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Processing Fads and Fashions: An Organization-Set Analysis of Cultural Industry Systems

Author(s): Paul M. Hirsch

Source: American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 77, No. 4 (Jan., 1972), pp. 639-659
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
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Processing Fads and Fashions: An Organization-
Set Analysis of Cultural Industry Systems1
Paul M. Hirsch
Indiana University

Organizations engaged in the production and mass distribution of

"cultural" items are often confrontedby highly uncertain environ-
ments at their input and output boundaries. This paper outlines
the structureand operation of entrepreneurialorganizations in the
most speculative segments of three cultural industries: book pub-
lishing, phonograph records, and motion pictures. Commercial cul-
tural products are conceived as nonmaterial goods, directed at a
mass public of consumers, for whom they serve an esthetic, rather
than a clearly utilitarian purpose. Three adaptive "coping" strat-
egies are set forthand examined: the deploymentof "contact" men
to organizational boundaries; overproduction and differentialpro-
motion of new items; and the cooptation of mass-media gate-
keepers. The concept of an "industry system" is proposed as a
useful frame of reference in which to trace the filteringof new
products and ideas as they flow fromproducer to consumer and in
which to examine relations among organizations. This substantive
area, seldom viewed from an organizational perspective, is then
related to a growing body of literature in the subfield of inter-
organizational relations.

Some years ago I had the opportunity to studyratherextensivelyand at

firsthand the women'sfashionindustry.I was forciblyimpressedby the
fact that the settingor determination of fashion takes place actually
throughan intenseprocessof selection.At a seasonal openingof a major
Parisianfashionhouse theremay be presenteda hundredor moredesigns
of women'seveningwear beforean audienceof fromone to two hundred
buyers.The managerialcorps of the fashionhouse is able to indicatea
groupof about thirtydesignsof the entirelot,insideof whichwill fall the
small number,usually about six to eightdesigns,that are chosenby the
buyers,but the managerialstaffis typicallyunable to predictthis small
numberon whichthe choicesconverge.Now, thesechoicesare made by the
buyers-a highlycompetitiveand secretivelot-independentlyof each
otherand withoutknowledgeof each other'sselections.Why shouldtheir

1 This paper was developed in connection with a study of the popular music in-
dustry and its audience conducted at the Survey Research Center, Universityof
Michigan, under the supervisionof Dr. Stephen B. Withey and supported by grant
numbers 1-RO1-MH17064-01 and 1-FO1-MH48847-01 from the National Institute
of Mental Health. I wish to thank Edward 0. Laumann, AlbertJ. Reiss, Jr., Randall
Collins, Theodore L. Reed, David R. Segal, and an anonymous reviewerfor critical
commentson an earlier version of this paper, presented at the sixty-fifth annual
meetingof the American Sociological Association,August 1970.

AJS Volume 77 Number4 639

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AmericanJournalof Sociology
choicesconvergeon a fewdesignsas theydo? Whenthebuyerswereasked
whytheychoseone dressin preferenceto another-betweenwhichmyin-
experiencedeye could see no appreciabledifference-thetypical,honest,
yet largely uninformative answer was that the dress was "stunning."
[Blumer 1969, pp. 278-79]
The preselectionof goods for potentialconsumptionis a featurecom-
mon to all industries.In orderfornew productsor ideas to reach con-
sumers,they must firstbe processedfavorablythrougha systemof
organizationswhose units filterout a large proportionof candidates
before they arrive at the consumptionstage (Barnett 1953). Much
theoryand researchon complexorganizations is concernedwithisolated
aspects of this processby whichinnovationsflowthroughorganization
systems-suchas the relationof researchand development units to the
industrialfirm(Burns and Stalker 1961; Wilensky1968); or problems
encountered by public agenciesattemptingto implementnew policy de-
cisions (Selznick 1949; Bailey and Mosher 1968; Moynihan1969).
Most studiesof the "careers"of innovations, however,treatonly the
invention and the ultimateadoptionstagesas problematic. The "through-
put" sector, comprisedof organizationswhich filterthe overflowof
information and materialsintendedforconsumers, is generallyignored.2
Literatureon the diffusionof innovations,for example,is concerned
solely with the receptionaccorded a new productby consumerssub-
sequent to its release into the marketplaceby sponsoringorganizations
(Rogers 1962). From an organizationalperspective,two questionsper-
tainingto any innovationare logicallyprior to its experiencein the
marketplace:(1) by what criteriawas it selectedfor sponsorshipover
available alternatives?and (2) might certain characteristicsof its
organizationalsponsor,such as prestigeor the size of an advertising
budget,substantially aid in explainingthe ultimatesuccess or failureof
the new productor idea?
In modern,industrialsocieties,the productionand distributionof
both fineart and popular cultureentail relationships amonga complex
networkof organizations whichboth facilitateand regulatethe innova-
tion process.Each object mustbe "discovered,"sponsored,and brought
to publicattentionby entrepreneurial organizations or nonprofitagencies
beforethe originating artistor writercan be linkedsuccessfully to the
intendedaudience. Decisions taken in organizationswhose actions can
block or facilitatecommunication, therefore,may wield great influence
over the access of artistand audienceto one another.The contentof a
nation's popular cultureis especiallysubject to economicconstraints
2 A notable exception is Alfred Chandler's classic study of corporate innovation
(1962). In the areas of fine art and popular culture,this problem has been noted
by Albrecht (1968), Barnett (1959), Baumol and Bowen (1968), and Gans (1966).


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ProcessingFads and Fashions
due to the largerscale of capitalinvestment requiredin thisarea to link
creatorsand consumerseffectively.3
This paper will outlinethe structureand operationof entrepreneurial
organizationsengagedin the productionand mass distribution of three
typesof "cultural"items: books,recordings, and motionpictures.Entre-
preneurialorganizations in culturalindustriesconfront a set of problems
to studentsof interorganizational relations,mainly:
goal dissensus,boundary-spanning role occupantswith nonorganizational
norms,legal and value constraintsagainst vertical integration,and,
hence,dependenceon autonomousagencies (especiallymass-mediagate-
keepers) for linkingthe organizationto its customers.In responseto
environmental uncertainties, mainlya high-riskelementand changing
patternsof distribution, theyhave evolveda richassortment of adaptive
"coping"strategies and, thus,offera promising arena in whichto develop
and apply tentativepropositions derivedfromstudiesof othertypes of
organizations and advancedin the fieldof organization studies.Our focal
organizations(Evan 1963) are the commercialpublishinghouse, the
moviestudio,and the recordcompany.My description of theiroperation
is based on information and impressions gatheredfrom(1) an extensive
samplingof trade papers directedat membersof these industries,pri-
marily:Publishers'Weekly,Billboard,and Variety; (2) 53 open-ended
interviews withindividualsat all levels of the publishing,recording, and
broadcastingindustries4 and (3) a thoroughreview of available


Culturalproductsmay be definedtentativelyas "nonmaterial"goods

directedat a public of consumers,for whom they generallyserve an
3 As Lane (1970a, p. 240) puts it, a central sociological question is the extent to
which sponsoringorganizations"manage and control values and knowledge rather
than simply purvey." An organizational approach to the study of American mass
culture suggeststhat changes in content can be caused by shrinkingmarkets only
partiallydue to shiftsin consumertaste preferences.Industryobserverssee increased
public access since 1955 to "art" films (Houston 1963; Gubeck 1969) and popular-
song lyrics with protest themes (Carey 1969) as reflectingthe near-total loss of a
once-dependableaudience, whose unchangedpredispositionsnow receive confirmation
from television fare. The advent of television forced movie exhibitors and radio-
station managers to relinquishthe majority audience and alter program content to
attract minoritysubcultures previously neglected for economic reasons. The pro-
duction of "rock 'n' roll" recordsand filmsby independentproducerswas stimulated
by unprecedentedopportunityfor radio air play and exhibition (Hirsch 1971).
While the altered content representsthe best market share now available to many
producers and distributors,it is directed at the teenage and intellectualmarkets,
respectively,and not to formerpatrons.

4Large firmsand record-industrypersonnel are disproportionatelyrepresented.


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AmericanJournalof Sociology

estheticor expressive,ratherthan a clearlyutilitarianfunction.Insofar

as one of its goals is to createand satisfyconsumerdemandfornew fads
and fashions,everyconsumerindustryis engagedto some extentin the
productionof culturalgoods,and any consumergood can thusbe placed
along the impliedcontinuumbetweenculturaland utilitarianproducts.
The two poles, however,should be intuitivelydistinct.Movies, plays,
books,art prints,phonographrecords,and pro footballgames are pre-
dominantlyculturalproducts;each is nonmaterialin the sense that it
embodiesa live,one-of-a-kind performance and/orcontainsa unique set
of ideas. Foods and detergents, on the otherhand, serve more obvious
utilitarianneeds. The term"culturalorganization"refershere only to
Noncommercial or strictlylocal organizations,such as university
and athleticteams,respectively, are thus excludedfromconsideration.A
fundamentaldifference betweenentrepreneurial organizationsand non-
profitagenciesis summarized by Toffler(1965, pp. 181-82):
In the non-profitsectorthe end-product is most frequently a live perfor-
mance-a concert,a recital,a play. If for purposesof economicanalysis
we considera live performanceto be a commodity, we are immediately
struckby the fact that,unlikemost commoditiesofferedfor sale in our
society,thiscommodity is not standardized.It is not machinemade.It is a
handicrafted item. . . . Contrastthe outputof the non-profit performing
arts withthat of the recordmanufacturer. He, too, sells what appears to
be a performance. But it is not. It is a replicaof a performance, a mass-
producedembodiment of a performance... . The book publisher,in effect,
does the same.The originalmanuscript of thepoem or novelrepresents the
author'sworkof art,theindividual,theprototype.The book in whichit is
subsequentlyembodied is a [manufactured]replica of the original.Its
formof productionis fullyin keepingwiththe level of technologyin the
surrounding society.
Our frameof referenceis the culturalindustrysystem,comprisedof all
organizationsengagedin the processof filtering new productsand ideas
as theyflowfrom"creative"personnelin the technicalsubsystemto the
managerial,institutional,and societal levels of organization(Parsons
1960). Each industrysystemis seen as a single,concrete,and stablenet-
workof identifiableand interacting components. The conceptof organi-
zation levels, proposed initially to analyze transactionswithin the
boundariesof a single,large-scaleorganization, is easily applied to the
analysis of interorganizationalsystems.Artistand mass audience are
linked by an ordered sequence of events: before it can elicit any
audience response,an art object firstmust succeed in (a) competition
againstothersforselectionand promotion by an entrepreneurial organiza-
tion,and then in (b) receivingmass-mediacoveragein such formsas
book reviews,radio-stationair play, and film criticism.It must be


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ProcessingFads and Fashions
orderedby retail outlets for display or exhibitionto consumersand,
ideally,its authoror performer will appear on televisiontalk shows' and
be writtenup as an interesting news story.Drawving on a functionalist
modelof organizational controland facilitation of innovationsproposed
by Boskoff(1964), we viewthemass mediain theirgatekeeping roleas a
primary"institutional regulatorof innovation."
A numberof conceptsand assumptions implicitin thispaper are taken
fromthe developingfieldof interorganizational relationsand elaborated
on morefullyby Thompson(1967).6 Studiesin this emergingtradition
typicallyview all phenomenafromthe standpointof the organization
underanalysis.It seldominquiresinto the functionsperformed by the
organizationfor the social systembut asks rather,as a temporary
partisan,how the goals of the organizationmay be constrainedby
society.The organizationis assumedto act undernormsof rationality,
and the subjectof analysisbecomesits formsof adaptationto constraints
imposedby its technology and "task environment." The term"organiza-
tion-set"has been proposedby Evan (1963) as analogousto the role-set
conceptdevelopedby Merton (1957) foranalyzingrole relationships:
a particular
statusas theunitofanalysis,
as Mertondoes
in hie role-setanalysis,I take . . . an organization,
or a class of organiza-
tions,and traceits interactions
withthenetwork of organizationsin its
environment,i.e.,withelementsof its organization-set.
As a partialsocial
system,a focalorganization dependson inputorganizations forvarious
typesofresources: personnel,
Thefocalorganization inturnproduces a productora servicefora market,
an audience,
a clientsystem,
etc.[Evan 1963,pp. 177-79]
Afterexamining transactions
betweenthe focalorganizationand elements
of its task environment,7
we will describethreeadaptivestrategiesdevel-
oped by culturalorganizationsto minimizeuncertainty. Finally,varia-
tions withineach industrywill be reviewed.


The publishinghouse, movie studio,and recordcompanyeach invests

capitalin the creationsand servicesof affiliated
entrepreneurial organiza-
tions and individualsat its input (product selection) and output
(marketing)boundaries.Each effectsvolumesales by linkingindividual

An excellent,first-person
account of this experienceis provided by Cowan (1970).
6 For a more far-rangingconsiderationof the genesis and life cycle of fads and
fashionsfromthe standpointof classic sociological theories,see Meyersohnand Katz
(1957), Blumer (1968), and Denzin (1970).
7 A focal organization'stask environmentconsists of other organizationslocated on
its input and output boundaries.


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AmericanJournalof Sociology
creatorsand producerorganizations withreceptiveconsumersand mass-
media gatekeepers.New materialis sought constantlybecause of the
rapid turnoverof books,films,and recordings.
Cultural organizationsconstitutethe managerialsubsystemsof the
industrysystemsin which they must operate.From a universeof in-
novationsproposedby "artists"in the "creative" (technical) subsystem,
theyselect ("discover") a sampleof culturalproductsfororganizational
sponsorshipand promotion.A distinctivefeatureof cultural industry
systemsat the presenttime is the organizationalsegregationof func-
tionalunitsand subsystems. In the productionsector,the technicaland
manageriallevelsof organization are linkedby boundary-spanning talent
scouts-for example,acquisitionseditors,record"producers,"and film
directors-locatedon the inputboundaryof the focal organization.
To this point,culturalindustriesresemblethe construction industry
and other organizationsystems characterizedby what Stinchcombe
(1959) calls "craftadministration of production."The locationof pro-
fessionalsin the technicalsubsystem,and administrators in the mana-
gerialone, indicatesthatproductionmay be organizedalong craftrather
than bureaucraticlines (Stinchcombe1959). In the culturalindustry
system,lower-levelpersonnel(artists and talent scouts) are accorded
professionalstatusand seldomare associatedwithany one focal organi-
zation forlong timeperiods.Althoughcompanyexecutivesmay tamper
with the final product of their collaborations,contractedartists and
talent scouts are delegatedthe responsibility of producingmarketable
creations,withlittleor no interference fromthe frontofficebeyondthe
settingof budgetarylimits (Petersonand Berger 1971). Due to wide-
spread uncertainty over the preciseingredientsof a best-sellerformula,
administrators are forcedto trust the professionaljudgmentof their
employees.Close supervisionin the productionsector is impeded by
ignoranceof relationsbetweencause and effect.8 A highlyplaced spokes-
man for the recordingindustry(Brief 1964, pp. 4-5) has stated the
problemas follows:
We havemaderecords thatappearedto haveall thenecessary ingredients
-artist,song,arrangements, promotion, etc.-to guaranteetheywindup
as bestsellers.... Yet theyfellflaton theirfaces.On theotherhandwe
haveproducedrecordsforwhichonlya modestsuccesswas anticipated
thatbecamerunaway bestsellers.. . . Thereare a largenumber of com-
paniesin ourindustry employing a largenumberof talentedperformers
andcreative producers whocombine theirtalents, andtheir
creativity a recordthateachis surewillcaptivate theAmerican
8 "Production"hererefersto theperformances or manuscriptscreatedby artistsand
talentscoutsfor later replicationin the formof books,film-negative prints,and
phonograph records.The physicalmanufacture of thesegoodsis sufficiently
to our discussion.
able to controlas to be nearlyirrelevant


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ProcessingFads and Fashions
public. The fact that only a small proportionof the outputachieves hit
statusis not onlytrueof our industry.... There are no formulasforpro-
ducinga hit record. . . just as thereare no pat answersforproducinghit
plays,or sell-outmoviesor best-sellingbooks.

Stinchcombe's(1959, 1968) associationof craft administration with

a minimization of fixedoverheadcosts is supportedin the case of cul-
tural organizations.Here, we find,for example,artists (i.e., authors,
singers,actors) contractedon a royaltybasis and offeredno tenurebe-
yond the expirationof the contract.Remuneration(less advance pay-
ment on royalties)is contingenton the numberof books, records,or
theaterticketssold afterthe artist'sproductis releasedinto the market-
place.9 In addition,movie-production companiesminimizeoverheadby
hiringon a per-picture basis and rentingsets and costumesas needed
(Stinchcombe1968), and publishersand record companiesfrequently
subcontractout standardizedprintingand record-pressing jobs.
The organizationof cultural industries'technicalsubsystemsalong
craftlines is a functionof (a) demanduncertainty and (b) a "cheap"
technology. Demand uncertainty is caused by: shiftsin consumertaste
preferences and patronage (Gans 1964; Meyersohnand Katz 1957);
legal and normativeconstraintson verticalintegration(Conant 1960;
Brockway1967); and widespreadvariabilityin the criteriaemployedby
mass-mediagatekeepersin selectingculturalitems to be awardedcover-
age (Hirsch 1969). A cheap technologyenables numerousculturalor-
ganizationsto competein producinga surplusof books, records,and
low-budgetfilmson relativelysmall capital investments. The cost of
producingand manufacturing a new long-playrecordor hard-coverbook
for the generalpublic is usually less than $25,000 (Brief 1964; Frase
1968). Once sales pass the break-evenpoint (about 7,000 copies for
books and 12,000 for records,very roughly),the new productbegins
to showa profit.10 On reachingsales of 20,000 a new book is eligiblefor
best-sellerstatus; "hit records" frequentlysell over several hundred
thousandcopieseach. Mass media exposureand volumesales of a single
itemgenerallycoverearlierlossesand yieldadditionalreturns.Sponsoring

9 Royalty paymentsin the motion-pictureindustryare an alternativeto costly,long-

term contractswith establishedmovie stars and permit producersto partially defer
expendituresuntil the picture is in exhibition. Contracts specifyingroyalties (in
addition to negotiated fees) are limited to well-known actors with proven "track
records." Author-publishercontracts are more uniform,specifyingroyalties of at
least 10% to all authors. Record companies seldom provide royalties higher than
3%-5% of sales. Since popular records are frequentlypurchased in greater quanti-
ties than best-sellingbooks, however,musicians' royaltiesmay equal or exceed those
of authors.
10The cost of producingand manufacturing(45 rpm) record "singles" averages only
$2,500 (Brief 1964).


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AmericanJournalof Sociology

organizationstend to judge the successof each new book or recordon

thebasis of its performance in the marketplaceduringthe firstsix weeks
of its release. Movies requirea far more substantialinvestmentbut
followa similarpattern.11
These sourcesof variancebest accountforthe craftadministration of
productionat the input boundaryof the cultural organization.It is
interesting to note that in an earlier,morestable environment, that is,
less heterogeneous marketsand fewerconstraints on verticalintegration,
the productionof both filmsand popularrecordswas administered more
bureaucratically: lower-level personnelwere delegatedless responsibility,
overheadcosts were less oftenminimized,and the status of artistsre-
sembledmorecloselythe salariedemployee'sthan the free-lance profes-
sional's (Coser 1965; Brown 1968; Powdermaker1950; Rosten 1941;
Hughes 1959; Montagu 1964; Petersonand Berger1971).
At theiroutputboundaries,culturalorganizations confront highlevels
of uncertainty concerning the commercialprospectsof goods shippedout
to nationalnetworksof promotersand distributors. Stratification
each industryis based partlyon each firm'sabilityto controlthe distri-
butionof marginallydifferentiated products.Competitiveadvantagelies
with firmsbest able to link available input to reliableand established
distribution channels.In the book industry,distribution "for the great
majorityof titlesis limited,ineffective,and costly.In part thisweakness
in distributionis a directconsequenceof the strengthof the industryin
issuingmaterials.... If it were harder to get a book published,it
wouldbe easier to get it distributed"(Lacy 1963, pp. 53-54).12
The mass distributionof culturalitems requiresmore bureaucratic
organizationalarrangements than the administrationof production,for
example,a higherproportionof salaried clerks to process information,
greatercontinuity of personneland ease of supervision,
less delegationof
responsibility,and higherfixedoverhead(Stinchcombe1959). Whereas
11 Low-budget feature films range in cost from $100,000 to $2 million each. The
break-even point for movies is believed to be $4 in box-officereceipts for each
dollar investedin the film.A recentfilm,Easy Rider, produced on a low budget of
$360,000,is reportedto have earned $50 million in box-officereceiptsand netted its
producers approximately$10 million. "Rather than make one expensive film,with
all the correctbox-officeinsurancein the way of story and star-casting,and see the
whole thinggo down the drain," many producershave tried putting"the same kind
of money into three or four cheap filmsby young directors,gamblingthat at least
one of them would prove [to be a smash]" (Houston 1963, p. 101). Houston's de-
scriptionof French filmmakinghas since come to characterizeits Americancounter-
12 Prior to implementation of a (1948) judgmentby the U.S. Supreme Court, inde-
pendent and foreignfilm-productioncompanies without powerful distributionarms
were blocked most effectivelyfrom access to consumersthrough movie exhibition.
The Paramount Decrees divested movie-theater-chainownership from nine major
filmproducersand distributors(Conant 1960).


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ProcessingFads and Fashions

the buildingcontractor producescustomgoods to meetthe specifications

of a clearlydefinedclient-set,
culturalorganizations releasea widevariety
of itemswhichmustbe publicizedand made attractiveto thousandsof
consumersin order to succeed. Larger organizationsgenerallymaintain
theirownsales forces,whichmaycontractwithsmallerfirmsto distribute
theiroutputas well as the parentcompany's.
The morehighlybureaucratizeddistribution sectorof culturalindus-
tries is characterizedby more economicconcentration than the craft-
administered productionsector,wherelowercosts pose fewerbarriersto
entry.Althoughheavy expenditures requiredforproductpromotionand
marketingmay be reducedby contracting with independentsales orga-
nizationson a commission basis, this practiceis engagedin primarilyby
smaller,weaker,and poorlycapitalizedfirms.As one publishingcompany
If a companydoes nothave a big sales force,it's farmoredifficultforthem
to have a best seller.But unlessa firmdoes $7,500,000worthof tradebook
businessa year,theycan'tafford to maintainan adequatesales force.Many
publishinghouses,consequently, do not have any sales forceat all. They
relyon middlemen-jobbers-to get theirbooks intobookstores.But job-
bers,of course,don'tattendsales conferences. They handleso manybooks
forso manypublishersthattheycan't be expectedto "push" certainbooks
froma certainhouse. [Mann 1967,p. 14]
Contractingwith autonomoussales organizationsplaces the entrepre-
neurialfirmin a positionof dependenceon outsiders,withthe attendant
riskof havingculturalproductsregardedhighlyby the sponsoring orga-
nizationassigneda low priority In theabsenceof media
by its distributor.
coverageand/oradvertising by the sponsoring retailoutlets
generallyfail to stocknew books or records.
A functionalequivalentof directadvertisingforculturalorganizations
is providedby the selectivecoverageaffordednew stylesand titlesin
books, recordings,and movies by the mass media. Cultural products
provide "copy" and "programming" for newspapers,magazines,radio
stations,and televisionprograms;in exchange,theyreceive"free" pub-
licity.The presenceor absence of coverage,ratherthan its favorableor
unfavorableinterpretation, is the importantvariablehere. Public aware-
ness of the existenceand availabilityof a new culturalproductoftenis
contingenton featurestories in newspapersand national magazines,
reviewcolumns,and broadcasttalk shows,and, for recordings,radio-
stationair play. Whilethe totalnumberof productsto be awardedmedia
coveragemaybe predictedin the aggregate,the estimationof whichones
will be selectedfromthe potentialuniverseis problematic.
The organizationalsegregation of the producersof culturalitemsfrom
theirdisseminatorsplaces definiterestrictions on the formsof power


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AmericanJournalof Sociology

whichculturalorganizationsmay exerciseover mass-mediagatekeepers

to effectthe selectionof particularitems for coverage.Widely shared
social normsmandate the independenceof book-revieweditors,radio-
stationpersonnel,filmcritics,and otherarbitersof coveragefromthe
special needs and commercialinterestsof culturalorganizations.13Thus,
autonomousgatekeeperspresent the producer organizationwith the
"control"problemof favorablyinfluencing the probabilitythat a given
new releasewill be selectedforexposureto consumers.
For publishinghouses and recordfirms,especially,it would be un-
economicalto engagein direct,large-scaleadvertising
campaignsto bring
morethan a fewreleasesto public attention.'4
The factthateach one of the thousandsof titleseveryyear mustbe sepa-
ratelyadvertisedimposesalmostinsuperableobstaclesin the way of effec-
tive nationaladvertising.It is as thoughGeneral Motors for each tenth
Chevrolethad to changethe name, design,and characteristics of the car
and launcha newnationaladvertising campaignto sell thenexttencars....
The advertisingproblem. . . is thuswhollydifferent fromthatof the ad-
vertiserof a singlebrand that remainson sale indefinitely. [Lacy 1963,
pp. 54-55]
The publisher'sadvertising problemis greatlyaggravatedby whatwe have
all agreed is true-too manybooks are published,most of themdoomed
in advance to a shortand ingloriouslife.... Many a novelis dead the day
it is published,manyotherssurvivea monthor two or three.The sales of
such books are always small,and what littleadvertisingtheyget may be
rendereddoublyuselessby the fact that the booksellertendsto returnto
thepublisherhis stockof slow-moving books beforetheyhave had timeto
be exposed to very manypotentialcustomers.. . . Well then,what does
make a book sell? CharlesDarwin gave the rightanswerto Samuel Butler
whenhe was asked thisquestion: "Gettingtalkedabout is whatmakes a
book sell." [Knopf 1964,p. 17]
Record companiesare dependenton radio . . . to introducenew artistsas
well as to introducenew recordsof all artistsand to get themexposedto
thepublic.... [We] cannotexposetheirperformances because it's just on
groovesand the public will not knowwhat theysound like. (Q.) "Would
it be fairto say thatradioaccountsfor 75, or 90 percentof thepromotion
of new releases?" (A.) I thinkyour figuresare probablyaccurate,yes.
[Davis 1967, p. 51
For book publishers,recordcompanies,and, to a lesser extent,movie
13 Public reaction to the "payola" scandals in the late 1950s demonstrateda wide-
spread belief that the disseminatorsof mass culture should be independentof its
producers.Disk jockeys, book reviewers,and filmcriticsare expected to remain free
fromthe influenceor manipulationsof record companies,book publishers,and movie
studios, respectively.This feelingis shared generallyby members of each industry
systemas well as embodied in our legal system.
14 New movies, faced with fewer competitorsand representingfar greater invest-
ment per capita, are advertisedmore heavily directly.


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ProcessingFads and Fashions

studios, then, the crucial target audience for promotionalcampaigns

consistsof autonomousgatekeepers,or "surrogateconsumers"such as
disk jockeys,filmcritics,and book reviewers,employedby mass-media
organizationsto serve as fashionexpertsand opinionleaders for their
The mass media constitutethe institutional subsystemof the cultural
industrysystem.The diffusion of particularfads and fashionsis either
blockedor facilitatedat this strategiccheckpoint.Culturalinnovations
are seen as originatingin the technicalsubsystem. A sampleselectedfor
sponsorshipby culturalorganizationsin the managerialsubsystemis
introducedinto the marketplace.This outputis filteredby mass-media
gatekeepersservingas "institutionalregulatorsof innovation"(Boskoff
1964). Organizationsin the managerialsubsystemare highlyresponsive
to feedbackfrominstitutionalregulators:styles affordedcoverageare
imitatedand reproducedon a large scale until the fad has "run its
course" (Boskoff1964; Meyersohnand Katz 1957).15
We see the consumer'srole in this processas essentiallyone of rank
orderingculturalstylesand items"preselected"forconsideration by role
occupantsin the managerialand institutional subsystems. Feedback from
consumers, in the formof sales figuresand box-office receipts,cues pro-
ducersand disseminators of culturalinnovationsas to whichexperiments
may be imitatedprofitablyand which should probablybe dropped.16
This processis analogousto the preselectionof electoralcandidatesby
politicalparties,followedby voterfeedbackat theballotbox. The orderly
sequence of events and the possibilityof only two outcomesat each
checkpointresemblea Markovprocess.
This modelassumesa surplusof available"raw material"at the outset
(e.g., writers,singers,politicians)and pinpointsa numberof strategic
checkpoints at whichthe oversupply is filteredout. It is "value added" in
the sense that no productcan enterthe societal subsystem(e.g., retail
outlets) untilit has been processedfavorablythrougheach of the pre-
cedinglevelsof organization, respectively.17

15Boskoff (1964, p. 224) sees the sources of innovations within any social system
as the "technical and/or managerial levels of organization,or externalsources....
By its very nature, the institutionallevel is uncongenial to innovative roles for it-
self." Changes occur at an increasingrate when "the institutionallevel is ineffective
in controllingthe cumulationof variations.. . . This may be called change by insti-
tutional default." Changes in pop-culturecontent consistentlyfollow this pattern.
16Two interestingformalmodels of aspects of this process are presentedby McPhee
17 For a more detailed discussion of the role-set engaged in the processingof fads
and fashions,with particularapplication to "hit" records,see Hirsch (1969).


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Our analysissuggeststhatorganizations at themanageriallevelof cultural

industry systemsare confronted on outputdistribution
by (1) constraints
imposedby mass media gatekeepers, and (2) contingenciesin recruiting
creative "raw materials"for organizationalsponsorship.To minimize
dependenceon these elementsof their task environments, publishing
houses,recordcompanies,and movie studioshave developedthreepro-
active strategies:(1) the allocationof numerouspersonnelto boundary-
spanningroles; (2) overproduction promotionof new
and differential
items; and (3) cooptationof mass-mediagatekeepers.

of ContactMen
Entrepreneurial organizationsin cultural industriesrequire competent
intelligenceagentsand representativesto activelymonitordevelopments
at theirinputand outputboundaries.Inabilityto locate and successfully
marketnew culturalitems leads to organizationalfailure: new manu-
scriptsmustbe located,new singersrecorded,and new moviesproduced.
Boundary-spanning units have thereforebeen established,and a large
proportionof personnelallocated to serve as "contactmen" (Wilensky
1956), withtitlessuch as talentscout,promoter, press coordinator,and
vice-presidentin chargeof publicrelations.The centralityof information
on boundarydevelopments to managersand executivesin culturalorga-
nizationsis suggestedin theseindustries'tradepapers: coverageof artist
relationsand selectionsby mass-mediagatekeepersfar exceeds that of
mattersmanagedmoreeasilyin a standardizedmanner,such as inflation
in warehousing, shipping,and physicalproductioncosts.
Contactmen linkingthe culturalorganizationto the artistcommunity
contractforcreativerawmaterialon behalfof theorganization and super-
vise its production.Much of theirwork is performed in the field.In
"You haveto getoutto lunchto findoutwhat'sgoingon outthere-and
what'sgoingon out thereis wherean editor'sbookscomefrom,"says
JamesSilberman,editor-in-chief of RandomHouse. "Over the years,I've
watchedpeople in the book business stop having lunch,and they stop
Thereare,in general,threekindsof publishinglunches.The first,and most
common,takesplace betweeneditorand agent: its purposeis to generate
book ideas for the agent'sclients;also, it providesan opportunity
agentto growto like theeditorenoughto sendhimcompletedmanuscripts.
The secondkindis set up by publicistswithwhomevertheywantto push
theirbooks: televisionpeople, critics,book-revieweditors.. . .
The thirdkind takes place betweenauthorsand editors,and it falls into
threephases: theprecontract phase,wheretheeditorwoos the authorwith


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ProcessingFads and Fashions
good foodand book ideas; thepostcontractphase,wheretheauthoris given
assistanceon his manuscript
and theimpetusto go on; and thepostpublica-
tion phase, where the editor explainsto the authorwhy the publishing
house tookso fewadvertisements forhis book. [Ephron1969,p. 8]
Professionalagents on the input boundarymust be allowed a great
deal of discretion
in theiractivitieson behalfof the culturalorganization.
Successfuleditors,record"producers,"and filmdirectorsand producers
thus pose controlproblemsfor the focal organization.In fieldscharac-
terizedby uncertainty over cause/effect relations,theirtalenthas been
"validated" by the successfulmarketplaceperformance of "their dis-
coveries"-providinghigh visibilityand opportunities for mobilityout-
side a singlefirm.Their value to the culturalorganizationas recruiters
and intelligenceagents is indicatedby high salaries,commissions, and
prestigewithinthe industrysystem.
Culturalorganizationsdeploy additionalcontactmen at theiroutput
boundaries,linkingthe organizationto (1) retail outletsand (2) sur-
rogateconsumersin mass-mediaorganizations.The tasks of promoting
and distributing new culturalitems are analyticallydistinct,although
boundaryunits combiningboth functionsmay be established.Trans-
actionsbetweenretailersand boundarypersonnelat the wholesalelevel
are easily programmed and supervised.In termsof Thompson's(1962)
typologyof output transactions,the retailer's"degree of nonmember
discretion"is limitedto a smallnumberof fixedoptionsconcerning such
mattersas discountschedulesand returnprivileges.'8In contrast,where
organizationsare dependenton ''surrogateconsumers"for coverageof
new products,the latterenjoy a high degreeof discretion:tacticsem-
ployedby contactmenat thisboundaryentailmore"personalinfluence";
close supervisionby the organization is moredifficultand may be politi-
cally inexpedient.Furtherdevelopmentof Thompson'stypologywould
facilitatetracingthe flowof innovationsthroughorganizationsystems
by extendingthe analysisof transactions "at the end of the line"-that
is, betweensalesmenand consumersor bureaucratsand clients-to en-
compassboundarytransactions at all levelsof organizationthroughwhich
new productsare processed.
A highratioof promotional personnelto surrogateconsumersappears
to be a structuralfeatureof any industrysystemin which: (a) goodsare
marginallydifferentiated; (b) producers'access to consumermarketsis
18 Sponsoring organizations without access to established channels of distribution,
however,experiencegreat difficulty in obtaining orders for their products from re-
tail outlets and consumers. Thompson's (1962) typology of interaction between
organizationmembersand nonmembersconsistsof two dimensions: Degree of non-
memberdiscretion,and specificityof organizationalcontrol over membersin output
roles. Output roles are defined as those which arrange for the distributionof an
organization'sultimateproduct (or service) to other agents in society.


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AmericanJournalof Sociology
regulatedby independentgatekeepers;and (c) large-scale,directadver-
tisingcampaignsare uneconomical or prohibitedby law. Culturalproducts
are advertisedindirectlyto independentgatekeeperswithinthe industry
systemin orderto reducedemanduncertainty over whichproductswill
be selectedfor exposureto consumers.Where independentgatekeepers
neitherfilterinformation nor mediatebetweenproducerand consumer,
the importanceof contactmen at the organization'soutputboundaryis
correspondinglydiminished.In industrysystemswhereproductsare ad-
vertisedmoredirectlyto consumers,the contactman is supersededby
full-pageadvertisementsand sponsoredcommercials, purchasedoutright
by the producerorganization and directedat the lay consumer.

and Differential
Promotionof CulturalItems
Differential promotionof new items,in conjunctionwithoverproduction,
is a secondproactivestrategyemployedby culturalorganizations to over-
comedependenceon mass-mediagatekeepers. Overproduction is a rational
organizational responsein an environment of low capital investments and
demanduncertainty. "Fortunately,froma culturalpoint of view if not
fromthe publisher's,the marketis full of uncertainties. . . . A wise
publisherwill hedgehis bets" (Bailey 1970, pp. 144, 170).
Undertheseconditionsit apparentlyis moreefficient to producemany
"failures"foreach successthan to sponsorfeweritemsand pretesteach
on a massivescale to increasemedia coverageand consumersales. The
numberof books, records,and low-budgetfilmsreleased annually far
exceedscoveragecapacityand consumerdemandfortheseproducts.'9The
publisher's"books cannibalizeone another.And even if he hasn't de-
liberatelyloweredhis editorialstandards(and he almostcertainlyhas) he
is stillpublishingmorebooks thanhe can possiblydo justiceto" (Knopf
1964,p. 18). Whileover 15,000new titlesare issued annually,the prob-
abilityof any one appearingin a given bookstoreis only 10% (Lacy
1963). Similarly,fewerthan20% of over6,000 (45 rpm) "singles"appear
in retailrecordoutlets (Shemel and Krasilovsky1964). Movie theaters
exhibita largerproportionof approximately 400 featurefilmsreleased
annually,fewerthan half of which,however,are believedto recoupthe
initialinvestment. The productionof a surplusis facilitatedfurther by
contractsnegotiatedwithartistson a royaltybasis and othercost-minimiz-
ing featuresof the craftadministrationof production.
Cultural organizationsideally maximizeprofitsby mobilizingpro-

19 This is not to say that "uneconomical"selectionsmay not appeal to a fair num-

ber of consumers.Each industry defines consumer demand according to its own
costs and convenience. Thus, a network television program with only 14 million
viewers fails for inadequate consumerdemand.


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motional resourcesin support of volume sales fora small number of items.

These resources are not divided equally among each firm'snew releases.
Only a small proportion of all new books and records "sponsored" by
cultural organizations is selected by company policy makers for large-
scale promotionwithin the industrysystem. In the record industry:

The strategyof massivepromotionis employedby policymakers in an at-

temptto influence the coverageof theirproductby media over whichthey
exertlittlecontrol.They must relyon independently owned tradepapers
to bring new records to the attentionof radio programmersand disk
jockeys, and upon radio airplay and journaliststo reach the consumer
market.For thisreason,selectedartistsare sentto visitkey radio stations,
and partiesare arrangedin citiesthroughout the countryto bringtogether
the artistand this advanced audience.It seems likelythatif . . . policy-
makerscould betterpredictexposurefor particularreleases,then fewer
wouldbe recorded.... Recordsare released(1) withno advancepublicity,
(2) withminimalfanfare,or (3) onlyaftera large-scaleadvance promo-
tional campaign.The extentof a record'spromotioninformsthe policy-
makers'immediateaudienceof regionalpromotersand Top 40 programmers
of theirexpectationsfor,and evaluationof, theirproduct.In thisway the
companyrank orders its own material. The differential promotionof
recordsserves to sensitizeTop 40 programmers to the names of certain
songs and artists.Heavily promotedrecordsare publicizedlong before
theirrelease throughfull-pageadvertisements in the trade press, special
mailings,and personalappearancesby the recording's artists.The program
directoris made familiarwiththe recordlong beforehe receivesit. It is
"expected"to be a hit. In thisway, thoughradio stationsreceiverecords
gratis,anticipationand "demand"forselectedreleasesare created.... The
best indicatorof a record'spotentialforbecominga hit at thisstageis the
amountof promotionit is allocated.[Hirsch1969,pp. 34, 36]

Similarly,in the publishingindustry:

has severalsubsidiaryfunctionsto performbesides
thatof sellingbooks,or even makingreaders.Amongthemare:
1. Influencingthe "trade"-that is impressingbook jobbers and retail
booksellerswiththefactthatthepublisheris activelybackinga certain
titleand thatit would be good businessforthemto stockand push it.
2. Influencing authorsand theiragents.Many an authorhas leftone pub-
lisherforanotherbecause he feltthatthefirstpublisherwas not giving
his book enoughadvertising support.
3. Influencing reviewers.The implicationhere is not that any reputable
reviewercan be "bought"by theuse of his paper'sadvertising columns,
but reviewersare apt to watchpublishers'announcements (particularly
those thatappear in the tradepapers) for information whichwill aid
themin selectingbooks forreview,and in decidingwhichones to fea-
tureor to reviewat length.
4. Influencing the sale of book club, reprint,and othersubsidiaryrights.
Publisherssometimesadvertisesolelyto keep a book on the best-seller
list whilea projectedmoviesale is in prospect.Occasionallythisworks
the otherway round: movieproducershave been knownto contribute


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AmericanJournalof Sociology
generously to thead budgetof theinitialhardcovereditionso as to reap
the benefitof the best-sellerpublicityfor theirfilmwhen it finally
appears. [Spier 1967,pp. 155-56]

Most culturalitemsare allocatedminimalamountsforpromotion and are

"expected"to fail (recall the description
of postpublication
luncheonscited earlier). Such long shots constitutea pool of "under-
studies,"fromwhichsubstitutesmay be drawnin the event that either
mass-mediagatekeepers or consumersrejectmoreheavilypluggeditems.20
We see the strategyof differential promotionas an attemptby cultural
to "buffer"theirtechnicalcore fromdemanduncertainties
by smoothing out outputtransactions(Thompson1967).

Cooptationof "InstitutionalRegulators"
Mass-mediagatekeepersreporta wide varietyof mechanismsdeveloped
by cultural organizationsto influenceand manipulatetheir coverage
decisions.These rangefrom"indications"by the sponsoring organization
of high expectationsfor particularnew "discoveries" (e.g., full-page
advertisements in the tradepress,partiesarrangedto introducethe artist
to recognizedopinionleaders) to personalrequestsand continuousbar-
ragesof indirectadvertising, encouraging and cajolingthe gatekeeperto
"cover,"endorse,and otherwisecontributetowardthe fulfillment of the
organization'sprophesyof greatsuccessforits new product.
The goals of culturaland mass-mediaorganizations come into conflict
over two issues.First,public opinion,professionalethics,and, to a lesser
extent,job security,all requirethat institutional gatekeepersmaintain
independent standardsof judgmentand qualityratherthan endorseonly
those items whichculturalorganizationselect to promote.Second, the
primarygoal of commercialmass-mediaorganizationsis to maximize
revenueby "delivering"audiencesforsponsoredmessagesratherthan to
serveas promotional vehiclesforparticularculturalitems.Hit records,for
example,are featuredby commercialradio stationsprimarilyto sell
Q. Do you play thismusicbecause it is the mostpopular?
A. Exactly for that reason. . . . We use the entertainment part of our
programming, whichis music,essentially,to attractthelargestpossible
audience,so thatwhatelse we have to say . . . in termsof advertising
message. . . [is] exposedto the largestnumberof people possible-
and theway to get thelargestnumberto tunein is to play the kindof
musictheylike . .. so thatyou have a mass audienceat theotherend.

20 Two recentsuccessfullong shots are the best-sellingreissue of turn-of-the-century

Sears Roebuck catalogs and the film Endless Summer. For a discussion of criteria
employed to choose pop records for differentialpromotion,see Hirsch 1969.


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Q. If, let's say thatby some freakof nature,a year fromnow the most
popularmusicwas chambermusic,wouldyou be playingthat?
A. Absolutely. . ., and the year afterthat,if it's Chinesemadrigals,we'll
be playingthem.[Strauss1966,p. 3]21
Goal conflictand value dissensusare reflectedin frequentdisputesamong
culturalorganizations,mass-mediagatekeepers, and publicrepresentatives
concerning the legitimacy(or legality)of promoters' attemptsto acquire
powerover the decisionautonomyof surrogateconsumers.
Culturalorganizations striveto controlgatekeepers'decisionautonomy
to the extentthatcoveragefornew itemsis (a) crucialforbuildingcon-
sumerdemand,and (b) problematic.Promotionalcampaignsaimed at
cooptinginstitutionalgatekeepersare most likelyto requireproportion-
ately large budgetsand illegitimatetactics when consumers'awareness
of the producthingesalmostexclusivelyon coverageby thesepersonnel.
As notedearlier,culturalorganizations are less likelyto deployboundary
agents or sanctionhigh-pressure tactics for items whose sale is less
contingent on gatekeepers'actions.


Up to thispoint,we have tendedto minimizevariabilityamongcultural

organizations,culturalproducts,and the marketsat which they are
directed.Our generalizations apply mainlyto the most speculativeand
entrepreneurialsegmentsof thepublishing, recording,
and motionpicture
industries,that is, adult trade books, popular records,and low-budget
movies.22Within each of these categories,organizationssubscribe,in
varyingdegrees,to normativeas well as to the moreeconomicgoals we
have assumedthusfar.Certainpublishinghouses,recordcompanies,and
movieproducerscommandhighprestigewithineach industrysystemfor
financingculturalproductsof high quality but of doubtfulcommercial
value.To theextenttheydo notconform to economicnormsof rationality,
these organizationsshould be consideredseparately from the more
dominantpatternof operationsdescribedabove.23
21 Similarly,the recentdemise of the Saturday Evening Post was precipitatedby an
inability to attract sufficientadvertisingrevenue: too many of its 6 million sub-
scriberslived in rural areas and fell into low-income categories (Friedrich 1970).
22 Adult trade books account for less than 10% of all sales in the book-publishing
industry,excluding book-club sales (Bowker 1969). Recordings of popular music
(subsumingfolk and countryand westerncategories) provide the majority of sales
in the recordindustry(Brief 1964). Figures on the contributionof low-budgetfilms
to movie industrysales were not obtained. Low-budget films are more speculative
than high-budget"blockbusters"on a per picture basis only, where their probability
of box-officesuccess as well as their costs appear to be lower.
23Lane (1970b) presentsa valuable portrait of one such publishinghouse; Miller
(1949) provides an excellentstudy of cross-pressureswithin the book industry.


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AmericanJournalof Sociology

Whether our generalizationsmight also characterizeless-uncertain

industrysegments, such as educationaltextbookand children's-book pub-
lishingdivisions,or classicalrecordproductionis also subjectto question.
In each of these instances,cost factorsand/ordegree of demand un-
certaintymaybe quitedifferent, which,in turn,wouldaffectthestructure
and operationof the producerorganizations.Textbook publishers,for
example,facea morepredictablemarketthando publishers(or divisions)
specializingin trade books: more capital investmentis required,and
largersales forcesmustbe utilizedforschool-to-school canvassing(Bram-
mer 1967). In the case of children'sbooks, some differences mightbe
expectedin that librariesratherthan retail storesaccount for 80% of
sales (Lacy 1968).
Withinthe adult-trade-book category,coveragein book-review columns
is morecrucialto thesuccessof literarynovelsthanto detectivestoriesor
science-fictionbooks (Blum 1959). Reviewcoverageis also problematic:
"Even The New York Times,whichreviewsmanymorebooks than any
otherjournaladdressedto thegeneralpublic,coversonlyabout 20 percent
of the annual output.Many books of major importancein specialized
fieldsgo entirelyunnoticedin such generalmedia,and it is by no means
unknownforevenNational Book Awardwinnersto go unreviewed in the
majornationaljournals" (Lacy 1963,p. 55). We would therefore expect
publishers'agents to push novels selectedfor nationalpromotionmore
heavilythaneitherdetectivestoriesor science-fiction works.Seriousnovels
shouldbe promotedmoredifferentially than others.
Similarly,coveragein the formof radio-stationair play is far more
crucial in buildingconsumerdemand for recordingsof popular music
than for classical selections.Controlover the selectionof new "pop,)
releasesby radio-station programmers and disk jockeysis highlyproble-
matic. Record companiesare dependenton radio air play as the only
effective vehicleof exposurefornew pop records.In this setting-where
access to consumershingesalmostexclusivelyon coveragedecisionsby
autonomous gatekeepers-institutionalized side payments ("payola")
emergedas a centraltacticin the overallstrategyof cooptationemployed
by producerorganizations to assure desiredcoverage.
Radio air play forclassicalrecordsis less crucialforbuildingconsumer
demand; the probabilityof obtainingcoveragefor classical releases is
also easierto estimate.Whereasproducersand consumersof pop records
are oftenunsureabout a song's likely sales appeal or musical worth,
criteriaof both musicalmeritand consumerdemandare comparatively
clear in the classical field.Record companies,therefore, allocate propor-
tionatelyfewerpromotionalresourcesto assure coverageof classical re-
leases by mass-mediagatekeepers, and record-company agentspromoting
classical releases employmore legitimatetactics to influencecoverage


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ProcessingFads and Fashions
decisionsthan promotersof pop recordsemployto coopt the decision
autonomyof institutional regulators.
Thompson(1967, p. 36) has proposedthat "when supportcapacity
is concentrated but demanddispersed,the weakerorganizationwill at-
temptto handleits dependencethroughcoopting."In our analysis,cul-
tural organizationsrepresenta class of weakerorganizations,dependent
on supportcapacityconcentrated in mass-mediaorganizations;demand
is dispersedamongretailoutletsand consumers. While all culturalorga-
nizationsattemptto cooptautonomousconsumersurrogates, the intensity
of the tacticsemployedtendsto vary withdegreeof dependence.Thus,
culturalorganizationsmost dependenton mass-mediagatekeepers(i.e.,
companiesproducingpop records)resortedto the mostcostlyand illegiti-
mate tactics; the institution
of payola may be seen as an indicationof


This paper has outlinedthe structureof entrepreneurial organizations

engaged in the productionand distributionof culturalitems and has
examinedthreeadaptivestrategiesemployedto minimizedependenceon
elementsof theirtask environments: the deployment of contactmen to
organizationalboundaries,overproduction and differential promotionof
new items,and the cooptationof mass-mediagatekeepers. It is suggested
thatin orderfornewproductsor ideas to reacha publicof consumers, they
firstmustbe processedfavorablythrougha systemof organizations whose
units filterout large numbersof candidatesbeforethey arriveat the
consumption stage. The conceptof an industrysystemis proposedas a
usefulframeof reference in whichto (1) trace the flowof new products
and ideas as they are filteredat each level or organization,and (2)


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