Monday, April 25, 2016

Single-Malt Fixies

We like to think we are unique and different, so it pains us when you realize that what we thought were our own unique ideas were merely trends we were following.

I was on a website the other day and the question was "which bands have famously 'sold out' and when?"  What followed was an entirely pretentious discussion by self-appointed music experts (many such as myself who could barely play an instrument, much less carry a tune) opining about how such-and-such a band was the shits before they went "mainstream" and became "more accessible."   Only the purists could appreciate their early work, when they were playing in Mom's garage!

It was so hilarious and it reminded me of the Portlandia sketch above - people falling all over each other trying to out-hipster each other.   "I was drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon before it was ironic!" they say, or "I was doing the grunge look before it was grunge!"

The reality is, of course, that there are very few style leaders out there, and most new styles are adopted perhaps by accident.   Consider for example, the fixed-gear "fixie" bicycle.   They originally were based on racing bikes that had no brakes and no freewheel.   Dangerous as hell, they were rarely driven on the streets, particularly in hilly areas.

How did they become a thing?  I was in Charleston, South Carolina last week, and there were fixies locked to nearly every streetlamp, parking meter, and fire hydrant.   No shortage of people trying to look cool!

Of course, the trend is quite a few years old - it may be "over" already.   And no doubt it was started by someone out of necessity.  Either they found an old racing bike at a garage sale, or like most fixie owners, made their own out of clapped-out Schwinn 10-speed and some cans of spray paint and pink handlebar wrap from Wal-Mart (intended, no doubt, for some 10-year-old's My Pretty Pony sidewalk bike).   In fact, those home-made stripped-down fixies are the most interesting, as they represent a form of primitive folk art and craftsmanship.   The best elements of style are those created on a budget.  People who buy their way in are far less interesting.

The fixies I saw in Charleston were all store-bought with expensive carbon-fiber rims and fancy paint jobs.  So the trend has gone upscale, and no doubt they are now selling them to old people with the reversible hubs permanently in "freewheel" mode and of course a discrete front brake installed.   That's no fun, is it?

They have even made their way to the trailer park - WalMart now sells fixies - or did for a while anyway.

If they are sold at Wal-Mart, they are officially "over".  Yet they still sell, at the boutique bike shops, but now to 40-something Moms who want to be hip and trendy and can afford to drop $1000 or more on a bike.

So who were really the original fixie aficionados?   Well, we may never know.  But there had to be one guy or maybe one girl who started this craze.  Everyone after him or her was just a copycat.  The idea that you are a "purist" or whatever is sort of flawed.  Because so long as the idea did not originate in your brain it really wasn't yours.

Adult coloring books?  You didn't invent that -even if you are a big fan.   Microbrews?  Cage-Free Eggs?  Buying Local?  Single-source free-trade coffee?  Cigars?  Bowling Shirts? Hookahs?  None of this is yours, even if you think you own it or discovered it.

And this goes double or triple for your favorite band or rap group.   You may think you are all that by being "into" some obscure form of music, but unless you composed it, arranged it, and played it, you are just a johnny-come-lately who is following a fad.

That is why lamenting that a band "sold out" is nonsense.   They just became more popular and play what people want to hear - and now have access to better studio and personnel.   What pisses you off isn't that they changed their music, but that you no longer have bragging rights about knowing an obscure band.   All you can say now, with a pathetic pout, is that you knew them back when...... which really isn't much of an accomplishment, is it?

It gets right back to fandom - which is a form of loserdom.   If you are going to set up your personal identity based on brand choices, I feel very sorry for you.

And as you can see with the fixie example, the powers-that-be are very much onto these emerging trends.   It didn't take but a few years for Wal-Mart to jump on the fixie trend.   They aren't blind.   They have people who go out and trend-spot for things that will be years in the making.

So you think that your choice of Pabst Blue Ribbon is some ironic statement, but chances are, the proliferation of that brand among certain sectors was a planned marketing event.  They just made you feel like you discovered it, is all.

Because if you feel you are being sold something you tend to react negatively and retreat.   But if they can get you to think you discovered something - like an Easter egg - you take possession of it and hold it close to your breast.

And we all do this.  You do it.  I do it.   We "find" a bottle of wine on the store shelf and try it and like it.  And before you know it, "old vine zinfandel" becomes a mainstream thing.   And I was drinking it before it was hip!  Yea, right.   How do you suppose it got on the shelves in the first place?   Not by accident, I can assure you.

I have posted e-mails here from companies who blatantly said they would pay me cash money (is there any other kind?) if I would just write a blog entry praising their product.   Viral videos are created so that we will think we "discovered" a video and then like the product.  "Brand Ambassadors" are used to promote brands on college campuses and in bars - I kid you not!  Your classmate, when he recommends a new obscure liquor for you to try (and maybe even gives you a free sample!) might be getting paid to do so.  Even I was knighted "brand ambassador" for a brand of Whiskey - and buried in free swag.

I recently went to a whiskey-tasting here on the island.  It was interesting to try different whiskeys and scotches from distilleries I hadn't heard of (and a few I had).   What was fascinating is that under Georgia law, they could not sell their products at the tasting.   So these companies paid to set up booths to give away free booze.  Why?

Brand awareness.   If you can get even one or two people to remember the name of your brand, they will see that brand later on in the liquor store, have warm memories of the free samples and then buy your product.   Better yet, they may recommend it to a friend.  Word of mouth is the most powerful form of marketing.  Sometimes you don't need to cram an idea down someone's throat with a catchy jingle and a loud 30-second ad.  All you need to do is plant the idea in their head, very casually.

So, we think we have "discovered" a new wine or beer or product and crow about it to our friends.  Of course, we didn't create these things, we only bought them.   And when these products seem special and unique, well, we tend to think of ourselves as special and unique.   When everyone else follows suit, we get pissed off.

Why do you think iPhone sales are slackening?   Well, in the early days, having an iPhone with that Apple logo was a big deal - particularly if you could flaunt it in front of someone with last year's Motorola razor phone or whatever.  Lamers!  They don't have the cutting edge phone!

But when everyone has one, what can you do?   You can upgrade to a fancier phone, I guess, but since they all look alike from a distance and come in varying sizes, no one will really know.  Phone makers need to put tail fins on these things!  (and later take them off of course, to sell even more!).  The key of course, is to let the consumer "discover" these new designs and feel special and different - that is until the rest of the plebes jump on the bandwagon.

We see this all the time with cars.   There are a lot of people out there - a LOT - who will buy a brand-new car from a dealer and pay top price, just so they can be the first on the block with the new version.   Recently, Chevrolet introduced a radically new Corvette, and a lot of folks shelled out big bucks to have the newest version.   You wonder how the guy who bought the last of the old version felt, right?

But of course, car makers know all about this, which is why after 2-3 years, they come out with special editions and higher performance models, so a new generation of buyers can also feel special and unique.

The joke is, of course, that often the last year of production for any given car model is the most reliable and best example of the breed.   The early adopters face the "bleeding edge" technology phenomenon, having to act as beta testers for manufacturers.  Some folks wear these scars as badges of courage.  "Yea, I bought a Tesla.  First one off the line.   Been in the shop 200 days the last year alone.   But that's the price you pay when you're a high-tech guy like me!"  He is the world's most interesting man.

Anyway, that's what I take away from people claiming a band has "sold out" to the man.  They didn't sell out, they just have a recording contract, access to better studio equipment, and most importantly, a really good producer and recording engineer (who really makes the records).   The raw "yea yea yea" music of the Beatles gave way to more finished compositions thanks to George Martin.  You can try to convince me that you are a connoisseur of their work because you listen to bootleg recordings of their Hamburg gigs, but frankly, no sale.

It is just posturing, plain and simple.  And we all do it, too!