Are We In It for the Likes?
By Brian Rosenworcel
I’ve been in my band for almost 25 years at this point — which means Guster was around before there was an internet. We had to do things differently.
Yes, this is going to be a the-more-things-change-the-more-things-stay-the-same themed post, but stay with me. There will be laughter. There will be tears.
Back in the 90s we built a following by leaving a clipboard at our merchandise booth where fans could write down their mailing address at shows. We’d promote ourselves through postcards and newsletters (The Guster Gazette) that we pasted together and photocopied at Kinko’s.
This is what touring bands did before the internet. And since we were self-managed, it was the band members who’d enter the names into a laptop-the-size-of-a-toaster-oven while riding in the van. I was the drummer. I usually took on this job, but as a bit of a savant-y guy (if I may say so myself), I’d remember names and addresses quite precisely — to the point where someone would come up to me after a show and say “Hey I’m Rachel Dob — “ and I’d say “-kins. Rachel Dobkins. You live at 35 Hickory Lane in Maplewood New Jersey.” This would be followed by speechlessness and maybe a phone call to the police.
Twenty years later, our fans are still shocked that we’re paying such close attention to them.
Two days ago we put up a video explaining how we found a cover video online for our song “Diane,” created by a fan named David Bashford. We realized it’d be pretty simple to recreate it shot-for-shot, and then we did just that. That we stalked David to capture his reaction to our video just puts us in some purgatory between Totally Cool Fan Oriented Band and Okay Guys That’s Like NSA Creepy, Stop It.
These ideas spring up pretty naturally for us. They’re in Guster’s grassroots DNA. For a band that started performing for friends in dorm rooms and spent years busking in Harvard Square, fans are peers. Fans are friends. The fourth wall hasn’t just been broken down — it never existed in the first place.
When we moved out of our apartment in Somerville, Massachusetts in 1999 we held a yard sale at our house and invited our fans. From our sidewalk we ran an impromptu charity auction of important items like the t-shirts we wore on our album covers. Then we celebrated by throwing a couch off our balcony. For years our website served like a David Letterman mailbag — if you wrote us with an interesting request, there was a good chance we’d read your email aloud and call you on stage. Yes, you can sing “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” as a duet with our drummer.
In January, when a blizzard struck the northeast and forced us into an unexpected day off in Pittsburgh, we decided to play a “dumpster set” in the snow.
A dumpster set means we tweet out the location of a random dumpster with a half hour’s notice, and then play an acoustic concert in front of it for whoever shows up. Usually a dozen super-stoked people. We get a rush just playing in a ridiculous setting to a handful of fans.
But now there’s a guy in our management office named Mark who is tasked with promoting bands on social media.
And while all the social media content still comes from the band members (our singer runs the Twitter account, I run the Instagram etc), Mark’s job is to get our shenanigans exposed to larger audiences. We had a friend stream our snowy Pittsburgh dumpster set live on Facebook, and much to our surprise, it got passed around until nearly a half a million people saw it. And while that kind of exposure is pretty sweet and unexpected and all the comments are overwhelmingly positive, I’ve got some mixed feelings.
Because that’s not why we do the dumpster sets. We really just wanted to do something weird and special for ten people. It’s definitely uncomfortable territory for me. I can’t decide if Mark is The Man (like, the mac daddy) or if Mark is “The Man” (the white collar guy from management whose thirst for likes will corrupt our pure indie nature).
Remember the Maroon 5 video where they crashed weddings and started jamming out on their song “Sugar” while the brides screamed and the children danced? If not, here it is. Go ahead and add another view to the 1.1 billion they’ve already got on it.
This is what I’m afraid of — the staged version of the fan connection. Taylor “Swiftmas” gifts presented to her fans with a camera crew in tow. Is that what we just did, Mark? Is that what I’m doing right now? On this site you recommended to me, half-kvetching, half-promoting? Will all future fan-oriented ideas be evaluated for their potential to become viral sensations, and only performed if they move the Facebook meter? We’ve crashed weddings of Guster fans too, you know. Just for the glory of it. And for the free food.
So this post is also a plea for amnesty. From the Keepin’ It Real Police in my brain who raise an eyebrow at the fact that our latest idea includes a self-promotional explainer video complete with band member interviews. Did we make that video for David Bashford, the guy who was shocked to discover that the band remade his video? Or did we do it for the glory of showing the world how down-to-earth we are? Does it matter? Is it possible that it’s okay to do it for both?
Because you know what, I get the sense from the comments on this video — and don’t act surprised that we read Facebook comments, you already know we stalk most of you — that we just put some goodwill into the world. David and his mother chimed in too:
And if his mother is okay with it, I think I can be too.