Bunnies and Bongs
By Michael Bertin
AUGUST 4, 1997: Oh, perfect. Just what a rock critic needs: a little plastic suitcase with a toothbrush, compass/mirror/binocular, and cheap sunglasses. And a CD (picture and bio). Guess I'll be throwing out all of that Gucci luggage and most of my wardrobe. This is everything a writer could ever want. And to think a local rock band, Screwtape, was thoughtful enough to bestow this gift upon me.
No, really that's sarcasm. This thing has no practical use. It wouldn't survive a single handling by even the most genteel of airlines. So, why on earth does a rock band send a hack a little plastic suitcase?
Well, with approximately 29,000 albums released every year, for a band like Screwtape, simply sending the requisite press kit -- CD, bio, and press photo -- to print or radio in hopes of getting written about or played is a little like a recent college graduate blindly faxing their resume to Big Corporation, Inc. in hopes of scoring a job. It'll get you nothing. In fact, it'll get you less than nothing in the music business, as rock critics and radio program directors don't have the time or the (dis)courtesy to send the obligatory rejection form letter with that, "We'll keep this on file for a year, just in case" lie. Typically, they simply put the album onto the leaning tower of pisa-shit CDs and trash the bio.
Nevertheless, this maxim exists: If you want to be listened to, you've got to be noticed. For good bands with name recognition, this usually isn't a problem. For everyone else, the common strategy is to send things that make you (or in the case, us) go "Hmmm?" or more specifically, "Hmmm, this little plastic suitcase looks interesting. I have no idea why someone sent it, but maybe I'll play the album."
The practice of sending unsolicited junk to print and radio is fairly widespread and is done by indie bands on homemade labels as well as major labels for their projects. And a hefty amount of resources are being funneled into these trinkets. Seth Orell, Screwtape's drummer, estimates the band spent about $10 per suitcase, and that they probably got off easy as they only sent them to folks locally. Costs can range anywhere from pennies to upwards of $30-40, depending on the item, and for a label doing promo mailouts of up to 5,000, even on the low end, costs can add up quickly.
Regardless of costs, labels can get elaborate on occasion and pull schemes with a high degree of difficulty in an attempt to both out-clever past efforts and synthesize some curiosity. In advance of Abra Moore's Strangest Places, Arista Austin ran a campaign where they sent out thousands of postcards from "Abra," who kept finding herself in the "strangest places." That's the impression they gave anyway.
Actually, the label ordered heaps of postcards from a catalog, and in lieu of having Moore spend inordinate and perhaps inhumane amounts of time traveling and writing, had interns and temps fill them out as if they were Abra. The label then addressed, stamped, and boxed the cards, sending them to post offices in various weird locations where they were mailed with some exotic postmark thus completing the illusion.
Other items include Buick MacKane guitar picks, combs, and style guides in connection with the Derailers' Jackpot -- to achieve the perfect retro hair, of course. Banana Blender Surprise would frequently deliver R.C. Colas and Moon Pies. And Stephen Doster's Rosebud came with a sled. Okay, that last one is a lie.
Of course there are gimmicks that make little or no sense. Elektra recently included little plastic footballs with the mail out for Too Far To Care by the Old 97's. The current and tenuous theory around here is that they sent the football, because like the Cowboys, the Old 97's are from Dallas. Weak.
Mailing out trinkets and doo dads is actually one of the more innocuous and low-key forms of Don King-isms. Getting noticed isn't just the stuff of bad flicks starring Brandon Fraser and Adam Sandler; bands go to lengths of great tastelessness to attract attention. It's well short of storming into a radio station and taking hostages in an attempt to get its single added, but Boston rock band Little John did storm up to the outside of its local modern rock outlet, WBCN, trying to get added to its playlist..
Says drummer Brendan Taylor, "We basically decided to force ourselves on them. We rented a flatbed trailer, and rigged up the trailer so that all the gear would be attached to it, including the P.A.... All we had to do was pull up outside the station, pull out the generator, start it up, make, like, one multi-pin connection and start playing," which they did. Too bad the band's single never got added by the station. It wasn't a total loss, though, as the guys did get their picture in the Boston Globe the next day.
Adopting a similar tactic, Austin's former Schlitz Quarts (who later became Banana Blender Surprise) once set up right outside the Chronicle offices and played to a captive audience of two. (Note: This practice is now discouraged, if not downright prohibited.)
In an attempt to get into South By Southwest last year, another Boston band, Happy Bunny, paid Andy Maguire of locals Ursa Major $100 plus expenses to dress up in a bunny suit and deliver Valentines to the SXSW staff. Happy Bunny did not make it into the conference, although Maguire thinks the stunt helped her band eventually get picked up for SXSW. Obviously, these things don't always work out as planned, yet sometimes even the most innocuous promotional schemes not only fail but fail miserably.
A couple of years back, in conjunction with its big rollout of Frank Zappa's catalogue and also as an industry-wide Christmas present, Rykodisc sent out a sizable number of sno-globes with an Eskimo, a husky, and yellow snow; for all non-Zappa fans this is in reference to his lyric, "Watch out where the huskies go. Don't you eat that yellow snow."
The key here is these are sno-globes with liquid inside them and that they were sent out around Christmas time, which in many parts of the Northern Hemisphere means an actual winter with cold weather. A memo from the Ryko shipping department describes the fiasco as the little toys were sent to the offices in the Northeast: "A bunch of the snow globes [sic] arrived here frozen. Since water has the somewhat annoying tendency to expand when it freezes, the globes broke. Since water also prefers to be in a liquid state at room temperature, the globes melted upon their arrival." Added Ryko publicist Darcy Mayers, "I wish I could describe the stench of that water."
Think that's bad? Wait 'til the Baptists hear this: Thrash metal band Sacred Reich once had bongs sent out with one if its releases. Sacred Reich is on Hollywood Records, which is in turn owned by Disney. So, in effect, Mickey Mouse was handing out bongs. Luckily, it was an independent publicist and not the label itself distributing the "tobacco paraphernalia," so Disney was able to wash its hands of any responsibility. (Note: Occasionally there is this low-brow Jungian thematic synchronicity to promotional gimmicks. Within a short time of the bong fiasco, American Records sent out Black Crowes rolling papers and Dash Rip Rock did the same with little baggies of oregano.)
Sometimes, though, the flaw in a plan exposes new levels of human stupidity. Trying to gain favor with the folks who book the bands, another group of SXSW wannabes had a keg of beer delivered to the conference staff. Unfortunately, they didn't deliver their name with it. Says Brent Grulke, Creative Director of SXSW, "We still don't know who sent that keg." Someone else once gave SXSW a salmon sans any band identity. "At times there are just these things that arrive and you don't even know who it's associated with even though clearly it's supposed to be associated with some artist or another," adds Grulke.
I may be going out on a limb here, but if there's any one rule to getting your band noticed through some shameless act of promotion, it's probably to make sure your band's name is somehow connected to that act of promotion. Anonymous gifts do you no good. They do you no harm, but that's not the goal here now, is it?
Grulke discourages sending anything of value as deliberate attempts to gain favor are unacceptable; some people occasionally go beyond the questionable and just plain offer up cash. "The most obnoxious thing always has been the offers of direct bribes," he says. Grulke declined to give numbers lest people think there's some sort of standard or, again, that the practice is even acceptable, but added, "I was stunned, I'll say that."
So, outside of ethical, not-so-gray areas and poor execution, the question is, does this stuff work? Well, the fact that this article is being written is sufficient cause to say, "You're writing about the crap you remember getting so, yes, it works." And whether a publicity stunt misfires or not, as long as it generates publicity, then it works to some degree. Happy Bunny may not have gotten into SXSW, but they got into print here (for whatever that's worth).
But "noticed" and "listened to" are different things, and whether a ploy or a toy is going to get you "listened to" is totally dependent on the recipient's attitude toward the blatant attempt to catch his or her eye. Says Denberg, "If they're going to spend that kind of money on something, I'll probably want to pop it in and see what it's about."
Michael Corcoran, pop music critic for the Austin-American Statesman, is of the antipodal ilk. "I can't think of any time that something came across where I went, `Wow, this is pretty cool, I've got to listen to this band,'" he says. "Usually, the band is not involved anyway. Just because they've got smart marketing people doesn't mean their music is any good." Quite often it means the music is bad, and the trinkets are just a way to get you to pick up something you never would otherwise.
In fact, there's often an inverse relationship between the cost of the item and the quality of the music. High dollar items, while impressive and sometimes useful, can also be a turn-off, as they reek of a desperate stab at generating hype and sales for someone whose music deserves neither. Corcoran recalls getting a swanky leather backpack (cost in the neighborhood of $40) in conjunction with some now-unidentifiable country singer. Today, he recalls only the backpack. "The idea that a year later I can't even remember the guy's name... they're just trying a little too hard," he says.
So do these things work? Well, even the most cloyed can't claim to be completely immune to the voodoo of the marketing witch doctors. For Abra Moore's postcard charade, Arista Austin publicist Athena Fortenberry notes that one person, a friend of Moore's, understandably got his "feelings hurt" and felt "misled" once he learned that the postcards were part of a promotion and not really from Abra herself. Says Fortenberry, "The only backlash we had was from Michael Corcoran. He was a little upset."
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