15
Dec 09

Selling In The Name Of

FT/66 comments • 4,815 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?

Comments

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  1. 1
    Steve Mannion on 15 Dec 2009 #

    I think being #1 does matter to the X-Factor narrative tho. It’s happened every time so far. Cowell does seem to care about topping the charts (look at Westlife and the seeming need to try and beat the Beatles record and claim the first ‘downloads only’ #1).

    I think many of the RATM-buyers are in mainly ‘for the lols’. A fairly lazy way of amusing oneself – semi-consciously waiting for someone else to give them an opportunity to participate in some kind of democratic exercise with minimal effort but at least an initially powerful sense of having changed something Big (if not ultimately v Important).

    I don’t have a problem with that – certainly no more than the problems I have with X-Factor, nor the ironies around it. KITN is still probably one of the most simple direct, literal examples of a “fuck you” to have already made the top 40, which seems reason enough for its selection.

    Tho I hate the ‘Christmas #1 is important’ idea, I still seem to like the ‘charts can be unpredictable and a proper battleground’ idea so am fairly approving just on that basis.

    As is often the case tho, South Park put it best: “Giant Douche vs Turd Sandwich” (I did/do quite like KITN tho!)

  2. 2
    Tom on 15 Dec 2009 #

    Yes, I was a bit rushed in that section: what I meant is that getting to #1 doesn’t matter to Joe buyers YET – the “stop Rage” defensive card hasn’t really been played. (And probably won’t be, since the physical CD sales will wipe out RATM’s narrow lead I’d assume)

    Whether it succeeds or fails the campaign has been interesting in showing up a couple of weaknesses in the X-Factor machine – firstly that the winner’s record is kind of vestigial and unexciting compared to the massive hype of the final few weeks of the contest proper. Secondly that Cowell is simply too central – and he really doesn’t have to be – which allows the RATM narrative to work.

  3. 3
    Ben on 15 Dec 2009 #

    I feel as though in this instance, it’s got more to do with the “special” place that the battle for Christmas #1 always held in the hearts of music fans in this country. The last charts before Chrimbo were always the most keenly contested, the ones where no-one really knew which song would triumph, the one where a genuine one-hit wonder could reach the peak. Some of the Christmas #1s in recent times were genuinely awful (I’m looking at you, Robert the Builder). X-Factor, by monopolising the Christmas #1 spot, has made the Christmas charts all too predictable. For me, this isn’t just about hatred of Cowell (though I do detest the man). It’s about trying to make the Christmas charts an interesting battlefield once again. People are fed up of the fact that Cowell has removed the mystique from the Christmas charts. There’s no point buying your favourite Christmas song in the hope that you might help it get to #1, unless your favourite happens to be the X-Factor song.

    It didn’t need to be ‘Killing In The Name’, and I would have probably bought whatever single the campaign suggested. It’s more about harnessing the collective to strike a blow against Cowell’s chart dominance. But KITN is as good a choice as any – the ultimate song choice for the angry teenager.

    Rage will win, incidentally. I have no doubt about this. Whatever their reasons, the Rage buyers are influencing friends to follow their lead, and the power of that snowball effect will see them edge out Joe whatshisface.

  4. 4
    Tom on 15 Dec 2009 #

    I am quite interested in where the idea of the “special interest in the Christmas #1” came from: when did people start caring about it? I think we’ve discussed this on Popular but I can’t remember where.

  5. 5
    Tom on 15 Dec 2009 #

    It feels a bit bogus to me anyway – what gets to #1 is interesting EVERY WEEK OF THE YEAR DAMMIT. Where are all these Christmas glory hunters when it’s a wet sunday night in February and the choice is between a JLS record and the third single off a Kings Of Leon album eh?

  6. 6
    Steve Mannion on 15 Dec 2009 #

    Ha ha – Christmas #1 Carers = Brazilian footballers moving to Premier League clubs

  7. 7
    Tom on 15 Dec 2009 #

    Anyway FWIW I’ve decided I’m happy if RATM gets to #1 despite it being one of the worst records ever made, because it’ll be fun to write up on Popular. And it’s not as if Joe M will be denied the top spot with 4 pre-christmas shopping days of next week to count.

  8. 8
    ade on 15 Dec 2009 #

    ive got a number of problems with this whole thing

    there was a similar campaign last year involving jeff buckley

    2008 no.2 jeff buckley – sony
    2008 no.1 alexandra burke – sony

    2009 – ratm – sony
    2009 – joe whatshisname – sony

    and yesterday the bloke behind the ratm campaign was suddenly moaning that the facebook page had been taken down and that would impact on the charity donations

    what charity donations ? how is buying a sony track from itunes going to help a charity (unless of course the name of that charity is called sony music)

    i should add i used to work for sony music europe before i quit and left the business

  9. 9
    Pete Baran on 15 Dec 2009 #

    Actually that timing really helps RATM, as Christmas singles are a bit of a last minute stocking filler buy. You know someone liked the X-Factor, you can’t think of a quick small present and bingo the single gets bought. Last minute presents though are more last minute than seven days before.

    How much does this gesture cost? 0.79p for the clean version and 0.29p for the explicit version. Does two version being sold make a difference here (ie: who is buying the clean version)?

  10. 10
    Tom on 15 Dec 2009 #

    The 29p ones don’t count towards the charts, apparently – needs to be 40p or more.

  11. 11
    Pete Baran on 15 Dec 2009 #

    Aha, the futile 40p gesture!!!

    Hold up, I sense a whole new campaign. Quick to Facebook to get people to buy the 0.29p version and moan about this ridiculous rule. Can I get sponsorship from Sony.

    (The sad thing is of course that some internet savvy new band should be doing this to propel them into the charts – more Florence And The rather than Rage Against The)

  12. 12
    Leon Trimble on 15 Dec 2009 #

    I think a LOT of people do love the actual music of rage against the machine, especially that song. the fact that people who do are most likely to have made a conscious choice against buying into the mainstream may also be a part of it, as well as the narrative you speak of.

  13. 13
    Jo on 15 Dec 2009 #

    The charity bit of the RATM campaign:
    http://www.justgiving.com/ratm4xmas

    Over £32,000 raised in just over a week – not bad for something born on Facebook.

    And apparently the 29p Amazon downloads *do* count.

  14. 14
    Tom on 15 Dec 2009 #

    #12 Leon I’m certainly not saying that people buying RATM don’t love it. I think on both “sides” there will be people who:

    – love the song
    – think the song is OK but want to buy it for emotional reasons
    – don’t like the song but want to buy it for emotional reasons

    My guess – and it’s just a guess – is that RATM will have more of the first AND the third of these.

    #13 charity is always good, cf also the X Factor Finalists’ sterling efforts with their Frankenstein cover of “You Are Not Alone”

  15. 15
    fivelongdays on 15 Dec 2009 #

    I think the RATM campaign has a bit more humour to it than the terribly po-faced Buckley one last year (Hello, Leonard Cohen’s version was way better than both) and, in a way KITN is a bit of a lazy choice, but I’m taking part, because, hell it will make the charts interesting again.

    Besides, if RATM win it’ll annoy a lot of posh hipsters who preach musical inclusion, but get very, very snooty when anything loud, metally and full of guitars gets played.

  16. 16
    Al Ewing on 15 Dec 2009 #

    RATM’s arguably more beloved of posh hipsters than Joe M is, and I don’t think one particular side has the monopoly on ‘snootiness’ here. The abyss gazes also, etc.

  17. 17
    Lex on 15 Dec 2009 #

    There’s another possible motivation that I haven’t seen mentioned anywhere yet – people buying RATM as an anti-Cowell move not because they’re disdainful of X Factor generally, but disappointed at how this particular season of X Factor’s gone? A poor final line-up, an extremely dull winner (especially when Leona/Alexandra/JLS are all plying their trade, constant reminders of Joe’s paucity of spirit), and especially the various shenanigans over the course of the series – not even the allegation that Cowell was fixing it, more the obvious ludicrousness of talented singers being sent home by the judges before eg Lloyd, the twins.

    Apart from that I don’t know why anyone cares about the Xmas No 1, and I don’t believe that too many people actually care about either of these two terrible songs – both just COMPLETELY SUCK – whichever one wins, we all lose. It’s depressing but appropriate that this pop year is ending with a debate over an embarrassing ancient joke band and a bland little boy who may as well be Gareth Gates exhumed. Who could possibly want either of these acts around at all? UGHHHH.

  18. 18
    thefatgit on 15 Dec 2009 #

    Strange, this one. I know many who are rooting for Rage, probably own KITN already and are going out to buy it again. Maybe if Cowell had stuck to the original plan and had a song ORIGINALLY WRITTEN AND ARRANGED for the winning finalist, rather than offering a cover version of “The Climb” or last year’s “Hallelujah” to the winner, then we would be less inclined to join the RATM/Buckley campaigns. Cowell has gotten lazy, resting on his laurels, safe in the knowledge the X Factor finalists triumph every year. In the grand scheme, it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans really, but if this new xmas #1 does end up being either RATM or Joe McElderry, then my friends we have seen the power of democracy in action. The X Factor camp being The Government and the RATM campaign being The Opposition. Sony, of course is Head Of State.
    I suggest a Third Way. Buy Lady GaGa!

  19. 19
    tonya on 15 Dec 2009 #

    As an American, I have to say that of all the things that have fascinated me with British pop over the years, the hoopla over the Christmas number one has always been the strangest. Do you all sit around in your paper hats singing it? Does it play underneath the Queen’s speech? Are the lyrics baked into your figgy puddings? I was a big Top 40 countdown listener as a child and I don’t think there even was a show at Christmas, Casey just counted down the year’s hits.

    p.s. A Moment Like This, Leona’s X Factor single, was a cover of Kelly Clarkson’s Idol-winning song. The conspiracy theories around the Idol winners’ songs revolve around the same bunch of 19/Syco friends getting writing credits.

  20. 20
    swanstep on 15 Dec 2009 #

    I’ve decided I’m happy if RATM gets to #1 despite it being one of the worst records ever made
    Even allowing for a bit of hyperbole, I find the last bit quite extraordinary. ‘Killing’ is Rage’s first single, and what a brutal, unholy, complete statement of intent it is. Very, very rarely do bands come roaring out of the gate like this, fully formed, and speaking their own language. (The Smiths were another.) Even if a given wunder-band’s special sound and distinctiveness turns out never to be quite one’s own thing (Rage’s political science fiction isn’t in fact quite *my* cup of tea – I needed their stunning Springsteen cover to find my way into the band), well, a moment’s reflection should confirm that that’s, as it were, *your* problem not theirs. Retrospectively, this is one of the singles of the ’90s, just as it was obvious post-Matrix that their ‘Wake up’ was one of the best ‘first album’ album tracks ever (Best since The Doors ‘The End’? Maybe.).

    Anyhow, the song’s brutal power and overall semi-incoherence (It’s didactically anti-didactic isn’t it? compare with the militarist anti-militarism of the original Day the Earth Stood Still – the galactic police-force will come and kill us all unless we curb our violent tendencies) chime brilliantly with the current cultural moment. People who don’t want to do what Simon Cowell tells them to, mostly do want a bunch of bigwigs in Copenhagen to tell everyone (especially everyone else) what to do, and to generally lay down the law for the whole planet. And the more worldy-governmenty power to bust heads if people don’t do what they’re told, the better. ‘Rage for a Different machine’ doesn’t have quite the same ring to it I suppose (but ‘F__ you, you’ll do what I tell you’ scans!). The power to accurately express cultural contradictions 17 years into the future would be a very odd power for one of the worst records of all time to have. ‘Killing’ is a great record and would be one of the all-time great #1s.

  21. 21
    Tom on 15 Dec 2009 #

    Eloquent stuff Swanstep but I’m completely unconvinced – rather than “expressing cultural contradictions”, the very example you give “expresses” how BLOODY ANNOYING the song’s adoption as an anthem is and always has been. The irony you point up just isn’t in the record, as far as I can see.

    Mind you, my perceptions are coloured by having been a student in 1993 – the sinking feeling when “Killing” started up and the dancefloor emptied of fun and filled with stomping knobheads will take a lot of reassessment to shake.

  22. 22
    Tom on 15 Dec 2009 #

    But I’ll change “one of the worst records of all time” to “one of my most disliked records of all time” if you’d like!

  23. 23

    mmm figgy pudding

  24. 24
    Steve Mannion on 15 Dec 2009 #

    This song’s original release co-incided with my ‘Rock year”, but I still preferred Senser hehe

  25. 25
    Geoff on 16 Dec 2009 #

    The first time I remember there being a manufactured ‘battle’ between ‘real’ and ‘manufactured’ music for xmas number 1, was in 1987, when the original of When I Fall in Love was released up against Rick Astleyºs cover, which at the time was favourite for the top. This appeared to split the vote, allowing the Pet Shop Boys to sneak through )and thank god for that.

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