Lou Reed, Big Sisters and Influence

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Jasper White

Image Source/Jasper White

The death of the great Lou Reed prompted some thoughts on influence and communication.

Lou Reed may have helped to change music as all the obituaries attest to, but in his modesty he was keen to attribute the possibility of his career to Andy Warhol – a former illustrator who made a career from his understanding of the new age of art, commercial imagery, celebrity and brands. Two thoughts on Lou Reed and communication.

1. Given the relative obscurity of the Velvet Underground (seriously, ask around the office how many people have anything by the band) my wife wondered how did we actually come across them? Going to an all boys school in Dublin in the late 70s, there really was only one trusted, credible source of ground-breaking pop music – your friend’s Big Sister’s record collection. This was a strange network of influence, the Big Sister wasn’t necessarily ‘cool’ in the eyes of the self-conscious male teenager who looked up to a different set of hairy-bloked peers. But this little known sub-group of the Big Sister wielded enormous cultural power. Unlike Big Brothers, whose musical taste expressed a kind of head-shaking masculinity – Deep Purple, Motorhead, Frank Zappa – the Big Sister had an angle on visual pop (David Bowie), art pop (Velvet Underground), eccentric pop (Roxy Music).  Recent studies have cast doubt on Marketing’s love of the idea of Alpha influencers (re Malcolm Gladwell’s account of Hush Puppies in the 1990s). But perhaps these researchers are just looking in the wrong place. Big Sisters weren’t coolhunters, they were just interested in interesting stuff.

2. The most quoted comment in the press reports on Lou Reed’s death was an observation attributed to musician, artist and innovator Brian Eno – “The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.”

In the age of social marketing, of brands seeking likes, shares, and influence, what Lou Reed, The Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol happened on was the fact that it’s not the volume of people you connect with that matters, it’s the right people. And like the Big Sister, the true arbiters of the interesting, the new, the exciting are not necessarily where you expect.

For businesses, deep, lasting, impactful influence is difficult to measure and easy to miss. You might have to go off the radar of what is conventionally considered cool and go offline because stuff happens in the physical world too. For photographers seeking to maximise exposure for their work it’s not size that matters, it’s quality – and finding the contemporary equivalent of the Big Sister.

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