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The Futility of Fighting Fire with Fire

December 10th, 2009 | 23 Comments | Categories: New Music Strategies · tips for musicians |

Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the madness of the music industry. To want to fix it. To put it right. To ‘reclaim‘ the territory for ‘real‘ music.

Remember back in the 80s, when the charts were full of music we liked? Top Of The Pops had a point, the chart show was a way to discover music. It was good.

The problem with that idea is that it ignores the fact that the situation then was us making the best of the limitations. We learned from the charts because we didn’t know any better. Most of us moved on to specialist radio as soon as we discovered it and developed the patience or the dadaist affectation required to sit through the more extreme outlying regions of John Peel and Andy Kershaw’s record collections.


Once we got to that point, the collective meaning of watching Top Of The Pops became one of cultural nostalgia. And the music was still ‘good enough‘. I didn’t know many serious music fans who saw the charts as their main way to discover music, but there were enough music-driven scenes that crossed in the mainstream that we had something to find in chart shows.

Those days are gone. Long gone. The charts have been largely devoid of awesome music for a very long time. Yes, occasionally something good sneaks in there, but most of the best music I’ve discovered in the last 10 years has never had a sniff of mainstream chart success.

So the charts are crap. That’s now a given. What do we do?

Well one suggestion floating around the internets is that as a mass action against the Cowellification of the music mainstream, everyone who cares should buy ‘Killing In The Name’ by Rage Against The Machine, to get it to Christmas number 1.

It has it’s own Twitter hashtag – #ratm4xmas – and the ubiquitous Facebook group, and a lot of people are getting excited about it.

I have to say, I love the track – the bass line is awesome, and it brings back great memories of jumping around in nightclubs as a student.

But the campaign says and does nothing. It’s clearly not an indie music thing – the track was released on Epic, a major label. The suggestion is to buy it from ‘chart eligible download sites’ – hardly bastions of indie-championing goodness.

It becomes a way to pile money into the hands of ‘the industry’ and will possibly spark a ‘buying war’ with fans of the X-Factor dross that will doubtless beat it to number one anyway (can you see there being a million people buying Killing In The Name? Those X-Factor marketing people are pretty damn clever, and a lot of people with really bad music taste are more than happy to fork out cash for appalling festive dross…)

No, the idea that in order to react to the heinous creativity-free wasteland that the charts have become we need to put ‘good songs on major labels‘ back in the charts is nonsense. That’s just not the way it works. Buying digital copies of back catalogue hits in massive numbers does nothing for the sustainability of the new music economy. You just end up trying to play the machine at its own game, on a court that it owns and has gamed in its own favour.

The magic of the internets is that we can ignore the whole notion of ‘mainstream‘. I honestly, hand on heart, couldn’t name you one song that has been at number one in the singles chart this year. Not one. I have no idea if the new Bon Jovi single sold by the bucket-load or flopped. I just don’t care about the music that the faceless millions buy or listen to anymore. It doesn’t affect me. Crapping on their nostalgic party achieves nothing.

The only thing that changes the balance of power is to consistently support independent musicians.

  • Buy music that you love
  • Buy it from a source as close to the artist as you can
  • Talk to them
  • Share the great things you find
  • Blog about it
  • Go to gigs and become part of the solution.

…The solution that sees charts as a nostalgic throw-back to a time when Jimmy Saville presented Top Of The Pops and Mark Goodier told us who was at Number One on a Sunday evening, while we taped the songs we liked off the radio onto Radio Shack cassettes.

By all means, buy Rage Against The Machine songs and albums. But do it cos you love it, not because it ‘means’ anything. It doesn’t.

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23 Comments so far ↓

  • mrG

    Everyone in this business, and by that I mean the business of buying or selling recorded music as a viable lifestyle, should take the time to read the very forward thinking essay by Momus entitled “Superstars? Nein Danke” because what he said back then turned out to be painfully true. There will never be another Beatles because there can never be another monopoly distribution system. So get over it, get out there and find your niche, because it’s out there and it needs you to be a part of it.

    By “Global Village” McLuhan didn’t mean we would all know everyone, he meant that your small circle of friends might be spread all over the globe but will still operate as if it was a small local group. ‘Locale’ takes on an aethreal no-place aspect, but it is just like the days pre-FransLiszt, days when being a musician meant being involved in a community, a fundamental component of a human environment, and not simply a ‘product’ held on ‘catalog’ in hopes of selling ‘units’.

  • ratm4xmas

    I agree that it won’t change the music industry, it would be naive to think that. I think it will however expose a lot of people to something different, and for Simon Cowell to know that there are hundreds of thousands of people who want to tell him where to go, that’s got to be worth something.

    You’ll be able to pick up the track for less than a quid, I’d guess that is less than the cost of an X-Factor vote, I think it is worth it to be counted as a vote against the lowest common denominator.

    At the end of the day this is just a bit of fun though, it shouldn’t be taken too seriously however the fact that the group has raised over £5,500 for a charity that WILL make a difference to someone’s world is important. Hope you don’t mind me putting the link to donate here:

    http://www.justgiving.com/ratm4xmas

    Merry RATM4Xmas 😉

  • Grant Sharkey

    Any group of people moving in herds without much of a reason are laughable (and dangerous in certain circumstances) to anyone that thinks outside the box.

    The difference between the X-Factor lovers and the Rage lovers is the fact the X-Factor song will be bought by people who’ve been entertained over months and have shared some experience with the final result.

    The Rage lovers are trying to prove a non-sharpened point that actually stands against a) logic, b) moral sturdiness and c) common sense.

    Ask yourself this: what would Zach De La Rocha do? Answer, probably not give a shit about what other people are doing and make sure his point/life/message was just and true.

    Don’t buy either song, make a donation to Amnesty International (or buy the new Portishead song, proceeds go to AI), Free Tibet or Burma Campaign UK.

    Wanna make a difference? Then fuck ’em…don’t do what they tell ya. :)

  • Carl Morris

    LET’S HEAR IT FOR DIZZEE RASCAL

  • Ben

    As I was infored by my friend Brian, the really futile part is that Sony Music are releasing the X-Factor single, and Epic have the RATM catalogue. Epic are (you guessed it) a subsidiary of Sony!

  • steve

    @catnip (sorry, the threaded comments run out after a certain number of replies :) )

    Ah, OK, I get your point – the problem here is around what people listen to ‘mainstream’ radio *for* – if your audience aren’t there to be challenged, they’ll switch over if you challenge them.

    I didn’t get this until I had a conversation with Simon Mayo about ‘the missionary position’ – it was a slot on his late morning show in the 90s when listeners mailed in with suggestions for an unknown band they wanted to ‘evangelise’ on behalf of. He’d read out the schpiel, play the track, and we’d all here great new innovative music on the radio.

    The problem was that every one of the big commercial stations knew when it was coming up, and they put on a guaranteed ‘floor filler’ – massive super hit, the kind of thing that people surfing through the dial would stop to listen to, so when people surfed away from R1’s ‘new’ music, they’d end up listening to Oasis or the Jam or Sub Sub or Dee-Lite…

    So attempting to game the charts, and therefor daytime radio, achieves, uhm, not much.

    Remember when Cliff got to number one with the Millenium Prayer? Daytime radio play? I don’t think so…

  • Guitartim

    Anyone remember the Blur vs Oasis “chart wars” in the mid-90s? Fans of both bands buying lots of copies of their respective band’s singles (I think it was Blur’s “Country House”, I forget which Oasis single) in an attempt to get it to No.1, with the singles having been released on pretty much the same date.

    Now, I have no recollection of who “won”. But I’m pretty sure that both bands, even the one that “lost”, sold more copies than if there had been no “war”. And, taking a longer term view, it’s easy to argue that in many ways both sides “won” – as they say, there is, after all, no such thing as bad publicity.

    The same’s true here: Cowell will like as not make _more_ £ as a result of sales as a result of this #ratmxmas thing, rather than less. Both in the short term, and (because it makes it look like X-Factor actually matters) in the longer term too. Even if RATM actually win. In fact, (despite Steve’s assertion that they cannot), Cowell might even _prefer_ it if RATM won – creates the perfect opportunity for a rematch, no? Make no mistake, he’s laughing all the way to the bank.

    Oh yes, and if Ben’s comment (Dec 11, 2:49pm) is correct, then there aren’t even two sides in this particular war, there’s just the one. *sigh*

    So: take Grant’s advice. Don’t buy either song. Give some money to charity, buy your granny a bunch of flowers, fix your neighbour’s washine machine for them… just do something, anything, that you believe will have a positive effect somewhere in the world.

  • steve

    If any of you want a source for some cool proper indie music, bought direct from the artists, then this list of Bandcamp embeds for as many artists that I could find on Twitter – check it out here.

    This is a GREAT way to support genuine independent music, to invest in the future of artists making music that matters.

  • Jim Peterson

    Was pointed here by @guitartim after posting the link and hashtag on twitter. Now I’m just musing whether I’ve done the right thing…

    The points about futility as Sony gets all the money and Simon Cowell is laughing all the way to his already overstuffed bank are well made. If we want to give to charity we can do so very easily. But a bit of me still says “hang on”.

    In defence of #RATM4XMAS then, I propose that it is a good thing that a group of very unconnected individuals get together through word of mouth/hashtag/facebook to say to whoever cares to listen that there is an alternative to mainstream processed pop, even if it is old mainstream rock? I was persuaded when I saw the lsits of my friends joining the facebook group – these are people who are entirely unconnected but are coming together to support a “cause”. I see that 600,000 people have signed up – that’s about 1% of the UK population – and it means that someone who has been following x-factor might just broaden their listening horizons to what I would still term as less processed music. RATM were an indie band, and were very picky about which major label to use in getting their music out to the masses (“Epic agreed to everything we asked — and they’ve followed through…. We never saw a[n] [ideological] conflict as long as we maintained creative control.” – Wikipedia[7])

    RATM are a great band, and I would buy the single because I don’t have a copy of it at present (gave my CD away to a more deserving teenager in need of a musical education), and because they stand up for musical integrity – no autotune, no beat detective, just some very good players.

    If a group of people can mobilise themselves out of nothing to unite behind a cause that is at least superficially worthy and raising a small amount of cash for charity then surely that’s cause for some (christmas) cheer?

  • Rich

    A very wise man once said: “The problem with the music business these days is that it’s the music BUSINESS and not the MUSIC business.”

  • steve

    I just posted this on twitter:

    “if the charity ££ is the big win, why is it #ratm4xmas not #shelter4xmas. Maybe ‘give to the homeless not rock stars’ wasn’t catchy enough?”

    what did I mean by that? Well, time after time, I’ve been told that the money raised for shelter means that knocking the RATM campaign makes me some kind of party-pooper, trying to stop people giving to charities.

    So let’s do some sums – 750,000 in the facebook group, and according to one article I read, £21K has been donated to Shelter (the designated charity).

    So that’s 21K/750K – just under 3p per person.

    Assuming half the people in the group buy the single at about 79p a pop (99p on iTunes just now, apparently) – that’s, what? about 50p per purchase ending up in Sony’s coffers? so roughly 25p per person in the FB group.

    Approx 10 times as much going to Sony as is going to charity.

    So why wasn’t the campaign to give to homeless charities instead of buying crap pop music?

    Because the Shelter thing is an afterthought. A laudable afterthought, for sure, but tagging a charity onto the end of a bogus idea doesn’t make it less bogus. 3p per person in a ‘charity campaign’ would be a MASSIVE fail.

    So, if you want to give to shelter, do it because they deserve it, not because of some shitty campaign to pit rock stars against pop stars.

  • George Luke

    In a nutshell, my problem with the RATM campaign is this: Whenever I spoke to its supporters, I heard an awful lot of “We hate Cowell” and hardly any “We love music”. Hatred is a crappy basis for any campaign, imho…

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  • steve

    Expose a lot of people to something different? You do know how many records Rage Against The Machine have sold, right? And that lots of heavy acts still get songs in the charts? You honestly think that the people who buy X-Factor singles are going to convert to Rage fans because they hear it on the radio?

    I don’t doubt your good intentions, but the action doesn’t say ‘vote against the lowest common denominator’ – it says ‘buy this massive selling 20 year old major label slice of history as an alternative to a blandly re-recorded TV-marketed 20 year old major label slice of history’. It’s all nostalgia.

    If you attempt to game the charts, you play by the rules of the charts. You draw attention to the charts as a battle ground worth fighting for. They aren’t. They are meaningless.

    Raising money for charity is fab, good on you, but there’s nothing to stop people giving a tenner to Shelter, and buying music they love rather than a tune they already own to prove a point that has no point to prove.

    The comparison between the price of buying this track and voting in X-Factor is an interesting one – with all the money going to who? RATM, Epic, their publisher, iTunes… woohoo! way to go sending the cash to the people who need it. So, the industry machine ends up a few hundred grand better off while Shelter picks up some cash that may have gone their way anyway…

    I’m not talking here about actions that ‘change the music industry’. It’s already changed. Charts are an utter irrelevance, and trying to hype old songs into the charts is exactly what the Cowells of this world are doing. They attach the song to a story, often made up, about a person winning a competition, overcoming adversity etc. etc.

    You’re trying to hype an old song to the top of a long-dead chart system by attaching the song to a story, giving it a ‘meaning’, a ‘narrative’ that the product itself has nothing to do with beyond it ending with the line ‘fuck you I won’t do what you tell me’.

    Can you see the irony in corralling a mass-purchase of a song people could’ve bought at any time in the last 20 years if they wanted it as a statement of non-conformism?

  • catnip

    Your article makes a lot of sense, but re. your comment:

    “Expose a lot of people to something different? You do know how many records Rage Against The Machine have sold, right? And that lots of heavy acts still get songs in the charts? You honestly think that the people who buy X-Factor singles are going to convert to Rage fans because they hear it on the radio?”

    Finding decent underground music is hard work, work that I personally think is worth it, but most people are lazy. Most people think they “like” what they “know”. They certainly won’t buy anything they don’t hear on mainstream radio.

    I’d love to see the mainstream media playing quality music, then that’s what people would hear, that’s what they would know and that’s what they would like.

  • steve

    I’m still utterly baffled by the idea that RATM are ‘underground’ – they’ve sold Millions-probably-Tens-of-millions of records. Seriously. They are an Arena-level band on a bad day. A Stadium band if the choose. They stormed the mainstage at Glasto in the 90s. They’ve sold WAY more records than any of the reality TV kids with the possible exception of Leona Lewis.

    Finding decent underground music IS hard work. Buying RATM back catalogue in massive amounts does absolutely nothing for the underground.

    If you’re going to support underground music, buy music where the money is going into an infrastructure that supports independent music. Not effing Sony!

  • catnip

    No, no. My point was that people have to hear music before they can buy it, nothing to do with the RATM thing. Re: “You honestly think that the people who buy X-Factor singles are going to convert to Rage fans because they hear it on the radio?” There’s no chance if they *don’t* hear it on the radio, there’s a slim chance if they do. Semantics really.

  • catnip

    Oh I didn’t know about that Simon Mayo feature, it’s depressing that people turned over.

    I suppose Cliff has such a huge fan base and they will buy his records without even hearing them.

    On the flip side, look how popular tracks used on adverts can become. People passively become familiar with the music, whether bad or good.

    Maybe I’m just weird, but my favourite music is always something that I’ve just discovered and only heard a couple of times.

  • Ben

    Go to the Sony Music website and click on “Labels” – Epic is first item on the second row.

    …and from The Times:

    Only the show’s winner has a guarantee of a £1 million deal with Syco, Cowell’s branch of the music giant Sony BMG

  • steve

    ah, should’ve been clearer on the Cliff point, sorry – the point was that after all his fans had bought it to get it to number one, it still wasn’t played on the radio…

    If Radio one feels their listeners won’t like a particular song, they aren’t going to suddenly play it. and if they do think it’s appropriate, then where’s the radicalism in that? :)

    The points you raise about discovery mechanisms are really good, and worthy of discussion and consideration. I fell in love with Crazy by Gnarls Barkley after hearing it on an advert. It’s the only ‘new’ song I’ve ever bought on iTunes.

    Much to chew on for another post :)

  • steve

    James,

    you’ve kind of hit right on the initial draft I wrote of this blog post – my angle was about how easy it is to mobilize masses of people to make token gestures online in favour of pretty much anything. It’s how spam works – you only need tiny percentages of the millions of people who look at a website to click through the adverts to make money.

    That low bar to mobilization is a wonderful thing, but it also means that a whole load of completely half-baked ‘protests’ take place. The Jan Moir situation is one such campaign – she wrote a hideous, odious piece of insinuating crap about Stephen Gateley and the wrath of the internetz was brought down upon her with great vengeance. Vengeance UTTERLY disproportionate to how much more rancid her writing is than just about everything else the mail ever publishes.

    At the same time, a bloke pulled together an incredible archive of sensationalist newspaper headlines, lies told by the red-tops about immigration. Utter lies. Far far more pernicious and damaging (given the election of BNP candidates) than Moir. What happened? A lot of people read it. We ‘raised awareness’. And then? Nothing. Why? Because it didn’t involve lambasting a homophobe on twitter, it required a much longer, more involved response, a change in buying patterns, the need to talk to family members about the lies they were reading on a daily basis.

    I’m sure loads of those important conversations go on, but it’s not the stuff of high profile web campaigns.

    Setting up a hashtag and a chip-in account takes minutes. Seconds, even. The idea that some kind of protest vote be registered against X-Factor is laudable. I despise the ground the Cowell walks on. But getting RATM to number one over christmas does nothing. It doesn’t say anything meaningful, it’s pointlessly antagonistic (though I’m sure there’ll be a radio edit – without the play out – that gets played, if radio deems it worthy of broadcast given the way it will end up in the charts…) and is trivializing to the original intent of the song – about something FAR more worrying that narcissistic karaoke singers having their lives destroyed by the Boyle-effect.

    If you want to make a difference, support the people who will continue to make a difference.

    Epic/Sony aren’t those people. If they gave RATM what they wanted in their deal, they did it because it made financial/marketing sense to them to do it. They’re are part of the problem, not the solution. If RATM managed to make it work they are the exception that proves the rule.

    Visit http://www.axisofjustice.org and find out about the things that really concern Zach and Tom Morello.

    If you want to make a difference to music, support independent artists.

    • Boycott the mainstream altogether.
    • Buy music of any stripe because you love it
    • pay for it as close to source as possible
    • start a blog promoting lesser known music worthy of acclaim
    • organise house concerts

    By all means buy Killing In The Name – it’s a great song from a great album by a massively important and influential band. But don’t pretend it means anything to get it into a chart that stopped having any significance over a decade ago.