Arcade Fire's Hard Reset
Forget the Reflektors—with their new album, Canada’s biggest band have become the Disruptors. Can they transition from indie darlings to product barons while staying in touch with their fans—and their sanity?
Something’s going on with Arcade Fire. Maybe you’ve seen the band’s cheeky “advertisements” for strange products: a performance energy drink called Chemistry, an all-marshmallow breakfast cereal called Creature Comfort. You may have read about their “360-degree arrangement” with the Everything Now Corporation, a shadowy entity with no physical address. The rollout of their new album Everything Now has been cleverly meta—it’s organized around the theme of #fakenews—but what hasn’t always been clear is the target of the joke. Is the band talking about artists who’ve become salesmen? The consumption-addled masses? The smoke-and-mirrors system of manufactured emotion and outrage that shapes life in the Internet age? Or are they just channeling the confusion about the state of the world that so many of us feel?
Earlier this week, the band volunteered to take me behind the scenes on their unorthodox marketing campaign. On a clear, blue-skied afternoon in June, we met at “the hatchery”—the deliberately-twee name they use for the marketing incubator they’ve built, in downtown Montreal, with their newly acquired major-label funding. The team—singer Win Butler; synth wizard Will Butler; multi-instrumentalists Tim Kingsbury, Jeremy Gara, and Richard Reed Parry—met me in the building’s lobby wearing matching gray “Everything Now” jumpsuits. Behind them, a telepresence robot hovered, resembling an iPad on a Segway. On its screen, I expected to see Arcade Fire co-founder Régine Chassagne. Instead, the screen displayed the face of a young man who introduced himself as Tannis Wright, the band’s social media intern.
“Tannis is just one part of our plan to invent new ways of marketing music,” Gara told me, as we rode the elevator up to the hatchery. “He’s brought a new creative energy to our meetings.” Among the innovations Wright had introduced, Gara said, was the “marketing jam”—an improvisational, full-band meeting in which members were encouraged to “riff” on one another’s product ideas. As the Butlers lead me from the elevator to the hatchery’s conference room, I found that the walls of the hatchery, which function as whiteboards, were festooned with ideas from past jam sessions. Next to the original drawing for Creature Comfort cereal, I spied a sketch of a USB fidget spinner. Elsewhere, I saw diagrams for kama sutra gummy bears, accordion-shaped pillows, turntable-shaped cardboard toys for cats “who like to scratch,” and glow stick walking sticks. The phrase “removable jihadi beards” has been written in block letters, then crossed out.
“What does all this have to do with Arcade Fire?” I ask.
“Being both a musician and purveyor of stuff isn’t totally unprecedented,” Parry said. “Think about Steve Perry’s hot sauce, or the KISS coffin, or Jimmy Buffett’s ‘Margaritaville’ retirement communities. Bono has a line of sunglasses. All those products are logical extensions of their brands. Our brand is just a little more carnivalesque.”
The conversation continued as we settled around the band’s conference table. “We want to make pressure—and constant change, especially—a part of the equation,” Kingsbury said. “Because that’s life. Nothing stays the same. Everything’s impermanent. In fact—probably we should make you sign an NDA before we tell you this—right now, we’re teaming with Headspace to create an augmented-reality app. It uses your phone’s camera to show how everything around us is in a state of decay, all the time.” Miming an explosion around his head, Kingsbury said, “Boom."
“Turns out, the kids in art school were wrong,” Gara added. “The businessmen aren’t going to drink our blood, or whatever it was Win said way back on ’The Suburbs.' On the contrary, it’s the other way around!” I’m not so sure. Although the band is reluctant to share financial details about their product initiatives, some sources have suggested that they are paying for the production of all these products themselves, and hoping to recoup costs from sales during their upcoming tour.
We ambled over to the hatchery’s library. “Some of my favorite books are here,” the elder Butler said. “The Innovator’s Dilemma, which was Steve Jobs’ favorite. Algorithms to Live By, which obviously helped us in writing the new record. 48 Laws of Power, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Ask and It Is Given: Learning to Manifest Your Desires, and Who Moved My Cheese? I’ve also been DM’ing a lot with Mark Cuban, who says he’ll introduce me to Jeff Bezos. Our dream is to have an Arcade Fire-branded, Amazon-like marketplace for all our products.”
At that moment, it occurred to me to ask where Régine Chassagne—who’s always seemed to be the band’s dreamiest dreamer—happened to be, since she wasn't around for our discussion or photo shoot. The question was quickly brushed aside. Later, reached briefly by phone, Chassagne said simply, “Truthfully, the hatchery is kind of dumb, no?”
Time will tell if Arcade Fire’s mystifying line of products will prove as successful as their music has been. As we leave the hatchery, I overheard Tannis Wright excitedly telling the band that the new USB fidget spinner edition of Everything Now has already sold out on the website. “Maybe we should pivot to video,” someone says. Is it all a put-on? An elaborate art project? Are they trying to confuse me, or are they themselves confused? As it always has and always will, the market will ultimately make that decision.
This article appeared in the July/August issue of Fact Company magazine.