Why the Stanley tumbler may be half full
If you were not familiar with the Stanley cup a month ago, you likely are now. Over the holiday season, the 40-ounce tumbler rocketed from being a relatively niche item favourited by moms to the Gen Z stocking stuffer sold-out at Targets everywhere, and now it is seemingly inescapable. The viral moment helped Stanley’s parent company earn what CNBC projects will be $750 million in 2023 — compared to the $70 million it was turning over annually prior to 2020.
Despite the rather astounding boom, which is no doubt a massive success for Stanley, the next step for the product is almost certainly an inevitable bust. It is a general rule of thumb that the moment a niche product starts showing up in mass media, it is no longer “cool” — especially to its original proponents. This cycle is happening faster and faster — with the “golden age” of a scene or niche getting shorter and shorter — and it is happening across sectors. Anyone who genuinely liked UK artist Cordelia O'Driscoll’s song “This Little Life” when it initially started making the rounds on TikTok is probably sick of it by now, so much so that it has become a meme. Similarly, bows are absolutely everywhere in fashion (and beyond), and early adopters who were into the style six months ago are likely rolling their eyes at it by now.
Since 2019, MIDiA has contended that niche is the new mainstream: in the on-demand era, big, mass media hits are being replaced by many niches with cult followings. Sometimes, those niches are propelled to the mainstream, with Billie Eilish being an example of the best-case scenario. Eilish always made music for a niche — she did not sound, look, or act like any mainstream artist. Her reach grew organically over time, as there were enough fans who resonated with her identity across the globe to reach a critical mass, giving her the appearance of being mainstream while still catering to a niche.
We have written extensively about our analysis that future success in the music industry lies in niche scenes with highly-engaged core fanbases. However, the trickiest part will be building on those niches while recognising that being decidedly not mainstream is often what makes them special in the first place.
Independent label survey Playing the volume game
This report presents data from the 2023 MIDiA Research Independent Record Label survey The survey was fielded across three months in H1 2023, closing in May2023, with a sample size of 142 Topics covered...Find out more…
Beware of over-harvesting
An apt analogy is overharvesting, which depletes a resource and may even drive it to extinction. In other words, overharvesting happens when you harvest the resource faster than it can regenerate. The “resource” here is consumer interest / fandom: commercialise a niche product too feverishly, and you momentarily grow your returns (revenue), but may rapidly extinguish your base of people to sell to in the future. Of course, companies cannot necessarily control how this happens, as many products (whether we are talking about shopping items or songs) go viral on their own. However, it is important to recognise that pushing for reach can come at the expense of alienating your core audience base and very quickly exhausting the customers beyond it.
There is an inherent tension to monetising niche
As the music industry looks to niche fandoms as the next frontier, it must be cautious not to tarnish the very thing that binds those fans together. In fact, asked about the fanbases and scenes they are part of, roughly half of consumers agree that they “like the fact that other people do not really ‘get’ us” (MIDiA consumer survey Q1 2023). On Dua Lipa’s podcast At Your Service, Eilish herself remarked that she misses being lesser-known: “It’s a privilege to be able to say you became mainstream, but it’s also kind of like, ‘damn,’” she said. “Nobody wants to say their favourite artist is a mainstream artist [...] You’re really grateful, but you’re also like, ‘remember how special it was when I was just your little secret?’”
This does not mean that we should not boost music niches, or that going big always equates with “selling out”. Rather, it is important to recognise this tension and find the right balance for an artist and / or scene community, so that you do not end up reaping short-term rewards over long-term sustainability. It is possible that niche scenes are simply diametrically opposed to the sort of success that commercial entities want to extract from them — meaning that labels going after the niche strategy will need to fundamentally shift the way they operate, their definitions of success, and so on. In fact, while everyone and their mother (often literally) has been trying to go viral since TikTok started returning overnight stars in 2020, increasingly, some artists may actively seek to avoid it.