Taking Music Promotion to the Streets

12 Dec

After a concert at the Beat Kitchen on November 1, a gaggle of girls attacked the departing audience.  “Go see State and Madison here on November 29!” they shrieked as they blocked the exit and shoved fliers into the faces of the concertgoers.   Some ignored the girls and refused to take a flier.  Others took the flier and hurried away.  Sometimes the flier would spark interest in the band but most fliers are thrown away, used as scrap paper, or become bookmarks.  Rarely someone would engage in conversation with the girls and ask about the band.  This kind of reaction is what these girls hope for, since as members of State & Madison’s Street Team, the girls’ goal is to promote the band.

Stickers from Street Teamers © Copyright 2010 Linda Hays

Most people who have been to a concert in Chicago have encountered enthusiastic Street Teamers like these girls, but few people know what being on a Street Team entails.   Street Teams are a group of people, usually teenagers, who “hit the streets” to promote a product (like a band) or an event (like a concert).  Unlike a fan club, Street Team organizers expect the members of their Team to actively participate in marketing activities.  Depending on the Street Team, these activities could be anything from to putting stickers and posters in the members’ communities, requesting the band’s songs on the radio, passing out fliers outside concert venues, or convincing friends to come to shows and buy the band’s merchandise.   Street Teamers are often rewarded for their work with free merchandise or special access to concerts, though most would do it for a little pat on the back from the band members and the satisfaction they get from helping a band they love.

The grassroots promotion of Street Teams was first developed in the mid 1990s by urban labels like Jive, Bad Boy, and Priority Records.   These labels found it easier to market rap music to its target audience through word-of-mouth through peer-to-peer interactions that would make the music “cool.”  Following the success of the urban labels, this marketing tactic is used today by organizations as big as major record labels or as small as unsigned artists.

One of the girls outside the Beat Kitchen on November 1 was Sam McHale, a 19-year-old Columbia College student who is currently a member of four Street Teams for Chicago bands.  When she was 16, McHale joined the Treaty of Paris Street Team after she had “gotten to know the band” and wanted to promote it.  “I basically just started off passing out fliers after shows, which seems to be the most effective way [to promote],” said McHale.

Since joining the Treaty of Paris Street Team, McHale has joined Street Teams for the Frantic, State and Madison, Cavashawn, and Warner Brothers Records.  Recently she was asked to join Island Records’ Chicago Street Team because of her work with local Street Teams.  None of these Street Teams pay McHale for her work—most Street Teams are composed entirely of volunteers.

Although the Street Teams she is on do not demand her to work a certain number of hours per week like a lot of unpaid internships would, McHale devotes a lot of her free time to Street Team work.  “I probably go to three or four shows a month, spending usually half an hour to an hour passing stuff out,” said McHale. “Depending on the show, I’ll go out for an hour or two to hang posters up in different parts of [Chicago] or around my school.”  McHale is so dedicated to this sort of unpaid part-time job that she has even gotten sick from passing out fliers in the cold.  “But it’s worth it,” she said.  “Street teams are a great way of getting the word out about artists, bands, upcoming shows, or any [new releases].”

Some Street Teamers, however, are less involved than McHale because they do not understand what they are supposed to do.  Lyndsey Kantarski, a 21-year-old DePaul University student, is a member of the Chicago Street Team for an unsigned rock band called Cavashawn.  She joined after a Cavashawn show in Chicago last summer when the band created its Street Team.  While Kantarski enjoys claiming membership in the Cavashawn Caravan, she isn’t very actively involved in Street Team activities.  “I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to be doing,” said Kantarski.  “Mostly I just post videos on YouTube or Facebook when someone from the Caravan e-mails me about it.”

Unlike McHale, who stands outside shows and vigilantly distributes fliers, Kantarski has a much more relaxed (and confused) approach to this characteristic Street Team activity.  The one time Kantarski tried to pass out fliers, Cavashawn sent her an envelope full but didn’t give her any instructions for what do to with the fliers.  “I just ended up handing the fliers out at a party and stuck a bunch of them in art lockers [at DePaul] and hoped for the best.”

Danger is My Middle Name © Copyright 2008 Lyndsey Kantarski

Street Team leaders, on the other hand, have to do more than just hope for the best—they have to create a plan for promotion and make sure everything is going according to that plan.  Sonja Martin runs State and Madison Street Team, as well as the Street Teams for Danger is My Middle name and Made Avail.  The eighteen-year-old is currently unemployed and has taken this fall semester off from school.   With her open schedule, Martin can spend anywhere from a couple to 15 hours a week working for the Street Team.

Martin started Danger is My Middle Name’s Street Team about a year ago.  She had interned for the band’s former manager, who recommended that Martin start a Street Team for Danger is My Middle Name.  In the beginning, singer Gabe Atkins helped Martin set up the Street Team.  Since then, Martin runs Team Danger while the band members are only involved with the promotion when they hand out fliers themselves.

As the leader of Team Danger, Martin organizes all Street Team operations.  She manages the Street Team’s Myspace account, sends fliers to Street Teamers, and anything else that needs to be done so everything with the Street Team runs smoothly. To recruit members for her Street Teams, Martin talks to fans at shows or sends friend requests to fans on Myspace.  “I can either go to a band’s Myspace and friend request new people [there] or browse random people off Myspace’s browse feature and friend request them [in that way]” said Martin.

According to Martin, being a good Street Team leader takes dedication, organization, love for the music, and a bit of craziness.  Some of Martin’s crazy ideas have included: wearing formal dresses in freezing weather to promote State and Madison’s Fall Formal concert, buying a $175 vinyl banner for State and Madison, and buying four cases of candy hearts one Valentine’s Day, writing on all the boxes “TO: YOU  FROM: STATE AND MADISON.”  All these expenses came straight out of Martin’s own pocket.

While the Street Teams Martin created are known in the pop punk rock scene for militantly distributing fliers outside shows, other Chicago Street Teams are a little more casual.  Chicago-based Cavashawn created a Street Team with the goals of spreading awareness about the band and increasing attendance at shows.  The Cavashawn Caravan combines traditional Street Team methods of putting up posters and distributing fliers with new methods of saturating the Internet with Cavashawn’s name.

Kelly Kantarski, a Street Teamer for Cavashawn, puts up fliers at a store in Chicago © Copyright 2008 Linda Hays

According to Caravan leader Rachel Lafranconi, bands need Street Teams to put the band’s name anywhere it will get attention.  “This means not just in shops and restaurants, but online as well,” said Lafranconi.  “Online presence is a huge deal to any band and the more people see the name Cavashawn, the more curious they might be, and eventually they will give [the band’s music] a listen.”

Although Cavashawn has been a band for five years, it did not set up a Street Team until last June.   Jesse Feister, the band’s drummer, took most of the initiative in the Caravan’s creation when the band started to discover what forms of promotion worked best.  “I tried to do some research but I couldn’t find any really good Street Teams,” said Feister.  “[Major labels] pay money and obviously that changes the equation.”  Some labels, like Aware, pay their Street Teams but they force the Street Teamers to take pictures of what they are doing and give specific orders of when and where to distribute fliers.

Feister said he thinks it is more effective to give Street Teamers specific activities without being too specific about how to complete them.  “People helping our street team aren’t doing it for the money, because there is no money.  They’re doing it because they want to help the band,” said Feister.  “We try to guide people to things we think would work but at the same time we leave it wide open [as to what they do].”

The members of Cavashawn wanted to lay the groundwork for the Street Team before starting the Caravan.  This summer, Feister and his bandmates walked all over the North and West sides of Chicago and asked stores if they could put a flier up in the window.  They catalogued the addresses of every store that allowed them to post a flier and organized Chicago into 11 zones that contain 60-70 of these locations.  “All that information is pretty valuable to a band,” said Feister.  “You don’t have to waste your time checking out stores that won’t let you put posters up.” The Caravan has yet to use this catalogue to its full potential, but Feister said he hopes the Street Team will take advantage of it soon.

While Street Teams make good “band aids,” Feister believes that not all bands need Street Teams.  “It’s my opinion that a band should be working as hard as the people they’re asking to work for them,” said Feister.  “I think once you reach the point where you can’t do any more, that’s when you need help.”

Coventry, a pop rock band based in the Northwest Chicago suburbs, has reached that point where it needs the help of a Street Team, though they are having difficulties firing up the Coventry Crew.  Two years ago, a friend created a Myspace for the Crew, but some of the band members don’t even know it exists.  “We don’t have an existing Street Team right now that’s really functioning,” said singer Kevin Farris.

Instead of enlisting a small army of fans to promote their band, the members of Coventry act as their own Street Team.  “We like to do a lot of our promoting standing outside of shows and being those annoying guys who hand you a CD and a flier as much as we can,” said drummer Bryan Farris.  “So I think we could push more of a Street Team aspect where we can bring some more people to come and help at certain shows [with us].”

Since two of the five band members are attending college and one of the members has a full-time job, it is difficult for Coventry to promote in a group effort.  Instead, they turn to the Internet for most of their promotion.

“Our [promotion] is more around the Facebook phenomenon because I think that’s more accessible these days,” said Kevin Farris.  “I think Street Teams are kind of obsolete, in my opinion, because I think you see all these blogs popping up, Twitter accounts [tracking the band’s whereabouts], and Facebook.  I think those are merging as the new Street Teams.”

Although the Internet has opened up a whole new world of possibilities for Street Teams, one trend among them has remained the same: most of the members of Street Teams, particularly those of the pop/punk/rock scene in Chicago, are female.  Woo Park is one of the few male members of the Street Teams for Cavashawn and State and Madison.  “Most of the Street Team members are female,” he said.  “I guess that makes me unique.  I like being a little bit out of place, so I think it’s great.”

Sonja Martin, Park’s leader in the State and Madison Street Team, agreed that most of the members of her Street Teams are female.  She thinks this is because all the members of the bands are male, but the female dominance in the Street Team works in her favor.  “The girls have always been more involved,” said Martin.  “The guys are mostly just ‘on’ the team.”

Jesse Feister of Cavashawn said he thinks more girls are on the Street Team because the pop/rock genre appeals to girls more at first.  Since most of these bands are made up entirely of male members, sex appeal becomes a factor that attracts girls to the music.  “It doesn’t hit straight men the same way it does straight women,” said Feister.  “The guys are more skeptical.”

While the male listeners are waiting for the band members to prove themselves as musicians, Feister said girls are coming up to the band after shows.  “I think girls are more forward when it comes to talking to bands after shows and guys stand back a little more.  Because of that you end up talking to more girls and you end up asking more girls to join Street Teams.”

J.P. Richgels of Coventry agreed that female fans are more involved with the band outside the music.  “Guys in the crowd just stand against the wall with their arms folded but the girls are the ones who are buying the [merchandise].”  Richgels’ bandmate Kevin Farris also believes that the reason for this trend is because of the band’s sex appeal.  “We’re all pretty cute,” he said.  “Guys have to look sexy onstage for girls to like them too.  It’s not all about the tunes, unfortunately.”

Kevin Farris of Coventry © Copyright 2008 Linda Hays

The danger in the sex appeal of bands is that the female fans could find themselves thinking they are better friends with the band members than they actually are.  “I believe that if people join Street Teams, they definitely feel that they are closer to the band than they actually are,” said Rachel Lafranconi of the Cavashawn Caravan.  “What is great is when a band acknowledges your hard work, [and] in that respect you know that you are unique to them.  However, that shouldn’t get to your head because sometimes you are not appreciated as much as you should be.”

Although some Street Teamers are unaware of the possible development of a one-sided relationship, the fear of seeming too desperate is one of the reasons why Lyndsey Kantarski is not very involved in the Cavashawn Caravan.  “There are some people who think they are best friends with the band and hang around them all the time. That’s just not for me,” said Kantarski.  “I want to be recognized by the band for my dedication, but I don’t want to be known as the creepy fan girl that they can’t get rid of.  There’s a fine line between dedicated and obsessive.”

If some Street Teamers seem borderline obsessive, it is more likely they will be snubbed or get snide remarks thrown at them.  Although it may seem discouraging when Street Teamers are mostly ignored, they will remain persistent in their promotion. “Even if the people who get the fliers just toss them, they’d at least get a glance at the band’s name and gain some awareness,” said Sam McHale.

And while members of Street Teams could risk catching pneumonia from harassing concertgoers outside in sometimes freezing weather, they don’t care. “Some [Street Teamers] get made fun of for standing outside in the cold,” said Rachel Lafranconi, “but would it really be a show in Chicago if you didn’t see those Street Teamers outside?” Besides, healthy lungs aren’t that important when the band the Street Teamer loves is not yet clutching a Grammy and thanking fans for their support.

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