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"Parks & Rec" Makes '90s Band Letters To Cleo A Trending Topic On Twitter

It’s not easy for a long disbanded musical act to regain a foothold of relevance in current culture—at least, not without a new album and a reunion tour. But '90s alt-rockers Letters to Cleo managed, however briefly, to stage a comeback via a more modern method: a T-shirt, a TV show, and a Twitter feed.

Kay Hanley flew from Los Angeles to Boston yesterday. She was picked up at the airport by her mother, a woman who—bless you, moms, for your old-fashioned ways—insists her child have an actual conversation rather than bury her face in a gadget. So it wasn’t until later that evening that Hanley plugged in. "I got to my hotel room," she says, "and clicked on Twitter and was like, ‘What the whaaaaaaat?’"

This is what: Her band Letters To Cleo, which had been largely defunct for a decade, was having a moment. It was trending on Twitter. She had 40 new followers. The band had sold merchandise. And all because Ben Wyatt, Adam Scott’s character on NBC’s Parks and Recreation, spent last night’s episode bumming around in a Letters To Cleo t-shirt.

Hanley knew the shirt would be on TV; she’d even tweeted about it the day before. But what she didn’t expect was the outpouring of support it would trigger. "It’s some dollars and cents, but also, it’s self-esteem points," she says. "I was kind of blown away for all the love for Cleo that’s out there."

Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo

This is the kind of thing brand managers try hard to orchestrate—a spark in traditional media lighting an enthusiastic bang on social platforms. Companies like Bluefin have thrived for just this reason: When you track the chatter, you see not just who’s watching, but who’s caring. And even to a dormant brand like Letters To Cleo, the buzz isn’t wasted. "There’s plenty of musicians that have unfortunately passed away over the years, and people still market them," says the band’s longtime manager, Michael Creamer. "There’s no reason not to continue to market Cleo. It isn’t going to make anybody rich, but it keeps the name out there in case they want to do something. They made great music. And it puts a little bit of money in all the members’ pockets."

The making of a briefly famous shirt

An old band’s t-shirt doesn’t just show up on TV. A lot must happen first.

In this case, the shirt began life last October, when Parks and Rec co-creator Michael Schur attended a charity musical event in Boston called Hot Stove Cool Music. (Its latest event is tomorrow.) He spotted Hanley there—she’s a regular—and turned fanboy: He loved LTC. When he went back to work, he decided to put Adam Scott’s character in an LTC shirt that showed the cover of their first album (and his favorite), "Aurora Gory Alice." The network called Creamer to ask for clearance, which he happily gave.

It also got Creamer thinking. The band had always talked about making a shirt with that album cover on it, but never actually did to it. Instead, it had printed a shirt with the band’s name covered by a Boston postal stamp—the ink marking over stamps, indicating where the letter originated—which became a huge hit with fans (It’s true: I wore that shirt all through high school.)

After years of hawking it, though, the band was bored. They wanted something new—maybe like the "Aurora Gory Alice" shirt. Creamer advised against it: "When you’re branding something, people want to identify themselves with it—not just the brand, but they also identify themselves with where it’s from. Kay knew that; she always started shows by saying, ‘We’re Letters To Cleo from Boston, Mass.’ People wanted to have that Boston on the shirt."

But around 1996, at the band’s insistence, they yanked the shirt. Merch sales tanked immediately. The shirt was brought back halfway through their tour.

Now, though, Creamer saw a reason to finally make a new shirt—the one NBC was making. "We gave them clearance, but you don’t get paid for that. But the shirt would be on TV, so we might as well capitalize on it," he said. "It’s not like we thought we’d get rich on it. But it’s nice. It’s another little piece of history for that band."

In anticipation of the show, he printed a few hundred and posted it to the band’s website, which he’s continued to maintain. He told Hanley, who tweeted out the link.

A fan awakening

By the time the half-hour show ended last night, Letters To Cleo was trending. The band had sold 65 shirts—not even close to the 200 they’d sell per show in the 1990s, but a lot more merch than it normally moves these days. And Creamer sees continued opportunity: "It’s not like the days when a show would air once and then it’s gone. I’m sure that show will go on repeat sometime in the year, and it’ll end up on syndication, and the shirt will be on again. And DVD. Everything has a longer lifespan."

Meanwhile, Hanley was giddy. These days she’s more of a behind-the-scenes musician—she has a company called Art Is War Productions, and, with partner Michelle Lewis, recently wrote all the music for an upcoming Disney show called Doc McStuffins. But still, she knows amassing Twitter followers can only be good for her career, especially if she ever starts a new band and wants to promote it. "I’m a lot more focused on getting to 10,000 followers than I am about a lot of things in my life," she says. (She’s close. Help her out!)

Though for now, the shirt is the only new thing LTC fans are getting. Creamer says some reunion shows may happen at some point, but Hanley’s in no rush. "None of us are in a position to really plan a show or something around this," she says. "So, no, this is just a very happy sweet surprise."

Follow Jason Feifer (@heyfeifer) and @fastcompany on Twitter.

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