Rage vs. X Factor: What Was the Social Tipping Point?

How do you rally music fans to achieve a record-breaking goal in less than a month?


Make sure your fans love to protest.

Make sure your fans love live music.

Make sure your fans are on Facebook.

Rage Against the Machine Takes on Simon Cowell’s X Factor

This December, rebel rockers Rage Against the Machine called on UK fans to help them put their song “Killing in the Name” into the #1 Christmas download spot on the UK music charts with the  proceeds going to raise money for a homeless charity Shelter. And in return for reaching the goal Rage would play a free “victory” concert in the UK in 2010. 

The history behind this story is that for the last few years X Factor  winners have held the #1 Christmas single spot. So this year Rage’s competition was Simon Cowell’s X Factor winner Joe McElderry’s and his Miley Cyrus cover.

Utilizing the power of social media, since mid-December, Rage has used the Facebook group “Rage Against the Machine for Christmas No.1”  to rally UK fans to help put “Killing” in the top Christmas download slot. And in just a few weeks, the Facebook group grew to 450, 000 members.

Rage Against the Machine Facebook
Rage Against the Machine For Christmas No.1 Facebook Group


And over this past weekend Rage was victorious and made this statement:

“As promised we will play a free concert in the UK in celebration of this incredible upset victory over the heavily favored X Factor single. We are also pleased that so much money has been raised for homeless charity Shelter and are happy to donate as well to aid this important cause. While there are many lessons that can be drawn from this historic upset, the main one is this: that ordinary people, banding together in solidarity, can change ANYTHING, be it the pop charts or the world.”

Aside from the upset and rebellious side of this story, when you look closer at it, as Huffington Post’s Emily Henry points out, this story is yet another example of how social media (in this case Facebook) has been used to rally fans for a good cause and to sell music.

But when you look at this story in a sociological context, it seems to hinge on a few key factors.

What Motivated Rage Fans?

Throughout rock concert history, bands have leveraged the power of the live music experience to motivate fans to support social causes and sell records.  

So Rage’s plan wasn’t anything new necessarily.

But when I read the story and looked deeper into how it developed, I wondered what motivated UK Rage fans to respond so strongly, in such large numbers and in such a short amount of time.

Did they respond because of 1) the worthy cause to help the homeless 2) because they hate the X-Factor or 3) because they just wanted to see Rage live in concert?

I would say it’s a mix of all three. Because any one of those 3 variables alone would not have generated that type of response from fans.

Was there a Tipping Point to Rage’s Win?

Considering those three elements makes me think about Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. In his book he uses psychological and sociological experiments to dig deeper into what makes certain events become epidemics or go viral.  So with the Rage victory was there a viral tipping point somewhere in the UK RATM Facebook group?  Was it the live concert that Rage performed on the BBC?

It’s only been a few days but I started to find some answers to how and why this happened by looking at the contextual cultural events that lead to Rage’s challenges.

For starters, I read Explore Music‘s wrap-up of the Rage X-Factor story timeline and the chart records that were set for digital downloads. It gave me a better understanding of the reasons for the landside win and why the Rage UK fans would respond so resoundingly.

I’ll continue to study this story but for right now I give a lot of credit to Rage for it’s execution of the campaign and knowing how to put those 3 elements together and then mobilize fans via Facebook.

That said, this Christmas No.1 Rage vs. X-Factor story is one of the best social media stories of 2009 because it’s a fasninating snapshot letting us see fan sociology at work in new media. It’s also a great case study to see how a band leveraged the inherit protest nature of their fans and then empowered them with a Facebook group and the ease of the digital download. 

Beyond being a model for mobilizing a social media-based protest, this is also a good example of how a band can measure fan sentiment and estimate their influence.  Because we’ve now seen just how much UK fans are committed even when Rage hasn’t put out any new music as a band in over ten years.

Live Music Always Motivates Fans

If I was to pick one “tipping point” and narrow it down to one of those three above elements, I would say it was the promise of a live concert that motivated most fans to download “Killing in the Name.”

It was a smart move to offer the concert, too. But will Rage run into problems setting up the “free” concert?  

I ask that because, at the time of this post, Rage hasn’t clearly explained the details of how the free concert tickets will be distributed. And if you take a stroll through the Facebook group you’ll see that fans are already starting to ask the details about their free concert. 

What Can Fans Expect From Rage in 2010?

Will the free Rage concert be as progressive as using social media and live music to raise money to help the homeless?  

Or will it be just another moment of nostalgic, disappointing self-destruction like their Lollapalooza show in 2008 when frontman Zack De La Rocha had to frustratingly stop the concert three times because fans couldn’t manage their rage?

Should fans expect any new songs at this concert?

Or should fans just expect Rage to continue to only use its past hits and reputation as powerful force to promote political change and social causes?

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