PCUL1F92 Section 1: Thursday, November-10-11
The Business of Popular Culture
Branding, Lifestyle and the Cultural Commodity
• How do we measure the economic value of popular culture?
• Was the $4000 cell phone of the early 1980s a much better product
than the $400 iPhone of today?
• Clearly we know that the mass production of components along with
much larger user base share cost of infrastructure cut down the costs
per phone. $4000 phone cost so much because so few users were
buying it. The more phones you make, the lower the cost is per
Market Value vs Utility
** Image of an eReader
o Have been around for a number of years, but not living up to
o Then, hit a price point that led to a surge in sales.
o Which led to a significant cultural shift.
New York Times now includes eBooks in the bestseller list.
• Economics clearly plays a role in the business of popular
Pop Culture Economy
• O’Brien and Szeman: “one could say that the entire economy is now
dependent in suprising way son popular culture.” -- possible exam
• What they’re suggesting is that we need to look to broader economic
circumstances as part of any analysis and understanding of popular
• The meaning of a pop culture text is then tied to these wider ‘circuits
• How do we determine that the iPhone is more valuable than the $4000
cell phone, when cost tells us otherwise.
• O’Brien and Szemen point to the critical or aesthetic value (is the
product good?), it is a highly subjective point of view.
• This is distinct from economic value, which can be much more easily
• Are the top-grossing films the ‘best’ films?
** Image of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 ** PCUL1F92 Section 1: Thursday, November-10-11
• Sales records are only one way of measuring popularity.
• But can they reveal anything about the text itself? PCUL1F92 Section 1: Thursday, November-10-11
** Image of last.fm logo **
Online Listening Habits
Analysis of listening habits on LastFM found very little correlation between
sales charts and online ‘charts’.
Do sales really measure popularity?
And yet the sales were still seen as integral to an artist’s success.
Popular vs Art
• Stigma attached to popularity.
• Tied our negative views related to the ‘mass’.
• Is there really a ‘lowest common denominator’?
• Meaning, and culture value, are separated from economic or financial
• This division relies heavily on assumptions.
• Are all Hollywood ‘products’ the same?
• Can something popular also be ‘art’?
The Greatest Film of All Time?
** Poster image of Citizen Kane vs. Wayne’s World Poster **
• Even under-valued works are worthy of study.
• We can learn much about the processes of popular culture through
analysis of them.
o How is our perception-of-self perceived by those who create our
Who is the Mass Audience?
• * Exam question related to defining the mass audience.
• We’ve already seen problems in Mass Culture theory and Frankfurt
• True that producers of popular culture often try to define or create a
sense of the ‘mass’.
• The actual audience is highly fragmented.
• Producers of popular culture try to imagine what a more massive,
uniform audience will like.
• Late capitalist society is “composed of a huge variety of social groups
and subcultures, all held together in a network of social relations in
which the most significant factor is the differential distribution of
o It is power based. PCUL1F92 Section 1: Thursday, November-10-11
• The “people” are relatively powerless, and are interpellated as
consumers. Their position is imagined for them.
• But that does not mean that the “people” respond in this manner. PCUL1F92 Section 1: Thursday, November-10-11
• Lawrence Grossberg: “Popular culture is a sphere in which people
struggle over reality and their place in it.”
• For a product to be popular, it has to meet the needs of various groups
of people as well as the needs of its producers.
• This is difficult to achieve – hence the high failure rate in pop culture
• The costs of production, distribution, promotion, etc.
• The social and cultural meaning (or value) of a product – as something
circulates, how does it come to have value?
• Audiences can reject the products or meanings at the level of
• Fiske: “meanings do not circulate in the cultural economy in the same
way wealth does in the financial [economy]”
o $100 always worth $100
o A Jonas Brothers album does not have the same value in
**Image of Jay Leno on the cover of Entertainment Weekly: TV’s 50
Biggest Bombs Ever! **
• Producers may attempt to shape audiences, but this is not always
• Success may rely on an interplay of meaning between the intentions of
producers and the desires of consumers.
• Fiske notes that finances cannot explain cultural factors, however they
must be still be considered in an analysis of popular culture.
Marx and Use-Value
• Use-value is not the same for cultural products.
• Use-value is the human need that the product will fill.
o If this need doesn’t already exist, advertising will try to make us