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Home / Media  /
Fragmentation Of The Titans
titans of business

Markets have become so segmented that becoming a legend, never easy, just got a whole lot harder


More than fifty years after his career began, Sir Paul McCartney can still sell out massive venues.  A ticket to his September concert in Petco Park, San Diego, costs $133.10, about the same as a concert by a currently hip artist like Bruno Mars.  In 2013, he ranked in the top 20 in terms of earnings.

Sir Paul has an ace up his sleeve that few other artists can boast.  He was part of the legendary rock act The Beatles.  That band broke up way back in 1970 and never got back together for a reunion.  With frontman John Lennon dead since 1980 and guitarist George Harrison since 2001, a concert with Paul McCartney is the equivalent to fans of a one-man Beatles show. 

More than 60% of Paul's playlists come from the Beatles' catalog.  It's a percentage that has increased over the last three decades.  When Paul played with Wings from 1971-81, he didn't play any Beatles' material.  As Paul's image metamorphosized from a contemporary artist into a legendary one, fans attending his concerts expected him to play the songs which have made him a legend. Most of these fans probably weren't even born when Paul recorded his early Beatles singles like "Love Me Do."  If Paul had never been in the Beatles, you have to wonder if he would have ever had a career or one which has lasted as long.

I am not disparaging the man's undisputed talents.  But neither am I so na├»ve to attribute his current success' foundation to his solo career or his stint with Wings.  Sir Paul got on the map and stayed on the map because of his inclusion in pop's most successful band. 

The Beatles were both a phenomenally critically and commercially successful band.  To date, they've sold over a billion records.  They had nineteen number one albums in the U.S and 15 in the UK.  Thirty years after they broke up, a compilation album spent eight weeks at #1.  They have 16 of the 100 most successful tracks of all time, according to the United World Chat.  Rolling Stone magazine lists four of their albums as the top 10 greatest albums of all time.  Their songs continue to get airplay and covered to this day.

In an age when records seem to get broken shortly after they're set, how is it that more than 40 years after the Beatles dissolved that no other band or artist has come close to surpassing them? Were the Beatles just a fluke of nature that shows up once a millennium?

The Beatles' music really was catchy and captured the times, but that alone would not have made them legendary or this successful.  Other bands from the 1960's also wrote catchy tunes in the spirit of the times.

The Beatles' legendary status, no doubt, was aided by them showing up at the right time.   Their first records were recorded just as television was becoming an ever more important visual medium for celebrity.  John Kennedy and Richard Nixon engaged in a televised debate in the run up to the 1960 election.  The minority who only heard the debate over the radio considered Nixon the winner.  The rest who saw a better made up and attractive Kennedy via the television pronounced Kennedy the champion, and Kennedy went on to beat Nixon in November.  The suited-up Beatles with their mop top haircuts, seen performing on TV, elevated their fame in ways radio alone could not. 

Another mark in their favor was the state of early 1960's music. American popular music was dominated by the Brill Building-Tin Pan Alley songsmiths.  Professionals wrote catchy songs to order and producers divvied them out to singers or bands. Then, along came the Beatles writing their own equally memorable songs, not dependent on a well-oiled background machine to generate choice material for them.

Simply being the originators of their own material and a competent band who could play their own instruments put the Beatles head and shoulders above most bands of the early and even later 1960's.  A huge number of outfits used session musicians on their hit records and didn't write their own material.  Even by 1967, you had massively successful bands like the Turtles and the Monkees making it on to the national charts without authoring a single tune or playing a single note.  

The Beatles were not the first act to pen and play their own material.  Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and Sam Cooke had already done do.  But they were immediately granted more cred because of it in comparison to the majority of performance-only acts from that time period. Now comes the qualitative question.   Was their material catchier than memorable Brill Building-style tunes like "Downtown," "I'm Into Something Good," "Sweets For My Sweet," and "River Deep Mountain High," songs which continue to be played and covered to this day just like classic Beatles' tunes? ' Probably no more or less so. 

The Beatles' tunes (and hence, the Beatles) and the Brill Building factory-ordered songs remain classics for the very same reasons.  They were well written songs to begin with and, the more important reason by far, they charted at a time when there was little fragmentation.  When the Beatles played live on The Ed Sullivan Show for the first time in 1964, 73m people watched among a total U.S. population of about 192m.  And these people really watched.  Back then, there was no way to record TV programs for later viewing.  Tuning into Ed Sullivan every Sunday night was an American ritual.  Ed didn't have to compete with cable shows, countless talk shows, and reality TV.

So here you have a band in an era before vast music segmentation playing to an American audience with relatively undivided attention. Wouldn't any band love that!  And because the songs were infectious and planted into the brains of an entire generation, they stayed on radio playlists into the next decade and the decade after that and the decade after that.  It helped the Beatles' artistic image tremendously that they broke up before they could commercially decline and that they never got back together to perform or release a submediocre reunion album.

Music genres diversified by the late 1960's.  You now had classifications like blues rock, folk rock, country rock, garage rock, jazz-rock fusion.  The number of genres only grew from there.  Any later contenders to the Beatles' throne would have been playing within a smaller niche in this fragmented market, their tunes having to compete for airplay against not just contemporary bands, but all the classic stuff from the 1950's and 1960's that never went off the airwaves after the 1980's.  Post 2000, in the digital era, any Beatles wannabee would be fighting to get heard among all the trance, rap, hip hop, country, world music, etc.

This isn't to say our contenders couldn't make it.  Nowadays, with reality television or a YouTube viral video, there are more avenues to become famous but, with greater competition for your ear drums, for shorter time frames.  If successful, it's easier to rake in the money more quickly, as fame today is instantly globalized.  Lady Gaga, a complete unknown 6-7 years ago, now has an estimated net worth ($220m) equal to Brittney Spears who has been around much longer.  Justin Bieber's net worth at age 20 ($200m) is equal to the net worth of Lionel Ritchie, Placido Domingo, Better Midler, and Tina Turner, all who've been around for multiple decades. In 2013, Bieber made just slightly more in earnings than classic rocker Bruce Spingsteen. Beyonce's $450m net worth is the same as Dolly Parton's and surpasses the coffers of Barbra Streisand and former Beatles George Harrison and Ringo Starr.

Gaga, Bieber, and Beyonce won't likely be passing on classic tunes for the coming generations and could well be forgotten by the masses within two decades.  There's too much music, too much choice, and too little attention span.  Springsteen rocks on 40 years after "Born To Run" because he didn't have to compete with Spotify, Pandora, and YouTube streams playing infinite varieties of music catering to individual's now eclectic tastes.  He was able to lock in his fan base before his fans moved on to the next big thing.  Gaga, Bieber, and Beyonce, while making bucketloads more per year than Springsteen ever did, could find themselves out of fashion just as quickly as they came into it.

Fragmentation isn't limited to the music business.  The most watched television broadcast in American history, based on ratings and share, remains the M*A*S*H* season finale from February 1983, with 121.6m viewers, and it's unlikely to ever be surpassed.  This show was broadcast at a time when there were only three American television networks, no original cable programming and very little cable subscriptions, and minimal video recording.  M*A*S*H* had also been on the air for 11 years and locked in a loyal nationwide fan base who had fewer shows to select among.  Fifteen years later, with more television choices and more options when to watch, the overly hyped Seinfeld season finale aired and attracted just 76m viewers.  Would these finales, if airing today, manage to attract even 25m live viewers?

Like The Ed Sullivan Show, M*A*S*H* and, much less so, Seinfeld were events.  People gathered around the TV to view them as they aired.   Perhaps the only thing on the television at present which can approximate these past events is the annual American Superbowl.  These spectacles regularly draw more than 100m viewers. 

People often wonder why there aren't any more Mozarts, Beethovens, or Bachs today.  These titans of composition were the Beatles of their time period.  Likely there are.  I went online and did a search and came up with a few names, none of which I'm sure you have ever heard of.  American Jay Greenberg began playing the cello at age 3 and entered the renowned Juilliard School at age 10.  He is best "known" for his Symphony No. 5.  By age 10, Briton Shane Thomas could play piano to a high standard and compose classical music scores despite practicing for only four hours per week.  Bogdan Alin Ota has been hailed as the "Mozart of Romania."'  Composer-conductor Matthew Aucoin was pronounced as "a modern-day Mozart" and "the next Leonard Bernstein" at only 24 years of age.  

But just because all of the above mentioned names (and many more if I spent additional hours digging them up) may have the raw talent of a Mozart, they will never really become Mozarts. They live in very different times.  Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach established their widespread reputations in a time when classical music was popular music.  However exceptional the compositions, they could be singled out as so and passed on to succeeding generations because enough people heard them early on for signature pieces to become standards, much like the Beatles.  It also helped that the composers in those centuries faced more feeble competition.  At the beginning of the 18th century in Europe, less than half the males were literate.  We won't even bother with the limited opportunities for women -- that's a whole other topic.  By the end of that century, the figure hovered around 65%.  The average rural farmboy from 1750, a potential Mozart, Beethoven, or Bach in the making, didn't have access to cheap electronic keyboards or scholarships to Berklee, Juillard, or the Royal Academy of Music to develop and nurture his talent. 

Today's larger collection of Mozarts would be unheard of to the general public.  They'd be film composers or conductors, never gaining enough critical mass for their material to be passed on through the generations to turn them into tomorrow's concert-in-the-park repertoires.

You can only become a titan if you're so large that everyone has seen and heard you. Yet as celebrity becomes more ubiquitous and ephemeral and the ability to create more decentralized, how many modern bands, actors, authors, composers, companies/startups, or whatevers can gain a mindhold to plant themselves permanently in the public's collective consciousness?

We live in a disposable culture.  We're not expected to work for one company or have just one job position.  The disposable mentality has become so widespread that we're not even expected to have just one spouse.   There are so many giants around that everyone seems of normal height.  Titans as we once understood them may well be a piece of nostalgia left behind with the drive-in movie.


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