Thursday, June 02, 2011

Foster the People & New Tipping Points

This past April (not two whole months ago), L.A. pop-rock band Foster the People played Philly's Kung Fu Necktie--a venue which accommodates about a hundred people, maybe a buck twenty. Later this month, they will play (and sell out) the TLA, which holds a grand. By the end of August, don't be surprised if they headline Lincoln Memorial Field.

Malcolm Gladwell's 2000 book, The Tipping Point, coined its eponymous term describing the long sought-after 'critical mass' of momentum for a product, style or idea. Not too long ago, your product needed the help of "salesmen", "mavens" and "connectors" to go viral. Eleven years later, YouTube is six years old (that's it!?) and getting 3 billion visits per day and the word "viral" means way more than it did in 2000. Gladwell's tipping recipes seem to have been outdated by a short decade of modern history.

There are two ways you can look at music. You can view music as a collection of songs or a collection of artists. Those who look at music as a collection of songs are the more common group (Group A). They are the casual music fan. These folks have a well-adjusted relationship with a good beat or catchy melody. But the type of person who looks at music as a collection of artists (Group B) feels an elevated importance of music beyond "something to be enjoyed" and sees it as a lifestyle and a reflection on oneself. In fact, the most extreme (read: craziest) of Group B folks actually go a step further--they see music as a collection of albums. These self-medicating brow-furrowers often end up as music journalists.



But the average tune consumer is from Group A. These folks think of music as singular units filling up their iPod for instant service on whatever jog, drive, mood, coit, chore or cocktail-party they're engaged in. Hard to believe the Beatles and Stones had to convince execs via live shows that they were a thoroughly enjoyable "ACT." Group B people might have been more common back in the sixties, simply because there were no "playlists" and it was effort to put on an LP for one song.

Today, Foster The People barge through the Internet with their epidemically catchy toe-tapper, "Pumped Up Kicks" and — after forming only in late 2009 — have already been on network TV (Kimmel) and, like I said before, will be selling out theatres. Realize: for most people, buying a ticket to see Foster the People really equates to buying a ticket to see "Pumped Up Kicks." Imagine going to see Peter Bjorn and John ... and not hearing them play "Young Kids." If you're Group B, you can imagine this quite easily (although you also go out to live shows more, but I digress).

Likely, Foster the People means relatively little to you. Even if you love their other songs, they only have one album, and it was only released two weeks ago (and they're playing the TLA)! One-hit-wonders are nothing new. But what is new is the speed and efficiency with which they rise to the top, as well as the lack of needing anything else--a look, a dynamic live show, a consistent back catalog ... whatever other prerequisites used to exist for catching an exec's eye.

This is the new model. CD sales? Unless you're Kanye or Lady Gaga, forget it. Hardcore fans might buy your album but most likely people are buying your mp3 from the iTunes store (currently the nation's leading music vendor). Which means that a cohesive collection of songs comprising an album--the old unit of music consumption--is being replaced by the single mp3. Group A people are starting to get just as involved in spreading stuff around than the Group B'ers (right Rebecca Black?). Twenty years from now... will bands even make full-length albums? Why would they set out for several grueling months of work on a lot of songs when you can simply hit the studio whenever inspiration strikes and spend most of your calendar year making money on tour?
We're living in the middle of an interesting paradigm shift, where people are listening to jams on YouTube while they do other things, stopping only to click LIKE... and "Pumped Up Kicks" surfs on a wave of free promotion. With modern media, musicians are working smarter, not harder (see: Ok Go) and Gladwell's "salesmen," "mavens" and "connectors" are replaced by "Everybody."

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