Tuesday, June 8, 2010

united breaks guitars - and makes careers

so, by now we all know that united breaks guitars, but did you know they also make careers?

i've got a cover-teased story in the current edition of Progress Magazine that looks at the machinery that dave carroll worked behind the scenes to turn his uber-catchy consumer anthem in a viral sensation that wound up on wolf blitzer's cnn show. it also shows how when the rocket took off, dave scrambled to hang on for the ride and to turn fleeting fame into lifelong success.

i had a lot of fun interviewing him and putting this together - i've pasted it in below. it's a long read, so make a cup of tea first.

When United Airlines broke Dave Carroll’s guitar, it looked like his small music business had just taken a $3,500 loss on the chin and wasted months in fruitless pursuit of compensation. Then the Halifax singer-songwriter wrote United Breaks Guitars, posted it on YouTube, and became a viral sensation – literally overnight. After 20 years of hard work with Sons of Maxwell and then solo, playing pubs and clubs and selling CDs at shows across Canada, Carroll found himself doing hundreds of interviews around the world, from Live at Five to CNN and the BBC. Tens of millions of people heard his music and wanted to buy it.

“Right away, my business hat went on,” Carroll says. His website kept crashing under the onslaught and his mother, who was in charge of mailing CDs from her home, raced to keep up with demand. His wife Jill, who had just given birth to their first child, held the breastfeeding baby Flynn with one hand while answering the phone with the other.

It was clear Dave Carroll Music needed help to capitalize on the extraordinary attention. He called in his father-in-law, Brent Sansom, who sped down from New Brunswick to act as Carroll’s business manager and media contact.

As Sansom puts it, Carroll had opened his mouth for a sip with United Breaks Guitars and found himself hit by a firehose. The job now was to drink as deeply as possible while the water flowed and capture that global audience for future use.


Before United broke his guitar, Carroll was one of Canada’s hardest-working musicians with Sons of Maxwell and more recently as a solo artist, playing to 170 shows a year.

“Basically, Sons of Maxwell were operating on off-stage sales and from internet sales. We didn’t really have any physical distribution in Canada because every company I’d worked with either went bankrupt owing me money, or bankrupt just before they owed me money,” Carroll says. “I was some people’s favourite song writer in the world, but a relatively small group. Sons of Maxwell had a small legion of devoted fans and enough people interested in our music that we could make that our full-time job. That, by definition, is success.”

The online sales were traditional CDs and none of his music was available in digital form. He had a website, a Facebook page and his biggest YouTube hit had received 5,000 visitors. His brand recognition was strong on the East Coast, but weakened significantly in the rest of Canada, fading to a dim pulse in the U.S. and Europe.

Then United broke his guitar. The song was primarily an act of revenge and he wrote it inspired by the music style he knew pub-goers loved – bouncy, with a killer sing-a-long chorus. If it could hold a drunken crowd for three minutes, he bet it could grab a web audience. He vowed to write three songs in total and get one million hits.

“I figured if I told (the story) accurately and honestly, then I’ll never have to explain myself,” he said. “The song will have legs on its own.”

He didn’t have money for a video, so he called up his old friends at Halifax-based Curve Productions and told them his story. Curve agreed to donate time, skills and resources to make the video.

“We travel a lot, so we’ve all had some very bad flying experiences,” explains Curve’s Lara Cassidy. “To be honest, we were just seeking a little of our own sweet revenge.”

Curve, which went on to foot the bill for the next two videos, also co-owns them and uses them as a high-profile calling card.

“We’re very proud of it,” Cassidy says. “Much to our surprise, the one (project) we did for a lark has actually created the exposure we needed to move forward.”

The video was filmed over a weekend at Carroll’s volunteer fire department in Waverly, Nova Scotia. His fellow fire fighters played the baggage handlers.

“I really didn’t know what I was doing. I just knew that with social media, if you made something that looked good, sounded good and made people want to tell their friends about it, then the onus isn’t on you to create a million views,” Carroll says.

He posted the video just before midnight on July 6, 2009. When he went to bed, it had received six hits. When he woke up, it was up to 300.

“I thought, this is awesome! 300 hits already!” he recalls. He didn’t know that YouTube counts IP address visits, not views, and was pondering how long it would take to click “refresh” 999,700 times.

The video passed 5,000 hits by lunchtime. It zoomed to 25,000 by the end of the day and the Chronicle-Herald ran the story, catching the eye of an American journalist. Carroll, meanwhile, was busy playing a Sons of Maxwell gig in New Glasgow.

“We got off stage and there was a call from the LA Times on my phone,” he says.

Carroll awoke that Thursday morning to the salivating jaws of a media monster in full feeding frenzy. He appeared on CBC’s Mainstreet, replied to a query email from CNN, and headed to CTV’s Live at Five. The hit count passed 75,000.

Minutes before going on air, host Starr Dobson ran up to him and shouted that he was on the Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer. Carroll did Live at Five and raced home. “It was like election central,” he says, with friends and family crowded around his TV. Sandwiched between a report on the Pope and a report on U.S. president Barack Obama was United Breaks Guitars.

“There are my friends with sombreros on singing on the Situation Room wall,” Carroll marvels. “Wolf was bopping around and smiling. He said, ‘It’s actually a good song, too.’”

The video exploded, blasting past one million hits by Friday, two million by Sunday and four million two weeks later. Currently, it’s climbing toward eight million unique visits.

Carroll was overwhelmed by the colossal business opportunity. He turned to Phil Holmes and Ian Cavanagh at Ambir Solutions, an Atlantic Canada-based IT consulting services company. Ambir came on board as the video surged past 30,000.

“Your 15 minutes of fame can be very constructive or destructive, depending on how you chose to play that out,” Holmes says. “He was going to have to live with his 15 minutes of fame and the fallout from that for the next forty years.”

As Holmes saw it, Carroll could capitalize on his fame by changing from a musician to hybrid musician/public speaker, or he could cash in on short-term endorsements while he was hot.

They developed a “purpose map” to gauge what was important to Carroll and what businesses opportunities could enhance his career while not corrupting his core business values.

“He felt as though he had the upper hand from a consumer perspective and my advice was to try and maintain that moral high ground,” Holmes says. “If he took some short-term jingle business opportunities, he would sell his soul, the public would see through that and that would come back to haunt him.”

Carroll kept his eye on the high road.

“My thinking was to funnel people to the music I wanted them to experience the most,” he says. He quickly got Perfect Blue and the United songs online and pointed visitors to the Sons of Maxwell site, where they could buy his back catalogue.

To fully tap into and capture a notoriously transient web audience, he called in
Tom McLellan of GrowthClick, an internet-marketing consulting company in Halifax.

McLellan upgraded Carroll’s email capacity to handle the deluge and bolstered the website to prevent it from crashing.

“If you’re running a webserver and other tools meant for a small-business audience, you don’t expect to have five million people hitting your website in the space of a week,” McLellan says. He made the music available for download directly from Davecarrollmusic.com so Carroll didn’t have to split revenues with Itunes and started an online offer of a free download from Perfect Blue if fans entered their email address, building a massive mailing list for Carroll.

McLellan says his goal was to help Carroll create an “online cash register.” He was so excited to try his hand at music promotions that he came on board as a volunteer. Now that he’s helped Carroll boost his earnings, he’s a paid consultant for the Carroll team.

He also helped develop two other websites – Rightsideofright.com and Bigbreaksolutions.com – to channel demand for Carroll as a keynote speaker and corporate partner. In March, Carroll released his third United song, ending the saga.

“I’m a capitalist. My goal isn’t to bring companies down, it’s to compel big companies who are giving bad customer service to do a better job, because it’s better for you and me and them if they’re not losing customers because of a viral video,” Carroll explains.

Without the web, Carroll doubts his story would have happened. Twenty years ago, an airline broke musician Tom Paxton’s guitar and he wrote Thank You, Republic Airlines, in revenge. His fans enjoyed it. Two decades later, the internet took Carroll’s retribution global, carrying his business with it. The U.K. Telegraph recently wrote about his experience and the Harvard School of Business is using it as a case study. Carroll’s music is flying off the physical and digital shelves and he has harnessed a booming career as a keynote speaker on social media and customer relations.

Plus, flying has never been more pleasant for him.

“They all recognize me,” he laughs.
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