Britney: No. 1 again! The economics of instant gratification

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Thanks, Justin. That was an extraordinarily graceful and generous introduction. I’m now going to repay it by turning your economics blog into a forum to talk about Britney Spears.

I just checked the new Billboard Hot 100 chart of top downloads: at No. 1, Britney Spears, “Gimme More”. I had a hunch she might be up there, up from No. 3 last week. Actually, I’d gone to look with a little bit of a theory in mind.

You might recall–oh, who am I kidding, we can be pretty sure you recall–that just a month ago Britney was supposed to be a washed up has been who could barely make it through a few minutes of an awards show. And that was before the latest custody news. Everybody knows that all publicity is good publicity but this might look like a new extreme. But is it surprising?

The way we used to buy books, movies and music used to be mediated through a series of filters. The professionals got several chances to weigh in. Before buying an album if I hadn’t already listened to it on a friend’s stereo, I’d have read a magazine review. Maybe two. Then I’d listen to a few songs in the store, through the headphones at Virgin Records–and I got the whole song, not just a snippet. The purchase took time, which meant the decision took time. Books took even longer.

Now there’s iTunes. The thing about iTunes is that I don’t have time to second guess my impulse purchase. Of course it’s not totally fair to compare a 99 cent song with a full album or a movie. But I think the general principle that instant purchase and instant gratification reward those musicians (and increasingly it will be actors and film-makers) who are top-of-mind. Over the last few years it has rapidly become more difficult for media to get pushed through the channels of book critics and film reviewers and radio stations. This has given the people who are supposed to sell books and music and movies endless heartache. But it may now be easier for a song or an album or a movie to get that initial kick through publicity or even (Britney!) notoriety. Being top of mind counts for more when you can instantly get what you happen to be thinking about and immediately recognize.

What that means for how media gets bought and consumed (“media,” “consumed” … a construction that within memory would have seemed bizarre) I wouldn’t presume to guess. But I would mark this as an interesting moment in the humbling of the experts that has been the hallmark of the last years. First the experts could no longer decide what was good. Now, horrifically, any mention, no matter how negative is a plus. Does this always hold? I don’t know. Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto was not hurt by his anti-semitic outburst; Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible III does seem to have been by his weird ways. But those purchases are not instant. I suspect that that the closer we come to instant gratification, the more even infamy will be rewarded. Be not surprised if next year’s story about a celebrity arrest comes with a link to download his latest movie.