What Green Day Can Teach Us About Social Media

by Jason Falls |
Jason Falls
Jason Falls

The evolution of a musician or group of musicians is always a fascinating journey to witness. While the changes are seemingly subtle, it’s always fun to go back over the anthology of an artist’s musical works and see how far they’ve come, and how different they are from the beginning.

The topic came to mind Monday when I downloaded 21st Century Breakdown the latest effort from Green Day, arguably my favorite band and perhaps the only one pushing the musical envelope these days. Not that they’re creating some great new classification of music beyond the one they’re responsible for already (punk music by people who can play and sing) but I find today’s rock scene rather stale.

I know, I know. What does it have to do with social media? A lot frankly. If you go back to the beginnings of the band and follow their progression to what might be the biggest rock band in the world today, you can draw what I think are some interesting parallels to a company’s maturation process in social media. (Bear with me, it will make sense in a minute.)

Not a green day - 21st Century Muni Breakdown
Image by Steve Rhodes via Flickr

Green Day was a rough and ready punk band in the late 1980s. Their DNA firmly planted in the anti-establishment, DIY-foundation laid by punk predecessors like The Clash, Iggy Pop and The Ramones. They were a garage band that played loud, fast and furious.

About that same time employees of large companies were posting thoughts and having discussions on forums and message boards, some of them about their industries. Heated discussions normally turned nasty as users could hide behind anonymous logins and Legend of Zelda avatars. The rules of social media weren’t even formulating at that point. The social web was raw, unrefined.

As Green Day began to find its sound — driving punk riffs with Billy Joe Armstrong’s forceful, yet melodic overtones — it began to collect quite a following. Kerplunk, the band’s second full-length album, sold around 50,000 copies in the U.S. That’s almost enough to be eschewed by the punk underground as being too successful.

Coincidentally, forums and message boards about companies and brands, even some rudimentary blogs about them, began to pop up around the Internet. While the companies, in general, had no clue there was a social groundswell happening online, and were, thus, not participating in the conversations, several individuals at companies were. Online conversations about products and services was happening.

In late 1993, Green Day rocked the punk world, signing with Reprise Records. The major label “sellout” to punk purists was a significant benchmark for the band. It was a signal they were perhaps more than just an underground hit and could potentially stake a claim on the broader category of rock and roll. When Dookie hit shelves in 1994 it proceeded to sell five million records in the U.S. alone and, with respect to Everclear and Rancid, almost singlehandedly ushered punk music back into the mainstream for the first time since the late 1970s.

In the early- to mid-2000s, companies in the technology sector began embracing the underground social tools, pushing forward internal and external forums for employee and customer discussions. Corporate blogs began to pop up in pioneering corporations around the world. Companies began to see the conversational platforms emerging online as ways to engage customers or even market to them. Seemingly turning the stomach of the crabby, anonymous Doom avatar sect, all of a sudden discussion boards and blogs were becoming civilized and splashed with a company coat of paint. Companies like Microsoft and Cisco, and later, Dell, were ushering social media into the mainstream.

Dookie was a smash. Insomnia and Nimrod almost equally so. But with Warning, Green Day’s golden (nay, platinum) touch seemed to be waning. Green Day, once innovative and provocateurs, was becoming just another band and really by no fault of their own. The band’s signature sound was not drifting but other bands seemed to be making up for lost time.

Similarly, the Dells, Southwest Airlines and Sun Microsystems of the world were becoming “once innovative” examples. Blog … check. Customer feedback and responsiveness … check. Twitter … check. Okay, we have social media. Just like Green Day had rock and roll.

And then something happened to Armstrong, Mike Dirnt and Tré Cool. They began to mature beyond their punk-as-rock selves. There was apparently some group therapy for the band in the 2001-2002 range as they started to outgrow the raucous youth shells that underlined their punk attitudes. They grew up. With the 2003 release of American Idiot, Green Day reclaimed their status as an innovator and a leader in the rock world. The punk rock opera reciting the strife of the Jesus of Suburbia captured Grammies, MTV awards, The People’s Choice Award and put the group in a category few bands have ever been. They were a super group. Their “songs” and “album” were more intertwined with the term “art” than ever before. This from a punk band.

As companies take social media programs to market today, we’re starting to see less Warning and more American Idiot-like efforts. Companies are embracing social media as a channel of communications and one of many strategies to utilize to communicate with their audiences rather than the “Look! We got a blog/Facebook/Twitter!” approach. Where Green Day underwent group therapy companies are returning to sanity with strategic thinking. As a result, their programs are yielding better results, higher returns and, in some cases, innovations.

Best Buy’s Blue Shirt Nation is just one example.

With the release of 21st Century Breakdown, Green Day has again proved innovative and unique. The band’s second rock opera-style offering returns to their thematic roots with an omnipresent questioning of authority with the lament of the middle class. But the music has come full circle, maturing to the point of pushing Green Day beyond their classification as a punk band. Sure, there’s still Armstrong’s driving guitars, Dirnt’s pulsing bass rhythms and Cool’s frantic yet clean percussion, all holding Armstrong’s catchy melodies and seemingly out-of-place vocals up in punk glory. But listen to “Before the Lobotomy” and tell me you don’t hear a hint of 80s hair band ballad. If “Last Night On Earth,” isn’t a channeled Beatles song, I don’t know what is.

And tell me a piano-vocal intro like “¡Viva la Gloria!,” reminiscent of Billy Joel, not Billy Joe, wouldn’t have had the band run out of any of the former dive bars they once called home.

As companies move forward with social media innovation and thinking, they will begin to re-learn the tools, re-embrace the “Look! A Blog!” approach and actually integrate the appropriate social tools with their strategies. The influences of the past will begin to take a more makes-sense-ical approach as more mature strategies lead the way in the social space.

What this somewhat whimsical analogy is really meant to teach us is that in order to be a leader and an innovator in the social media space our companies have to have some initial success, some middle of the road failures or disappointments and ultimately come to grips with two simple facts:

  1. The shiny new object won’t solve your business problems or communications challenges.
  2. Strategic approaches using a well-thought tactics and tools will.

Green Day learned that spitting out rebellion-laced pop songs wasn’t enough. They had to think bigger. They grew up and are more than just a punk band gone mainstream.

So, what can you do to help your company move from rinse-and-repeat to blazing a new trail? And did any of that make sense? (Remember, I’ve been listening to a punk band as inspiration.)

The comments are yours. Thank you for indulging in my musical fun.

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About the Author

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for Elasticity, one of the world's most innovative digital marketing and public relations firms. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).