Dec 09

Selling In The Name Of

FT/66 comments • 9,999 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. 31
    Kat but logged out innit on 16 Dec 2009 #

    It would actually be excellent if Lady Gaga had a Christmas #1 – she seems to have dominated this musical year even more than Simon Cowell has.

  2. 32
    will on 16 Dec 2009 #

    Re 28: My standpoint on Rage has always been nice politics, shame about the music. They’ve always come across as decent, clued-up types in interviews, yet I can’t abide their shouty incoherent racket.

    And yet I’d be very happy if they came out on top on Sunday because a) for the first time in years it’s made the race for the Christmas Number One spot genuinely exciting and b) yes, anything that wipes the smug grin off Cowell’s face has got to be a good thing.

  3. 33
    McShank on 16 Dec 2009 #

    Part of me really wants to see RATM win just to see whether or not it can start phenomena of its own. I can see it now, each year the adolescent, anti-corporate (ROFL) denizens of facebook lining up and signing up for a range of excitingly “anti-pop” anthems. I conceive of dozens of groups all vying for their spot as main contender via the wax and wane of facebook groups: The “RUN DMC – Christmas in Hollis” group collapses so all it’s members flock to the “John Cage – 4:33”.

    It’d be like an interesting version of the Tory party leadership race.

    Finally, they’ll each select their winner and we get to see which audience packs more buying/voting clout for that year, creating a kind of meta-talent contest of it’s very own. IT’LL BE GREAT!!!

    One other point though, if this was really supposed to be a reaction against corporate pop, wouldn’t it have made more sense to pick a tune on an independent label. Buh! Better luck next year :D

  4. 34
    Tom on 16 Dec 2009 #

    Lex’s points are well made – I found Joe a likeable reality TV contestant, a natural 3rd-placer who had the good fortune to be able to hold a tune in a duff year for the X Factor. He would have been a shoo-in for that “search for a Joseph” thing the BBC did for instance. But actually wanting HIM to get to #1 is a bit crazy.

  5. 35
    Billy Smart on 16 Dec 2009 #

    KITNO’s rejection of the military-industrial complex is – I would imagine – a nuance lost on most of the song’s listeners then and now, for whom NOT DOING WHAT YOU TELL THEM! relates to more immediate and less abstract concerns, such as homework or tidying their rooms.

  6. 36
    Tom on 16 Dec 2009 #

    Y’see even that I can get behind – who wants to do their homework man? – what I found at the time was that the song was taken up without even those specifics (let alone its howl of frustration vs police racism) and very quickly became a thing of pure sentiment. NOBODY IS TELLING YOU TO DO ANYTHING YOU ARE OXFORD UNIVERSITY STUDENTS DRINKING TWO QUID SNAKEBITE AT AN INDIE DISCO sorry sorry I’ll calm down now.

    This whole thing is quite therapeutic actually.

  7. 37
    Conrad on 16 Dec 2009 #

    Two terrible singles. God, Rage Against the Machine have dated badly like so much early 90s grunge and indie rock music.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if Sony were behind the entire campaign, although that is crediting their marketing people with a fair bit of ingenuity. It’s entirely plausible though as not only was last year’s Buckley effort a Sony/Sony thing as someone pointed out earlier, there is plenty of dislike for Syco within Sony – pissing off Cowell and making loads of money in the process. Sounds like a win win.

  8. 38
    Ben on 16 Dec 2009 #

    This Sony versus Sony thing is nonsense, incidentally. The media and the Rage haters have raised this as an issue with the campaign, but they’ve misunderstood the purpose of this campaign. In any case, let’s face it, the music industry has condensed to the point where nearly every song in the charts every week comes from one of about three or four powerhouse labels. I suppose the campaigners could have plumped for a track on a genuinely independent label but that wouldn’t have satisfied the objectives, in the sense that the aim was best served by using a song which already has an established level of popularity. Choosing KITN over another Rage song (perhaps ‘Wake Up’ or ‘Bulls On Parade’ or ‘Sleep Now In The Fire’) makes sense if your only aim is preventing X-Factor from getting to #1.

    If it was genuinely about sticking it to ‘the man’ (i.e. Sony), the alternative would have been to campaign for all the Cowell-haters to illegally download the X-Factor song. But that would have served no benefit whatsoever, in that the X-Factor song would still have got to #1, and Sony’s revenues would have been unaffected. Better yet, try and persuade people who would have bought the song to instead download it illegally.

    As for the ‘are Rage any good at all?’ question, you’re all perfectly entitled to your opinion, and I can understand that they are something of a Marmite band, but I happen to think they’re brilliant. ‘The Battle of Los Angeles’ was a phenomenal album, and they were terrific at Leeds and Reading back in 2000, just before they split up. The Generation X anarchist act sometimes seemed a little contrived, but is it any worse a way of selling records than the Cowell method? Are Rage any less entitled to try and spread their political message through music than, say, Billy Bragg?

    Also, Tom Morello is one of the Top 5 guitarists of all time. Fact. People should buy this record to honour his talents if nothing else!

  9. 39
    Steve Mannion on 16 Dec 2009 #

    After the horror and fear of 9/11 my first jokey thought about the whole thing was “Oh no RATM will become relevant again!”

  10. 40
    Tracy Morter on 16 Dec 2009 #

    Our original idea, joking about my husband and I, just thought how funny if it would be if it got to number one. A classic song in it’s genre and has a controversial history (Bruno Brookes accidentally playing the explicit version).
    We are also terribly nostalgic for the festive chart topper race of our childhoods. Even if they were cheesey (and we love a bit of cheesey music) we loved it, the whole excitement of watching TOTP on Christmas day is a big part of our childhood memories. Again this ties in with buying in on the experience.
    Obviously a whole lot more has been read into the campaign though.
    It wasn’t like we expected people to join, let alone this many!
    We’ve really enjoyed seeing other artists and songs get support for the top spot too and raising so much for Shelter.
    This is nothing malicious at all against the contestants or those who enjoy the music.

  11. 41
    Steve Mannion on 16 Dec 2009 #

    I would just like to know what festive chart battles people actually have in mind when they are being nostalgic for them. Can’t think of any that were particularly exciting or interesting personally.

  12. 42
    CarsmileSteve on 16 Dec 2009 #

    pogues and kirsty?

    Tom, if you were paying TWO QUID for a pint of snakebite you were going to the wrong discos. deffo shouldn’t be more than a quid fifty, ideally 70p…

  13. 43
    Tom on 16 Dec 2009 #

    I thought about changing it to one fifty but it scanned better and the coven prices WERE a rip off so two would not have surprised me.

  14. 44
    AndyPandy on 16 Dec 2009 #

    This rubbish getting publicity 16 years after it should have been forgotten – what a bloody nightmare: surely the track by RATM is the musical equivalent of a particularly immature 13 or 14 year old stamping his feet at his mum and dad because they won’t let him have his way.

    Probably fitting really as I should imagine most of RATM’s audience were rather embarrassing adolescents who as recently as the early 1990s still thought there was something daring about swearing on a record.

    I might even have to buy this Joe McElderry thing now…and isn’t that just it though in that far from damaging Simon Cowell’s empire this campaign just gives it even more publicity…

  15. 45
    thefatgit on 17 Dec 2009 #

    The South of England’s oldest surviving rock club, The Agincourt on the A30 at Camberley, still plays KITN every Saturday. Resident DJ Brad Garrood encourages everyone to flip the bird at him at the “F**k you I won’t do what you tell me” bit.

  16. 46
    Steve Mannion on 17 Dec 2009 #

    Andy, to defend RATM somewhat, you can pretty much accuse any angry shouty rockers as just being juvenile impressionable melodramatists or whatever. But 13-14 is the age where a lot of people start realising and getting angry about the state of things, and not unreasonably in many cases. It’s not like KITN is actually about personal/trivial problems, tho it is annoyingly vague. The inanity is less of an issue considering the company this song kept in the charts then and now.

    Rather than being nostalgic for the supposed ‘Christmas #1 importance/battle excitement’ I’m almost ending up nostalgic for non-joke songs this angry (convincingly, justifiably or not) being hits.

  17. 47
    CarsmileSteve on 17 Dec 2009 #

    RATM 40k ahead on the midweeks apparently, 250k to 210k

  18. 48
    swanstep on 18 Dec 2009 #

    I agree with much that #46, Steve Mannion says, but I’d add that what comes through loudest and clearest from various anti-Rage out-bursts above (top marks to #17,Lex’s ’embarrassing, ancient joke band’!) is something like social aversion, disgust, and contempt. Somebody felt distinctly superior to someone else.

    Follow Tom’s template:
    ‘Heroes’ plays, gets a response, and someone scowls from the shadows YOU’RE NOT HEROES YOU ARE OXFORD UNIVERSITY STUDENTS DRINKING TWO QUID SNAKEBITE AT AN INDIE DISCO.
    And so on. How depressing. I assume we’ve all been there, but it’s not pretty.

    I somehow managed to avoid any particular social associations with Rage and encountered them pretty strictly as music, from which perspective KITNO feels pretty awesome. It reminds me a lot of the Who’s ‘I can see for miles’ in terms of its basic energy level, and distinctiveness – the sense that nobody else plays together like this. And KITNO’s lyrics are certainly no more vague than ICSFM’s. That lead-off repeated couplet, ‘Some of those at work forces/Are the same that bore crosses’, in particular, resonates pretty strongly these days after a decade of Blair and Bush. (The couplet also makes the song a little subversive for xmas.) Ironically, it may resonate in future even more strongly as theological/eschatological terms seep into all the anguish around climate change, where it’s Rage’s WTO-protesting children carrying the crosses and summoning righteousness.

  19. 49
    Al Ewing on 18 Dec 2009 #

    I thought it was ‘burn crosses’?

  20. 50
    Tom on 18 Dec 2009 #

    Yeah isn’t the idea of the song to equate the police and the KKK – suggesting that the LAPD includes far right elements? (A pretty credible suggestion)

  21. 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”.

  22. 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.

  23. 53
    cis on 18 Dec 2009 #

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

  24. 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! :)

  25. 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.

  26. 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


  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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?

  30. 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.

  31. 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.

  32. 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?

  33. 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.

  34. 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.

  35. 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.

  36. 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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