iTunes, myTunes or yourTunes?

Today, March 22, 2007 is the day that you, the music consumer, has the opportunity to “reclaim the charts”; to become empowered.

Or so the organisers of Bum Rush The Charts would have you believe.

They claim that by purchasing Mine Again by Black Lab on iTunes you will have stuck one to the man; shown the radio companies who’s boss and landed a killer blow for consumer rights.

And in a way you will have, but I have some problems with this whole initiative, commendable though it is.

1. Hypocrisy.

The thesis behind this idea is that you, the consumer, is taking back the choice of who is in the public eye and therefore, who gets bought the most. No more fancy marketing around a star; no more payola to get bands airplay — no, this time it’s all about the music.

In reality, all that’s happened is that the choice of which acts “make it” has been displaced from the record company and their A&R teams, to a small panel of bloggers with little or no accountability to the consumer.

What if you don’t like Black Lab? Will this panel lose influence? Of course not. What about the A&R guys? Well, if they put out enough dross that doesn’t do well, they could lose their jobs so they are accountable (in the medium term) for their decisions.

2. Noise vs Signal.

The whole point of a chart or league table is to provide a clear signal on what’s popular at the moment. Who is in the mainstream’s consciousness; not who six people with access to self publishing software and an audience find popular.

This sort of initiative on its own gives a good, clear signal on what is popular – after all, a huge number of people are expected to buy the chosen track. But what if this happens every week? What if every week a niche group chooses a song or act to get behind? What if various niches start competing against each other?

The result is, as Mathew Ingram said about Twitter, is an awful lot of noise and precious little signal. It becomes the tyranny of the minority.

3. Not Original

Since the outset of consumer participation there have been countless examples of this sort of protest. The most notable two that I can remember have been the Vote for Rory campaign and the Vote for Beckham campaign.

Vote for Rory tried to vote in a fan favourite, but supremely untalented, Vancouver Canucks hockey player into the 2007 NHL Allstar game. Rory was a hit with the fans but more to do with his work rate and passion than his skills and flair.

The Beckham campaign happened back in the mid to late nineties when a shy, awkward and uncomfortable Beckham was emerging as a football player. Because of his complete lack of personality in front of the media and inability to string more than a few words together if within 30 yards of a television camera, people thought it would be hilariously ironic to get together and vote for him as BBC Sports Personality of the Year through flooding the phone voting lines and postal ballots.

I believe that, in both cases, the wisdom of the crowds prevailed and neither Rory nor David got the TV time their supporters were hoping for.

The BMBY Take

I happen to like Black Lab, their song Ecstasy is one of my favourite songs to work out to. I would have probably have bought the track had my home computer not been on the blink. I like the idea of consumers redressing the balance of power between them and the musical institution in much the way that we did with the Arctic Monkeys, Sandi Thom and Lily Allen.

But I don’t like the way BRTC has been less than transparent about the way they chose this track and I worry when some very intelligent people (list below) blindly get behind an initiative such as this without asking certain questions or raising certain issues. Such as these.

For more information –

…and for a great balanced discussion, Michael Seaton and I “adjusted the pitch” for his podcast. I’ll post a link as soon as it’s available – definitely worth your time.

**UPDATE  – It seems the noise has already started to obscure the signal. Vote For The Worst has succeeded in getting quite possibly the worst “singer” in the history of tragically awful singers into the American Idol Top 10. Someone is so upset she’s going on a hunger strike. Given the choice between eating my ears and hearing this guy *ahem* sing, I’d be grabbing a knife quicker than…someone doing something very quickly.**

9 Responses to iTunes, myTunes or yourTunes?

  1. I agree that the band choice was not transparent. By the time I came aboard the campaign, the choice had been solidified. Mark Nemcoff and Mike Yusi picked them because they’d been booted from two labels, and they’ve been VERY podcast-friendly.

    Regarding the rest of the campaign, at least as far as the parts I’ve been responsible for (marketing, interviews, statistics, etc.), I’ve been as transparent as possible, including publicly posting updates and progress on my Twitter page.

  2. Actually, Ed, I did raise some questions and concerns to one of the organizers. I wasn’t a fan of the “let’s stick it to big media” premise. I think that’s a foolish avenue to go down, and I would say that the organizers have since toned down that message somewhat. It doesn’t necessarily have to be an us-versus-them scenario, though that has cetainly provided some of the organizing ammo.

    I look at this as more of a campaign to raise the profile of independent artists/bands in general, and also to help raise thousands of dollars in scholarship funds to help defray the costs of a uni education for a student or two. I think those are two good causes to get behind.

    And I’m also a big fan of Black Lab. “Ecstasy” is my favorite song as well.

  3. Doug Haslam says:

    Ed,

    I understand the objections (I hate the iTunes music store myself, for a number of reasons, not the least of which are the closed system and DRM), and initially voiced my own– but I realized that was beside the point.

    I am most interested in seeing if an effort like this succeeds– noise? I don’t think it’s noise today, as the effort is organized behind one track. Noise is what had occurred before– this is people trying to put a single voice behind a track (and I don’t really care what the track is) to show up on the itunes/labels radar.

    Can it be repeated? Maybe that’s where the noise comes in– we all have our own personal tastes, and will fracture back into them. And yes, this is a stunt. But the attention today should (will?) get for indy music and podcasting will be worth it.

    So I bought the track and watch with interest. The real question for me isn’t “Why BRTC” but “what’s the reaction–what’s next?”

  4. Also, I should add that the band themselves was not aware of the choice until after it was announced. In talking with their manager and with the band’s lead singer, Paul Durham, that’s why they were so willing to donate half their profits.

    Now, in the future, if there’s a BRTC2, I agree that band selection should be done with a voting-style forum, like Digg’s software.

  5. Ed:

    I’ll choose an imperfect attempt at pushing an indie band into the spotlight over a well-crafted marketing campaign by a major label any day.

    This whole thing is supposed to be a symbolic gesture that dramatizes the quiet, low-key impact on music preferences and buying habits that is made every day by podcasters, bloggers, indie bands (and some journalists who don’t suck at the teat of multinational music companies).

    I have no problem with you raising these issues, but I’m not going to wait for a committee representative of all consumers in the world to get together and decide if this one-day event meets the criteria of transparency and openness.

    I heard Mark Yashimoto Nemcoff’s podcast back in early February throwing this idea out to the podcasting community. I had no illusions that any sort of selection process was used other than one or two people with connections among indie bands offering up one of their favourite bands as the guinea pig in this experiment.

    We’re all being manipulated every day to act or not act in various ways. A lot of the time that manipulation is disguised by the pretense of radio stations and music video shows creating a play list of the bands they think their audiences will be interested in. Those play lists, and the various charts that track hot songs and albums, are all about manipulation and lack of transparency.

    I’m quite happy to put my seal of approval on this particular public gesture, warts and all.

  6. Ed Lee says:

    Guys, all good points and thanks for stopping by.

    Just some clarification. I didn’t say that this initiative itself was noise, i said that if this sort of thing happens more and more then it could lead to too much noise that clouds out the valuable signal.

    I think Seth Godin likens this to one child crying and screaming while the other one asks politely. I don’t have children but I do know which one is more likely to get what they want.

    Ed

  7. So after you give the quiet one what they want, does the screaming get louder?

  8. Joseph Jaffe says:

    Ed, you’re an intelligent guy as well. And you’re exactly the reason why this initative never succeeded. As I wrote on my originl post (which had nothing to do with the RIAA):

    “The only way this fails (I’ve dabbled in this before) is because of the big “A” as in apathy. To be honest, I’ve been less than impressed with the mighty blogo/podosphere community in the past – in particular the so-called A-listers, who are generally a bunch of pompous, arrogant SOB’s (you know who you are)”

    Why we gotta go and be cynical about everything? Why question the choice of the song? It never even crossed my mind to tell you the truth. This is not some puritanical binge…this is about the wisdom of crowds, which have to act like a crowd in order to be wise…as opposed to a punch of splintered and fragmented dissenters.

    Maybe I should go and have a cup of coffee and then return to the conversation…

  9. Ed Lee says:

    Am I (using myself as an abstract concept symptomatic of the rest of the community) the reason it failed?

    No.

    The reason it failed (has it been accepted as a failure) is because of two assumptions –

    One, the community would be mobilized by its self appointed leaders. Sorry guys, if the Red campaign didn’t work, how could you expect this to? Either you have over inflated opinions of yourselves and your influence or the echo chamber is a whole hell of a lot smaller (relative to the iTunes community) than you thought.

    Two, the model is wrong. If the top down nature of the music industry is broken, you don’t replace the top, you change the industry. Having (from what I can see) two people decide what 10s of 1000s people should buy on a given day simply displaces the problem, not solves it.

    As for the assertion that to gain the wisdom of the crowds you need to act like a crowd, nothing is more wrong. The power and wisdom of the crowds comes from a vastly expanded knowledge base that can be harnessed.

    Ed

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