Today’s release of Autobiography by Morrissey on Penguin Classics, normally the home of Chaucer and Milton, is a marketing move comparable to that of another master of pop branding – David Bowie…
There’s an intriguing contest developing this year for best male solo marketer in the pop world. Both contenders are known not just for their musical output, but also their instinctive grasp of image and personal myth-making. While they won’t feature in any awards schemes, they may be the two outstanding examples of creative marketing this year.
The first, and less controversial, of the two entries is the launch campaign for David Bowie’s comeback single Where Are We Now on January 8 this year – the first single from his subsequent album The Next Day.
There are no images to illustrate the launch campaign for the single, because no campaign existed. The idea was not to do one – just quietly put the song out on iTunes and let people discover it. Of course, people did, Twitter went crazy and the press were soon all over it. No 48-sheets, no TV ads, no interviews, no promoted tweets, no social media ‘seeding’ – but wall-to-wall press coverage for days and a rapid rise to the top of the downloads chart.
The fact that it didn’t exist shouldn’t stop this being recognised as one of the marketing campaigns of the year. And the ‘execution’ of this non-existent campaign was a lot harder and more complex than the execution of many existing campaigns. Keeping a secret on that scale for that length of time is a remarkable feat. And it was in keeping with the album that followed, with its anti-album-cover designed by Barnbrook.
Sleeve design of David Bowie’s The Next Day by Barnbrook
Then there’s Morrissey. This is the more controversial of the two contenders because, unlike the Bowie idea, it will antagonise as many people as it impresses. Morrissey reportedly agreed to publish with Penguin on the condition that the book went straight into its Classics range – not even the Modern Classics range, but the hallowed imprint normally associated with translations and reissues of literary giants from Homer to Wordsworth, and more recently Morrissey’s hero Oscar Wilde.
Several commentators have criticised Penguin for debasing its hard-earned reputation for the sake of a cheap PR stunt by a self-obsessed pop star. And it’s not an unreasonable view. Just like his music, the Penguin Classics move will divide people into those who think Morrissey’s demands are childish and vain, and those who see something clever and interesting going on. That’s what makes this such an archetypically Morrissey idea. Whether you admire it or hate it, there’s no denying it’s 100% on brand.
Like the Bowie idea, it’s also one thing to think of it and another to follow it through. Any writer should get a certain sense of satisfaction from seeing an author wielding such power over a publisher. The sheer amount of ego it must have taken to hold those discussions is a thing of wonder. And an incidental point: a side-effect of the Penguin Classics release is that the book has gone straight into relatively cheap paperback – a refreshingly non-commercial move that ought to be supported.
But what if the book is rubbish?
It may well be, but a ‘classic’ book isn’t necessarily a good one – it is one that survives and is read for generations, at the very least on a cult level. For better or worse, we can say that with 99% certainty about Morrissey, who has already achieved in his lifetime the iconic status of a Wilde or indie Elvis – and whose myth, like all myths, is likely to grow after he’s gone.
And it’s worth bearing in mind another possibility – the book may be great. A writer many of whose turns of phrase have already entered the language has at least earned the benefit of the doubt.
Either way, the satisfying thing about this idea is that only Morrissey could have done it. Put Sting on the cover and the idea is simply vain. Put Noel Gallagher on the cover and it’s just a cocky joke. With Morrissey, it’s both and neither. It carries a complex cultural meaning.
The same point could be made about the Bowie idea. In anyone else’s hands, it wouldn’t have the same power. The anti-marketing approach resonates more because it comes from the inventor of Ziggy Stardust. From that brilliantly complex, colourful media creation, Bowie has moved to the opposite end of the scale – a complete blank. Yet both ideas spring from the same postmodern spirit.
Morrissey and Bowie share one last thing in common – their ideas are at once simple and richly subversive. Both challenge the norms of the music and publishing industries – the former run on hype and soulless commodification, the latter run on complacent hierarchies reinforced by cultural prejudice. Both ideas are artistic statements, because they come from the artist themselves – no marketing departments or PR agencies were involved. Despite the jokey title of this post, this is not about marketing the art – it is the art.
It’s hard to choose which of them is the outstanding achievement this year, but maybe it’s wise to reserve judgment – we’re only in October and Olly Murs has been quiet for a while.
Nick Asbury is a freelance writer and one half of creative partnership Asbury & Asbury.