The Wonder Years’ Dan Campbell On Winning the Merch Game and Cultivating the Best Fans
The frontman discusses the pitfalls of planning a worldwide album promotion and how his English degree helped him to be a better marketer.
For more than a decade, Dan Campbell has been writing anthems of suburban alienation that have earned his band The Wonder Years an unusually dedicated following. And while it's not possible that he has shaken the hand of every single one of his fans and then personally sold them some merchandise, it's not for a lack of trying. He always goes the extra mile for them, and then several miles beyond that.
After forming in Lansdale, Pennsylvania (a stone's throw from Philadelphia), The Wonder Years captured the hearts of pop-punk fans with the double-shot of 2010's The Upsides and 2011's Suburbia I've Given You All and Now I'm Nothing, which saw Campbell giving his fans pep talks and confirmations that it's OK to feel like a loser sometimes. The band’s gone on to be one of the most popular and beloved acts in their scene, with albums like 2015's No Closer to Heaven making it to No. 12 on the Billboard charts.
For their new album, Sister Cities, the six-piece have added some indie and rock influences to the mix; the hooks are still razor-sharp and the choruses are still built for maximum sing-along potential, but the sonic textures and humanistic bent to the lyrics recall touchstones such as Modest Mouse and Bruce Springsteen. The result has been critical acclaim from outlets that previously never gave The Wonder Years the time of day.
The band recently started their own imprint, Loneliest Place On Earth, and partnered with their longtime label Hopeless Records to create an ambitious pre-release campaign that would see fans from across the globe work together to unlock a puzzle that would allow them to access a website filled with exclusive studio footage and a sample of more new music. The idea was that the campaign would echo what Campbell calls the album's themes of "commonality and connectivity," but it didn't end up working out quite the way he hoped. Undeterred, Campbell talked with Spotify about rebounding from his disappointment, the tricky art of merchandise ratios, and how to cultivate a fanbase full of nice people.
You had a very immersive pre-release campaign before your new album was even announced. Could you talk a little bit about it?
In conjunction with the people at Hopeless, we put together this massive, sprawling plan that required us first to shut down our socials, and then to collect people's physical addresses, and then mail out postcards that didn't say the band name on them—they just had the label logo, and a lyric, and some of the artwork.
And then from there, we sent out 150 or so of this 7-inch, the B-side of which was a song from the new record, the A-side of which was a poem I wrote that also functions a little bit as a thesis statement for the record, read in six languages. And the only markings on it were the mathematic equation for distance. It's a cryptic thing; you can probably tell that it's The Wonder Years, but you have no confirmation that it's The Wonder Years.
What happened after that?
We launched a global campaign. We had posters put up in 15 cities worldwide, anywhere from Tokyo, to Rio, to London, to Toronto, to Philly, to Nashville—all over the world. Each one had one piece of the artwork on it. If you put all 15 characters together, you'd get a phrase, which operates as a password to a website. You don't know the password without having to communicate with other fans in other cities. It would require you to find a fan in Tokyo or Costa Rica, so on and so forth. It was a way to say, "Hey, go out and find a poster and communicate with people all over the world in order to achieve this common goal."
Did it unfold the way you wanted it to?
No, not at all. This in no way happened the way we wanted it to. Because the person that coded the website for us neglected to encrypt the password. It was legitimately devastating, because as I said, we put a lot of work in. We were waking up at 3:00 in the morning to make a phone call to someone in Japan to make sure they were gonna hang the poster on time. We had 50-plus custom posters get lost in the mail. One that was sent to Japan got stuck in Alaska, and never made it through. One was supposed to go to Rio and got stuck in a customs strike. One was supposed to go to Dublin, but there was a mechanical failure on the plane. People were still excited, people were still talking, some people even still went and visited posters, but I would classify it as a massive letdown.
__I'm sorry. How did you move on? __
I took a week and didn't do anything. Then we just went right back into the plan as it was supposed to happen. We released the trailer for the record. We released the music video.
Your band is known for your intense connection to your fans. As you become more and more popular, does it get tough to maintain that?
I don't like to do it through social media, because that feels a little too invasive. I would much prefer to do it face-to-face when we get those opportunities. This week, we are doing pop-up shops—two in Chicago and two in Philadelphia—where we rented out spaces and filled out our own store.
We've brought in all of our own fixtures, all of our own merchandise, we've brought in a whole gallery. We do performances, we have an array of playlists, and all of the merch is super-exclusive, to the point where we're doing a total of 72 custom jackets. Each one was individually sourced by going to secondhand shops and thrift stores and Goodwills and picking out jackets and then getting them cleaned and embroidered, so every single one is unique. We're at the pop-up shops all day, so we were there to sign things and shake hands and take pictures and have conversations. The same thing can be said at the in-stores. These are really small, intimate rooms where we're playing to a couple hundred people, and then we do a signing afterward and have the opportunity to shake some hands and talk about the record a little bit. So we try to find ways to make it viable to do that still.
Wait, do you guys personally pick out the jackets?
Wow, that's a lot of work.
Yeah, when I said that we're personally involved in a lot of this, it's not like, "Hey here's an idea, go run with it" to our merch company or our record label. Again, an example of this might be: We had a snow day and I was like, "Oh I have some extra time on my hands." And so I broke out the past few years’ worth of merch spreadsheets from touring and figured out a new sizing ratio to understand T-shirt sales versus sweatshirt sales and what percentage of the overall merch comes in hats, what percentage comes in music, so that I can get closer and closer to a perfect merch order before I tour. I am obsessive about details.
Did you study marketing when you were in school?
No, I studied English.
Man, you sound like you're really on it.
One time my boss at a retirement home that I worked at paid me $200 to write his marketing final. He gave me his marketing book, and I read a little bit about it and then did his final. He got a C. That’s not bad, for not taking the course.
It's true of all musicians—but especially rock bands—that you make most of your money with the merchandise, so clearly you guys are really maximizing that.
We're doing our best to get things like stock right. That's why I spend so much time building out spreadsheets and equations and ratios, to make sure that I'm ordering correctly. So that you don't get home from a tour and go, "Jesus Christ, we have 600 XXL T-shirts left. How did we fuck this up?" And every tour is providing data to better the order for the next tour. And then there's always anomalies and things that are gonna skew your data points, like we ran out of something for a day, or it snows, so we sold more sweatshirts.
__The Wonder Years are thought of primarily of as a pop-punk group, but on the new record, I'm hearing a lot of indie rock influences in the texture of the guitars and the arrangements. Were you actively trying to change things up? __
We're always consciously attempting to push our sound further and further. We're music fans, and we know what our demographic is. Primarily, it’s 18 to 24, and then after that, it's 24 to 28. We remember what it's like to listen to and love music at that that time in our lives. And we know that sometimes that follow-up record is maybe too ambitious, and it feels like, "Wow this is a totally different band—this isn't the band that I signed up for." But we also know what it feels like to listen to a band's new record and feel like, "Wow, this is just a rehash of the things that you just did. I wanted something." We've always just tried to take one bold step forward every record. Not so much that we're leaving anyone behind or abandoning anyone, but not so little that you feel like we're patronizing you by putting out the same releases and hoping you won't notice. It's not always the easiest balance, but we feel like we've done a pretty damn good job with it.
I think that people who may have dismissed your band as something they wouldn't listen to, if they heard this one, would be very impressed. Do you ever get frustrated? Do you ever feel like there's a stigma against your genre that prevents you from reaching those who probably might actually like you if they gave it a shot?
It can get a little frustrating, but a couple things. One is that I don't know if we necessarily feel like we belong to any particular genre anymore, and I don't think that we've felt that we have for a couple of records now.
So it's a little harder when you're not classifying yourself one way, but maybe other people are. But mostly, we're thankful that people listen, because so many people try to do this. There's so many people that want to create music and want to be able to make a living from it, and we're very, very lucky to be able to do that. So we would never say we don't want the fans that we have, we want these other kinds of fans.
We don't just love the people who listen to our band because they listen to our band. We find that we have some of the kindest, most empathetic, thoughtful, forward-thinking fans that most people know. We'll hear from people at venues going like, "Wow, this show was a pleasure, your fans are so thoughtful and polite."
__This might actually be the best advice you can give: How can artists cultivate a fanbase full of nice people and not jerks? __
I think that they see the earnestness that we put in, and they see the hard work that we put in, and I think that that attracts those kinds of people. We try to treat people with respect and with kindness, and hopefully, that comes back to us as often as we put it out there, but in a way, we just feel lucky.