When it comes to staging street performances, there’s a fine line between building buzz and buzzkill.
Ever heard of Imperial Stars? If you Google the band name in proximity to search terms such as “stupid band tricks” or “idiots 101,” you’ll probably find a rash of news reports regarding the Orange County, CA band’s recent publicity grab. (Make that act of altruism to “raise awareness for homelessness,” as the band inexplicably explains.) They held a Los Angeles freeway full of rush hour commuters hostage this month and forced the captive audience to endure their crummy music.
Imperial Stars positioned a truck to block three lanes of southbound 101 freeway traffic near the Sunset Boulevard exit, hopped on top and began playing their single “Traffic Jam 101.” California Highway Patrol and morning commuters were less than pleased. Three band members were arrested and each was released on $10,000 bail that day. They’re scheduled for a Nov. 3rd hearing.
Welcome to the latest ill-conceived music marketing ploy. Luckily, no one got shot in a fit of road rage. Bands engage in less-than-epic fails all the time, of course, which is why groups like Imperial Stars occasionally try to break the idiot barrier for publicity.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m all for creative uses of music marketing. By all means, bands should build a better mousetrap and take advantages of opportunities to go public. Remember when music stunts were fun, goofy and harmless? I’m sure even my square parents heard about the animal-eating antics of Ozzy Osbourne and Alice Cooper at PTA meetings when I was a tot, but those artists weren’t taking their stage acts to middle America’s living rooms. These tales of entrails were exaggerated urban legends anyway passed along by kids in a game of rock telephone. Now that’s marketing!
Rule of thumb when it comes to intrusive publicity stunts: Bands, like consumer brands, must tow the line or they will pay a fine. Either in hard cold cash or hearts and minds.
On the brand front, Nike, Nintendo, Sony, Snapple, IBM and others have tried to attain street cred by literally taking their brands to the street. Many failed by breaking the etiquette of street stunts, and have paid in fines and negative publicity. Most everyone remembers the Adult Swim’s Aqua Teen Hunger Force Boston bomb scare of 2007, in which ad units resembling Lite Brites were mistaken for terrorist tools.
Some agencies work fees and fines into their brand budgets so that the inevitable tickets and cleaning costs are covered, though we doubt IBM was able to justify that $100,000 fine it had to pay the city of San Francisco in 2001 for going to town on sidewalks and embellishing them with Linux logos. Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it: A few years after the IBM stunt, NBC stenciled teasers for a TV show called 4400 on sidewalks across the city. Residents of SF didn’t get glad—they got mad. Fines alone for a first-time graffiti vandal in San Francisco run $100 to $300 per site.
Sorry to be so direct, but a friend gives it to you straight. Until your band is on a Let It Be Beatles level, it probably has no business filming a midday performance on a London rooftop as bobbies and shopkeepers look on. And when you’ve released something on par with The Joshua Tree, we suggest only then that you, too, might (carefully) consider scaling a downtown L.A. building for a surprise concert as U2 did in its video for “Where the Streets Have No Name.”
Sorry to be so direct, but a friend gives it to you straight. Until your band is on a Let It Beatles level, it probably has no business filming a midday performance on a London rooftop as bobbies and shopkeepers look on. And when you’ve released something on par with The Joshua Tree, we suggest only then that you, too, might (carefully) consider scaling a downtown L.A. building for a surprise concert like U2 gave the public in its video for “Where the Streets Have No Name.”
Until then, you can always hustle and busker a la Atomic Tom. As far as we know, that’s not technically illegal and only mildly pisses the public off. Earlier this month, the Brooklyn group taped itself “performing” its song “Take Me Out” on a subway using iPhones as instruments. The carefully crafted stunt has gotten flack from music fans and writers, who find the noise pollution, dubiously excellent sound quality and/or indie spirit of the marketing ploy offensive (a title card claims the band’s instruments were stolen; Atomic Tom is signed to Universal Republic). Band members claim there was zero label or pr involvement.
The snark has been offset by 1.3 million YouTube hits since the clip was posted Oct. 15, and “Take Me Out” has jumped to No. 86 on the iTunes singles chart. In a true Cinderella of Rock story, Atomic Tom was approached by Apple and “a partnership is being discussed.” The Moment, the band’s debut album, got prime placement on the iTunes Store home page and hit No. 11 on its albums chart.
At the risk of overstating the obvious, there is a season (turn, turn, turn…). It’s time to put away childish things. Pulling dumb shit without pulling proper permits in a post-9/11 world is asking for a world of hurt. Forcing people to hear your music under an underpass while stressing that their boss is going to can them won’t endear your band to anyone.
Charges and fines may be the least of the Imperial Stars’ problems—they’ve damaged their “musical” brand. While they define themselves as “hardcore hip hop,” they’ll go down as pariahs in a recording industry that has made room for Kevin Federline (who?) and Paris Hilton. That is, if anyone remembers them at all.
By Becky Ebenkamp
Becky Ebenkamp is a Pop Cultural anthropologist and former West Coast Bureau Chief for Adweek Media. Becky has a radio show called Bubblegum & Other Delights that airs 7 to 9 p.m. PST every other Tuesday on www.killradio.org