A Case Study in Creative Promotional Tools

By Kevin Anthony
Like all bands, my music partner Gene Harper and I began recording homemade tapes in our tiny studio apartment in NYC. We had intentions of getting a record deal with this demo that we were feverishly making. Once completed, we went to Staples and bought cassette labels, tape, and mailing envelopes. We then hurried back and labeled each envelope with the name of the A&R person we hoped would listen to our brilliant creation.

We sent our tapes off and gave them the usual two weeks before following up with phone calls. Not one of them was returned, and eventually we got tired of being pests and moved on to making more music.

One day while sitting in a panel discussion at the Winter Music Conference, I was suddenly struck with an idea– in order to get our music heard we needed a different plan and one that involved a different approach than the U.S. Post Office. After chatting with several different A&R folks from different labels about how to get them our music, I realized the incredible amount of stuff that they receive. Most of it ends up in the trash and is never listened to at all. We felt our package had to be intriguing and should stand out from all of the rest.

We returned to New York and began to scheme up our new approach to getting heard. We designed a small cereal box that would contain a cassette tape. The cereal box had our name on it and all kinds of stuff like “fortified with vitamin bass”, and “great tasty breaks,” etc. We invented a crazy cartoon rabbit character and put him on the front. We took the files that we created in QuarkXPress to a local copy shop and printed them out on the digital color copier. Each color copy cost $1.49, so we ganged them up two on a page to save on costs. We then cut out color copies that we printed at the cut marks and pasted them onto stiff poster board. This gave the boxes a sturdier form and made them easier to fold at the edges to create a box top. The cassette tape was sealed up inside and the small cereal box went into a large box full of packing peanuts. Each cereal box cost around $5 to make and an additional $3 for shipping via the U.S. Postal Service. In all we made about 20 of these and sent them out.

We sent out a couple of these cereal boxes and got no response. It seemed that a huge box sitting in the mailroom was overkill. And in addition to that, I got tired of going to the post office and mailing huge boxes out every other day.

We then regrouped and came up with another idea. This time we would make some sort of nifty gadget that would better represent us. We were all about technology and how it affects us in our living society, so we thought of a computer chip idea. We went to Canal Street and rummaged around the junk computer stores and bought 50 or so motherboards of old computers for $10. We took them back to our studio and went to work with a hacksaw. We sawed little chips that were 2″ x 2″ and attached a tag to them that had the info about us and an orange sticker that was a warning triangle for loud sound (the stickers were used in plant operations where hearing protection was required). We found these stickers at a junk depot the Dupont Corp. uses to get rid of its technology and operational equipment in Wilmington, Delaware, and we bought a couple of rolls of them for 50 cents and used them on all of our packages. We then found a packaging company called Uline and ordered static bags used for shipping computer chips. We bought a box of 100 for $30-$40. We then inserted our photo, chip trinket and a CD, and mailed these out to labels. Each of these items cost $3-$4 to make plus $1.50 to mail out. We made a total of 50 or so.

This time, while following up, we got a response from the labels — we were onto something! The problem was, however, that they liked the packaging idea and wanted to know where we got the stuff. Nothing was ever mentioned about the music that it contained. OK, on to another plan…

Sticking with the technology idea we kept the static bags and pressed a CD. We located a CD pressing company that would press CDs in bulk for around $1 each with no jewel case or packaging. Instead of putting the CD in a jewel case we bought some cardboard envelopes used for mailing diskettes from the same company that we got the static bags from. These cost around $30 for a box of 200. We created a label in QuarkXPress to affix to the outside of the cardboard sleeve with the name of the band on it. We then printed a white label on a laser printer, placed it on the cardboard cover, and put the CD and information in the static bag. This time we got some responses that were about the music! So now we were really onto something! Each of these cost $5 to make plus $1.50 for domestic postage. In all we had 1,000 CDs pressed and made around 100 of these newly designed press kits. 

We had several offers from small labels wanting to release our music. We passed on all of them in the interest of getting a larger deal. One of the labels we were very interested in was Astralwerks. At that time Andrew Goldstone was the A&R guy at the label and he took an interest in the music. We began a dialog about the music. We worked with him at our studio for about six months, mixing and editing songs for a possible release. Then, suddenly, he resigned from the label and formed his own label called F-111. All dialog about the possible release came to a halt. This left us sort of disoriented and confused. We decided to embark on another strategy to pursue a record deal at the newly formed F-111 label.

In addition to being musicians, we are avid GI Joe collectors. I personally collect and own the entire Adventure Team series from 1970-1978. For our live shows we dress up in crazy costumes like fighter pilots or adventurers or whatever happens to be the mode of the day. We decided one night while looking over our GI Joe collections that it would be cool to make action figures of ourselves.

I called my mother, who used to make clothes for my GI Joes as a kid, and explained to her that I needed some action figure clothes. We needed an orange pilot jump suit for me and a safari outfit for Gene. Each would have its own accessories, such as a TB-303 or a Nord Lead keyboard, as well as a shotgun bandolier, helmet and cowboy hat.

I ordered some cowboy hats from a company called Cotswold that makes accessories for action figures and the dioramas. Each cowboy hat cost $15 and was made of molded soft rubber. The pilot helmets were very expensive ($40 each) so the cost was prohibitive for what we needed to do. I took one of my original GI Joe helmets and got a book on mold making. I went to Central Art Supply and bought a mold-making kit that contained a chemical called Alumilite and some latex rubber mold material. This mold making kit cost $100 and came with the basic essentials to make a mold. I used the original pilot helmet to make a latex rubber mold. I also bought some modeling clay from the art supply store to make the keyboard accessories. You have to create a 3D object from which to make a mold first in order to make a mold of it. I made a small box of foam core and suspended the original GI Joe helmet in the box with string. I then mixed the chemicals to make the latex mold, poured it over the original helmet, and let it sit for 48 hours. During that time I used the modeling clay to make a tiny TB-303 and a Nord Lead keyboard. I suspended these in a box made from foam core and poured the latex material in the box to make molds of the keyboard accessories.

I then mixed the A&B parts of the Alumilite and poured them into the latex molds to make the helmets and the keyboards. It takes about 10 seconds for the chemicals to react and voila! Out came a helmet and the accessories. We then painted the plastic helmet and keyboards to look like the real things and were ready to go to the next step. Next was a trip to Toys”R”Us to find a suitable action figure. We found a Ken doll with some swim trunks for $10 and bought a whole cartful. We painted our features on the faces of the Ken dolls to resemble us as closely as possible. Gene had pork-chop sideburns at the time, so we used brown paint to make sideburns on our action figures. We dressed up our new creations in the orange pilot suit and helmet, along with the TB-303 for me and the safari outfit, shotgun bandoleer, Nord Lead and cowboy hat for Gene.

We then designed the boxes in QuarXPress for the action figures, based on some Spice Girl characters I owned. The package was yellow on the outside and had bright graphics with our name and the slogan “Ready For Action.” On the back of the box there was an adventure story about the character in the box. We took the files to a local copy place and printed the sheets on 11 x 17 digital color copies. Each color copy was $2.49 per page. We cut these out with the flaps and folds and glued them onto poster board to give them a sturdier backing. The boxes were scored on the fold marks and assembled, and the action figure and accessories placed inside. We used coated wire to tie the action figure down to the backing inside the box.

Wow! Just like the real thing! We then called the A&R guy from Warner Bros. and set up a meeting explaining that we had something to show him and some more music that he must hear. We arrived and pulled the figures out of the bag and presented them to him. He was in shock and really liked the effort that we put forth to make them. Shortly afterward we were signed to a single deal with F-111/Warner Bros. records. Each of these action figures cost $50 to make. In all we made three sets. One for the label, one for my mom, and one for our studio. We found that these were better presented and received by delivering them in person instead of mailing them.

We had been through several evolutions of promotional tools and had experimented with a number of things. Some of these were successful and others not so successful. Basically we learned that you have to find out what your niche is and take a new angle on it. It was a lot of work, true, but we can definitely say that every bit of it was well worth it. We discovered that of all the promotional items we tried, the action figures worked the best. They were the most costly and time consuming to make, but they paid off in the end by establishing a dialog with the record label. Remember that there are no limits to what you can do; advances in technology and access to materials have never been easier. But most importantly, have fun with it!