This is the third of three posts on this topic. The first two posts were
How Leonard Cohen’s Old Ideas Made The Hit Parade
The two preceding posts in this series established the following:
1. Old Ideas hit the top of the charts: Leonard Cohen’s newly released album, Old Ideas, found comfortable lodging in such prestigious addresses as #1, #2, and #3 in the sales charts throughout the US, Canada, Europe, and Australia.1 Whether Old Ideas is only shacking up in these notoriously hip and trendy neighborhoods for a week or two or is able to commit to a longer stay, it is certain that this visit has proved a rewarding one for Leonard Cohen, his management, his record company, and his fans.
While Leonard Cohen’s music has previously enjoyed isolated pockets of popularity (e.g., Leonard Cohen has always been big in Norway), the widespread sales success of Old Ideas is unprecedented.
2. Marketing Leonard Cohen has not been a priority in the past: Historically, the marketing support expended by Cohen’s record company has, at least according to the Canadian singer-songwriter’s own testimony, ranged between abandonment and benign neglect. Cohen’s promotional efforts in his own behalf have been only marginally more effective.2
3. The music industry has changed so dramatically that quantitatively comparing Old Ideas sales to sales of Cohen’s previous albums is difficult, if possible at all: In the past decade, the economics and, consequently, the mechanics, goals, and methodologies of the pop music business have altered so dramatically that making precise distinctions between the marketing and sales of Old Ideas and earlier Cohen albums would require complex and arduous calculations; for practical purposes, quantifying the variations in popularity and sales of Old Ideas via-a-vis its predecessors is impossible.3
That changes are impossible to quantify, however, does not mean it is impossible to judge that a change has taken place. A perpetual preoccupation of sportswriters and fans is comparing teams (e.g., 1985 Bears VS 1962 Packers) or individual players (e.g., Kareem Abdul-Jabbar VS Michaels Jordan) who may have played shorter or longer schedules, against tougher or lesser competition, under different rules, … . Clearly, such calculations are precarious and undependable. On the other hand, it is intuitively clear that the Chicago Bulls with Michael Jordan, a NBA powerhouse winning six championships in eight years in the 1990s, were far more successful than the pre-Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, regardless of any changes in the game during those years.
Similarly, the gross comparisons between the sales of Old Ideas VS Cohen’s earlier work permits no conclusion other than Old Ideas is more successful.
The question is …
Why Did The Old Ideas Release Meet With Such Success?
Or, for the sports fans in the audience, what is the Michael Jordan factor in the case of Old Ideas? Let’s consider the usual suspects.
The Record Company’s Vigorous Promotional Support (Finally)
Given Cohen’s previous complaints about his record company and the current self-congratulatory press releases put out by the company, it is tempting to attribute the improved sales to an all-out corporate marketing effort. Unburdened by any inside information about the marketing strategies employed to promote Old Ideas or earlier albums, I can freely speculate on what I’ve observed.
SONY also, one assumes, had a hand in the arrangements that led to the New Yorker printing the poem, “Going Home.”4 and streaming the song “Going Home,” NPR, The Guardian, and other sites streaming the entire album, 5
That impressive billboard in Times Square was the work of SONY or Cohen’s own management. Several stores, newspapers, magazines, and radio stations ran contests associated with the Old Ideas release.6 A covers project, Old Ideas with New Friends, has featured “a handful of today’s artists [who] have recorded a cover of their favorite Leonard Cohen song,” apparently in the belief that a new generation of music lovers can be lured into listening to Leonard Cohen’s songs by channeling them through “today’s artists,” a tactic not unlike smothering broccoli in cheese sauce to make it palatable for the kids. And, there have been print and television ads.
This promotional effort, however, hardly saturates the market. No television or print ad has, for example, crossed my own field of vision in Durham, North Carolina. Moreover, such ads are rare enough worldwide such that LeonardCohenForum members who do sight one of these elusive specimens are moved to post them on site in tones of wonderment.
In short, while I find that Times Square billboard downright inspirational, one billboard doth not a marketing campaign make.
Further, a company intently focused on moving product does not muck around with the most devoted Leonard Cohen fans, those willing to pre-order the Old Ideas CD (at the highest price) in order to claim an “instant download of ‘Show Me The Place.” only to find that (1) SONY was also streaming “Show Me The Place” on Soundcloud for with a handy free download link and (2) more than a few of these pre-ordered CDs arrived a week or more after the release date. These and similar issues are discussed on a six page LeonardCohenForum thread with the misleadingly innocuous title, “Gotten your pre-order CD yet?,” which includes this indicator of these fans’ feelings.
Similar complaints have been posted on other sites, my personal favorite of which is the subtly named This crap is why people infringe copyright.
Overall, I rate the marketing campaign improved over past efforts but hardly sufficient to explain the album’s sales peaks.
Leonard Cohen’s Own Marketing Of Old Ideas
Leonard Cohen gave at least a couple of magazines, notably with Sylvie Simmons for MOJO and with Andy Greene for Rolling Stone. And, he did show up at Old Ideas events in Paris, London, New York, and Los Angeles, patiently answered questions from fan and the professional press, signed autographs, trotted out some of his best, most rehearsed bits, and behaved with extraordinary graciousness.
Cohen has, of course, given interviews in conjunction with the release of his albums in the past. My impression, however, is that while he actually gave more interviews in the past, those were mostly one on one seasons, the content of which often ranged far afield from the ostensible topic of the album being released and included provocative stances. Those events he completed in the recent weeks were more focused on the album, involved more people, and were marked by a uniformly cooperative, albeit far from pandering, performance.
Finally, I would call attention to the album art, which Cohen has and continues to control personally. However one evaluates the artistic merits of cover of Old Ideas, it clearly stands out as the Cohen album presentation most likely to capture the attention of a potential buyer. Compare it, for example, to the brown-on-beige blandness that typifies many early Leonard Cohen albums, the allegorical graphic of New Skin For The Old Ceremony, some rather off-putting portrayals of the singer (whose non-record cover photos are uniformly interesting and compelling), and the esoteric symbolism of The Future album.
While I doubt that album art sells many CDs or downloads these days, I do think it possible that the customer-friendly bright colors and the easy to like photo Cohen chose for Old Ideas does signal his willingness to make the product more marketable.
Congruent with my assessment of his record company’s performance, I rate Leonard Cohen’s own marketing performance improved but insufficiently improved to account for Old Ideas’ sales success.
The Musical Quality Of Old Ideas
Is Old Ideas such a great album that every sentient music lover feels compelled to buy it?
In a word – nope.
I’ve long advocated that any reviewer of Leonard Cohen’s albums be required to list the number of times he or she has actually listened to the tracks. This would allow the discerning reader to skip those reviews based on someone hearing the songs once or twice because the reliability and validity of such assessments are at best suspect. Nonetheless, the consensus of the critics, reporters, and bloggers is that while a few of the tracks are strong enough to rate among Cohen’s best (“Show Me The Place,” “Darkness,” and “Home Again” are frequently listed in this category) many of the others are pejoratively lumped in the same category as the tracks from the unpopular Dear Heather album (“Banjo” and “Anyhow” are among those mentioned in this context).
According to my casual calculations using figures from my informal, incredibly nonscientific survey of album reviews, the average score awarded Old Ideas is 7.5 to 8.5 of a possible 10.
With the exception of a handful of reviewers and a subgroup of Cohenite zealots who are hard-wired into the astral plane cosmic consciousness, no one is touting Old Ideas as the best of Leonard Cohen’s albums. In fact, more than a few are already discounting Old Ideas in anticipation of the next album, i.e., the Cohen-prophesied Born In Chains album, with its messianic potential.
It is, on the other hand, noteworthy that, even the negative reviews of Old Ideas are often enthusiastic in their praise for Cohen himself and his music in general.
The overall rating for Old Ideas can be summarized as pretty good but it’s no Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
It’s definitely not extraordinary enough to drive the madding crowd into the music stores.
This brings us to the explanatory concept I like to call …
The Love For Leonard Hypothesis
This notion is based on two primary points:
1. Leonard Cohen’s constituency has expanded significantly in the past five years. I am convinced that some folks are psychologically and/or neurological pre-set to respond positively to Leonard Cohen’s music. I am not the alone in this belief. Nor is Cohen the only performer to whom this applies Consider this excerpt from The Best Joni Mitchell Song Ever by Ron Rosenbaum (Slate, Dec. 14, 2007):
It’s not just Joni Mitchell, not just a certain type of female singer-songwriter I have an obsession with. (Although I do revere Rickie Lee Jones and Rosanne Cash.) It’s a certain kind of song, one that seems to activate some sort of hard-wired emotional cell cluster in my brain, I’m (unscientifically) convinced. Songs that do for me what crack does for other people.
No one has ever told me that he gradually learned to like Leonard Cohen’s music. Rather, the prototype come to Leonard story runs along the lines of “I was [doing something] when I heard [a Leonard Cohen song] and immediately knew I had to hear more.”
If that idea is true,7 then growing Cohen’s fanbase is a numbers game of the type familiar to every salesman – the more doors you knock on to sell vacuum cleaners, the more vacuum cleaners you sell. For every 100 individuals that hear Cohen’s music, X of those will become fans. The more who are exposed to Cohen’s music the more who convert from “unaware of Leonard Cohen” to “fans of Leonard Cohen.” And over the past five years, a lot of folks heard Leonard Cohen songs for the first time.
That Cohen was playing concerts around the world while on on tour for most of 2008-2010 didn’t hurt. And, while some of us were ambivalent about the Hallelujah covers explosion, especially on programs like X-Factor, that song did introduce many potential fans to Leonard Cohen.
The internet has made Cohen’s work immediately and directly accessible. Not only is it simple and cheap to download and audition a Cohen tune but a Cohen fan trying to explain why she is a Cohen fan can send her Facebook friend who lives in another country links to Leonard Cohen playing “Closing Time” at the final Las Vegas show, the official Dance Me To The End Of Love video, or even Cohen’s never released “Do I Have To Dance All Night” from 1976.
Further, internet sites already offer more reviews and notices about Old Ideas than the number that greeted earlier Cohen albums and the online versions are far more accessible than those in print that predominated in times past.
2. Leonard Cohen fans love Leonard Cohen. What’s not to love? He is irredeemably gracious, he lends, through his music, a gravitas, humor, and dignity to our imperfect efforts to carry on in life, and, well, he’s way cool. Buying the Old Ideas album (especially a real hunk of vinyl or plastic rather than a download) gets us a piece Leonard Cohen and allows us to bestow upon him an unofficial lifetime achievement award
The Love For Leonard Hypothesis thus resolves to
- More people than ever before are Leonard Cohen fans (especially in the US).
- These Leonard Cohen fans love Leonard Cohen.
- Consequently, this large group of individuals were not just potential album buyers; before Old Ideas was released, they already wanted to like and buy his album.
- In this situation, Leonard Cohen did not have to create a great album, and SONY, Leonard Cohen’s management, and Leonard Cohen did not have to execute the marketing perfectly. In effect, all Leonard Cohen and the business guys had to do was not put up too many hurdles between the fans and the purchase of the album. The music and the marketing only had to be good enough – and they were.
Of course, Leonard Cohen has phrased the same old idea more elegantly in two quotes, the first from an interview filmed for Tony Palmer’s documentary, “Bird On A Wire” and the second from the lyrics of “The Future:”
- Success is survival
- But love’s the only engine of survival
Keeping Leonard Cohen’s Songs Alive
As an epilogue of sorts, I will point out that this phenomenon is a significant step in achieving the goal Leonard Cohen has repeatedly expressed: keeping his songs alive.
Leonard Cohen – Closing of final World Tour concert (Las Vegas 2010)
- See Leonard Cohen’s Old Ideas Hits The Charts – And Why That Matters (Maybe) and Decoding Leonard Cohen’s Old Ideas Chart Ranking [↩]
- See Decoding Leonard Cohen’s Old Ideas Chart Ranking [↩]
- See Decoding Leonard Cohen’s Old Ideas Chart Ranking [↩]
- See Listen To, Read Lyrics Of New Leonard Cohen Song “Going Home” From Old Ideas Album Now [↩]
- See Listen To All Songs From Old Ideas – The New Leonard Cohen Album [↩]
- See Sit Beside Leonard Old Ideas Promotion [↩]
- It is. [↩]