Friday, April 22, 2011

All I Know about Marketing I Learned Watching RCA and American Idol F*ck Up Clay Aiken's Career

Let me caveat this by saying I have no background in either music or marketing. But I have a lot of opinions and a little parable.

When RCA (unwillingly, I suppose) signed up Clay Aiken, he had just wowed the world and won American Idol (almost) in May 2003. I give the marketers credit for knowing they had to release a single from him almost immediately in order to leverage the buzz.

So, rather than forcing Clay to hold off recording until after the winner, Ruben Studdard, had recorded something, AI and/or RCA took both performers' "wow" songs and released them to the music-buying public (ignoring the fact that their real audience was TV viewers, not music lovers - prelude to the F*ck ups to come).

In Clay's case, the AI-mandated "winner's anthem" was "This Is the Night" (an original), but the wow song was "Bridge Over Troubled Water" (a standard that he made his own).

The wow song should have been the single released to radio, but it wasn't. F*ck up number one.

To make matters worse, the recorded version of BOTW tried to improve on Clay's perfect live performance by making it more grandiose. The engineers seem to have added more layers of the background choir on top of Clay's brilliant glorious power note, which had left everyone gasping for breath. On the recording, that note was buried. F*ck up number two.

By the time RCA had to work a full-length album out of Clay, they probably had an idea that they were not dealing with the next Justin Timberlake, but that didn't stop them from trying to make him into one. The marketing department got him lots of Tiger Beat and 16-Magazine type photoshoots, bleaching out his nerdy, small-town smart-ass charm and playfulness into something kind of artificial and creepy. F*ck up number three.

Short-term success of that approach got Clay millions of album sales for Measure of a Man, but the product was packaged in layers of over-engineered boy-band pop and largely disposable tunes that, a few years later, Clay himself would forget even recording. F*ck up number four.

All this time, RCA let Clay's true audience be marginalized and even ridiculed. The enthusiasm and fervor came from a demographic that RCA frankly didn't want: older women who are not perceived as cool. RCA wanted Justin Timberlake fans to buy Clay Aiken music, but it let Clay's natural audience bear the ridicule of being branded as "crazy blue-haired Claymates." F*ck up number five.

Actually, another natural audience for Clay was also discounted: Children. In 2003-04, the perception of being gay (Clay did not come out publicly until 2008, though he was "out" to the industry) was still unjustly associated with being a child molester. It didn't help when late-night comedians like Conan were telling exactly those kinds of insensitive jokes and inviting their own audiences to revile a good man. RCA should have stepped up to the plate and protected its product. F*ck up number six.

I remember standing in the electronics department of Walmart one evening when a promotion for Clay's 2006 album, A Thousand Different Ways, came on the flat screens of a dozen shiny TVs: I watched two tiny hyperactive tots come to a serene stop, mezmerized by Clay's soothing voice. If RCA had chosen to leverage Clay's appeal to the toddler demographic, he could have had his own children's show like his hero Mister Rogers or even an uplifting animated series like Fat Albert. F*ck up number seven.

I'm only counting the ones I remember off the top of my head; there are many many more, including the way Clay's Christmas TV special in 2004 was produced, which again engineered all of the personality and charm out of Clay Aiken's performances.

RCA wasn't the only f*ck up here. Decca tried to mold Clay to the PBS crowd, which it too thought it had a handle on with models like Michael Buble to apply. But in editing the TV special, which was even filmed in Clay's own hometown, they stripped the snark, the teasing, the twinkle out of their product. And they couldn't overcome the "Clay Aiken's a joke and so are his fans" tarnish that had built up from RCA's mismanagement--even in their own marketing staff, who tweeted that they couldn't believe they had to promote this guy.

I did say this was a parable and that I learned something about marketing from what I observed.

Marcus Aurelius told us to understand the thing in itself. What is "its" nature? Marketers have to understand both their product and its audience. You may be gaga over Lady Gaga, but if you've got Clay Aiken to sell, don't expect to attract the little monsters. (I'm generalizing, of course; there are a great many Gaga fans among Claymates. So why not the reverse?)

I bring this up now because my organization is trying to revamp its marketing strategy. I was told yesterday that our older members don't count. They're the "chicken and greenbeans" people. They are not cool, and they are not the "future" of our organization.

I totally disagree. From one perspective, yes, young people are the future. But younger people, while they are young, typically have no loyalty, no time, no perspective, no attention span, and no money. Our membership base skews older because they have matured and grown into our market. They have loyalty, time, an attention span, and perspective; before they retire, they have money, too.

The problem with going after what's cool is that it changes, and often very quickly. You chase it, catch it for a moment, and it evaporates. I prefer warmth, sincerity, integrity. Our organization can offer that. We can be the steady light in a stormy sea. We may be viewed as nerds by the general public, just as Clay and his Claymates are, but we've got something real and valuable and well worth offering.

Another metaphor, and then I'll let it go. Marketers see a hot trend in gold prices, so they go panning for gold. I will just tell you not to throw out the emeralds, diamonds, and other gems in your pan just because you don't know how to market them.

The last caveat: The opinions I express are my own.


Pat said...

I don't know what organization you work for, but I sure wish YOU had been in charge of handling Clay Aiken's career!!!

Everything you say is spot on.

Yet, with all the mismanagement and missed opportunites, Clay Aiken keeps on keeping on and his fans keep on keeping on with him. There's something a lot good in that.

Terri said...

You are leaving out one important element of how Clay's career got f*cked up, and that is Clay himself. For example, you complain about the production of the 2004 Christmas special. Clay was the producer of that show. He once bragged that he was in complete control of the whole thing. Performers are not complete puppets to the recording company. They do have something to say about their own recordings. Yes, Clay's career has hit the skids, but it is unfair to blame it all on RCA and then Decca. Look into why so many ex-fans are no longer fans, and you'll be looking at Clay himself.

Deb said...

I enjoyed your perspective on mistakes made in managing Clay's career, and I agree 100%. One thing I didn't know and find outrageous is Decca's tweeting that they couldn't believe they had to promote this guy. Unbelievable, if I am reading that right. I hope Clay catches a break very soon. He is way too talented to not be in the spotlight. Thank you for your thoughts. You make a lot of sense.

hosaa said...

Deb, to clarify about the tweeter who couldn't believe he had to promote Clay: That was actually someone working for my local PBS station, not Decca. When I complained to the station, they said he wasn't a full-time employee and his views certainly did not reflect theirs.

I did overgeneralize on that point, which was unfair to those who really did work to promote Clay's PBS special.

Arden said...

I don't think Clay asked for Barry Manilow as a guest on his TV show. Sometimes credits are just a title.

One of the people who works in Decca's marketing department tweeted that she couldn't believe that she had to attend the Clay & Ruben show in NYC.

I think Clay as a performer can only do so much. The only blame I place on him now is his withdrawal from the public arena. Unfortunately that may be a result of banging his head on the wall, but having more doors shut to him because of his uncool reputation and old fans.

I like him, but don't see him continuing in entertainment.

hosaa said...

Arden, I don't really see where your bottom-line forecast comes from, but I hope you're wrong.

As I posted at Clayversity this morning, for the record, I don't think Clay's career IS "f*cked up," but I definitely think he could be a bigger star right now if it were handled differently (by all concerned) early on.

Right now, it isn't what I want it to be, and maybe it isn't what he wants it to be. But I think the best is yet to come.

After all, Frank Sinatra's career was in the toilet before he won an Oscar for From Here to Eternity.

In any case, following Clay's career has been both entertaining and educational to me, which is one reason I blog about him so much! :)