About two and a half years ago, Jimmy Tamborello and Ben Gibbard began to make music together despite the distance between them. Mr. Tamborello, who makes electronica with a group called Dntel, lived in Los Angeles, while Mr. Gibbard, who sings in the emo band Death Cab for Cutie, lived in Seattle. They sent each other music through the mail, completing songs bit by bit, and after about five months, they had finished an album.
In honor of their working method they called themselves the Postal Service. Their album, “Give Up,” was released by the Seattle-based Sub Pop Records in early 2003 and became an indie-rock hit, eventually selling almost 400,000 copies, the label’s second biggest seller ever, after Nirvana’s “Bleach.”
Then they heard from the real Postal Service, in the form of a cease-and-desist letter.
“It was really polite,” said Tony Kiewel, an artist and repertory representative at Sub Pop who works with the band. “It said that the Postal Service is a registered trademark of the United States Postal Service, and that though they were very, very flattered that we were using the name, they need to enforce their copyright.”
The letter arrived in August 2003, and for months the label and the band fretted over the consequences: Would the band have to change its name? Would Sub Pop have to destroy its stock of the album?
The outcome was as unusual as the band itself: this week the United States Postal Service – the real one, as in stamps and letters – signed an agreement with Sub Pop granting a free license to use the name in exchange for working to promote using the mail. Future copies of the album and the group’s follow-up work will have a notice about the trademark, while the federal Postal Service will sell the band’s CD’s on its Web site, potentially earning a profit. The band may do some television commercials for the post office.
The group also agreed to perform at the postmaster general’s annual National Executive Conference in Washington on Nov. 17. The attendees might not realize what a rare treat they are in for since the Postal Service does not play many gigs. Mr. Tamborello and Mr. Gibbard are busy with their regular bands: Dntel, with its atmospheric electronic dance music, and Death Cab for Cutie, which has become a college rock favorite for its heartfelt, jangly punk rock known as emo.
Gary Thuro, a manager of communications for the United States Postal Service who handles licensing and promotion, said the publicity would be valuable.
“We’re always looking for ways to extend our brand and reach into areas we don’t typically reach,” he said, “like teens and people in their 20’s, who are typically doing business online and are not familiar with the Postal Service.”
Not familiar with the Postal Service?
“I have three kids, and they do most of their correspondence online,” Mr. Thuro said.
He said the post office had been looking to promote its brand through popular culture tie-ins and cited the campaign for the 2003 film “Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat.” The post office is ending its sponsorship of Lance Armstrong’s cycling team at the end of this year.
The agency’s only concern, Mr. Thuro said, was that a rock band might prove an inappropriate mascot for a federal agency. But when executives met with Mr. Tamborello and Mr. Gibbard in Los Angeles earlier this year, they were set at ease. Soft-spoken, well groomed and unusually polite, they are two of the least offensive rock stars imaginable, and their music – bubbly yet pensive electronic pop with earnest vocals by Mr. Gibbard – is unlikely to dissuade anyone from buying stamps.
Mr. Tamborello, 29, said the band was happy to comply with the agreement.
“Doing promos for the post office seems a little bit weird,” he said. “But it’s a funny story for them to have – it’s a good story of how you can still use normal snail mail.”
He noted that the regular mail is inexpensive and easy to use, and that packages containing their working discs arrived in a couple of days, a comfortable margin for their unhurried schedule – although when finishing the album, they did use Federal Express a couple of times.
“Just to get it back and forth as quick as possible,” he said. “It saved a day.”
(NY Times, via Techdirt)