The end of last week saw the “Blog on the Huffington Post” publish a piece on why J.K. Rowling should step aside so other writers don’t have to compete with her automatic excess use of shelf space. The main point the contributor was after, is that newer writers with compelling, original material have a hard enough time trying to break through without an established shoe-in such as Rowling coming along.
“[Rowling’s first post-Harry Potter book, The Casual Vacancy,] sucked the oxygen from the entire publishing and reading atmosphere. And I chose that analogy quite deliberately, because I think that sort of monopoly can make it next to impossible for anything else to survive, let alone thrive. Publishing a book is hard enough at the best of times, especially in an industry already far too fixated with Big Names and Sure Things, but what can an ordinary author do, up against such a Golgomath?…Rowling has no need of either the shelf space or the column inches, but other writers desperately do.”
The immediate response I have to this sentiment, without commenting directly against the contributor, comes from a quote uttered at this year’s midem conference, by former North American Chairman and CEO of Recorded Music for Warner Music Group, Lyor Cohen:
One might think this sentiment of Cohen’s isn’t the strongest rebuttal because a lack of a place to put your book or CD or other piece of media would, by default, result in your doing poorly, so that’s that, right? Not necessarily. The idea that once you become famous to a certain degree, you are somehow detracting from any other potentially good material out there is like saying you can only be friends with one person. (Shall the Grinch and his thrice grown heart be quoted in here too?) The base from which I will jump off to rebut is to remind everyone: Interest and fascination, unlike money, is unlimited and can be associated with as many people or things that a person wants.
Going from there…
Anyone who is clamoring after material that is truly new/different/under-appreciated, (since we’re talking about too much focus on “Big Names” and “Sure Things” like Ms. Rowling,) whether that be music or books, is clearly going to be enthusiastic enough to look (at the very least) past the front group of shelves at the local Barnes and Noble where instant “shelf hogging” hits are bound to be placed. If that is the case, then there is little to worry about when it comes to this feeling as though the same people get fame and publicity by default.
There’s something to be said for having to dig and do a bit of extra legwork to really discover something new. New might not actually mean new in the “hot off the presses/mixing board” kind of way, however, it can still mean new to an individual, an age bracket, a country, a continent and so on. If everything were of equal “big and famous” weight to J.K. Rowling or a musical artist equivalent –let’s say Lorde– then no one would be big. Size, just like time, is relative.
Authors and musicians have already proven they can make their own path if they don’t want to stand around waiting for their shelf space to open up and plenty of acts that don’t get the #1 Billboard or iTunes chart spots have what could easily be equated to a level of fans that constitutes them as “famous” or having “made it.” (see the success of alternative rock band, Anberlin) That’s not to say there aren’t aspects of DIY publishing or recording that are not perhaps harder when it’s not taken care of for you but hey, if the person at the endgame, the consumer/fan, is okay with sifting around and treasure hunting for something they personally haven’t experienced before, then there’s no need to feel concerned that the somewhat under the radar work involved in revealing one’s art to the world will yield no interested parties, simply because that “special label” isn’t there.
The thing that sometimes gets forgotten, is that printed recognition is a mark of, and for, publicity, not quality –except in the eyes and ears of the limited group of people who work with disseminating said special label. Most musicians don’t get the super seal of approval. Now that we’ve made this assertion, let’s feel cheated and frustrated and then calmly stop to ponder:
Lack of a pedestal prize label or chart number gets you less publicity and puts your material in front of less fans. This is true but only to an extent. It lowers your exposure to fans that interact with those platforms, not all fans everywhere and, again, if you’re looking for the really under the radar stuff, you’re breezing past the front page of the iTunes Store anyway, so the added bonus of that placement is negated, see my logic? Run and race with a head start but don’t take it and the advantage means nothing. Get the front page placement and the fan goes searching or filtering for everything outside the top 10 books or albums and the whole pride of being #1 has no bearing and plays no part on objective status. In fact, for those groups of people who look beyond page one, being placed there could almost be considered a disadvantage, to a degree.
What can we takeaway from this? Popularity, exposure, rankings…these are all subjective and how you define your popularity in the collective pool of “what’s out there” for consumers to pick up, depends entirely on the crowds you are trying to get exposure, approval and admiration from and with. While I am always championing the idea of music listener walls being destroyed for good and that everyone should be allowed to like anything they want without some kind of sub-cultural pretext, when it comes to “fandoms” these kinds of groups are so ingrained and steeped in default human social behavior, their foundations are capable of analysis by the likes of musicologists and anthropologists.
Thus, while one should not be judged for a diverse set of tastes in music, with the currently relied on structure of business, discovery and, if you are chasing it, aspirations for mainstream titular commendation, popularity is going to be segmented. Some are going to inevitably be lower down on the scale for a potential introduction to material, because fans have different ways and different levels of intensity with which they search and analyze the known, lesser known and unknown.
One creative pursuit and service framework that I think supports the deconstruction of this fixation on traditional levels and goals for quantifying exposure and fame, is the Soundwave app.(You can read about the app in-depth through my coverage over at SoundCtrl.com) The idea that anyone can find, and give, a sampler listen to any other song being played anywhere in the world, truly makes the whole game of exposure into one with a very level playing field. There are sections that segment the most played, liked, disliked and recently commented songs, so the traditional chart / shelf space mentality doesn’t entirelydisappear but this portion of the app is put very much on the back burner in comparison with their star capability, which is the ability to smoothly browse a global map for finding and hearing music in real time.
In terms of the topic being discussed here, even though it is a piece of modern technology, Soundwave’s music map makes individual discovery of artists into the most manual and grassroots process possible. I would almost liken it to the kind of manual sifting one has to do in the used music section of any old brick and mortar store. Aside from potential alphabetical order, in those situations, it’s about the hunt and the draw and everything is in the same bin, so anyone looking there is not about the symbolism of placement status.
It’s important to remember the differences between:
promotion and achievement
exposure and excelling
potential and reality and
jealousy and envy
with particular attention paid to those last two. If Lorde or J.K. Rowling were temporarily banned from selling their items and shelves went to independent or smaller volume creatives instead, that physical spot of airspace will not make people instantly like your music to the same level. People looking for the easy to find “hits” are going to look for what they look for, so why give a piece of furniture that much power over your worth? Cheer on, and push music forward, for more exposure and to get it in more ears, yes. However, do it with the mentality that your music is “catchy like radio overkill” or “going to be your next earworm,” so that it will inevitably end up in that front slot. Don’t turn it around to make the shelf the cause and the success the effect.