Breaking the Fourth Wall: The Business of Media Subculture

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a picture of Trey Anastasio by me, riding rail, in Nashville TN (2018)

If media companies are record labels and creators are rock stars then the audience are fans — and that introduces an entirely new business opportunity.

Media, like music, can only thrive when the audience and the creator travel down a path together, giving each other the opportunity to define one another. It’s a two-way street, not a top-down dictum. But what happens when a creator or artist gets so big that their audience starts building products on top of their work?

The media’s status quo is accelerating towards disruption. We’re seeing the development of new media brands (micro-labels) on platforms and services, the prioritization of talent as a core business pillar by media companies and the shifting business models moving from content direct to creator direct.

As each component of creation evolves, there is another evolution happening with the most critical part of the media business’ formula: the consumers. In the media business, business models drive product strategy. And while that’s the driving force behind the product, it’s contingent on consumer interest, participation and loyalty. That means that as the economy shifts, so needs the consumer value. This is an opportunity to build a new business that puts the creator and consumer relationship front and center and introduces the element of ownership. This is the business of fandom and subcultures.

Creators should be in the business of eliciting and manufacturing subculture.

Subcultures develop as a response to a pre-existing culture. In the case of music and media, that pre-existing culture or categorization is the genre. The desire to fit within a pre-existing genre, traditionally, has been beneficial for the artist. Genres set the taste broadly for what the listener or reader should expect from the artist or creator within that category. There is an existing audience, an existing business model — the foundation is set.

The goal is to bust through genres and create a subgenre (subcultures) of its own. Think of it on both sides: the creator (or label) develops their own identity in response to genre a la Sub-Pop and the fans develop their own identity and subculture in response to it a la Punk. In the era of niche, the approach is quite the opposite. Instead of creating for the broader audience, the fashion is now to style the particular few. It’s less about scale and more about the quality of the audience who wants it. By doing this, not only do creators open up a unique pocket of value for themselves but their community starts to construct an identity out of the value that’s been created.

The relationship between creator and consumers is more valuable than its transactional currency (ie. content). In this era of media, the content is not the only product. The content is a key part of the value in that it’s the tool for consistency but the creator and the community are the product. The true value is the connection between consumer and creator acquired through a variety of access points that eventually develop a consumer benefit. As the business moves from content is value to creator is value we should shift the business opportunities that support it as well.

The consumer builds on the brand.

Creators should be in the business of eliciting and manufacturing subculture. For a creator, culture is when their brand is so transportable, that commerce and community are built outside of the creator itself. If membership enables identity, and identity builds brand then culture is eternal. When the consumers become the creators and associate their value with not just building within the creator environment but outside of it as well, the creator becomes a platform. Businesses are being built on top of the creator, separate from their participation because of the consumers commitment and dedication to their brand. The creator is the platform. In this example, the relationship is not just with the content, the creator and the community, but in the development of a subculture itself. The audience isn’t a commodity. Instead, the audience views themself as a part of the brand, and associate their own ideas with their consumption and engagement with the creator. An example of this is the band Phish.

Through the music, brand and community of Phish, an entire subculture has developed around the group to the point where there are businesses, identities and communities built outside of the band’s direct participation. Phish is the creator but the nature of their creation (ie. music and community) and their development of culture has turned their fans into creators themselves. They can leverage the Phish audience to develop their own audiences, thus expanding the brand and culture. Like The Grateful Dead’s shakedown scene, Phish has built themselves as a platform for consumers (in this case fans) to build their business on top of. As a result, the brand becomes immortal through their association in the foundation of the community’s business. In the Phish subculture, there are many fan built establishments across a variety of trades.

There is Phish.net run by Scott Marks and team that compile set-lists, news and analysis on the band and their associated projects in real-time. Phantasy Tour, a reddit-esque forum developed by fans for fans has become the defacto platform for all fans to discuss… anything. Here, a fan (and one of my dear friends), is seeking mid-century modern furniture for his new house. The first post maxed out at 499 responses (499’d!) and it spilled over to a second thread. He chose to have this conversation on Phantasy Tour and found the perfect chair.

for your listening pleasure.

There is a completely robust ecosystem of commerce developed, designed and distributed by fans. The band influenced, independent and run JEMP Radio and Phish Just Jams are music applications built on top of the catalog to service a particular interest, a particular niche. Fan photographers have built an entire business and reputation around their art, one of my favorites being AZN. There’s even a physical marketplace for commerce at live events in the cities the band plays in. Beyond commerce, there are a lot of societal benefits to the growing subculture. For example, the Phellowship is a fan lead group of fans who choose to be drug and alcohol free.

In the culture Phish defined, the subculture now dictates the identity and longevity of the brand in its ability to live in perpetuity. The fans themselves are defining the culture as well as the brand through business. Granted, this took over 30 years and compounds all the time.

Funny enough, this entire movement towards the creator economy with the unbundling and rebundling of media operations and platforms is itself a media subculture. Creators and supporting platforms and services are looking to challenge the interpretive authority of media institutions and their structure by building providence of their own. For some creator’s it’s less about the business and more about the desire to break through the establishment and promote individual freedom and construct an environment of their own. Many that go independent could potentially earn less than if they stayed at an establishment, but that’s not the point. And this is a signal both for how incumbents need to prepare against challengers and how businesses need to be set up to provide a platform for subculture momentum.

A business of subculture and fandom has always existed in music. Phish has taken it to the next level by not only making their consumers creators, but also making them owners. They are very much in the lead here and, against the strong insistence of opportunity in this piece, will be difficult replicate.

The media business has traditionally been built around content. There have been hints of culture driven commerce throughout the years in the NYT blue bag, the New Yorker tote bag, but most of these attempts teetered on the edge of membership and nowhere near the manufacturing of subcultures. We are seeing new media companies begin to work towards this opportunity of moving consumer identity down the line from someone who subscribes, to someone who’s a member, to someone who sees the brand as part of their culture. As business models drive product strategy, the business of manufacturing subculture can’t just be a phenomenon, it must also be a source of brand growth. Encouraging fandom and moving to an environment where consumers become the creators is insurance and future proofing your brand.

Subcultures happen organically with time but they can be pushed towards a direction and accelerated. This tied simply to the idea of brand — in order to drive culture, your brand must have a point of view. In order to drive subculture, you must elicit a response from your consumer who themselves have a point of view. A way to trigger this is to unlock your brand. Rights management is important, and culture is driven through commerce, but holding it too tight means you forfeit earned media potential and the ability for your consumer to become a creator. Consumers becoming creators are good for your brand, especially if it’s built with your brand in mind. The end goal is to have the brand be so associated with the consumer identity, that some even model their life, or business, around it.

Another great example is the agency behind K-pop sensation BTS, Big Hit. They recently listed their initial public offering and it had been massively oversubscribed by both institutional and retail investors. Fans are literally investing in the artists success and are incentivized for them to do well. The fourth wall is breaking.

There are many emerging creators that are building culture through community that, through time and commitment, will elicit subculture. As defined and showcased above, the business of subculture is different from the development of subculture. This is about reversing the flow of expectations about the fans role from a passive consumer to an actual business creator. There is a lot of momentum in the gaming space, especially with the commerce, branding and communities being built by the likes of MrBeast and Ninja, and my expectation is that this is the obvious next phase in their brand expansion.

The environment has changed and so have the platforms. This opportunity is truly rooted in the digital landscape. As media companies work to become record labels and independent creators start their own brands, or collaborate with others to create their own micro label, the business models should follow. As we unbundle and rebundle the operational structure of what a media company is, we should equally unbundle and rebundle the way we drive that business and where we put the emphasis of value. As explained above, that’s a move from content as value to creator as value. And as we shift further away from content and towards the creator, the existing structure of subscription and membership will limit the opportunity for a brand to expand in this next age.

So we enter the business of subculture with a focus on building a brand as a platform. Those that invest in brokering deeper connections with their fans, and enabling them to become creators on behalf of a brand will be way ahead of the curve. There is an incredible opportunity ahead of us in the media industry and I’m excited to see what you all build.

A special thank you to Jacob Donnelly and Josh Sternberg for editing this piece. Subscribe to their newsletters A Media Operator and The Media Nut.

Thanks to Noah Chestnut, Jake Beckman, Josh Sternberg, Dave Nemetz and Josh Elman for their eyes and minds.

This post is all my thoughts & not representative of my employer

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