Tongue and cheek: the Rolling Stones and the unpalatable ascendancy of fauxganic marketing

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. 

Did you see it? Of course you saw it. There was no way you were not going to see it. Nothing was being left to chance.

In August, the Rolling Stones “cryptically” teased their new album with a classified ad in East London local paper the Hackney Gazette (and the North London Islington Gazette). It purported to be from a company called Hackney Diamonds, although the “i” in “Diamonds” looked suspiciously like the Stones’ heavily trademarked lips and tongue logo.

With all the subtlety of an earthquake, the advert contained screaming “clues” like “Est. 1962” and Richter-esque references to “SATISFACTION” and “GIMME SHELTER”. It might as well have said, “THIS IS AN ADVERT FOR THE NEW ALBUM BY THE ROLLING STONSE (anag.)” so insistent was it to get its point across.

Absolutely no shade being thrown at the Hackney Gazette, but it has a circulation of 1,347 per issue (456 single paid copies, 890 free copies and 1 paid subscription). And yet, incredibly, this obscure ad was spotted by Simon Harper, the founder of both Clash magazine and Sharper Content, a “[m]usic content consultancy and service agency”, and he posted about it on Twitter.

Harper’s tweet was subsequently picked up by multiple media outlets, including the NME, The Guardian, the BBC (which later called the ad “unassuming”) and even – somewhat blowing the whistle on the whole operation – the Hackney Gazette.

(And at least the Hackney Gazette is making some money from it beyond their normal ad rates by selling out the original run of print copies and producing more as fans clearly wanted to collect it.)

It’s far from an original move to use a local paper to tease a new record. The Coral did it in January 2021 to lead into their Coral Island album, putting much more subtle ads in their local newspaper, the Wirral Globe. That felt a lot more natural because the band are from there and still live there. Until the actual Jimmy Fallon-hosted media launch and YouTube livestream of the first single and album announcement at the Hackney Empire, the closest Mick Jagger probably ever got to what The New York Times hilariously called “the trendy London district” was the sneering reference to Stepney in the Stones’ 1965 song ‘Play With Fire’.

(To give credit to the people involved, the rest of the Rolling Stones campaign looks a lot more interesting than this opening play.)

You can draw a straight line from record label marketing meetings from about 17 years ago to the stultifying inevitability of this.

Back then, discombobulated by collapsing record sales but spying the potential of early social media, marketing teams would be commanded to make something “go viral”, birthing the great oxymoron of the age. “Going viral” was somehow conflated with “taking out an ad in Rolling Stone” or “getting prominent racking in HMV”: there was a deluded expectation that virality was something that could be cooked up in a lab, sculpted at will and released into the world with a 100% strike rate.

It probably started in earnest with the mass adoption of YouTube and a belief that it could be brought to heel and controlled as a promotional tool just like MTV eventually was. Audiences started being treated as merely the end recipients of “viral” clips rather than the entire reason those clips would take on a life of their own online.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, with Sandi Thom becoming the unfortunate early warning sign for this all going terribly wrong, there was a school of thought within labels – generally in the shape of diktats from increasingly anachronistic executives who still needed their emails printed out – that virality was just a new form of payola: it was there to be bought and, most importantly,  controlled.

The insidious arrival of influencers gave the impression that a few paid posts were all you needed for something to take off online. Find the right people to amplify it, pay their agent their fee and then take the rest of the week off. Job done.

It all went hyper with the rise of TikTok where a clip that was shorter than the ‘Amen Break’ was seen as being able to change the world. “Get it viral on TikTok,” would bellow someone in the label meeting who had almost certainly never looked at TikTok until the day before. Far too many marketing people I know have a litany of stories of being ordered to make something “go viral” before the next label meeting, as if it was as easy and as quick as ordering an Uber.

All of this contrivance was designed to appear natural, to look like no one was pulling any strings or throwing thick wads of cash at it. The holy grail, the shining apotheosis, of marketing was for everything to seem “organic”. A horrific semantic casualty, “organic” is now the most abused word in the music business, stripped entirely of meaning, denuded of value, disrobed of context. The organic emperor is naked.

What this all has become can be best described as “fauxganic”: something that loudly proclaims its own earthy purity entirely as a means to detract from its overpowering plasticity.

It is almost Trumpian in how it rides roughshod over the truth and throws reality over a cliff: it haughtily declares truth to be a “liar” and reality to be “a witch hunt”. It has now got to the point where just saying something is organic is presumed to be inarguable proof of its organic state.

All marketing needs a bit of a social media nudge to get it going, of course. But this can start to feel like a magician doing a card trick in front of your face while their assistant simultaneously does a PowerPoint presentation explaining every stage and revealing precisely how the magician is misdirecting you.

It reminds me of the incredible spoof ad in Viz for the world’s first veggie burger that contains real beef. “All the TASTE of beef, all the GOODNESS of beef and all the BEEF of beef in a 100% vegetarian burger,” it proclaimed. “How are they vegetarian? We don’t know… …they JUST ARE!”

How is this organic marketing? We don’t know… …it JUST IS!

Fauxganic marketing is a treacherous path to go down. The more normalised it becomes, the more brazen it gets. And the more brazen it gets, the more cracks will appear in its facade. “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” will not cut it anymore.

Ultimately, it all comes across as terribly contrived, desperately staged and dismally creaking.

Music Business Worldwide

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