How the F--- Do You Market a Band Called F---ed Up?
This is an extended version of an article first published in the May 24th issue of Billboard Magazine.
Many bands second-guess their names, especially when the musicians have matured beyond the juvenile or inebriated inspiration that first sparked their nomenclatorial creativity. Yet the dilemma takes on a whole new dimension when the name is considered indecent by the Federal Communications Commission.
That is the situation for Toronto rock band Fucked Up and their longtime label Matador as they prepare to release the group's fourth full-length, "Glass Boys," on June 3. While singer Damian Abraham's throat-shredding roar ensures the band will never be confused with Kings of Leon, the album continues the group's escalating progress: Their 2008 LP "The Chemistry of Common Life" won Canada's prestigious Polaris Prize, 2011's "David Comes to Life" peaked at No. 83 on the Billboard 200, and the new LP would seem to put them on the verge of something resembling mainstream success. There's just one problem.
How the fuck do you market a band called Fucked Up?
"The name is a hindrance now that we want to be taken somewhat seriously -- not that we did not take it seriously before," Abraham says. "We never really encountered issues with the name until we kind of expanded beyond the parameters of punk and hardcore: We never coveted any attention beyond our little niche."
And even with its musical maturity, the group's aggressive sound makes the issue a moot point for some — "They could be called Mumford & Sons and a lot of stations wouldn't play them," laughs Beggars Group East Coast Radio Promotions Manager Hector Montes. Yet "Glass Boys" feels like it could make Fucked Up the most commercially successful band-with-a-name-that-cannot-be-pronounced since the Butthole Surfers.
On the plus side, Matador has been down this road before: In the 1990s it released two albums by the Bay Area rock band Fuck. "The name was a big deal," Matador publicity director Nils Bernstein remembers. "Everyone would giggle about it and say, 'Oh gosh, I’m blushing.' But I think people are more inured to it now."
Additionally, "Fucked Up have gotten a huge amount of attention because of their name," he continues. "And I don’t necessarily think that there's a big potential audience that’s not accessing them because of it. But," he concedes, "they’ve reached a certain profile where other bands of their stature might be getting promotion or placement at Amazon and iTunes that they’re not, so from that perspective it’s probably hurting their sales."
Fucked Up's music is available — with their name uncensored — from those outlets, as well as Spotify and other services. And with most indie retailers, "it's a non-issue," says Dave Martin, co-head of Matador Direct. "They have no problems stocking the records or talking about them on social media or even things like in-store displays. Does that mean we might not get window displays? Yeah. And we're probably not going to do an Amoeba billboard or a Rough Trade mural or whatever. Maybe that's just a concession we learn to live with." (The band's sales aren't yet significant enough to garner the attention of Best Buy and Target, let alone Walmart.)
Over the years, Matador has devised a number of workarounds to promote the band's music. With advertising, it creates clean and uncensored versions of virtually everything. For many outlets, "You can't use the word and you can't use an asterisk either," says Beggars Group Retail / Marketing Director Blake Thomas. "So we've started using their logo, which has been part of [their imaging] for a long time and is recognized by fans. Basically all of our advertising has the logo in it.
"[On Spotify] we promote playlists, but the band's name can't be in the name of the playlist, so we'd use the album name," he continues. "Facebook is more lenient: we can use an asterisk there, but targeting fans on Facebook is challenging. The name poses problems and there are guidelines to grammar, so you have to play around with it."
The self-managed group is deeply involved with the promotional process as well. "The band really likes to do strange and esoteric things," says Beggars Group director of media Gabe Spierer, "whether it's a 12-hour show [in New York in 2008], or an EPK we're working on with really young punk kids and really old rock celebrities. They're always thinking of interesting ideas, and that helps surmount a lot of the problems inherent in the name."
Unusually, the problem is a simpler one at radio, where DJs simply say "Effed Up" or "FU" or something to that effect. "It's really more about their sound than their name," says Montes. "But ultimately, [even with a less-controversial name] I think they would have done just 10 points better on the CMJ chart, maybe a little more."
Print media generally uses asterisks, dashes or ellipses, which is the method Abraham says he prefers: "It triggers something in most of our brains — you see the letters in your head, you fill it in." SPIN magazine blotted out the “uck” when it put the band on its cover in 2011; The New York Times covers the band frequently, but refers to it only via phrases like a "well-regarded, profanely named Canadian band" and the like. That one in particular gnaws at the band. "It's a big thrill, we're incredibly happy and flattered [to be in the Times], and it means a lot to family," Abraham says. "But we’ve never once had the band name printed there."
The band's biggest goal — "the last brass ring," as Abraham calls it — seems at first almost laughably unlikely: U.S. network television. But this is a group whose singer has been a VJ on MuchMusic, and who won the Polaris Prize: Canadian TV bleeped out their name during the broadcast. "Some people might say they’re not a TV-friendly band musically," Bernstein says. "But they’re quite successful and popular, and other bands with a unique sound and certain fanbase or sales history have played national TV, and Fucked Up never have." Indeed, Cerebral Ballzy played "Carson Daly" the night before this interview.
"We grew up watching late-night talk shows, and a lot of our friends have gotten to play on them," Abraham sighs, but then brightens. "Look, I've achieved every success I could have ever imagined wanting to achieve at 14: I’m on Matador Records, I’ve played with Public Enemy, I’ve toured with the Foo Fighters, been a [MuchMusic] VJ — all these amazing things.
"And these are frustrations that I never ever in my life thought I’d have to deal with," he continues. "They’re a constant reminder of how fortunate we are as a band. We never thought that we’d get beyond the demo stage, and the idea that we’re now hitting this 'Fucked Up glass ceiling' is kind of awesome. Years ago, Mike would joke in ‘zine interviews, 'We’re gonna take Fucked Up to a point where it's cultural debate about [obscenity].' And in some New York Times editorial or design meeting, they had to have a debate about how they would print our band’s name. That is CRAZY: it's like, we somehow accomplished our joke!"