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opinion Opinion September 18, 2020

How ‘troublemakers’ Private Function topped the vinyl charts [op-ed]

How ‘troublemakers’ Private Function topped the vinyl charts [op-ed]

How did a band commonly perceived as one which only exists to ‘take the p*ss’ snag the #1 spot on the vinyl chart and #2 on the Australian album chart? Is there more to this joke than meets the eye? Cara Williams takes The Music Network behind the scenes of the marketing campaign, and reveals how it mobilised fans, (mostly) exceeded expectations, and kickstarted a campaign for world domination. 

A fortnight ago, Melbourne pub-punks Private Function released their second full-length LP, Whose Line Is It Anyway? marking their ARIA Charts debut, snagging #1 on the Vinyl Albums Chart, #2 on the Australian Artist Albums Chart, and #9 in the Albums Chart.

This ARIA entry undoubtedly left many industry folks scratching their heads, not only wondering who the hell Private Function were, but for those who already had the band on their radar, questioning how on Earth an obnoxious, facetious and seemingly underground punk band managed to chart so high.

Sure, the band has fans, but certainly not a colossal amount compared to other successful Australian acts. To date, the bulk of Private Function’s airplay has derived from community radio – this week is the first time ever their music has been added to rotation on triple j.

Yet the fans they do have are intensely invested, constantly engaging with the band’s whip-smart social updates, helping them sell-out shows, gobbling up their merch, and relentlessly cheering them on from the sidelines.

Despite common perceptions, Private Function aren’t a joke band. They take their craft and its execution very seriously.

As Rolling Stone Australia editor Tyler Jenke noted in a recent feature with the band, Private Function “use their platform to succeed in the rock world while simultaneously turning the genre back on itself and laughing at it”. And it’s true. Private Function simultaneously use humour as a weapon to break down the general public’s perceptions of rock’n’roll and rebuild it with them front and centre, while also making a joke out of music culture as a whole, playing up all of those rock’n’roll’s mythologies, clichés, and tropes we all know so well.

Yes, Private Function are laughing, and chances are, they’re laughing at you. And their fans are 100% there for it. So when Private Function kicked off the campaign for Whose Line Is It Anyway?, their fans were waiting with anticipation to see what tricks the band would pull out for the new release. They weren’t disappointed.

Private Function don’t do things by halves. When they’ve got a goal and a concept to go with it, they throw themselves into it. Hard. When we were working out the marketing strategy for Whose Line Is It Anyway?, we had three main objectives in mind:

  1. Sell out the first batch of limited-edition records on pre-order.
  2. Make the ARIA Charts, somewhere. Anywhere.
  3. Achieve world domination.

Two out of three ain’t so bad.

The band’s small but formidable team were ultimately instrumental in them making the charts. Label (and many times emotional) support came in spades from their newfound indie-label Damaged, which gave the band total creative freedom in terms of the campaign creative and roll-out. Marketing and distro support came from the teams at Caroline Australia and Bolster, while Artist First managed the web store. There was me, managing the band, the roll-out strategy and the PR. And then there was the band, who are an absolute creative powerhouse.

A little known fact about Private Function is that they produce all assets themselves in-house (drummer Aidan McDonald is a gun video director responsible for Private Function’s videos, while guitarist Joe Hansen knows photoshop almost as well as his fretboard).

The beauty of having an in-house creative team means we never needed to brief any externals, or sit around waiting for assets to be created. If the band came up with an idea, we were able to turn around assets almost instantly and inject their band personality within the content. It meant that when we needed to pull together video assets for social media promo, the band were able to film themselves in front of a green screen, and later superimpose themselves into the asset, so punters could see the band walking into the video, knocking on their phone screen and directing punters to swipe up to access the web store.

Once the album title was set in stone, the band pulled together the overall concept for the album. Joe Hansen commissioned the talents of visual artist Mikaela Jane, who illustrated the band reflected in a mirror with a line of white powder on top. This image was used on the back of the record, and was the first asset posted onto socials, hinting at a new record release. Then, we asked fans to register for updates, and a few days before announcing the new record, we sent an email to registrants letting them know a second LP was on the way, providing them access to the web store an hour before the general public was given access.

All album bundles on the web store were set up as show bags, which was the result of local business collaborations – partnering up with Instagram icons Hats Greatest Hits, and local screen-printing legends Too Far Gone. All show bags contained limited edition records, merch items, stickers and a Bertie Beetle (which punters seemed to enjoy the most).

Also on sale within the store was a ‘Mystery Bag’, which featured nothing more than a puzzling question mark and a higher price tag. Those show bags sold out in less than 15 minutes. Later in the campaign, we revealed the contents of the Mystery Bag, comprising a limited edition record pressing that contained bags of an eyebrow-raising white powder sandwiched inside the record. As expected, the fans who managed to secure a record were stoked, and those who missed out were begging to get their hands on one.

The album artwork itself was an absurdly simple concept, but gained a heap of attention once posted on socials, and showcased the band’s ability to take slices of popular culture and make it their own. A seemingly abstract image to the uninitiated, the album artwork harkened back to the old schoolyard trick of folding a $5 note in half to depict a whale giving head. The fans loved it, and once street posters went up, there was tonnes of user-generated content being posted on socials, capturing the posters in all their glory.

Along with their usual print poster run, the band also secured space to paste up a 20-metre long billboard along the Westgate Freeway, cementing the image of a whale giving fellatio into the consciousness of Victorian drivers forever. Sorry about that.

The band enlisted the animation skills of Queensland artist Jase Harper to produce the video for the album’s first single, ‘I Don’t Wanna Make Out With You’, a clip that featured multiple Easter eggs for eagle-eyed Private Function fans, mainly pulled from their merch.

But it was the second single, ‘Albury Wodonga’ that gained the most traction, and exposed Private Function to regional audiences who hadn’t yet been introduced to the band.

The video, again directed by drummer Aidan McDonald, captured the band driving up the Hume in a 1965 Ford Mustang, eventually reaching their destination of Albury Wodonga and highlighting key tourism spots in the towns.

The single became an instant border-uniting anthem amongst locals, ex-pats and beyond, and saw the band featured on Channel 7 Prime, Triple M and in regional print. Even Albury Wodonga Tourism was getting around it.

For a song written over a year ago, the timing of the release couldn’t have been more perfect. To complement the single release, the band used their ‘Greetings from Albury Wodonga’ single artwork to print a run of postcards, with a hand-written message from the band on the back and the album artwork as the stamp. These postcards were mailed out to 500 previous merch buyers, which didn’t just act as a promotional tool for the new single, but was another opportunity for more user-generated content to be created by fans – the postcard was shared across social media platforms for weeks by fans surprised to discover a postcard from Private Function in their letter-box.

Towards the tail end of the campaign, we initiated two giveaways – the first was a sticker-bomb campaign, where we asked punters to collect Private Function stickers from their local record store and do something creative with it for the chance to win a limited edition baggie vinyl.

The band received hundreds of entries, the eventual winner being a group from Adelaide who set up a ransom hotline demanding the band give them the pressing, or else they’d leak their album to the public. Not bad. The second competition and the final sales driver was a special Record Store Day contest, where punters who purchased the record from any indie record store in the country on RSD and emailed over their receipt went into the draw to win a weekend getaway with the band, anywhere in Australia. We still have no idea where the band will take the winner.

The combination of these marketing efforts and constant fan engagement was the overall catalyst for the band receiving such a high ARIA debut, and when the news of their ARIA entry broke, those fans who had spent the past few months watching the campaign unfold were just as thrilled as the band. These were fans who had travelled with Private Function along their journey, and the end result felt like a huge team effort, with their fans being the key driving force behind the band’s campaign success.

So where to from here? With live shows a distant memory, our next steps will be achieving goal number three, I suppose.

Cara Williams is the manager of Private Function and the director of music company Slow Clap


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