In the classic movie A Christmas Story, there's a great plotline where the 9-year-old Ralphie waits excitedly for the mail to bring a secret decoder ring to translate messages from his favorite radio show "Little Orphan Annie." It finally arrives, and Ralphie gets his first chance to decode the secret messages he's been missing for so long. In a memorable scene, Ralphie locks himself in the bathroom and works out the first message. As he finishes it, he reads the results: "be sure to drink your Ovaltine." Realizing that he's been connned by the show's advertisers, Ralphie laments "Ovaltine?! A crummy commercial!?" That phrase has become a handy part of our family's vocabulary.
In 2000, TMFW-favorites the Barenaked Ladies engaged in a similar bit of stealth advertising. The band's fifth record Maroon was set to be released on September 12 of that year, right in the heyday of the file-sharing site (and scourge of the record industry) Napster. At its height, Napster boasted 15 million unique users, and was famous for featuring "leaked" versions of songs in advance of their official release date.
Knowing that users would be searching for their album in advance of its release date in hopes of catching a leak, Barenaked Ladies decided to engage in some creative subterfuge to promote it. The band decided to self-leak the song "Pinch Me," which was to be its first single from the album. But rather than offering the complete song, the band created a "Napster version" where they made clear that the user had just unwittingly downloaded an advertisement rather than a proper song.
The "Trojan horse" version of the song opened with the first verse uninterrupted, but right as the chorus started up, it abruptly stopped and the band broke in with an announcement:
Hi folks this is Steven Page. This is Tyler Stewart. We're two members of Barenaked Ladies, and although you thought you were downloading our new single, what you're actually downloading is an advertisement for our new album Maroon. It comes out September 12th, and, uh, after that point I'm sure you can download lots of stuff from our record. But until then you're just going to get lots of stuff with us bugging you. We fooled you, huh? We're sneaky like that; you can never trust a Canadian. Next thing you know, we'll be supplying your natural resources!
Similarly, at two other points in the song the band broke in with some silliness and distraction (though after the first "commercial," the next two breaks were just the band fooling around.) The band's creative approach to promotion did not go unnoticed - it was written up in stories on cnn.com (archive link), Slashdot, and others.
I thought of this TMFW when "Pinch Me" came on my iPod. I was one of those who were fooled by the band's stunt back in 2000, but I was sufficiently charmed by the gag that I kept the "commercial" along with the actual song. So now every time the song pops up on shuffle, I have to wait until the first chorus to know which version I am listening to.
I tried to find a copy of the Napster version that is available online, and (surprisingly) struck out. So I made my own and put it on YouTube: you can listen to the fake version of "Pinch Me" here.
BONUS FACT: When seeking out lyrics for "Pinch Me" on Google, the very first result is to lyrics site azlyrics.com. Their entry for the song (and other lyrics sites too) includes the complete transcript of the fake version; apparently somebody unknowingly used the Napster version when creating the entry, and it has stuck. In fact, an "official" version of Barenaked Ladies playing the song live on YouTube, which was uploaded by the company selling the DVD of the show, features those incorrect lyrics too.
BONUS FACT 2: The band Metallica famously sued Napster when they discovered to their dismay that their song "I Disappear" had leaked there. The band was one of the last holdouts to sell their music online (they hit iTunes in a limited way only in 2006), and their guitarist has said as recently as October of last year that "things like iTunes and streaming and social networking, it’s destroyed music. It’s destroyed the motivation to go out there and really make the best record possible. It’s a shame." It's some delicious irony (or perhaps hypocrisy) that a search of YouTube for "Metallica I Disappear" yields hundreds and hundreds of results, including the official video, which has been watched over 4.6 million times. Metallica's official YouTube account, in fact, has over 900 videos uploaded. It's a shame, indeed.
BONUS FACT 3: Starting in 2007, the Barenaked Ladies recorded and released a series of over 40 videos on YouTube that they called "The Bathroom Sessions." The series features songs recorded in band member Ed Robertson's bathroom, mostly with only an acoustic guitar and vocals. Here's a nice, stripped down version of "Pinch Me" from those sessions.
UNRELATED BONUS FACT / UPDATE: News came out last week that The WuTang Clan will sell only one copy of their "secret" double record The Wu - Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. They will place the recording in a fancy engraved box made of silver and nickel, and will display the box in various museums - with the possibility for visitors to listen to the music through headphones - prior to auctioning the one and only copy. Gizmodo reported on the news as though it were "unprecedented," and the RZA commented that the one-off record would be "a piece of art like nobody else has done in the history of music." Perhaps Gizmodo and The RZA should read TMFW; if so, they'd know that this has already been done (several times, even).