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So, We Can Engineer a Mass Movement to Hack the Christmas Pop Charts, but We Can’t Agree on a Global Climate Change Treaty?

10:50 pm - December 22nd 2009

by Robert Sharp    

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The schadenfreude becomes stale quite quickly, doesn’t it? No sooner had the whoops of glee at Simon Cowell’s failure to reach the Christmas Number 1 spot for the fifth consecutive year, and the many ironies of the Rage Against the Machine campaign were clear for all to see. First amongst these is the fact that R.A.t.M.’s angry Killing in the Name and Joe McElderry’s saccharine version of The Climb were Sony Music records: Joe is on Simco Records (i.e. Simon Cowell) “under exclusive licence to Sony Music Entertainment UK Ltd” while Rage Against The Machine’s label is Epic, a subsidiary of Sony.

The campaign put a small dent into Simon Cowell’s sales figures. Last year, Alexandra Burke’s Hallelujah sold 576,000 copies in the week before Christmas, while this year Joe McElderry only managed 450,000. But this hardly suggests that Cowell’s business model is on the wane – Leon Jackson only sold 275,000 copies of his single, When You Believe in 2007. Cowell knows that a bit of controversy is good for his bottom line. He knows that the label ‘Christmas Number One’ is an entirely relative marketing concept anyway, and modern music history is littered with classic hits which never reached that false summit.

So although the Facebook campaigners for Rage Against the Machine were successful, I can’t help thinking that there is something confused about the campaign and its aims. They say:

… it’s given many others hope that the singles chart really is for everybody in this country of all ages, shapes, and sizes…and maybe re-ignited many people’s passion for the humble old single as well as THAT excitement again in actually tuning in to the chart countdown on a Sunday.

In taking this line, the campaigners seem to be endorsing the Singles Chart as an appropriate indicator of good and popular music, when it is manifestly nothing of the sort. Yes, they reclaimed the ‘excitement’ for a single week… but they did so with a seventeen year-old song which was chosen precisely for its contrast with its competitor. That is entirely different from what the campaigners have nostalgia for – new music from good bands, battling it out. Former chart battles were essentially a positive contest, with music fans buying their favourite record. The 2009 campaign had an entirely negative “anyone by Cowell” message, which is unsustainable.

False Metrics

Modern internet campaigns often seem to fall into the trap of chasing targets based on false metrics. The campaign for Gary McKinnon (the computer hacker in danger of extradition to the US) seems to be a victim:

lets make #mckinnonmonday ‘trend’ – TWEET4GARY NOW !!! please tweet ALL #american friends and ask them to help #FREEGARY #garyMckinnon
– @cliffsul

The aim of #mckinnonmonday is to make Gary McKinnon trend #garymckinnon Pls RT
– @dandelion101

Shouldn’t the aim be to generate anger and interest in the Gary McKinnon story? How helpful is all the constant RT’ing if it doesn’t translate to bodies at the protest, letters in the politician’s in-tray.

And it is not just impoverished grassroots campaigners falling into this trap, either. Here is a recent tweet from a Cabinet Minister:

Support #welovetheNHS, add a #twibbon to your avatar now! – http://twibbon.com/join/welovetheNHS

Admittedly, sending the tweet is hardly a burden on Mr Milband’s resources, but its odd and disturbing that politicians and political campaigns have started to relate to us in this way. The idea that the NHS is something to love is presumed, and the campaign becomes about forming a huge group of people around a slogan for a fleeting moment only. Did anyone capture the e-mail addresses of those who tweeted #welovetheNHS? If not then it seems like a wasted moment.

And as for Twibbons? This innovation seems to me to be a hugely reductive exercise, shrinking political debate to a space 100 pixels wide.

Now, lest you assume I am engaging in pure snark, I should point out that I am as guilty of this hashtag chasing as the next person – perhaps more so. I helped the Burma Campaign devise their 64forSuu.org project, which was, frankly, all about the hashtag. And only today I’ve written a press release lauding the fact that PEN‘s Libel Reform petition has just reached 10,000 signatures, a figure that will something only if it serves to light a fire under either Jack Straw or Dominic Grieve.

Its very easy to raise ‘awareness’ of any given issue, but that’s not the same thing as establishing a consensus that what you are proposing is right. And in turn, that is not the same thing as actually motivating people to action. It would be a great shame if “taking action” became synonymous with simply sharing links and joining endless Facebook groups, because when that “action” fails to translate into meaningful change, we will only find that another generation have been turned off politics, disillusioned. The Obama campaign has been criticised recently for its rather top-down approach to twitter, which didn’t really engage in conversation with supporters. But nevertheless, he actually inspired people out of their houses and into the campaign HQs. Did some of us think that Twitter could start a revolution in Iran? Not quite (as Jay Rosen points out). While the #IranElection tag on Twitter has been a useful tool for the protesters and for those reporting on the crisis it is clearly the people on the ground that will really put that regime under pressure (and we hope that the passing of Ayatollah Hoseyn Ali Montazeri will provide inspiration to renew that pressure).

All of which is to say that George Monbiot’s sanctimonious article this morning had the ring of truth about it:

For the past few years good, liberal, compassionate people – the kind who read the Guardian – have shaken their heads and tutted and wondered why someone doesn’t do something. Yet the number taking action has been pathetic. Demonstrations which should have brought millions on to the streets have struggled to mobilise a few thousand. As a result the political cost of the failure at Copenhagen is zero. Where are you?

We’ve been tweeting #hashtags and adding #twibbons to our avatar, George. Get with the programme, yeah?

This is cross-posted on my own blog. I’ve also just added a counter-point to all this, ‘In praise of 100px Campaigns‘. It would be great to have comments on that side of the debate, too.

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About the author
Robert Sharp designed the Liberal Conspiracy site. He is Head of Campaigns at English PEN, a blogger, and a founder of digital design company Fifty Nine Productions. For more of this sort of thing, visit Rob's eponymous blog or follow him on Twitter @robertsharp59. All posts here are written in a personal capacity, obviously.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Liberal Conspiracy ,Media ,Middle East ,Our democracy

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Reader comments

The thing is – the RATM campaign didn’t establish a consensus either. The vote was split 55%-45% last I checked.

So it’s not a valid comparison _at all_!

Could it be that both your good self – and Monbiot are lazy bastards?

I understand what you have to say, and indeed are saying – yet, while you rant and rage against the internet you sit and ask why others are not doing anything about it.

My question is why aren’t YOU doing something about it. Get on the phone, tweet, email, whatever to George and organise a general strike or something.

The middle-class lovies, drinking whatever year they drink, tutting at the state of the country quietly getting pissed and wondering where “England” went – all the time electing a Tory government, what do you expect to happen?

You won’t get ‘people-power’ on the side of global agreements until the people are listened to – and governments do that every 4 or 5 years, full stop.

At least giving Cowell a kick on the bollox is a start!

Viral campaigns are inherantly unpredictable so I wouldn’t place any faith about repeating this exercise for another cause.

By the way, this one has so far raised over £77,000 for Shelter, to whom RATM are donating their profits.

The idea that the NHS is something to love is presumed, and the campaign becomes about forming a huge group of people around a slogan for a fleeting moment only…

Of course – it was a sleazy attempt to cash in on the fleeting anti-Tory sentiment that followed Daniel Hannan’s Foxy antics. That, it seems, is how the government sees twitter: a useful device for aquiring angry mobs.

Did you see the top Twitter “news events” trends of 2009? #1 was #iranelection. Ah, that takes us back. Everyone was turning their icons green and retweeting the latest 140-character samizdat from the streets of Tehran. Keep up the pressure! the optimists cried. The green revolution is within our grasp!

Now see where we are: Iran is still a dictatorship, and Billy Kristol is back to thinking up new reasons to invade it.


Some of us (not many, must be said) who argued that the whole RATM/Simon Cowell/Sony snouts in’t trough thing was nonsense did make some positive suggestions for alternative action – give a direct donation to charity (and sorry, Shatterface, nice to see folk give to charity and all, but Sony are making a hell of a lot more than that £77,000, and it’ll be interesting to see what RATM’s eventual net profits are, given their gross take will be c.12%? maybe 15% at best? of however much folk handed-over for each download. Shame people couldn’t get their wallets out for Shelter without requiring an illusion to buy-into…)

– then go and download some music from a truly ‘independent’ artist who might actually merit a personal financial stimulus package. I provided a starter list of folk I like, and invited suggestions to add to it…


Loads of people have read it, and a whole…none of them have bothered to add any musicians’ names…

Don’t care what they thought of my argument (I was, of course, completely correct, always am…!), but just a shame the list hasn’t been expanded, because there are thousands of brilliant people out there making incredible music…(and mediocre clatterers like me, naturally).


Screw the naysayers, the campaign for RATM at no1 raised over 70,000 for the homeless charity Shelter. I call that a result.

It was a great campaign in the truest Alinskyian sense, it galvanised but worked within the mainstream, it raised money that will make a real difference, and it made an exceptionally radical song the anthem of Christmas and the last tune of the year and decade.

And to answer the post title, it’s because ordinary people organised and mobilised not politicians seeking to serve ‘national interests’.

‘Screw the naysayers, the campaign for RATM at no1 raised over 70,000 for the homeless charity Shelter. I call that a result.’

Exactly. Is it really necessary for RATM (as all the cool kids are calling them) to don sack-cloth and ashes? Is it more important that Sony DON’T profit from this than that Shelter do?

As to the article’s title, hacking the pop charts is a little more simple than getting the world’s leaders to agree to measures which, if they were implemented, would probably see them lose the next election.

Blogging and tweeting versus marching and meeting.

A triumph of capitalist technology: excellent.

Merry Christmas to everyone.

“capitalist technology”?

ummmm, okay.

Yo, yeah’nat. Up ur bum cowell, fuk off the system! power to the people n’that. smash the system n’that. Fuk evrybody an the boorgeoisy n’that. smash racism n’that. Yo! Yeah! Fuk.

What’s hashtag?

11. Cheesy Monkey

The main reasoning behind the Rage Against The Machine for Christmas No. 1 compaign was that it would be funny if it worked. And it was! Even better than Cowell’s scowling was the impotent, ahem, rage it inspired in moneyed indie snobs. Plus, the near £80,000 raised for Shelter shouldn’t be sniffed at – that’s 80 grand that Shelter was otherwise not getting (and that’s not counting the royalties they are also due to receive). I’m terrible for donating to charity – I keep meaning to do so, but often forget. So, campaigns like this one can work – I bought the single from iTunes and then donated immediately afterwards. Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have donated to any charity, simply because it would had slipped my mind.

Meh, people can point fingers at whoever they like over Copenhagen, the reality is that there were too many cooks and there will always been too many cooks. You can’t get a global agreement where so many nations still put their own interests over that of other nations…which is exactly the way people of each nation want their politicians to act (see the immigration debate).

Could have been worse, could have been Nirvana and Geffen.

Apologies to Andy Gilmour – I did mean to reference the alternative idea, which was to give money to an independent artist.

Good piece in the Guardian today about Copenhagen compromise being the fault fo the Chinese.


It’s easy to blame the Chinese – but they’re investing far more in green tech than we are. What has the UK done on that front? Hardly anything

Have you read it? It makes for pretty grim reading about brinkmanship diplomacy and of course, no one is immune from that but it isn’t great is it?

Here is the piece in question:


The success of RATM is probably more symbolic, unfortunately, artists with real talent and unique styles will still continue to rage against the machine of large corporations and the drive for profit which capitalism demands of all art.

Capitalism demands things of art? I think you’ll find that it’s cheaper and easier to produce and distribute art than it ever has been in the history of mankind. If you _want_ to market and distribute your art to the masses through shops then you can go the capitalist route, but nobody holds a gun to your head…

It’s probably cheaper and easier to distribute mass produced art, which, by definition, is the activity of large corporations, this then is called consumption, which by the sound of your post (market, distribution, shops) you are clearly entrenched in a capitalist view of art. Simon Cowell, Pete Waterman et al, created a music machine which produced the music befitting of mass production, ie sterotypal, meaningless and quite forgettable. And what is the difference between “cheaper and easier production and distribution” and “going down the capitalist route”?

Nope, I’m talking about ordinary people, like my friend Morag, who has a whole bunch of music online, my friend Celia, who has her art online, my friend Fergus, who makes strange computer-generated things that I don’t really get and posts them online.

Ordinary people making art of various kinds and getting them out to the whole world, basically for free. And none of them are what you might call capitalists, nor are they being capitalist. They’re making art and sharing it, for free, with the whole world.

Because you can do that now, for the first time in human history. And capitalism hasn’t demanded anything of any of them.

Capitalism has demanded they use the internet (which unless you are free-loading, is not free). You are quite wrong abiut humans having free access to art,- until the emergence of industrial capitalism and the concept of ‘the private’, art was considered to be a communal participation, even reading was undertaken in group situations,Works of art created for the rich were freely accesible to the poor. Shakespeare was enjoyed hy the majority, and more importantly, was understood by the majority, it was not the pursuit of an elite few, which industrial capitalism created. More people were literate in the 18th century than in the 19th. and most people would understand references to other art contained in new and seperate artworks. This kind of ability is not the norm and is now mainly learned in an academic setting.
I am pleased that your friends are enjoying the ability to transmit their images into cyberspace, but,how their audience (consumers within capitalism) receive that art is unknown. Art is much more than creating and transmitting, art is a statement which requires more than the input of one individual

Sorry for the long comment, but since my twitter-name is taken in vain here :-), felt I must just re-post my comment to this on Rob’s blog:

Cherry-picking a few choice tweets from private individuals which are pretty unrepresentative of what is in fact an eight-year campaign isn’t quite right, Rob.

I for one have written a number of factual articles about Gary McKinnon for precisely the reasons you suggest. And I happen to know I am not alone in that either. On Twitter, if you look, large numbers of #garymckinnon tweets are about the facts of the matter, not to mention the painstaking efforts to convince people of why the extradition is unjust. Tweeter by tweeter.

I also happen to know that the Home Office and Buckingham Palace have both been overwhelmed with the volume of letters and phonecalls. Twitter is only the most readily visible aspect of a campaign which has so far been successful in keeping McKinnon in the UK, and has gathered cross-party support in Parliament, a single recorded by Bob Geldof, Chrissie Hynde, David Gilmour and others, a barrage of individual complaints to MPs, the Home Secretary and the Queen, and other things in the pipeline which I am not at liberty to publicise just yet.

As for the recent protest outside the Home Office (attended by no less than 8 MPs, including Nick Clegg and Keith Vaz), many of those attending were in fact recruited via Twitter. Perhaps even including yourself, Rob, but certainly including people who travelled to London from the West Country, from East Anglia and even the Netherlands especially for the occasion. To say that Twitter doesn’t translate into action is therefore false. How do you think *I* got involved with it? Seriously. I for one am living proof that Twitter “works”.

And you have to bear in mind of course, that the Gary McKinnon campaign has no budget, no employees, and consists of public-spirited well-wishers who have their own lives to conduct. Not bad for a bunch of hobbyists, I would say.

In any case, raising awareness is a vital first step. And I don’t think it’s very nice to knock it. Your mother would do the same as Janis Sharp, I am sure, especially if she weren’t a professional campaigner. Which the vast majority of Gary McKinnon’s supporters are not.

What IS interesting is how people generally are more ready to vote for a christmas single or a Big Brother contestant than they are to act on matters of any actual significance. It’s not as cool or new-fangled, maybe, as purporting to debunk a web 2.0 “myth”, but it is *people* that do this stuff. Or don’t do it. Just as they have since time immemorial.

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  1. fatrat

    We Can Engineer a Mass Movement to Hack the Christmas Pop Charts, but Can’t Agree on a Global Climate Change Treaty? http://bit.ly/5hc3DB

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