Is social media the new rock 'n' roll?

“Whatever happened to all those heroes?”  barked The Stranglers in 1977, a time when politics in pop music rubbed shoulders with The Muppets and John Travolta in what was then quaintly referred to as the Hit Parade. Having called for Anarchy in the UK, the Sex Pistols were having questions raised in the Houses of Parliament by their monarchy-bashing God Save the Queen while Paul

So what did happen to all those heroes? It was a question raised on a recent edition of Radio 4’s Any Questions. At a time of political unease reminiscent of the Winter of Discontent, where are the Paul Wellers of 2014? Or the Bob Dylans come to that?

Billy Bragg, arguably one of the last old style protest singers to bother the charts to any great extent, posited a theory: the answer is social media.

I’m paraphrasing from memory here but the gist of his argument was that in his day, the only outlet for political discourse for young people, particularly the working classes, was rock ’n ’roll: whereas the angry young men and women of today can vent their frustrations by blogging; they can start a campaign group on Facebook; they can organise a flash mob protest through Twitter.

He has a point. Anti-austerity group UK Uncut has regularly made headlines with its attention-grabbing direct social media antics. “UK Uncut’s rapid growth – in a matter of weeks – is partly down to the founders’ ability to spread ideas online, particularly through the Twitter hashtag #ukuncut,” argued the BBC’s Dominic Casciani way back in 2010.

Similarly, campaigning group 38 Degrees (100,000+ Facebook likes) has successfully utilised social media to make John Lennon’s Power to the People a reality. It claims various successes across a disparate range of campaigns, most notably in stopping the government’s proposed sale of the UK’s forests to private firms: an achievement The Guardian described as a victory for social media.

Bragg’s thesis is given weight by Carl Miller, Research Director at the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Think Tank Demos. “Young people are not disengaged about political issues,” he argues in tech bible Wired “actually; they are probably as engaged as any other generation. They are turning to social media to pursue their beliefs and passions for a better world outside of those mainstream institutions that they trust so little.” He goes on to declare: “The door of British politics is already hanging open: before long, someone will use social media to knock it off its hinges.”

That’s quite a claim, yet you only need to look at the Scottish Referendum to see how the ‘Yes’ campaigners’ better use of social appeared to play a crucial role in closing the gap in votes. It is little wonder they were nicknamed the ‘Cybernats’. On Twitter, the ‘Yes’ camp had an impressive 103,000 followers compared to 42,000 for the ‘No’ campaign, ‘Better Together’. On Facebook, the ‘Yes’ campaign picked up over 320,000 likes compared to 218,000 for the ‘No’ side.

This is reminiscent of the revolution which has already happened in the music industry. The Arctic Monkeys’ use of MySpace (remember that?) in their fledgling days has become the stuff of legend and bands are increasingly using social media to by-pass the traditional music business altogether.

Of course, while it’s a doddle to get your music “released” via the magic of social media, turning those YouTube hits into hard sales often remains elusive.

Rhodri Marsden, who writes The Independent’s weekly Geek Mythology Technology column (and moonlights as keyboard player for Scritti Politti) once described in hilarious detail an experiment to see how far he could get with a song recorded for nada in his bedroom and thrust into cyberspace using only social media and a few favours from chums. Astonishingly he notched up more than A QUARTER OF A MILLION YOUTUBE HITS in about a week. Yet that impressive figure translated into a measly 58 sales.

Still, the whole point of by-passing The Man means music is no longer all about the money. “It’s almost as if social media has stepped in to give musicians and artists the opportunity to quantify their success, in an age where record sales have slumped and record companies rarely hand out frivolous advances” muses Rhodri today, some seven years after his internet flop. “Never before have musicians been able to measure their appeal quite so accurately – bands could mine all the data and produce incredibly detailed PowerPoint presentations if they so wished.”

Sounds familiar? He goes on: “Knowing who’s listening, who derives pleasure from that music, who cares what you do next – that stuff is tremendously important to artists, because they’re a needy bunch. They may not be swanning it from gig to gig in luxurious, record-company-funded transport, but they know that they’re touching people’s lives, because those people are telling them. And establishing those direct relationships is a far more noble motivation than any arbitrary notions of fame and fortune, I think.”

That’s all very well, but what does all this mean for digital marketing?

Rhodri offers further words of wisdom: “It’s a space for you to fill, to use how you want, in imaginative ways, and bands would do well to just have a think about how to approach that, how to present their art. Many become unstuck because their lack of personality ends up being writ large.”

Substitute “bands” with “brands” and “art” with “product” and you have a pretty good golden rule for internet marketers the world over. More than half the UK population regularly log onto social networks to post their unsolicited and unguarded opinions on everything from their favourite pop song to their voting intentions or their favourite brand of baked beans.  There is an unprecedented avalanche of data in the public domain and it’s expanding every day. According to this infographic 90% of all the data in the world ever was created in the last two years.

Of course, the tricky bit is knowing how to make sense of all this noise. But whether you want to know what people are saying about your band/brand, who is likely to win the next general election, or indeed, whatever happened to all those heroes, the answer is no longer blowing in the wind: you’re more likely to find it on Twitter.

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