Wednesday, May 1, 2013

As a Business Proposition

In the world of business, each company has their narrative, which is sometimes presented as a "Business Case".  Not that anyone can reduce it to a formula, but if one were to look at the phenomena from a purely business strategy standpoint, there are a lot of pioneering moves and ever-evolving results.  Let's attempt an analysis here.

A Solid Brand
In the early days of radio, there was a huge question, Why would people buy sheet music/records if they could just turn on the radio and have music?  The market/audience has room for a wide variety of ways to consume music. The Payola scandal of the 1950's had exploited that very idea, that exposure increases sales.

"The Monkees" was designed to bring a huge synergy of dominant market forces together.  The brand was established as a TV show with music, the advertising and exposure of the television show increasing record sales, and vice versa.  It hit the segment of the teen/pre-teen public who were not old enough for the Beatles, but had witnessed their older sisters and brothers raving.
Additionally, it had the advantage of being produced/directed by Raybert (Bob Rafelson & Bert Schneider), who occupied the ideal age, having just enough experience yet being part of the "Young Generation".  Both born in 1933, they had just over 3 decades of life experience in 1965, when the series went from conception to casting.  They would be the ones to help shape the generation that would soon not trust anyone over 30.
The fact that they came from a well-endowed entertainment lineage didn't hurt their aspirations either.  Schneider's father was the President of Columbia Pictures and Rafelson's uncle wrote the original story for what would become the first sound film, "The Jazz Singer".
To add to this mix, they made sure to hire the "Man with the Golden Ear", Don Kirschner.  He brought on a stable of young songwriters from NY's Brill Building, Boyce & Hart, Carole King & Gerry Goffin, Neil Diamond.  ("I'm a Believer")

The TV series spawned 57 episodes and won 2 Emmys in 1967. That year, in terms of record sales, they outsold both the Beatles and Rolling Stones.  Sponsors ranging from Kelloggs to JC Penny to Yardley Soap and Fragrance made the network happy, which in turn allowed more money to flow into the production. Sold out tours, untold (literally) amounts of money, countless interviews and teen magazines rode the wave of success.  Fully exploited merchandizing in terms of records, toys, magazines, etc. returned only a small percentage to the actual performers who belong to the visages appearing on the lunchboxes.  Once they hit, they hit big, saturating the market and turning everything they touched to gold.  For 2 years.

The Quality of the TV Show and Music
Oh, and by the way, all of the elements listed above attracting the best talents in the business actually led to improved output.
Compare the TV series to others on at the time.  "I Dream of Jeannie", "Bewitched", "Gilligan's Island". Plots recycled from the beginning of sitcoms, a group of friends getting in trouble and out within 22 minutes.

But the show has something different. The characters talk to the camera, breaking the 4th wall. There is NO authority figure on the show; these "kids" report to no one.
A better comparison is to another series, which is more self-aware, "The Simpsons".  Not just in terms of sheer jokes-per-minute, but in self awareness.  By the second season, Micky, one of the actor/performers wrote "Randy Scouse Git", which can lyrically and musically stand next to any other song of the 60's, especially striking in its use of metonymy.

The Premature Death
After the series failed to get signed on for another season, and the failure of the movie, and the shooting (failure) of the first of 3 scheduled TV specials (the others were never even shot), Peter left.  They continued to record and perform as a threesome, but eventually Mike left the sinking ship.  As Davy said, "Suddenly, it was like 'Hey, Hey, I'm a Monkee'."

Either it can be seen as a slow death by poison, each element building to destroy the whole.  Or, relatively, when compared to someone like Elvis, who continued on way past prime, the ending came relatively swiftly. Raybert is the ultimate murderer, pulling production focus from the lucrative show into what they had seen as the "real" goal, "Easy Rider".  Jack Nicholson and Raybert would go on to remake Hollywood in the image of the auteur.  Causing a revolution in the Studio system, much as students causing revolts in NYC and Paris.

As yet another martyr of the 1960's (see also Marilyn Monroe, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, etc.), the Monkees seemed all that more iconic and beloved for NOT growing old with the population.  It was a brand, essentially preserved in amber (or in the metaphor of their 1986 video, "Heart and Soul", on ice), their entire oeuvre remaining intact.  The actors had essentially disappeared from the scene, except for a guest spot on "The Bracy Bunch", where Marsha gets Davy Jones to sing at her prom.  By the time of that airing, most of the original pre-teen audience had moved on to other heroes.  The shelf life of any teen-idol is 3 years maximum.

Success of Reunion Tours
The recordings and TV series was originally delivered over the airwaves, and continued in that same medium sporadically, reaching new audiences.  Personally, I am a Second Generation Fan, which means I was initiated through reruns; for others most significantly was the MTV Marathon (2/23/86).  It accompanied a tour that year, which was ranked among one of the most successful tours that year.  Touring continued sporadically and their most recent full tour was ranked #20 by Pollstar in terms of revenue of all 2012 American Tours.  A 2013 tour (including 24 dates as of this writing) has been announced and other world markets may be on hand in the foreseeable future.  The 50th Anniversary is still 3 years away, and if the recent tours are any indication, it is something to look forward to.

Overall, the brand's initial product (TV & Music) does not age and is preserved for future generations of fans to discover.  The comedy is not topical or political, unlike "Laugh In" (which does not survive in rerun format).  However, the show and music contains repeated references to American Pop Culture, mostly of the 1960's, but also of previous eras.  It helps to flesh out the "60's Scene" and provides a friendly bootstrap into the history of the era.  By turning to the camera, the characters break through the television screen and into the world of future generations.  Long after the original members and fans have passed, the brand will continue to embed itself into the hearts of generations to come.

Other bands or tv shows may be considered more "respected" or "genuine", but The Monkees did the one thing the others did not.  Bring their fans into their world, or at least they created the illusion of doing so.  And if the tv show and music was not their literal world, warts and all, like in the movie, "Head"; the illusion was of universal fantasy, a detailed record of more innocent times, great music and  having a strong group of friends around to bail you out of any emergency.

No business model can successfully capture lightning in a bottle repeatedly, nor has any other band managed to capture this emotion on so many sensory levels.

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