MBW Views is a series of exclusive op/eds from eminent music industry people… with something to say. The following comes from Eamonn Forde (pictured), a long-time music industry journalist, and the author of The Final Days of EMI: Selling the Pig. UK-based Forde’s new book, Leaving The Building: The Lucrative Afterlife of Music Estates, is out now via Omnibus Press.
Stories bind us together as societies and as communities. Stories are also ways that a society or a community explains itself to everyone both inside and outside that society or community. Stories are ways of condensing and articulating complex ideas, for sharing values and for collectivizing beliefs.
Stories tell us about us.
The fact that most societies share similar stories is no accident as often the stories they tell are eternal. The names and locations might change, but the heart of the story carries across centuries, across cultures, across languages, across borders.
In 1928, Russian folklorist Vladimir Propp published Morphology Of The Folktale, his analysis of over 100 folktales, using this to draw up a typology of stories, identifying 31 core structural elements that stories drew on and seven main character types who appeared in these stories. He revealed how the formulas behind stories and characters are measurable.
Propp’s landmark book was not translated into English for another 30 years after its original publication, but it was to have a profound impact internationally. In 1971, Tzvetan Todorov constructed his narrative theory of equilibrium in part upon the foundations of Propp.
Most famously, George Lucas was clearly propped up by the work of Propp when he was developing the idea for Star Wars.
This is the long way around to say that intellectual analysis of stories and storytelling has a deep and rich history. This, however, is somewhat at odds with how the storytelling motif has been crassly hijacked in recent years in marketing.
There has been an insidious bastardization of what storytelling is and, more importantly, what automatically qualifies as storytelling.
Musicians are, we are repeatedly told not just musicians: they are storytellers. Thus it follows that the marketing around them becomes part of that storytelling.
One of the most pernicious lines/lies in marketing at the moment is the myth and the romanticization of “storytelling”. It is a term that has been used so frequently, so clumsily and so incorrectly as to be rendered utterly, even dangerously, meaningless.
It implies there is something grand, something profound – like the Great American Novel expressed through some digital and OOH activations – behind a marketing campaign or album release, seeking to bestow upon it an intellectualism that it does not deserve and that it certainly cannot support.
If we apply literary analysis to these campaigns, if we run them through Propp’s typology of folk tales, we very quickly see these are not great works of literature. Calling them acts of “storytelling” does not, in and of itself, make any of it storytelling.
“One of the most pernicious lines/lies in marketing at the moment is the myth and the romanticisation of ‘storytelling’. It is a term that has been used so frequently, so clumsily and so incorrectly as to be rendered utterly, even dangerously, meaningless.”
This is not to say that all marketing is a desperate race to the bottom and the antithesis of creativity. Sometimes it is, but sometimes the marketing is as creative as the music it is promoting. Rarely, but it does happen, the marketing is infinitely more interesting and more artistic than the terrible record it is trying to get people interested in.
It is all really a question of terminology and navigating the politics of semantics. We need to come up with a better story than just saying that doing some marketing equates to “storytelling”.
Where is the jeopardy?
What is the narrative theory of equilibrium?
Why are there so many plot holes?
Why is the third act folding in on itself and why are none of the narrative threads resolved?
“Storytelling” has become a very modern weasel word, something that presents itself grandly but this is often only there to disguise a paucity of ideas.
It appears almost like a default setting in the world of influencers – that large overlap in a Venn diagram of Weasel Words and Snake Oil – and has bled out from there, staining everything in its path. This is presented as being somehow superior, both artistically and intellectually, to plain old “content creation”.
Often, however, content creation is all that it is – and there should be no shame in that. At least it is honest. At least it is transparent. At least it is not writing cheques it can never hope to cash.
If you are going to call it “storytelling” then you have to expect it to be judged along storytelling lines.
“Storytelling” has become a very modern weasel word, something that presents itself grandly but this is often only there to disguise a paucity of ideas.”
A TikTok or a YouTube Short is absolutely fine for what it is. But it is rarely (never?) going to deliver the punch to the heart that “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.” does.
Equally, it is not going to have the powerful brevity of Philip Larkin’s ‘As Bad As A Mile’.
There should be no disgrace in that.
But as soon as you start claiming your trade is “storytelling” then you are automatically setting yourself up to be judged on a level with, for example, Seamus Heaney’s ‘Mid-Term Break’. Why would you do that to yourself?
It’s like walking into a Michelin-starred restaurant and announcing that you are the new head chef when all you have with you is a hard-boiled egg.
Let’s just all agree to quietly retire the word “storytelling” in marketing. When held up to the light, it immediately gets bleached out. It benefits no one. In most cases it only causes damage and anguish.
Maybe the story that we should now tell ourselves is that it never actually happened. That no one ever used, and therefore abused, the term. No harm was done. It can become a modern fairytale, warning us against relying on empty promises and hubris: The Marketer Who Cried Storytelling.
The person automatically pushing the line that they are experts in storytelling in everything they create, that this is somehow their default setting, risks making themselves the worst thing you can ever be in the world of storytelling: an unreliable narrator.
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