Singles and Albums
I’ve long used music as an analogy for alcohol when talking with consumers, but lately it seems like the spirits game is beginning to resemble the actual business of music, rather than the art form itself. The idea that pop culture cycles—movements that used to define decades and span a similar length of time—are now speeding up into two year blips on the radar is a concept I’ve been fixated on for the past few months. When we think of music (or at least when I do), I still compartmentalize it into the decade from which it came. When I think of the fifties, I think of Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. For the sixties, it’s the Beatles. In the seventies, you can go classic rock, punk, or disco. The eighties is clearly characterized by the birth of hip-hop, new wave, and post-punk. The nineties had the grunge and alternative movement, and in the 2000s we had…….
What did we have?
We had the internet—that’s what. The birth of the world wide web completely changed the way trends unfurled and developed throughout the world, which is why our decades of pop culture dominance ended in its wake. You no longer had to wait years for trends to permeate into the far reaches of the planet. Kids everywhere could look at pictures, watch videos, and connect with people in the blink of an eye, allowing them to see what was happening in other cities and countries around the globe. With the internet, musical movements began fizzling out within a year or two, rather than ten. I remember discovering new bands back around 2008 that were already breaking up by the end of 2009. Can you imagine how much faster cultural movements are spreading today with Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram now? It’s crazy to think about. Before you can even figure out what’s happening these days it’s already over.
For most of my lifetime the booze game has been dominated by brands—recognizable labels that became stronger over time and developed deep and lasting loyalties with consumers. People defined themselves by the bottles that they drank and took pride in calling themselves a Jack Daniel’s guy. Unlike the music business, which has always sustained itself on fresh new blood and reacted to even the most fickle trends in the market, the booze game has always required strategic planning. Throwing an eighteen year old heartthrob into a recording studio to croon out a melodramatic pop single takes no longer than an afternoon, but building a distillery? That’s a much heavier investment and it’s not a plan that allows itself much flexibility. Of course, that was never a problem for the big players in the spirits game because they were planning to dominate the industry for decades, if not centuries. They didn’t need the ability to turn on a dime and react to the ever-changing fashions in front of them. While booze has long played a role in pop culture, it has never been governed by the laws of pop culture. Until now.
I’ve had a number of conversations over the past week with some of my long-time friends in the industry, and almost all of them were centered by a concern over what’s been happening as of late. Gaining serious traction as a spirits brand seems almost impossible at the moment. No one seems to be able to get a foothold anymore. One day you’re on top of the world, selling cases to everyone knocking on your door, but six months later you’re wondering why nobody ever reordered. Was it not any good? Did some bad press leak out from one of the major magazines? No, it wasn’t that. Then what was it? It may simply be that your time is up! In my opinion, we’re seeing pop culture cycles for spirits brands that are mimicking the same limited exposure periods granted to any musician in today’s market. As a brand owner, you might have the world's most popular gin for 2017, but I can guarantee you that by 2018 there will be three new gins to knock you off that perch, grab your market share, and leave you in the dust.
Just like I got rid of my Cinderella, Bon Jovi, and Warrant cassette tapes when the nineties hit, I think we’re going to see today’s modern drinkers continually evolve and outgrow their latest discoveries. While that’s nothing new in the world of booze, I think the kicker here is that it’s going to happen at a pace that’s unsustainable for the industry. You can’t build a distillery with the intention of selling booze for three solid years until the limelight fades and the next new brand comes along—it’s a terrible business plan. Yet, this is exactly what’s happening right now (without the intention, of course). What’s even more shocking is that major corporations are circling in these murky waters, searching for fresh new blood just like record producers, and gobbling up these upstarts thinking they’ve just hit gold. And maybe they have! But for how long? A year? Two years? Three years? What are you going to do with all that infrastructure once the cycle ends and a new one begins? If I were a big booze company, I would be scared to death about that possibility. If the contracts for Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam had each come with tens of millions of dollars of music equipment and debt, I’m not so sure the Seattle scene would have ever happened.
It’s easy to stay on top when you’re a big fish in a small pond, but making it as a pop star today has to be harder than it’s ever been, mainly because of all the competition. Every fifteen year old kid from here to Dubai has a YouTube audition video for American Idol. There are no longer gatekeepers in the record industry. Any aspiring teenager with enough money (and a little talent) can put together a track on an Apple laptop, edit it cheaply with Garageband, and upload it to the internet in seconds, flooding the market with more than it could ever handle. The spirits game seems to be the new rock and roll for a number of bright-eyed youngsters today. Rather than a guitar for Christmas, they want a pot still. The problem here for big booze companies is that these passionate kids are not just dicking around in their parents’ garage, plastering xeroxed posters on the streets for a live show at the local pizza parlor. They’re getting actual bottles to market, support from hungry distributors, and taking up coveted shelf real estate at every bottle shop in the country. The once-small pond for distillation has turned into a raging sea over the last few years. Again, it’s easy to remain a pop culture darling when there’s no one to replace you, but now that we have hundreds of new distilleries eager for their chance on top, it’s a completely different game. The cycles are speeding up.
I was talking with Copper & Kings owner Joe Heron yesterday about various music analogies, and he came up with a doozy. I was discussing the split in direction that seems to be happening between on-premise and off-premise fads in the booze game (retailers vs. bars and restaurants), and how they’re no longer parallel markets. Today you can completely strike out in the retail world, but find incredible success in the mixology scene. “It’s a bit like the difference between a single and a full album, isn’t it?” Joe said.
“Oh my God,” I answered; “You’re 100% right.”
The music industry has seen a similar split between older audiences who still cling to the concept of an album, and younger audiences that just want to listen to the songs they like. The purchase of a single track requires much less of an investment and it can be added to a playlist of other singles to create a mix of whatever suits the listener. “Going out on the town,” Joe continued, “they can order a few different shots or a cocktails and create their own playlist based on whatever they’re into at the moment.” Today’s curious drinker no longer has to invest in an entire bottle, so long as there are bars and restaurants that have enough of a selection. I’ve seen that mentality continue to attack the retail side as well, with younger customers continually asking for minis, sample sizes, and smaller options that don’t require them to commit to a full bottle. That won't happen in the short term because there's no money in small sizes for retailers or producers (part of the reason why record stores no longer exist), but a bartender on the other hand can make a killing off of one ounce pours.
As I’ve written numerous times before, drinking spirits today has less to do with drinking than with experimenting. Alcohol is now as much of a pop culture phenomenon as music or fashion, and as such it’s being governed by the same cycles and demands. A bottle of wine or whisky on the table is no different than a designer hand bag or a rock T-shirt. It now says: “Look at me. Look at what I’m showing you. What does this tell you about me?” While thousands of pop stars have come and gone over the years, there is always that handful of artists capable of reinvention. David Bowie comes to mind. Madonna is another. In order for a spirits brand to remain competitive in this new world of pop culture competition, it’s going to require that same ability for adaptation. Ultimately, that’s what pop culture values most—a keen understanding of what’s happening now. It’s always been a competition. It’s always been about showing the world that you’re up-to-speed on the latest trends and styles, and that you’re always one step ahead of the game. Booze brands today definitely understand that part of the business, which is why you’re seeing more limited edition and seasonal products than ever before. One-off bottlings allow them to experiment with a more modern approach without risking their older and more foundational audiences.
Even with those limited releases, I'm not sure they will be enough to sustain the growing number of small distilleries today. It's not enough to be good anymore. It's not enough to be new, either. As a spirits brand in 2017, you have to be exciting, hip, cutting edge, tradtionally-minded, and of a tremendous quality. Even with all those qualities, however, you may only have a year or two in the sun. Information moves quickly in the internet age. Fashion, even faster.