Justin Trudeau may be the next big thing - but Stephen Harper's still Nickelback

Politics, like the music biz, is often about the next big thing, but hard-work and familiarity can pay off. So, asks Andrew MacDougall, will Canadian voters be looking for something new in 2015 - or will they want to hear the old hits one more time?

Politics, like music, is about sound and vision. What will voters want to hear in 2015?

If Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, right, is the hot indie band riding the a wave of hype, Stephen Harper is tour-hardened Nickelback, writes Harper's former spokesman Andrew MacDougall. (Canadian Press photos)

As anyone who witnessed former prime minister Paul Martin's air guitar "skills" can tell you, politics and music can be an awkward fit.

At least he got to hang out with Bono.

Conservatives and music hardly ever fit together, something I learned the hard way after tweeting my support for a record by the Canadian band Stars. But despite his stern image, the current prime minister appreciates music, and has occasionally tickled the ivories himself in front of the cameras.

Rubbing elbows with musicians may sometimes be calculated glory-seeking from politicians, but I would argue there's also a deeper, if unrecognized, attraction. Politicians and musicians are, in fact, kindred spirits who, whether they recognize it or not, have similar career arcs and move to similar career rhythms.

Politics and music are both subject to the whims of opinion and the tenor of the times. What's successful today can be burnt in the outfields of tomorrow- Andrew MacDougall, former PMO spokesman

First, there's the long, hard slog to recognition: the local church suppers followed by the rubber chicken and summer BBQ circuits for politicians, compared with the local gigs and long-distance club tours for bands. There's also the constant financial pressures, as politicians scrounge for donations or new bands try to flog enough music and merchandise to make it to the next town.

If the hard work of touring pays off, a politician can put together a platform and the musician can record an album. The critics then begin to take notice and start reviewing their work. Receive a favourable review in a taste-making outlet and lesser critics will follow along.

The same goes for political journalists, who yearn for something new to write about after following the same government for a term or two, and will often hype the newcomer to relieve themselves of boredom. These same tastemakers can equally shut newcomers out of the discussion if they don't like what they hear.

Once the initial buzz dies, a band will put out more material and/or tour more extensively to expand their following, just as politicians who are elected must demonstrate their mettle, keep their promises, and build support. If a band does its job, more people come to their shows and buy their albums. If a politician does his or her job, they will be re-elected.

Harsh realities

Here's where the dream usually ends. Most politicians and bands will never make it past their local scene. A few become one-hit wonders, but the majority will toil in the relative obscurity of the backbenches or bottom of the bill.

The harsh reality is that it's tough to make a name for yourself in either profession and success isn't in your control; politics and music are both subject to the whims of opinion and the tenor of the times.

What's successful today can be burnt in the outfields of tomorrow. And the longer you've been around, the harder it is to draw in new supporters or remain relevant.

Successful musicians and politicians professionalize their operations. Long-term success means managing finances, balancing competing egos, keeping core supporters happy and working harder than the competition. Successful bands and politicians are also able to appropriate the latest trends and blend them into their sound and vision.

Musicians and politicians must always be on the lookout for the "next big thing" ready to take your crown. Indeed, when the stars are in alignment, a musician or politician can ride the rocket of buzz to the upper reaches of the stratosphere without climbing each rung on the ladder of success.

Next big thing vs. Nickelback

Right now, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is the hot new indie band, the one the press can't get enough of and the people seem to like, even though they haven't actually heard him because he has yet to put out a record.

Meanwhile, Stephen Harper is Nickelback.

If hype is all that matters, it's Trudeau, hands down. The problem with hype is that, the longer it goes on, the harder it becomes to live up to the expectation.

Public life has a funny way of turning the "best thing ever" into "just another politician." Just ask the guy in the White House. That's because politics is about making tough choices, choices that make enemies as well as friends.

It's true you'll find no shortage of people who say Nickelback sucks. But no one can deny their commercial success, just as fair-minded observers can't deny Harper's electoral success.

It's not hard to find people who hate Nickelback - but Chad Kroeger is still selling more records than you. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Mock their fans all you want, but Nickelback has a dedicated following that want to hear the hits, just as the government has its base supporters who will never tire of lower taxes, a strong military, cracking down on crime, getting rid of the wasteful and ineffective gun registry and abolishing the Wheat Board.

Nickelback has been to the rodeo. Touring is hard, just like elections. Leaving the comfort of the studio and exposing yourself to the whims of the road, being judged every day by a crowd, can shatter a band's confidence. An older band knows what to expect and steels itself for combat.

Campaigning, like touring is something that's hard to master in your first go. And just as the tour bus can be waylaid by stormy weather, events outside our borders impact the domestic political debate.

The Conservatives' last campaign famously featured a "sea of troubles" lapping at Canada's shores. The worse the world gets between now and the next election, the less comfortable the crowd may feel going to a Trudeau show. If Putin's a bear, ISIS expands its territory, and the Eurozone tips into deflation, the crowd might want another set from a seasoned pro like Prime Minister Harper.

The next year will deliver its verdict as to whether Justin Trudeau has what it takes to build a long career, or if, as the Conservatives say, he is "in over his head."

If there's any consolation for Stephen Harper, it's that the offspring of famous musicians rarely match the success of their parents.

Andrew MacDougall is a former director of communications to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He is now the senior executive consultant at MSLGROUP London. Follow him @agmacdougall.


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