Hacking The Hype Machine: How Big Labels Fake Fandom
Columbia oversteps its latest marketing campaign by posing as the online public
If you’ve been in and around the musically-inclined parts of the internet over the past couple of weeks you’ve probably noticed–and been reminded, and reminded–that Passion Pit just put out a new album. Not just because sites have been covering it extensively–it’s received about its proper share of attention from bloggers, who acknowledge that both the music and the mysteries of Michael Angelakos make good discussion fodder–but because, well, those animated pink ads are sort of everywhere. Which is totally cool. Columbia (and parent company Sony) has got a great band and they’ve got the money to push them and so why not push them down the right channels, right?
It seems to be paying off. While Passion Pit’s debut garnered enough notoriety and airplay for the Cambridge pop outfit to linger in the public memory until now, the reminder of their latest work certainly didn’t hurt. The label put out two absolutely infectious singles to hook the record into the collective psyche. They completed one with a gently surreal video that seemed engineered to “go viral,” like an MTV cut of an iamamiwhoami piece. There was even a smartphone app designed to promote the album. It was a very slick, very streamlined and very expensive marketing campaign that will likely land the Massachusetts band in the Billboard 200’s top 10.
But if you’ve been hanging around the parts of the internet where people like to talk about music, and if you’ve been paying attention, you may have noticed something else, too. Like the fact that some of the people you’re talking to about music don’t quite seem to be people. Like no matter which blog you swing by, there are familiar names reciting familiar phrases as they recommend emphatically that you head over to NPR’s Gossamer stream. Weird, right? They’re not just on Passion Pit’s articles, though. They’re burbling up to comment on the Shins, Fiona Apple and other artists under Sony’s umbrella.
One thing major corporations have realized, albeit superficially, about the internet is that the sway of the online public is the most powerful force they have yet to harvest for profit. Take the right catchy song released at the right time, even if it’s bad, even if everybody’s making fun of it, and it’ll flicker across the internet like an autotuned pandemic. You get celebrities born out of chaos and mockery. You get Rebecca Black.
The problem for corporations with the memetic properties of the internet is that they are difficult to control or predict. The whims of the online public mutate by the hour. We find something amazing, we send it to all our friends, and then we get bored of it as fast as we fell in love with it. The half life of an infatuation has dwindled to nearly nothing–and the corporate problem with “internet cred,” like with street cred, is that as soon as The Man has realized that something’s cool, it can never be cool again.
But that won’t stop the big guys from trying. They’ll hire social media gurus to work with their longtime marketing execs and try to figure out what it takes to “connect” with their fans on Twitter. They’ll retweet ironic mentions of their company, oblivious. They’ll make clumsy, misguided attempts to turn their products into memes. Remember how all the weird trailers for Prometheus were labeled “viral” in their YouTube titles? It’s as if it’s a command: you will distribute this.
Corporations might not be people, but by God they’re trying. They’re studying phenomena that can only be observed accurately by participants. As soon as they’re picked up on by outsiders, they’ve changed.
Music spreads virally now, too. Advertisements and promotions still run rampant, but it’s word of mouth–of the blogger’s mouth–that will make or break an album’s release. Sony Music Entertainment (who owns Columbia) finally realized this. It dawned on them that no matter how much money they spent on banner ads, they still wouldn’t be guaranteed to harness the most vital swaying power on the internet. After all, how many times have you glossed over an IndieClick doodle to stream the new track posted beneath it? So, in addition to the shiny pink spots, they went a different route. A quiet route. They hired Facebook users to pop up on the comments sections of major blogs and declare, “hey, wow, Passion Pit!”
They’re everywhere. Every post on Passion Pit on every big blog that allows comments is riddled with the kind of stilted, hyper-exclamatory ad copy that’s clearly been pasted from a Google Doc style guide somewhere. “Gosh, you guys, I can’t wait until Gossamer comes out! I sure am going to buy it with money.” That’s just Sony, posing as one of us, trying to get us frothed up about a product most of us were already sold on. If music blogs are the 21st century equivalent of your friendly neighborhood record store–a place where you can swing by and hang out for hours sampling new tracks while chatting up fellow fans about your favorite underground bands–then these commenters are record company stooges grinning clownishly in the corner, wearing a trucker hat and sparkling new Converse and trying so hard to fit in.
The thing about friendly neighborhood record stores–the ones you all put out of business when you decided it was ethical to torrent underground rock–was that they didn’t have label reps posing in the corner awkwardly pitching their latest product. Those stores were a refuge from all of that pandering, somewhere you could go to get a real, honest opinion about the latest bands from a real, honest storeowner who wanted to sell records but who wanted even more just to share his favorite music. That’s what the blogs were supposed to be about. They were never supposed to sell us anything. Like any living online business, they needed ad space to survive, but that wasn’t the point.
The point was to stream new tunes from our favorite bands and from bands that were poised to become our new favorites. The point was to love music alongside people who love music all over the world. That’s why seeing Sony Music Entertainment show up thinly disguised in the comments section feels as weird as seeing a label stooge in a record store in the ‘90s would feel. It’s a violation of a community space. It’s pollution of a channel we thought was ours.
Of course, that space has more power than anything to sell records. Having replaced the MTV endorsement, the Best New Music tag is the record company’s new holy grail. But while they can’t force a review, they can force an opinion. So Sony shows up and hires people to chatter and the attempt at infiltration is so obvious that it just makes everybody involved look silly. Sony looks silly because everybody knows that it’s them. The commenters–who are real people, as far as I can tell, not fresh-minted stock photo profiles–look silly because they’ve been hired for the use of their Facebook accounts.
But this is the world now. This is the internet. It’s not just the music industry. More and more job postings for bloggers stipulate that you must have a Facebook profile with more than 500 friends and you must use it to promote the brand that hired you on a daily basis. You must irritate each and every one of your contacts who remember that time you used to be a person and now wonder when you started life as an advertisement.
Social media was always corporate, but we at least expected the profiles within to be run by, well, people. Now that people are willing to be bought–to steer their online identity toward the goals of the highest bidder–the landscape changes. We’re not entirely sure who, or what, is real.
Well, unless they’re repetitively posting on Passion Pit articles with the same shortened link to the Gossamer stream. Then we know they aren’t real. But that’s the funny thing about Sony’s desperate and misguided attempt to harness that public sway. For the most part, we were already keyed in. We already had Gossamer in our headphones before we even saw their stooges. We were going to talk about it, read about it, write about it, and yes, buy it already. The phony readers are creepy, but they’re also entirely unnecessary. They’re not doing a spot of good to boost the album’s signal. The signal is there, loud and clear. A good album from a good band mixed with just the right amount of bipolar gossip makes for good sales, no manufactured hype needed.
What Sony doesn’t understand is that its job is easy. Put out good records and tell people about them–plainly, without masks. Two steps. No problem. If somewhere up the line an exec thinks he can turn around faltering record sales simply by paying a few dozen people to comment on blogs, he’s well overstayed his welcome in the marketing world. Because we know a puppet when we see one, and if anything, we’re disinclined to trust them. But we love our music, and as long as they’re putting out more albums for us to love, Sony’s doing as best as it can do.