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Debt Releaf

Cigarette companies get crafty

Everybody who has ever smoked a cigarette in any one of a few Houston venues knows this scenario: You're bracing yourself up against the bar, content not to fight the crowd for a better look-see of the band, and you're holding your beer in your armpit while retrieving a pack of, say, Marlboros from your pocket. Before you can separate one cig from the rest, a young guy wearing a backpack approaches. He asks you to pause and consider trading in your red apples for two packs of his brand, say, Camel. You contemplate your loyalty to Philip Morris a moment -- and your salary and how much you spend on tobacco -- and say what the heck. You make the trade. You're now two packs heavier, and not any lighter in the wallet.

Called sampling, this is one of the ways cigarette companies have begun infiltrating the live-music experience. It seems everything a cigarette company does -- from handing out freebies to paying for a club's print advertising -- is a can't-lose proposition for the music-loving public at large.

The Fondue Monks broke out of the pack last month, winning the first round of the Lucky Strike Band to Band talent search. Round Two gets under way soon.
The Fondue Monks broke out of the pack last month, winning the first round of the Lucky Strike Band to Band talent search. Round Two gets under way soon.

Frankly, makers of fine tobacco product make offers so good, no one can refuse. Including the bands themselves.

Since cigarette companies are now unable to advertise in certain media and in certain ways (Joe Camel's too darn cute, kill 'im), they've gotten crafty. One method by which they are attempting to reach consumers the surgeon general is trying to shield from smoking is band competitions. The logic is simple: Bands have followers, cigarette companies have dough; bands need money, cigarette companies need customers; bands trade support for large wads of leafy cash. Everybody wins.

Round Two of Lucky Strike's Band to Band talent search takes place at Fitzgerald's Saturday, August 5. Competitors will be The Tie That Binds, Simpleton and Faceplant. Whichever band wins will accompany Round One victors the Fondue Monks and the winner of a yet-unscheduled Round Three to a regional contest. Here's what the regional champ gets: a song on a nationally distributed compilation CD, a chance to win the grand prize, $15,000, the cachet that comes with being voted "the best" and the opportunity to open for a national act.

Though in its fourth year, the Band to Band contest is visiting Houston for the first time. It's mainly a promotion for Lucky Strike, a Brown & Williamson company and advertiser with the Houston Press. "It's stupid not to participate," says Andrea Kramer, event publicist.

And she's right. Naysayers can try to explain away the evils of cigarettes and, for that matter, beer and liquor, which actually were saturating the music industry with promotional gimmickry long before Big Tobacco ever caught the buzz. Being goodjust isn't enough for bands nowadays. They need help.

Since Lucky Strike, unlike other music sponsors of the vice variety, doesn't ask for anything in return from its winners, Richard Cagle, manager of Simpleton, sees the show "more like a contest that they're sponsoring."

"We all hate contests, number one," he continues. "We like all the other bands, and we don't want to harbor that competitiveness. But we were asked to do the show" by Fitzgerald's manager, Ryan Plagman, and Lucky Strike, "and it's not gonna kill us if we do or don't. We love the exposure, and we love the money."

'Round Town

Houston myth Jandek operates in obscurity. Texas Monthly not too long ago devoted thousands of words to who he may be (much in the same way Esquire once forfeited tons of column inches to reporter Ron Rosenbaum's catching a glimpse of J.D. Salinger's Volvo). How a tiny label from the heartland has managed to correspond with the out-of-touch and out-of-tune enigma is one for the ages.

There's probably not much to do in Bloomington, Indiana, 'cept maybe send Bobby Knight hate mail or wonder what's going on in South Bend. While the Secretly Canadian label on -- get this -- North Maple Street (talk about Americana clichés) houses no undercover Canucks, it does play home to a few Jandek fans. When the four-year-old company got the brilliant idea of constructing a compilation CD of a cappella tunes, the Houston idol was tops on its list. Getting ahold of the ghost was as easy as addressing a missive to his only-on-paper label, Corwood Industries. "We just wrote him a form letter," says Secretly Canadian owner-operator Jonathan Cargill. A few weeks later, a tape from Texas appeared in SC's North Maple Street mailbox. The two-minute-26-second song, "Om" -- which is what it sounds like, a meditative chant -- is cut no. eight on the 24-track CD, which also includes contributions from Tim Foljahn (Two Dollar Guitar), Richard Buckner and P.W. Long and Mai Doi Todd, who does a mean enough "La Vie en Rose" to make Grace Jones, who has owned the song post-Edith Piaf, blush.

"It's something everybody does," says Cargill of singing unaccompanied. "We just wanted to celebrate that phenomenon….All the people we're fans of, and we just wanted to work with them one way or the other."

Jandek is the label's big catch. He even gets away with providing anti-music. Most of the other tunes are traditionally musical. Then again, music was never Jandek's strong suit.

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