Today, Minneapolis five-piece band Howler, its label, and a branding firm launch a campaign that could determine whether a rock 'n’ roll band can be marketed like breakfast cereal, health insurance, or an iPhone.
On one hand, the new campaign for Howler’s debut album, America Give Up, is engineered to blow up faster than Lana Del Ray’s top lip. It’s being deftly shepherded by the tastemaking indie label, Rough Trade Records, part of the larger Beggars Group of labels, which has, in turn, hired Minneapolis-based agency Mono to help market the band. Mono’s other clients include Harvard Business School, Blu Dot, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, Virgin, General Mills, and a company out of California called Apple (what, exactly Mono does for Apple, they’re not allowed to say, of course).
On the other hand, well, nothing is a sure thing, least of all in the music business. Howler is the first band Mono has worked with. Fans could see the campaign as corny, too corporate, too brazen, too much like an ad for insurance or instant oats—exactly the kind of thing Howler would make fun of. Or they could just not like it.
"We didn’t want this to feel like it was just a marketing pitch," says Mono founder and creative co-chair Chris Lange. Mono creative Dustin Black adds, "We’re approaching it like we approach a brand, but just with much more personality."
People today are bombarded by marketing and advertising, adds Mono experience planner Jillian Davis. "To break through all of that, we needed to do something really unexpected."
You won’t immediately recognize Howler’s campaign as an ad for anything—not any more than you’d immediately recognize a montage of jousting knights and roller-skating Bugaboo-pushers as an ad for the USA Network ("Characters Welcome"), or a husky guy in a glass apartment in the middle of the Mall of America as an ad for health insurance.
The "America Give Up" campaign, its yet-to-be-named main character, his message, and, ideally, the conversation he inspires, are meant to engage people with the band’s personality, to turn the band into a brand. Howler, as a Mono representative put it in an early email, "has hired us to blow them up on the U.S. music scene during SXSW."
The videos and new America Give Up website are launching today and going out in various, customized and general forms to influential culture, music, and politics publications. Even us (see the video below).
This all started a couple of months ago after Howler wowed the U.K. music press and began cropping up on indie radio stations such as Seattle’s KEXP. English music pub the NME even helped fuel (then debunk) rumors (started by the band) that drummer Brent Mayes was Prince’s lovechild. The next stop was a tour through New York with label and management folks to meet tastemakers in all of the typical ways—dinners, intimate shows, etc. For a crowd of about 25 people at indie record store Other Music in Manhattan, the group blazed through a half-hour set that sounded like the Buzzcocks or the Ramones and evoked just the right amount of surf-rock and punk nostalgia without sounding retro-gimmicky. It was a damn fine show.
After the band’s performance the next night at Lower East Side Manhattan venue Pianos, New York Times music writer Jon Caramanica began his review, "Just how long will it take for Howler to become very, very handsome?"
In a vacuum—or, say, the mid-'90s—Howler would be destined for success. They have more than enough raw materials for a skilled team to work with. The band members can actually play (four members man guitars on some songs, giving them a sound that’s as rich as their album’s production). They have plenty of interstitial swagger, and looks-wise, they’re Strokes-hot but grown organically in a Great Lakes state.
But the old rockstar making machine ain’t what it used to be. The NME and the blogs might love or hate a group, but the one given is that they’ll move on to the next chunk of hotness by the end of the week. Fortunately for Howler, they weren’t being handled by one of the clueless major labels who’ve thrown millions into manufacturing pop stars only to see physical record sales plummet 18-20% for the five years leading up to 2011 then 3.6% last year. (Digital sales, did, however, improve.) Beggars Group has a history of developing artists into stars—they’ve handled the Buzzcocks and the Strokes, to name two who’ve influenced Howler. Rough Trade North American GM Steve Knutson and Beggars Group VP of Marketing Adam Farrell set out with Howler to rethink the way bands are marketed.
"The thing we know is that we have a great band who just put out a great album. They are touring, working hard, getting good press … all the things we want right now," Farrell says. "The thing we don’t know is whether doing something fun and somewhat disconnected from how we typically sell records—touring, promo, advertising—will get their music heard by a wider audience. It’s all upside if it manages to connect with a few more fans."
In terms of cost, Farrell wouldn’t go into specifics but said Beggars spent about as much hiring Mono as it would have spent for a decent video for one of the band’s songs. But instead of getting a single clip, the label and band get a campaign that is expected to carry on through SXSW.
Along the way to the campaign launching today, members of team Howler in Minneapolis, New York, and London, spent a lot of time casting, building a website, and hashing out goals and parameters and schedules on conference calls. During many of those calls, everyone kept coming back to the idea that the campaign had to engage a mass audience without offending the spirit of a band who, for example, said their drummer was Prince’s son just to test the press’s gullibility.
"One of the big goals of this piece is definitely to bring out the personality of the band and the attitude of the band…. They like to push people’s buttons. They’re good old fashioned rock 'n’ rollers," Mono’s Lange says.
As the website and videos and scripts took shape, Mono zeroed in on the band’s record title, "America Give Up," as an intentionally ambiguous statement about the decline Western civilization at the hands of Kardashian-drenched, teen-mom-fueled, YouTube-ready, viral culture. The primary vehicle for this statement would be a series of YouTube videos that would offer social share-worthy commentary on, among other things, the Kardashians and teen moms. And instead of the band themselves offering screeds, they’d cast a character who embodied the awestruck, playful cynicism of five rock band members in their late teens and early 20s—a slightly grumpy middle-age black man.
The America Give Up site went live today with about 170 snippets of commentary on random rotation. Mono has filmed about 200 more. And a post SXSW round of clips could actually incorporate comments made by social media users who engage with the character or the band. To kick all of that off, Mono and Beggars are sending out a few special clips tailored to publications they hope will cover the campaign. Here’s one they made for us:
So how do any of these people know if this’ll work?
Album and ticket sales and analytics will be examined. "We’re going to look at a lot of things," experience planner Davis says. Not only how many people are talking about it (using hashtag #AmericaGiveUp on Twitter or posting to Facebook, for example) but how many people are participating in it. "A great measure of success is to see how people take the content and make it their own," Davis says.
Farrell says he and his team are watching to gain insights into a potential new model for launching bands as brands, rather than, say, trying to awkwardly marry artists to corporations down the road. "I guess the lesson is no matter how hard you try to deny it, it’s all marketing but hopefully what we are doing leading into SXSW is slightly smarter and entertaining to fans than some social-energy-subscription-cloud-lifestyle-browave-showcase on Red River and 8th," Farrell says.
Missing in all of this, you might have noticed, is the band. As much as Mono and Beggars are hoping they’ll be engaged with the fans who discover them via the America Give Up campaign, the members weren’t really involved with many of the conference calls or strategy meetings. In part, that’s because they’re just too busy. Says singer-guitarist Jordan Gatesmith, "Honestly, we’re pretty bad businessmen. We’re fucking awful with money, and we’re awful thinking in that sort of sense."
So the artists are left to be artists while the label and its branding firm experiment with their—and all sorts of future bands’—future.
"I put a lot of trust into people who I do trust," Gatesmith says.