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« Anthropology, Technology, The Social Web and Advertising | Main | Getting Started »
Monday
Dec282009

Right sort of rage, wrong machine


Photo by Scott Penner

You may be aware that last week’s UK number one single was Rage Against The Machine’s ‘Killing In The Name’. It was a pretty big deal, and it prevented what otherwise would have inevitably been the surefire ‘X’-mas number 1 from reaching that spot.

X, in this instance, standing for X-Factor.

The campaign was started on Facebook, which is an interesting story in itself, and you could possibly do a fascinating case study in online activism and social media around that very point. That’s not what this blog post is about, but it’s worth a mention.

There was a lot of noise made about the RATM campaign. Some people said it was wonderful, because it kicked against the corporate nonsense that the Christmas charts had turned into. Others said it was a shame, because it stole the rightful place at the top of the charts from a young lad who had earned it fair and square in plain view of the British public.

And another bunch of people said that the whole exercise, while well-meaning, and coming from the right anti-corporate perspective, was essentially flawed and pointless. After all, Rage Against The Machine is a Sony artist, just like young whatsisname who ‘won’ that TV contest. And so any protest centred around a chart battle between those two artists simply filled the coffers of the people who stood to gain had nobody done anything.

Personally, I disagree. With everyone.

How X-Factor works
X-Factor, if you’ve managed to miss it, is a revolutionary television concept. It’s a talent show, with all the usual Pop Idol trimmings: ritual humiliation of self-deluded wannabes, show-stopping vocal acrobatics, and the inevitable Cinderella story - but with a twist: the judges are completely partisan, and are playing the performers off against each other to score points against their fellow judges.

In other words, it’s a bit like the Coliseum, with the nobility placing bets on which slave was going to kill the other. Only the slaves are positively falling over themselves to get into the ring, fully aware that only one will be left standing.

And even then, the judges, not the contestants (and certainly not the audiences), are the winners on the day.

It’s the most popular show on television, and it’s complete poison. In fact, you could make a very good case that the whole thing is anti-music.

X-Factor is scheduled to coincide with the lead-up to Christmas, and each episode (and there are many, including specials and results shows) is more or less a one-hour advertisement for the single sales of the final product. There’s also a lot of money being made on text voting.

And while Sony Music are willing participants in this pop culture clusterfuck, they are not The Machine that the Facebook campaign wanted us to Rage Against. They might be A bad guy, but in this instance, they’re not THE bad guy.

The REAL Christmas Story
While I don’t take any particular joy from Sony Music reaping the benefits of the RATM Xmas No. 1 campaign, I do take a certain amount of pride in living in a country where more people took the time and a little bit of money to say “Fuck you - I won’t do what you tell me!” to the kind of exploitative, manipulative and frankly obscene cultural industrial project that idolises fame for its own sake - than went and bought into the delusion.

Because actually, I don’t have a problem if Sony Music make money selling Rage Against The Machine records.

Hell, we should positively encourage it. I wish they’d release more vital, political and aware music of any genre, rather than do what they’re currently doing: which is to no longer simply cater to a lowest common denominator, but actively participate in creating it.

The message here then is not anti-Sony. It’s anti-stupid. Anti-evil. Anti-mass-exploitation. We can do the anti-Sony thing any day of the week. This is far more important.

Just as a side note, it’s worth pointing out that Simon Cowell (who is essentially the mainstay and prime benefactor of the X-Factor machine) is not really part of the music industry. He’s more a part of the television industry. To undermine the success of the RATM Facebook campaign is to miss that very important point.

And now that we’ve collectively proved that we can say ‘Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me’ to THAT machine - we can rally, regroup and pick some more targets. Sony, if you like… but the list of potentials is pretty long, and I suspect they’re not the worst offenders.

In the meantime, I take my little bit of personal satisfaction hearing something so defiant and angry being played in the end of year chart shows on the likes of Heart FM - and I look forward to the band taking their place alongside Bing Crosby, Cliff Richard and the other Christmas perennials in shopping malls around the country from the middle of November in years to come.

So yeah. Merry Christmas all, and a happy New Year.

Reader Comments (9)

Like you, I'm glad to see the backlash against manufactured "entertainment", however I'm afraid I can't see this becoming more than a one-off occurrence....

Next year, you can guarantee that the X-Factor guys will be prepared for it, expect the media onslaught, the download will be available earlier. The X-Factor fanboys will be out in force to "right the wrong" of this year and more than likely we'll get a dozen facebook groups, all splitting the vote and coming in short of the target.

Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. For me, whether RATM won or not was fairly irrelevant. I was just happy to see that there are still people in the UK who truly care about proper music, rather than a staged karaoke contest. That fact alone should be enough. Beating the X-Factor to Xmas no 1? Yeah, it was funny. Yes I'm sure it upset Simon Cowell a little bit. But ultimately it won't stop the next series, it won't stop all of these reality contests. What it has done though, is cause a load of people to be presented with the reality that "music" doesn't have to come from one of these shows and that performers don't have to look like Ken and Barbie. For me - that's far more important.

December 28 | Unregistered CommenterTim

Good point - it was never about Sony in the first place (that was a coincidence), it was always 'music' versus 'anti-music'.

Now we know that we can do this sort of thing, it's going to happen a lot more often. I Hope.

December 28 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Cotterill

and you could possibly do a fascinating case study in online activism and social media around that very point.

It indicates what pragmatic critics have said for a decade now: online activism lacks the depth for anything BUT entertainment culture. Iranian Elections were too complicated to be anything but a passing fad. The ongoing death march of our own Government is too contentious a subject for consensus.

Online activism is a currency of mere gestures -- not action.

December 28 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland

Great article Dubber, I'm glad someone nailed what was and wasn't important about this.

I would be interested to see how the Facebook campaign influenced sales in other markets. I saw plenty of people in Oz posting the links and encouraging people to buy the single - not sure if they realised that Australians buying RATM wasn't going to have an effect on the UK chart!

That activity was one of the things that annoyed me a bit - people not really understanding what was going on and just following a crowd. Not so much 'Fuck you, I won't do as you tell me" as "I'll just do what someone ELSE tells me".

I heard that RATM will be giving money made from this to charity and the Facebook campaign actually raised a fair chunk of change for charity as well. They are mean to be putting on a free gig in the UK. You should get yourself there and nab an interview! That would be heaps cool :)

December 28 | Unregistered CommenterJames

What James said. An interview with Tom Morello.

December 28 | Unregistered Commenterfelix

heh, I blame it all on Jonathan Dowling.....

December 28 | Unregistered CommenterSimon

The point about Cowell being 'TV' not 'music' is really well made - I often make the distinction between the 'music biz' and the 'entertainment biz' - releasing music can happen via either mechanism...

I don't think it was a 'bad' thing for RATM to get there, but I don't think it was anywhere near as remarkable as people seem to think. The Sony point is, I think, well made because it's one version of 'radical' that didn't impact on this - it didn't divert money towards a more sustainable version of the industry.

Like you, I'm more than happy if people spend their money on RATM's music, on Sony or anywhere else, but I do find myself reacting against the idea of buying music to make a point-even more insanely, RE-buying music they already own... That's totally a game defined by Cowell/'the industry'...

I'm reminded of when Microsoft started advertising themselves by reacting to Apple's 'Mac vs PC' adverts. Whatever they said, and however effective it was, they were still letting Apple define the territory. Instead of ignoring it and getting on with whatever they thought was important. Of course, with Microsoft, we didn't expect anything better.

But this was a campaign that re-legitimized sales-charts as a measure of something of value - as though it was ground worth fighting for. That's clearly bollocks. The relationship between the pop charts and 'great music' has been broken for decades, and was only ever there because of the way that distribution mechanisms limited people's access to the music they might actually fall in love with never had the chance to hear...

But now that's not how 'we' do it and not really how anyone needs to do it... The Charts are very much Cowell's domain, because they reflect a tiny proportion of what's happening in the world of music sales. So many online sales aren't even registered for chart placement thanks to the rules surrounding who reports to the pollsters...

So instead, to make a point, people re-bought a multi-million selling track, bigger than ever off the back of its inclusion in Rock Band, that was 'radical' in this instance because it has swearing in it, but that had a message that was about so much more than 'sticking it to the man' in the industry...

There are a whole pile of positive outcomes from this, but they are kind of incidental to the nonsensical battle that this was.

And no, Killing In The Name isn't about to end up on Christmas Compilations. I've never heard 'Another Brick In The Wall' in Tescos, or even Girls Aloud's 'Sound Of The Underground'. At best it'll be chalked up as an anomaly, at worst it'll turn the December charts into a point-proving battle-ground. Actually, if people start banding together and buying Derek Bailey or John Zorn tracks in massive numbers, that could get really interesting... It'll just be interesting to see what happens when someone tries this with a track that hasn't already has millions of dollars of Sony marketing money spent on it over the last 20 years...

December 29 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Lawson

For me, what was so refreshing and fun about the whole Xmas no1 story was the excellent debate it stoked - in my case as a series of comments on a Facebook status (http://bit.ly/5ie0kk if you're interested) between friends, family, music making colleagues, and current and past music business students, many of whom had opposing but valid points of view.

People articulated how they felt about the campaign, and you really had the feeling that in the main, they were open for discussion as to what this phenomenon meant. To me it felt like suddenly there was evidence of a music based culture in the UK again, even after all the ITV money and hype had done its best to own the Xmas no 1. Okay, this wasn't a reasoned, united, focused group with one clear aim. There may have been elements of musical snobbery in there. But the quality of debate showed that people were reacting to a little frippery of UK pop with some self reflection, care for their culture, and a curiosity as to its meaning.

And even better, it showed that people will pay money to support music they feel connected to. Steve - the "insanity" you refer to of people buying music they already own is not so far from the "fanaticism" of many music "fans" buying different versions of the same song in different formats, or in different sleeves etc. I've not bought singles much in recent years, but 29p for a second copy of RATM was great value; it reminded me a little of the naive joy and hope I had almost forgotten from being a 12 year old glued to the radio on Sunday night, listening to records I thought were cool rising up the chart (or not). I feel rather differently about the singles chart now I'm an adult, but as people who profess to make a living from our music, we ignore or denegrate that fanaticism about music at our peril.

Happy New Year everyone.

January 2 | Unregistered CommenterMike Pailthorpe

Being in the U.S.A. I'm a bit confused at this entire matter. I don't see how a track many years old beating out another I presume of equal vintage, is of any import at all. On the other hand, if the track won over a new track, then I'd have even more a problem in understanding.

Let's be honest here. Music today, is largely crap. Only rarely, does an artist come onto the scene with any real talent. Even then, they often have zero lasting power. The fans are more than ever sheep, led by fad and group mind than by real interest in any given artist.

Fans remember, want and buy anything and everything they possibly can from or about their favorite artists. Real fans that is.

This evening, I waded through VH1's horrid program "The 100 most outrageous moments in music". Astonishingly, the number 2 item was the murder of John Lennon. The number 1... the death of Michael Jackson... Do you see what I mean about sheep?

January 3 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Lee King

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