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The golden rule of music content

By:
June 23, 2017

On a balcony in Montserrat, the guitarist of The Police met the ex-keyboard player of Squeeze: from this unlikely pairing, comes music content’s golden rule.

For Andy Summers, blonde haired guitarist with The Police, life is good.

It is 1981 and his band – including singer and bassist Sting and drummer Stuart Copeland – are international superstars. They are recording their new work, Ghosts In the Machine, on the Caribbean island of Montserrat. When it is finished it will go multi-platinum in the U.S. and be listed at No. 323 in the Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

Summers, standing on the veranda, appears lord of all he surveys. Beneath him, the sun glints off the Caribbean ocean. In front of him, the BBC set up their cameras for his interview with Jools Holland.

Yes, life is good.

As the interview unwinds, Summers plays the riff to Message In A Bottle, a smash hit by The Police. He explains to Holland how he came up with its distinctive guitar riff.

“Were you influenced by funk? Are you into funk at all?” Holland probes.

“Oh yes,” answers Summers, trying to hide his enthusiasm under a veneer of cool, and starts noodling some funk “riffs”. Holland immediately leans over and pulls the lead out of Summers’ guitar.

“That’s best left to James Brown I think,” Holland sneers.

Sacrilege!

“If anybody ever unplugged my guitar like that, I’d punch them straight in the face. It’d be especially satisfying if they had a face as punchable as Jools here,” says a comment below the YouTube video of the interview, which you can watch below – embedded just before the fateful moment:

But as I explained while training staff at a major music platform recently, this moment is, in fact, a seminal slice of music TV and an important lesson in content from which we can all learn.

When a TV producer saw Holland pull out Summers’s guitar lead, he immediately hired him to present the ‘80s music TV show The Tube, which got Holland the job at BBC’s Later. So that lead-pulling moment launched Holland’s TV career.

Why?

Pulling out Summers guitar lead illuminates the one golden rule about making music content – or any type of content for that matter.

You boss the content. The content does not boss you.

“That’s best left to James Brown I think,” Holland sneers.

In this context, the artist – Andy Summers – is the content. It is seductive to think the music – and by extension, the artist –  is always king. But, whatever record companies may say, and however big the star, it is not so. The listener (or viewer, or reader or fan) is. This is a crucial distinction from which everything flows.

Andy Summers is a great guitarist to be sure, but like most of us, he can get a bit boring if allowed to ramble.

Holland knew the viewer at home did not want to watch a TV presenter stroke the ego of a pampered rock star who was starting to disappear up his own fundament. So Holland pulled the plug.

Holland demonstrated his loyalty was to the viewer, not the rock star. This is the secret sauce of how you “do” music content, a form of content that people love, but about which they often lose perspective.

You do not try to be the friend of the rock star. You do not allow yourself to be overawed meeting someone of global fame, someone perhaps you yourself are a fan of.

Whether you are interviewing Kendrick Lamar or Taylor Swift, when you make content about music you represent the fans not the stars.

And it really doesn’t matter how many platforms you are on, how many social media shares you get or how efficiently your CMS works. The content you make must be aimed squarely at the audience, not the star, or it will fail. The Harvard Business School would call this “customer-centricity.”

When Alicia Keys makes a weak song you tell her. When Kanye West starts going on, you pull the plug. You can tell people the truth and still love their music. In fact, real love demands it.

And in my interviewing experience, whether it’s Rod Stewart or Beyonce, most artists are pretty good at arguing their corner.

You boss the content. The content does not boss you.

If you can do all this in a way that is funny or surprising or exciting, fans will tune in. So will I.

But if you don’t, you will end up with a snooze-fest that does no one – not the label, the artist or the fans – any favours at all.

Back in Monserrat in the 1980s, poor Andy Summers plugs his guitar back in, look up at the camera and offers a wan smile.

He didn’t know it, but a TV career had just been born.

Andy Pemberton has edited Q magazine in the UK and edited Spin and launched Blender in the US. He has written about music for The New York Times amongst many others.

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