Content is king: Squid Game’s global tentacles

This post is the text of my winter 2021 column for Stage, Screen & Radio – the quarterly magazine for members of BECTU, the media and entertainment union and a part of Prospect. The text, which sets the success of Squid Game in the context of Netflix’s strategy and programming, has been updated from the published version, not least in the context of the market capitalisation figures quoted in the final paragraph, while some links have been added.

Squid Game

Few readers (even those of us without televisions) can have missed the impact that Netflix’s Squid Game has had not just on the UK audience but globally.

The nine-part series, featuring severely-indebted and desperate South Korean men and women competing against each other in updated, deadly versions of children’s playground games to win a substantial cash prize – of which there can only be one winner – was released on 17 September and was an immediate success. It attracted a global viewing audience of 142 million people within the first four weeks; and is the first Korean drama to break Netflix’s top 10 weekly most-watched shows across the globe, reaching in the process No. 1 in 90 countries, including the UK.

These figures are all from Netflix itself. There are very good reasons not to take the company’s word alone (indeed, figures for October 2021 from BARB, the body which measures the TV audience – and whose figures now encompass streaming – show that the BBC’s Countryfile had more viewers). Nevertheless, on the company’s own metrics ‘Squid Game’ has been phenomenally successful. Netflix expects to make some $900 million from it – not a bad return on a series that cost only $21.4 million.

What is more interesting than this, however, is, firstly, the theme: essentially, Squid Game is an allegorical critique of winner-take-all capitalism, economic disparity and inequality; and secondly, that the script, originally written (as a film) in 2009, was then regarded as too grotesque and unrealistic to be filmed.

Little more than 10 years later, and set against an exacerbation of Koreans’ personal debts and the reality facing the poor of Covid-19, as well as our own increased hunger for dystopian drama, it is clearly no longer so. The writer, Hwang Dong-yeuk, has created a resonant series which conveys a message about ordinary people’s awareness of the unfairness of a global economic order built on inequality. The success of Squid Game – and the patency of that message – highlights that this was unlikely to have been lost on viewers.

Netflix

Netflix is open to criticism. Its modern history as a programme streamer is sustained by venture capital. While profitable, it has experienced cash flow problems over several years and has not only never declared a dividend but will openly not be doing so in the foreseeable future. In that situation, the ‘dividend’ for its backers, like in much of the modern online world, of course, lies in obtaining and then processing detailed, individual information about viewers, the programmes they watch and their viewing habits. Venture capital, as with Deliveroo and Uber, is prepared to sustain a lack of returns (or even losses) simply to build and entrench market share to the point where, in Netflix’s case, people do not question their monthly subscriptions. Not least when these go up (and by more even than inflation).

In that, of course, lies a quid pro quo: ensuring subscribers see value for their money means making precisely the sorts of programmes they want to watch. And Netflix does make programmes – some 40% of its offer is original, in-house programming. Ultimately it will build the data it is collecting on viewing habits into its programme making at micro level – and its investment at Shepperton should probably be seen in that light – but, for the time being, the metric available is a familiar one: that a particular programme’s success is likely to lead to similar ones being made. That might be a Squid Game sequel (now confirmed, even if only in outline as yet, and with clearly a long road between here and transmission); it might be more Korean drama, building on the global success of the K-wave; it might be more captivating drama whose content focuses on inequality.

Venture capital

The idea of venture capital sustaining programme-making with that sort of message is not exactly a win-win situation; but it is a highly entertaining one.

Squid Game hasn’t been good news for everyone: SK Broadband, a Korean communications company, used the success of the programme for another round in its legal battle with Netflix about who funds the infrastructure over which streamers deliver their programmes. It is a familiar, but probably losing, battle to telecom companies the world over in which the ultimate lesson is that the concept of ‘net neutrality’ might alternatively be written as ‘content is king’.

Netflix’s current market capitalisation – some $166bn at the time of writing, having topped $300bn in November last year prior to January’s earnings announcement highlighting low forecast subscriber additions in these (nearly) post-pandemic times – set against, to pluck one possibly unfair example out of thin air, that of BT (c. $25bn), is also contemporary proof that there is plenty of life in old adages.

Three gigs in one week

A recent extended trip to Perth (purposively for a car service appointment but converting a necessary trip to the mainland to do other things too) gave the chance to take in a series of gigs none of which were planned from the outset. These were not my first gigs since the outbreak of Covid-19 but they did provide the opportunity to take the temperature about going back out again in these not-yet post-Covid times but as lockdown measures are being increasingly lifted. Musicians and stage performers have been among the hardest hit by lockdowns, and the roar of the crowd and the smell of the greasepaint needs to be experienced again.

First up was Perth Theatre for ‘An Evening Without Kate Bush‘ – motto: ‘She’s not there / But you are’ – Sarah-Louise Young’s tribute act with a difference. With millions of ‘Fish People’ watching Bush’s videos, many of which come from an era before even MTV, alongside a historic aversion to appearing on stage, overcome in 2014 with tickets even to the extra shows being sold out in 30 minutes, Kate Bush’s draw is still sizable as is the scope for tribute acts.

As Young said from the stage, it’s very easy to parody Kate Bush – dress up in a curly wig, wave your arms around a bit and do some wailing. However, doing all that actually undermines why people come to the show, which is to relive a little bit of magic about a star most attendees hold dear to their hearts and which sees those whose intention is only to parody quickly caught out. What Young’s show does, therefore, is combine those parody elements with ensuring that gig-goers, whether Fish People, those who remember a few bits and pieces from a while ago or those who have little idea of what’s going on or really why they are there, are placed firmly at the centre. She calls early on for audience participation, with the audience having the role of barking out the response in ‘Hounds of Love’, before descending into the stalls to get four women on a night out to go up on stage with her, after some gentle persuasion, to sing the string parts in ‘Cloudbusting’ (Do do do do / Do do do / Do do do do do do do / Do do do / Do do do) and later getting a couple to waltz around each other in a winsomely heartwarming copy of Godley and Creme’s video for Peter Gabriel’s ‘Don’t Give Up’ – a stage manoueuvre which effectively covered up that Young’s one-woman show has no Peter Gabriel in it while still putting fans at the heart of things. She even appeared at the side of our seats with what seemed to be a pair of communicating heads on sticks (sorry: not sure of the title of this one) before dashing back to the stage to make her next move.

At the end of the show, as that white dress is pulled out of her on-stage dressing-up box – everyone knows what’s coming as it’s the only song not yet done – it’s held aloft and then danced with as Young approaches her mic stand, slipped on over the rest of her costume and then. Oh. She’s missed her cue. Someone in the audience starts to sing, falteringly, meeting crucially with silence but an encouraging smile from Young. Others join in and, as the chorus grows, Young gently turns the mic stand around, so that the mic is facing the audience, allowing us to be the voice and her to be the dancer before she joins us for the bridge and the final few rounds: a brilliantly executed move that showcased what the show was about.

Mixing in a fair amount of ad-libbing with the songs that Bush has both written and covered, as well as stories and anecdotes about the influence that Bush had on her as a young girl, is not easy when the show’s dynamism depends on audience participation and when there is no other actor on stage to spark off. Perth, being a little conservative by nature, is perhaps not the most dynamic of places, but the show – both well-attended and well-received – was a success. Young is touring it around England and Wales through the rest of March and into April; and summer shows are booked, too. If she’s appearing near you, go and see her. And do be prepared to overcome that very British reservation and participate!

Second up was a trip into Edinburgh for a couple of family-related reasons but also to catch ‘Seven Drunken Nights‘, a performers’ tribute to The Dubliners on a one-night stand at the Edinburgh Playhouse and now on its fifth anniversary tour. The show takes the form largely of a session in O’Donoghue’s, where the band started out as The Ronnie Drew Ballad Group, with the five musicians, including the grandson of the first ever musician to be allowed to play tunes in O’Donoghue’s, plus attendant barman, interspersing songs written and made famous by the Dubliners with dialogue relating the story of the band told in the style of craic as the musicians rested between songs. Other sections of the show take place in surrogate TV studios for appearances on ‘Top of the Pops’, ‘The Late Late Show’ and ‘The McCann Man’.

I hadn’t realised that people playing music in pubs in Dublin was not really a thing until the 1960s when the Dubliners came along; or that ‘Seven Drunken Nights’ was banned by the Irish broadcaster RTÉ (alongside much of the rest of the band’s material) as a result of the, er, dubious lyrical content. The Dubliners as a prototype Frankie Goes To Hollywood was not a thing I ever envisaged contemplating (interesting side-note: ‘Seven Drunken Nights’ and ‘Relax’ are actually only seventeen years apart). Singing along is compulsory and, while I might have caused some frowning among my neighbours (to whom apologies…) with lyrics to the chorus of ‘Seven Drunken Nights’ and to ‘The Irish Rover’ that were only half-remembered, I did a bit better on ‘Dirty Old Town’, ‘Whiskey In The Jar’ and show-closer ‘Molly Malone’. ‘The Fields of Athenry’ was also beautifully performed and, indeed, accompanied although the selections otherwise tended to eschew the social and political comment for which The Dubliners were also known.

There were plenty of choices of seats towards the back of the stalls and, while the Playhouse could have spread people out a little better, there was therefore room for those who wanted to make a bit more space for themselves from their neighbours. From my vantage point there, though, the sound could perhaps have been a little louder not only for the dialogue which was sometimes less than audible but certainly also for the songs.

The band are terrific musicians, several, including Ged Graham who wrote the musical, sport befittingly-magnificent beards and the band is really hardworking, featuring no fewer than 70 more shows throughout Britain before the end of May, some twice a day, and from Cardiff up to Darlington and Arbroath down to Brighton via Reading. All the original members of The Dubliners have now passed on and the name has been formally retired – so this is the nearest thing you’ll get both to recreating the atmosphere of The Dubliners in their heyday and, if you’re on the mainland, as they’ll almost certainly be coming to a town near you, the nearest thing you’ll get in the current environment to a proper session in an Irish pub. And far better for everyone concerned than hopping on a Ryanair to Dublin.

Gig no. 3 saw us back at Perth Theatre for Blue Rose Code plus Katie Whittaker in support. This was a bit of a surprise gig since we had intended to be at Western Isles legends Peat and Diesel the same night for the ‘Away with your Wellies’ tour. However, with two of the band going down with the ‘rona (there has been a sizable spike up on Lewis this last week (now also on Benbecula) and community transmission is ‘widespread’), the gig was cancelled (and now re-arranged for the end of April). However, Blue Rose Code – whose own tour has been several years in postponement as a result of CV-19 – provided a more than suitable substitute and need no introduction to avid readers of this blog since one of Ricky Ross’s songs featured on my New Music Mondays series of posts during lockdown a year last December. Indeed, the band kicked off with this very song and a very effective opener it made, too, in the circumstances.

However, I’m getting a little ahead of myself since Katie Whittaker is more than just support. A recognised part of the established Perth Americana set, Brora-born Katie has appeared with local legends Red Pine Timber Company and, in her own right, was well-received as part of Billy Bragg’s ‘Big Bill’s Radical Roundup’ on the Leftfield stage at the 2016 Glastonbury. This gig represents a bit of a departure for Katie since it featured only her own songs (no covers from any of the likes of Etta James and Dolly Parton that have featured on her highlights reels in the past – at least, none that I could spot) and there are whispers of a new album. Despite being audibly nervous as she took to the stage – the gig was close to selling-out Perth Theatre – and in addressing the audience between songs, her warm vocals and gentle acoustic guitar revealed a natural talent for the musical stage and for her material which sees her combine bluesy and soulful numbers with aplomb. This was an enjoyably well-crafted set with strong songs that you want to hear again and Katie has attracted a talented band, particularly the lead guitarist. If that is indeed a new album, it’ll be a good’un.

Ricky Ross is a busy man, featuring as vocalist for Scottish faves Deacon Blue as well as Blue Rose Code and with several radio gigs for Radio Scotland and BBC Radio 2 on the country/Americana scene. Notably, he also visited Bosnia as a part of one of the Remembering Srebrenica Scotland delegations and is well-placed to comment on the role of music during wartime. Indeed, Nick Lowe’s ‘(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding’ featured as one of an interesting choice of covers (including, otherwise, ‘Sunshine After The Rain’ as made famous by Elkie Brooks, Amazing Grace and Elton John’s ‘Benny and the Jets’. There may have been others.). But, in ‘promoting’ a ‘new’ album – With Healings of the Deepest Kind – which was actually released two years ago, the gig also featured plenty of original material among which ‘The Wild Atlantic Way’ and ‘Starlit’, the latter dedicated to those losing their lives during Covid-19, were highlights. The set was an emotional one – inevitably so given Ross’s material and the history of cancellations amidst all that has been going on these last two years – but was well-judged and well-paced and, with an eight-piece band, including Ross himself on occasional acoustic guitar and frequent dancing, as well as a three-man horn section, there were plenty of louder moments among the emotional ones. Ross interacts frequently with the rest of the band on stage, driving greater performances on featured sections, and there ought to be a special mention for the drummer who was absolutely on it all night.

Blue Rose Code are touring throughout the rest of March and, if you’re up for a gig – I know not everyone is just yet and of course cases are rising again as an inevitable result of the removal of lockdown measures and the spread of the virus among children, as Peat and Diesel having to cancel indicates – they’re well worth an evening of your time. If you do feel confident to get out there, mask up, pack your hand gel in your pockets/bags, keep your own safety and those of others always in mind and strike out: not least in respect of live music, the last two years have given us an awful lot to catch up on.