Ye Olde Archives » MUSIC: Rock & Roll Quarterly

Word on the Street

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Scene 1: You're a parent with a teenage daughter. You drop her and her friends off at the local mall where they hit the usual mall-rat hangouts like Claire's Boutique and Afterthoughts. Besides a really cool beaded choker, she returns with a freebie hyping the soon-to-be-released debut of Aaron Carter, Backstreet Boy Nick Carter's like, "way cute" younger brother. You know you'll be buying your kid this CD.

Scene 2: You're 14 and you're a total skateboard freak into the white-kid rap-metal scene. You head into the local skate shop and they're playing a band you've never heard before, but it sounds like the kind of stuff you and your friends are into. You ask the counter dude what CD he's playing; he points to a pile of stickers with the band's name. "Go ahead and take one." The band must be cool, right? The store guy wouldn't play it if it was lame, right?

Wrong. The store could have been hit by a street-marketing team--young reps who create an artificial word-of-mouth buzz by infiltrating youth hangouts and alternative-lifestyle shops. These tactics are employed by Hi Frequency Marketing, a Carrboro firm hired by companies looking to reach and influence the booming teen population (estimated to reach 35 million by 2010, according to a U.S. market research company). At stake is the lucrative "Generation Y" market: a brand-savvy, skeptical bunch inured to the usual advertising hoodoo, having been bombarded by ad propaganda since birth.

Pioneered by independent rap and hip-hop labels and distributors, "street marketing" has now gone above ground. Major labels advertise for reps on their Web sites. Malls are rotten with items and events targeted expressly toward the teen consumer. In the scramble to grab the buying attention of this MTV/Internet/Playstation population, mainstream companies are willing to try edgy ads and unconventional marketing methods. Increasingly, this means takin' it to the streets.

"Street 'repping' goes back to indie labels selling hip-hop," says Hi Frequency founder Ron Vos, a former Mammoth intern who'd attended the music business program at New York University. "When I was working some hip-hop records for Mammoth, I had to interview these street marketers. There'd be a guy in each territory who everybody knew--a hooked-up entrepreneur," he recalls. Impressed, Vos decided to apply the same marketing techniques to alternative music, creating Hi Frequency in '95 (with backing from then-Mammoth head Jay Faires). Vos, who also worked briefly for Geffen Records, used his industry connections to line up street reps in key retail markets. "I knew the majors [labels] wouldn't have time to deal with a different guy in every city," he explains.

The company currently has about 200 student interns acting as field reps for 60 major markets. These "street" reps report to regional supervisors in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. According to HFM employees, another 2,000 contacts are available to answer surveys, participate in online "focus groups" and work Internet projects. Interns aren't paid, but perks include free tchotchkes, promo CDs and concert tickets. For kids who'd like to work in the entertainment industry, the internship is a chance to gain marketing experience and make contacts in the biz.

"You can't get a job in this industry by going and getting your 'music degree,' then knocking on Capitol's door the day after you graduate--'Hey I'm here! I got my degree,'" says HFM Marketing Director Patrick Patterson. "The 18- to 22-year-olds we work with want the experience. They need to make contacts and network."

Depending on the project, field reps put up flyers, go to shows and track sales at local record stores, sometimes participating in promotional giveaways, contests and window displays. (An early company coup was a "Sparkle and Fade" promotion for Everclear.) They also distribute CDs, cassette samplers and stickers to "lifestyle" stores: tattoo and/or piercing parlors, skate/surf shops and stores selling "paraphernalia," like Vertical Urge in Raleigh and Unity in Chapel Hill.

Because many HFM projects are located in larger retail markets, few locals know much about the company. But if you saw The Wedding Singer, bought Buckcherry's debut album or watch any MTV, you've probably been influenced by their marketing tactics. For The Wedding Singer, HFM's tie-in campaign featured karaoke jams and giveaways at selected malls. In the case of Buckcherry, HFM worked with Dreamworks for almost a full year to create anticipation for the band's debut single, "Lit Up" (Part of the plan included a Buckcherry "residency tour" here in the Southeast.) For those few who were in attendance, Buckcherry's Go! Rehearsal shows were surreal: 15 to 20 locals watching an unknown hard-rock band practice their over-the-top stadium moves. Nobody laughed, however, as the band turned up on MTV and radio playlists, or when heavily inked Buckcherry frontman Joshua Todd landed a Calvin Klein billboard ad.

From passing out cassette samplers at skate parks and video arcades to infiltrating online chat rooms, HFM reps interact with their target audience by showing up on their turf. To create a word-of-mouth buzz for IMN, a new independent cable music channel, four interns piloted two fake "news vans" (equipped with bogus satellite dishes and other official touches) on a cross-country promotional tour. As a "news crew," the reps crashed concerts and videotaped interviews with rock fans to launch the fledgling channel and its Web site.

"It was totally a guerilla thing," says Joel Wesley, another HFM marketing director. "We had fake laminates that said 'press.'"

The faux news van had no problems getting past security and cops, who naturally assumed they were a legit news organization. Not. Once inside the concert area, the reps passed out IMNtv stickers and postcards. They were also supplied with state-of-art video cameras to interview concertgoers. (The footage was simulcast on IMN.com.) "We got invited backstage at KISS," Wesley says, laughing. "They totally thought it was legit."

Combining a PC 'tude with marketing brio, HFM designed a "cause-related" push for Food.com, an Internet take-out and delivery service where you can order meals from local restaurants. To attract college students to the site, HFM coordinated a "Music4Food" drive on select campuses. Students were asked to donate food for Second Harvest, a national food bank. In exchange, they got to attend concerts by bands like Verbena and Guster and snack on free food donated by Food.com suppliers. HFM also gave out promotional sampler CDs featuring unreleased tracks from "hip" artists like Moby and Blur.

When Vos recently relocated to New York (he's a Long Island native) the company hired its first non-intern, former Geffen West Coast marketing director Rick Sherman, who worked for the company during the Nirvana Nevermind explosion. As HFM's vice president, Sherman oversees the Carrboro office.

Over the past 5 years, HFM has marketed such artists and Radiohead, Limp Bizkit and Elliott Smith. Recent projects include Bosson, a boy-band style artist from Sweden and the debut release by 12-year-old Aaron Carter. "The biggest change since I've been here is that labels are falling all over themselves to sign the next big kiddie pop band," Sherman states. For the 8- to 15-year-old age group, HFM plans to hit the Disney radio tour and target fave teen retail shops. "We've got a campaign where we're going to community swimming pools," he adds.

Who pays for all this? The labels. Heck, if the album is a hit, they'll recoup their investment. If not, they'll cut the band loose.

In major urban centers, street marketers are as inescapable as pigeon crap: Poster "snipers" plaster and re-plaster any available flat surface with flyers and posters for rap and hip-hop releases. When you leave a club or concert, you're likely to be handed a postcard or freebie for an act. In the urban music community, getting your single to the right DJs and getting spins on the right radio shows is even more crucial; a powerful buzz can result in a regional hit or club fave and fat "out-of-the-box" sales.

In any tight, musically cohesive community--be it rap, hip-hop, techno, rave, reggae or jam bands--the reputation of the key players becomes more important. (Sort of like the indie-rock community in the early '80s.) These "tastemakers" can generate interest in an act just through their reputation and contacts. Consequently, they won't damage their credibility or mess with their hip-quotient by backing a loser.

The Butta Team--the area's premier marketing force for hip-hop and rap--started out as a DJ group, assembling the best DJs in the area to "monopolize" the market. Be it with mix tapes (sold on the street and out of "mom and pop" stores), club DJ-ing or radio shows, the Durham-based group set out to "take the DJ aspect of street jams to another level," explains team member Mike Nice. Each DJ had his own forte. "Everybody had their own spice or whatever that they brought to the table," he adds.

Having established their reps, the team diversified. DJ Madd (aka Mike Heyward, the guy behind Durham's Madd Waxx record store) was the first Butta Team member doing street promotions for labels. But as Madd's store took off, Nice and DJ Courtney C (Courtney had RDU/911--a production and management company) filled Madd's niche, branching out into marketing this past April. "Most of our concentration is the Raleigh/Durham area," says Nice, "but we bleed over to Greensboro and Fayetteville." Within this territory, the Butta team is currently promoting the new De La Soul album, as well as releases for Warner Brothers, Epic and Tommy Boy.

"Usually we'll work three projects at one time," says Nice. The team had been working De La Soul for over a month prior to its release; they're now laying the groundwork for records hitting the streets several months from now. "We really try to make sure the radio and club DJs have the material first, because those are the key guys who really make the record take off," he says, noting that the spins are the most important thing for the artist.

"A lot goes into doing street marketing," Nice continues, citing such variables as label size, budget and type of record. "We have our focal points on how to attack, depending on the artist." To get the word on the street, Nice keeps the operation small. "We're really selective; we use only three people outside of Courtney and me," he says. When asked, he's coy about the team's marketing techniques--"You don't tell everybody how you bake your cake."

For an indie label like Merge, where being noncommercial is part of the cachet, aggressive marketing techniques would probably disturb label fans, according to Martin Hall, Merge's director of publicity and promotions. Merge is remarkably polite when it comes to marketing. "It's probably not in vogue, but we try to be as unobtrusive as possible," Martin says. Do their interns ever infiltrate online chat rooms? "We're not that motivated," he says, laughing.

Melissa Adams, publicity and promotions director for Yep Roc Records and Redeye distribution, says the company has plans to implement street teams. Adams and co-owner Glenn Dicker originally did all the legwork for local releases; they'd hit watering holes and hangouts frequented by their fan base: Henry's, Hell, and Pepper's Pizza in Chapel Hill, the James Joyce in Durham and the Stingray, Wicked Smile and Rockford in Raleigh, to name just a few. Local music clubs are also supplied with promo CDs. "Frank is awesome," Adams enthuses about Cat's Cradle owner Frank Heath. "He'll keep our CDs on the soundboard for rotation."

It's one thing to go into your favorite bar or coffee shop and get to hear the latest local releases. It's yet another to be bombarded by ad campaigns that invade places you expect to be marketing-free. No longer content to passively advertise, marketers now try to personally interact with their target groups. One of the biggest national youth-targeting firms is ADD Marketing, whose name alludes to the fact that today's teens probably suffer from an attention deficit disorder due to "information overload." ADD's answer? "Epidemic marketing," an almost virus-like approach where they attempt to infest every aspect of the target audience's life with their promotions. "It's no wonder that half of our clients refer to us as the 'cool police,'" brags ADD's CEO Scott Leonard.

Caveat emptor, dudes. EndBlock

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