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« What are the essential features of a hit record? | Main | Resume? Resume? I Don't Need No Stinking Resume »
Tuesday
Oct302012

The Social Media Bandwagon: Everybody "Likes" a Winner

Mumford & Sons released their 2nd album Babel a few weeks ago. It’s hard to know what any listeners think of it. But one thing we all seem to know — Babel sold 600,000+ copies in its first week. That statistic was re-blogged and re-tweeted thousands of times, blindly hailing “the best debut of 2012.” Everybody {likes, re-tweets, +1’s} a winner.

Does a splashy debut lose significance as media transitions from the physical to weightless digital? We’ll get to that later. In any case, debut has replaced legacy as a benchmark of worth.

Artistic works that build their audience slowly and sustain it for long periods are becoming rare. Most works live and die with their debut. Open big or enjoy staying under the radar. In music, Adele’s 21 is the most recent outlier. No one saw it coming, and then nothing could displace it for more than a year. In the back catalog, Pink Floyd’s enduring hit Dark Side of the Moon returned to the Billboard Top 200 (at #156) for the week ending 21-Oct-2012. That’s 817 (non-consecutive) weeks on the chart (more than 15 chart-years).

At the polar opposite of the enduring hit is what I’ll call the hit-and-run, designed to open big and disappear fast before anyone can know how mediocre it might be. This applies equally to music, movies and books. Frozen Heat by Richard Castle debuted at #7 on the 30-Sept-2012 New York Times Fiction Best Seller List for combined print and e-book sales, dropping Mitch Albom’s The Time Keeper from #6 to #8. The next week, it was gone.

Trouble is, while Mitch Albom is a real-life best-selling author — Tuesdays with Morrie spent more than 200 weeks on the best seller list — Richard Castle is a make-believe best-selling author (turned amateur cop) on an eponymous TV show. The release of Frozen Heat was an annual publicity stunt coinciding with the start of the new season. But the covers of fake Mr. Castle’s books will forever trumpet him as a “New York Times Bestselling Author.”

A splashy debut may be increasingly easy in the weightless digital world. Apple can’t sell more iPads or iPhones than it can manufacture and distribute. A movie theater can’t sell more tickets than it has seats. E-book and digital music sales make it possible to respond to demand instantly and infinitely, without having to plan, produce, ship and stock physical inventory. Bits are never sold out. Mumford & Sons fan base was ready for a new release and downloaded accordingly.

Less newsworthy was the fact that sales of Babel dropped 72% in week two (though still topping the charts). Social media had already moved on to tweeting the debut of a new album from Muse at #2. Then, Muse was history. Did you “like” the news that Taylor Swift’s Red sold more than a million copies in its first week? Best debut of 2012 …

 

[About the author. Consumer Electronics and Software industry veteran Tom Dennehy publishes the online journal Surface to Air, triangulating among ideas and events at the intersection of the physical music past and the weightless digital future. Follow him on Twitter @InAurem_a2d.]

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