The Stamp of Approval
At the unlikely junction of jangly indie rock music and Priority Mail packages, it appears that a partnership has been forged.
In today's socioeconomic landscape, where behemoth corporations seem to control everything from political candidates to the use of indigenous flora and fauna in far-flung regions of the world, it is rare to hear of an instance where a conflict between a large corporation and an independent business did not result in the little guy getting completely squashed. But when an indie band called the Postal Service went head to head with mammoth mail carriers United States Postal Service, the old paradigms about big guy and little guy didn't seem to quite fit. In fact, in this battle, the leverage held by that vague sense of cultural cache against the leverage of corporate power could just be a wash. And the least likely outcome – that the Postal Service and, well, the Postal Service, would find a way to coexist – appears to have come to fruition.
It is likely that no one is more surprised about the outcome then the members of the Postal Service, a northwest lo-fi electronic duo made up of Ben Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello, who cut their musical teeth playing in bands of different genres, Gibbard in the beloved indie outfit Deathcab for Cutie and Tamborello in the innovative electronic band Dntel. Because their backgrounds were so different, their collaboration was a unique moment of musical synthesis, a coming-together of two vastly different approaches to songwriting and performance.
The dynamic chemistry of this mixture was successful enough to garner praise from critics, fans and contemporaries, and with the release of their 2003 full-length album "Give Up," the two boys seemed poised to follow a new path in their musical careers. That is, until a knock on the door in August of 2003 threatened to spoil the party. The bad news came in the form of a cease and desist letter to Sub Pop records, the small Seattle-based label that put out their record, from the United States Postal Service. It turns out that the phrase "the postal service" is a registered trademark of USPS, and though they were "very, very flattered" about the use of the name, they would have to enforce their ownership of the phrase and ask that the boys stop using the name immediately.
Though a larger band on a larger label could have conceivably conceded that name without breaking the bank, the Postal Service and Sup Pop records would have been hurt badly by the loss. For a smaller band with small promotional budgets, word of mouth is essential to generating energy around a new band or a record. This fragile momentum is intimately connected to name recognition, and to change a band's name just as they are acquiring a critical momentum would be devastating for the band and the label. Not to mention the fact that there is also a possibility that the label would have to destroy their back stock of the records that have not been sold yet.
Rather than give in to the very real threat of a giant lawsuit, the band decided to meet with representatives from the US Postal Service, to discuss a possible agreement. Part of their strategy in meeting the USPS half way was to explain the way that their name came about. Indeed, if it weren't for the work of the men and women in blue who deliver the mail, any collaboration between the Seattle-based Gibbard and Los Angeles resident Tamborello would not have been possible.
The two musicians first worked together in 2001 to produce a track for Tamborello's Dntel album entitled "Life is Full of Possibilities." The unique synthesis of Tamborello's choppy, electronic layering and Gibbard's melodic vocals made the song a standout on the record and caused the boys to consider a more serious partnership. But their geographic separation made them dependent on the mail to exchange their musical ideas.
Tamborello would send CD-R's to Seattle filled with skeletal electronic music, which Gibbard would reshape into tuneful melodies, adding vocals, guitar, drums and keyboards. All of this was then put to tape by Gibbard's Death Cab for Cutie band mate Chris Walla and dropped back in the mail to Los Angeles for Tamborello's appraisal. If he felt that no additional changes were needed, the song was finished. When they had compiled enough material to make a record, they took the material to Sub Pop, who agreed to release the record on their label.
It seems that after considering the situation for a while, and no doubt consulting with their legal and marketing teams the US Postal Service felt flattered to learn that their services had played a part in the production of a record, especially one that is as commercially successful as "Give Up" has been so far, becoming Sub Pop's best selling record since they released Nirvana's "Bleach" in 1989. The US Postal Service realized that the connection of their name with a popular band might actually help them to reach out to a young demographic formerly out of their reach in this age where email, fax machines, and cell phones have ruined the reputation of post, known more commonly by teens and twenty-somethings as 'snail mail.' The US Postal Service's past attempts to reach out to the "youth" ended in massive cross-promotion with the 2003 film "Dr. Seuss' Cat in the Hat."
The USPS representatives thought that letting the band keep its name might work to change the company's image as an outdated form of communication. After all, if it could help two popular musicians like Gibbard and Tamborello achieve their aims, it might not be considered so uncool after all. So instead of distancing themselves from the band, the USPS decided to play up their relationship even more. Future copies of the band's record "Give Up," as well as any of the band's future records will carry a notice about USPS's copyright and there may be some television commercials for the post office in the works. In addition the band has agreed to play a rare live concert for the National Executive Conference, an annual bash held by the Postmaster General in Washington, D.C. In return, the USPS will sell Postal Service records on their website, giving the band unprecedented access to an audience that might not usually be exposed to their music.
But does a well-established institution like the US Postal Service really need to market themselves to anyone, much less a tiny subculture like the indie rock community? Clearly Gary Thuro, communications manager for the US Postal Service thinks so. For him, the US Postal Service is like any other company, and therefore must be aggressive when it comes to promoting their name and their services. "We're always looking for ways to extend our brand and reach into areas we don't typically reach," he said in a recent article in the New York Times, "like teens and people in their 20's who are typically doing their business online."
Record label Sub Pop is similarly pleased, and their smaller size puts them in a position to benefit even more from the agreement. "We found a place in the middle where all our interests can be served," said Sub Pop founder Jonathan Poneman. "There's a real spirit of cooperation."
What then of Gibbard and Tamborello, sudden – and perhaps unwitting – spokesmen for a mammoth, albeit a bit old-fashioned, American establishment? It would seem that the deal can only serve to expand their particular brand into new markets as well. Nevertheless, it is doubtful that we will see the boys donning postal uniforms for their live performances, or hawking postal merchandise on their website anytime soon. Somehow, whether or not this explosion of publicity was their desired outcome or not, it appears the boys are already balking under the weight of this new responsibility, as they have refused to do any further interviews regarding the matter. That's the Postal Service for you – stuck in its old, insular ways.