Eric Alper

Eric Alper Is Just Asking Questions

Eric Alper is a veteran music publicist and radio host -- and also the indefatigable voice behind the most viral prompt questions on Twitter. How did he get here?

Eric Alper wakes up early. Every morning, around 6:00, he sits down and begins scheduling the day’s tweets. It takes him about an hour and a half to figure out the day’s programming: the photos, the memes, the movie quotes -- and, of course, the question tweets that generate thousands of replies. What song has your favorite bassline? What's a song that references footwear? What is something you listened to in high school that you still listen to today? What’s the album or song that got you into your favorite band or artist?

That last one, for instance, generated about 1,100 replies when the veteran Canadian publicist first tweeted it on May 29, 2019. It received 1,100 more replies when he tweeted it again on May 29, 2020 -- and 1,200 more when he tweeted it a third time, on May 29, 2021. 

Let’s get this out of the way: Yes, Alper repeats prompts. Yes, some people find this annoying. (One guy even set up a parody account to predict Alper’s tweets from “one day in the future.”) Alper doesn’t care. “I’m not asking the same question a couple times a year because I'm looking to go viral,” he says. “I'm looking to find all those new people that started following me, who’ve never had an opportunity to [answer] that question, or want to share some amazing experience, or what they think the best song under two minutes is.”

As of this writing, Alper (a.k.a. @ThatEricAlper) has amassed around 750,000 Twitter followers -- more than Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young combined. Alper, though, says the numbers aren’t the point. He only wants to share his lifelong passion for music. 

“It's nice that people are reading [the tweets],” he tells me over Zoom from his home in Toronto. “But if I go viral with a question I asked that has 5,000 responses, or if I post something that gets four retweets of an indie band I just found, it’s all good to me. My wife is happy that I get to share all this stuff and not bother her all the time.”

Alper is not a celebrity. He’s a veteran music publicist in his early 50s, the kind of guy who seems more interested in chatting about Led Zeppelin deep cuts than advancing up a corporate ladder. He has a SiriusXM show (@ThatEricAlper show) and his own PR company, boasting an eclectic list of past and present clients

But with his friendly yet relentless barrage of relatable prompts, Alper has achieved a certain ubiquity on social media. If you spend any time in the nebulously defined world of “Music Twitter,” you’ve seen his posts. He’s everywhere -- asking you your favorite movie ending, alerting you to McLovin’s 40th birthday, sharing bumper sticker aphorisms like “Once you find your favorite band, there’s nobody else you want.” Among music writers, Alper’s name has even entered the lexicon as slangy shorthand for a certain style of engagement-bait prompt-tweeting.

The throughline is a childlike enthusiasm for music and an unflappable air of positivity, which Alper’s followers find refreshing and his detractors find grating. Alper’s online persona is defined by this positivity, which sometimes seems as out of place on Twitter as a clavinet on a Black Flag album. He’s like the human embodiment of BuzzFeed’s old “No haters” motto. As one of his fans recently put it: “All he wants to talk about is the music. Could be a terrible day with 4k Covid deaths and Capitol riot and he's all ‘What's the best rock duet with piano?’ and I am soothed.”

Others gripe that Alper tweets more like a bot than a human. “He doesn’t use Twitter in much of a personal capacity; he operates more like a brand,” says Adam Moussa, who works as lead social media manager for Eater and has a knack for analyzing Alper’s looping prompts. “It seems like he’s leaning on automation. If you want an example of that, go check how many times he’s tweeted about Dolly Parton writing ‘Jolene’ and ‘I Will Always Love You’ on the same night. That’s not one of his prompts, but it’s a factoid that’s constantly going viral.” 

Naturally, the questions Alper poses are infused with this upbeat sensibility. “I never go negative,” he says. “It’s never, ‘What band don't you understand, but everybody else does?’ Quite frankly, I never want that band or artist to feel bad. Because a lot of bands follow me, and some of them might be my clients.”

* * * 

With his long, flowing hair and flannel shirts -- not to mention the guitar in his profile picture, which he can’t actually play -- Alper looks like a classic rock disciple. In fact, he’s a musical omnivore, with rockist and poptimist energy morphed together. During the course of our conversation, he expresses fondness for Nickelback (“I know there's gonna be snark out there”), Olivia Rodrigo (“love her!”), and the relatively obscure funk group 24-Carat Black (“I’m a huge Stax fan”). The only music he will admit to disliking is classical -- and even then, he adds that he’d like to develop an appreciation for it someday: “I would love to go to a performance. I wouldn't sit there angry, like ‘I don't understand that.’”

His first concert was ABBA in 1977. His last show before lockdown was seeing The Chainsmokers with his 18-year-old daughter, Hannah Alper, an impressively accomplished activist and blogger. It was, he says without irony, one of the five best concerts he’s ever seen: “[The list is] like Genesis or My Bloody Valentine, where they almost made me s--t my own pants because of the bass, and then I'll say, ‘The Chainsmokers.’ And [people] are like, ‘Really?’” 

When Alper, who calls himself a “lifelong musicaholic,” says music is in his blood, it’s barely an exaggeration. He was born and raised in Toronto, growing up in a middle-income neighborhood not far from where his grandfather, Al Grossman, had opened Grossman's Tavern, one of the city’s first bars to host live music with an alcohol license. During the Vietnam War, Grossman's became a hippie hangout. “My grandfather would get the draft dodgers to stay there for free,” Alper says, “because he believed in the cause.” 

Alper visited the bar often as a kid. But his own life changed when he was eight and saw American Hot Wax, the 1978 biopic about early rock-and-roll DJ Alan Freed. Alper was in awe of the musical legends onscreen. “They were like Star Wars characters to me,” he says. “From then on in, I started listening a little more carefully to the radio.”

At 11, Alper saw Genesis on their Abacab tour. They’ve been his favorite band ever since. By the time he was a teenager, he knew he wanted to work in the music industry, but didn’t know how. “I couldn't play an instrument -- I still can't,” he admits. 

The pieces fell into place when he was in college in the early ’90s, writing for a campus paper and getting to meet publicists who were pitching him bands like the Stone Roses. Alper liked the idea of turning his enthusiasm into a full-time job. “That was it,” he says. “I just wanted to become a publicist.” 

Eric Alper
Eric Alper

After college, he started his own label, then landed a job working for the small Toronto label Shoreline Records, which was distributed by Koch Entertainment. As Alper tells it, one day Koch’s president asked him, “How would you like to work with 700 artists instead of three?” and Alper said, “No problem.” He wound up becoming director of media relations for Koch Entertainment (later acquired by eOne Music Canada), running PR for everyone from Ringo Starr to Barry Manilow. 

He left to start his own PR company, also called That Eric Alper, in 2016, with a client list that currently includes acclaimed artists like veteran singer-songwriters Buffy Sainte-Marie and Bruce Cockburn and jazz pianist Andy Milne. Since his early days, he says his approach to PR has been to “do it faster, do it better, and do it cheaper than anybody else.” 

Somewhere along the way (early 2009, to be precise), Alper joined Twitter. He took to it right away. By December 2009, according to Wayback Machine, Alper had 9,500 followers. Even then, he tweeted more like a brand than a person, with a steady stream of music headlines and links and minimal first-person commentary. By mid-2010, when Twitter was still in its infancy, Alper had 16,000 followers. 

The prompt questions started later, around 2015 or 2016. Alper can’t say exactly when, but insists the queries were driven by personal curiosity. “It just started with me trying to find out what people were listening to, and not for any data scraping whatsoever.” 

He says the prompt engagement started to peak around 2018, when his politics-free feed served as wholesome counterprogramming to the unmitigated chaos of the Trump Era. “I was still getting DMs every day of people saying, ‘You're the first stream I look at in the morning, and the last one I read, because it’s just nothing but wholesome, good stuff,’” Alper says. 

By then, Alper started to notice his prompt tweets were being aggregated by BuzzFeed and answered by celebrities like Monica Lewinsky and David Crosby, which he found delightful. “I knew this wasn't just about me anymore, and I'd better come correct, realizing I'm not just posting anymore to a dark room,” Alper says.

When you tweet as much as Alper does -- his target: “minimum 50 a day, for sure” -- you need a system. Alper has several. He schedules most of his tweets hours in advance using Hootsuite. The scheduled tweets appear roughly every half-hour, from 7:00 a.m. until 2:00 a.m. (During the 70 minutes I spent interviewing Alper for this story, his account tweeted three times.) When big music news breaks, he’ll go live. He also maintains digital folders full of photos and memes and anniversaries he wants to post about: “It's like, ‘Hey, today is the 50th anniversary of Marvin Gaye's What’s Going On, don't forget to post about that.’” 

Alper frequently receives DMs from his followers suggesting questions to ask. These are essentially fan requests -- “it’s almost like I’m a late-night DJ,” Alper laughs -- but he finds himself unwilling to use most of them. They’re too negative. 

“The questions are usually like, ‘What band do you think shouldn't exist?’ And it's like, man, I’m not going to ask that,” Alper explains. “Or, ‘What band do you think should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?’ And I would never ask that. Because it's not my job to make the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame question what they do.”

Alper says he’s a publicist first and foremost. But by now he realizes hundreds of thousands of people only know him by his Twitter persona, a reality he finds “bizarre. I have like four friends in real life,” he says. 

It’s rare that his worlds collide. He knows his large following has probably helped him gain clients. Conversely, if his tweets annoy the very music journalists who might otherwise grant his clients coverage, it could become a problem. Alper says he isn’t concerned about that; he has business relationships that have served him well for 25 years. “I don't worry about what I'm not getting; I only care about what comes down,” he says. “It's hard to imagine what I might be missing based on Twitter.” 

Alper’s friends and former colleagues describe him as an industry lifer whose earnest, open-hearted passion for music made him a quasi-celebrity in the Canadian music scene well before he was a Twitter power user. “My first impression was when we went to an event, and just everybody knew him,” says Mark Costain, Alper’s ex-boss at Koch Entertainment who worked with him for 15 years. “It was crazy, just how many people he knew, coming up to him and saying hello. My first impression was, ‘Everybody likes this guy.’”

The word “pure” comes up a lot in conversations with those who know Alper. “He is first and foremost a music man,” says Canadian pop singer Andy Kim, who had a string of hits in the late ’60s and ’70s and is a longtime Alper client. “Someone who just loves music, loves the industry, loves the magic of it all. And is really pure in what he does. Having been nurtured in the Brill Building, it’s very rare that you find someone like that.”

Eric Alper
Eric Alper

Alper’s friend Emily Saliers, a musician best known as a member of Indigo Girls, says that although Alper never formally represented her as a publicist, he would still offer to help spread the word about her releases. “He's practically a household name in Canada, at least in the music world,” Saliers says. “It's just out of pure love of music and hard work. He networks, but not in any kind of weird, motivational way.”

Saliers describes Alper’s upbeat Twitter presence as a natural extension of his positive nature. “I've never heard him say an unkind word about an artist or anything,” she says. “It’s not like he’s pollyanna or anything. He just has made a commitment not to post anything negative. I was asking him recently, ‘Do you get haters?’ Because I cannot imagine Eric Alper getting haters. But he said, ‘Doesn’t everybody?’”

* * *

Alper does indeed have haters. Or maybe “haters” is too strong; he has… dislikers. In recent months, as Alper’s prompts have reached a saturation point, these dislikers have grown increasingly vocal -- at least in corners of the internet frequented by chronically online music writers. (Do a Twitter search for “Eric Alper” + “quote tweet” and you’ll see for yourself.) 

Much of the Alper backlash centers around his habit of reusing Twitter prompts on an annual cycle. He swears he doesn’t have a gigantic master calendar of prompts. Instead, during his morning scheduling sessions, he’ll run a search to see what he tweeted one year prior and then reuse the best material. His goal is to give new followers a chance to enjoy the prompt. “When I know that a question got a lot of really great responses, yeah, I'll ask it again,” Alper says. “It’s completely different people that are answering that question.” 

Does he know it annoys a few people? Of course. “These people would probably get angry if their favorite show had a rerun on. Everything that happens on a semi-regular basis is automated.”

Alper has seen the backlash. When people send him those mean tweets, he tries to ignore it. “They're like, ‘Hey, did you know about this’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah,’ and I feel like crap for 10 minutes and, well, ‘Why does this bug them so much?” Because I'm blocking their stream? They're probably following 1500 people.”

The strangest response of all is @FutureEricAlper, a parody account created by an IT professional named Aric McKeown, who has a history of creating conceptual internet projects. The account aimed to predict today what Alper’s going to tweet tomorrow.

McKeown says he first noticed Alper’s prompts about a year ago and found them irritating. “It feels like it's clogging up the internet a little bit,” McKeown says. “If he just puts the question out there and doesn't feel like interacting with the people who respond, that seems a little extra cheesy to me.” (Alper says he does glance at the replies while walking his dogs, and has discovered lots of great music this way.)

But when McKeown noticed Alper was reposting prompts from a year ago, he realized he could make a game out of it. Nothing malicious, just a good-natured spoof. “Something from a year in the past is gonna be reposted. I just try and figure out which one it is,” McKeown tells me in late May. At the time, he wasn’t not sure what, if anything, his end game would be. “Maybe some sort of battle royale with Eric Alper,” he laughs. “Like a question-off.”

As of early June, McKeown had gotten 24 out of 32 predictions correct. A week later, however, the parody account was suspended by Twitter. McKeown has no idea why. Alper was aware of the @FutureEricAlper account, but tells Billboard he did not report it. McKeown at least suspects he had his eye on the account: “One thing I did notice in the last few days is Eric seems to be switching things up,” he says. “Asking more original questions and not relying on ones he asked two years ago. Or, seeing what I posted and not posting that one.”

McKeown appealed to have the parody account reinstated by Twitter. On June 24, his appeal was denied. 

* * * 

Perhaps the anti-Alper sentiment reflects a broader disillusionment with the inescapable Prompt Twitter Industrial Complex -- those people who love to tweet out innocuous questions that rack up a zillion quote-tweet replies. 

From a professional perspective, [Alper’s] prompts are direct; they’re uncluttered and optimized for engagement,” says Moussa, the Eater social media manager. “The transaction of a prompt is this: other people get a tweet out of it, and you get the serotonin rush of a little blue dot showing up on your notifications tab. It doesn’t matter that it’s surface-level engagement that clogs up your feed. Viral is viral.” 

“I don't know that you could definitively say his account is ground zero for this style of quote-tweet pandering that's become so popular lately, but he's certainly the most notable one in music to do it,” says music writer Dan Ozzi, who has turned his irritation with Alper’s tweets into a kind of found art. “It's a very lowest-common-denominator way of building a following. It wouldn't be so grating if he didn't tweet the same exact prompts, verbatim, every single year. Like clockwork.”

Naturally, people who spend unhealthy amounts of time on Twitter are most likely to gripe about Alper, because they’ve seen all the prompts before. As Moussa puts it, “I’m a Too Online person rolling my eyes at people with a blessedly more casual relationship to the platform who are having fun.” 

Eric Alper
Eric Alper

Or maybe some journalists simply chafe at Alper’s barrage of content because, well, he’s not a journalist and doesn’t act like one. He’s unfailingly upbeat. He shamelessly cribs sentences from Wikipedia. He sometimes interviews his own clients on his SiriusXM show (Alper says the conflict of interest is made clear: “It always comes up we’re working together in the conversation”). He loathes the idea of criticizing anyone.

Those who dislike Alper tend to perceive him as insincere. Sure, most music writers use Twitter for indulging petty feuds and performing alienating bits, the thinking goes, but at least they’re tweeting from the heart, not from Hootsuite.

But Alper says all he’s ever wanted to do is use music for good. And anyone who spends five minutes talking to him can tell his love of music -- and using social media to bring people closer to it -- is sincere. 

Alper lights up like a young fan when famous musicians respond to his prompts. A few days after our interview, he excitedly emails me a screenshot of ’70s teen star Shaun Cassidy responding to a fan named Jen in Alper’s mentions. Jen had named Cassidy as “the first band or artist [she] really loved,” and the musician had tweeted right back. “This is why I do what I do,” Alper says. “When this Jen sees this… [it] makes my day!” 

It’s the kind of exchange Alper couldn’t automate if he tried.