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The Lefsetz Letter: VMA Ratings Up!

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“After a couple of relatively lean years for on-air viewing, the MTV Video Music Awards bounced back some on Tuesday. Preliminary Nielsen ratings have the show drawing 865,000 viewers on MTV, a 37 percent jump from the early numbers for the 2022 VMAs.”
What a joke. The local TikTok influencer in your backyard gets more than a million views, but don’t let the facts, the spin, the numbers, get in the way of a good story, a good headline.
As a matter of fact, you should read this “Wall Street Journal” story about influencers that kids love, that parents do not:
“Parents Are Baffled by the Celebrities Their Kids Love – ‘Who is that? What is that?’ The entertainment gulf has never been wider. Children today prefer the likes of MrBeast.”
That’s a free link, and you should read it. Well, at least part of it. Forget Mr. Beast in the headline, whom you might have heard of. There’s Dhatboiitre, who is a clothing store clerk, with 1.1 million followers. Not only are the parents clueless, illustrating that there is a generation gap as big as there was in the sixties, but the stars are regionalized and not known to the masses.
So if the VMAs, which featured uber-star Taylor Swift, as well as Nicki Minaj, breaking star Ice Spice, SZA, Selena Gomez, Måneskin and even a reunion of ‘NSYNC couldn’t even reach a measly million people what are your odds of world domination? Essentially nil.
But don’t get depressed, today it’s about your vertical and nothing else. Your fans. There is no mass raining down. It’s only you. Grow your fan base, own it and ignore those invested in a recording industry that’s been truly broken for years, one in which there is a chart but most people haven’t heard any of the hits and don’t care to.
For example, read this article from “The Guardian”:
“‘She is a snake – in the most positive way!’ How Taylor Swift became the world’s biggest pop star, again”
This is a lengthy explanation of how Taylor Swift recovered from the backlash of the 1989 fallout (you do know about this, right, just like you knew John Lennon said that his band was bigger than God?) to triumph again.
But what does that triumph look like:
“Today there is less of a monoculture, and conversation is chiefly driven by users of TikTok, Reddit and X. The fandoms that have emerged on those social media platforms are siloed and diffuse; the algorithms that serve users content are prone to showing them things they are already predisposed to like. This ecosystem has spawned celebrities such as the video game-esque vlogger Pinkydoll, dancer turned pop star Addison Rae, and riot-causing Twitch streamer Kai Cenat – hugely famous to those who are interested, largely unknown to those who are not.
“‘We’re in the era of everyone being a cult star, from Taylor, down to Charli XCX,’ says Mandelbaum. ‘There is less imperative for pop stars to create music that’s all-encompassing; all Taylor has to do is play into what her fans want from her.’ Swift can be the most famous person in the world to those who love her, while remaining out of the feeds of those who don’t.”
That’s right, you read it here, Taylor Swift, the summer’s biggest star, owner of more ink than seemingly anybody in show business, is a cult star. She doesn’t reach everybody. It’s all a hype. Most people don’t care, can’t sing a single song and are living their lives happily Swift-free.
And this is not a put-down of Swift, once again, Swift is the BIGGEST star out there! And if Swift is a cult star, what are you?
So the VMAs… Do you even know what channel MTV is on? Does the target audience, one which has cut the cord, doesn’t watch cable, never mind streaming television? For all I know, they simulcast the VMAs online. I could look it up, but I don’t care. The bottom line is either most of the target audience was unaware or didn’t care. And the target audience does not believe in appointment television anyway. And this is not the old days, with endless repeats adding to total viewership across all Viacom properties, hell the company isn’t even called Viacom anymore! Sure, they might cut up some segments for views on social media, but as per above, your feed isn’t going to show you what you do not like. So you’ll be unaware.
But the ratings are up! What a bunch of hogwash. The supposed biggest stars in music can’t even get a million people interested? Then how big can these stars be? Hell, they had a Republican debate last month on Fox and it reached 12.8 million viewers, illustrating that politics today is more powerful than music. And Trump wasn’t even there! A new star was minted, Vivek Ramaswamy, and the music industry can’t even mint a new star at all, never mind overnight.
Then again, politics is the story of our era, so much is at stake. And it’s not like we’re listening to Bob Dylan telling us which way the wind blows. Today’s “stars” are brands, mini-empires, built for blind adoration and to sell you stuff. Where’s the attraction in that?
But these VMA ratings prove one thing first and foremost, that the old model is broken. Today, it’s all about the road. After all, promoters guarantee millions and record companies dribble out a de minimis amount with all these promises about the future…they’ll get you on terrestrial radio which the target audience doesn’t listen to, they’ll get you on network and cable TV, which the audience doesn’t even have access to, having cut the cord. But sign away your life because we were the titans of yore. Strip the three majors of their catalogs and they’ve got little, they excised so many workers in search of a higher bottom line. But the truth is these companies have already been disrupted. Because they’re unneeded in a world where social media stars are bigger than the acts they promote.
There are a zillion acts today, and so many are doing business. Stop listening to the uninformed bozos complaining about streaming payouts. They don’t understand the market, believe me, my inbox demonstrates this. They don’t know the difference between an on demand stream and a radio/algorithmic stream payout. Even worse, they’re unaware of who owns how much of the song they’re complaining about. You can make tons of bread via streaming, it pays out the majority of what it takes in in royalties. So, either you have a bad deal or nobody is listening. The latter is usually the case. That’s your job, to get people to listen. And if they’re not, maybe you’re not good enough, or you don’t know how to market in today’s world. But you can still make beaucoup bucks on the road.
Oh, don’t talk about ticketing fees and other b.s. This is just like politics, the tyranny of the minority. Those who cannot sell tickets complaining about the splits. Believe me, if you can draw people in consistently, in numbers, you can write your own deal. But, once again, don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.
Everything is niche, everything is a cult, nothing is mass. And social media stars triumph because of their humanity and cutting edge antics, something absent from mainstream media where the rough edges are shorn off.
Mitt Romney retired today. Music would be better if all the baby boomers retired from the major labels. They’re operating in a past that no longer exists, they refuse to modernize for a modern world wherein a mass of cult stars is the way to win, not moonshots, a few records gussied up with hype. That’s a recipe for failure, because most people just don’t care.
The recording industry has been disrupted and no one even notices. I’m not talking about distribution, which was the story of the first decade of this century, I’m talking about content. The percentage of listening the hits get is declining. Can we at least acknowledge we’re in a new era?
What kind of crazy, f*cked up world do we live in where the “Wall Street Journal” and the “Guardian” are more insightful re the music business and stardom than any of the rags, the dribble of drivel, put out by the music industry and its acolytes?
One in which purveyors still believe obfuscation and lies work, that hype is enough, and stars are smaller than they’ve ever been, no matter how much they’re promoted.
We live in a new world.
And if the headlines in these news outlets tell us that ratings went up, missing the story completely, which is that almost no one was watching, what are they getting wrong about the big issues, like in the aforementioned politics? We’re looking for some truth, give us some truth, but John Lennon is long gone. Each of us is on our own hejira, personalized to us, mass is a fiction of yore, for non-thinking fans at best.
This is the world we live in.
Long live the cult!

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