Thursday, February 18, 2010

Revenge of the casual fans (or, how to stop worrying and learn to love Sade)

I'm not picking up on a lot of online, future-of-music chatter about how the reclusive Nigerian singer Sade and her band (also called Sade) managed to sell quite so many albums in a week while ignoring pretty much every piece of conventional wisdom about the way the "new" music industry is supposed to be navigated.

The silence is kind of deafening, actually.

But there are the facts: without any effort to engage social media, without any kind of 24/7 pop cultural presence, Sade released a new album, Soldier of Love, her first in 10 years, and it sold 502,000 copies in its first week. The band's last album, Lovers Rock, sold 370,000 copies in its first week in 2000. The fact that album sales in general have declined 50 percent since then makes Sade's feat all the more striking.

At a time when music futurists are insisting that success involves engaging true fans, Sade has come along with an army of casual fans and has reaffirmed, at least for a passing moment, the power and possibility of large-scale appeal.

Now then, there are no doubt those who think her success has nothing to teach anyone who isn't already successful and famous. And there are likewise those who would assure us that musicians of the future have no interest in or need for selling a half million copies of their albums--who would tell us, in fact, that there aren't going to be any albums to sell.

And there are those who will in any case write this off as an aberration, an eleventh-hour blip in the death spiral of a moribund industry.

But even if Sade's success has nothing to do with the future (and I'm not at all convinced of that), it has a lot to do with the present, and theoretically has something to teach us.

Look, we have gotten amazingly good here online at ignoring outside, objective facts that don't align with our inside, subjective view of reality. This is a harmful tendency in general, and blatantly shortsighted when considering the future, which--news flash--none of us can predict, in the slightest, especially when it comes to either social behavior or technology.

So for just one moment, let's put aside speculative pronouncements about where music is "going." Let's acknowledge that Sade has a distinctive and appealing sound, and that a surprisingly large number of people are eager to hear this music when she and her band are ready to record and release something. These are people who don't need to know what's on her mind 24 hours a day, who don't need to interact with her, remix her, or do anything else but enjoy her music when she chooses to put it out. And these are people who are quite willing to pay actual money for an actual album.

I am tired of the hive mind ruling the day on what the future of music is supposed to look like. I am tired of people who are hypnotized by the fantasy that there's something in the bits we manipulate and the screens we stare at that has suddenly changed human nature in a deep and lasting way. I am tired of people who look at their immediate cohort ("Hey! We all love remixing!" "Hey! We all hate to pay any money for music!") and presume momentous, irreversible sociological trends.

Maybe these crazed, black-and-white pronouncements that tend to proliferate on the web are an inevitable consequence of our collective digital underpinning (every bit is 0 or a 1 after all, a yes or a no). But, in truth, all the online articles and blog posts that begin with all-or-nothing provocations ("Is Indie Dead?" "Music Must Be Free!" etc.) cannot be supported by the diversity of real life itself.

How nice it would be if we could give that all a rest for a while. I would, in fact, suggest putting some Sade on your music player of choice. She can surely teach the world a thing or two about just chilling out.


Mark V Wilson said...

Her first song "Sweetest Taboo" still lingers in my mind after more than 20 years. That's a connection to her work that hasn't needed contact to be maintained.

michaelGregoire said...

Well I do think that her people DID use social media. The first day that the single "Soldier of Love" was "leaked" to youtube, I heard about it online from various unconnected sources on different social networks. It also helps that that single was so damn good.

Jeremy said...

Good point. I erred if I implied that there was no social media involved at all. I simply meant to note that Sade (and/or her 'people') did not over-concentrate on it, did not act as if the world revolved around it. They're using it as a worthy tool, no more or less.

Suzanne Lainson said...

What I like about her case is that people are paying for her music. There hasn't been a need to sell stuff around the music. Or to sell access to her, etc. When there's a straight exchange (i.e., make music, get paid for the music) we're dealing with what many musicians still want -- to be able to focus on making music rather than marketing and fan engagement.

While I accept that "free music" is pretty much the norm these days and it's necessary to find alternative ways to make a living, I'm still pleased for artists when their fans buy the albums outright.

muruch said...

I think her success was a combination of 1) long-time, loyal fans who have been waiting for a new album, and 2) the diversity of marketing tactics her management used.

Sade performed on various talk shows like The View, but her PR reps also sent press releases & promos to music bloggers like me.

So instead of just concentrating on old-fashioned outlets like tv & radio or only going after younger fans on social media sites, her team did both and thus managed to target all demographics.

But as you said, it really comes down to the fact that Sade has a great voice and makes interesting music. People are obviously still willing to pay for music, it just needs to be of good music.