A Special New Band
"Music seems crazy, bands start up each and every day; I saw another one just the other day—a special new band."
—Stephen Malkmus, from the Pavement song "Cut Your Hair"
I do a lot of consulting for brands—most of it off-the-clock and unpaid—but I have a decent amount of insight into the hopes and ambitions of modern marketing. So many of these guys want to be the next Macallan, the next Jack Daniels, or the next Patron, but they don't understand that this level of status is a relic of the old world. No one can create a brand in this era that can captivate the attention of the entire globe. There are so many new brands, so many new distilleries, and so many new labels that it's impossible to keep up. With so much saturation and so little time to decipher what's what, consumers can no longer focus on just a few key products. However, it's exactly that missing focus that once allowed these iconic monarchs to become the king kong products they are today.
Don't understand what I mean? Let me give you an example:
There will never be another band as big as the Rolling Stones, or the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, or U2 while we are alive. Why? Because Ed Sullivan and MTV are dead. Those were outlets that had 100% of TV land's attention. Back then, if you wanted to watch music on television, we all had to suck from the same supple breast. Today, with YouTube, iTunes, Facebook, and ten million other outposts where music enthusiasts can discover new artists, there's no concentration of the world's attention. It was that concentration, however—that magnifying glass intensified by the sun—that created those legends, giants, myths, and long-standing heroes we now worship in their golden years. It's the reason why a front row ticket to The Who will cost you $5000 in today's market. It's fear that drives concert goers, just like it does whisky drinkers—this might be the last chance we have to see one of the great stalwarts of rock and roll. We need to do it one last time!! But do you think people are going to pay $5000 to see the Arcade Fire thirty years from now? No way.
Back in the day you only had a few liquor brands, so it was easy for successful labels to monopolize the attention of the marketplace. There wasn't anything near the selection we have today, forcing loyalties in a multitude of different directions. So Coors became Coors. Budweiser became Budweiser. Seagram's became Seagram's. And Johnnie Walker became the standard for high-end whisky. It's a prestige that has carried these brands into the new millennium, and it's a security that a number of our customers still hold tightly when searching for the best in spirits. Did any of you read that interview I did with my grandmother who was a bartender in the 1950s? "Back then we drank VO, nothing else," she told me once. "That was the extent of the demand." And this is from a woman who made her living by supplying booze. When you're dealing with decade upon decade of influence, legacy, and saturation of the marketplace, there's nothing you can do to counteract that level of dominance—it's like trying to undo years of bad habits. Old brands are as entrenched as the Republican and Democratic parties—so you can run as an independent, but in the end the best you can hope for is Vermont.
There are few monopolies on the world's collective attention these days, which is why people are still willing to pay $900 for Macallan 25, or $2000 for Paul McCartney tickets, or $4000 for a Chanel purse—because these things are experiences! They are the known quantities. They're nubs in our collective psyche. They are qualifiers for the value of what's important in life because they're desired by a greater proportion of the population, and desire is what determines value. There are only five first growth Bordeaux wines. There's only one DRC. Despite its terrible decline, Johnny Walker Blue still outsells anything we import directly. And Madonna will always trump Katy Perry.
There will never be another Rat Pack because there are too many young punks utterly trying—practically begging—to replace them. It's a desperation that turns people off. People strive for the mantel before they've accomplished anything worthy—like a craft distiller charging luxury prices—and it reeks of new money naiveté. And that's why society started to look elsewhere—to the "alternative" world of music, to the independent world of cinema, and to the microcosm of small distillers who we hope can provide us with that starpowered level of quality, without all that pomp.
However, in the end, we can't help but let these secrets loose into the general marketplace, because we ultimately need the acceptance of the general public to validate these experiences. There's the old line: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?
To which I counter: If you drink a bottle of Pappy and no one's there to see it, is it worth drinking?