"You get the most interesting mail."
You'd be surprised how often one of my colleagues says that. Of course, what the postman brings them is typical reporter stuff -- press releases announcing National Mini Golf Week and the like -- whereas my mail is usually full of CDs, cassettes and promotional videos. There's a lot of it, too; a 60-album haul is actually considered a slow week in the rock-critic biz.
This particular pile was larger than most, though. Having been out of the office for a week, I was spending a couple of hours catching up on my mail -- not answering it, just opening it. What I was finding, though, went beyond the usual array of artist bios and new releases.
For instance, someone had sent me a chastity belt. That's right, a chastity belt. Another package held a box of See's Chocolates, while a third contained a copy of Al Gore's book "Common Sense Government." There was also a St. Anthony Prayer Candle and a Sparkle Beach Ken wearing a green Malibu Barbie dress.
As I put Drag Queen Ken next to the black leather chastity belt on my desk, a co-worker walked by, and gaped. "You get the most interesting mail," she said.
Yes, I certainly do.
Why would anybody send such things to a music critic? Why, to get him to listen to their album, of course. So over the years, all sorts of odd things have turned up in an attempt to direct my attention to this album or that. A pair of Groucho glasses, complete with fake nose and mustache, to remind me of "The American Comedy Box." A ballpoint pen packaged like a hypodermic needle to make me think of Ice Cube's "Lethal Injection" album. A mock Campbell's soup can to promote the 3 Mustaphas 3 release "Soup of the Century."
And on, and on, and on, until almost every rock critic in America is left with a desk that looks like a Coney Island souvenir stand.
Why do record companies go to such extremes? Are they really that desperate to get a critic's ear?
In a word, yes. "Look, you guys are inundated with music," says Larry Jenkins, vice president, media, at Columbia Records. "You've been given electronic press kits, computer press kits, straight-ahead press kits, advance CDs, advance cassettes, bios, bios printed on funny paper, deluxe bios, but basically, it's all the same. It's all variations on the same thing."
So when a record company wants to draw attention to an album or group, publicists devise some sort of promotional gimcrack or gewgaw, and mass-mail it to critics around the country. Some are functional, like logo-emblazoned pens or notepads; others are fun, such as the toy guitar -- makes six head-bangin' sounds! -- that Atlantic records sent out to celebrate the launch of its Code Blue subsidiary.
But for sheer, over-the-top wackiness, Columbia's campaign for the second Sponge album, "Wax Ecstatic," trumps everyone. This was why I wound up with the chastity belt, the See's Chocolates, the Al Gore book, the prayer candle, and the cross-dressing Ken doll.
Nor was that all; over the following week, I also received a copy of "The Velveteen Rabbit," a set of "chattering teeth" with a Crips bandanna knotted in-between; a copy of the Ingrid Bergman/Yul Brynner film "Anastasia"; a Gerber talking baby doll; and a framed picture postcard of Divine in "Pink Flamingos."
Each item, says Jenkins, was chosen to tie in with songs on the Sponge album -- the chastity belt with "My Purity," the video with "I Am Anastasia," the Ken doll with "The Drag Queens of Memphis," and so on. Sponge singer Vinnie Dombroski even helped the publicity crew come up with appropriate items.
But the writers had to make the connection between the tchotchkes and the song titles themselves, because not a single, solitary item came with an explanation -- or even a record company return address. The only message enclosed was a set of song lyrics that would (if you knew the album) tie the trinket to a specific Sponge song.
"We wanted it to be somewhat mysterious," explains Jenkins, who orchestrated the campaign. "We didn't have any return address because we didn't want it to be so easily identified. And it worked as we expected. I had journalists who had traced the packages guessing what bands it might be for."
Wait a minute -- some writers actually had the packages traced?
"Yeah," he replies. "More than one journalist had actually traced the packages."
A few, as it turns out, even got freaked out by the anonymous packages -- particularly since the chastity belt was the first of the items to be mailed. Carped one female critic (who prefers to remain anonymous), "Maybe I've dated too many creeps, but getting a chastity belt in the mail did not amuse me."
Rotten rats by mail
It could have been worse, though -- it could have been a dead rat. Many years ago, some genius at Mercury Records decided that it would be really cool to draw attention to the Boomtown Rats' debut album by mailing plastic-wrapped rodents to record stores and a few lucky reviewers. Did this lead the lucky recipients to a lifelong love of the Boomtown Rats? No -- particularly since some rats were improperly sealed, and wound up rotting as they made their way through the mails.
Perhaps this is why some reviewers treat those trinkets with caution.
Independent publicist Michelle Andersen recently handled a campaign for a group called the Virgin-Whore Complex, which decided to promote its latest release, "Stay Away From My Mother," with mock cans of Mace.
It wasn't real Mace, of course; what Andersen actually mailed out was cans of Silly String with a cheap "Virgin-Whore"-brand Mace label pasted on. But some writers weren't taking any chances.
"I had one person who took everything else out of the package, and then mailed the can back to me," says Andersen. "Most writers just sprayed it out the window to see what it was."
Writers aren't the only ones who get nervous about promo-items. Several years ago, the thrash band Sacred Reich decided it would be cool to promote its then-new album by having special Sacred Reich bongs (that is, plastic water pipes used for smoking marijuana) made up.
"Sacred Reich, as a band, liked to imbibe, and liked talking about it," explains Kim Kaiman, who worked on that campaign. "They were really active with NORML [National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws] and different pro-cannabis organizations."
Disney and bongs
Unfortunately, Sacred Reich's label, Hollywood Records, didn't share the buzz over the bongs -- in large part because Hollywood is owned by Disney, a company not exactly keen on being linked to cannabis.
"Disney wanted to distance themselves from the association of marijuana smoking because they're an All-American, good company," she says. So the bongs were mailed out by the independent publicity firm Kaiman worked for, with no mention of Hollywood Records anywhere. "You really had to think about it to make the connection," she says.
The bongs went over really well with the writers.
"In fact, a couple called me asking if they could get extras to give to their friends," says Kaiman, who is now director of product marketing at Columbia Records. "I didn't have enough of them to go around."
Clearly, some promotional items are appreciated, but it's hard to say how much influence -- if any -- they have on editors and critics.
"I never felt that those things helped in any way," says veteran critic Anthony DeCurtis. "Certainly, when I was the record review editor at Rolling Stone, they would just come pouring in. But I honestly can't say I remember any particular ones. And usually they're pretty hokey. I think a real appreciation for kitsch takes you a long way with a lot of this stuff."
Particularly since so much of the stuff is well, useless.
I suppose I could use my Raging Slab butane lighter to fire up that Mac's Smokin' Section promo cigar (being careful to flick the ashes into my Pavement ashtray), but I doubt I ever will.
But then, does anybody really expect me to? Promo booty is, at best, just a form of noisemaker, meant to make a writer notice an album that might otherwise have been lost in the clutter.
"There's an oft-used phrase, 'The music has to speak for itself,' " says Jenkins. "I would amend that to say that ultimately, the music has to speak for itself, but the record company's job is to help that music get heard."
And maybe it does. Though I still haven't played that Sponge album...
Pub Date: 8/25/96