Going grass roots to get the country word out

by Alison Bonaguro
Special to the Tribune

(Chicago Tribune, Published August 6, 2006


Tim McGraw is lot like Tide -- a trusted brand that barely needs marketing. He gets plenty of shelf space in the form of air time. And every time people see him, he sells himself.

But what about newer country artists? How can they stand out in a sea of Tim McGraws?

When conventional promotional tactics are too rich for most record labels' budgets, many of them turn to grass-roots marketing, a tried-and-true system in the music business. One of the biggest trends in country music is the street team -- essentially groupies on a mission. Much more than just zealous fans, these teams give artists the promotional boost they need to climb the charts. Best of all, they do it for free.

Take an artist such as Dierks Bentley. His latest album -- "Modern Day Drifter" -- went platinum. And while he's not a household name, he's trying to be with the help of db Special Opps, his street team. Even though Bentley's idea of grass-roots marketing is meeting those fans in the parking lot before the show, and doing tequila shots with them afterward.

"I credit my street team with my success," Bentley said. "My singles would not do as well without their efforts. I used to play for a tip jar, so I've come from the bottom up. Street teamers have done my marketing for me." And Bentley has the unique ability to see things from the fan's perspective. He is a card-carrying member of U2's and George Jones' fan clubs.

Most country street teams have the same MO: Members call radio stations to request singles, hand out stickers and e-mail links, and talk up the artist with everyone they can. In return, they get rewards such as merchandise, ticket presales and sometimes, meet and greets. There's also that "job well done" thing.

Kim McKeon, 36, of Chester, Conn., has been on Phil Vassar's Street Team since the beginning. She makes radio requests daily, and she buys a dozen CDs on release day to give away. But she's not in it for the tangible perks. "Phil gives 110 percent of himself at shows, and when his songs go to No. 1, that's reward enough," she said. "There's something to be said about fans who'll take their time and energy to spread the word about an artist."

Holding little sway

But country radio bosses don't necessarily agree that these teams work, nor are they as swayed by them as the fans think. Mike Peterson, program director at Chicago's US99 (WUSN-FM 99), says the teams try not to appear organized, but he can tell which requests are coming from these forces. "They use industry language, so you know it's someone with an agenda," Peterson said. "But no requests affect how we program." He added that artists try every angle to push a song, so it doesn't hurt if it falls on deaf ears. "Things will organically find a way to the top," he said.

Kerry Wolfe, director of programming for Milwaukee's FM 106, agrees. "Street teams make no difference at all. We are very much aware of them," he said. "But we make our music decisions based on gut instinct and our own research."

The effectiveness of this kind of marketing is difficult to gauge. Tracking requests leaves too much margin for error, because you can't always tell the requests of regular listeners from those of a calculated move on behalf of a street team.

And because most record labels have both arena-worthy artists along with newer ones, the marketing staffs have the added challenge of where to put their money. The big names may not need the marketing, but the smaller names may not get the budgets.

Even when there's a big label behind a smaller artist, though, these spread-the-word techniques may not be accomplishing much. Carson James, senior vice president of Promotion for Curb Records, knows what it takes to push an artist. His opinion is that with developing artists, you just have to hope a song inspires someone to be active instead of passive. "A big hit creates a need to re-experience the song," James said. "But only 1 percent of a station's audience makes phone requests. That's just not very many."

This may not bode well for people such as Hope Davis, the street team coordinator for Rodney Atkins, a lesser-known artist who's recent single -- "If You're Going Through Hell" -- made it all the way into the top 10.

"Rodney and I sat up until 2 a.m. coming up with ideas for the Rod Squad," said Davis, who believes that the Rod Squad is working. "When you're not selling out arenas, you can't give away free trips. But we can give away stuff like the shirt he just wore at Joe's Bar in Chicago."

And while the efforts might exist at the grass-roots level, street teams are increasingly being facilitated by well-organized groups and businesses. The I-Squad, Street Network, mrmx.net, Artist Media Group and Echo Music all have made a business out of the volunteer efforts of the devoted.

Following success

Because country often follows in the footsteps of rock, Music Row would be wise to copy what other labels are doing with Tremor (tremor.com), Procter & Gamble's effort (an expansion from its more traditional role of offering cleaning supplies, coffee and snacks) at marketing new music that uses a network of teenagers to promote products. Again, it's more word-of-mouth publicity. But this one gives people a chance to rate songs before they're released.

Tremor bills itself as a VIP community of teens who can make an impact. Once you join, you listen to unreleased music, rate it and feel good knowing you had a part in the decision-making process. It appears to have cracked the code on influencing word of mouth. Teens sign up so they can have influence and exclusive access to special events and insider info. What teen wouldn't want that? To date, Tremor has more than 250,000 active teens. And with so many country artists invading MySpace.com, it's obvious what an impact the Internet can have.

Peterson says "MySpace isn't relevant for spins, just for spreading the word." And if song plays are any indication, word is indeed spreading. A recent check found that Atkins' single had 201,097 plays; Miranda Lambert's debut single, "Kerosene," had 589,036; Jack Ingram's "Wherever You Are" had 117,074; and The Wreckers' "Leave the Pieces" had a staggering 1,145,413. Though song plays on MySpace.com don't always correlate with radio success, the numbers do suggest awareness is growing. And further, that artists need an arsenal off-line and online marketing tools.

But is all this word of mouth a waste of time? Jay Conrad Levinson, author of "Guerrilla Marketing," says no. He thinks country artists must do unexpected things to get attention. "Street teams help turn artists into cult brands, and the members become evangelists," Levinson said. "They do things that would normally be the job of a promotion staff."

Mike Schafer, vice president of brand development for Fifth Third Bank, knows that that approach is something brands rely on all the time. And artists are just like brands. "The recommendation of a trusted peer is almost always worth more than a recommendation of an expert or advertiser," said the marketing veteran. "That's what viral marketing is all about."

What these unconventional marketing tools cannot do, according to James, is build relationships. And that's the best way to get a song on the air, and get it played. "Here's what I did for developing artist Steve Holy. Holy and I got on a plane, and went to dinner with US99's program and music directors. I brought my iPod, put the buds in their ears, and got the song on the air," James said. "No street team can do that."

So the jury is still out on street teams. While these low-budget tactics may have quantitative limitations, they certainly can't hurt an artist. At the very least, they create a virtual bond between the artist and the fan. And when that happens, the artist can count on brand loyalty for life.

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