[repost] A deep dive on the most successful band of all time
Updating old posts and re-posting one. happy thanksgiving!
A lot of new subscribers in the last few months, so re-sharing a popular old post from a few years ago. Happy Thanksgiving!
You may have heard me mention the raw power of The Wiggles before. They aren’t just a children's band. They are the children’s band. Can anyone name a second? Ranker.com lists Raffi as the #2 greatest kid’s artist. The distance between The Wiggles and Raffi (who was, frankly, a one-hit wonder with Baby Beluga) is wider than the distance between Alexander the Great and the second best king of Ancient Macedonia, whoever the hell that was. The Wiggles have had 12 platinum albums (as many as Queen). At one point, they held Madison Square Garden’s record for most consecutive sold out shows (they have since lost the crown to Billy Joel). And they’re not just the G.O.A.T. kid’s band. They’re a prolific G.O.A.T. kid’s band. They performed 7,000 concerts between 1991 and 2012. That’s 333 concerts per year, almost one per day. The five highest-grossing artists of 2019 put on 295 concerts combined.
The Wiggles have a bigger fanbase than all but a handful of living artists, they have financial success that most Grammy award winning bands can only dream of, they have 3x as many albums as the Beatles, and they’ve been making music since Beyoncé was in diapers. This kind of cultural dominance (or maybe, toddler subculture dominance) warrants further investigation. In this post I will take an investor’s approach to answering the question: what makes The Wiggles so successful?
Are The Wiggles really that good?
Have you heard Dorothy the Dinosaur? That shit slaps. I’m surprised Yellow Wiggle hasn’t been assassinated by a rabid fan who played one of their records backwards and decided only Satan can be that talented. I’m only half kidding. John Fogerty, frontman of Creedance Clearwater Revival, recorded a song with The Wiggles after he discovered them through his daughter. He gushed to the New York Times about their songwriting and sound. It’s not just him. Any five-year-old can tell you their beats are dope. Still though, their Wheels on the Bus recording has 216 million views on YouTube. Are they so exceptionally honey-tongued that they can take a public domain chant and turn it into an unapproachable paragon? Next they’ll record the Gettysburg Address and kids around the world will be twirling their diapers above their head like its Beatlemania. The Wiggles are talented, no doubt, but it's hard to believe that their talent alone explains their world-dominating success. There’s a lot of really exceptional musicians out there. Take a walk through any city block in the world and you’ll literally trip on a virtuoso playing for loose change.
The Wiggles Universe
Here is an alternative explanation of the Wiggles superstardom. It’s not just the music or the sound that attracts an audience. It's the audience's affinity with the product. In this case, the product isn’t music, it’s The Wiggles universe. This universe is filled with characters like the raspy Captain Feathersword, familiar tropes (the Purple Wiggle has fallen asleep), rules (fruit salad is awesome), and landmarks (the big red car, who is somehow both sentient and blissfully unaware that he’s chattel). All of these things combine to create a fixed persona. It’s not really about the music. It’s about fun, friendship, childhood, growing up, love, learning, and the quirky, peppy charm that Fatherly.com grievously mistakes for an “utter lack of dignity.” Fans can engage with the Wiggles universe in different ways. Again, not just music, but TV shows, concerts, YouTube channels, theme parks, t-shirts, dolls, board games, books, and a million other ways. They see The Wiggles crossover on Sesame Street, pop-up on PSAs, appear on their lunchtime placemat, and on and on. Every engagement with the Wiggles is consistent in tone and style. The Wiggles have an identity, a personality, an essence, the same way a cool uncle or favorite teacher would have. When a kid sees The Wiggles sing “Wheels on the Bus” they aren’t just hearing the old song, they’re seeing their old friend. Many kids know The Wiggles universe as well as they know anyone in their life.
The Failed Democratization of Music
In the early days of music streaming (SoundCloud, MySpace) there was a ton of excitement about democratization. The cost to make, distribute, and purchase music had come down dramatically. If access to make and listen to music was unbridled, so the thinking went, then music would become a meritocracy. In fact, this was basically the only thing mopey emo kids got excited about (aside: are emo kids still a thing?). No longer would money-hungry labels or pushy agents or bad-intentioned radio jockeys be able to manufacture undeserving stars. Henceforth the people would decide!
To some extent, everything unfolded just as the emos predicted (who would have thought). Imagine the amount of money invested in building out SamGoody stores and launching radio satellites. Then one day Napster shows up and everything changes. (RIP Napster, only the good die young). In business that’s called disruption. A new technology or idea shows up (music streaming) and suddenly an entire industry is shaken up. The traditional power center of the music industry was disemboweled by the broadsword of the internet-age Vikings. This chart from Statista/IFPI explains it perfectly:
However, as much as technology has democratized music making, it’s also undemocratized fan affinity. Anyone can publish and distribute a song from their bedroom, but because anyone can do it, it doesn’t mean much. What artists need to hit it big is an engaged fanbase that knows them and what they stand for. They need what The Wiggles have. As with The Wiggles, good music is one part of it, but popular artists have much more than good music. They have polished social media accounts. They have commercial sponsorships. They appear on talk shows. There’s cameos, Cameos, viral videos, livestreams, branded beverage lines, over-publicized and possibly fake relationships with assorted Kardiashians, SNL appearances, sweet swag - the infinite list of possible engagement opportunities goes on. As with The Wiggles, each of these are little moon rocks orbiting the essence of the artist, little opportunities to expose the artist to a new audience. When done correctly, all these rocks are swerving around in perfect consonance, each one a pixel of something bigger, like Saturn’s rings. Superstars have built out entire solar systems, entire galaxies around themselves, and their popularity is equally galactic. Building and maintaining these galaxies is a massive undertaking. It’s why artists, and really any influential cultural figure, are surrounded with teams of PR whizzes, financial analysts, makeup artists, videographers, and whoever else can pitch in can broaden the appeal. This is really where the democratization of music ends. Making music may not consume resources anymore, but making stars still does. Kanye West’s iconic shutter glasses were designed by Alain Mikli (subsidiary of Essilor Luxotica, a company worth $58 billion dollars). WigglesWorld was a theme park supported by ABC (owned by Disney). Taylor Swift’s wardrobe, Beyonce’s music videos, Adam Levine’s appointment as a judge on The Voice, every decision, every statement, every outfit is a deliberately placed brick in the palace of superstardom and requires expertise, Q-rating analysis, designers, movers-and-shakers, marketers, agents, executives. Power used to lie in the hands of the people who could get you out there. Now it lies in the hands of the people who can make you everywhere. RIP music democratization (and RIP emos).
Then myth of the long tail
The long tail is a statistical concept that refers to a highly-skewed probability distribution, popularized by Wired Magazine in the early 2000s. Here’s how it relates to music: the democratization of music should lead to a personalized musical experience: since everyone’s tastes are unique, everyone will favor different artists. Sure, some artists will be popular, but there should be a long-tail of thousands, maybe millions, of moderately popular artists catering to niche tastes. The Wiggles are the most blatant contradiction of the long tail. Their music and performance are good, but not untouchable. There’s probably thousands of bands that can put on a great kids show. But those thousands of bands won’t walk on stage and conjure up a hurricane of warm and fuzzy emotions. That’s why The Wiggles can turn a pedestrian performance of Wheels on the Bus into hundreds of millions of YouTube plays. That’s why the most popular artists today take up a greater share of listening time than ever before, even though more artists are available for listening. It’s also why the majority of popular music today isn’t even written by the performers. The music itself isn’t what matters, it’s the package it comes in.
From The Wiggles to the world
The Wiggles are a great test case to study the music industry, and the music industry is a great test case to study all of media, maybe even all of culture. For example, what is happening with the Wiggles is happening with movies:
Economic changes manifest as cultural shifts
The Marvel Universe owning the box office, Taylor Swift’s world dominance, Beyonce as American royalty - these could all be explained by the vectors of taste, fashion, and society, i.e., culture. They could also be explained by the economic changes discussed above. After all, the now-dominant cultural phenomenon of superstardom seems to mainly benefit commercial interests. I have nothing against The Wiggles, but do we really need one kids band to rule them all? Are we trying to indoctrinate the next generation, make them an army of submissive supersoldier clones with well-balanced diets? Fifty years ago people were forced to choose from one of three garbage network TV channels. Today, there’s almost infinite options but, by and large, the masses huddle around relatively few options. It’s hard to reconcile that reality with the ideals of diversity and individuality that underpinned the music democratization movement. One explanation is culture - that the super-popular content is simply the best art by a wide margin (or maybe there is something about civilization in the 2020s that has the population yearning for shared interests?). An alternative explanation is that the forces of the free-market, combined with technological innovation, guided this output. Or it could be both. Sometimes culture and economics are indistinguishable.
Disney, IP and Returns to Marginal Affinity (Matthew Ball)
The Wiggles Cover Tame Imapala
Spotify's Former Chief Economist Explains the Long Tail
The Long Tail (Wired Magazine, 2004)
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