Imagine a typical postal-executive convention: coffee urns in the corner, a mission statement projected onto a huge screen, gray suits milling about, security tighter than a bull rider’s butt. (So tight, in fact, that this reporter is imagining this along with you; like the many other media outlets that so requested, the Washington City Paper wasn’t allowed to attend.)
Oh yeah, and don’t forget the two indie musicians up on stage, bent over their laptops and launching into a haunting electronic love song.
“It was odd, to say the least,” laughs Sub Pop A&R rep Tony Kiewel of electronic duo the Postal Service’s appearance at the United States Postal Service (USPS) annual conference. The band played before a crowd of about 700 executives in a ballroom at the Wardman Park Marriott in Woodley Park on Nov. 17, capping the meeting with two songs off its first album, Give Up.
“We live in such a little niche universe,” marvels Kiewel, “that when you see another niche world, even more bizarre than yours—” he breaks off. “I was just blown away by how nice and kind everyone was.”
The Postal Service must be getting used to the kindness of strangers. A side project of musicians Ben Gibbard (frontman of Death Cab for Cutie) and Jimmy Tamborello (aka Dntel), the band has received critical praise and steadily building commercial success since the release of Give Up last year. However, the first link on the Google heap still belongs to the USPS, and its fierce brand guardians would prefer it stay that way.
In August 2003, USPS brass issued Gibbard and Tamborello a cease-and-desist letter, but what could have been a substantial legal squabble has turned out to be a boon for both parties: USPS eventually signed a licensing agreement allowing the Postal Service to keep its name, and the government corporation has discussed selling Give Up at post offices and using the band’s music in future USPS commercials. Gibbard and Tamborello’s convention appearance was just part of the deal, which at one point included a ride on the USPS Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade float. (Gibbard and Tamborello were bumped in favor of American Idol’s Fantasia.)
“[The ballroom show was] really the only thing that the band was contractually obligated to do,” says Kiewel. “I am absolutely astounded at how all this turned out….There is no reason in the world that [USPS] needed to be nice to us.”
But Gary Thuro, manager of communications services for USPS, knows a golden opportunity when he sees one. “Part of my job is to figure out ways to reach the younger generation,” says Thuro, 42. “[The cross-promotion] is a great way to reach a generation that typically doesn’t go to the post office.”
It was Thuro’s idea to have the band perform at the end of the meeting, in an effort to show other USPS executives “how powerful our brand is, and how we can use it to reach different groups.” The annual powwow, which includes discussions of business strategies and the previous year’s accomplishments, had never before featured a live musical performance.
Kiewel admits to some initial apprehension: “I thought it could be a disaster,” he says. “Seated, during the day—that’s a recipe for a pretty underwhelming show.” But Kiewel was pleased by the ballroom’s “amazing” sound and “state-of-the-art” PA.
Thuro says that the “not…young” audience “loved” the Postal Service’s decidedly new sound. “People were shocked to not see any instruments,” he says. “There was so much music coming out of just two guys and a couple of laptops.”
According to Kiewel, at least 30 or 40 people approached the band asking for autographs for children or other relatives. And the Sub Pop crew even got to shoot the breeze with Postmaster General John E. Potter. “He’s a really cool guy,” says Kiewel. “Kinda a punk-rocker dude.”—Anne Marson