Media outlets  produce content that caters to distinct tastes in hopes that it will resonate with a desired audience. Predicting what will become popular, however, is no easy feat. Popularization is a phenomenon that has its basis in media producers making educated guesses about what will satisfy consumers.

Like most industries, the media operates on a basis of supply and demand. The content that an outlet curates and produces is always subject to the approval of their consumers.

Media outlets are obligated to follow this equation if they wish to maintain audience engagement and spread their reach. In an increasingly interconnected and digitized world, critical observation of media becomes crucial to understanding the politics of popularization. If people can observe how and why content becomes popular, they can begin to understand which aesthetics, brands, and forms generate attention better than others.

Quality content

Anupa Mistry is the Canada editor of The FADER, a magazine based in New York City that specializes in taste-making and spotlighting underground music and culture. Mistry believes that “it’s great that a lot of young people are blogging about music and culture.” The influx of blogging, however, crowds the marketplace for music journalism, in Mistry’s view.

“Publications will blog about any and every single thing,” she says, which makes it difficult to distinguish the kinds of content that a given generation is receptive to ­­— in other words, their taste profile. One result of this, according to Mistry, is that the industry is saturated with the ideas known to have once garnered attention. She says that it is a hallmark of the digital era that blurs the line between what the public wants to consume and what they are simply being offered en masse.

Generations’ tastes are constantly changing. They are not easily reduced to specific criteria such as likeness, shape, or form. Popular content offers added value in many ways. In the right place, at the right time, popular content accomplishes something, whether it is connecting with its consumers on a personal level or challenging stylistic and creative limitations.

Content quality, then, is a concept in flux rather than an objective trait. Artists can aspire to a certain caliber of work, but ultimately how their content is received  by the audience will determine whether or not they are successful.

Alyssa Petru, digital coordinator for Bell Media, suggests that the ability of content producers to compete with the constant growth of content archives on the Internet is in itself a measure of the quality of the artist’s work. Content creators that have stayed “honest and true to themselves, and [avoided] getting caught up in an idea of what they should be, or what ‘character’ they should play” have been the most successful in Petru’s view. In her experience, the “authenticity of the individual,” and “differentiation among a sea of creators” tend to help art stand out online. “Finding that rare niche or theme that defines your brand and sticks with you and your audience is crucial to a foreseeable future of sustainable success.”

Corinne Pryzbyslawski and Vanessa Wang/The Varsity.

Corinne Pryzbyslawski and Vanessa Wang/The Varsity.

According to Mistry, regardless of whether they are receiving publicity through underground publications or corporate powerhouses, “talent really is what’s going to sustain an artist’s career.” Marketing tactics, such as unique use of social media or the proliferation of a particular aesthetic can help content generate attention at first; however, sustained popularity depends upon the artist’s ability to produce content that suits changing tastes. Marketing tactics and the use of aesthetics alone would not be enough to propel content that people do not enjoy. This, Mistry says, is “totally apparent in people’s online behaviours.”

Mistry advises that artists in the nascent stage of their careers would be prudent to focus on their craft and not to get “caught up on visual aesthetic,” for these reasons.

Going viral

Taste and timing work in tandem to spur mass-consumption — in other words, they are necessary to make something ‘go viral.’ Artists who are good at recognizing appetites within the market are at an advantage when publishing viral content. The key to content going viral, it would seem, is a well-timed release that corresponds to the public mood.

Frazer Lavender knows about the importance of timing. He founded the Toronto Radio Project (TRP) in November 2014, after sensing that there was an unfulfilled demand for independent music channels playing good local content in the city. The independent station now boasts a 24 hour schedule of shows five days a week, and their Facebook page has over 3,000 likes.

Radio projects like TRP are crucial to the media landscape. They help make people aware of independent content they might not otherwise consume. TRP strives to “introduce Toronto to its own artists,” through shows like Intersections, hosted by Michael Newton, and New Toronto Radio, hosted by Devon Little. Where FM radio might be “obviously pushing a sound or an artist,” Lavender says TRP has the curatorial freedom to “become the voice” for the tastes of this generation.

New Toronto Radio specializes in showcasing underground content that is set to emerge from Toronto. Little curates the show’s content from a wide variety of brands and genres. He admits that while branding can sometimes help in directing the attention of a tastemaker, it is not the main factor in his curatorial decisions, saying that “if the music is good, I’ll play it.”

Corinne Pryzbyslawski and Vanessa Wang/The Varsity.

Corinne Pryzbyslawski and Vanessa Wang/The Varsity.

Newton adds that “the hours in a day don’t ever grow, but [TRP] did.” This provided the station the freedom to narrow the focus of each channel into distinct musical niches. Newton’s show tends to be “mostly focused on guitar-centric bands, because that’s [the show’s] taste spectrum,” but he still seeks a wide variety of music to play.

For example, in the past, Newton says he, “played very obvious, ‘iPhone-in-the-middle-of-the-floor’ punk band demos” because the craftsmanship of the song was of such a high caliber. Newton notes that “Some of [his] favourite albums are very raw, and not technically great, but the song craft is there.” When it comes to the quality of music, for Newton, “not everything has to sound like Paul Simon’s Graceland.”

Lavender says that there are many approaches to the curation of a radio show, one of which is simply to select music that you enjoy. According to Lavender, “By doing that, you’re still producing something good. You’re generating a community for that niche. It invites other people to participate.”

He notes the reception of the content being shared is instantly apparent. “[I]t’s clear to see when people have something they want to do, it resonates straight away.” 

In the case of TRP, Lavender says “It’s curated, it’s thought out, and it’s supposed to be, at times, a little jarring, where you go from a political chat show to a live hardware electronic music.”

Tune in to tastes

Garnering attention may strike some artists as the immediate goal when preparing content, but the reality is that aesthetics and branding do not supersede talent. Creators of content must work on their craft and attempt to predict what will generate positive reception based on people’s tastes.

Marketing tactics, when they are well-applied, can help artists to gain attention in the digital media industry, but not all content that imitates previous success will have this effect.

Content that is deemed ‘quality’ is largely dependent on the environment in which the content is showcased. As a result, the popularization of content becomes a reflection of the communities that consume and create it. For this reason, critical observation of public attitudes is incredibly important to creative industries.