Nothing else sells records or tickets like the repetitive play of a hit song.


Much Talked-About N.Y. Times Piece
Overlooks Several Essential Factors
Last Friday (6/21) in The New York Times, staff writer James McKinley examined the envelope-pushing "viral marketing" moves being made by Daft Punk Kanye West and Jay-Z in his think piece "Who Needs the Critics? Go Cryptic Instead." Since the piece appeared, it has been a topic of ongoing discussion here at HITS, and though its basic premise is valid, we would—and will—argue that it doesn’t go far enough.

All three of the artists singled out as examples by McKinley have "kept their new albums under wraps, then mounted brief, intense campaigns aimed not at critics and radio programmers, but at generating waves of interest on the Internet, banking on their fans to pass along news," he writes in his setup.

"These recent examples…seem to underscore what marketing experts see as two trends: the decline of record sales as part of the overall income of musicians and the rise of the artist as a branded commodity. A musician’s interaction with fans, they say, has become a form of entertainment itself that drives sales of merchandise and concert tickets as well as corporate sponsorships. [The theory is] that teasing fans with tidbits, creating a sense of mystery and letting Internet buzz do the marketing, circumvents the critics and the major media outlets that used to set the agenda." Artists whose brands are big enough to allow them to call their own shots, McKinley continues, "have learned that news passed from fan to fan can be more powerful than a review in a major publication."

The long-employed marketing methodology wherein labels send advance promo copies to journalists and other tastemakers ahead of a release, then issue a single upfront to radio, whereupon the artist does makes radio and TV appearances seems to be changing or undergoing variations, at least with big artists, the writer concludes.

Are we in the early stages of a sea change in the way high-profile artists engage the mass audience, as McKinley theorizes? Perhaps. But he’s missing several key points in terms of all three of these acts, and a number of their contemporaries as well. While McKinley is right in stating that the fan base gets alerted by the artist via social networking, as soon as the media pick up the scent, they expose the artist’s brand to a much bigger audience by way of content, including video, that isn’t necessarily derived from the artist-generated social-networking initiative. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg as the setup proceeds.

From there, TV spots created by the labels and/or the artist’s advertiser partners and carefully timed appearances on certain TV shows that move the needle begin to come into play leading up to release. These are intended to expose the brand to a much wider audience—though a given plan can backfire if the artist gives a bad or unpersuasive performance on a show like SNL or American idol.

But the most potent avenue of exposure remains the most traditional medium at the artist’s and label’s disposal. That would be repeated spins on mainstream radio, which has the ability to widen a given brand exponentially, as has been the case for decades. There is no question that nothing else sells records or tickets like the repetitive play of a hit song, for good reason: No form of advertising can match that of repeated airplay. When you’re sick of hearing a particular song on the radio, you can bet that said song has been burned into the collective consciousness of the American public, for better or worse.

Consider Carly Rae Jepsen’s massive "Call Me Maybe," which millions will associate with the summer of 2012 until their memories shut down, or Daft Punk’s "Get Lucky," which is on track to become this summer’s definitive smash. And how much bigger did Jay-Z’s brand become by way of "Empire State of Mind," the modern-day standard "New York, New York" that every soccer mom knew and loved.

Hence, the biggest worldwide branding opportunity for Jay-Z, Kanye and Daft Punk—the vehicle that will sell tickets and albums for them as well as singles, thus impacting them financially more than any other medium—will derive from having a big hit song played ad infinitum on the biggest radio stations in the world.

Social networking is extremely effective at activating an artist’s core audience, but that’s just the initial step in a multi-pronged branding campaign. Other big stars—Rihanna, P!nk and Justin Timberlake, for example—have managed to maintain lucrative careers the old-fashioned way, their songs blaring out of cars, boutiques, fitness clubs and everyplace else with a sound system. On the other hand, how much damage did Lady Gaga do to her newfound enormous brand when she failed to come up with a gigantic hit on the follow-up to her breakthrough album? Whatever momentum she’s maintained from that point appears to have been the result of the halo effect from the earlier album. But how much damage, if any, did Gaga’s brand incur from this relative misstep? And consider the plight of Green Day, coming off one of the weakest, most ill-conceived branding attempts and records in memory. What's the brand erosion from that debacle?

Some artists have managed to make enormous amounts of money long after the big hits stopped coming—the Rolling Stones and Madonna, for starters—while U2 doesn’t seem to have been damaged terribly by their recent inability to penetrate the Top 40 airwaves. Even so, all three, and Paul McCartney as well, are known to be dying for another pop hit, so much so that they’re willing to spend large sums of their own money to try and grab the brass ring once again. In any case, for most present-day stars, it would be foolhardy to even consider ignoring radio and biting the hand that feeds them.

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He signed Elvis.