So, now that Rage Against The Machine have made it to Christmas number one, the conspiracy theorists have moved into overdrive. People all over the internet are devoting their Christmas holidays to uncovering the mechanics of the ‘scam’. The claim being that the whole thing was planned and run by Sony Music.
“Look at all you people,” the conspiracy theorists say with a smug grin. “You all mindlessly bought into this campaign and you were just lining the pockets of Simon Cowell and his cronies.”
Of course, both Killing In The Name and X Factor winner Joe McElderry’s single The Climb were released and published by divisions of Sony Music and the company stands to gain the most financially. The same was true in last year’s unsuccessful campaign to get Jeff Buckley’s cover of Hallelujah to Christmas number one ahead of Alexandra Burke’s. As rats go, this one stinks.
Then, of course, there’s the question of who Jon and Tracy Morter, the people behind the RATM campaign, are. A couple of people who love music and hate X Factor? Or evil scheming marketing people? There are those who are determined to prove the latter, who will tell you that Simon Cowell’s claims that he offered them marketing jobs after they beat him on Sunday were empty, as they are already working for him in exactly that capacity. His apparent anger at the pair in the last few weeks wouldn’t be the first time that he’d used clunky misdirection to boost the popularity of something (Jedward being just one example).
I have a feeling these questions are going to hang around for some time. But should we care? Is it really that shocking that a company whose sole reason for existence is to sell records – gasp – might have tried to sell us some records.
It’s not the first supposedly grass roots campaign of this type, of course. And not the first with two Sony-owned songs pitted against each other. Or even the first with two Sony-owned songs pitted against each other run by the Morters (though, if you’re looking for consistency in the conspiracy theory, the Jeff Buckley campaign wasn’t them). All of which does make it easy to think this wasn’t as spontaneous as we’ve been led to believe.
Sure, either way, it’s all money in the bank for a major label, but this campaign had to be fought on major label terms. Yes, the message of Killing In The Name can be bent to fit the message of the campaign, and that is partly the reason it was a success, but it’s the major label money that was put behind it seventeen years ago that sealed the deal. There are hundreds of thousands of people out there in the world for whom that song meant something in their teens, and who also grew up at a time when the charts were an exciting and important part of pop culture. What’s more, they’ve also had time to grow nostalgic for both of those things. A more worthy, independent artist is unlikely to have had the fanbase of the right size and age to pull this off.
Even if it was orchestrated by Sony, it still needed that public feeling to work. And the intent of all those people was to stop X Factor’s monopoly of the Christmas number one and make the charts more fun in the process. On those terms, I’d say it was a job done. I don’t think many went in without knowing that both acts were signed to the same label. No one thought they were supporting independent music, surely. It was just something half a million people thought might be funny.
That’s why I forked out 29p. I loved Rage Against The Machine when I was a teenager, my entire childhood was mainly planned around hearing the charts on the radio on Sunday and watching Top Of The Pops on Thursday or Friday, and I think that inappropriate swearing is funny. I don’t think I stuck it to Simon Cowell and I don’t think the charts will be changed by this. Joe McElderry will almost certainly be at number one this Sunday, and he’ll probably be followed by something equally tedious at some point in January. But I don’t care that much.
I did consider the possibility that Sony could be behind the whole thing, but I went and bought the song anyway. If anything, I think this is the sort of thing the record labels should be doing all the time. If all music marketing enthused people like this, maybe things would be going a bit better for them.
Okay, if it turns out the Morters were in the employ of Sony (and I’m still pretty sure they weren’t), all those claims of independence are going to irritate a lot of people. But it’s marketing, people. Even if they were acting alone, they were still running a marketing campaign. Companies lie to you every day and some of them lie to you about things that actually matter.
Bill Hicks used to come on stage to Killing In The Name and rant about the manufactured pop acts of the day, like Debbie Gibson and Tiffany, in a routine that peaked with a scream of “PLAY FROM YOUR FUCKING HEART!” He didn’t care that both Rage Against The Machine and those pop acts were products of the major label system. Still, he also used to say, “If you work in marketing or advertising – kill yourself.”