Wednesday, April 10, 2013

May the "Accidental Racist" be an accidental tipping point [We've got to go somewhere from here]

[cross posted on St. Louis Beacon]

Brad Paisley released a song featuring LL Cool J.

The song is called "Accidental Racist" (off of Paisley's new album, Wheelhouse).

The internet has exploded.

This USA Today article sums up the breadth of reactions: The blogosphere has declared the Brad Paisley/LL Cool J song a major misstep. But is it really? (summation: "worst song ever" to "people feel it's a really good song")

You can probably continue reading and get some of what I'm about to say without doing so, but if you plan to really absorb, do these things first:
  1. Listen to the song here
  2. Read this critique of it here.
  3. For extra and seemingly but not at all unrelated credit, check out this.
For the past month I've been thinking a good deal about how much horrible we have heaped on each other as humans. It all came to a head for me because I wanted take-off and landing reading for a trip and I grabbed the copy of Haunted Alton that had been collecting dust on my bedside table since I bought it on a whim out of the dollar bin when the Borders in Edwardsville went out of business what - 2 years ago? The book starts out with a history of the Riverbend region. A history of massacres and mob violence and indifference and compromise and physical hatred and the Underground Railroad and the birth of the industrial railroad and sunken printing presses and imprisoned soldiers and on and on all on the same soil. Eye to eye and hand to hand. And I thought to myself, "how could we possibly ever expect to heal from that? Ever? No wonder we all harbor so much 'ugh' toward so many others. That is too much. It is just too much."

At 30,000 feet (amazing how radical your thoughts can get so separate from the earth - does this happen to anyone else?) I started to think about a Reset Button. What if we could hit Reset and stop carrying the pain and the guilt of all of the blood that came before us? If it's healing that must come before truly moving forward and the healing is insurmountable this many generations later, can we toss a "get out of jail free" card in the name of an opportunity at shared progress? How differently would we approach problem solving? Would we prioritize different aspects of conflict? Would we see potential solutions that were previously clouded with "ugh?"

After this flash of insanity/brilliance, the immediate thought was how my sister was going to kill me. My sister studies, teaches and does this work actively in literal and figurative communities for a living. And she is ridiculously good at it (her and her). For, oh, the past 10 years, she and I have had an ongoing debate about institution versus individual. Which we've actually graduated to be about a discussion of "both and" as opposed to "either or." But it's still a debate. And I knew, to her, this thought strand would seem a cop out. Being a-historical. Letting everyone off the hook.

But today, hearing the "Accidental Racist" song and reading as many reactions as I had time to absorb, I was back to this idea of a Reset. Because, really, here's the thing:
  1. I agree with everything that Lesley Kinzel lays out in her piece. Which is awesome and very smartly put together and also hilarious(ly sad and depressing). 
  2. At the same time, I know that there are people with whom this song truly resonates and opens a door.
  3. In order to truly make any headway, we have to get as many people as possible into the conversation.
Simultaneous truths. Both and.

But the critiques and the reactions to the song do not leave room at the table for both and.

Lesley Kinzel says (emphasis mine):
"But it’s not just a dumb song. The fact that this can be recorded and put out there in 2013 speaks volumes about how far we have to go. On the upside, the disgust and indignation with which it has been met also says something about how far we’ve come. Nevertheless, a lot of road still stretches out before us. This is not helping. Yes, we need to have better conversations. But the first step in those conversations is listening to the voices that are least heard. This isn't you, Accidental Racist."
The fact that this can be recorded and put out there in 2013 speaks volumes about where we really are in 2013. The fact that this song can be decided upon by two major celebrities from two very different sections of the celebrity sphere, make it to the recording studio, then all the hands who touch a song from inception to pressing hear it, and then it actually goes out into the public - this, to me? Says the reality we are actually living and breathing in is very different from the one we think we are having any sort of impact on with our "discussions." And by "we" I mean activists, progressives, conversationalists with our panels and our roundtables and our session and our blogs and our marches and our workshops.

People are in a really different place than "we" are. Most people. So many that on day 2, "Accidental Racist" is the 22nd most downloaded country song (60 overall) on iTunes (at $1.29 a pop) and Wheelhouse is the 4th (and the Deluxe version is 6th - so really probably #1) most downloaded album. This is the world we live in. A world where this song is progress. Let that sink in. Strip away all of your opinions and learning and conversation skills and truths and let. that. sink. in. There are people who would articulate a goal of healing and diversity and "no hate" that would call this song progress. Do not deny them their reality, their opinion in the same way you would press upon them yours. Let that idea sink in. Is "our" definition of progress and healing and "no hate" so different that we are willing to kick all of those people to the curb? Not even invite them in for an iced latte and an opportunity for one of our highly reasoned conversations?

Dear people having The Conversation: perhaps we are talking to ourselves. There are a ton of people who have no idea what we are saying (think Charlie Brown's teacher). How else does "Accidental Racist" make it to release? It's the wake up call of "if, then" statements. How can a conversation about inclusion discount this many people? At some point, don't we have to meet them where they are?

And who are "we" to strip away the truth that Brad and LL laid down on their track? That is their truth. It's where they are. Giving them a bunch of academia and history and reasoning doesn't change where they, the people, are coming from. Both and.

When I talk about the Reset Button I am not being ignorant, wishing anyone to get off being ignorant or promoting feigned ignorance as a tool. I'm talking about it as an exercise. A framework. This is heavy stuff. It is layered. It is charged. It is polarizing even in its attempts to do the opposite. This is a culture of avoidance. Of dependency, obesity, overindulgence, denial, coping mechanisms. We don't, as a collective group, face reality, facts or hard truths. So on this issue, one we all agree is so broken and so core, why do we demand what we find unattainable in every other arena? And demand it to even start a conversation?

This conversation - the conversation about race, inclusion, our collective history - is broken. And if we can't see that in all the pieces that make up "Accidental Racist," if we haven't seen it in any of the many public disconnects we've had just in 2013, then I'm not sure where to start. Or I'm sure we need a new start. Because, really, we've got to go somewhere from here.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Digital Strategy is basically your gut on metrics [It really is that simple]

Last week we launched the first official music video for Brian Owens, a St. Louis-based American soul artists with whom I've been working on digital strategy since last fall. As I wrote back then, we started working together because he was running into the traditional music industry tendency to package and promote him as their turnkey definition of "urban" and/or "hip hop." Given that the song in the video is essentially about having sex all night, based on Song of Solomon, and the video uses his actual wife (5 months pregnant) and (3) kids, you can see how he fits no standard definition of anything.

And that, is repeatedly shown as his key engagement point.

Like your standard artist Facebook page, there are posts about performances, recording, touring, etc. But on Brian's page, there are also daily bible verses, comments and photos of his kids, and the occasional testimony about how much he loves his wife. These kinds of posts, repeatedly, outperform everything.

So our strategy? Lean in, as authentically as possible, to who Brian is. Look at who and how people are engaging with it. Find more of them. Do more. Stay authentic. Oh, and right, and keep delivering a quality product.

Brian on why he chose the song for his first video:
"I like this song because for me it approaches the subject in way that is consistent with my view of sex as an expression of something much greater and deeper between my wife than just the physical. It’s a spiritual picture. A beautiful mystery. It’s dope in a heavenly sense!" 
(Yes, he said "dope in a heavenly sense.")

In the first conversation with the director on what Brian wanted to video to be:
"I want to show what it is like to have an affair with my wife."
On why he used his real family in the video:
"...the story of [the song] cannot exclude such a vital part of what [it] is about. I could not imagine not having my family and especially my wife in a video that is depicts such an intimate part of who we are"
[More on Brian's thoughts on the video here, director's notes here, and thoughts from his wife on being in it here.]

And the result? A tribute to who Brian is and what he loves about his family, in the package of a high quality expertly performed music video. That, oh, by the way, his fans loved.

Our goal in the launch strategy was maximum shares and views. To use the engagement point as a tool for fans to introduce the music to new potential fans. We used the Facebook event platform to create an opt-in and direct connection environment (events send notifications to everyone "invited" unless they opt-out, as opposed to regular timeline posts which may or may not even show up passively in a fan's feed), as well as to put a focused time around the promotion. We invited fans and people in our personal networks specifically asking them to join us in launching the video by interacting and sharing the content. For three days we pushed out "pre-release" content to the event page - re-purposing photos from the video shoot day and attaching commentary from Brian, his wife and the director about the concept and approach to the video (to the tune of what I highlighted above) and posting two behind the scenes teaser videos (here and here).

In the end, the video launched with 1,549 views in the first week, outperforming every other thing he's ever put on his YouTube channel by thousands of percentage points. The posts with commentary from his wife or about his family outperformed the rest of the pre-launch content by far. We had two posts of the finished video on his Facebook page - one promoted and one not. The promoted one clearly reached more people but had 1% interaction, while the organic one had 7% interaction. And the paid post only brought us an additional 4 shares (25 total, more than anything he's ever put in his Facebook page by far).

Are these huge metrics in the general sense? Not the question. Did these efforts significantly move the needle from our previous digital baseline? In a huge way. And we were able to reinforce and put metrics around what we already knew - that it's not Brian the musician, the performer, the singer that leads, it's Brian the person. As multifaceted and non-conformist as he might seem. 

Because, really, what breaks a traditional marketing machine's brain is essentially digital media gold.