The Van Halen Lesson

By January 13, 2012startup marketing

In the wake of CES, it turns out that the venerable party boys of hard rock, Van Halen, are teaching every marketer in technology a valuable lesson. That lesson is simple: launch in small venues. And the bigger your launch, the smaller the venue.

Let me explain: Van Halen is releasing a new album in February. Most people are now saying, “Van Halen still records albums?” Yes, they do. This one, in particular, is an event — because David Lee Roth went back into the studio to record as the lead singer for the band (something which hasn’t happened since the band’s 1984 album — which was, of course, released in 1983). The last time that Roth joined the members of Van Halen for a reunion tour, the tour generated just short of 100 million in revenue (in a six month period). In short, it’s a pretty big deal.

Historically, Van Halen’s promotional methods have always been of a startup mindset. Before they had a record deal, they booked themselves gigs at local California high school’s and handed out fliers in parking lots (knowing that those graduating Seniors were about to become club-goers). Their first demo tape was “financed” by Gene Simmons (of KISS fame), and was resoundingly rejected by record executives (they were doomed to failure). Their first album (Van Halen I) was recorded in 2 weeks — with mistakes left in — precisely because the band wanted to sound like they just walked into a club and started playing. Eddie Van Halen (the band’s legendary guitarist) is, in fact, a guitar hacker — as he would take everything from chain-saws to sand paper to the wood body of his instrument; constantly tinkering, until he found the “sound” he wanted.

It should come as no surprise, then, that when Van Halen wants to launch a new album with David Lee Roth, they don’t rent some sparkly hollywood venue, or find the BIGGEST stage they possibly can. They know that the way to drive whispers among the influencers in their biz is simple: you launch in a small venue, and you make it a *status* symbol to have been there.

For their launch, they chose Cafe Wha? in New York – a 250 seat club with some historic roots. Who was invited? The press and the important people in the field. Who’s “important” in their field? The day after the event, Slash — legendary guitarist for Guns-n-Roses — posted on his facebook account that he’d seen them the night before and they were “amazing.”

No elaborate sets, no giant auditorium. Van Halen walked onto a tiny stage in a room of 250 people, struggled their way past the amps and cords, and Roth made a joke about not being on this small of a stage since high school. And then they just lit into it for 45 minutes.

The effects have rippled through their world ever since.

The lesson here should be clear: you launch in small venues and concentrate on building status with your core community. This doesn’t mean that you don’t ever do shows like CES (if you’re the right company, they provide a tremendous leverage to meet 10’s of 1000’s of people in a short time), it means that if you’re a startup with a limited budget, OR if you’re Microsoft and you’re re-thinking your marketing efforts, you think small to launch big.

Gather the people you want to spread the word about you around, kick some ass for 45 minutes in a small venue, and then kick the amp over and walk off stage.

Then go play your stadium tour. That’s the Van Halen Lesson.