When Social Media Goes Bad: How an Independent Musician and His Minions Outsold Glee
Beneath the placid surface of the Internet, an epic battle is being waged at this moment between Jonathan Coulton, an independent musician known for creating the theme songs for the two Portal video games and well loved by geeks (including myself), and the Fox Broadcasting show Glee. Fallout from the war is significant, with tens of thousands of social media mentions over the last five days, a campaign to drop a Glee iTunes song to a one star review, and the sales of Coulton’s cover of Glee’s cover of Coulton’s cover of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s Baby Got Back skyrocketing (it’s confusing but, trust me, I’ll explain it in a second), and, while the outcome of the war might not have huge implications for the higher education marketing world, this entire situation should serve as a cautionary tale regarding the amazing ability to amplify conversations presented by networked markets.
Just to get everyone up to speed, here’s the skinny:
JAN. 18, 2013
Jonathan Coulton was alerted to the unofficial Glee Wikia, which suggested a future episode may include a performance of a cover he made of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back.” Coulton’s version originally appeared on his 2005 album Thing a Week One and features an folksy arrangement and some changed lyrics from the original Mix-a-Lot version. Also, a duck quacks to cover up an expletive. (It’s probably worth noting here that Coulton releases his music under a non-commercial Creative Commons license, which allows other people to share and remix his songs, provided that it’s not for commercial purposes and that it is properly attributed to him. Ironically, the Creative Commons licensing may have contributed to this since many folks incorrectly believe that CC-licensed music is totally up for grabs)
An update to Coulton’s post, also made on Jan. 18, points out that he hasn’t been contacted by Glee or Fox and that the song is visible in the Swedish iTunes store with the artist listed as “Glee Cast.” Coulton also posts a stereo comparison of the two songs on Soundcloud (available here), which plays his version in the left channel and Glee’s version in the right channel.
JAN. 20, 2013
Coulton posts another update to his original post, mentioning that he’s still trying to figure out what’s going on and recommending that his followers donate to the Electronic Frontier Foundation or Creative Commons if they want to help out.
JAN. 23, 2013
Paul Potts, head of the Geek Like Me, Too blog, published a post analyzing the audio of the duck quack from the two versions of the song, finding them to be substantially similar (Though, as anyone who watches Mythbusters knows, duck quacks have some strange acoustic features).
Jan. 24, 2013
The Glee episode featuring “Baby Got Back” airs.
Jan. 25, 2013
Coulton publishes another update to his original post, mentioning he was contacted by attorneys from Fox and writing, “They also got in touch with my peeps to basically say that they’re within their legal rights to do this, and that I should be happy for the exposure (even though they do not credit me, and have not even publicly acknowledged that it’s my version – so you know, it’s kind of SECRET exposure). While they appear not to be legally obligated to do any of these things, they did not apologize, offer to credit me, or offer to pay me, and indicated that this was their general policy in regards to covers of covers.”
It is at this point that Coulton fans begin to go insane.
The Daily Dot published an article that insinuates that Coulton is not the first artist this has happened to and lists Divisi, Greg Laswell and DJ Earworm as other artists that have had similar things happen. “But Coulton is hardly the first artist whose original take on a song may have been ripped off by the popular show. Glee has received complaints that they’ve ripped off original arrangements of covers as early as May 2011.”
Jan. 26, 2013
On Jan. 26, Coulton releases a cover of Glee’s cover of Coulton’s cover (which is to say, his original song) as a single on iTunes and pledges to donate all proceeds (following licensing costs and Apple’s share) to the VH1 Save the Music Foundation and The It Gets Better Project.
Jan. 28, 2013
At approximately 11:30 a.m., Coulton’s cover of Glee’s cover of Coulton’s cover is ranked number 108 on iTunes top 200 songs. Glee’s version of the song isn’t even in the top 200. By 2 p.m., Coulton’s version is ranked 84.
Potts publishes a new blog post titled “Crowd-Sourced Forensic Audio Analysis (or, How Glee Did It)” that provides a detailed analysis of how Glee allegedly appropriated Coulton’s song.
And that’s just the public timeline. Curious about what happened in the social media space during that time? So was I! So, we set up a social media monitor to look for mentions of the Glee episode, Coulton and Baby Got Back and perform some automated sentiment analysis. Here are the results (current as of 2:15 p.m. on Jan 28).
- In the last seven days, there have been 30, 769 mentions of the Glee episode, 21,554 mentions of “Baby Got Back” and 17,781 mentions of Jonathan Coulton.
- In terms of social media content that includes both Coulton and Glee in the same piece, the number is 13,528 (essentially, nearly half of all posts about the glee episode in the last week are talking about the Coulton/Glee battle).
- Automated sentiment analysis indicates 38.1 percent of posts about the Glee episode are negative or somewhat negative.
- The Glee Facebook page has received a deluge of comments from Coulton fans unhappy about the situation.
- The first page of Google search results for “iTunes Glee Baby Got Back” features Coulton’s rerelease, tons of articles about the battle, but not the Glee version of the song.
- On iTunes, the Glee version of the song has overwhelmingly received one star reviews to give it an aggregate score of approximately 1.5 stars based on 1,858 ratings (including one from myself titled “The Perfect Song to Illegally Download”). It is not ranked on the iTunes top 200.
- Conversely, Coulton’s rerelease is ranked 84 out of iTunes top 100 and has received 2,337 ratings for an average score of 5 stars.
And that’s where the situation stands right now. Some may jump to the conclusion that good social media monitoring may have helped avert this issue and, strictly speaking, I think that may be inadvertently correct. It certainly seems that Glee and Fox underestimated the influence that Coulton has. Paying attention to Coulton or how his fans talk about him may have helped alleviate the issue. It certainly allowed me to produce some pretty charts tracking the issue as it blows up.
But the issue has to do with more than just social media monitoring. The real message here is that there were some basic rules of online behavior broken. As so aptly stated in the Cluetrain Manifesto, businesses that can’t adapt to connected markets and engaged consumers will die. Essentially, Glee and Fox are not taking part in the online dialogue and they’re getting raked over the coals.
Sometimes, especially for large companies, it’s easy to view negative mentions about your brand as just mindless chatter. And I’ll even agree that not everything is a legitimate complaint — sometimes people complain in social media just to complain. But ignoring those complaints and refusing to participate in the discussion isn’t the answer.
This entry was posted on Monday, January 28th, 2013 at 5:05 pm and is filed under Social Media. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.