“Beatles Bomb on TV.”
Those were the words the New York Herald Tribune used in dismissing the historic appearance of the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show February 9, 1964. Yes, it’s hard to believe, but the Herald Tribune completely scoffed at one of the most famous moments in television history, which is widely regarded as ground zero for the launch of Beatlemania in the United States. Fifty years later, news media ranging from Rolling Stone to Late Night with David Letterman are celebrating that fabled night when 40 percent of the entire United States was glued to their television sets and willingly acquiesced to the music, charisma, and energy of John, Paul, George, and Ringo. But as I noted in a new presentation I’ve uploaded to SlideShare, Five Lessons Musicians Can Learn from Beatlemania, the Beatles had to endure their share of rejection and scorn from the mainstream news media even as the American record-buying public was embracing them. The band’s ability to rise above the critics and win over the influencers is one of the lessons I believe today’s artists can learn from Beatlemania.
To be sure, by early 1964, the Beatles were already the most popular act in their native United Kingdom and were rapidly ascending in the United States, thanks to the power of their single, “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” But mainstream influencers simply did not understand them — neither their music (which was too different and too loud), their appearance (their hair was just too long), nor their adoring fans (who were too emotional and devoted). After all, only one month before the Beatles arrived, the Number One song in the United States was “Dominique” by the Singing Nun. And then along came the Beatles, brimming with sex appeal, to sing “All My Loving” on Ed Sullivan. The Herald Tribune was not the only doubter. “Visually, they are a nightmare . . . musically, they are a near disaster,” scoffed Newsweek. “America had better take thought as to how it will deal with the invasion . . . Indeed a restrained ‘Beatles go home’ might be just the thing,” reacted the Baltimore Sun to Beatlemania.
The Beatles didn’t simply endure critics: they won them over. From the start, they always understood how to charm and wow the influencers who were so critical to building their fan base. In their home country, they famously charmed the Royal Family in a Royal Command Performance in November 1963 even though they resented the experience. Once they hit the States in 1964, they swallowed their pride and bantered good-naturedly with journalists who greeted them with condescending questions about their hair and depth of their musical talent.
Their ability to joke and answer questions with witty replies gave journalists just what they needed: good copy. After the band conducted a “meet the Beatles” press conference upon traveling to New York in January 1964, Beatles photographer Dezo Hoffman wrote, “Two hundred hard-boiled reporters who’d come to destroy the Beatles ended up adoring them.” The band also understood how to charm all the other important influencers who would be so instrumental in exposing their brand to a larger audience. They played nice with Ed Sullivan and played by his rules (as opposed to the Doors, who three years later would open disrespect Sullivan on his own show). They took under their wing New York disc jockey Murray the K, who became such an important early champion of the group that he became known as the fifth Beatle (a title that would be shared by others, too).
Today’s artists have it even worse because they receive criticism from all sides: the professional critics, fans on social media, self-appointed pundits from the blogosphere (like me), and each other. Taylor Swift can certainly attest to this reality. She’s been pilloried by industry authority Bob Lefsetz, mocked by bloggers such as Perez Hilton, and roasted by Tina Fey. Of course, she famously endured Kanye West’s ungracious public dissed her at the VMAs in 2009. Whether she invites criticism through her actions and words is another matter. What’s important is that she simply keeps focused on recording music, winning awards, and building her brand to the tune of earning $55 million in 2013. Not bad for someone who knows something about backlash.
But musicians today also have the means to court influencers directly through many media platforms, including, of course, social media. And musicians have access to a new set of powerful influencers beyond mainstream and social media pundits: brands. The music-savvy companies like Coca-Colas Pepsi, Samsung, and Harley Davidson can give musicians a new global platform to expand their audience base through sponsorships and co-branding relationships. For instance, Kid Rock and Harley-Davidson agreed o offer limited-edition, co-branded Rebel Soul merchandise featuring a line coined by Kid Rock: “I can’t hear you over the rumble of my freedom.” As part of the relationship, Kid Rock also performed at the Harley-Davidson 110th Anniversary Celebration in September 2013.
The music industry has changed dramatically since in 1964. But bands can still learn many lessons from Beatlemania. If you are ushering in a fresh new sound like the Beatles did, you can expect resistance from those who cling to the status quo. The critics will scoff at you. But you also have a voice and the means to create your own media and build influence.