What makes pop music matter? It’s not the creative genius of the artist alone. The delivery of the art, as well as the underlying contextual message, also play a big role.
In early 1963, a band with a new, exciting sound had their music released in America for the first time. Despite their bright instrumentation, tight harmonies, and youthful exuberance, they didn’t click with the listening audience. Radio stations didn’t play them much, the kids that heard them didn’t have much of a reaction, and the record label, the small but successful Vee-Jay Records out of Chicago, just chalked it up as a loss and figured the musical group would soon be forgotten.
Well, they weren’t. Quite the opposite, actually. Who was the band, you ask? It was the Beatles doing their early stuff like Please, Please Me, and the like. In other words, the Fab Four flopped during their first foray into America.
The same year their Vee-Jay singles failed to make a mark, another record label out of Philadelphia, Swan Records, got a chance to distribute the Brit phenoms and issued the single, “She Loves You”, in the Fall of 1963, a song that had already lit up the English charts. This, too, had little impact on the American listening audience. The song failed to chart at any station and was roundly rejected by audiences when it was played. Influential disc jockey “Murray the K” at radio station WINS in New York spun “She Loves You” on 28 September of that year in a five-way “Battle of the Hits” segment. It came in third. He played it on the station every night for a week but got no reaction. America shrugged a second time, and the Beatles bombed again in the promised land.
Despite their immense success in England by this time, all the major US labels turned down the Beatles, including Capitol, Decca, RCA, and Columbia. One of the top music producers working for Capitol Records told the label’s president, who inquired about the band, “Believe me, they’re nothing. Forget it.” This clueless reaction cannot be chalked up to old guys working at an established record company and being out of touch with the youth market. Capitol had been selling teen gold with the Beach Boys since 1962.
This wholesale rejection went down less than a year before the Beatles stormed the beaches of America with great fanfare and performed for nearly every single breathing teenager in the country in March of 1964 on The Ed Sullivan Show. If you think that’s because they didn’t get any real exposure, having been released on several smaller record labels, you might have a point. But what if I told you that the Swan Records release of, ‘She Loves You’ in the Fall of 1963 was featured on the most popular television show at the time for the youth hit parade: Dick Clark’s American Bandstand?
“She Loves You” would soon climb to the pinnacle of the American Top 40 charts, breaking all records. It was featured during American Bandstand’s “Rate a Record” segment, where the studio audience is asked to critique singles from promising new acts. The Beatles did not fare well there either, getting a relatively low score from the assembled teenagers, who would only months later be positively giddy over the band. Indeed, the story goes that the kids in the audience snickered when Dick Clark showed them a photo of the band.
And if you still think this was some sort of aberration, listen to someone who was at the time trying out this new band on the airwaves. Chicago dee-jay Dick Biondi played the local Vee-Jay release of “Please, Please Me” on radio station WLS FM in early 1963. “I didn’t know what to think”, he recalls in a 2014 interview with NPR, “because they were good, and I just played it and I liked it and I got not a lot of good comments, but I didn’t get any bad comments”. Once again, there’s that inexplicable indifference.
Three months later, Biondi took a gig at KRLA in Los Angeles, where he played the Beatles again on air for a West Coast audience. The phones started ringing, and according to Biondi, callers demanded he, “’Take that crap off and play the Beach Boys!'” Surely, an underwhelming response from either side of the country, no matter how you cut it.
How is this possible? Well, you could say the Beatles were ahead of their time, and America wasn’t ready for their groundbreaking sound quite yet. But that doesn’t add up: this was only a few brief months before they took the US market and the whole music world on an unsurpassed musical journey. What is wrong with this picture? Isn’t it the undisputed lore of the Fab Four that, upon hearing this band for the first time, the teen boomer generation had their collective head explode, sending them into the stratosphere of euphoria? Why didn’t that happen initially when American audiences first heard their music? It was certainly a much smaller slice of American youth who had the very first taste of what would soon become a musical juggernaut, but still, purely from a representational sense, the Beatles should have had a positive initial reaction, right? This band and its sound would forever mark the young generation of the era. Why didn’t the magic happen only a few months before their subsequent US explosion?
With this stark example, there is something more at play than meets the eye. It’s not just the quality of the creative expression alone that is critical to attracting appreciative human attention. It may have more to do with the delivery of the art form or, more to the point, the message behind the delivery.
Perhaps we should ask what makes a particular musical piece intrinsically popular. For that matter, what makes anything popular? Folks have been spending a lot of energy trying to figure that out since the advent of the modern consumer culture and the birth of the US advertising industry, known collectively as “Madison Avenue” in the 1920s. There’s a lot at stake when it comes to popularity in any modern capitalistic society since with it comes a huge amount of earning potential.
This all began in earnest right after World War I, when corporate-driven American consumerism took a great leap forward in response to increased production of goods and a new urban population more interconnected by modern media. A man by the name of Edward Bernays became the go-to guy for this new consumerism, becoming, among other things, Madison Avenue’s first advertising consultant. Around this time, the psychological teachings of the Austrian Sigmund Freud were making their way to America, and Bernays was well clued in as he just so happened to be Freud’s American nephew.
Bernays took his uncle’s theories and used them to explore how one could manipulate the masses, especially for commercial purposes. He saw how Freud’s message about hidden human urges could be used to get people to buy more than they needed, which was the key to the new American consumerism in the modern age of mass production. As a student of Freud’s theories, Bernays knew that humans react at a primitive level to the subliminal suggestion underlying a given product or idea, not necessarily the thing itself. Until then, goods were sold on simple transactional terms: you need this thing for what it practically offers you. For example, you’re a farmer who needs a plow, and this business offers durable, efficient plows for cheap. That’s the end of the deal, and with no need for any marketing ploy. With the help of Bernays, the advertiser’s message would soon become less practical and much more complex and nuanced, something like: you need this product because it will fulfill you as a human.
Now, we all know the Beatles arrived on America’s shores with their wild creative genius ready to explode, but nevertheless, it appears that at least in their initial stab at breaking into the country’s music market, they were about to sink if something else wasn’t added to the mix. What were those missing elements that got added to their music in 1964 to ensure teens couldn’t imagine living without this new sound? Much had to do with how their music was ultimately delivered, especially the implications that the marketing approach conveyed to the youth of ’60s America.
In his 2017 book Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in the Age of Distraction, The Atlantic senior editor Derek Thompson posits that for something to become popular, it must have two qualities: First, it must have the right combination of familiarity and newness. The Beatles fit the bill perfectly. Their music was the perfect amalgam of the familiar – American rock and pop matched with a wholly new sound that was created when those idioms were played through the musical prism of Northern England, often referred to as the “Liverpool Sound”. However, according to Thompson, in addition to the right balance of newness and familiarity, the creation must have another key ingredient to reach mass appeal: It must have what he refers to as a unique distribution opportunity that ensures a meteoric rise in societal awareness.
The art must be picked up by some medium that takes it to a significant number of eyes and ears quickly and suddenly to achieve the greatest impact. That is; to ensure creative genius is rewarded with the massive attention it deserves, it must be delivered on a super-effective platform. But wouldn’t Dick Clark featuring a band’s tune on American Bandstand to millions of adolescents watching their TVs in 1963 have done the trick? Wasn’t that an adequate platform for immediate positive mass reaction? Why did it all fall into place by the time they played on The Ed Sullivan Show and not six months earlier on American Bandstand?
Why did the kids hesitate and even laugh at the Beatles upon first hearing their incredible sound on a popular TV show that was designed to increase new music’s exposure to an appreciative audience exponentially? Perhaps because nothing accompanied the Beatle’s American debut (e.g., an album, a live performance) as they initially appeared on television. Remember, American Bandstand’s Rate-a-Record segment brought new music to the forefront but did so in a neutral fashion; Dick Clark played a segment from their single release, “She Loves You”, along with some other new band’s singles and asked the studio audience for their thoughts: here’s a new song by a group, Whaddaya think? You decide. Left up to the audience, both in the studio and watching from home, and without any hype, they chose to doubt it as legit or worthy of their attention.
Something was still missing from the equation at that moment of the Beatles’ stillbirth in America. One more key factor has to do with what that advertising genius, Edward Bernays, learned from Freud’s lessons on how people’s psyche works at a deep level: The creative work must be delivered with a message that resonates like no other with the consumer. So, let’s focus now on the unique delivery model employed when the Beatles finally hit paydirt in America in 1964.
While the Beatles were flopping on Vee-Jay and Swan records, their intrepid British manager, Brian Epstein, was trying to lay a better groundwork for their American reinvasion. Despite the lack of interest, he was still trying to sell them to a much bigger record company, and he had his sights on Capitol, which had already declined the band four separate times.
By this time, Corporate America had already monetized rock ‘n’ roll as the soundtrack to the highly lucrative teen market. They already viewed these musical groups as commodities, and they were very important as they appealed to the newly affluent youth consumer base that was fast becoming a great wealth maker for American businesses. But in the Beatles’ case, the band that Epstein was pushing was only popular in Europe then, and their initial release in the States had not gotten impressive results. In the early ‘60s, before the eventual British Invasion wrought by the Beatles, rock ‘n’ roll was viewed as a uniquely American genre, and purveyors beyond its shores boundaries were suspect.
Nevertheless, in December 1963, Brian Epstein finally convinced Capitol Records to see the light and sign the act, committing $40k for promotion. That’s $300k in today’s dollars, an unheard-of amount of money at the time to promote an unknown pop act from a foreign country. But the sudden U-turn and hefty backing is fully attributable to one man, the head of Capitol, Alan Livingston. He alone was finally willing to take a risk with the Beatles after being informed by his management experts that this wasn’t a band to bet on.
Beyond his prescient call to throw the dice on an unknown foreign act that had already bombed in the States, Livingston’s most impressive move was the experimental campaign that he hatched for the Beatles, a unique Hail Mary promo stunt that would have made P.T. Barnum blush. Similar campaigns for pop acts and other teen commodities were common at the time, but Livingston’s promotional blitz broke new ground in a host of ways. Capitol launched a campaign like nothing any record company had ever done before. It played on the strongest, most primal urges of modern youth in post-war America, taking its message directly to the kids on the streets and in their hometowns.
In those days, marketing efforts of this sort were directed at the industry level and not the consumer. Livingston changed all that with his big Beatles push at the end of 1963. For example, Capitol salesmen were provided rolls of stickers with the words “The Beatles are Coming” and depicting only the Beatles’ four hairstyles.
Livingston instructed his staff to place the stickers “anywhere and everywhere they can be seen; on any friendly surface as you walk down the street”, with the goal to create buzz and mystery over the sudden arrival of something new and exciting. Capitol also concocted a made-up tabloid newspaper covering the Beatles in depth. All of this paraphernalia was not only pushed out to record stores and dee-jays in major markets across the country but the nationwide Capitol sales force was also instructed to provide these promotional items directly to local high school students, urging them to hand them out to their friends.
This particular promotional technique, later called “street team” campaigns, became common with hip-hop in the early ’90s. But in the ’60s, it was cutting-edge to ask teens across America to put the word out on the streets at their level instead of promoting from above through traditional media marketing. It was a genius method because it gave the crucial appearance that kids were discovering something important on their own, greatly increasing the message’s credibility.
The fake Beatles interviews promo was another salient and novel aspect of the campaign. Capitol provided dee-jays in every market, large or small, with interview scripts and discs with pre-recorded responses by individual members of the Band. The discs contained no questions, only the Beatles’ answers, allowing local DJs to pretend they were conducting their own live interviews with the band members. The Beatles seemingly appeared live on every mom-and-pop radio station in every town in America that was willing to participate in the stunt.
Again, all this created a delivery platform that pushed the new band out to the entire country everywhere at once while giving the ironic impression that they were being discovered at the grassroots level. Folks thought this obscure band from a distant land was appearing in person in their own neck of the woods and that they were thus a local discovery, belonging to a select few who had come into “the know” about this new exciting pop act.
Let’s recall what Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays taught us about the secret sauce of popularity: you need to promote the product in a way so that what is intimated resonates with the deepest inner psyche of the consumer. Your offering must seem to ensure the consumer’s life will be complete if they buy what you’re selling.
In the world of almost any young person who is transitioning from childhood, there is a core desire to belong, to not only be accepted by one’s peers but also respected for who they are and, more importantly, what they’re into. Being left out of the “in crowd” is almost like death in the minds of youth. The main path to that teenage nirvana state is to be perceived as being hip to the latest thing, being viewed as “cool”, and not being behind the times: What you wear, how you talk, and what you talk about and know about is critical to reaching this state. To be the first kid on the block or in your town who was hip to the latest thing was golden, and it still is. So, just imagine being amongst the first kids in town to “discover” the Beatles, even if it was only a perception.
Livingston’s approach to how Americans would likely first learn of the Beatles made the experience seem more of a local if not individual, one. You might have first heard of them from a peer at school or your local radio station instead of a national campaign on television or in magazines. It made the revelation more personal and increased the perception that you and only a few other kids shared the secret of this band’s arrival in America. It struck a nerve at the core of an ever more affluent and independent American post-war youth. A boomer consumer base was beginning to reach its apogee in dictating its teenage tastes to an adult world interested in tapping it for profit. That this miracle musical discovery was from a place where seemingly nothing remarkable came from – Great Britain, of all places – made it all the more rare and compelling.
This individualized discovery of the pop phenomenon that was the Beatles resonated with youth because the subliminal suggestion that accompanied the infectious music was so powerful that if you, as a new young consumer, grab onto this sound and make it your own soundtrack in life, it will improve your lot in the world of an American teenager. This winning message did not accompany the Beatle’s music until Capitol’s re-invasion campaign in early 1964. Only when that happened did the combination immediately win over the nation’s young demographic in a matter of weeks.
I don’t mean to discount the talent and charisma of the Beatles. But to understand popularity at that level, and the popular sensation attributed to this group was like no other in modern times, you must look beyond mere creativity and powerful presentation. The product of the master artist must arrive on the right delivery platform to ensure its sudden and ubiquitous presence. But equally important, it must arrive with just the right subliminal message that resonates in the psyche of its mass audience. If any elements are missing, the arrival of even the most remarkable artist may flounder, just another beautiful flower blooming in the desert at night and withering by morning light. Remember, the Beatles’ earlier releases in 1963: same songs, same talent, same performance, same exuberance, and star power…all lying in the discount record bin by year’s end.
Enough similar phenomena have occurred in pop music to prove that the Beatles’ initial experience in America was not a fluke. For example, silence was the only sound Simon and Garfunkel heard regarding charting success upon the release of their first album in 1964. So, they threw in the towel and broke up. But over the next several years, their song off that album, “The Sound of Silence”, became famous. Once their original acoustic version was overlayed with a rock rhythm section, something done unbeknownst to the duo by a dabbling label producer, and then coupled with the opening credits of Mike Nichols’ groundbreaking 1967 film, The Graduate, “The Sound of Silence” became an instant folk-rock classic.
As with the Beatles’ “She Loves You”, it took a while and significant changes in its delivery for the message to sink in that this new folk-rock number, “The Sound of Silence”, bespoke an entire generation’s feelings of alienation. All this is to say that there is more than meets the eyes and ears when it comes to popular American music. There’s a magical science at play in both the realization of human creativity as well as its ability to resonate with the public. Of course, if the winning formula were obvious, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.
Curtis, Adam. “The Century of the Self – Part 1 Happiness Machines“. YouTube. (n.d.)
Greenberg, Steve. “How the Beatles Went Viral”. Billboard. 7 February 2014.
Ingles, Paul. “The Beatles’ Yearlong Journey to ‘The Ed Sullivan Show‘”. NPR. 7 February 2014.
James, Gary. “Interview with Capitol Records President Alan Livingston”. www.classicbands.com (n.d.)
“She Loves You“. Beatlesbooks.com (n.d.)
“The Beatles and American Bandstand“. MeetTheBeatlesForReal. (n.d.)
Thompson, Derick. Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in the Age of Distraction. Penguin. February 2017.