Don't Go On The Boat: the Promotional Party

So you’ve just released your first CD (or record, or download, or piece of fancy cardboard). Great! Now you’ve got to make sure people know about it. That means cozying up somewhat to the press, radio people, and other necessary evils. Time for the promotional event: Book a room, get together all the friends and influential people you can muster, and try to play the best show you’ve ever done. Or at least one that will give your fans and your mom some good memories.

A promo event doesn’t have to be too upscale—All you’re trying to do is make sure people hear your album, whether you want to perform it live or just get a beautiful sound system and play the disc. The trick of course, is to get people to show up. If you’re famous, that’s easy: We’ve been to plenty of parties where the new album was played while the big star tried to hang out incognito (and believe me, few things can look sillier than Lenny Kravitz trying to be incognito). But if you’re a band on the rise, you’ll need to use some imagination—and yes, to spend some money. Keep in mind that press and radio folks these days—at least, the ones who care enough to investigate new music—probably don’t have much more money than you do. A little refreshment and an hour’s worth of open bar will get you lots of appreciation and probably a very receptive audience.

For better or worse, the most memorable promo event I ever went to was thrown by the Blackjacks, a Boston band I once loved (and one that’s playing a reunion gig this summer). They were loud, they were macho, they wore lots of leather, they cussed a lot and scared your girlfriend away. When they had a release party some time ago, they thought it would be a cool idea to roast a whole pig: That way they could feed all their fans, attract the curiosity seekers, and prompt lots of inappropriate “hog” jokes. Unfortunately it takes time to fully roast a pig, especially if you’re doing it in the backroom of a rock’n’roll club. So when serving time came around, that creature was still pretty close to squealing. Most of us were too hungry to care, and an open bar can wear down your inhibitions, so my memory of that show involves a roomful of people tearing away at bright pink, barely-singed slices of pig. There has to be a really bad metaphor in there somewhere.

Feeding people at release shows can be more trouble than it’s worth; but there are times when your music demands it. For instance, a Boston band called the Nines released an EP with the ingenious title of Hi Fi Lo Mein, so there was no getting around it: They introduced it at a Chinese restaurant over noodles and scorpion bowls. Another local band—Temper, whose pop fell on the sweet and gentle side—celebrated its CD by having the bandmembers’ names imprinted on actual M&M’s. This was simple and effective, and somehow suited the music. Some bands do go to extremes, however: Also in Boston, the Dresden Dolls once celebrated a release by hiring a theater, recruiting street musicians, and getting scantily-clad people of both genders to do suggestive things as living statues. Memorable for sure, but then they’re the Dresden Dolls—They probably do that sort of thing to celebrate a new set of guitar strings. (And yes, they do use guitars—just not that often).

The most big-league event I ever scammed my way into was also the most generous—and whether or not you’re an Elton John fan, he certainly delivered the goods. The album was Reg Strikes Back—not even one of his best—and the party was over the top: He rented out a concert hall, wined and dined the crowd long enough to play the CD through twice—then took the stage with a piano, thanked everyone kindly and played a handful of the new songs live. After that he shook hands and signed posters for all 350-odd people that were there (I told him how to spell my name, so I came out with a poster that read “To Brett. With two T’s. Love, Elton”). He did this in a few cities and the album did produce a Top 10 single, so something must have worked.

On the other hand, there are times when such events can get totally out of hand. Perhaps the most legendary example happened during the early alternative-rock era, in an event that’s become known as “the Capitol punishment.” Now, Capitol is a great label that gave us the Beatles, the Beastie Boys and Radiohead, and one that deserves our appreciation. Not on this night, however. It looked great on paper: An invitational boat cruise from New York on a warm summer night. Open bar! Live music! Paul Shaffer welcoming people on board! This was bound to be memorable.

And memorable it certainly was. For starters, the boat was dangerously over-packed, so anyone who’d seen Das Boot started feeling the recognition. For another thing, they ran out of alcohol after about an hour. Then they ran out of soda. Then they ran out of water. Someone swore he heard Paul Shaffer muttering “Get me outta here.” Nothing to do but get to know your neighbors a little better than you intended, until the boat finally docked after two and a half hours. Time to finally go home? Nope—Turned out we were only being shuttled to a different dock to witness a live performance by Skinny Puppy. Now, when you’ve been crammed on a crowded boat for most of an evening, are you in a mood to hear a set of abrasive industrial music? An hour of that, then a couple more hours crammed back into the boat, and it was finally over. Lots of disgruntled people hustled into bars at around 1am that night. “Don’t go on the boat” became an industry catchphrase for years afterward. And somehow Skinny Puppy never made it too big.

Of course, bands in these recessed times won’t be making that kind of cash layout; and this is a good thing. Just get a comfortable space, buy a few six-packs, and play us the damn record. Or at the very least, finish cooking the pig.