On May 18, Devo Inc. held a live streaming press conference to announce the results of its months-long Song Study, an online survey to rank the general public’s preference of 16 tracks it previewed for them. “As COO of Devo Inc.,” grey-suited executive Greg Scholl said, “it is an honor and a privilege to share this special moment with all of you.”
A new camera angle revealed that “all of you” consisted of a photographer, an elderly woman in a tracksuit, a groping couple and a dude standing at the back with a beach cruiser. Scholl directed their attention to a monitor where “representatives from our musical division,” Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh, would analyze “the data that would determine the 12 songs and song order of Devo’s new commercial album.” “The results,” Mothersbaugh said, “are right here on the back of this stuffed wallaby.”
While the presentation was an absurd parody of corporate communications stagecraft, the announced methods and results were real: The 12 songs that earned the most votes are now the confirmed track list of “Something for Everybody,” the first studio album in 20 years for the art rock iconoclasts, due June 15 on Warner Bros.
The album’s title is far more than a catchphrase-it’s the core philosophy of the band’s sardonic-yet-dead-serious campaign, developed with the advertising agency Mother, to reintroduce its sensibility and music to the masses. The Song Study was only one crowd-sourced element of the effort; other online surveys included a Color Study that ultimately changed Devo’s iconic red “energy dome” hats to blue, simply because more people preferred it.
“Devo already did the alternative-world, hermetically sealed, alien, we-don’t-care-about-anything weirdos, and we did that quite well,” says Casale, who originally formed Devo with Mothersbaugh in 1974 in Akron, Ohio, as a visual and performance art collective. “But now, Devo is normal. Now we’re the house band on the Titanic, and the Titanic is all of us.”
Certainly, current cultural sensibilities are more attuned to the post-modern theater that Devo built around new wave hits like 1980’s “Whip It,” which peaked at No. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100, and its deliberately robotic 1977 cover of the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Devo recorded six albums with Warner Bros., including the platinum-certified “Freedom of Choice” in 1980, but the label dropped the band after the limited success of 1984’s “Shout.” It released two more albums on Enigma, 1988’s “Total Devo” and 1990’s “Smooth Noodle Maps,” before two decades of on-again, off-again touring and collaboration that, due largely to Mothersbaugh’s disenchantment with the record business, failed to yield any album-length work.
“Devo was always a collaboration, so when Mark wasn’t interested in collaborating, then it was like only half of Devo,” Casale says.
But Mothersbaugh came around once the music industry proved itself open to experimentation. “I kind of wish the meltdown of the record companies had happened when we did Devo the first time around,” he says.When they agreed to re-sign with Warner Bros. for this comeback, Casale and Mothersbaugh decided an ad agency should lead the marketing effort, while the label focused on radio. The approach has little precedent in the industry, where labels typically oversee creative elements and media placement of promotion.
“Big artists haven’t done these types of initiatives before, promotionally speaking,” says Josh Rabinowitz, senior VP/director of music at Grey Group, a previous Billboard contributor who frequently writes about music and advertising. “It is quite unique at this stage in the development-or should I say de-evolution-of the music industry, and a very smart thing to do.” The most comparable recent example is a campaign that Bartle Bogle Hegarty spearheaded for Oasis’ 2008 album “Dig Out Your Soul,” where the band taught songs from the record to New York subway musicians.
“An ad agency’s agenda is getting things in front of people that they might miss. They have to sell one car out of 50 that are coming out that season, and there’s no room for failure,” Mothersbaugh says. “Record companies have this whole other trajectory. They shoot all this stuff against the wall to see what sticks, and if they get one success out of a hundred bands, they high-five each other. But this is our only album, so we said, ‘What can we do to stack the deck in our favor?’ “
The band took pitches from several agencies, including Mother, whose clients include Target, Dell and the Virgin FreeFest, and Wieden+Kennedy, which is now using a concept that Devo turned down for the Diesel clothing brand. Of all the ideas, Casale says, “Mother’s pitch was just superior in every way. They nailed it.”
“The big idea behind this campaign is ‘Test to learn,’ ” says Mother New York art director Bill Moulton, who oversees a virtual Mother Los Angeles operation that launched with the Devo effort. “The band has always had this philosophy of de-evolution, that society is regressing, and this prophecy has pretty much come true in their minds. So now that the world is devolved, let’s just embrace it-let’s enter the mainstream.
“Their brief to us was, ‘How do we appeal to as many people as possible?,’ and our instinct was, ‘Let’s just test everything, as you would any other product entering the marketplace, and be unapologetic about it.’ “
In addition to the online surveys and in-house focus groups on everything from the songs to the album title and artwork, “Devo Inc.,” which consists of the band, Mother and Warner Bros., has adopted ultra-corporate aesthetics to push the message, “creatively and somewhat ironically,” as Casale says. COO Greg Scholl, a friend of the band who is actually president of local media platforms at NBC Universal, sends out regular e-mail and video “communiqués” in place of press releases; the logo in all related visuals is an image of two white, male, suit-jacketed arms shaking hands. Certain presentations, such as Devo’s focus group panel at the South by Southwest Interactive conference in March, are led by “Jacob,” Devo Inc.’s Swedish, mustachioed, mildly disheveled “focus group facilitator and research analyst.” Jacob is played by Mother New York art director Gabriel Blido, who is in fact an expert on product testing. “He’s not necessarily a character, and he’s not necessarily real,” Moulton says.
“It’s kind of the opposite of a reality show,” says Paul Malmström, executive creative director/partner at Mother New York. “A reality show looks real, but you know it’s scripted. This looks fake, but everything is real. We’re doing everything we say we’re doing. That’s what’s fun about it. Do they really believe this, or are they just fucking with us? It’s a game, really.” What instantly sold Casale and Mothersbaugh on the agency was the fact that Mother so readily appreciated this interplay. “Devo at our best is people going, ‘Is that real or not?’ ” Mothersbaugh says. “It’s a little bit Andy Kaufman.”The approach naturally forced Warner to adjust its mind frame regarding the practical elements of an album release. According to Warner Bros. senior VP of new media Jeremy Welt, early conversations were less about an album and more “about Devo and what they believed in, how they wanted to make a statement and come back.” Such questions as when the first song would come out were unanswerable, because “the focus group wasn’t done yet,” Welt says. “Fresh” became the de facto first single after Devo played it at the Vancouver Olympics in February, but could only be confirmed for release after the Song Study wrapped last month. “Other partners would say, ‘Movie companies need the CD six months in advance,’ and we’re like, ‘We don’t know what’s on it yet!’ ” Welt says. “We don’t even know what color Devo’s going to use for their hats.”
What ultimately eased Warner’s mind were the results. Welt says the first survey, the Color Study, attracted 100,000 votes, spreading online because respondents could share their results on Facebook and Twitter. “It worked on two levels,” Welt says. “One, we were actually getting all this real information about what people wanted. Two, it sent a signal like, ‘Whoa, Devo wants everyone’s opinion about everything!’ It started to create a buzz that we could see on blogs and in the site stats.”
Welt says that Devo’s tour last year also helped, since it proved that “these guys could still play. It sounded as fresh and energetic as ever. It sounded contemporary again.”
All the tracks on “Something for Everybody” were written within the past two years, and they carry Devo’s unmistakable hybrid of synth-and-guitar jolts, hyper-catchy riffs and winking commentary. The major updates are in the production, which, fitting the theme, Casale and Mothersbaugh opened up to real collaboration for the first time.
“When we used to do records all those years ago, we were very protective and always fearing nobody understood what we were trying to do,” Mothersbaugh says. “Now we realize, people do have a better idea of what we were talking about-they have references now. And there’s a lot Devo stands to benefit from the added brainpower of people who are better sound mixers than us.” Primarily produced by Greg Kurstin (the Bird & the Bee), the album also includes contributions from John Hill and Santi “Santigold” White, John King of the Dust Brothers and the Teddybears. The band still includes Casale and Mothersbaugh’s brothers, both named Bob, and has added drummer Josh Freese (Nine Inch Nails, Weezer).
Casale says that the Song Study results and the band’s preferences among the 16 candidate songs overlapped “about 88%.” The biggest disappointment, he says, is that the one ballad, “No Place Like Home,” didn’t make the cut. “It was kind of sad,” he says. “I thought if anything, Devo, being ‘mature’ now, would be allowed to take off the tongue-in-cheek pose and do a really sad power ballad.”
Despite the grass-roots success of the Internet campaign, Devo, as a fringe band with a long commercial absence, faces long odds in turning curiosity into sales. It will still employ such old-school promotion as a summer tour that includes a stop at Lollapalooza in August, and as pre-MTV pioneers of music video, is working on clips for “Fresh” and “What We Do.” “Fresh” has also been added to alternative radio, including KROQ Los Angeles, KVGS Las Vegas and WWCD Columbus, Ohio.The final push surrounding the release is a more traditional poster campaign with the slogan “This Is Something for Everybody,” which features diverse types of people interacting with blue energy domes of sizes ranging from 1 inch to 3 yards in diameter. “They’ll be eating it, licking it, climbing on it,” Malmström says. The centerpiece is a single billboard, erected in May in Waco, Texas.
“We can easily appeal to people in L.A. and New York, but the challenge is appealing to people in middle America,” Moulton says. “I went to Waco and got feedback from the community,” which he calls “mixed.” In all the visuals, the domes are constructed from a mint-scented gelatin-a consistency determined, naturally, by an extensive Touch Study that tested participants’ responses to various textures.
As for whether hiring an ad agency could catch on for other artists, Warner Bros. senior VP of strategic initiatives David Marcus says it’s viable in “the right situation-where the label is building a brand and has the opportunity to participate in all the commercial revenue streams from that brand. It’s probably not ideal for simply selling records. Devo was not an album marketing plan; it was a plan to reintroduce the Devo brand to the public and make the brand current and not nostalgic.”
The financial feasibility is also dependent on the right partnership. While neither Warner nor Mother will disclose the cost of the agency portion of the campaign, Malmström says that Mother’s involvement with Devo “started because of the opportunity we saw to do groundbreaking work” and that the agency-produced creative “was made with drastically less budget than a typical advertising client would spend.”
Rabinowitz guesses that “this isn’t a business transaction for big revenue but one of excellent marquee value for the agency, maybe even a labor of love. There’s a huge ‘barterability’ potential involved when Devo is your client. Uber-creative currency is likely in full effect-which at times is much more valuable than dollars.”
Casale and Mothersbaugh believe that the campaign’s success will be determined less by album sales than by opportunities to extend the Devo message to other venues, which could include films, stage productions and TV. “Even with Warner, part of them signing us is to become partners in other ventures,” Mothersbaugh says. (Casale also notes that one factor in Warner’s interest is its ownership of Devo’s back catalog.) “I wish they’d said that to me 35 years ago.”
“We always wanted to have a cable program,” Casale says, “like ‘The Church of De-Evolution.’ Kind of in line with ‘The Onion’ and Stephen Colbert.” (In fact, the new album will stream exclusively for one week on ColbertNation.com.) Devo has been documenting every step of the process on film to create a reality show pilot, and talks are under way with networks. If nothing else, the show will at least exist online.
“There are so many areas I’ve gotten to work in where I didn’t get to put the Devo slant on it,” says Mothersbaugh, who frequently composes music for film and TV and has even consulted on theme parks. “The potential of Devo is so much bigger than what we were allowed to do. I hope I live to do work in mediums that haven’t even been invented yet.”