Interesting article on the phenomena of “choice paralysis” in the music industry, and how that net result of that is the rich getting richer while more and more “midlist” artists are having to share a smaller and smaller piece of the pie.

Think about it this way: maybe you’re interested in listening to some industrial, so you go into the music store and find it has six CDs for sale in the rack. You already own the KMFDM one (who doesn’t?), and Marilyn Manson was kinda cool when you were 15 but now you’re after something a bit more grown up. That leaves one Combichrist CD, one from Nitzer Ebb, and also one André Rieu which somehow ended up in the wrong section. So really, your choice is between two: you’ve heard a little Nitzer Ebb before and liked it, but meanwhile your bestie totally raves about Combichrist. So you pick one.

Two trips back to the store later, you admit you’ve exhausted your options for buying music the Old Fashioned Way (you rivet-hipster, you), so decide to go looking online. You go looking on Amazon, in fact, and this is what you see:

It's like being a teenager all over again!

It’s like being a teenager all over again!

Rob Zombie, nin, Marilyn Manson, Rammstein. On page two you start getting some different things pop up: a bit of HIM, some Godsmack, that X-Files soundtrack CD from the 90s… plus Marilyn Manson, nin, Rammstein, and Rob Zombie. As you go through the pages, different artists start popping in. Except the same few names turn up again, and again, and again. It’s like… why fight it, right?

In the end, you buy Closer. Because someone you follow on Twitter mentioned it the other day, and the fact you don’t own it made you feel like the Subculture Police are going to burst in at any moment and confiscate all your spiked bracelets.

In fact, Amazon’s great for that: if you know you want something, then it is the Number 1 Perfect Place to get it. Just type in what you’re looking for and bam. One drone-drop later, and it’s yours.

The problem with Amazon–and lest anyone think I’m unduly picking on the ‘Zon, pretty much every large online retailer suffers from the same–is that it’s not a particularly great place to find new things, particularly for casual browsers. This is a problem in the book world just as much as it is in the music scene, and lest anyone try arguing might I remind you how obsessed everyone–from the smallest indie to the biggest New York house–is right now about the buzzword “discoverability”.

This is discoverability. It’s the acceptance that choice paralysis is a thing (basically: when faced with too many options, people are more likely to choose no option) and that, moreover, success breeds success. A casual browser looking for a quick buy is almost certainly going to go with what they’ve heard of before, rather than wading through mountains of stuff to find the one thing they maybe want. That’s the thing about being a big “brand”; people have heard of you.

Say I’ve never read a horror novel but I really liked American Horror Story and now think I might give something a try. Without doing any other research other than what I’ve absorbed as part of the culture, what am I going to be picking up first?

Okay, now hands up who didn’t say “Stephen King”. Be honest now. (And to those of you who said “H.P. Lovecraft”, how did you find the finale of True Detective?)1

The tyranny of choice is real, and it does serve to consolidate power. Note also that no one is saying it’s impossible to reach the 1%, only that it becomes exponentially more difficult the more options you’re having to fight against; if it’s only you versus six other people in the rack, then your chances for a sale are good. When it’s you versus 2,000 they get significantly tougher. And, because money’s involved, people tend to stick with what they know they’ll like.

  1. And yes, I know it’s Bierce and Chambers.