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Niche is mainstream. So… what next?

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Photo: Pineapple Supply Co.

Photo of Hanna Kahlert
by Hanna Kahlert

Entertainment industries today are navigating two contrasting pressures. On the one side is the demand for niche personalisation: algorithms drive hyper-targeted content to just the right audiences, who identify strongly with it and form small, powerful communities, which can allow those propositions to carve out durable success. However, as this trend drives ever-smaller successes in an increasingly constrained and competitive landscape, there emerges an imperative for growth; to attain more mainstream relevance and the higher-margin revenues that come with it. Adapting to broader audiences comes with the risk of losing those original, hardcore fans. Thus, the contradictory truth: niche is the new mainstream. But how far can it go?

Spotify’s payments threshold reflects where the drive for niche has diminishing returns. The major label perspective that songs under 1000 streams are ‘trash’, yet can also be ‘undiscovered treasure’, points to this same contradiction. Having fewer than 1000 streams on a song can mean it is undiscovered; that it is a micro-niche with a dedicated (but tiny) fanbase; or that it simply is not very good. There is little way to tell (from a data perspective), and from a monetisation perspective, at the point of under 1000 streams, the distinction may not matter. 

Niche is undeniably important in the algorithmic age of hyper-personalisation. However, the shuttering of Vice and Buzzfeed – the early 2010s’ iconic versions of niche content platforms – indicates that there are other factors at play that can turn niche successes into long-term declines. Thus, it is worth exploring the following questions:  

  1. Why is niche so valuable – and to whom? 

  2. How long does niche stay valuable, and why? 

  3. How should entertainment adapt to recoup the benefits of niche long term? 

The value of niche 

Niche is not new. In-jokes between friends, micro-cultures in school or work environments, and neighbourhood hotspots have always been around. In the past, these ‘niches’ have sometimes scaled upwards. However, it is only with the algorithmic capabilities of hyper-targeting audiences that big propositions have been able to scale down to the point of niche, too. Why is this important? 

Fandom is driven by identity. When asked why fanbases and scenes are valuable to them, audiences say that these are places where they can be themselves, among communities of like-minded people. The more tailored to the individual, the more propositions can tap into this need for connection and personal reflection. Yet again, entertainment is faced with an inherent contradiction: the more personalised the recommendation, the less connection with others is possible, and the more isolating the enjoyment of that can be. Hence the downsides of music streaming, where listening becomes so individualised it becomes background noise rather than something of collective meaning. 

So, being too niche is a problem. But so is being too mainstream. The more ‘successful’ a niche is (the more it grows), the more it loses what made it special in the first place. Social platforms are currently seeing a ‘death of the town square’, where collective cultural spaces become cluttered, unreflective, and uncomfortable to engage in. Even artists sometimes lament their own success, and the loss of freedom and connection that can come with growing their audience from thousands to millions. Thus, niche has value – up to a point. 

The lasting value of niche…? 

The inherent (if inconvenient) truth of niche is that there is no ‘one size fits all’ rule for success. Historically, every mainstream success has started out as niche, in one way or another, and today’s content proliferation has almost made being niche necessary to stand out. Yet bigger, more ‘mainstream’ successes possess a sort of cultural gravity that can make the success last longer. Without scale, what staying power do niches have? 

The counterexample is that of the ‘cult classic’. Rocky Horror Picture Show, for example, has always been on the fringes of mainstream culture, as has The Room. Music genres, like Punk and Metal, offer similar case studies. Yet they are by no means small; instead, they are big enough to have subdivisions of fandom and culture within them but still small enough to maintain a valuable collective identity of ‘us’ versus ‘everyone else’. 

The balancing act of niche, mainstream, and the inevitable onward march of time

To bring it back to Vice and Buzzfeed, they were the original ‘niche’ platforms of the 2010’s, offering lifestyle content tailored to edgy millennials. However, their grandiose shareholder expectations have fallen on a disappointing long-term outlook, as the algorithms on social platforms like TikTok and YouTube have taken the same cultural role. While their focus on niche content was forward-thinking, the battle that these companies lost was over platform value. Audiences wanted the content, but found easier ways to access it elsewhere, and advertisers followed. Moreover, the business model was not the right fit; niche is a good content strategy, but monetisation strategies typically rely on mass reach – splitting the winners into those platforms that act as ‘niche aggregators’, and those that can expand into midsize ‘scenes’, like the previous examples of cult classics and newer music genres, like EDM. 

The inherent tension between niche and mainstream will continue to waver, but it seems that change is in the air. The pendulum that began at mainstream, and then swung to niche, may be swinging back to land somewhere in the middle…and entertainment companies should begin to take stock of where they stand, and how they can continue to succeed in the changing environment. 

The full report outlining this cultural shift – and how entertainment companies can adapt moving forward – will be out in April… so watch this space! 

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