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Deep Ass Questions

I Went Door to Door to Find Out if Music is Harder to Sell Than Religion

I learned all I could from a group of Jehovah's Witnesses, and then took my battle to the streets of South London armed with nothing but the Carly Rae Jepsen album.

by Oobah Butler
28 October 2015, 4:20pm

In 2015, buying a CD has become about as appealing as watching Home & Away. You’re not just averse to it, you’re barely aware it still exists.

Everyone who still buys music is either streaming and downloading it, or lovingly purchasing elegant vinyls with their flowing disposable income. And the noble CD buyer has become close to extinction; it is the sexless panda that refuses to bang the only other panda on earth, and as each less and less horny day passes, so too does the fate of the physical disc.

It’s reflective of a decline in the places you could have bought a CD to start with. Independent record stores are still waning, nothing really came in to replace HMV (except a shitter version HMV), and the supermarkets aren’t stocking anything that isn’t Sam Smith, James Bay or Peppa Pig. Nobody really buys CDs at a merch stand after a gig these days either; they're too busy elbowing their way out so they can downplay how impressed they were in the smoking area and order another pint of craft beer.

Consequently, record labels are shipping half the amount of CD albums they were just five years ago. And the announcement of New Music Friday - where all new music now comes out globally on a Friday instead of different days in different regions - is reflective of the industry admitting that people want stuff the moment it comes online, not the moment it lands on the shelf in WH Smiths.

But is that it for the CD? In a world where Aloe Blacc can earn only $4,000 for co-writing Avicii’s “Wake Me Up” - which was the most streamed song in Spotify history for a while in 2013 - can artists really just turn their back on this once great revenue stream and embrace the Tesco value baked beans lifestyle of the digital grind? Or can we look elsewhere for inspiration?

You wanna know one of humanity’s other cultural systems that really hasn’t forgotten how to sell itself in the wake of the digital revolution? Religion. Religion couldn't give a shit about your technological progression. The Pope’s got himself on Twitter and recently dropped a fire mixtape full of him going sermon all over some prog rock. And Jehovah’s Witnesses - the kinda analog vinyl heads of the spiritual world - are still going door to door, improving their membership of 8.2 million every day, with a mixture of rock hard sells and ice cool faith.

What I’m getting at here is: If Jehovah’s Witnesses can go door to door and convert new followers on the regular, can we do the same with music CDs? Could the underestimation of the power of door to door salesmanship be the achilles heel of the music industry’s impending digital disaster? Can I single-handedly rescue the fate of the honourable music CD with some determination and a little help from the big man upstairs?

There was only one way to find out. I hit the streets to find out: is music harder to sell than Jehovah? First things first, I need to know what I’m dealing with here. So I head to a nearby Kingdom Hall for answers.

After a brief conversation with a beaming gentleman, I’m invited upstairs to join a meeting. It’s completely quiet as I take my seat, with the Brothers and Sisters under the spell of a demonstration. Two women stand awkwardly opposite one another on a small stage, hashing out a role-play.

A visibly gloomy woman abruptly opens a fake door.

"Hello?" she says.
"Hello," returns the Witness, "Can I teach you about the Bible?"
"I’m sorry, but my son died the other day of heart failure. I just hope he’s in Heaven."
"Ok, but can I teach you about the Bible?"

"OKAY, OKAY!" The leader stops the scene and asks everybody what the Witness did wrong there. A crop of hands spring into the air with childlike excitement. Brother Roland is picked. “It wasn’t personal enough,” he says. Then Sister Mary interjects: “She doesn’t care about the loss of the woman’s son!” Mary gets a round of applause. “Very good! Let’s run it again.”

"Hello?"
"Hello, can I teach you about the Bible?"
"I’m sorry, but my son died the other day of heart failure. I just hope he’s in Heaven."
"That’s terrible to hear. I hope you are ok. Do you know that there’s a way you can see your son again?"
"Really? That makes me feel so much better. Do you want to come in?"

The leader stops the scene and everybody nods enthusiastically. They review the situation together, continually emphasising two words: patience and tactfulness. These two Blairite touchpoints are the weapons of choice for conditioning the people of the congregation until they become the army of tireless super prophets you know and love. After the meeting ends, I speak with as many as I can, trying to subtly slip my awkward self-serving question under the nose of the Lord.

“Say, when you’re out on the town doing the big man’s work, how many strangers would you expect to let you in for a ‘meaningful conversation’ if you knocked 25 doors?” I manage to get some pretty consistent answers, and I figure that their average batting rate works out at 6 out of every 100. For music to even come close to Jehovah, I would need to sell 7 CDs out of 100. Surely that’s doable.


READYING TO FIGHT THE GOOD FIGHT

I chose a couple of recent records I consider to be victims of the 21st Century zeitgeist. These are major label releases that, despite having financial and critical backing, have been met with lukewarm commercial reaction, in the UK at least. I settle on Young Chasers by hyped Liverpool rock band Circa Waves - a band who can sell out Brixton Academy yet barely registered in the charts - and Carly Rae Jepson’s Emotion - a critically acclaimed pop record that has sold almost hilariously badly in the UK despite it spawning a number one single.

I ring around South London retailers looking for copies of the albums and I’m bitten by the immediate irony that none of my local shops have them in stock. I end up walking out of Oxford Street’s still-standing HMV an hour later, with my pockets full and head held high.


DAY ONE

I’ve been walking up and down the street stalking my first door for ten minutes. I can hear cooking, chattering, and laughter behind it, there’s even the quiet sound of The Weeknd playing. I don’t know really know why I’m so nervous? A guy in his late-twenties answers.

“Hello there, do you have a few minutes to chat?”
“Probably not. What about?”
“Well, are you a music fan?” The door shuts slowly and my sentence trails off. As I stand, fake-chuckling to pass the embarrassment, “Love Me Harder” gets ever so slightly louder. Surely the first one was always going to be bad, but no; a fever dream of disgusted glances, shaking heads and slammed doors follow that. The British public aren't just disinterested in music CDs, they want a restraining order put on them. I become trapped in the kind of nightmare that has you moving your turkey onto the bottom shelf of a pre-heated oven to make space for your head on Christmas Eve.

Every time I mention selling music to people it marks a slow retreat into the house or a pleasure in telling me I’m wasting my time: “Man, these people are on huge advances and are raking in a shed load of cash. They don’t need foot soldiers for fuck’s sake! You shouldn’t waste your time running around for people like that.” I’m nodding and biting my tongue like Monty Brewster, keeping my mission under wraps and thinking, “If only they knew what was at stake here.” The future of the music industry, my head whispers. The future of the music industry.

Day One Roundup:
12/25 - Doors unanswered.
3/25 - People tell me to "Fuck off" at some point in the encounter
4/25 - Lights go off after hearing a knock
0/25 - CD sales


DAY TWO

Still having cold sweats about the shitshow that was the night before, I shadowbox in the mirror. Left fist: patience! Right fist: tactfulness! Don’t forget what those Jehovah’s Witnesses told you, buddy. It’s time for big changes. I gel my hair back, lower my prices, and head for the local retirement home.

I was given some pearls of wisdom from the Witnesses: old people do not want your company. But here's me thinking it could be easy money? Surely all those old folks don't get much opportunity to have a boogie to some new music? And they are more versed in the longstanding tradition of door-to-door sales, right? Wrong. After an elderly woman stands in her doorway silently scowling until you leave and another guy mumbles, "Hawker!" as he slowly turns away from you, you get the picture.

It’s not all doom and gloom in residential Dulwich though; the populace seem to be enjoying my pitches. Eventually, I find myself talking to a full-time nanny and avid 6Music listener. She reels off a few Outfit and Courtney Barnett tracks she’s into at the moment and my stomach whirls in anticipation. After ten minutes of lean-on-handrail chatter, I bid her farewell. Before she manages to shut the door, I pull a Columbo-style, “Just one more thing,” straight out of the textbook.

“Did you hear much of the Circa Waves record?”
“A little yeah, I liked it.”
“Well, I actually have a copy of it in my bag, if you’d like to buy it?” Her head rotates like an inquisitive Labrador as I hold my breath.
“How much?”
“Five pounds.”
“Yeah, go on then.”

I’ve never felt so alive. This is what I live for! I CAN DO THIS!

Before the dust has time to settle, I’m two doors down swapping a Carly Rae Jepson record out of my satchel for another crisp fiver. It’s a no nonsense sale and the lady in question is already pissed off that Champion Hill Sainsbury’s no longer stocks “anything other than greatest hits collections”. The record is sold after I play her “Run Away With Me” on my phone.

Day Two Roundup:
9/25 - Doors unanswered
1/25 - Woman who irritably tries to sweep me out of the doorway with her broom.
3/25 - Members of the British Legion tell me they "don’t care" for my Midlands accent.
4/25 - People who ask me whether my name (Oobah) is named after the taxi service.
2/25 - CD sales (!)


DAY THREE

I’m like Ric Flair whooping down the stairs and out of the door the next morning. With an air of smugness and taste for victory, I head back to the leafy streets of Southwark. Could the battle for the music industry be fought and won in the millponds and mansion houses of Dulwich Village?

Whilst their nannies may be up for a chat, I soon find that rich people really, REALLY fucking despise you rapping your knuckles at their door. They’re like bloodhounds sniffing out your desperation before they've even seen your face. A guy in a trim cardigan storms down the stairs halfway through my conversation with his wife about her taste in music. He demands to see my identification, and because I’m not armed for an interview with the Stasi, I just give my address and explain that I'm a local person trying to gauge people’s opinions on music. He threatens to “call the police”. I’m terrible at keeping a straight face in awkward situations, so I start to smile. His wife gives me that “Are you fucking crazy?” look, and I leave.

Ten of those later, I realise I've been barking up the wrong suburban sycamore for too long. A far cry from the John Hughes-style euphoria of yesterday, day three is a contemplative anti-climax.

Day Three Roundup:
14/25 - Doors unanswered.
1/25 - Older gent refers to me as a c**t when shouting back into his house.
4/25 - Kids under 10 who are home alone.
1/25 - Man who accuses me of hiding his ‘no salespeople’ sign.
2/25 - People who angrily shake their curtains in an effort at me to shoo me away.
0/25 - CD sales.


DAY FOUR (FINAL DAY)

To quote a meme popular on the Jehovah’s Witness free internet: it’s go hard or go home time. I’ve got 25 houses left to sell five CDs. It’s Saturday and I’ve chosen the North Peckham Estate. I rattle from door-to-door knocking left, right and centre, but nobody is answering. The crucifixes nailed onto the doors start to look like middle fingers. The best I get is two ladies sharing a fit of laughter whilst talking to me through a mesh curtain and a broken window.

Eventually, a bemused guy opens up on Sumner Road. “You’re wanting to talk about music,” he laughs, “but you’re dressed like a bailiff and chatting like you’re in an office!” I decide to take off my jacket, undo a button on my shirt, pull my hair out its awful slickness, and loosen my posture. I have become David Cameron, leaning one-armed on the podium in the Commons, trying to my best to look like a human.

I can see why he does it though, because it fucking works. People start answering. There are a lot of, "Do you have a petition I can sign?" type responses, and some people offer to follow me on Twitter, but the British public just don’t want to spend the cold hard cash on physical Carly Rae Jepsen or Circa Waves. 10, 7, 5, 4, 3, 2… I land on my last door at a dead end. With no hope, I go where all roads lead in search of a miracle. I go back to the beginning.

I knock the door and wait. After hearing commotion, a man in a suit comes through. He doesn't recognise me.

“Can I help you?”
“Yes, do you have a minute? I’d like to sit down and talk to you about music.”
“Oh, well not really. This isn’t really an appropriate place to discuss that now, is it?”
“Oh, I thought I could just sit down and tell you a bit about what I’m pitching and-”
“No, this is a religious building and our private space.”
“Ok,” I gaze in amazement, searching for something clever to say as he stares back blankly. “I’ll leave.”

Final Roundup:
Music - 2/100
Jehovah - 6/100


REFLECTIONS

If anyone wanted final nail in the coffin confirmation that music CDs are definitely 100% dead, then here it is: music albums are now harder to sell than door-to-door organised religion.

Forty slammed hinges, a couple of threats to call the police, a baker’s dozen of fuck yous aimed between my eyes, and the weight of the music world on my shoulders has this shell of a man at an all-time-low. If I’m tied to that level of humiliation and rejection in my day-to-day existence, then nevermind tactfulness and patience, I need a God just to get out of bed. I write a letter each for Carly Rae Jepson and Circa Waves to explain what happened and stuff them with my profits. I just hope they can’t taste the tears and smell my defeat.

But suddenly... Just as I’m finishing up, I hear the doorbell. I open the bedroom curtain.

Two Jehovah's themselves, on my very doorstep. God may prevail, but, alas, Carly Rae and Circa Waves shall not. Farewell my dear, relentless Witnesses. Do not go gently into that good night.

You can follow Oobah on Twitter.

Tagged:
Music
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Noisey
Carly Rae Jepsen
Call Me Maybe?
the music industry
jehovah's witnesses
Circa Waves
door to door
the general public
run away with me
jehova's
deurverkoop
de redding van de muziekindustrie