I remember when the guys in Metallica cut their hair. Their fans went bananas. It was ironic for a group that was all about substance over style: their fans had a certain image in their minds, and they did not want the heaviest band in the world to look like they drove to the concert in a BMW.
“Metallica has sold out!” heavy metal fans cried from around the world. It didn’t help that suddenly “Enter Sandman” was in heavy rotation on MTV. At the time, I recall defending them. I didn’t understand why they were “sellouts” if the only difference was that more people listened to them. Shouldn’t those of us who had long supported the band be happy for them? Isn’t that why you start a band? So people listen to your music?
Currently, I am struggling with a similar dilemma in regards to the popular HBO program Game of Thrones. My history with Westeros goes back much further than most. I started the first book in the series about 12 years ago, but stopped because (A) author George R.R. Martin’s incessant point of view changes felt gimmicky and (B) I read a review that suggested that Martin was slow to actually get anything done in his toaster-size novels. I just didn’t have the heart to read that much without anything being resolved (and I have read Tolkien, along with book-writing machines like Jim Butcher and R.A. Salvatore, so I’m not scared of lengthy tales). At any rate, I put down the book after a hundred pages or so and never went back.
About a year before the HBO series debuted, I read about its production on IGN, one of the nerd websites I frequent. I was excited because I would be able to witness the Game of Thrones saga without having to read the seemingly never-ending series of books. I excitedly told my wife, who chalked it up as another one of the weird sci-fi / fantasy shows that she gets stuck watching with me (she even tried to watch Battlestar Galactica with me, bless her heart, but I could tell how much she hated it so I gave up). A year later we signed up for HBO a few days before the premier, and we were absolutely thrilled with the resulting show.
As the first season progressed, I met zero people who watched the show and my wife met one, a woman from her work. But my wife was an evangelist. She told everybody she knew about Game of Thrones: They kill main characters indiscriminately! There’s intrigue! Scandal! Romance! And the actors are gorgeous British hunks!
A year later my wife’s sister – who didn’t know George Martin from George Romero – started watching and then calling after each episode to discuss the show excitedly with my wife. That’s when I first knew I was in trouble.
If moms liked the show, where did that leave hardcore nerds like me?
A half decade or so later, my worst fears have come true. For the first five seasons, the program’s producers were moored to Martin’s books, pulling against the pinnings of dark fantasy but floating dangerously close to the waters frequented by soap operas. I could feel the tide shifting, but even HBO didn’t dare to abandon the bestselling books.
Now in season six, the program has finally moved beyond the famously slow author’s printed work. As Martin struggles to complete his next epic, the show’s producers are finally able to work without the restrictions of his related stories. They can do whatever they want. Go wherever they want. As the season began, they were free to either transform Game of Thrones into a serious fantasy program or turn it into Dallas by way of Middle Earth. Spoiler alert: they chose the latter.
Their first order of business was to resurrect the hunkiest of the hunky dead characters without any consequences. It was like any soap opera in the past forty years – “Oh! You’re not dead anymore? No worries. By the way, do you mind taking off your shirt?” HBO knows who butters its bread, and it’s not going to tick off the huge contingent of casual fans who now watch the show every Sunday – even though that’s exactly how they made their mark in the first place (Does anybody even remember when they killed Ned Stark? Sean Bean was the ONLY legit star on the show’s first season, and they killed him and left him dead because they had to!).
I was in Target last week and a forty-something woman’s smartphone went off. She was most definitely not a geek in any way shape or form, but her ringtone was the theme to Game of Thrones. I was nearly inconsolable. My wife laughed for ten minutes as I grumbled about how the show had sold out to attract more viewers.
And I suppose that makes me as ridiculous as those Metallica fans in 1996 when the band cut their heavy metal locks in favor of more grown up, video-ready coifs. It’s the circle of life when it comes to entertainment. In order to reach the masses, you must first alienate your core fans.
I’m too sad to even tie this into marketing this week. I suppose I could say something about 80% of your business coming from 20% of your customers and not sacrificing your message if it means losing your best clients, but instead I think I’ll just go back and watch the movie Heavy Metal on DVD. It mixes loud music and fantasy, and nobody in the world watches it anymore except me.