Finding Sugar Man

Finding Sugar Man

I wasn’t surprised to see that the documentary Searching for Sugar Man picked up a gong at this year’s BAFTA awards. If you haven’t seen it, Searching for Sugar Man is the story of the folk-rock protest singer Rodriguez who is as much of an enigma today as he was back in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. It’s a true story of immense talent and missed opportunities.

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At the time Rodriguez was hailed (prematurely as it turns out) as the finest recording artist of his generation. After a string of rousing social and political songs (in the style of Bob Dylan) on two albums that spectacularly failed to sell in North America, his record label unceremoniously dumped him. He disappeared into oblivion and all but gave up on his music career, turning instead to manual labour as a means to support his young family.

Curiously, he did enjoy some success here in Australia and in South Africa in the twilight years of the apartheid-era. Indeed in the late 1970s in South Africa he became as popular as the Rolling Stones or the Beatles. There, his disappearance from the rock scene took on mythic proportions. Remember, there was no web then, and South Africa was exiled from the West. Bootleg recordings of his prophetic songs stirred a generation of progressive white liberals. I grew up in South Africa and remember that when his albums were released there – every household had his first album “Cold Fact”.  In fact this album went Platinum, though Rodrigues was wholly unaware of his success and never received a dime in royalties from the sales.

Controversial lyrics

Listen to his soulful music today and it truly beggars belief that his music failed to sell. Even forty years after they were written, these songs resonate and stand up to the test of time. While some of his lyrics would have been considered more than a little controversial (especially in conservative South Africa) and unsuitable for general airplay, surely this would not have been a disadvantage. For teenagers and college kids, then and now, any whiff of controversy, or a general air of anti-establishment usually spells a sure fire recipe for success. This formula certainly didn’t stop the ballads of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez et al being purchased in their millions. 

So considering there was a large market for Rodriguez’s style of music, and the songs are generally very good, (and were certainly risqu√©, and ahead of their time), we must assume that the record label failed to engage with consumers through the right channels of the day. Of course there were no websites, social media or YouTube, but a tried and tested formula to create media coverage, gain radio airplay, tastemaker support and gig bookings. But this just didn’t work.

It wasn’t until fans in South Africa, trying to verify rumours of his death, tracked him down through the web that the resurrection of his career began.

When you think about Rodriguez’s story in today’s terms, I don’t think we’ll ever see another quite like it.

Gotye’s Grammy-winning song “Somebody That I Used to Know” was no overnight success. It first became popular after being shared on social networks rather than from the more conventional airplay and promotion.

Something as unfathomable as Psy’s Gangnam Style which has driven more than one billion views on YouTube gained exposure from being shared on social networks, again not from mass media airplay.

The world wide web of course changed everything. Indeed, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the web, was in Sydney last week to wrap up his five city tour of Australia and New Zealand. While he did hint that the web was just part of an elaborate plan to disseminate cat pictures and videos around the globe, his invention has of course become much bigger than that!

Radical transformation

The music industry is not alone in being radically transformed by the invention of the web. As marketers, we can all learn from this industry’s public, painful, but eventually thriving transformation and rethink how we engage with our customers. Rethink your delivery mechanisms, charm and interact with your customers across a broad range of channels, and use mobile to keep connected with your customers any time anywhere. Remember your customers are individuals with diverse likes and dislikes who have a wealth of media options available to them to satisfy their curiosity and tastes. As social marketing evolves and further fragments the media landscape– using the right mix of technology, platforms and channels to connect, monitor, analyze, and engage your customers at different stages of the customer journey is more crucial than ever.

Fans of Rodriguez finally caught up with him via the web. His resurrection will surely be complete with widespread recognition in the US. While I’m not predicting video downloads of Rodriguez’s undemonstrative stage demeanour will reach the same heady heights as Psy’s Gangnam Style, there’s no doubting that the web has allowed us to uncover his immense talent.

Simon van Wyk is the founder of HotHouse.