“Call Me Maybe,” the song of the summer, is the latest example of the music world being flipped on its head. Rather than emerging from the major-label promotion machine, its success was built through social media. So, goes this story in today’s New York Times.
Let’s hold aside for a second the holes in the narrative the Times. Nevermind that “Call Me Maybe” was promoted by industry-men, like Justin Bieber and Jimmy Fallon (as the story acknowledges). Nevermind that plenty of hits of the past have “trickled up” from the streets (Gladwell’s “The Coolhunt” describes that process well). Nevermind that many songs and artists have gained fame via social media in the past (as a case study in the risks of this, see Lana Del Rey’s SNL appearance). Nevermind that “Call Me Maybe” is about as conventional a pop song as there is (it’s not as if stereos on the beach are blasting Riceboy Sleeps this summer).
What the NYT has right is that “Call Me Maybe” is a powerful example of the fact that hits no longer have to come from the music industry. Social media offers an alternative pathway to success. In William and Denise Bielby’s classic (1994) work, “‘All Hits Are Flukes’: Institutionalized Decision Making and the Rhetoric of Network Prime-Time Program Development,” they argue that decisionmakers in the culture industries believe that it is impossible to predict which TV show, movie, or song will be come a hit. In this uncertain context, they make fairly conservative decisions that aim to reproduce past success (e.g., hiring established stars, making sequels, recording predictable three minute ditties, etc.).
In many ways, the “Call Me Maybe,” a-hit-can-come-from-anywhere model reaffirms the idea that “all hits are flukes” and may lead the music industry to revisit their assumptions. On the other hand, based on the Bielby’s work, we might speculate that the music industry will simply try to reproduce the success of “Call Me Maybe” by developing more aggressive social media promotion campaigns. There are some potential tie-ins here to my good buddy Ed Walker’s work on “Grass-Roots Mobilization, by Corporate America”. Just as trade industries and corporations attempt to reproduce “authentic” protest campaigns, we should look carefully for the corporate hand at work in the next big social media popstar.