Attention, SXSW-goers, welcome aboard the “Together” bus, with complimentary shuttle service from the airport to downtown Austin. Please enjoy the free bar. We have stuff for mimosas, Bloody Marys, and bourbon & cokes. For your listening pleasure, we’re going to blare the new New Pornographers album, “Together,” out May 4 on Matador Records. The band isn’t playing SXSW, but this is the first time a fan can hear the album.
“If you’re not gonna like the album under these circumstances — a free ride and booze — then you’re not gonna like it,” says Gabe Spierer from Beggars Group, a parent label comprising 4AD, Rough Trade, XL, and Matador.
“[Matador founder] Chris Lombardi wanted to buy a ’71 Cutlass and park it on Sixth Street and let people hop in and out, and listen to the record,” colleague Adam Farrell adds. “But imagine having that car parked out there that long.”
The “Together” bus is one of the guerrilla-style marketing campaigns prevailing at SXSW, where making an impression on the swarm of festivalgoers already desensitized by Twitter memes, Gowalla updates, and a billion other messages competing for brain waves is no easy feat.
But Spierer and Farrell boast of early success aboard the school bus converted into something approximating the Merry Pranksters’ Further, equipped with inside walls aswirl in orange, blue, purple, red and green, and a bitchin’ stereo system. They say on their first run, at 9:30am, they got all of their passengers plus half the cab line. “We’re crushing SuperShuttle right now,” Farrell says.
On the 11 o’clock ride, the second of five total runs on Wednesday, the bus is packed with approximately 20 people. On board is the Matador band Fucked Up. Bystanders outside the airport terminal, and on the street en route back to downtown, are definitely scoping out the banner on the outside of the bus. Although they’re probably wondering what the hell a New Pornographer even is, the music playing inside is doing the trick on its target market.
“I’ll buy this record just because of this bus,” says one loud-mouthed, tattooed longhair. “I promise, dude.”
Meanwhile, across town, another innovative marketing tactic is also cutting through the noise. At the gourmet hot dog restaurant Frank, Jack White’s Third Man Records is setting up a “pop-up” shop, the fourth of its kind in the past year for the Nashville-based label. Prior cities include New York, Los Angeles, and London. The idea, first and foremost, is to extend the White Stripes brand.
“We have a really strong, hardcore fan base because of the White Stripes,” says Ben Swank of Third Man. “We want them to know this is a label for the fans, where they can come in and meet us and talk about music.”
The pop-up is situated in the back of the dining room, where for $8.50 you can order a White Stripes hot dog, topped with red pepper strips, BBQ sauce, and white cheddar. Two boxes of pins — one with “I ♥ Jack” and one with “I ♥ Meg”–rest side by side on a counter, along with other odds and ends.
But vinyl is king. The serigraphs made especially for this occasion say, “Y’Alls Turntable Ain’t Big Enough.” Indeed, Third Man has pressed special Texas-sized vinyl — 13″ instead of 12″ LPs and 8″ instead of 7″ 45s — that fellow Third Man label head Ben Blackwell says are “the perfect match for the tens of thousands of music industry schlubs descending on Austin like locusts.”
Beginning Friday, the first 50 customers to purchase a “The Ghost Who Walks” single by Karen Elson, Jack White’s model wife, will gain admittance to Elson’s concert upstairs at Frank on Saturday night. (The Dead Weather are in Australia, so don’t expect a surprise visit from White.) Third Man is also pushing a reissued vinyl of the Jon Wayne album “Texas Funeral.”
“It’s an amazing lost Texas record,” Swank says.
“That record is why I moved to Texas,” adds a customer who overhears Swank.
Of course, some bands or entities aren’t about loud statements like these two. The handlers for the London band The XX, who are playing multiple SXSW shows in support of their narcotic, minimalist self-titled debut, have taken a downright subliminal approach. XL Records, also under the rubric of Beggars Group, whose marketing efforts are also handled by Adam Farrell of the “Together” bus, bought bus-tail wrap ads on the back of two Capital Metro buses, featuring the band’s single “X” logo.
“The XX’s allure and power is in the subtlety of their music,” Farrell says. “Our marketing campaign has never been about overpowering that.”
But how is the success of a campaign like measured? Farrell says, “If our marketing campaigns were subject to any sort of quantifiable return on investment, I would have been fired years ago.”
[Photos: “Together” bus, Michael Hoinski, 2010; Third Man Records, Kathy Hoinski, 2010; The XX, Beggars Group, 2010]