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Linkin Park stays close to fan base

When the red-hot rock band Linkin Park wanted to promote its hardcover collection of behind-the-scenes photos "From the Inside: Linkin Park's Meteora'' with a fan autograph session, it hit three cities: Los Angeles, New York and ... wait for it ... Dublin.

What was Linkin Park, whose first two albums sold some 18 million copies worldwide, doing in a generic big-box store in a generic shopping mall off the I-580 freeway in the pleasant, but underwhelming, if not generic, suburb of Dublin?

Although group rapper, production whiz and graphic designer Mike Shinoda seemed a little hazy on exactly where Dublin is, the location of the "meet-and- greet'' was no accident.

Linkin Park has a commercial tie-in with the electronics outlet Best Buy. The chain picked its Dublin location because, according to a store official, "We are one of the largest volume stores'' in the country -- meaning it moves a lot of Linkin Park CDs. What's more, Dublin is prime territory for the band's predominantly white, suburban teen fan base.

All of which adds up to a canny marketing strategy for a band that totally gets the concept of grassroots fan support. The six-man group -- whose latest CD, "Collision Course'' with rapper Jay-Z debuted this week at No. 1 -- is creating a new dynamic for success.

In some ways it was as interesting to see what Linkin Park didn't do as what they did. They didn't schedule interviews with major media outlets or even make sure their appearance in Dublin was announced in the mainstream media.

The publicity had already been taken care of via e-mails sent to members of fan clubs. Phone interviews with a couple of local radio stations that match their fans' demographics are as close as the band came to promotion.

Sure enough, the fans turned out -- well over 1,000 in all -- but it was quickly clear that not all of them were going to get to meet the band. More than an hour before the start, some 500 fans -- many of whom arrived as many as five hours early -- had already received special yellow wristbands to ensure them a chance to meet the band. The overflow just created backdrop buzz, reinforcing the band's popularity, and -- oh, by the way -- building demand for the book, which just happened to be on sale for $26.99 a pop.

It is all reflective of a rabid and mobilized fan base that doesn't need ads in major newspapers or interviews with influential critics to create a connection with a band it adores. They feel like they already know them. They get e-mails from the band and may have shaken their hands before a concert. Loyal doesn't begin to describe them.

"We do a meet-and-greet before every show,'' said Shinoda. "They are pretty much like this, but we haven't seen any tattoos (here) yet. We autograph their arms with a Sharpie and the next time we see them they have fresh tattoos (over the signature, making it permanent). I know when I was growing up I was very loyal to some bands like Run-DMC and Public Enemy. But I have never gotten a tattoo.''
But the real key is that, once the fans made it through the long, long line, the band bent over backward to make it a positive experience. Screaming fans came at them with backpacks and pens, cameras and video recorders. Burly security guards sized everyone up, but it was impossible to do more than give the crowd a quick once-over.

The band took it all in stride. The six 20-something musicians signed posters, books and T-shirts. For two hours, they posed for pictures, high- fived the kids and went out of their way to engage everyone in conversation. In all that time, the only complaint came when they were told it was time for a five-minute intermission.

"Why are we taking a break?'' Shinoda asked.
But you had to wonder how relaxed they really were.
Just the night before, in Columbus, Ohio, a deranged fan rushed the stage during a performance by the band Damageplan. The man had a gun and used it to kill guitarist "Dimebag" Darrell Abbott and three others in a shooting that also left two people injured before a cop shot him dead with a shotgun. I asked Shinoda whether the incident didn't give him chills.

"Absolutely,'' Shinoda said. "You can't hear that story and not be concerned. If there was anything I would say to the fans, it would be knowing where to draw the line. It is one thing to be a big fan of the group and something else to cross over the line. You'd like to keep everybody safe and keep yourself safe.''

A nice sentiment. But you have to wonder, as fans in all facets of entertainment, from pro sports to music, begin to become more and more involved -- and occasionally violent -- if performers aren't putting themselves at risk every time they step into, or before, a crowd.
Because this is just music, not life and death.

San Francisco Chronicle - December 11, 2004



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