You're Not Invited

Secret shows. Corporate gigs. Blind Dates. Why is it becoming harder for the public to get a piece of the rock?

During Bob Mould's show at Bunkers on August 31, a voice from the darkness piped up to offer the singer a cigarette. "No thanks," Mould replied. "I'm one of the ones that got away." The quip resonated with the 75 or so audience members that night, all of whom had paid their entry fee with 200 Marlboro Miles, the equivalent proofs-of-purchase for four cartons of the brand's cigarettes. But Mould's humor seemed to vent his uneasiness with the gig itself. He had agreed to participate in a relatively new phenomenon in live rock 'n' roll: the secret promotional concert, this one shilling for a tobacco giant in the state that just a few years ago received six billion reasons not to smoke.

The concert had been advertised in the August 25 City Pages under the slogan "200 miles gets you in," and included the showtime, the venue, and the 1-800-Marlboro number--but not Mould's name. Bunker's listed the evening's event as a "private party." But at least one veteran fan had caught wind of the gig. In the middle of the set, a voice from the crowd requested "Celebrated Summer," the still-cutting Hüsker Dü tune about warm-weather alienation that would close Mould's set a few days later at the Mill City Music Festival. The husky man sitting onstage with his 12-string responded that the song would have to wait, then added sardonically, "Oh, I guess the jig is up. You can see the puppet strings." Without explication, he raised his arms like a marionette.

"What better way to enjoy yourself than to listen to a little rock 'n' roll and drink a lot of free beer?" Brett Scallions of Fuel at the band's recent MGD Blind Date show
Tony Nelson
"What better way to enjoy yourself than to listen to a little rock 'n' roll and drink a lot of free beer?" Brett Scallions of Fuel at the band's recent MGD Blind Date show

Though a spokesperson for Philip Morris reports that the company doesn't exert any influence over musicians' set lists, the wry ex-punk seemed to understand the dynamic of this explicitly commercial show, one in a fast-growing series of such events. Since the beginning of June, Marlboro has booked over a hundred such secret gigs in 18 cities, enlisting a number of other alternative acts, the Violent Femmes and Soul Asylum among them. Mould's was the third Marlboro show held in the Twin Cities this summer, after more crowded concerts by Los Lobos at O'Gara's on July 2 and Cheap Trick at Ryan's on July 20. Two more dates are slated for O'Gara's in the coming weeks, one on Wednesday, September 22, the other on October 14.

The idea of using a rock concert to advertise a nonmusic product is hardly novel, to say the least, nor is the guessing game of keeping the headliner a secret. Starting two years ago, Miller Genuine Draft shoved the motif into pop's consciousness with its heavily hyped MGD Blind Date campaign. The brewer held its ninth Blind Date on September 10 at the Quest, where bussed-in company employees, local bartenders, and sundry Zone 105 listeners won the chance to be disappointed by Fuel and Better Than Ezra, eat buffet, and drink seven cups of free foam.

But Marlboro's shows are far more hush-hush. The company doesn't yet deal with radio stations and doesn't invite media, who were barred from the Mould show. "Marlboro basically rents out the room, so we have no control," says Adam Lenhart, who books for O'Gara's and had trouble getting into his own club for Los Lobos. "It's like Fort Knox. I was thinking I could get me and a couple of buddies through the door, and next thing I know, they're like, No, no, no, you need miles to get in."

Marlboro, like Camel and other cigarette brands, was forced by last year's comprehensive tobacco settlement to stop sponsoring concerts that kids could attend, and the company agreed to cut back advertising on public billboards, in sporting arenas, and in other venues. "They had to come up with new ways to promote their brand names," says Nate Kranz, who books for First Avenue. "The popular way to do it right now seems to be through these big-band, small-venue concerts."

Most clubs and bars are exclusively under contract with either Camel or Marlboro, and First Avenue is effectively a "Camel club." But it nonetheless gets its share of promo events because it also sells Coke, which began a campaign similar to Marlboro's earlier this year. In June Blink 182 canceled a Coca-Cola gig at the club, but Collective Soul played one there in July, followed by Eve 6 at the Quest in August. All three were part of the giant caffeine peddler's "If You Don't Know You Don't Go" (or "IYDKYDG") campaign, which targets local teens by visiting Twin Cities high schools and passing out Coke cards. None of them registered with the media, unlike Zone 105's listeners-only Red Hot Chili Peppers show at First Avenue in May, which promoted "teen tolerance" in Littleton's wake. Though most record labels strive to push their bands into the spotlight wherever they play, the sub rosa routine of closed concerts seems to be the way the musicians want it. According to Kranz, "Bands aren't willing to go on record with the idea that they take money from corporate America."

 

For years, "weddings, parties, anything" has been a motto of pride and pathos for every dues-paying rocker. But it took former Minneapolis resident Rufus Wainwright playing a Fine Line gig exclusively for Point (104.1 FM) listeners last March to alert this local fan that "anything" had taken on a new aspect. In all likelihood, you've missed worthy acts every week all summer because they have played exclusive radio promotions, music industry love-ins, corporate galas, and other gigs that leave most folks out of the loop.

It's difficult to imagine a local band as sonically overpowering as Savage Aural Hotbed--three taiko-inspired percussionists and a bass player hammering against industrialism--suddenly taking a breather while some Dilbertian figure congratulates his employees on their annual achievements in widgetry. But Savage Aural Hotbed, like hundreds of other local groups, has been playing corporate gigs through much of the Nineties, buffering itself against the national bust in clubland.

"We did a thing in Atlanta that was like a pre-Olympics festival event," says bassist William Melton. "They invited dignitaries from different countries. The general public would never have heard about it, because they weren't invited." Melton says private music has artistic upsides--the band's Dayton's paychecks effectively underwrite their forays in performance accompaniment for a group like Joe Chvala's Flying Foot Forum. But the real twin perks of the corporate gig are great money (two to three grand, on average, versus the $500 to $1,500 that clubs normally pay) and great hors d'oeuvres--fiscal and gastronomical lusts being the most immediate.

"It's kind of the high life," says Melton, laughing. "They usually let us go out and eat a little bit, and mingle briefly with the clientele, then they show us back to the kitchen. Artists have historically had a different position in life than the kitchen help when working with the aristocracy, but we're generally more associated with the workers. We're there to entertain and be colorful."

In the past two decades, several local agencies have sprung up to meet the demand for live music at corporate functions, weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, and product unveilings (in that order of import). A surprising number of musicians, most of them nonentities in the local scenes, play nothing but private functions. That number has jumped in the past couple of years, according to Brian Harrell, co-owner and sales manager of All Time Favorites, a St. Paul-based agency that books talent for private events. "There's a couple hundred local bands that have just gone so far and say, you know, let's do the private field and keep our full-time jobs."

There's nothing wrong with any of this, I hear you complaining. Give Mould and the other jobbers a break. We're all jobbers in the end: We rock to live, and we live to rock--what Guided By Voices leader Robert Pollard recently called a vicious cycle. Even City Pages hires bands for its own corporate glad-handing functions (thank you, Lifter Puller). And as Fuel frontman Brett Scallions told the MGD flock, "What better way to enjoy yourself than to listen to a little rock 'n' roll and drink a lot of free beer?"

Michael Tienken, who manages the Hot Head Swing Band and Vic Volare, knows both the benefits and limits of getting the job done under the tug of the puppet strings. "Sometimes the musicians are up there going, 'We're making 300 dollars apiece, I can get through this,'" he says. "But those shows are band killers--when the band is frustrated because it's in the background. The thing about a great night in a club, when everyone's just sweaty and it's really happening, is that the band gets way more than money from that." Which, rock fans may remember, used to be the point.

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