Archive for the 'Anthony Moschella' Category

Vampire Weekend

The convergence of bands, record execs, media watchers and tastemakers have turned SXSW into a perfect, yet bizarre, laboratory for the study of rock band promotion. In this maelstrom it seems like every year a handful of bands rise above the background noise and get singled out as the next big thing. As you’ve probably heard by now, Vampire Weekend, an indie pop band comprised of fresh-faced college kids who wear boat shoes, is this year’s must- see act. This band’s rise to SXSW superstardom displays an incredibly calculated awareness of music trends. In many ways they are the most purposfully, intelligently and agressively marketed bands of the last few years.

This band is almost aggressively uncool. Sure, there is some irony, but they proudly flaunt the fact they’re a bunch of foppish ivy leaguers. They are utterly non-threatening; their press photos show clean-cut, unremarkable dudes with tucked-in shirts and flip-flops. It’s preppie-pop with some world music influences. They sound a little like a few dorky Paul Simon fans who got way into a stack of bizarre, late-period Sting albums. This is not edgy rock. My mom likes this band. So why are they selling out clubs?

Knowing this, I got in line about an hour early, which it turns out wasn’t close to early enough, since the line was already 200 deep. My place on 4th street was near enough the stage door to see the band load in: beardless nerds in pink pants and blazers. Resigned to the fact I wasn’t getting into Antone’s, I played roving reporter and talked to the other doomed show goers to try to find out why they were cool. An alarming number of people in line had never heard this band, and came just to see what the hype was about. Also notable was people who mentioned that they enjoyed this band “because of who they are” or “because they’re Ivy Leaguers.” When I pointed out that an Ivy League education was not very rock and roll, no one seemed to mind.

At some level, they seem to be a reaction to the insider rock culture that dominates the Internet and SXSW. For example: the continuing trend to write music reviews in obscure, subcultural jargon; SXSW’s increasingly exclusive parties and high-velocity buzz bands are all relatively recent developments. These trends arose, at least in part, from the mainstreaming of the “hipster” archetype that dominated so much pop culture the last several years. The image of the scenester Adonis was carved out of bad haircuts and silly bandanas that are marketed so aggressively (yet cheesily) that a few years from now it’s going to have the same kitsch as an 80’s movie.

Like all bands, blowing up is part luck. Vampire Weekend having their producer on the Pitchfork Media staff (as disclosed in their 8.8/10 review) doesn’t hurt. But even more than their predescessors, Vampire Weekend is a carefully calculated product manufactured by people acutely aware of the type of marketing and branding required to stand out from the crowd. Their squeaky clean image is a big part of it. Lyrics about sitting around the quad and summering on the Cape are subtly confrontational. Rock kids get riled up to imagine the yuppie beach-house set invading the gritty world of indie college rock. Also, there has long been much talk about the materialistic hip-hop scene, but there is an aspirational quality to Vampire Weekend’s music. Their lyrics paint a picture of an easy, comfortable life that is specifically not that of a rock star. One music video shows them sailing on a yacht! But beyond that, I think fans aren’t looking for music to be dangerous anymore. Vampire Weekend is safe, scrubbed rock and roll, that feels subversive enough to get the indie stamp of approval. Whether or not they live up to the hype remains an open question for me, and the other 400 people shut out of the showcase last night. But honestly? Seems unlikely.

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FXFU: Do Not Advertise Here

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There aren’t too many places left at SXSW that are genuinely marketing free. Most events are pretty blatant promotional vehicles. Others work hard to seem authentic and non-corporate and mostly fail. Some, though attached to a brand, really aren’t trying to sell you anything except a good time. But for the last decade there is one party in Austin, still going strong, that is guaranteed to be an oasis of marketing-free, old-fashioned punk rock ethos: F*ck by F*ck You. And how can I tell? Because its the only SXSW party in town that has a goat.

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Once upon a time, though it’s getting harder and harder to remember, all you needed to throw a show here was a P.A. You didn’t need Fader and Red Bull to build massive complexes full of flat screen TVs and Guitar Hero. You didn’t need to give away your email address and phone number to get a laminate. FXFU is a SXSW tradition of throwing shows the old fashioned way. The venue is basically a sandpit with a rickety porch and a homebuilt stage. It’s also the home of Bryan Nelson’s Australian Cattle God record label, a fiercely independent local imprint that promotes bands and sells albums the grassroots way. It’s also home to an adorable pygmy goat. And on Saturday, it was home to 300+ old punks, babies, hipsters, drunks, stoners, record excs, moms, dads, out-of-towners and anyone else who heard about it having the time of their lives.

So here is the problem. The organizers of FXFU (and many of the attendees) are the genuine freaks, weirdos and lunatics. People who are not ruled by fashion or trends. The artists. The risk-takers. The true tastemakers. These are the people SXSW advertisers dream about selling to. And people like this exist in every scene and in every city. Obviously this doesn’t mean advertisers should bring their promotional koozies and bottle openers and candleholders to FXFU. The only way for an advertiser to reach this profoundly influential group is to stop thinking about advertising and start thinking about what makes events like this work: a sense of community. Large corporations are not necessarily the problem, but as someone smart at Google once said: “Don’t be evil.” Think about local markets. Think about communities. Think about being green. Don’t do it just to move product, but do it because it makes sense, for both your business and your customers. These are the tenets that have always been vital to the “DIY scene,” be it the punks or the hippies or the hackers or whoever. And the DIY scene has been steadily gaining momentum and is not going away. When businesses as a whole reflect these values, advertising becomes less of a one way street and more of a dialouge. And successful, quality products and sucessful quality marketing build sound companies and loyal customers.

FXFU started as a response to the increasingly corporate feel of SXSW, but it survives as perhaps the most relevant SXSW event there could ever be. It’s the one party that’s not about brands or dollars or the record industry. It’s just a bunch of people who love rock music and who love bringing people together and actually care enough to make it happen. It’s refreshing, as it is every year, to see something so genuine at this festival.

Vice Branding at SXSW

The Vice brand is interesting because they don’t really sell anything. Born from a small independent ‘zine based in New York City, Vice got famous through their fashion “Do’s and Dont’s,” an ultra snarky man-on-the-street critique of style. They also have a record label. They have a sporadically-published magazine they give away for free. They recently expanded to producing movies and documentaries.

Interestingly, they don’t seem to move enough actual product to be springing for the $30k parties throughout SXSW. Their true livelihood is a stranglehold on the zeitgeist and a powerful love-hate relationship with the hipsterati. Many complain about them and their very harsh voice (which is valid), but every year at SXSW people fight tooth and nail for a pass to their after-hours parties. None of this is especially unique enough to distinguish themselves from SXSW background noise except for one glaring problem: Vice is the one legitimate underground brand that could be declared a sellout.

Vice seems to promote just about any product they can get their hands on, most notably their long term co-branding with Toyota’s youth oriented Scion imprint (National music chain Guitar Center is another major advertiser). Why do people tolerate a legitmate voice of the underground flaunting their relationship with a giant corporations?

Rock fans tend to be hypersensitive to corporate sponsorship. Most people can spot a big company trying to buy “cool” a mile away. SXSW attendees obviously understand this and are willing to tolerate it in exchange for the free beer and free music, though it almost leads to some resentment. For example, Filter, Fader and Nylon magazine each have a huge SXSW presence which, though effective in its own right, in many ways undermines their underground credibility. Their events inevitably feel corporate. Vice, in contrast, emerges with their authenticity intact despite their massive marketing effort.

This year at their signature day event Scion branding was everywhere. This included a Scion with a custom paint job of the headlining band, Motorhead. This band was not even a part of SXSW in any official capacity. And the band was Motorhead, a pioneering British heavy metal band that started in the 70’s. These guys obviously do not drive Scions. The entry wristbands also proclaimed “THIS IS A SCION EVENT” in block letters. But despite the advertising, the energy was adamantly non-corporate. The party was wild, dirty and had the feel of being slightly out of control. The seemingly unlimited alcohol didn’t hurt. This year’s banner moment was a tattooed guy with a huge beard literally asleep on the hood of one of the many Scions parked inside the party’s grounds. Vice deliberately took away the polish and glamour from a very well-funded and branded corporate event to make the event feel spontaneous and a little dangerous.

The other card in Vice’s hand is the fact they have never claimed to have any kind of integrity. Their entire voice is based around being an extreme of the New York City rock insider, a hard-partying socialite who pulls no punches. It’s an identity that has no problem taking Toyota’s money if it means they can party a little longer. This attitude, which was once probably genuine, is now a savvy marketing twist. It’s subtle, but they have cached their “selling out” as a part of their persona, enabling them to accept aggressively corporate mainstream marketing while maintaining their legitimacy.

The capstone was Vice’s now traditional Saturday late night party, an event entirely free of advertising. There were no banners, no promoters and no schwag. The only branding was the alcohol available from companies like Sparks, Miller High Life and Hornitos who likely paid dearly to give away alcohol in order to be associated with Vice.

After-Hours Marketing

A staple of the SXSW experience are the late night after parties. These affairs are generally exclusive, corporate financed and excessively branded. Last night I finally cashed in enough credibility to get invited to the Red Bull/Facebook Lounge, which was an intense and drunken barrage of extremely aggressive marketing.

To be fair, waking up on a friend’s couch in one’s clothes with a hangover you could sell to science never leaves you with a good taste in your mouth. But this event was excessive, tacky and made me feel a little dirty. The opening shot was the admission pass: a temporary tattoo of distressed art and Red Bull logos. You had to apply the tattoo to enter, and there was a small branded Red Bull “tattoo studio” with a sink and sponges outside the gate. So anyone who wants to party needs to walk around with a logo on their forearm or neck the next few days. Dirty tricks? Maybe. But effective.

Once inside the scene was impressive, albeit sort of tasteless. It was a converted hanger/parking lot with a Red Bull logoed stage that looked like it was left over from the last U2 tour. Performing on it was some guy with a laptop. Across from the stage was an incredibly elaborate two story lounge packed with every ostensibly cool extra a marketer could dream up: white leather sofas, Guitar Hero 3, plasma TVs playing break dancing videos and ubiquitous Red Bull and free booze.

The co-sponsor of this party was Facebook, and near the VIP area was the “Facebook pavilion”, a converted bus packed with computers and Facebook schwag. Amazingly, there was a line of drunk revelers desperate to update their Facebook profiles, no doubt to let their friends know about this sweet party. It was pretty incongruous, and sort of interesting that people’s digital lives were so critical that people would take time out of a real live party to spend time on a computer.

Overall, if a sort of glossy, polished nightclub-like experience is your thing, you’ll love this party. But the fact remains is that as an advertiser, pouring people free alcohol only brings them to your event, it doesn’t sell the product or build brand loyalty. It’s all about how you market to them while they are there. Love it or hate it, Red Bull has very effectively matched a lifestyle to their brand. There is clearly a “Red Bull experience” and events like this definitely help to build it.

Why I Bought a Tiny Computer

The interactive portion of SXSW devotes days’ worth of panels to emerging technologies, almost all of which focus on the web. The most compelling applications are the ones which bring web-enabled content and flexibility away from the desktop and into the real world. There has been a lot of talk about things like Twitter, though currently in its infancy and only used by alpha geeks, is definitely a sign of things to come. Twitter’s concept is that meta-data stored on the web can in fact be useful in people’s day to day lives. And customers are only going to demand more and more complex data as people begin to realize the actual value of ubiquitous information.

One of the choke points, however, and something that SXSWi largely glosses over, is the hardware that enables this technology. Text messaging is the first step, naturally, and most of the interesting mobile technologies are built on it. But cellphone manufacturers have been fiercely competing to add more “computer-like” features to each new generation of phone. Blackberry cornered the business market with an array of web and enterprise features. The iPhone then exploded the reach of the smartphone by making it cool and convincing a generation of the tech unsavvy that they need to check their email in the grocery store. Now that nearly every handset user has these capabilities services that make use of rich content have a platform.

But cellphones fall short in a lot of ways: they are underperforming, and suffer from usability issues, particularly related to display and input. Any writer on earth (including those weirdo Japanese text message novelists will tell you that tapping out posts on an iPhone is less than ideal. A very interesting little gadget emerged in the last year to bridge the gap between the smartphone and the laptop. Asus’s eee PC is an adorable little ultraportable that hits the sweet spot of features, flexibility, price and style. It is a cheap, powerful machine optimized for new web technologies. For example, it sacrifices a hard drive for a small flash storage instead relying on things like Google Docs. It also plays on another trend: hackability. It has an expansion bay in the back in which hardware hackers are stuffing GPS, wireless modems and just about every other technology one can imagine. Needless to say, it’s been great for blogging this festival; it’s portable enough to lug around all day and not make you miserable.

With hardware costs edging lower and lower and more demand for mobile web applications, I think we are going to see a lot more devices like this coming down the pipe. HP has already released a competitor being sold through Wal-mart. Personally, I would be shocked if a certain fruit company based in Cupertino, California didn’t release a device very similar to this in the next year or two based on iPhone and MacBook Air technologies.

 

The International Music Showcase

I kicked off the SXSW music festival by stopping in to check out the International Music Festival at Friend’s Bar. My main motivation was to see 127, a band from Tehran, Iran who are SXSW veterans. All partisan politicking and saber rattling aside, I am fascinated by the prospect of a distinctly American-style rock band coming to exist in a strict Islamic state. The bizarre confluence of Eastern traditions and Western traditions making it to Tehran was too good to pass up.

The crowd was mixed: part world music enthusiasts expecting some djembes, part hard-rock fans and part confused college kids expecting the bar to be a dance club like it usually is on Tuesday nights. Also in the mix were the support staff of bands from Germany, Brazil, India and a host of other countries. It was definitely a unique crowd: traditional beards and turbans coupled with trendy pop-punk t-shirts. Supporting were the unfortunately named MenWhoPause, a 5-piece hailing from New Delhi who did a perfect Imperial British version of Joy Division, complete with the King’s English and an Ian Curtis baritone. Despite being from a city of almost 10 million, they said this was the biggest gig they’ve ever played.

127 stole the show, though. They were a suprisingly heavy band, with an obvious influence from British classic rock. They all sported beards, naturally, but I was suprised to see one of the band members with a neck tattoo. They played a high energy set that included long jams, some old-style guitar rockers and some ballads and, overall, sounded very much like a hip American rock act. But mixed in were moments that captured the distinct percussive and atonal elements of Middle Eastern music. The show was compelling, but the fact they were Iranian lent the night a certain excitement. Part of it was a refreshing hope that our media isn’t 100% correct about our supposed “enemies” and that culture, particularly rock and roll culture, is very much alive in places we don’t expect. And part of it was that the promise and energy of live music goes way beyond our stereotypes and cliches.

Geico Promotional Candle Holder?

Edging out those fingerless blogging gloves as the weirdest schwag so far is this lovely, vaguely Geico Caveman-branded promotional votive candle holder from the Geico party downtown. It holds five small candles in an array of neutral colors sure to complement your cave, your thatched hut or even your apartment (if you’ve evolved past the hunter/gatherer stage.) The package also thoughtfully included a box of tumbled pebbles, presumably to decorate your candle holder with a tasteful, mellow precambrian vibe. This is part of Gieco’s IHeartCavemen.com campaign, an ironic web-dating/ social networking site which allows you to turn your photo into a caveman, thus fulfilling all the promises of Web 2.0.

At the launch party, I declined to have my photo taken with the Geico Caveman, but he wasn’t shy about giving hugs and kisses to the ladies. Though I am convinced that social networking websites are here to stay, I’m not entirely convinced the world really needs one that caters to the cavemen set. There are a lot of lessons the advertising community can learn from the Geico Caveman campaign. But there is big lesson I can vouch for: no one wants to lug a candle holder and a box of rocks around SXSW. Next time stick with a coozie.

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SXSW is an Austin event. And Door Number 3 is an Austin advertising agency. We're interested in how new ideas in advertising, media and branding will be presented during these 9 quick days. From inside the lecture halls where top specialists present their thoughts, to out on the streets where advertising is put to the test on tens of thousands of festival-goers. We'll be there with the complete coverage, reports, photos, editorials, and perhaps some tricks on how to sneak into a few sweet afterparties.

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