So, it happened: Rage Against The Machine’s “Killing In The Name” is the UK’s Christmas number one, having beaten this year’s X-Factor winner Joe McElderry by just under 52,000 sales.
There’s no shortage of wiseacres lining up to point out that (a) RATM are signed to Sony BMG (the same label as McElderry), so that “the only winner is The Man”, and (b) we’re still living under capitalism. But, while we need to keep a sense of perspective about this, overall I think this has been a Good Thing.
Despite what some have suggested, this was a genuinely spontaneous, grassroots campaign, not something “orchestrated” by the music industry. The campaign was started by Tracy and Jon Morter, a pair of music fans living in Essex, who did not for a moment expect the campaign to achieve the scale or success it did.
Here are some reasons why I’m happy this morning:
- It’s a victory for those who campaigned for DRM-free music. The reason why RATM could go from the back catalogue to number 1 inside a week is because of the wide availability of legal, unrestricted MP3 music downloads. A couple of years ago people would have had a choice of (a) iTunes; or (b) illegal sources (which obviously don’t count towards the charts).
- My inner “armchair anarchist” has enjoyed this reminder of what can be achieved through spontaneous, undirected self-organisation. People have, in a small way, shaken off their appointed role as passive consumers of what the media and entertainment industries direct towards them. Yes, this is a very small thing – and yes, it still involved the purchase of a music download from a multinational corporation – but we’re told not to despise the day of small things. Hopefully a few people will learn lessons here about what can be achieved in relation to more serious issues – and the fact we don’t need to wait for permission (or a large wadge of cash) to do something different.
- The wiseacres are making a mistake when they try to “follow the money” here. Yes, RATM are signed to Sony BMG, but that’s (a) coincidental (I don’t think the Morters were aware of this when they started their campaign) and (b) an unavoidable consequence of music industry consolidation. And yes, Simon Cowell may gain some marginal financial benefit from RATM’s sales. But this isn’t about the money for Cowell: it’s about power; the power derived from both the reality and (equally important) the perception of his dominating the mainstream pop market. In a week where Cowell has been flexing his muscles in the political arena (and receiving grovelling political endorsements in return) it’s a good thing (even if, again, only a small one) for him to lose his aura of invincibility. It’s pretty safe to say that Cowell is not shrugging his shoulders today and saying, “Hey, it’s all money in the bank!”
- It was also great fun. Really, that’s the most important reason.
There are also some reasons for caution, though.
- As Zizek points out, capitalism has a remarkable ability to appropriate challenges to it. It’s safe to say the advertising industry will be looking at ways to exploit the success of this campaign, by instigating supposedly “grassroots” campaigns of their own. (This “cyber-astroturfing” has already been a success for Cadbury on a number of occasions, most notably the Facebook “campaign” to bring back Wispa.) And while Tracy Morter has said she and her husband are not interested in repeating the experience of the past week next Christmas, I think the Morters can expect a succession of enquiries from music industry PRs next autumn.
- The campaign, despite its success, also highlights the weaknesses of online campaigning. By yesterday evening, 957,000 people had joined the campaign’s Facebook group. If each of those had followed through by purchasing the song (which they could have done for less than 50p) then the result would not even have been close. The song achieved 502,000 downloads, but by the time you take out multiple purchases (I bought three copies!) and those buying without joining the Facebook group, then it’s clear that substantially less than half of the group members actually followed through and bought the song.
One way in which campaigns can succeed is by making use of the human desire not to behave inconsistently with one’s prior commitments. You sign a petition against Nestlé, say, and as a result you feel compelled to avoid Nestlé products in order to be consistent with the commitment you’ve made. The RATM campaign may be a valuable case study in how clicking “join this group” is not enough of a psychological commitment to make people feel compelled to behave consistently with it, even where the action required is so undemanding. Something to bear in mind next time one of those “million people standing strong against [your cause here]” groups is doing the rounds.
- It was only the Christmas No. 1 for pity’s sake. Sheesh! Anyone would think it was the October Revolution or something! 😉
Finally: don’t feel too sad for Joe McElderry. The consensus is he’ll get his number one next week…