The mainstream is all about lots of people liking the same thing. People who like other things are just as curious and commercially active, probably even more so, but they are less easy for the mass media to serve.
I never liked the mainstream much. I grew up with pirate radio during secondary school. At break we would head up the field with our transistors and catch a couple of tracks, just half a dozen of us. We rarely liked the same thing with the same passion, instead we shared our enthusiasm for different things.
So the mainstream has always baffled me. There are some benefits in making, storing, promoting, and selling several million of one CD rather than “only” 50,000 of 60 others. And traditional radio and TV finds it easier to feature a few acts rather than many. But all that is for the convenience of middlemen, not artists or consumers.
We are encouraged through charts and so-called talent shows to pick winners. Winners, of course, are also easy for mass media to mass market, it’s much harder to promote diversity and difference. It’s impossible to feature everything people like and pick winners at the same time.
That’s why even BBC 6Music (the UK national “new music” station) conforms to the post-pirate popular radio template: label-driven playlists and prime time personality presenters, with eclectic music shows relegated to off-peak hours. When the BBC launched Radio One in 1967 it didn’t just make pop radio legal it also made it safe for the masses.
Under its charter the BBC should be “distinctive”, but it isn’t. A distinctive new music radio station would be manned round the clock by music DJs reflecting the true diversity of world (and indeed World) music.
Instead the mass audience has the comfort of experiencing and buying the same stuff as everybody else, and record labels—even though the benefits of mass producing a limited number of titles are much diminished with digital—still sell a very small range. What we don’t know is how many of that mass audience will buy more when they can see and hear it, but it’s my guess we’ll find out in our lifetime.