The Essence of Sneaky Marketing

If you’re a fan of Lucinda Williams, perhaps what you’re attracted to is the authenticity of her songs, and indeed her very career. (Here I should immediately interject that I’m a fan of Williams myself, as I’ve noted elsewhere in Slate.) For some, the success of Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road was a vivid rebuke to the shallow ways of big record companies, slaves as they are to marketing and gimmickry.

Which is why it’s a bit of a surprise to find Lost Highway, the label for which Williams recorded her more recent release, Essence, engaging in a marketing campaign that falls a bit shy of the authentic.

“Join the Online Street Team and Get Free Stuff,” promises the Lost Highway home page. (Lost Highway, “a Universal Music company,” also counts Ryan Adams and Robert Earl Keen among those on its roster.) Click on that link, and you go to a Yahoo! newsgroups page where you can sign up with a Lost Highway group.

On July 20 that group’s administrator posted a message with the subject heading, “Win Lucinda Williams Tickets!” The contest’s steps were explained. First, start at least 10 “conversations” in various online forums—newsgroups, mailing lists, message boards, etc.; send links as proof to the team’s leader. Also, forward a link to a Lucinda Williams e-card to someone who is not already on the Lost Highway “team” (blind cc-ing the team leader for full credit, of course). Winners are chosen at random from among those who complete these tasks.

If you’re not sure how to get the “conversation” started, the message offered some suggestions, such as: “Hey I have been really getting into Essence by Lucinda Williams, has anyone heard the album yet? She is on the new label Lost Highway which has some other cool artists too. The site has all the information on Lucinda Williams stop by and give it a try.” Or if you prefer a less formal (more authentic?) approach to capitalization and punctuation: “has anyone checked out the Lost Highway Records site? I have been on it a couple of times and Ii did not know that Ryan Adams has a new album coming out in September. Has anyone heard the album or the samples at Ryans site?”

Now, there’s nothing wrong with enabling genuine word-of-mouth enthusiasm. But really, isn’t bribing fans with concert tickets to go blabbing around the Internet as covert agents of Lost Highway a bit much? Certainly some music fans think so. The Lost Highway contest instructions circulated, among other places, on Postcard2, a mailing list for fans of alternative country music, and it’s only via folks rolling their eyes at the label’s ham-handed tactics that this whole thing indirectly made its way to my attention.

So, if you agree that this kind of clumsy stealth marketing ultimately does artists like Lucinda Williams a disservice, I encourage you to go into at least 10 chat rooms today and post a link to this column with a message along the lines of “Hey, I have really been getting into ‘Moneybox,’ on Slate, which has other cool columns, too. …”

Oh forget it.