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“Institutional Isomorphism”

Outstanding article by Cherie Hu, published February 2020. I just think the most interesting part is buried deep in the text and I wanted to bring it to the fore: “the sociological explanation” for why music streaming services all look & feel the same.

Read it to understand how institutional isomorphism can happen when “structural uncertainty of the industry encourages imitation among companies” and “centralization of resources (the dependency on major labels) encourages imitation by outside coercion”. 

That’s a mouthful!

An explanation from sociology

Another explanation for the homogenization of music streaming comes from a decades-old concept in sociology known as institutional isomorphism.

Sociology professors Paul DiMaggio and Walter Powell first laid out their theory of isomorphism in a 1983 paper for the American Sociological Review — aiming to understand why organizations in a given industry tend to become more and more homogenous “in structure, culture, and output” over time, due to a mix of both external and internal forces.

I won’t dive too deeply into the theory here, but wanted to point out two of their key hypotheses that have a direct connection to the current state of music streaming, nearly 40 years later.

One is the power of uncertainty in encouraging imitation among companies within an industry. “When goals are ambiguous, or when the environment creates symbolic uncertainty … organizations tend to model themselves after similar organizations in their field that they perceive to be more legitimate or successful,” write DiMaggio and Powell.

There are multiple examples of this mimetic behavior in the tech industry in general — most notably when Instagram outright copied Snapchat’s Stories feature, which ended up eating into the latter’s market share and whose format has since been replicated across a number of apps, including Facebook, YouTube and Spotify.

I hypothesize that a similar dynamic happened in music streaming, whereby successful early movers like Pandora and Spotify brought forth new, innovative ways of curating and presenting content to music fans, after which all the corporate-subsidized late movers (Apple Music, Amazon Music, YouTube Music, etc.) had to mimic what tens of millions of people around the world had already become familiar with in order to even have a chance of getting their value proposition across.

A second key argument in the theory of institutional isomorphism is that centralization of resources encourages imitation by outside coercion. “The greater the extent to which an organizational field is dependent upon a single (or several similar) source [sic] of support for vital resources, the higher the level of isomorphism,” write the authors.

This concept is especially relevant to the world of recorded music, where 65% of “vital resources” for streaming services — i.e. the most desirable and most popular artists and their catalogs — are concentrated within just three major labels. As a result, competing services will go to those few labels to get their most valuable inventory, and, as part of licensing negotiations, will likely prioritize those artists in their marketing and curation, resulting in a somewhat homogenized content experience across platforms.

The design hypotheses is compelling too.

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