Published Jan 01, 2006There exists a clichéd mantra in rock (although aggressively pooh-poohed by rap's militant entrepreneurship) that the music is all that matters. Indeed, it can be a challenge to find an interview with an artist during which he doesn't stroke his chin, stare gravely back at the camera and solemnly avow, "It's all about the music." And while that statement may be true for a handful of bands, for most, making money has a direct impact on buying groceries, which has a much greater impact on, say, staying alive.
Nowhere does the gulf between music and industry reveal itself more than in speaking to a marketer about strategy. Music fans may cling to a belief that their favourite bands don't sit around talking about "demographics," "psychographics" or "networks"; Radiohead fans prefer not to envisage Thom Yorke nibbling biscotti with Wieden + Kennedy reps, ruminating over "targets" and "access points." But whether or not he engages in it, Yorke, or any other successful artist, would have a hard time denying the importance of marketing. And luckily, even underappreciated, underemployed indie acts can promote themselves on a grassroots level through street teams and their online counterparts.
Roughly 15 years ago Nadine Gelineau, taking cues from urban American marketers, founded the first Canadian street team, the BMG Street Soldiers. The idea was to raise awareness by sheer unavoidability. Team members would poster public space and distribute stickers and flyers, blitzing an area targeted for its demographic. If a group of job-hungry volunteers can carry out a strategy like this, any band can do the same. Street team leaders view advertising similarly to Andrew Fischer, the man who, for $37,350, sold his forehead to SnoreStop for a month: everything is potential ad space.
Stencilling snow banks in Toronto and ad-blanketing skate parks in Halifax are some of the more creative means that AddVICE, the marketing branch of renaissance hyper-hipsters Vice, have chosen to get a band's name out. According to AddVICE Canada's general manager, Vee Popat, they do employ more furtive methods as well. "We're more into exposing the band to music fans in an unobtrusive way, such as playing songs in stores or cafes," Popat says. "Someone may hear a song when they're out and say, Hey, who is this? Where can I find out more about this band?'"
These "pull strategies" seem to be the trend amongst street team marketers, in a sense conceding that aggressive tactics have lost favour to gentle suasion. Brad Josling, president of Vancouver-based firm Diamond Dog, doesn't even refer to his groups as street teams, saying that "What we do is much more sophisticated than simple postering and handing out flyers." Though he says that traditional street team activities will always exist, he has witnessed an ineluctable shift to the internet in recent years, a move that, he says, all firms are following. "Our company also manages bands, and a website is integral. That is the number one source point for your fans to connect with you and to maintain that relationship. Especially in a country like Canada where one of the biggest challenges is how spaced out we are. You need to have the net and your website as a connection point."
Sadly, the internet has lost its original polish as an internationally-accessible, intellectual round table and now sports the mottled patina of a global marketing and masturbation tool. Still, it's a good place to learn about music, even if much of the apparent interest in a band might be orchestrated by marketers.
Online street teams can function as subtly as emailing tour dates or release information to a network of addresses, or it can take more aggressive forms. Many artists, from Ashlee Simpson to Queens of the Stone Age, have their own devoted street teams. These are essentially fan clubs that reward effort with swag and concert tickets, and may offer members experience in the industry. In some cases, team members are presented with "challenges" such as posting the artist's name on as many message boards as possible, or interminably requesting an artist's song on radio and television programs.
One outlet irrefragably affected by the rise of online street team activity is MuchMusic. The channel's pop culture reporter, Hannah Sung, is unable to determine the degree that Much programming is affected by online street teams, but she has noticed that the internet, and a certain teen drama, are making it easier for bands to get noticed. "The internet is hugely responsible for the rise of indie music again; the internet and The O.C.," Sung says. "I think that these online street teams are a very natural extension of having a website. A lot of indie bands don't have the support of the industry working for them, why not let the fans do it? It's kind of weird, though, because where's the line where someone starts to work for you?"
Frequently Asked Questions
What do street team members get out of their experience?
Realistically, it's more of a toenail in the door than an entire foot, but it is an initiation, no matter how menial. While most of the work is voluntary, AddVICE does pay its stencillers for their labour which, of course, is prodigiously different from the labour done in executive offices. But Popat thinks this disparity is beneficial, saying that grassroots marketing knowledge can only augment conventional marketing smarts. "How hard is it to book ads?" Popat asks. "You make phone calls, you get a media-booker to buy you ads on MuchMusic or Global or however you want to do it. That's not really hard to do. That doesn't take the creativity that street teams do. With street teams you learn how to aggressively guerrilla-market a band." This may be true for someone involved in planning and delegation, but how will a Lindsay Lohan fan benefit from spine-warpingly inordinate time spent on Teen People's message board? Not especially, according to MuchMusic pop culture reporter Hannah Sung, who likens online street teamers to professional contest winners. "You know people who click on anything to win, or send in entries to win? That doesn't lead to a job. I used to phone into a radio station to request my favourite song over and over again that didn't lead to a job. I feel bad for the kids who believe that because their naiveté is being exploited."
Can't my band just form its own street team?
Any resourceful, ambitious band can recruit a traditional street team. Acts with a normal attitude towards money may choose to spring for flyers or posters and glue to generate interest in their band. On the online side, Sung has found that most indie bands create links to MuchMusic's email request addresses, targeting genre-specific shows, such as The Wedge or Much Vibe where they know their video is more likely to get played. However, this is only a small portion of what agencies like Diamond Dog do, according to its president, Brad Josling, who says that his company's "much more interested in relationship marketing." This means frequent networking with "tastemakers," such as radio and television programmers, music journalists, and just as importantly, with fans.
Isn't it obvious when an online street team is at work?
"In my experience with message boards, people can quickly get singled out as moles," Josling said. "If someone's on there saying, You should check out the new Gwen Stefani album,' kids are just going to say, You work for a label. You're banned.'" For this reason, marketers have had to formulate more surreptitious methods of piercing the savvy online youth market. By simple virtue of joining a mailing list or entering a contest, you may be an unwilling component of a network, the key access point of an online street team.
I am still getting emails about Morrissey's last (overrated) album.