Monday, April 13, 2015

Scrutinize Your Music Marketing Methods - A Lesson Learned From the Old Newsboys

What is the deal with these "old newsboys" anyway?  They've always creeped me out since I was a kid because they are like some strange gang hanging out at intersections who approach your car at stoplights on cold winter nights and hit you up for cash.  They seem to strike just when people are scurrying to do Christmas shopping and there’s the related traffic and stress, when people just want to get where they’re going on icy roads and get the unpleasantness of the season overwith.  People are in a hurry more than ever, and this seems like something that must’ve started in the 1950s in neighborhoods like those in the TV shows Happy Days or Leave It To Beaver, but it may not be right for today’s world, in which you’re just trying to keep those car doors locked and get home safely.

Then at a red light there’s a group of weirdos who try to get you to roll down your window and give them money, and somehow they are affiliated with newspapers, but you’re not sure how exactly, and nobody seems to know what their deal is when you’re a kid and you ask about them.  So, you forget about it until the next year, and then it happens again.  No one knows the story, but you get the gist that it’s for charity, and most tend not to question the do-gooders of the world.  I do though, and that’s what this post is about - questioning an old tradition that I’ve never understood.  I feel a little guilty it irks me still, but it does due to my own ignorance.

I would be with my mom in the car and some man is obviously asking people to roll down their windows and talk to them and give them money.  Usually, this is something you avoid, especially in a crime-ridden city like Flint, Michigan where I'm from.  For some strange reason, its ok for people to do this when involved with a charity due to it being a tradition I guess.  Other people in other cars seem to want to engage these people in conversation, as if they know the people or have questions.  All this creates traffic hassles, people not being able to turn and make the green light in time, getting mad about it, honking their horns.

These were scary looking men who seemed to all be fat and have beards.  Could be it's just a coincidence that a lot of men in Flint happen to have beards.  They always stink because they all seem to be smokers (again, a lot of people smoke in impoverished former factory towns) and I swear many of them stunk like alcohol, probably because people either gave them whiskey, or they brought their own to stay warm out there on a dark cold winter night in the city streets.  Could be it was spiced rum or spiked coffee, since they always seemed to also be holding plastic coffee cups with lids.  

Something about how old white men talk in these parts added to the intimidation with their aggressive style and low, gruff smoker/drinker voices too.  Come to think of it, writers have always been known to be big on smoking.  Maybe they used to report news stories for the paper, or maybe they used to deliver papers as boys?  They’re definitely now all old, especially to a little kid with his mom in a car.  Granted, they are all freezing probably, but I suspect they must’ve also been wondering in the back of their minds whether or not this was the best approach to getting people to donate money to help others in winter.  Their grammar and word choice, or the general way in which they spoke also arose suspicion in me because they didn’t seem to be smart enough or at the very least speak well enough to be professional writers in the first place, if they were indeed writers or worked for newspaper companies.  

Needless to say at every encounter they have freaked me out, and I realize this may just have been freak occurrences only I experienced.  They scared you in a similar way that fake Santa Clauses in malls scare little kids.  I think it's because I'm never quite sure what they're up to and why they take the approach they do.  Also, I'm never quite sure who the heck they are exactly.  So, I get the fact that they are carrying the old-school style of shoulder bags full of newspapers, possibly fake spoof newspapers, possibly real.  Like almost all topics in this blog, I can’t help venting about this confusion I have.  If you’ve read others, or talked to me for very long in person, you know I’m prone to dead horse beating, and I’m sure this is yet another expository example.

Back before vehicle delivery and the internet-driven decline of the industry in general, kids used these bags to deliver newspapers on foot or on bikes.  We've all seen black and white movies where they sell papers out of these bags on the street in big cities.  Invariably, I'd ask the parent in the car who these guys are, what they want, what their deal is, and the parent never gave me an answer that left me satisfied.  (Keep in mind if I was saying all this that you’re currently reading in person, my tone of voice would let you know I’m smiling as I say it, thinking it’s humorous, and maybe with a Seinfeld-esque style.  :)

I wondered then, and still wonder now, probably because the word "old" is in their group name, "Are they former paper boys?, Are they former news writers?, Are they retired?  Did technology and consolidation in the media business force them to resort to these tactics?  Are they affiliated with the local newspaper The Flint Journal?  Are they unemployed now?  Did they get fired?  Did they get downsized or laid off?  Are they currently on strike and selling spoof papers in the streets to make extra money?" These are all legitimate questions, particularly that last one because Flint is arguably known for strikes as much as poverty and crime.  

So now that the newspaper business is all online, I thought I'd look into this by searching the web for answers to eliminate some of the confusion.  When I hit up the About page for the Old Newsboys of Flint website, it got even more complicated immediately, because the first sentence tells you about some founder dude whose last name was 'Young'.  Okay, so I quickly got the picture from the next few paragraphs that they help give clothes to kids at Christmas time - a great thing to do we can all agree.  

So we know they're out to help kids, yet as a kid myself, these guys scared the hell out of me.  Bundled up, some in ski masks, drinking coffee, gruff low voices, smoking cigarettes.  Again, perhaps typical of most old men in Flint.  Then I read on, and it starts to get creepier again.  Early on in the history of the organization, it says prisoners were used as staff members!  Additionally, it says the group actually started in Detroit, and was called the Goodfellows, so I immediately start thinking of the movie Goodfellas and the mafia murdering people.  Still creeped out by their whole approach as an adult here.  

Google searches bring up the fact that there are other, similar groups out there in places like Lansing and Toledo, all of whom seem to do similar things, some having more of a specialty - like only shoes and boots for kids, while others cooperate with other charities for christmas presents of all kinds for kids and even families.  The Lansing one sells a "spoof" newspaper, which is produced by the local newspaper, the Lansing State Journal, but the newsboys themselves are volunteers and do not work there, and it's not clear whether some of them used to work there or not.  It's a terrible thing to question or criticize or ridicule a charity, but I think they are in need of a marketing overhaul and improved practices.  

Maybe I'm the only one out there who has ever been scared of these guys as a kid, and maybe I'm the only one who has been and still is slightly confused by these guys.  Charity paper sellers approaching your car at busy intersections and holding up traffic is odd to me, but the more I read, the more I realize these people have good hearts, and volunteers for good causes is something we need more of in this country.  Although I don't know for sure, I've read this is on the decline in our country, and this is not something I should be negative about.  

Many a blog includes rants, raves, gripes, grievances, and mine is no different, as this post may provide further evidence for.  I’d like to think of this one as an observance of a phenomenon that doesn’t quite seem right to me as I try to understand things I run across in this world.  It’s a sharing of a take on an experience.  I see room for improvement in the approach and method of getting people to donate, not the fact that their intent is good, even though I admit I’m a charity begins at home kind of guy myself.  Getting people to buy your music is basically like charity solicitation come to think of it.  Lord knows the music industry is rapidly changing in the last couple decades.

The difference with my blog from most is I try to make each post somehow relate to my hobby of writing songs.  Maybe this observance could be used as a starting point to craft a story song, perhaps in the blues or folk traditions.  It would be about a tradition, and traditions should be questioned and improved in my way of thinking, and maybe a satirical parody would be best.  Songs are supposed to make people feel better about their lives, so I just don’t know.  It just occurred to me:   The takeaway here could very well be that it’s the approach to getting people to become aware of and possibly buy your music that you have to be careful about.  The lesson is maybe that being considerate of the methods you use to self-market and re-examining for improvement and appropriateness are important.  Rethink, revise, modernize with the times.  Periodically question what has been traditionally tried and true.

Maybe it’s just terrible what I’ve done here, being critical of people who try to help other people and help make the world a better place.  I'll probably burn in hell for writing this, but I was already going to do that anyway.  This is just one guy's experience with a charity that has some confusing things about it that don't quite make sense to an inquisitive kid.  As an adult now, that inquisitive kid still can't quite wrap his head around this whole thing.  So it's "no kid without a Christmas" or some similar motto, which is straight-up noble and wonderful and kind, but why the affiliation with newspapers?  Scare mothers and kids in cars to help other kids and at the same time help the newspaper publishing business at the same time?  I don't get it yet, but I see there is a book available for sale about this, which I might buy to get my questions answered.  

In the meantime, I felt compelled to raise this concerned and confused reaction I’ve had to this organization and their odd on-street solicitation events.  Really, I’m reaching out here, in a quest for better understanding of what the deal is with this Old Newsboys group.  I just want to know more to satisfy my curiosity and hopefully improve my ignorant perspective and change the way I’ve always felt about this group.

Maybe someone out there will read this, relate to and agree with some of it, and even comment on it themselves. Until then, if you’re a songwriter reader, get opinions on your approach to making people aware of your songs with the hope they’ll buy some, and be cognizant of any potentially creepy sales techniques.  We songwriters and musicians all want a larger audience of appreciators, and actions you take to help it grow require some careful consideration first.