Saturday, May 1, 2010

Ten terrible music promotions

Every time a record drops a promoter earns her props.

There's no doubt, it's tougher than ever to promote a band in this wacky world of hyper-niche marketing, fickle listeners, and free downloads.

Every band has to now consider how to get attention and stand apart from the clutter. At some point in every band's life, this means that a wily music promoter will confidently announce: "I know: we'll do something crazy!"

When this happens, you'd be wise to avoid dead rats, giant lemons, and the Hells Angels, as these terrible music promos illustrate only too well:

1. The Boomtown Rats dead rat promo (1977)

When the Boomtown Rats released their debut album on Mercury Records in the U.S., a promoter thought it would be a good idea to send it to program directors in a Ziploc bag, the better to include a dead rat and formaldehyde.

In his autobiography, Is That it?, Bob Geldof says that the promotion was such a turn-off, it overshadowed the band's music for years.

One dead rat in a baggie can completely ruin your day.

2. The Smithereens Winnipeg satisfaction-guaranteed promo

The Smithereens played Winnipeg's Les Rendez-Vous in 1980.

Trouble was that their album hadn't yet been released, so the radio station that promoted the show (CITI-FM?) made attendees an offer they couldn't refuse: a refund if they "didn't completely love the band" after the first four songs.

After the first few numbers, all eyes were on the door to see if anyone would collect the refund. The room was full of cost-conscious Winnipeggers, so more than a few did.

At his Winnipeg show last year, the Smithereens' lead singer Pat Dinizio remembered the promotion - clearly the scars haven't yet healed - and suggested that it continues to be the dumbest music promo he's ever been part of.

Cheque, please.

3. The Rolling Stones free concert at Altamont

A free "thank you" concert by the Rolling Stones at Altamont Speedway in San Francisco turned into the worst day in rock when it disintegrated into a nightmare of bad drug trips, fighting, and the stabbing murder of Meredith Hunter at the hands of the Hells Angels, who had been hired to provide security.

The murder was captured on camera, and is part of the documentary Gimme Shelter.

Everybody wants to be further from free.

4. U2 emerges from a giant lemon

Big, serious, important band U2 decided to get silly on its PopMart tour - the only time the band has ever played Winnipeg, because (surprise!) it's the band's worst tour ever.

Racing through "I Will Follow" and "Pride (In the Name of Love)," U2 instead concentrated on ditties nobody requested: a 14-minute version of "Miami," and a lame version of "Daydream Believer" sung by the Edge to a karaoke track.

At the encore, the band emerged from a giant lemon, just like Spinal Tap would have done. Sour.

Volkswagen called - it wants its car back.

5. The four KISS solo albums (1978)

In 1978, KISS was one of the biggest acts in the land. So, Casablanca Records did the math and figured that you could sell quadruple the KISS albums if each member released a solo album on the same day.

The albums shipped to a massive pre-order only to stiff among fans. Four million copies were shipped back to the record company, revealing the KISS brand to be shakier than anyone imagined.

For decades, these albums were staples in bargain and garbage bins around the world, and can still be bought on eBay for next to nothing.

6. George Harrison's concert for Bangladesh (1971)

This concert paved the way for countless fundraisers to follow, Live Aid among them. The show featured George Harrison, Ravi Shankar, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, and Bob Dylan and by most estimations was an artistic success.

That success, however, was somewhat tempered when $11 million was held by the IRS after organizers forgot to apply for tax-exempt status. Wah, wah, wah.

In 1980, John Lennon referred to the concert as, "a rip-off."

Something in the way he raises money.

7. Woodstock '99

Hey, wouldn't it be cool if we could tap into the peace, love, and understanding one more time and...oh, sorry, we'll have to update that to violence, fire, and rape - incited by none other than the time-tested artistry of one Limp Bizkit.

Joan Baez was not amused.

8. Mötley Crüe is the new Beatles! (1981)

Comparing oneself to the Beatles has destroyed many a group, from the Knack to Squeeze.

But my favorite example of an ill-advised Beatles comparison is one that I use in class each year, torn directly from Mötley Crüe's biography, the Dirt.

On June 22, 1981, the band released a grammatically questionable news release - a manifesto, really - that took hyperbole to a new level in order to convey the incredible, shocking, breaking news that...the band exists.

The release ends with a bold statement indeed: "Mötley Crüe is not a rebellion but a revolution in rock. A return to the hard-driving sound of the Beatles reenergized for the eighties."

I guess that would make this the eighties equivalent of "She Loves You:"

9. The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus (1968)

Imagine that you're the second-biggest band in rock and roll to only the Beatles.

You decide to do something about it. You'll shoot a "rock and roll circus" concert film to prove that you, not they, are the greatest band in the land.

You invite some of your pals to join you in the fun, only to end up getting blown off the stage by...the third-biggest band in rock and roll.

Imagine no more. This is what happened to the Rolling Stones when they were upstaged by the Who at their own concert film. So crushed were their egos, they hid the footage from public view for nearly 30 years.

Who are forgiven. I'm not askin' you, I'm tellin' you.

10. Kevin Rowland reveals a new look (1999)

"Come on Eileen" just wasn't good enough for Kevin Rowland, so in 1999 he ditched the Celtic soul shtick and vagabond threads to record a covers album, "My Beauty."

What no one expected was that Rowland would also unveil a new look, complete with heavy makeup, frock, garters, nylons, and pearls. He was rewarded for his efforts by being booed off the stage at the Glastonbury music festival and selling a grand total of 500 copies of the album worldwide.

In 2003 he reformed Dexy's Midnight Runners, and all was right with the world.

The greatest love of all - isn't happening to him.

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