Contrary to the guaranteed prediction of a California-based Christian radio broadcaster, who apparently spent tens of millions of donated dollars to spread his message, the world did not come to an end on Saturday, May 21, 2011. I really wasn’t scared that anything out of ordinary would occur, but I must confess that I was extremely fascinated by how such a completely oddball notion could attract so much attention. On May 12, while walking around Manhattan to check out the current art gallery exhibitions, I ran into a makeshift horde of Doomsday proclaimers not once, but twice: marching up 57th Street with placards and later blocking traffic on Avenue of the Americas with vehicles blaring their message. It was somewhat disconcerting, but I’ve seen much weirder in New York City over the years so I didn’t think about it that much. But then it got picked up on CNN and started making mainstream newspaper headlines on the days leading up to May 21. (The front page of Saturday’s New York Daily News read “Some say the world will end today so … BUY THIS PAPER! …If it’s the last thing you do.”) It seemed that almost every conversation I was part of or overheard that day wound up referencing the upcoming Rapture at some point. Admittedly, it was usually the butt of a joke, but still, I couldn’t help but be impressed by what seemed like an extremely effective PR campaign.
As a fanatically devout believer in contemporary music I started pondering how the new music community could get into the limelight so prominently. Would we also need tens of millions of dollars in advertising to forge an indelible message in the public consciousness? For the May 21 prognosis, huge banner ads were strewn along highways all across the country. A mere $140,000—allegedly spent by one of the broadcaster’s followers, a retired transportation employee who waited in Times Square at 6 p.m. on Saturday in vain—paid for ads throughout the New York City subway system and on bus kiosks. How prominent an ad spread could you get across the country if you only had a few thousand dollars to spare, which for most of us would still be a small fortune? How frequently would these ads need to be seen before the mainstream media considered them worth reporting on and how many of these reports would it take to get everyone to suddenly start talking about them?
Or was all the focus on the May 21 Armageddon announcement less a function of marketing saturation or more because the idea was so completely over the top? What kind of new music-themed message could we send out into the world that could be as resonant in its contrariness? Perhaps a simple plea to “Listen” would be sufficiently mysterious and all-embracing to turn some heads and make people eager to learn more. Or is such a desire, like the May 21 claims feel on May 23, a giant waste of money, energy, and time that could be much better spent engaging in other endeavors, like actually composing, performing, or listening to new music?