018 study: "Spotify's curated lists have over three quarters of the followers of the top 1,000 playlists; Spotify's algorithmic lists have another 9.3 percent. The lists operated by the major record labels, Filtr, Digster, and Topsify, have 3.1, 2.7, and 0.9 percent of the top 1000's cumulative followers. The remaining list owners have negligible shares. It is clear that Spotify dominates playlists at Spotify. If playlists influence listening choices, then Spotify's curated lists are well-positioned to wield influence. Source: "Luis Aguiar and Joel Waldfogel, "Platforms, Promotion, and Product Discovery: Evidence from Spotify Playlists," NBER Working Paper 24713, June 2018:https://www.nber.org/papers/w24713, 8). Spotify's own interventions on their platform suggest they want to be open to all, but steer attention toward a few.
- A related question: if so much of what makes a podcast good is the featured content (the guest), rather than the regular content (the host), then why is so much podcast listening infrastructure built around subscriptions to single podcasts, instead of one-off discovery of episodes with a guest or topic that interests you? Probably because the search costs are much higher if you are just looking for single episodes. This is a problem that algorithmic recommendations should be able to get some traction on, but to my knowledge they haven't yet. Spotify's attempt to corner the podcast market under a bundled platform model might be one way to accomplish this, although the overall dampening effect on the open ecosystem of podcasting might make this approach undesirable. What we ideally need is a system that preserves the open market of podcasting, while providing an automated curation function in the places where automated recommendations are appropriate, perhaps as a stand-alone subscription service where you are paying for the algorithm itself (and fine-grained control over its inputs), rather than the content that it serves.
- A few possible reasons why: (1) it is a conversational medium that lends itself to a collaborative guest format, so there is often an outside influence present, and a pressure to seek out novelty, (2) it foregrounds the personality of its participants but, unlike video, there is no image to draw attention away from what is being said; you still need something to talk about, (3) the cost of switching topics and format is low; a show can reinvent itself and change its focus relatively easily.
- In discussing these ideas with a friend, he made the good point that the Substack paid newsletter model may be serving a similar function. This is also a medium that is heavy on linking, on recommendations, and on the writer trading on their status as a known figure to provide cultural guidance.
Luis Aguiar and Joel Waldfogel, "Platforms, Promotion, and Product Discovery: Evidence from Spotify Playlists," NBER Working Paper 24713, June 2018. Link
William Deresiewicz, The Death of the Artist: How Creators Are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech. Macmillan, , 2020.
Maria Eriksoon et al., Spotify Teardown: Inside the Black Box of Streaming Music. MIT Press, 2019.