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Clutter versus curation: The cure to entertainment’s attention saturation woes

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Photo: Samantha Gades

Photo of Hanna Kahlert
by Hanna Kahlert

Across digital content – be that music, TV, social video, or just photos on Instagram – algorithms favour a “more is more” approach. More content, more often, means better visibility, better discovery, and better monetisation opportunities.

This has resulted in a sort of ‘content surplus’; more content all the time, everywhere. Yet, as MIDiA called years ago, audiences have already reached their saturation point of time and attention. The hamster wheel only goes faster, despite the fact that creators, studios, and audiences alike are all desperate for a sustainable pace they can reasonably keep up with.

This is resulting in breakdowns across the value chain. In music, pop stars are becoming harder to break, because there is not enough ‘mainstream’ left to grab hold of. For content creators, the discovery-first algorithm means they are often only reaching small portions of their own audiences. This has caused many to resort to tactics such as WhatsApp groups or Discord channels for their fans, so they can reliably keep up with the creators they care about.

On video streaming platforms, new releases clog up landing pages, and word-of-mouth remains the main discovery method. On music streaming platforms, audiences still primarily rely on their own curated collections of music to backtrack their activities (or simply just listen), even if they do turn to the likes of ‘radio’, ‘recommended’, and pre-made playlists for discovery. And for social, users are using different apps for different purposes, even if their friends and the creators they follow have profiles on all of them. MIDiA’s recent report dives into these specific proclivities, but in short, some (like Discord) are used for networking and meeting new people, others (like Twitter, well, X) are for engaging in discussions, and yet more (like WhatsApp) are for keeping up with friends. With no reliable way to curate content in a bespoke way per app, they are curating social content themselves by using different apps for different purposes.

The answer that audiences are already finding to content clutter is curation. From curating their own music collections, to using a broad array of apps with similar features for completely different purposes.

As with anything, there is challenge here alongside opportunity. In social, for example, the everything approach (as for Meta’s platforms) only works in the sense that the on-platform networks are too big at this point to fail. However, for others, like Snapchat (and for new challengers), honing-in on their specific use context and super-serving that which allows them to foster and maintain regular usage and daily checkpoints are harder to disrupt. 

Video streaming platforms have the ‘curation’ advantage simply through the content they each have license to host. Audiences will come to certain platforms to watch certain things that they already know of, and already want to watch. While this may not be ideal from the perspective of being able to control what audiences are viewing, it is a system that – apparently – is working fairly well.

Music, however, may have the biggest challenges. The major music streaming services all have most music available on them, which is both a blessing and a curse, as it means that the apps must compete directly and cannot coexist in users’ entertainment lives. As creator tools empower music creation and editing to be easier and more accessible than ever, the platforms are becoming increasingly cluttered. For a platform like BandLab, this is precisely the point. For a platform like SoundCloud, which has always been a safe space for creators to air early versions of their work and play with sounds, this still works. For Apple Music, which has higher barriers to upload, the curated approach remains viable. It is Spotify that faces the biggest challenge: by aiming to encompass as much as it could in the younger, digital streaming industry, it now faces the problem of too much.

Not only is it fairly easy for users to upload their own tracks, but now TikTok versions of songs (“Reverb / slowed down – TikTok version” is now a common track name suffix) are cluttering the platform, and AI-generated music is likely to surge as well. Curation remains in the hands of audiences to cultivate their own collections of music, which is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, listening to music has always been a very personal experience, and our recent report shows that fans associate their identities with the music they listen to. However, it does pose problems for creators looking to actually make money from their craft, as it becomes ever more difficult to reach their own fans and earn enough streams to generate income.

Solving the clutter problem is especially hard for music streaming services because most of their users do not see it as a problem. Over a third of music subscribers agree that they struggle to navigate the vast amount of music on streaming services (MIDiA Consumer Survey, Q4 2022). Things get even more complicated once you realise that it is in Spotify’s interest for AI-generated and / or consumer-generated music to proliferate on the platform, since it is much cheaper to license than music from major labels.

With TikTok Music now launched in three emerging markets, Spotify will face an existential question. Compete directly with TikTok Music and all of the remixes, reverbs, and fan-made content from the app will likely feature. Or go the way of Apple Music and offer a more curated approach to music listening, with higher barriers to upload (e.g., some sort of verification process or proof of rights ownership) and greater focus on music creators who depend on streaming for income.

Audiences are already used to curating their entertainment experiences by choosing which app on their phone to open, as opposed to relying on in-app curation. The solution to “too much” is “less” – something all entertainment platforms, Spotify in particular, should keep in mind.

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