a response to Tim Jonze’s criticism of Newsnight’s Odd future feature.
Newsnight ran a feature earlier this week that suggested L.A. Hip Hop band Odd Future were puerile and – for all their anti-capitalist and counter-culture talk – a deeply commercial band that financially exploits its fans. Tim Jonze responded to this feature in The Guardian’s G2 supplement. He claimed that the report revealed Stephen Smith, the Newsnight journalist behind the feature, “exposed his deep fear of the band” by using an aloof and mocking tone to describe them.
Jonze’s response ignores the fact that Odd Future come across as vacuous and mainstream, far from the image their fans would portray, but Smith’s feature glossed over the shift fact that Odd Future recognise that making money in the music industry isn’t about the music anymore.
Odd Future present themselves as anti-capitalist and counter culture by the way they make their money: giving away their music for free, instead earning from merchandise sales. As a business plan, I think it’s great. We’ve written in the past that the current method of monetising music is outdated, and labels should be looking at ways to invite fans to spend money on the bands they like without selling music. This is a fine example of a band who’ve cornered their demographic and know exactly how to best promote to them.
Newsnight highlights that this demographic is the middle class teenager. They’ve a disposable income, living at home and either working jobs around their studies or receiving an allowance from their parents. The group appeals because, as one queuing fan interviewed puts it “They don’t care what they say and they get away with it.” There’s something seemingly rebellious about a band who don’t mind swearing before authority, and this is classically appealing to middle class teenagers.
The band use pop-up shops to sell their merchandise, taking over old buildings re-purposing them for the day to sell the Golf Wang line of clothing. On the surface these shops seem daring and exciting, turning up on the day to sell wares out of an old abandoned building. It seems spontaneous and aggressively anti-corporate. This is something that is designed to appeal to their middle class fans, it appears to go against traditional commercialism and it makes use of their full wallets.
By this point, you’ll be noticing that I’m using the words “seem” and “appear” a great deal. This is because despite appearances, this is a very traditional business plan. This is no bad thing, they’re clearly making and selling something their fans want, they’re doing it in a manner that appeals specifically to them, and everyone is happy about the whole situation. For all appearances they may be doing something counter-culture but in practice it’s just a different store front.
(Newsnight focus on the high price of some of the merchandise. In particular, a tie dye t-shirt retailing for £100. Incredulous, yes, but if people are willing to spend that then the group can get away with selling it for that. The online shop sells merchandise at less eyebrow-raising prices.)
The problem only arises that Odd Future themselves don’t seem to accept what they’re doing is straight-up standard business. Talking to Newsnight one of the group’s number, Left Brain, described their method saying “We just pop-up, wherever we at, set-up shop and slang, make our money, we dip. Ain’t nobody taking no taxes from us, no cuts”. Cut to Stephen Smith interviewing Chris Clancy, their manager,“Do Odd Future pay their taxes?” “A hundred per cent, yes.”
Small thing to take issue with it may seem, but it reveals the band’s immaturity. They’ll say anything in interviews that they think will sound provocative. It ties into what that fan said earlier “They don’t care.” They’re a loud front for the label without having integrity or substance. Newsnight make a point of comparing them to Rock music – I don’t know why they side-stepped early Hip Hop – and the outcome is unfavourable. With revolutionary music their is something beneath their lyrics, a powerful message to try and change society. Nothing in the way that Odd Future behaves suggests that they have that same push. You can’t even argue that the band are nihilistic because they don’t promote nothingness, they simply say nothing important.
So, when Tim Jonze says that Newsnight’s depiction of the group is aloof, mocking, and reveals Smith’s fear of “one of the most exciting groups in the world…unruly, dangerous, and unfathomable to the older generation.” he ignores what the feature actually portrays. Far from being unfathomable, Odd Future are shallow and immature. At the front end of things are a group of young rappers who say in interviews that their lyrics are “Shit to piss off old white people”, a group who are going to garner a lot of press exposure and with that more fans, whilst at the back end you’ve a on-the-ball manager that is completely aware of what he’s selling and to who.
For all the noise and bluster of the group I just can’t see what Jonze is suggesting is upsetting the balance of the system. They seem to be just like any other band aimed at teenagers who are excited by swearing and love to spend their parent’s money.