Dec 09

Selling In The Name Of

FT/66 comments • 5,324 views

One of the things that’s fascinating about the UK Top 40 is that a device designed to be a pure expression of popularity also works as a reflection of so many other things. People buy songs: if enough people buy a song it gets into the charts, or to #1. Simple! But so simple that it neglects one very important element: why somebody is buying a song.

There’s a baseline assumption that people are buying a song to listen to it because they like it. But of course that’s not the only reason: often people buy songs because the song is part of a wider experience. A world cup, a summer holiday, a movie, a TV show, a human tragedy. This isn’t “hijacking” or manipulating the charts: the pitiless charts, after all, don’t differentiate between purchases out of loyalty, love, or grief. A song bought as a souvenir has still been bought.

This is important for understanding why the X-Factor winner gets to #1 every year. People who dislike the X-Factor often criticise it for reducing music to a soap opera, but this misses the point: it’s rather like people who slate wrestling for not being a proper sport. The X-Factor is a narrative which happens to involve music. It’s an interactive narrative, and it’s a multimedia narrative, with a central thread (the weekend shows) crossing over into magazines, newspapers, YouTube, Twitter backchannels, et al.

Millions of people follow and participate in this story – pick sides, vote, shout at Simon Cowell from their armchairs, wonder what it means that Lloyd gets through for another week and Miss Frank don’t, and so on. The music is a necessary part of the story but it isn’t the story itself: light entertainment is simply bigger than pop, always has been. 19 million people watched the X-Factor final, a figure four times higher than the total sales of this country’s highest-selling single EVER. They’ve followed the X-Factor not because of the amazing pop it might or might not produce, but on its own terms as narrative and spectacle.

So where does the winner’s single fit in? In the Guardian, Peter Robinson called it a “lap of honour”, and this is roughly the truth: it’s a way of celebrating the achievement of winning the show (itself as tough and pressurised a gig as reality TV has to offer) not a look forward to the winner’s career (or lack of it).

But the charts being the charts, people still have to buy the single in sufficient numbers to get it to No.1. One of the odd things about the Rage Against The Machine anti-X-Factor campaign is its apparent belief that Simon Cowell has mind control powers and that the people buying Joe McElderry’s single are somehow under his command. The focus on Cowell rather than on the Joe buyers is a sensible one – best not to dwell on how the machine you’re raging against is actually your auntie or your kid sister. But honestly the Joe fans aren’t buying a song because Simon tells them to, any more than Russell T Davies is forcing me to buy a Doctor Who DVD set. They’re buying a song either because they like it, or because it’s a souvenir of an experience they enjoyed, or both. They’re playing one last part in the series’ shared narrative.

And why are RATM buyers buying that? Much the same reason – they have a narrative too. It’s a cruder one – stop the X-Factor winner from getting to number one and piss off Simon Cowell. It’s a shorter one – built up over the space of a week or two. But there’s a lot of inarticulate power around it: for many buyers it taps into a more general frustration with pop and music and reality TV and the charts and a sense that “real music” doesn’t get its just reward any more. And to some extent “Killing In The Name” has always been “Frigging In The Rigging” with dreads and a conscience, so there’s an understandable element of adolescent glee around the whole thing.

It might work (though I said that last year too): there have been a lot of these kind of gesture aesthetics campaigns in the last couple of years and sooner or later one of them will come off. The charts are a perfect ground for it: because they’re so digitally driven now there’s no physical cost in buying several copies of a single, no pile of “Killing In The Name” cluttering up your home when you already own it. Buying RATM is basically casting a vote in a big poll, except you have to pay to vote. Much like an X-Factor phone-in, in fact.

So the whole thing comes down to a clash of stories, or rather a clash of people paying to be part of a story. The big difference is that what’s at stake – “getting to #1” – doesn’t really matter in the Joe McElderry narrative (where the single is a reminder of a story that’s already had its happy ending) but is the entire point of the Rage one, which means the Rage story has force and momentum on its side.

Plenty of people have pointed out that these are good times indeed for Sony, who make money off both tracks. But it’s also a fascinating case study for marketers, because it pits two of the big “social media marketing” ideas of the late 00s up against one another. On the one hand the crafted, immersive, interactive experience – on the other the power of the flashmob and the viral. Who’s gonna win?


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  1. 51
    Tom on 18 Dec 2009 #

    And yes, there was an awful lot of social aversion going on! On both sides, in fairness: the RATM dancers would be scowling in the shadows for the entire rest of the evening once they’d got their “fuck you”s out the way (except when Nirvana came on). “Who is telling you to do stuff?” doesn’t seem to me to be an ENTIRELY cynical question when confronted with a mass response to “Killing”.

  2. 52
    swanstep on 18 Dec 2009 #

    Hmm, I just checked the cd and it has lyrics for all songs except KITNO! Googling around for lyrics, people are all over the map on both lines of this couplet. At any rate, I hear what I hear, and I think the song makes good sense as a general diatribe against militarism conceived as a system of normative justifications and social behavioral control with roots in religious and racial/tribal conformism and zealotry.

    My understanding is that up until end of the ’90s the LAPD ran a semi-military (‘urban pacification’) model of policing that tried to make do with relatively few officers overall (relative to the population size they had 1/4 the cops of NYC IIRC), but then to deploy massive, overwhelming force in rapid response to outbreaks of violence etc.. That model’s supposed to have been replaced by a more conventional neighborhood policing model, but go here to confirm that the LAPD’s connection to the military is nonetheless still very strong. E.g.,
    LAPD officers that are military veterans are highly encouraged to wear their military ribbons on their LAPD uniform.
    Anyhow, this is the level at which I took Rage’s more general points to connect up with LAPD stuff. Rage shared with NWA et al. an image of East LA as Beirut/Baghdad under occupation by US forces.

    Lastly, sorry if my previous note was a bit grouchy. It’s certainly true that many interesting bands with aggressive sounds (e.g., Nirvana, Fugazi) have been publicly troubled by some of the ‘meathead’/’fratboy’/etc. audience they attract, and I should not have suggested that there’s anything wrong with anyone *else* having the sorts of qualms that the bands themselves often have had.

  3. 53
    cis on 18 Dec 2009 #

    the official ratm site has “burn crosses”, if that counts for anything.

  4. 54
    swanstep on 18 Dec 2009 #

    @#53,cis. Damn. I guess that means that *my* Rage probably isn’t the real Rage. What a pain! :)

  5. 55
    koganbot on 19 Dec 2009 #

    But The Man Can’t Bust Our Music (Columbia Records ad in Rolling Stone in 1968*; Columbia is now owned by Sony).

    *That info is from a blog, so may not be altogether accurate, but I do remember the ad, since it stirred up controversy and contempt.

  6. 56
    Alan Connor on 20 Dec 2009 #

    I could never bear the thought of the Coven and avoided the song at the time, but listened to it many times in process of writing http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/8419446.stm (“burn crosses” for sure?) and found something new each time. Esp Morello. Some alternative lyrics came up in a class of 199x thread on Facebook:
    Fuck You I Won’t Tidy My Bedroom
    Fuck You I Won’t Wash My Keffiyeh
    Fuck You I Won’t Do My Revision


  7. 57
    Tyler on 10 Jan 2010 #

    Very nice post. I do, however, find your final question (integrated experiences vs. viral ‘grassroots’ strategies) a very interesting one. I don’t necessary know if it is a question of ‘winning’ for Marketers. Both strategies have strong advantages and disadvantages.

    For example, an integrated strategy ensures high levels of awareness but it’s very expensive to create a TV show (or spot), advertise it on a number of channels and staff various social networks to ensure that conversations are maintained with users.

    On the flip side, a grassroots viral strategy (Rage asking their fans to buy with very little paid media and no production) can prove effiective and can be very cheap. That said, if you’re not a brand that already has a passionate fanbase, it can be very hard to get something to resonate (and I’m ignoring the dozens of entertaining YouTube video’s that happen to go viral!)

    Smart marketers try to use both strategies; develop a large, integrated and holistic campaign and try to augment it with some grassroots (re: cheap) approaches that could take off if they are seeded and discussed among the right people.

    Excellent topic and great post.

  8. 58
    weej on 21 Dec 2015 #

    Six years later, Louisa Johnson has only managed to just about scrape into the top 10, and nobody’s making much of a fuss about it. Things have, apparently, changed.

  9. 59
    Tommy Mack on 21 Dec 2015 #

    Did anyone see much of the latest X Factor? The last series I saw any of was the One Direction one but Mrs Mack persuaded me to watch a few episodes this year. It felt exhausting, Simon Cowell’s own Be Here Now* with everything turned up to eleven: every quandary presented as a heart-wrenching crisis, deadlock week after week, loads of melismatic emotional megatonnage in the singing stakes. It gets to something when a contestant is talking candidly about the recent death of a close relative and you’re thinking ‘oh they’re doing this one’.

    I’m not trying to bitch and say ‘ooh isn’t X Factor awful’ but my abiding impression of it this year is that it was really tiring to watch!

    *I have just read The Last Party so I am comparing everything that is past it’s prime and overcooked to BHN!

    **Actually the only thing that wasn’t turned up to eleven was Cowell himself, clearly bored of playing the bad guy, he’s telegraphing ‘fatherhood has mellowed me’ to the extent I found myself mocking him for going soft. Come to think of it, none of the judges were big brash personalities this year which is maybe why they amped up the narrative drama to compensate?

  10. 60
    Mark M on 21 Dec 2015 #

    Re59/60: It’s interesting at least in that the argument being offered by Louis Walsh and others (sorry, I’ve subbed an awful lot of ‘X Factor crisis’ stories this autumn) for why The X Factor should continue now that ITV have acquired The Voice is that X Factor produces stars. I’m not sure how persuasive that would be to TV execs seeing their show thrashed in the ratings by Strictly, somehow. Nor do I think people think of 1D or Little Mix and credit the show that assembled them – they’ve transcended their origins.

  11. 61
    Tom on 21 Dec 2015 #

    The house of streaming has fallen on the wicked witch of the X-Factor – we won’t see a reality TV Christmas No.1 again. Possibly not a reality TV No.1 again.

  12. 62
    Tommy Mack on 21 Dec 2015 #

    #61 Tom, do you mean streaming of music preventing the engineering of massive sales spikes or streaming of TV making it harder to create big seasonal events on TV itself? Or a bit of both?

  13. 63
    Tom on 21 Dec 2015 #

    The former! It exposes the X-Factor’s achilles heel, which is that people want to buy the record to finish the story – but they don’t actually want to HEAR it. But the latter is a good point too and one I hadn’t thought of.

  14. 64
    weej on 21 Dec 2015 #

    Tom – Agreed on the whole, but also want to point out that Louisa’s single sold 39,196 copies – compared to Ben Haenow who sold 214,000 this time last year (and Shayne Ward who apparently did 740,000(!) in 2005). It may be connected to the shift in chart dates as it was apparently released on a Monday, but think it’s very unlikely that it picked up, say, another 100,000 over the weekend. It is at the top of the physical sales chart but only at number 4 in downloads so I don’t think it would be at the top even without streaming.

  15. 65
    Tommy Mack on 22 Dec 2015 #

    Until fairly recently, the campaign to get A Bridge Over You by the Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Choir to #1 was full of references to beating X Factor/Simon Cowell but in the last week or so they’ve disappeared and any appeals to rivalry are against Justin Bieber – https://www.facebook.com/nhsxmasno1/

    I downloaded the single knowing I will never play it (it’s a medley of two songs I don’t like, done in a style that doesn’t interest me.) I have become the worst sort of pop consumer.

  16. 66
    Patrick Mexico on 22 Dec 2015 #

    No offence, but we should leave discussion of Freak Like Me for when Tom gets to it.

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