The Psychology of Selling Rock And Roll

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Earlier this month a memo preempting a detailed plan for the upcoming 20th Anniversary “re-mastered” re-release of Nirvana’s In Utero album was leaked onto the Internet. First appearing on, the anonymous memo outlined a two-point marketing scheme built around touting In Utero as Nirvana’s best album, and most importantly reinforcing the tragedy that was Kurt Cobain.

I’ve gotta say, I love that this memo came out into the open regardless of how it got there because it’s both a great look at the psychology behind selling rock and roll, and it also totally reveals that our perceptions about the roles that popular music blogs such as Pitchfork play within the online music community, are completely and utterly skewed.

There is a major difference between rock and roll as an entity and the business of selling it, that’s why it’s so lucrative. Rock and roll itself is about raw emotion and dripping sweat, selling rock and roll is not unlike selling laundry detergent. Now, that’s a hard pill to swallow, and when this thing first went viral so many people couldn’t believe how ruthless it was that they thought it must be a hoax, but that’s the art of marketing for you. People get paid big bucks to reduce other human beings to a series of adjectives; “Reluctant star. Pressure. Compromise. Depression. Heroin. Death.”

As fans of music we don’t want to imagine that there are people sitting up in offices out there fabricating our ideas about the bands we love or reinforcing the legends we’ve learned––it’s not a good fit. Firstly, it completely clashes with our perceptions and secondly it indicates how unsuspecting we are. That being said, the reason rock and roll is so sexy from the outside is because most people are unaware of the shit that’s holding it all together just beneath the surface.

Our connection to music is incredibly emotional, and our desire to understand ourselves within the framework of the lives of tragic figures like Kurt Cobain and so many others is just part of human nature. The labels know that, so they continue to perpetuate the stories, and we’ve always taken them at face value because we really need heroes, and cause tragic figures are far more interesting and mysterious than a sane one ever was.

By calling In Utero Nirvana’s best album, reminding us all that Kurt Cobain was a tragic guy, and telling us we’re getting something we didn’t the first time around, the labels are just taking the “legend” and re-presenting it to the public as a clearly defined and easily understood package for us to perceive it within.

There’s really only one reason we’ll pay four and five times the amount for the same thing twice and that’s because we wholeheartedly believe in it. The psychology of selling rock and roll is about giving people something to believe in, and we believe that by lining up to excitedly give away our dollars in exchange for a louder, crappier version of the same album most people have owned for 20 years, that in a small way, we’re apart of the narrative of that artist’s life and legacy, even though they’re already gone.

Anyways, over all, I think the most comical part about this whole memo thing had to be finding out that Pitchfork is playing the role of the middleman. Publicly, Pitchfork has branded itself as “the essential guide to independent music.” They have become widely known as the blog that “breaks” artists first, and are considered the major “tastemaker” of the independent scene.

What’s really happening here is that the labels are telling Pitchfork who the next big artists are, Pitchfork is relaying the message to us and claiming the discovery as their own. Shit, that’s a pretty cushy place to be don’t you think? Pitchfork gets to keep their “indie credibility” all while making a big fat paycheck, and the labels don’t get all upset and stomp their feet about it either cause sometimes in business you need to know when to take a step back and let someone else take the credit for your findings before it all comes full circle.

What’s really wack is that the online reviews the majority of people are reading are all a bunch of pre-determined bullshit. Who are these hand-selected journalists that are getting paid to follow review guidelines and use key phrasing to describe albums everyone’s already heard? See how that works? Everyone has a role to play, even Pitchfork.

So, in the fall when the “re-mastered re-issue” of Nirvana’s In Utero does come out, buy it if you want to and don’t feel bad about it. Just realize that you, by no fault of your own, are really buying the album because someone sitting up in an office somewhere wrote a memo to his associates that specifically outlined a plan that involves a number of seemingly reputable music blogs which have already agreed to write slanted reviews that a) re-enforce your emotions toward the tragedy of a story we’ve all come to know and love and b) peek your curiosity just enough to make you believe that if you buy the re-mastered version of the record, you might actually get close enough to uncover something not yet known about the “dark, disjointed, and angry” mind of Kurt Cobain.

Of course that’s all crap. Long live rock and roll.

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