The Millennial Ruse

On this very special episode of Hereit Blog, let’s talk about inappropriate, predatory targeting of young people.

Kids, if anybody ever calls you a Millennial, say “No!” firmly and loudly, and then turn and run as fast as you can in the opposite direction. No matter what they promise, don’t trust them. They do not have good intentions.

“Millennial” is a marketing term for a demographic segment brands and businesses desperately want to target. It may have roots in the Strauss-Howe generation theory, but these days it is mostly used for one reason: To extract money from you. And, of course, to peddle any alleged expertise in extracting money from you.

But not just your money, of course. Brands and businesses now want as much of your personal information as they can get as well. Your personal information is, in fact, often far more valuable to them than money. That’s why it is usually the currency you are required to pay with under the con of a free service.

It’s not called a “target audience” for nothing. And when you see or hear people that vaguely resemble you in an advertisement, it means that you are the target. Duck!

Over the past five years, marketing agencies–armed with increasingly sophisticated digital measurement tools, and nearly unimaginable amounts of personal information to work with thanks to social media and all the streaming music platforms, among other things–have gotten a lot more aggressive and savvy in the ways they target so-called Millennials–online and off. That’s what $1.3 trillion can do to you.

Remember a few years ago, when all the Millennial talk was about young people and their helicopter parents and their collective sense of entitlement and their spoiled, lazy, gotta-give-them-an-award-to-get-them-out-of-bed work ethic? You don’t hear that so much anymore. Guess why?

Turns out it’s a lot harder to convince people to give you all their money if you are constantly insulting them. So now, all the formerly spoiled, coddled Millennials are “digital natives” who live their lives online, always connected, seamlessly integrating work into their personal lives through their deft use of mobile technology and social media! (Cough. Wage theft! Cough.)

Hold on tight to your dreams, coffee achievers. You are disrupters who are disruptively disrupting old models in the digital revolution, driving “fundamental shifts” and creating “new realities.”

The funny thing about new realities, though, is that they get old pretty quick. Especially when you’re staring at the ceiling in your childhood bedroom.

The unemployment rate among 18- to 29-year-olds is 15.8 percent, and more than 45 percent of recent college graduates are living with their families. That’s a 61 percent increase since 2001. In 2010, out of 41.7 million working recent college graduates, 48 percent were working jobs that didn’t require a college degree. And 38 percent were working jobs that didn’t require a high school diploma. By 2020, the number of college grads will grow by 19 million, but the number of jobs requiring a college education will only grow by 7 million.

But who wants to talk about that?

Not the the digital marketing experts, that’s for sure. Let fly with that kind of buzz kill, and it is gonna make it a lot harder to get the money and the info. So instead, marketers–and all the brands and companies that depend on them–perpetuate and propagate the Millennial ruse.

To distract from the actual stark (political, economic, social, environmental) realities that this generation is inheriting–many of which are quite profitable for the kinds of companies that are usually referred to as “major clients”– they provide a fantasy.

This particular fantasy–the one that says the Millennial generation is changing everything about how we connect, communicate and live–has an interesting common denominator, though. It is all contingent on digital technology.

The prerequisite for all this revolutionary change in human connection and interaction always seems to be the use of fairly costly devices and data plans to access services and platforms which are highly optimized to track and exploit user information. And all of which are owned and controlled by a small handful of unbelievably profitable and powerful companies that are not that concerned or constrained with, you know, basic ethics.

Herding people onto online platforms and calling it “disruption” or “innovation” is the digital equivalent of “free-speech zones”–the caged barricades at political conventions where protestors are contained and monitored. You can disrupt all the industries you want, so long as you do it in ways that are most profitable for companies that own the platforms and sell the devices.

They have built the mousetraps. Now all they need are the mice.

Which brings us to the cheese.

The big problem with all these platforms is that if you don’t have anything on them, nobody goes to them. You can’t data capture personal information with no people. So you need what is called, in the parlance of our digital times, “content.”

Now, “content” is a funny word. It can mean all sorts of things. The one thing that is true about it, though, is that it is kind of difficult to produce if you want it to be any good. And if it is not any good–no mice.

It turns out, as discussed in the How Much Does It Cost If It’s Free post, that one of the most effective types of cheese is music. (And not just online, either.) 

But good content–writing, art, songs–is difficult and expensive to produce. It is way easier to use other people’s already-created good content, and lots of it, to attract the mice. Once you do that, you have not just the mousetrap, but the cheese too.

Could the mice be far behind?

Maybe something to think about the next time you hear somebody gush that you are “single handedly killing the music industry,” offering a bunch of straw man arguments about private planes and champagne. (Millennials did not kill the music industry. But there are a lot of people–from all sides of the equation–doing everything they can to make sure Millennials’ fingerprints are on the murder weapons.) Check to see if the people saying things like that are in a position to somehow profit from claims such as, “Over a billion dollars will be spent for the opportunity to build customer relationships and brand equity with digital natives… What brands understand is that music is an important part of Millennials’ identity.”

That certainly puts all the fawning celebration of brands, branding and “being your own brand” to attract magical new “revenue streams” in a different context.

It’s quite a trick–to create a business built on the use of other people songs, paying them a negligible pittance, and then exploiting the personal information of listeners who like their music to sell targeted advertising. It’s an incredibly profitable one too.

But the bigger trick is convincing young people–especially those facing longterm, even lifelong diminishment of earnings because they have started their careers during the recession–that spending thousands of dollars to stream free music on iPhones and laptops with monthly data plans from telecommunications companies is somehow cheaper than buying a song for $1 or just going out and buying an album. And that not only is it cheaper, but that it is in any way positively innovative or disruptive. Much less worthy of generational self-definition.

Talk about the power of marketing.

There are glimmers of hope, though.

Take this recent report from CBS News about “the triumphant return” of vinyl. (Last year, vinyl sales grew 32 percent.) The report is filmed here in Nashville, and prominently features Nashville’s great independent record store Grimey’s. It features Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney of the Black Keys talking about why they love records, and why they release their albums on vinyl.

But the coolest part of the segment comes from Grimey’s Doyle Davis, who says, “I see young people in their 20s bonding with people in their 50s, becoming friends, going to shows together. They meet up at the record store. It is a pretty cool thing.”

That is a pretty cool thing.

Hereit pleads guilty to being a website. But it is a website with no advertising and no data capture, that allows artists to set their own prices for their music and keep 100 percent when they sell songs. And, importantly, that encourages people to focus on and explore the independent music communities where they actually live, and then elsewhere. I’ve always said that I hoped Hereit would inspire people to be off it more than they are on it. (Going gangbusters so far, believe me.)

Hopefully, the site will inspire people to seek out and see some local bands. Go hang out at a record store, if your town is lucky enough to have one, and ask the people there who they listen to, who they like and who they recommend. Buy music by and from independent artists. You never know. You might find a whole group of people all around you that are doing something really cool. That’s the best way to discover music anyway. Privately, with all your friends.

As life becomes increasingly digitized and commercialized, maybe the most disruptive and revolutionary thing people can do is to stay out of the mousetraps in the first place. Don’t take the cheese, kids.

And that’s one to grow on.