Dave Simpson goes out with a 'street team' - the latest tactic to do the PR for your band

Who better to do the PR for your band than your devoted fans? Dave Simpson goes out in Manchester with a 'street team' - the latest tactic for whipping up a word-of-mouth pop sensation

Inside Manchester's cosy Night & Day club, a huddle of young lads discuss their musical exploits. "We met this band that supported Jack Johnson," says Liam Sutcliffe, a 21-year old Mancunian with a fashionably Dohertyesque haircut, describing how Matt Costa's band "took us out in Rusholme and bought us all a curry". His mate Shaun Topham, also 21, tops that by describing how they've seen Razorlight and Kaiser Chiefs in tiny pubs. "And we got eight free tickets to see Richard Ashcroft!" he beams. "If you're into music it's great."

Topham and pals aren't just another bunch of young music enthusiasts: they're the music industry's great hope to keep sales buoyant, generate interest in new music, and work out exactly who likes exactly what. They are what is called a "street team".

Everyone who goes to gigs has met someone like Sutcliffe or Topham - they're the people with a clipboard who ask if you'd like to be on a band's mailing list, or with handfuls of flyers to give out. Tonight, they are campaigning for the Dodos, a San Francisco psychedelic folk duo around whom there is the beginning of a buzz, much of that down to street teams. An enthusiastic and efficient street team cannot single-handedly break a group, but can certainly help create the impetus that makes a group successful.

"The Kooks, One Night Only and the Magic Numbers were totally street-teamed bands," says Lisa Paulon, who runs Traffic, a company that recruits and coordinates street teams. In the Kooks' case, the band started "completely cold. They weren't like these American bands who'd been touring round for five years picking up fans here and there. They had nothing." Traffic put a street team on the road with them - with a team manager whose job was to "vibe up" the team and encourage them to spread their enthusiasm.

"If those four or five people have the best time of their lives and have photos taken with the band, they go and say to their mates, 'This is the best thing that ever happened,'" explains Paulon. Those mates tell more mates, who tell more mates - it's a word-of-mouth pyramid scheme. A month after the Kooks began playing smallish venues, their audience had quadrupled - and they went on to sell 1.1m copies of their debut album in the UK alone.

It sounds a bit like the techniques religious groups use to spread the word, and there are definite parallels. Like many religious doorsteppers, street teams aren't paid to spread the word. They're teams of enthusiasts rewarded with free tickets to the gigs, a few CDs, a T-shirt or even - if they're lucky - an audience with the band. Paulon's company runs street teams for Babyshambles, Razorlight and Dirty Pretty Things: she's had teamers who were "literally crying and shaking" on meeting their heroes. Our lads in Manchester haven't had this pleasure, but Dale Massey, an 18-year-old from Widnes, vividly remembers being able to get into Manchester Apollo before the "normal" fans, and seeing "Johnny Borrell ... actually walking round the building!" That sense of being part of the in-crowd is crucial to the appeal: when Massey teamed at a Dirty Pretty Things gig, he got VIP badges and the chance to drink in a separate bar.

Topham looks appalled at Massey's luck. "We've never had that. When we did Manic Street Preachers at the Arena we even had to put a flyer on every seat," he grumbles. However, he concedes that there are other fringe benefits.

"It's a dead good chance to meet people," he grins. "Basically, it's an amazing way of chatting up girls." Which is all very well if the girls make up a band's potential audience. Paulon remembers how the Kooks' first tour benefited from "particular investment in the project. They had generic flyers, they'd look for places to have a party every night and Virgin gave the street team a booze budget and even portable stereos. They were having these mad parties. Every day the street team manager took everyone's addresses and the band would email everyone who went to the show the night before saying, 'Great to see you guys, please come and see us again - it would be great to meet everyone and make it personal.'"

Street-teaming can't guarantee success - there are only 40 places in the Top 40 and the tactic tends to work best for bands who might appeal to a younger audience. However, there's real theory behind it. Paulon refers to Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point, which argues that if enough people do the same thing at the same time "you can reach this threshold where it snowballs". She based teaming on the notion that if you get 100 diehard fans around the country, you can send them on certain missions, be they messaging all their MySpace friends or requesting the band's songs on local radio. "It's online exercises, stuff you can do peer-to-peer, infiltrating social groups. If they weren't organised, they'd probably be telling their friends about this new band they really liked anyway," she reasons. "But if you take them all together they can become a powerful unit." Very powerful, if - like Traffic - the nerve centre has a staggering 128,00 volunteers on its books.

Fans are recruited by word of mouth. Massey saw someone teaming at a gig, went up to them to ask what they were doing and soon received an email asking him to join a street team. The ideal converts are kids aged between 16 and 21, especially those still in education - because they still have a lot of contact with people in their own age group and go to plenty of gigs. Ideally, they should be massive fans of a group, but that isn't always possible. It turns out Topham and pals only heard the Dodos yesterday, but checked out their MySpace site after Traffic said that if they liked the band enough to "team" they'd have the carrot of a bigger gig next week. "It's a great way of discovering new bands," says Topham.

But isn't it exploitative? Paulon insists not, arguing that teams have to be aged 16 or over, are sent out in duos for safety and that it's all invaluable work experience. She argues that all Traffic's current employees started off in street teaming, and many teamers use it as a way into marketing and PR.

"It gives you more confidence," says Topham, who doesn't sound as if he was short of it before. Before discovering street teams, he and Liam Sutcliffe worked in Magaluf enticing tourists into bars, where they'd be rewarded with abuse or people trying to punch them. Because the targets of a street team are a band's fans anyway, the worst street teamers are likely to receive is a polite "No thank you".

When Paulon set up Traffic in 2001 - envisaging it as a development of the old system of record company reps, who travelled the country servicing jukeboxes and giving posters to shops - she met industry resistance. "Some record companies were responsive, others weren't," she says, adding that many staffers were "miles away" from understanding it. Slowly, though, she says they have realised that street teams can give them potential gold dust - especially a database of email addresses that can be used for direct marketing. However, industry inertia remains an issue. "They're still not using the data like they should," she grumbles. "They have product managers who are paid to do their job but are sitting on this stuff."

Nevertheless, street teaming is developing all the time. Quite Great - a PR firm based in Cambridge - now has fans approaching people in the street, getting them to listen to new albums with the instruction, "If you like it, you can buy it in that shop over there." Quite Great founder Pete Bassett (whose street teams paved the way for Sandi Thom's controversial "internet gigs") argues that the success of street teaming by itself is difficult to quantify - "You can hand out 2,000 leaflets and 1,700 might end up on the floor" - so he combines it with other tactics. So for Valeriya - "the Russian Madonna" - he plans to send out teams wearing catsuits, with her latest video playing on a screen stuck to their stomachs, which might come as an alarming development to Topham and his pals. "They have to look the part," admits Bassett. "A catsuit wouldn't really work for a 22-stone skinhead."

Bassett formerly worked for the record company MCA and remembers stunts such as driving a tank down Oxford Street to promote Guns N' Roses. He is clearly keen to use his knowledge of old-style stunts in conjunction with street teams - he argues that the industry will have to adopt that kind of lateral thinking if it is to promote its product beyond the radio, press and adverts. Hence tactics such as"ghost marketing", whereby Quite Great sends numbered CDs out to fans who are asked to place them in places where people can discover them - from a pub to a park bench. "It's a bit like Mission: Impossible. There's a sticker on there that says, 'Please listen to this then put it in another place.' People might say, 'Well, I put CD No 1 up in Bradford and it's ended up in Melbourne.' There's that nosy-neighbour appeal: 'Ooh, you found it there.'" Another Quite Great client - opera singer Elena Purcell - is married to a builder, so the company has been giving his workmates her CDs to play as they build. "They've come back saying, 'Gor blimey, guv, people are actually saying nice things about our work, not: Turn down your bloody hip-hop,'" laughs Bassett. The ideal is, apparently, "Middle England having builders singing like Pavarotti - it's a step away from having a concert at B&Q".

Meanwhile, back at Night & Day, Topham and his mates have secured 100 signatures, which should at least begin the Dodos' quest for stardom. But in the darkness, he reveals the disturbing lengths to which he's going to to be able to carry on street teaming. "Me and him [Sutcliffe] are doing medical testing," he says. "It's £1,250 for them to take a piece of skin from off my arse that means I don't have to work and can go to loads of gigs."

So you're literally selling your bottom for pop music?

"I suppose so," he grins. "It's rather a sore point at the moment, but it's a way of life."

· The Dodos' album Visiter is released by Wichita on July 14


Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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