August 4th, 2009


Here Comes Everybody

An interesting conversation developed at the end of yesterday's entry, which had raised the vision of apps on the iPhone / iPod Touch / Apple Tablet replacing record labels. In conversation with krskrft, an Anon wrote:

"I guess I've always been fascinated at the point where an inclusive movement catches on and affects 'the public'. I get the feeling that someone like Momus might disown a movement precisely at that point; try to stay aloof from it or ahead of it. But it is an important emblem of the national mood, which uncountable independent creators all in their little cells might not be able to paint. It takes artists and journalists too. And even, yes, weasly business people."

Now, this exact point came up on Saturday night, in our buttons conversation in the Lustgarten. Jason Forest's partner, the artist Jen Ray, said to me: "I'm fascinated by what makes some things successful and other things not". We started talking about Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point idea -- what makes that tip tip -- and how it's the mystery at the heart of all marketing. Joe Howe -- who, with Digiki, actually plans to launch a label-like iPhone app -- came into the conversation and we got to talking about buttons again: whether, if there was a button marked SELL OUT right in front of you, you'd want to press it. (This was prompted partly by a comment on that day's Click Opera advising me to remake a Beatles album and sell a ton of records so that I could afford to live in Japan.)

I said -- rather gloomily -- that:

a) I'd never felt that such a button -- a SELL OUT button -- had been within my reach.

b) In fact, my instinct had always been to do things that were guaranteed not to work commercially, because it was more interesting artistically to try to do things the hard way (to unleash Apollo in a nightclub instead of the ever-popular Dionysus, for instance, to use white light instead of coloured light, to get things "wrong" instead of "right"), but also because there was a certain commercial logic to being non-commercial -- you can make money by making your unique selling proposition not-making-money, as many alternastars have discovered.

c) There's nothing sadder than someone who's obviously tried to press the SELL OUT button and failed.

d) Most successes worth their salt are accidental, anyway.

e) Almost every successful person says that success isn't all it's cracked up to be (many prove it by dying young or developing drug habits). Maybe we should believe them.

This talk of a SELL OUT button -- whether it exists, whether it would be desirable -- is the part of the buttons conversation I didn't report in Obvious buttons: the Ladytron lighting list. It's a typical indie conversation and a typical Berlin conversation, a question that comes up time and again when artists sit around discussing more-successful colleagues in more Babylonian cities.

I think I prefer the phrase Here Comes Everybody to buzzterms like "the tipping point". James Joyce ran a gamut of permutations on the phrase in Finnegans Wake; for him (as this book outlines) Here Comes Everbody is a principle, a character, a city, a man. Haveth Childers Everywhere was the third extract from Work in Progress (the prototype of Finnegans Wake) to be published, Anna Livia Plurabelle the second. If Anna Livia Plurabelle represents the River Liffey, Haveth Childers Everywhere is Dublin, the city. Anna is a woman, Haveth a man. And not just a man, but an alpha male.

Momus has a Georgie Porgy Pudding and Pie side: I'm rather afraid of the male principle, which is a principle of big-mouthed contention, competition, and spawning. Haveth Childers Everywhere means crowds, means populousness, means populism. HCE means the 02 Arena filled to capacity, it means queues, it means merch tables where the wares go like hot cakes. It is, of course, the ultimate principle of the city: to gather big crowds of people together, to circulate money, to put names in lights, to enjoy density and vitality, to go forth and multiply.

Could there be a sense in which Here Comes Everybody means Here Comes Nothing? Could the other side of the tipping point be a rapid chute to the garbage dump? Sure. Naturally, the downside of being part of a big crowd is the exact same thing as its upside: the fact that you lose yourself as an individual. Here Comes Everybody implies "there goes li'l ol' me". Similarly, the price you pay for the success of a product is often the personality of the product. A successful product answers to the needs of a faceless mass, and has to be, itself, faceless. An unsuccessful product is thrawn, stubborn and full of flavour and personality -- the very personality, in fact, which makes it fail, because it sticks in the craw of the crowd.

A couple of years ago I wrote a piece called Geodemographics put me in my place. Using sophisticated new market segmentation tools developed by Richard Webber and others, I discovered just how few people in the UK think and feel the way I do. Suddenly it became utterly plain to me why my bid for chart success had failed in 1989, why I'd always been on indie labels, why I'd stayed on the left side of the tipping point, why there'd never been a Here Comes Everybody moment in my career (you know, that whoosh feeling that pins you back in your seat, that incessant ringing of the telephone). It was because there simply weren't that many people in the UK who felt the way I feel about things. The two market segment categories in the Mosaic analysis that best described my way of thinking and feeling about life accounted for less than 2% of UK households. If I were a political party I'd lose my deposit.

It doesn't take a marketing wizard to tell you that you'll never have a SELL OUT button within reach if you...

a) remain true to, and fairly explicit about, your vision of life, and

b) share that vision with only 2% of UK households.

For such a person -- let's call him Nick, the anglicization of the french word niche -- there can never be a "here comes everybody" moment. And it's just as well, because this person, Monsieur Niche, doesn't feel comfortable in crowds anyway. Who'd feel comfortable in a great jostling mass you'd been reliably informed was 98% against you? If you couldn't blend in like a chameleon, you'd probably want to dart into the nearest dark cranny, like a lizard, and wait for everyone to go. TGE: there goes everybody.