On Monday morning, a simple, ink-splattered envelope sits on my work keyboard – a lot lighter than the demo-crammed envelopes that usually litter my desk after a weekend away. The return address is type-written and reads simply, Levi Gudmundson, along with a non-descript Brooklyn location. Inside, there’s a small piece of cardstock, bearing a QR code – nothing more. And although I usually find QR codes a little useless and laughable, I shrug and scan it on my phone and watch the video that pops up with interest.
I’m expecting a demo of some sort, or perhaps an ad for an app, so it’s a bit of a start when a creepy, Sleep No More-esque clown fills the screen, holding up a series of messily painted scrolls silently entreating me to come to New York’s Mercury Lounge to see some band named “Shone” on February 7 (a date that has already passed).
Although there were a lot of things amiss with this picture (the QR code, the fact that the show had already happened, etc) I was hooked — the whole deal was so different from the usual self-promoting rigmarole that fills my inbox and social networks on a daily basis that it was like a little sigh of relief. I immediately took to the Interwebs to find out just what this “Shone” band was. Little did I know that I was just the latest to be drawn into a massive, sprawling viral campaign/art project that had been intriguing and frustrating a dedicated group of music fans for months.
A Super Group Gets Creative
Over the years, we have seen our share of bands springing up via elaborate fabrications and manufactured personas — there’s NoBunny (a bunny mask-wearing deviant who is the alter ego of punk musician Justin Champlin), iamamiwhoami (who took the Web by storm with mysterious YouTube videos before revealing herself to be singer Jonna Lee), and, of course, The Weeknd (a.k.a. Abel Tesfaye). These mysteries often serve to intrigue the public even more than the music itself, impelling the masses to become armchair sleuths and keep close, obsessive tabs on a band’s every move. Such was the case — up until last week — with Shone.
Shone is a super group of sorts – headed up by Brand New’s Brian Lane – that launched an elaborate viral campaign at the end of last year. The project included all manner of Clue-esque shenanigans – hand-written notes hand-delivered to fans’ doors, hidden USB drives, hand-painted birdhouses (?!) and a cast of shadowy characters that crept through every frame of the story.
According to Brian Lane, the whole project began germinating about two years ago when he started working on his own music – sans his band, Brand New — with fellow musician Andrew Accardi of Robbers fame.
“I met this guy Matthew Reid who is an artist about a year and a half ago and I realized that the music that I was writing – how he saw things kind of reminded me of the music,” Lane says. The two then conceptualized a loose idea wherein they would introduce the music that was Lane was working on to the world via a character, rather than normal marketing channels. Lane, who also runs production company ApK Media, saw the project as a chance to test out his storytelling chops as well.
“There was really never any thought behind it,” Lane says. “It was never like, ‘Oh, we’re going to try this whole viral marketing campaign.’ That was never really something that crossed our minds at all.”
The main goal, he says, was getting fans to experience that old-school feeling of physical discovery – heading to the record store and having a tangible experience with music. “There’s something to be said about the experience – the person is actually experiencing it as opposed to just pressing a button and downloading a record,” he says.
Therefore, from the very beginning, Lane made his fans work for the tunes he would later release – hoping that, in the process, they would become invested in the music itself via the search. As it turns out, he succeeded.
Scavenger Hunts & Creepy Clowns
So what, exactly, did this campaign look like? Well, it started online – kicking off on December 21, 2012 with a series of cryptic tweets from popular bands and friends of Lane pointing to a mysterious website, heathing.com and a creepy video featuring a creaky old windmill. However, the project quickly rooted itself in the tangible realm with a mailing list form on what would prove to be the band’s website.
Unlike most mailing lists, however — which only ask for an email — this form required a user’s home address. Intrigued by tweeted endorsements by bands like Manchester Orchestra – and the prospect of receiving honest-to-God mail – fans signed up in droves, essentially enlisting themselves in a massive mystery game that would unfold over the next few months.
— VinnieCaruana (@vinniecaruana) December 21, 2012
Fans applied themselves to solving the puzzle of the website and video with gusto: going through the below video shot by shot, listening to the audio backwards, and even — in the case of a pair of fans at production company Capture Media — creating a documentary detailing every step of the campaign.
Despite all the clues so far laid (and to come), however, Lane says that there wasn’t really a clear plan in place as to how the story would all unfold. “It wasn’t planned out,” he says. “The progression of it wasn’t really planned. The progression was, ‘Oh, let’s see what happens.’”
The video, however, did introduce fans to that aforementioned character Lane and Matthew Reid created to promote the band: Levi Gudmundson, who posted the vid to YouTube in the first place. Enterprising fans soon took to Google to find out the identity of Levi, the only results being an obituary for a man who died on December 21 a few years back (the same day that the campaign launched in 2012).
“He’s just someone in our imaginations,” Lane says of Levi. “He’s someone that likes the band and he’s very enthusiastic about getting people together to create experiences and to share the music that he likes with people.”
From there on out, “Levi” started leaving clues fast and furious for fans – creepy videos featuring typewriters and ominous clowns and, later, physical letters replete with cryptic messages, sometimes dropped directly off at their homes sans postman.
When I asked Lane who actually delivered the letters – both to fans and myself – he answered coyly, “Levi delivered them. And also told me about a secret press list.”
Those letters finally bore fruit when fans in New York received missives that featured coordinates, leading those intrepid folks to trek out to historic landmark Chelsea Mansion to retrieve a bird house, under which was hidden a USB drive featuring the band’s first single, “Piano Wire Number 12.” Naturally, that song soon made it to the Web, where the online contingent of treasure hunters were able to partake as well.
According to the Capture Media documentary, fans were teaming up at this point – both online and off – to suss out the clues and uncover the tune. They were reacting just as Lane had hoped – putting in the effort to go out and have an approximation of that record store experience he so missed.
“It formed bonds between people and changed how people experienced music – we experienced music through more than just our ears,” says Capture Media’s Ryan Denissoff.
In fact, the fan who found the USB told the Capture Media that the dark, raw jam wasn’t really her kind of music, but she found herself getting into it because of the experience she had had retrieving the thumbdrive.
“Whenever that stuff happens it’s a total surprise,” Lane says of the intense fan reaction. (Example: Blog Property of Zack reports that a thread on Absolute Punk on the subject garnered more than 18,000 comments, making it the biggest thread on that site — ever.) “It’s totally weird and very surprising,” he adds. “I guess I never really thought about it. I had no expectations. I just did it because I wanted to do it. But it was great.”
With the first single on the scene, all that was left was a full track listing and lineup reveal. The former came in the form of nine painted tiles featuring song names sent to nine fans around the country (which also formed the album cover) and — later — a listening party at Philadelphia’s Creep Records (boasting invites inscribed in invisible ink). The latter, via a video featuring a ticketing link for the aforementioned Mercury Lounge show – a show that sold out in one day, even though no one knew for sure what the lineup of the band entailed.
Fans clamored for tickets. Some even flew across the country to find out how the mystery would play out. The whole mystery-solving crew held their collective breath with anticipation.
The Big Reveal?
And, finally, last week, Shone took the stage at Mercury Lounge, revealing unto the world the identities of the band members that fans had been deliberating about for months: Andrew Accardi (Robbers) on vocals, in addition to Vincent Accardi (Brand New), Brian Lane (Brand New), Brand New techs Ben Homola and Joe Cannetti, and Mike Standberg (Kevin Devine’s Goddamn Band).
An album – titled Heat Thing of course – dropped a few days before via Procrastinate! Music Traitors (a label started by members of Brand New).
The proverbial cat, as it was, was out of the bag – and the response was mixed.
Property of Zack published a long blog post lamenting the fact that the big reveal was not a brand-new (har, har) Brand New record.
The denizens of the Absolute Punk thread are still debating whether the show was a let-down or not. “It sorta feels like they came out on stage, laughed in our faces for obsessing for so long and said ‘thanks for all of the $$$, bitches!’ and shut the whole thing down,” wrote commenter vaguestcargo.
Others, like avid Shone follower Keagan Ilvonen, admired all the effort that the band put into the project. “At the end of the day, whether people liked the music or not, it got people talking and gave them a pretty big spotlight to showcase their music,” he says.
The Capture Media crew — and other still-dedicated fans — found it to be a thrilling experience, a chance to meet other Shone followers and shake hands with the band that they had been obsessed with for months.
Viral Campaign Or Art Project?
As it stands, there are two directions, now, for this whole Shone thing to go: 1). The straight-up PR campaign route, or 2). The art project route. The fans who are disappointed by the whole deal are mostly concerned that this mystery game has been nothing but a marketing plot — a way to fill a venue and sell albums. However, according to Lane, Shone has been (and still is) an art project rather than any kind of plot to hawk tunes — and a project very much in process.
“[The project] went with how I’ve been progressing,” Lane says, referring to his burgeoning interest in production and storytelling. “We were only a band for about a week and a half and then we played Mercury Lounge,” he says. “The whole thing is pretty new. So we’re feeling it out.”
“The hope is to book a few more shows,” he adds. “It has been a fun project – it’s still going.”
Translation: Perhaps the ink-splattered envelope on my desk won’t be the last letter “Levi” sends. Perhaps there will be more USBs hidden in sunken gardens. Perhaps just because the mystery has been solved, the story isn’t over. The question, now, becomes: Will fans still want to listen?
Image courtesy of Facebook, Shone