Writing - Music & Music Business

Rob Rodell

So, what do these three have in common?

In the 1980s, amidst the Cola Wars, at which time Pepsi taste tests were showing that consumers preferred Pepsi’s sweeter taste to Coke, Pepsi embarked upon a marketing strategy to upstage Coke even more, by hitching its star to the two biggest musical stars at the time.

Now Pepsi’s strategy is also very interesting. If you watched Jobs, you will remember that at one stage old Steve hired the big marketing cheese from Pepsi, to take Apple to the next level – this was, of course, before his own unceremonious departure from Apple.

But back to Pepsi. Being the no. 2 cola in the great land of America made them none too happy, so they had a chat to music’s two biggest stars of the 80s – Madonna and Michael Jackson. Now also very interestingly, Madge and MJ were born 13 days apart in the same year, 1958 – she on 16 August, and he on 29 August. Madge confessed that she wanted to be MJ, and sought out his manager at the time, to turn her into a superstar just like he was. Smart cookie, smart strategy. Madge is known for her marketing prowess.

So in the same decade that the taste tests gave Coke a syrup wobbly and they introduced New Coke (BAD idea), Pepsi decided to take it one step further. They hired MJ to do a Pepsi commercial, at which time his hair caught on fire, and he was badly burned. Of course, the headlines did not read as Pepsi would have liked, but were rather more focused on MJ’s bad run of luck and his injuries, singed hair among them.

Then Pepsi decided to sponsor Madonna’s ‘Like a Prayer’ music video, thinking that the brand association between her and them and the psychological concept of transference would work in their favour. But when the video debuted, resplendent with burning crosses, flagrant acts of wanton sexual display, and inter-racial relationships, amongst others, the Catholic Church distanced itself from the not-so-Catholic Madonna, and the video had the OPPOSITE effect for Pepsi.

The lesson? Well, who could have known that Pepsi’s musical star would go so awry? As they always say, hindsight is an exact science. Today Coke is still the bigger cola brand globally, much to Pepsi’s chagrin, no doubt. Maybe they should have a chat to Justin Bieber…

Thriller is the biggest selling album of all time, and will probably remain that way. In the 110-year-odd history of recorded music, no other artist has had their album bought an estimated 115 million times, though figures vary wildly between the official 42 million and the unofficial 50-65 million or higher. But there can be no doubt that the album is the Everest of contemporary musical works.

Thriller was in essence a coming of age for Michael Jackson, who was a sprightly 23-year-old when he began recording it in Los Angeles. He recorded it through his 24th birthday, releasing the album at the end of 1982. It was described as post-Disco or anti-Disco, and was a radical personal departure from the singer’s works of the 1970s. It was also around this time that MJ started changing his personal look & feel, and when the hair relaxing and plastic surgeries started taking shape.

Rumour has is that MJ’s road to success with this album was more than a little rocky, what with disagreements with producer Quincy Jones and record label Epic (an imprint of Sony), who did not think much of it initially. But as with all good things in life, the crew behind the album pushed through, and a modern-day masterpiece (at least in terms of the popular vote) was born.

The album spawned a number of über hits, starting with ‘The Girl is Mine’ with Paul McCartney, which was an ode to puppy love that did much to fuel the self-indulgent 80s culture (this was when the two were still friends, which ended when MJ bought the catalogue of The Beatles’ music). The unmistakeable intro to ‘Billie Jean’ set the scene for urban cool, while ‘Wanna be Startin’ Something’ became the anthemic undertone for Rihanna’s ‘Please Don’t Stop the Music’ and landed the singer in hot water with African artist Manu Dibango for using the hook “mama-say mama-sa mama-kossa” without getting the necessary permissions. ‘Pretty Young Thing’ was a call-and-response song that was done when Justin Timberlake was barely a sprinkle in his mommy’s eye, while ‘Beat It’ helped MJ cut his teeth as a rebel, something that teenagers at the time bought into. ‘Human Nature’ was the ballad choice, giving it the necessary introspection and balanced reflection to round the album off. But it was obviously ‘Thriller’ that thrilled and wowed the masses, with its cutting-edge video and organised dance moves which broke all sorts of barriers and was completely revolutionary for its time.

Like the Rubik’s cube, Thriller will forever remain an icon of 80s pop culture, with a musical presence like few others.

It’s been over 30 years since young kids (and even some adults) around the world started emulating the crotch-grab, the glove, the hat and the moonwalk. June 2019 will mark 10 years since the King of Pop died. But the legend and the memory of Michael Jackson live on.

Born into a musical family, MJ started out as a lead singer at a very young age, and was an integral part of the Jackson 5. In the 70s he established himself as a serious solo artist, but it wasn’t until 1982 when he turned the world on its head with Thriller – at 115 million copies sold (about 42 million minus the hype), it’s the biggest selling album of all time. Rumour has it that Sony were none too thrilled with the album, and that he had to fight to get them to release it. The rest, as they say, is HIStory.

Madonna confessed that she wanted to be MJ, and made a concerted effort to turn his manager into hers. By the mid-80s, she and MJ were the two biggest stars in music, a fact that Pepsi quickly picked up on and tried to use to their advantage.

But in a strange twist of fate, it was Michael Jackson’s own obsession with Elvis (and The Beatles) that really captures the imagination. MJ was the King of Pop, Elvis the King of Rock. Elvis’ estate was Graceland, MJ’s was Neverland. Michael even married Lisa-Marie Presley, Elvis’ only daughter, so that he could emulate the King of Rock and be entangled with him. Of course, they often say that in order to become a truly iconic artist you have to die. Elvis’s star had begun to wane, and in 1977 he died of a drug overdose at the age of 42. MJ’s star had also begun to wane, and in 2009 he died of a pill overdose at the age of 50. And then of course there is John Lennon, who was shot and killed at the age of 40.

And speaking of his connection to The Beatles, it is said that the top 3 selling artists of all time are Elvis Presley, The Beatles, and Michael Jackson. Perhaps as a way to ensure that his star was hitched to theirs, or maybe as a way to keep them close so that he could work with them or be like them, MJ was also inextricably linked to The Beatles and not just Elvis. He worked with Paul McCartney on ‘The Girl is Mine’ for Thriller, and later on ‘Say, Say, Say,’ while he also owned the catalogue of The Beatles’ music, which caused an upset between him and Paul McCartney. Perhaps he just wanted to be friends with people who shared his interests and knew what he was going through.

There is no escaping Michael Jackson’s effect on the world, both musical and in terms of popular culture. RIP MJ – we still luv ya…

The cult of celebrity is stronger than ever. No stranger to fame himself, it was Andy Warhol who is credited with famously quipping that everybody gets their 15 minutes of fame (and to drive the point home, the concept of fame has just been mentioned four times in this sentence alone). Then someone came along and changed that to 15 megs (MB) of fame. These days, it’s more like 15 seconds of fame.

With a global population approaching 7 billion, there are a lot of eyes eager for creative content to keep them entertained, and the trend that TV started over 60 years ago has hardly abated.

The über family of publicity mongering has to be the Kardashians, and with Kimye now a reality, they show no signs of slowing down. Talk about the ultimate in publicity mergers & acquisitions – when Kanye took Taylor Swift’s mic away from her, and Barack called him a donkey (well, that’s the polite term), it was clear even then that his intention was to steal the limelight. And it Likewise, Honey Boo Boo has created a sensational following by turn poor white trash into TV riches (with the help of some unscrupulous adults).

The Internet has made content creators and voyeurs of us all, such that there is always someone who wants to grab the attention, and always someone who wants to have their attention grabbed. The Internet, like so many other innovative disruptions, has radically altered but also radically enhanced the way we communicate. The biggest effect of the Net has been on the music industry, the movie industry and the publishing industry, and the publicity industry (which often encompasses all three) is also being radically changed by digital media. New kids on the block (pardon the pun) One Direction (1D) and Mr Gangnam Style PSY owe their fame and fortune to the Net.

Of course, it’s a very crowded marketplace, but there is still a place in the sun for us all. So, what’s your unique contribution to the world, and how will you use your 15 seconds of fame on the Net to tell your story?

Boatloads of artists are always asking me how to make a sustainable career in the music industry. This is one of those questions that always leads to the search for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but it is a valid question, and it does have an answer, albeit a very difficult one.

The two-step process to becoming a successful artist that still applies today is the following: you have to be persistent and be in it for the long-haul, and you have got to have a hit. This is very difficult, but not impossible.

Let’s start with the persistence. My singing teacher always used to tell me that persistent, consistent work is what makes a voice. Even in soccer, Lionel Messi is quoted as saying that 17 years of hard work is what made him an overnight success. Unfortunately in the age of instant coffee, fast foods, instant pudding and instant life, we also want instant success. This has never been the case in music, and probably never will be, which is one of the reasons the SA Idols never seem to go anywhere after they have won – because the instant just has no staying power. I was chatting to a top 10 finalist recently, who put it very succinctly: Idols is great TV, not great music.

The greatest careers of the über successful have all taken years to forge, and they continue to work, work, work into old age: Bob Dylan. The Rolling Stones. Chuck Berry. Biggie and Pac would be well into their 40s today, as is Jay-Z. The still young Adele went to an arts school and was groomed from a young age. So, the first key to musical money and success is longevity, and the ability to keep your eye on the ball for the many years, even in the face of seemingly hopeless obstacles.

And then of course there’s the hit. This is still the silver bullet, and if you play your cards right, you can parlay it into a full-time career. The truth is, you may very well have a song that is better than what they’re playing on the radio, but if people don’t know about it, then you will battle to make a hit out of it.

So, what do you do? When in doubt, refer to rule 1: be persistent. Then simply follow your nose, and let your instinct lead you down the right path. If you’re persistently making music and getting advice on improving, you will eventually make the hit. And if you persistently keep pushing it into the public eye, you will eventually reach boiling point. Be prepared for the many years of work. And then never give up, even once you’ve made it.

Okay, so maybe their marriage is a bit like Kim and Kanye’s match made in publicity heaven. It ain’t gonna hurt either of their personal brands. Or maybe she and Jay-Z really love each other. Either way, there’s no denying that Beyoncé is pop royalty – and, like Diana Ross, she is married to a modern-day Motown Berry Gordy.

The gossip mongers are leading us to believe that Beyoncé and Jay are on the rocks, and that her Little Miss “I’m in control of everything and my life is perfect” persona is finally starting to unravel. Be that as it may – and every artist has a scandal at least once in their lives – Ms Knowles’s star continues to shine.

In her heyday as the leading lady of Destiny’s Child a la Diana Ross and the Supremes, she established her mojo with her powerful and beautiful voice, her curvaceous body (B did the twerking thing long ago already – step aside Miley), her ability to write infectious pop ditties, and the drive and determination of one Matthew Knowles, father-in-chief and manager of the Destiny – much to the chagrin of Kelly and Michelle.

But you have to admire Kelly – she obviously wasn’t gonna take it lying down, so she cleverly and strategically positioned herself as a single star in her own right, using Destiny as a springboard for her career too. The Nelly/Kelly combo with Dilemma was a smash hit, and she put David Guetta on the map with When Love Takes Over and practically created a new sub-genre of dance music.

But back to Beyoncé. Motherhood and marriage don’t seem to have slowed her down, she has a slew of Grammys to her name, and she continues to work consistently. Heck, she even helped Barack’s career and scored him presidential kudos. So what does the future hold for Ms Knowles? Whatever troubles may be headed her way (and don’t we all have a few?), she seems like the kind of focused human being who has the wherewithal to keep her act together and carry on.

Anything is possible, but I don’t see a Michael Jackson/Elvis Presley/Amy Winehouse tragedy in Beyoncé’s future – she is just way too level-headed for that. So even if she is headed back to join all the single ladies (oh oh oh), we have to remember that she is a survivor – and she has proven it.

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