Nearly extinct pop culture activities

The theme of this week’s newsletter is pop culture activities we used to do, but have since been replaced by other, typically online, things.

I’ve selected three endangered cultural activities to analyse:

  1. Reading books.

  2. Going to a movie theatre.

  3. Listening to albums.

All three were a big part of the culture in the analog era, and even into the digital era (ebooks and music streaming actually made activities #1 and #3 easier).

And yet, books are no longer a conversation starter in society, music streamers are more inclined to listen to playlists over albums, and many of us feel more comfortable paying $7-8 to stream a new movie from home rather than pay $50+ to go to a theatre. Read on for my takes, plus some exclusive Alpha survey data.

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Why we read less books now

I ran a survey on the Alpha platform, asking: how many books do you read per month on average? Here are the results:

(As noted last week, Alpha is an on-demand insights platform that offers access to roughly 100 million panelists from over 250 diverse suppliers worldwide.)

Nearly a third (31%) of respondents, who were from the US and mostly in the Millennial and Generation X demographics, said they don’t read books. About 40% read two or more books per month.

Looking at other surveys, Pew Research reported in March 2018 that “about a quarter of American adults (24%) say they haven’t read a book in whole or in part in the past year, whether in print, electronic or audio form.” A Washington Post report from last June stated that just 19% of Americans “age 15 and older read for pleasure on a given day,” compared to 28% in 2004.

If we take the Alpha and Pew statistics as our indicator, between a quarter and a third of Americans don’t read books at all. Probably over half (60% according to my survey) are not regular book readers.

A couple of observations, from my own experience and what I see in the culture around me.

Firstly, as an avid reader of books myself, I increasingly find it difficult to read a book in the evenings - which is often the only time I have to read for leisure. There are various reasons: my eyes are tired after looking at screens all day, I get easily distracted by social media, I may opt to ‘blob out’ in front of Netflix or whatever, and if I do try to read I find it difficult to focus because the television is usually on for other people in my household.

I’ve heard similar sentiments from other avid readers. Author Bret Easton Ellis has said on his podcast that he typically only reads in the mornings, and that he simply cannot read in the evenings anymore (instead he watches tv or movies). Another author I admire, Chuck Klosterman, was recently asked by the NY Times when he reads books. His reply:

“On airplanes. In airports. From 5:30 a.m. to 6 a.m., unless something interesting is happening on my phone. When I go to a diner by myself. Sometimes from 4 p.m. until 5 p.m., although not consistently.”

Note there’s no mention by Klosterman of reading in the evenings.

If even avid readers aren’t reading as many books in their leisure time, it points to a larger trend: books are no longer an important part of our popular culture. Especially fiction.

Instead, it’s TV shows that dominate the water cooler conversation these days (“Have you binged the new Stranger Things yet?”, “What did you think of Fleabag?”, “Shall we watch another episode of Black Books?” …ok that last one is probably only in my household!).

Perhaps the latest Marvel movie or a new Beyoncé song may get a mention around the water cooler too. But almost never a book.

Streaming culture: tv > movies

I mentioned that tv streaming is what gets talked about in our culture now. Another survey I ran on Alpha backs this up. I asked: how often do you watch streaming TV?

Well over half of respondents (57%) watch streaming tv every day. What’s more, most people seem more than satisfied with the tv and movie fare available:

A remarkable 76% give the selection of shows on the likes of Netflix and Amazon Video a 4 or 5 out of 5. Personally I’d give it a 3, or even less at times. The last Netflix show I truly binged was Narcos: Mexico. I’ve started and given up on multiple new tv shows since then. But clearly I’m the outlier, since three out of every four of my survey respondents was more than happy with the available selection.

So is the popularity of streaming tv the main reason why people don’t go to movie theatres anymore? From a cultural point of view, the answer is undoubtedly yes - because what people discuss now is on your tv, not in a movie theatre. Indeed, unless you’re going out to the movies for a date night or as something to do with your mates, there’s little reason to forgo the comfort of your sofa and a night of binge-watching.

I’d also argue that movies are just not that interesting anymore. I’m apparently one of the few people who absolutely refuses to watch a Marvel movie, but even beyond that the ‘diversity’ of movies available to watch is very thin. Here’s the list of most popular movies on Google Play currently:

Not very inspiring. In fact I scrolled through the top 20 movies on Google Play and only two interested me (Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody, both of which I’ve long since watched).

While your own taste is no doubt different to mine, if you compare movies in 2019 to 1999 (for example), there’s simply no comparison in terms of quality. I used 1999 as the example, because of a book I’m currently enjoying: Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen, by Brian Raftery. Although any year that included The Matrix is a great movie year, in my view!

What will replace albums?

Perhaps you’re thinking I’m an analog nostalgist, with all this talk of 1999 movies and reading books. But actually, I prefer the digital era of books and movies to the analog era. The internet has vastly increased the selection of books I can read. I can now buy (or borrow via a library app like Libby) any ebook at the click of a button, instead of waiting weeks and sometimes months for a paper version to be delivered. As for movies, I’m happy to stream those 1999 greats from a Smart TV app or from my phone to the tv via Chromecast.

For music, I love that a service like Spotify or Apple Music allows me to listen to (in most cases) the entire discography of an artist, any time I want. I listen to whole albums in this way on a regular basis. But again, it seems I’m in the minority.

According to Keith Jopling from music consultancy MIDiA, in a March blog post:

“The penetration of adults that claim to listen to whole albums monthly, stands at just 16% (Q4 ‘18 data from MIDiA, a drop from 22% in the previous quarter)…”

Echoing my own observation above, Jopling goes on to say that “albums are no longer water cooler moments.” However, he adds a bit later in his post that “the album is still the format that drives [music] industry economics as a whole.”

That seems extraordinary. If the dominant music format is only being listened to by 16% of streaming consumers, how long can that format last?

Of all the three cultural activities I’ve discussed today - reading books, watching movies, and listening to albums - it’s the album that feels most ripe for further digital innovation. And there have been some recent experiments along those lines.

Last November, Spotify released a Beatles “playlist experience” based around the famous ‘White Album’. While listening to the album, which included added demos and other music material, you could also view video footage of the Beatles in that era along with other “exclusive visual content.” I found myself watching the videos the first time round, although I largely ignored them on repeated listenings.

I suspect that’s not the end of playlist-like experiments we’ll see with famous albums of the past. Maybe it even points to a future where artists release a set of songs that more closely resembles a playlist than a traditional album. Indeed, Ed Sheeran has arguably already done that this year with his ‘No.6 Collaborations Project’, which seems designed to be added to playlists. Rolling Stone called the project “an all-star event engineered for maximum commercial impact.”


Data Points 📊

  • Nielsen: The average US adult now spends 11 days streaming each month (up from nine days in 2017) and they’re spending more minutes per viewing session. 📺

  • SensorTower: Snapchat downloads grow, while TikTok falls. 📱

  • BoingBoing: Data-mining reveals that 80% of books published 1924-63 never had their copyrights renewed and are now in the public domain. 📚

  • MBW: Spotify closed its second calendar quarter this year with 108m subscribers and 232m total Monthly Active Users (MAUs). 🎹

  • Kepios: More than 46% of the world’s total population now uses social media; for ‘eligible audiences’ – people aged 13 and above – it increases to 59%. 🌎


Tweet of the week 🐦

NY Times and Incidental Comics cartoonist Grant Snider nails the downward trend in book reading, with his “reader’s block” take:


That’s a wrap for another week. A reminder that I’ve opened my inbox to consulting enquiries, so do reach out if you’d like me to dig deeper into a specific sector.

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