This pickle has more fans than Nickelback. Now what?

Nerd. Core.

Those of you who recently made the switch from Friendster to Facebook are probably familiar with the omnipresent “Can This Pickle Get More Fans Than Nickleback?” group. (Warning: photograph of anthropomorphic pickle engaging in apparently consensual sex act with Chad Kroeger.) The group was founded in February, back when Nickelback’s Facebook page listed 1,380,820 fans. While new Nickelback fans have since trickled in, new fans of the pickle that symbolically opposes Nickelback rushed as a raging torrent, and at some point on Friday afternoon the pickle pulled ahead. Right now, the pickle has 1,456,556 fans, while the group Billboard two months ago declared the Band of the Decade has 1,418,801. On Facebook, at least, This Pickle has more fans than Nickelback. Which raises some interesting questions.

First of all, if you’re feeling even a shred of sympathy for Nickelback at this moment, you A) probably don’t own a radio and B) should have a look at this. Chad Kroeger’s ominous statement that “your page will be closing in 2 weeks”—coming as it does the Sunday after This Pickle eclipsed Nickelback’s fan total—suggests that he was aware of the group the whole time, and somehow not only failed to see the humor in it but also decided to wait for the awesome popularity of Nickelback to silence his detractors. If the message came from the real Chad Kroeger, and if the real Chad Kroeger has convinced whatever shadow government administers Facebook to shut down the This Pickle fan page, it evinces baffling douchery. How does a thirty-six year-old man not know better than that? He’s like the villain in a movie about skiing.

You should also know that Nickelback has sold more than 30 million albums worldwide. They’re the best-selling band of the last ten years, despite nearly universal critical derision and the fact that you can take two of their songs and do this. Nickelback is why you absolutely must have a working CD player in your car, yet they are, from the standpoint of a person who makes money by producing and distributing recorded music, the best band in the world. Obviously, we are talking about a broken industry, and This Pickle proves it.

Granted, Facebook is an extremely skewed metric for measuring the popularity of anything. “When I hear myself eating crunchy food, I wonder if other people can hear it, too,” for example, has 1,184,473 Facebook fans, whereas “The planet Earth” has only 325,405. Clearly, novelty counts for something here, and the novelty of “Can this pickle get more fans than Nickleback?” certainly has something to do with its success. The abject failure of “I bet I can find 169,000 people who hate Nickelback” (129,315) proves that, but the poor performance of the “hate Nickelback” meme also demonstrates the operating principle behind This Pickle. It’s not that Nickelback sucks. It’s that a picture of a pickle can garner as much popular acclaim in one year as Nickelback did in a decade. Without the pickle it doesn’t work, because the pickle proves what we all know and Chad Kroeger tries vainly to deny: popular acclaim is meaningless.

Part of the reason Nickelback is popular is that they’re popular. I would never have heard Nickelback had I not listened to Lazer 103.3 or gone to a strip club at some point during the last decade, and they wouldn’t have sold 30 million albums were it not for the unrelenting efforts of various flacks at EMI. Lord knows, it’s not reviews driving the sales. Those of us who grew up after the death of Elvis know that the legions of dedicated fans around bands like Nickelback—or Creed, or Celine Dion, or Menudo—are largely imaginary. It’s marketing, and the top-selling band of the last decade is no more the best band in America than whoever they get to play the Super Bowl. Like most major record labels, EMI is selling music to people who aren’t into music. The 30 million Nickelback CDs floating around the back seats and pawn shops of America were purchased by people who just want something on. Maybe Nickelback is somebody’s favorite band, but you’ll never meet them. If you don’t have to listen to the radio, such people might as well not exist.

For most of the history of the recording industry, though, being popular was the only way to get really popular. Radio play, reviews in Rolling Stone and appearances on The Tonight Show were how bands got more people to listen to them, and the bands without such weight behind them were consigned to club shows and mixtapes. People who actually cared about music had to discover new bands through alternative means, which is how “alternative” became the industry’s most useful marketing term. Now, though, getting on The Tonight Show is not the only way to introduce your band to 1.5 million people. You can also do it by being a pickle on Facebook.

Imagine you’re the A&R executive in charge of marketing Nickelback through digital media. How do you feel when This Pickle gets more fans? If it were me, I would be tempted to go into my boss’s office and explain that the opposition just had a better product. Nickelback is an awful, awful band, successful in the same way that the guy who asks every woman in the bar for her phone number will successfully get two. For the last ten years, an awful band has been able to succeed wildly, thanks to a multimillion-dollar industrial apparatus designed to ensure that as many people heard them as possible. EMI could have done the same thing with Goo Goo Dolls, or Third Eye Blind, or NOFX. The operative phrase is “could have,” though. Like a lot of media companies, EMI’s decades-old apparatus is rapidly falling apart. I don’t listen to the radio, as evidenced by my hearing “Single Ladies” for the first time in Target three months ago. As much as I hate to admit this, I look at Facebook every day.

That This Pickle can get more fans than Nickelback is proof that you don’t have to be popular to be popular anymore. As with Nickelback, few would argue that the pickle succeeded on its own merits, which begs the question: Can This Modest Mouse get more fans than Nickelback? Can This Hold Steady or These Los Campesinos? One and a half million fans isn’t a lot to EMI; they spent a lot of money putting Nickelback on TV and the radio and endcaps at Best Buy, and 1.5 million people don’t buy 30 million albums. To your band, though, who spent a hundred bucks setting up a website and linking to it on Facebook, 1.5 million is a worldwide audience. The make-or-break factor, in that context, isn’t a guarantee from KISS FM that they’ll play you once every 55 minutes. It’s whether or not you really, really suck.

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  1. “Maybe Nickelback is somebody’s favorite band, but you’ll never meet them.”

    Does this make Nickelback the Joyce Carol Oates of music?

  2. I think the linked Billboard article tells us more about the sorry state of rock music than of popular music in general. Nickelback comes in at number seven behind six hip hop and r&b artists. Number one is Eminem, one of the best recent examples of popular and critical acclaim overlapping.

    It’s still possible for new, fresh, exciting pop art to come out of the world of (actually) popular music. Perhaps Eminem is not your cup of tea, but I dare you to listen to the man (in his prime) rhyme entire sentences and deny he has (had) real talent.

    There’s a demographic side to this: the kids are mostly listening to hip hop and r&b and weekly allowances drive record sales, always have. Sure, young people still listen to rock music (if you count 29 as young, there’s me for instance), but check in on a ‘tween. They’ve got Beyonce on. Maybe Kanye or Outkast–and those dudes also bridge the critical/popular divide–and delightfully. (This last sentence shows just how out of touch and old I am–I’m sure ‘tweens think Outkast is old school.)

    So, how did Nickelback earn its place as the only rock band to crack the hip hop glass ceiling? Maybe rock has just run out of steam. It’s got no new ideas. Look at the most critically acclaimed rock bands that still attain some degree of popularity. For example, The White Stripes. That’s retro rock. Or U2, who’s been around since rock’s last death in the ’80’s. It’s old stuff. The bands you mention are nice for artsy, college, indie types–but they’ll never be world-conquering the way rock once was.

    I think rock has the potential for periodic outbursts of popular excellence–of being what it once was. The last time that happened was when Kurt Cobain merged punk and Revolver. Nevermind knocked Michael Jackson off the number one perch–back then dance music was gobbling the planet. Interesting, and depressing, that the number one selling band of the last decade is one living off the fumes of grunge. I guess because that’s the last time the genre mattered.

    At some point, a new Nirvana may bring real rock back to the masses. But it won’t last long. Like your grandfather after a shower, rock’s been around too long to remain fresh for any extended period of time. Part of that’s the fault of the industrialization and commercialization of music you discuss. But we’re also dealing with a 60-year-old musical genre. Rock has become muzak for the daily commute. It takes a genius like Cobain to give it both relevance and mass appeal anymore. In between those peaks, it must give way to newer artforms that can say something new in a new way to the kids. Or hang on as lowest-common-denominator porridge.

  3. The recording industry put its weight behind Nickelback for the same reason McDonald’s loves J.R. Simplot Co. potatoes: Nickelback steadily produces an undifferentiated, homogeneous, and totally interchangeable product. All of Nickelback’s albums, singles, and live tours are terrible, but they’re all terrible in exactly the same way. Their ossified inability to innovate or develop as a band means they will never surprise their label, and every album can be put through the same by-the-numbers promotional cycle and achieve the same result. Like a russet potato, Nickelback is actually a product of considerable qualities, albeit qualities that appeal to the purveyor rather than the consumer.

    Chad Kroeger probably is a douche in real life but I understand his position. He’s certainly aware that in spite of his ostensible popularity his band (e.g. his life’s work) is reviled not only by critics and dedicated music fans but also by anyone with hearing and taste. His ouevre of melodramatic tripe could be the work of a complete hack, or he might be earnest but crippled by the total absence of talent and imagination. If he’s a soulless tool then it follows he is a douche; if he has a soul then it can’t feel good to be who he is, so perforce he acts like a douche.

  4. I agree that it’s really a statement on the record industry more than anything else. Simply: quality music has outgrown the record industry. The industry knows how to package homogenous quantities like Nickelback, R&B, Rap, and Pop, like EvanSchenck says. The industry does not know how to package anything else. Ergo, nothing else cracks the top record sales.

    However, that does not mean that other acts aren’t successful. They’re performing successful tours and festivals, selling their at events and independent record stores. They’re selling their music online.

    Nickelback’s record sales are like typrewriter sales. The Smith-Corona might be the highest-selling typewriter of the last 50 years, but does that really matter in the digital age? I suppose it matters to Nickelback and the record execs, desperately trying to milk the last bit of money out of CD sales.

    I propose that this is a cruicial point in modern music. The only acts selling CDs in great numbers are lousy, sold-out pop acts. This polarizes; creating a ceiling. What it means is that bands can reach moderate success without “selling out” to industry execs. The only people they have to “sell out” to now are their fans, and their fans’ webpages. Now they just have to not really, really suck.

  5. Weird, so all R&B, rap, and pop is homogeneous by definition? And the only type of music that may ever be described as “quality” is a certain type of rock?

    Man, I thought I was a lame. (The Beatles were pop, btw.)

  6. MikeD – you’ve taken my “some” opinions and turned them into “all”, where they obviously won’t hold water.

    The record industry has successfully genre-typed many popular R&B and Rap artists, and those artists seem to profit from that labeling. “Rock” seems to have grown too large for that single label, requiring additional labels or qualifiers.

    “Pop” as a genre is completely misleading. What does it mean? “Popular”. Is that a genre? Not really. The Beatles were popular. So were the Stones, so was Madonna, so is Lady Gaga. Were they all the same type of music? Absolutely not.

    However, “Pop” music as a label seems to be most easily applied to youth-oriented, unabashedly commercial, dance and vocal, trendy music. So, though “Pop” is not a musical genre per se, what genre label would you give to Britney and Christina? Or the New Kids or Backstreed Boys? I dunno either. Another characteristic of “Pop”–I just typoed it as “Poop”, which is pretty Freudian and awesome–music is that it reflects the trends of the day. The Beatles did it, and so do the artists of today. What that means, however, is that the music of the Beatles and the music of modern Pop artists have little in common, musically.

    Codifying music as “good” vs. “bad”, as “commercial” vs. “artistic”, or as “Pop” vs. “insert genre here”, ends up being an opinion minefield, as you posed to me. Some artists publicly say that this is a “insert genre here” album, and some don’t. Some are okay with genre labels, some hate them. The recording industry seems to do well with music that is easily labeled, because then it has a predetermined market.

    There is quality music everywhere. Some “Pop” music could be defined as “artistic” and “good”, and some is utter dreck. Of course, everyone has differing ideas of what is quality. My tastes happen to align with the author of this blog more often than not. I personally have a harder time appreciating Rap, R&B, and modern Pop–not from lack of trying, though I have found some examples of those genres that I like. I’ve found others that I can acknowledge as talented but I personally don’t care for. I consider myself a musical omnivore, but even an omnivore has some personal tastes.

    So, Mike, though you may consider yourself lame, that’s just the genre-label you’ve ascribed to. :) I can tell by your posts around this blog that you’re not lame, but I would appreciate if you don’t overgeneralize my posts in the future. Or, go right ahead. It’ll spark some fun conversation.

  7. Hey man, oversimplifying someone else’s comment is always a good way to get a reaction :)

    I took it as an overly general statement, and responded with the snark that is the hallmark of my NOT-YET-OLD generation. (Also a great way to get a reaction.) Thanks for clarifying.

    btw, here’s an interesting perspective on what the author calls “rockism.” Not sure exactly how much I agree with the thesis, but I think it was somewhere in the back of my head as I responded to Dan’s post:

  8. MikeD – That’s a good article. I admit to having some rockist tendencies: I respect bands that write their own music and perform their own instruments. I tend to like guitar-driven music, but not exclusively and not in excess.

    Part of my rockist-like feelings come from the thrill of discovery. In the same vein that a hipster jackass will say “I found this band X years before anyone else”, many people take pride in searching out and discovering new music that they like. If we’re too lame to create good music on our own, at least we can find music on our own.

    For example, while in college, Dave Matthews Band was huge. Was it good music? Not too bad. Did I bother buying it? No, because it was everywhere already. I’d rather find local, indie, or other artists on my own. And a lot of them were crap. But every once in a while you find that diamond in the rough that makes music you like and makes you feel special for finding it on your own. Obviously, the hipster jackass example takes that to extremes, just like the snobby Comic Book Store guy on the Simpsons.

    Many people don’t feel this way, obviously. Many people just listen to whatever is on pop radio. Many people are closed off to some genre or another. And many of those people buy CDs, driving up sales of certain artists, like Nickelback.

    Like I said in my first post, I believe the internet is helping erode the hegemony of the record industry. There are less middle-men between the artists and their audiences. Which means better music for us, and (hopefully) more money for the artists.

  9. I love nickelback they are my life i am doing a project on them for school and it would be awesome if you didn’t hate on my home boys ok. GOD YOU DORKS

  10. Your means of explaining everything in this piece of writing is actually fastidious, every one be able to effortlessly know it, Thanks a lot.

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