Monday, October 25, 2010

Creating the Pop Star

Take a look at this truly bizarre video circa 1959:

The honesty is shocking, because Annette, like so many others, was a front for talented string pullers like Dick Clark. Those learned writers who’ve created the mythology of rock n’ roll, who’ve turned rock music into a pantheon of charismatic heroes, skirt away from the fact that rock n’ roll was the creation of low-rent entrepreneurs—hustlers like Dick Clark.

Annette Funicello was Disney’s first pop musical star, setting the pattern for those who followed. For all that, her “Tall Paul” is a fascinating piece of pop-rock music, in that it incorporates the street shouting out that kids engage in. Basic rapping. Because rock n’ roll in its early days was music which didn’t take itself seriously, it was free to appeal to the most childish instincts, drawing on the simplest techniques. Walt Disney wasn’t creating populism so much as casually, even cluelessly, exploiting it.

The Beach Boys— at least Brian Wilson—are today treated as musical geniuses. Yet take a look at this later version of Annette and note her back-up band:

Can we say that anyone was taking the Beach Boys seriously then?

For all its cheeziness, by the way, the stripped-down presentation, clean blue suits, retains an innocent appeal.

The Dick Clarks and Berry Gordys of the DIY music business had an easy time of it, because their young stars hadn’t been educated to think of themselves as geniuses. They hadn’t undergone the mythology—the brainwashing—that today’s generation is burdened with. Instead they wanted to have fun, create product, make bucks.

The same situation applies in the literary field. When a writer gets the MFA degree, he or she is certified as an “artist.” Creating work which appeals to the public—which is simple and basic—is unthought of and untried for, if not outright scorned.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Social Media

A small press guy is hawking a book at Outsider Writers about using social media for branding. Which seems to be a contradiction. The problem with writers and small publishers is that they all do what everyone else is doing—which guarantees that what they do won’t work. If a million writers are “branding” themselves in the same way, it means nothing. There’s no way to stand out. The idea is to do what no one else is doing.

Or, if everyone’s a star, nobody is.

Being Better

In any project you have to be better than the competition. The problem with the ULA was that we weren't better.

This morning I caught the opening monologue of my favorite ESPN sportscaster. He was talking about the Oregon football team rushing to the line of scrimmage, their sheer pace wearing out their opponents. They're a total machine. They've figured out how to be marginally but significantly better.

I stop in a lot of coffeeshops now that I have a netbook. Some of them, sorry to confess, are Starbucks. I've been observing how they operate. They're extremely efficient. They know how to hire quality, talented people with great attitudes. Some of their managers have amazing people skills. Everyone works terribly hard. I heard a manager in one of them complacently say, "I'm used to working twelve hour days." One of his workers corrected him: "Twelve hour days moving." Starbucks is predatory, sure. In some crucial ways they're also better.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The New Machine

Only another machine—a very efficient and disciplined machine—has a chance to prevail in the current clogged literary scene. Creating a new, better, more disciplined and attractive art—very doable with the poem and story—is merely the first step. Around and above this new art has to be constructed a publicity machine. Lit entrepreneurs have to abandon 19th century literary mindsets which think in terms of creating a small press. The actual press, online or off, is a mechanical function which without accompanying p.r. strategy means nothing. Anyone today can get a book printed, or a story or poem posted online. The trick is creating an audience.

Disciplined boundaries for the new art have to be agreed upon and set, within which creativity can flourish. The machine built to promote that art would have to be as disciplined, as well as perfectly coordinated with the presentation of new products.

Are writers capable of any of this? Are there enough talents available to make such a thing work?

Study the most successful entities and brands. Study Apple. Study the NFL and ESPN. Efficient, disciplined organization is all.

There’s no alternative to this outlined scenario, for those serious about being successful—Gaga-style successful.

Monday, October 18, 2010


ANY NEW literary machine intended to credibly compete with the established system of literature will likely have to be nonpolitical. I say this as someone who pushed a lit group, the ULA, which was perceived as very political. The current system, incidentally, is very political, in that it comprises a single viewpoint whose stance on a variety of public issues almost never varies—generally, the viewpoint of the New York Times and The New Yorker, which remain the pillars of establishment literary noise. The viewpoint of all the well-hyped approved novels, such as Franzen’s Freedom, match this viewpoint—which notably is not the viewpoint of a majority of Americans.

This leaves the New Competitor with several problems. One, because of the need to stand out from the pack, is the temptation to take an easy way to do it by differing from the literary establishment’s political assumptions. Another is the question of how to reach middle America without falling for that same temptation, especially during a period of populist revival. Yet another problem is the reality that the political realm is much bigger than the literary one, so that it stands as a way to bypass lit-establishment roadblocks, by going after what could be more productive territory from a noise-making standpoint.

Right now, for lack of much else happening, I’m making probings into this larger territory, in ways that would be consistent with what will have to be a more populist/popular new literary art.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Building the Better Product

LISTENING to the first 30 minutes of the Colin Cowherd ESPN radio show this morning, I was given an example of why sports radio is a much better product, as radio, than NPR.

Cowherd does a segment, "Spanning the Globe," in which he does very quick interviews with a selecion of sports reporters around the country. Today two of the reporters weren't ready to go (they'll not be put on again!) which led to awkward silences. I was made aware of how well the segment works by hearing the one time it didn't. Fast, punchy, informative-- bang, bang, bang-- the kind of thing that would never be tried on NPR, because NPR doesn't need to try it. They're a static outfit. Cowherd's a serious guy who knows all endeavors need to be dynamic in a dynamic world.

Btw, Cowherd gave his spot-on take on the Favre text messages to an employee of the rival New York Jets, who Brett Favre's team played last night. The Jets were sitting on this story for a year and a half, then brought it out before a crucial game. A classic case of sports gamesmanship. It's also an example of the panoply of strategies and tactics layered over the mere athleticism of football, beginning with the coaching staffs. (See Bill Belichek.) No, football isn't just running with and catching a leather oblong ball. It's an entire industry which extends to those who promote it, like a Colin Cowherd.

Writers need to realize that literature works the same way, and that layers and varieties of strategies and tactics can be used in presenting literary products. Those who master that notion can be hugely successful. Writers who wish to "just write" have the mentality of five year-olds. It's the mentality of Jonathan Franzen. Unlike most writers, he has a system doing everything for him-- they may even replace lost eyeglasses!-- he can afford to be a total stooge.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Why Lady Gaga?

Of the couple million wannabe music stars in America, how did a nerdy little girl with average looks and scant talent become the biggest pop personality of the moment?

The person who became Lady Gaga is an astute student of promotion and marketing. She used almost the same strategy and tactics that Madonna had 25 years prior, with a small assist from YouTube.

What were the tactics?

-Crafting a name, a brand, a look.

-Being “outrageous.”

-Being seen in New York City, heart of media and cultural empire.

-Networking industry and buzz people.

-Working extremely hard for a ridiculously short period of time.

More than 90% of Gaga’s effort went into promotion. The brand, not the music, was the selling point. The music had to catch up. (She made sure it fit the brand.)

To talk about it makes it seem easy. Anyone else could’ve done it. Why her?

Good Isn't Good Enough

I see many ambitious, well-intentioned literary projects. One pops up almost every day. Some of them are even fairly good. But being good isn't good enough in this hyper-crowded age. You have to be more than good. Way more. Explosive. Spectacular. Nuclear. You have to be more dynamic than the competition by a factor of ten. So good, so explosive and energetic that you're scary. If you're not scaring yourself by what you're doing, you're not good enough; your fate will be to be just one more of many many more; a faceless dot in a overcrowded literary scene..

The Rehearsal

As we're one day from the ten-year anniversary of the founding of the ULA, my attitudes toward that project have evolved. I see it as a positive, in the sense that it was great practice. For me it served as a rehearsal for a possible other, better project.

Its core principle worked: the maximum amount of noise in the shortest possible time period. This is the essence of promotion.

The biggest mistake was in not creating an efficient organization. There in fact was no organization, no efficiency. All was chaos, so that when noise was made, there was no way to fully take advantage of it, nor to long sustain it. Markets-- the world itself-- are a clash of systems. To compete with a status quo, you need a better system. Everything better across the board: better product; better packaging; better personalities. Most of all, better, more colorful noise about what you're doing.

Friday, October 1, 2010

What to Listen To

No one serious about marketing their art listens to National Public Radio-- unless you're looking for ways to get on it. Otherwise, it's bad radio. The network survives by begging for money. Its audience isn't the general public-- they don't try to reach the general public-- but the rich people who support it, from genteel listeners who answer the appeals to the corporations and foundations who give much larger amounts. Do you think NPR will in anyway rock the boat by presenting something which would too much counter their base of support? Do they have an incentive to noisy up their tepid style and programming? They survive by lulling the audience to sleep. That's their purpose.

I'd suggest instead that you catch instead the Colin Cowherd sports show on ESPN, found normally on AM radio at 10 am Eastern time. All you have to do is catch the first twenty minutes of it to catch his insights on the business he's in, on personalities and teams. The business and marketing knowledge is intermittent and incidental, but they're there. This is a guy who knows what he's talking about. Listen to him to hear what he says, but also how he presents his own product, how he makes sports interesting, informative, and relevant.