Ghost Beach Uses Times Square Billboard To Spark Piracy Debate [INTERVIEW]

Posted April 4

Bands: What would you do if you were given free reign over a billboard in Times Square for two weeks’ time? Promote your album? Announce your next tour? Just slap up a huge picture of your mug and call it a day? Well, New York band Ghost Beach was recently given such an opportunity and they chose option “D”: Open up a dialogue about the future of music in the digital age that sparks the interest (and ire) of creative types across the country.

After the band — Josh Ocean and Eric Mendelsohn — licensed their single “Miracle” to appear in an online spot for American Eagle, they were surprised to discover that the deal came with an interesting perk: a billboard in Times Square, with which they could do anything for 14 days. “Just putting up an advertisement or our logo didn’t seem right,” Ocean says when asked what his initial reaction was to the offer. “It doesn’t really fit with who we are as a band.” Instead, Ocean says, the duo decided to get creative.

“We decided that because we’re a young band and we’ve given all of our music away for free — we’ve been a band for a year and we’ve done nothing but give our music away for free — and we have this huge billboard in Times Square, maybe we should take an opportunity to talk about how we think that the music industry is changing and talk about sharing music on the Internet,” Ocean says.

The topic that they settled on to discuss via billboard: Piracy. Or, rather, what the concept of “piracy” means in a musical landscape — studded with services like Spotify and Rdio — where more and more the name of the game is access.

With that idea in mind, the band launched a campaign called “Artists vs. Artists,” which included a social aspect as well as the billboard. In the IRL realm — via the massive, LED board — the band asked passersby in Times Square to “pick a side”: Artists Against Piracy or Artists For Piracy. The call to action was situated under scrolling signs that read things like: “Piracy is inevitable” and “Piracy is unethical.” Online, they launched a website where users could weigh in via tweet, as well as nab their album, Modern Tongues — and here’s the tie-in — either for free or for cash.

The campaign ended this week, but over the last few weeks, “Artists Vs. Artists” has garnered its share of feedback from those praising the idea and how it connects band to fan, as well as those who thought the whole thing some sort of corporate conspiracy whereby some anonymous tech brand was out to steal the intellectual property of artists. (Ghost Beach worked with ad agency TBWA\Chiat\Day New York on the campaign for free. More on that below.) In the end, however, piracy won the day — at least in this debate. On Ghost Beach’s site, 3,169 people voted for piracy, while 445 weighed in against it.

Still, it’s important to note that Ghost Beach is not pro-piracy — IE, they don’t want the denizens of the world to go out there and torrent the hell out of their tunes or those of other bands. No, instead, they’re looking to the world to start changing how they view the concept of access as a whole.

Check out our interview below to find out more on why Ghost Beach chose to launch this campaign in the first place — and what they learned during the course of the endeavor:

OK, first off — this was your idea, right? As a band? Not your PR agency’s or anything like that?

Josh: It was totally our idea. Our manager had the idea to take it to a bigger company, because we did have this space — we had this prime real estate — and he felt like we could actually partner up with someone that could actually execute this the best way possible, and not just have us design something on photoshop and put it up. They could help us build a real campaign around this.

And the ad company — TBWA\Chiat\Day New York — did it for free?

Josh: Yup. They took on the project as a passion project — pro bono. I guess for them it was a cool opportunity to do something with a band and make a statement. Our participation with them in and of itself has seemed to have generated a lot of debate and rumors and conspiracy theories, but that’s pretty much how it happened.

Yeah, I saw Cake was speculating on their Facebook about some corporation being behind the whole project.

Josh: There have been a lot of rumors about that. We’re at the point where at first we were freaked out, because it was the first time we really had to deal with a lot of misinformation about stuff involving us — people spreading rumors. We were kind of like worried, like, ‘Oh my God, do people really think this?’ But then we just realized that there are a lot of people just straight-up making up stories and speculating. Now we sort of find it entertaining.

Why do you think people were so quick to speculate? Is it just the word ‘piracy’ that did it?

Eric: I think people were down to speculate because on one hand, if you don’t know that American Eagle has done this [given bands billboard space] in the past — if you don’t know that, it’s a little strange. It’s like, ‘OK, how did this band that’s a relatively new band, pretty small — how did they get the opportunity to do this?’ And you start to speculate on, ‘How could this happen?’ And then, additionally, I guess people think that a young band like us doesn’t have strong opinions about something like this.

The word ‘piracy’ has also sort of been a red flag to people. It’s a taboo word. It’s conjuring a [negative] image. People have latched onto that and think that either we’re misrepresenting it or we’re unclear about it or something like that. It’s sort of a big statement. When we were coming up with it I felt like it was a cool idea and I didn’t know how much it would resonate with people, but looking back at on it I guess I realized that it is a big space and people have strong feelings about the word ‘piracy.’

Josh: We know there have been a lot of people saying, ‘Well, they’re not picking a side; they’re not really saying anything,’ but a lot of people were just getting caught up in the fact that a billboard said something about piracy and they weren’t actually taking the time to look at what the campaign was — which was: We had the ad space, we decided to open up a dialogue about piracy and what that means in 2013 and people could use Twitter and participate and use a hashtag.

People sort of just reacted to the fact that there was a billboard that was talking about piracy and automatically assumed that we were advocating for illegal filesharing, when publicly we’ve stated that we’re actually against piracy.

The main reason why we chose to use piracy and talk about the music industry in 2013 is the fact that we feel that piracy is sort of the scapegoat and the industry isn’t really addressing the positive developments that are going on — like streaming services and the connection that’s possible between musicians and fans. There’s still such a community of people that are focusing on taking away money from artists, but there’s so much more happening there.

Eric: It’s really not about [piracy] at all, actually. What it’s about is utilizing the new platforms that we have — the new things that do resonate with consumers, like streaming services — and finding ways that that can be mutually beneficial for artists and consumers. It’s about marrying the two sides.

Yes, the word ‘piracy’ implies stealing, but if you take away the power to steal, if you take away the power to illegally take a piece of work — it’s no longer piracy. If you were to present your music in ways that connect and resonate with consumers, in the world that we live in that we can’t avoid, then I feel like it can be mutually beneficial and also you connect more with the people who care about your music.

Yeah, I guess my first reaction to the campaign was, ‘Piracy? Who does that anymore, really?’ I think in the next few years, we’ll see people using all the legal ways to get free tunes instead of just stealing poor quality stuff online. It seems like something that people are afraid of who don’t know what’s going on.

Josh: Exactly. And we’re just trying to open up a dialogue about that.

Eric: It was a natural thing for us, because from day one, we gave away our music for free. Nobody pirates our music, because we gave it away. We don’t have anything against artists that do want to sell their music. We support whatever the outlet is.

I guess the idea is to take the mainstream and streamline it more with the industry, where people and artists are working together and choosing the platforms that we all use anyway and –

Josh: –moving forward!

Eric: Yeah, moving forward!

Josh: So that we can stop actually talking about piracy.

Eric: Yeah, there’s no point. It’s a dead issue.

Josh: So it’s actually kind of funny, because we talk about piracy and everyone is saying, ‘This all is hoopla!’ but we just took a second to look at the services that respect the artist by paying them but also offer the consumers a convenient choice. It’s just been really interesting to talk about. That’s all we wanted to do. We just wanted to have a conversation. We didn’t want to put up our logo on a billboard and just have it sit there. We don’t need that. We could give a shit. That’s pretty much sums up this whole experience.

So you gave people the option to download your album for free or buy it on the site. What was the outcome of that?

Josh: We haven’t sat down and looked at the statistics yet. Halfway through the campaign I actually heard that more people clicked on the buy link than the free download link — which is in sharp contrast to the way that people voted using hashtags on Twitter.

Yeah, it’s kind of a landslide for piracy.

Josh: Yeah. To be totally honest I think most of the dialogue that happened around this whole thing wasn’t using the hashtag. There was a lot of missed opportunity on both sides of the argument. It was ‘artist vs. artists,’ but everyone was welcome to use the hashtag and speak their minds.

Eric: Also an interesting thing that I noticed, if you read some of the tweets — I don’t want to say that this was the way it was across the board — but I think a lot of people feel like, ‘OK, wow, if I listen to a band’s music and I really like it, yeah, maybe I will buy it. I can choose if I want.’ It’s more about giving the choice.

Josh: That is something we can actually attest to because we give all our music away for free, but we also sell it and put it up for streaming. And we definitely see more sales because of us giving away more songs for free than if we weren’t. That’s 100% true.

And do you all have other jobs? Or do you support yourselves as a band?

Josh: Yeah, we do this fulltime. We’re able to feed ourselves playing shows and live on the money we make from performances. We make money on music sales and streaming, but we sort of just keep reinvesting that into more music — the circle of life of the Internet music community.

In a certain respect — even though you guys were starting a conversation — this seemed like a pretty good PR campaign… Was there any intention?

Josh: To be totally honest, we — and it may sound crazy and people probably don’t believe us — but this was never supposed to be a promotional thing. Yes, it has our logo on it and we’ve gotten a few more Twitter followers and a handful more Facebook fans, but we grow our fanbase by giving away music and playing shows and doing what we do as a band. This was just an opportunity to use a billboard to start a conversation.

If anything, this just generated a community of people that think we’re assholes. If anything, our fans and friends thought this was cool.

Image courtesy of Ghost Beach, Facebook