"The old model is crumbling," asserts Joshua Cohen, guitarist and self-proclaimed minister of propaganda for the Baltimore melodic-pop quartet Fitehouse. "We're in a new era where the record companies have lost their monopoly on production and distribution, but there's that missing component -- marketing. Yeah, I can reach anyone in the world on the Internet, but who's going to come to my site? We're fighting that battle with creativity."
That's a bold understatement from a guy whose band spends as much creative energy devising promotional stunts as it does on songwriting. But you gotta hand it to the members of Fitehouse -- they certainly know how to get people talking. The foursome has an extended history of guerrilla marketing tactics, the most notorious being its ongoing campaign to have its song "Baltimore" declared the city's official rock anthem (sample lyric: If you ask me how it goes, baby I'm livin' it/And if you ask me how I know, Baltimore's givin' it).
Sure, it's a clever idea, but how does one go about achieving such a feat? For Cohen and company, it involves attending public events dressed like vagabonds, toting cardboard placards that read Support the Rock Anthem and handing out free CD singles. Though "Baltimore" has yet to be declared anything but catchy, Fitehouse's efforts have not gone unnoticed. A number of political figures have given the song a thumbs-up, including the lieutenant governor, the assistant fire chief, and the police department's deputy commissioner. Even Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley went on record as "kind of" liking the gushing pop confection.
Others weren't so sure, particularly music critics who skewered the tune for its overt cheesiness. City Paper critic Joe MacLeod summed it up succinctly: "['Baltimore'] sucks, and the tired, boring, perfunctory rock music on the song sucks, too ... Jesus Christ, what a piece of crap."
Fortunately for Fitehouse, those criticisms only increased attention to the song, which Cohen says was exactly the idea. Soon, the band was contacted by Baltimore's Office of Fine Arts, which asked for copies to be distributed to every public school in the city. Fitehouse promptly delivered 200 CDs, along with sheet music and "suggested classroom activities." Last year, Cohen and drummer Ellis Baylor testified before Baltimore's Subcommittee on Economic Development, where a debate was held about how to improve the city's image. Their solution: rock anthem.
"I went up and said, 'Look, you don't need a lot of money if you're creative,'" Cohen recalls. "'Baltimore has an asset, and that's the fact that we're seen by the world as somewhat of a quirky town, and we can play that up without spending millions on an ad campaign.'"
The city didn't bite, but Cohen and Baylor were asked to join the Better Image For Baltimore Committee. Local radio stations started paying attention, too, an anomaly in the era of corporate-run radio.
"We've lost the ability to create regional hits [because of] Clear Channel's monopolization of the airwaves," Cohen says. "If you want a hit, you really have to get at Clear Channel, who's going to produce it on all formats across the country. Then you compound that with the fact that it's national now, so you have to be in every record store. Everything became a national launch. If you look at the numbers, it requires sales of a million units before the figures are interesting. To a record company, a million units is nothing. And if you don't produce at least a million units, you're going to get dropped pretty quick."
Cohen's thoughts on the matter are detailed in his self-published manifesto Common Musical Sense, a thirteen-page "intellectual call to arms against the recording industry, radio deregulation, and media consolidation and their threat to our national culture and democracy." With a wry tongue and a keen eye for detail, Cohen's pamphlet details the problems of a youth-obsessed industry he believes has alienated a large percentage of the music-buying public. This includes "discouraged listeners, individuals who have given up purchasing music because the offerings are so poor." Cohen insists that lack of variety, rather than file-sharing, is what's causing the record industry's sales slump.
Cohen sent 1,200 copies of Common Musical Sense to various media outlets (along with Fitehouse's full-length debut, Released), garnering nationwide press for the band.
"We're in the process of developing legitimacy," Cohen explains. "That's what bands on labels have. We're just trying to be active and creative and create our own legitimacy. There's a myth out there that if you come from a major label, you must be good. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. A lot of newspapers and magazines get bombarded with advertising from the labels -- a new album comes out, [the labels] buy advertising space, and there's this appearance of a buzz. Now, possibly that band has a legitimate track record, possibly the band is very good, but there's plenty of this myth-making going on."
Fitehouse probably won't have to worry about inking a major-label deal anytime soon. The members are all in their thirties and play music that doesn't adhere to the latest trends. Fitehouse is also scrupulously angst-free and doggedly optimistic, definite no-no's in today's cynical market. Cohen, a former economist who quit his day job to play guitar, insists that being independent is the only way to go.
"It's insane," he says. "No one in their right mind would enter this industry. It's structured so that you're an indentured servant to the labels. But they're not motivated by good taste or art. They're motivated by economics. As a small, independent label, I can make a really great living selling 10,000 units a year, but in the new marketplace, that's not so feasible."
Another fallacy, Cohen says, is the widespread belief that consistent roadwork is a surefire route to indie-rock success.
"I know plenty of bands that have been touring forever," he says. "They have huge local fan bases, and they do fine, but they're constantly busting their backs going from date to date. They're making a living, but they can't slow down. There's this myth out there: You gotta bust your back, keep touring, and someday you'll be discovered and be a superstar. It's an absolute myth. You can play forever and just barely make it."
The Fitehouse solution is -- you guessed it -- marketing, marketing, marketing. Granted, most musicians would prefer to focus on art and leave the business side to others, but for Cohen, propaganda is a creative act. Currently, Fitehouse is in the midst of yet another media blitz, a weekly postcard campaign that recounts the band's history of eccentric publicity pranks.
"We selectively carpet bomb certain places where we'd like to get coverage," Cohen explains. "We're hoping that every week, people are gonna be, 'Who the hell are these people?' And that as they read the content, they think, This can't be true. Because we've done so many outlandish things. How did the lieutenant governor come to support our rock anthem? Why does every music teacher in Baltimore have one of our tunes? The cumulative effect, after the ninth postcard, is that people are like, 'Who are these people? If nothing else, they're bold and creative. Maybe we should pay attention to them.'"