Interview: Songwriter and Author Dave Carroll on 'United Breaks Guitars'
Before the Internet, there was this thing called a complaint department, where disgruntled customers would go and voice their dissatisfaction with a product or service to an equally disgruntled employee of a company who was probably only stationed there after being late one too many times the week before.
Maybe for all your trouble you'd get some frustration out, and you might even get the refund you were after. But in the age of social media, it's become possible for one person to change the entire structure of a company's customer-service strategy with nothing more than a video camera, a few friends, a catchy tune and a YouTube account.
In case you missed the story, Dave Carroll is a Canadian musician who, in July 2009, was forced to check his $3,500 Taylor guitar by United Airlines, only to have the guitar damaged by a careless baggage handler. (Carroll recounts hearing a woman aboard the plane looking out the window and exclaiming, "They're throwing guitars out there!" Musicians: Imagine the horror.)
After United refused to pay for the damages to his beloved instrument, Carroll, along with some friends and his Sons of Maxwell bandmates, produced a $150 video for a twangy, infectious song called "United Breaks Guitars." The video ultimately went viral, forcing United to rethink their customer-service policies, again reinforcing just how powerful one man and a guitar can be.
Earlier this year, Carroll — now a much sought-after public speaker and still a prolific musician — put his story on paper, producing a book on the emerging presence of social media as an agent for accountability. We recently caught up with Carroll to talk guitars, songwriting and more.
GUITAR WORLD: A lot of what you talk about in United Breaks Guitars deals with accountability when it comes to companies, but really, we've been able to see the same principles play out in this past election. If someone slipped up, the Internet caught onto it and didn't let go until, in many cases, someone lost the election.
I think it's great for the most part, but it's also kind of a threat; there can't be any missteps. I think Mitt Romney meant what he said about the 47 percent, but that could have been a misstep. On any given day someone could say something and it could be blown up and it could ruin you. You've seen that with General Petraeus, right? An affair — there's people having affairs on both sides, and this somehow becomes a national security issue and his career's ruined and it reflects badly on Obama. How can that happen? But it does.
It's interesting how you've managed to combine a traditional art like narrative songwriting with the social media explosion. You can't help but wonder what would have happened if Dylan had a Twitter account back in the day.
He probably ... he still would have been Dylan, I guess. People have said that "United Breaks Guitars" is kind of a modern-day folk thing that mobilized a number of people. I'll always believe that music has a way of changing the world and making people feel a certain way that saying it just won't do. There's something about that pulse of a beat and a melody put behind a message and a strong refrain that gets people mobilized.
When we first started in the music business, we were singing a lot of traditional Irish music. A lot of it was Irish love songs, which are kind of timeless, but there was also a lot of politics in those tunes as well. We tried to stay away from the ones that still divide present-day Ireland; we didn't want to get involved in that. It's silly to get in a fight you really don't understand. But that's been going on forever, and it's powerful stuff when you're singing it and you know you're shaping you minds or you're lighting a fire under people. You've got to be careful with how you use it.
Companies and politicians aside, there's also a strong element of accountability that rests with the musician as well.
I was aware of that with the trilogy. I wanted to be fair in the first song, for sure, and that's been the work-horse of the three videos. But on the other two songs I knew I had this platform, and I definitely wasn't going to be unfair to anyone on the United side. I could have probably voiced it in a way to draw negative attention toward them, but that would have been unfair. You've got to measure yourself and take responsibility.
So what got you started with guitar? When you first picked one up, what made you say, "This is the instrument for me"?
It kind of just happened like that at university. In Canada they have college in university — college is more community, hands-on, trades and business degrees, but the highest level is university. So I decided I wanted to go to university, so I went to Carleton, decided late in the year to do that, so I didn't go into residence the first year, I lived in my own apartment. So I had a little extra time on my hands, and I had seen a guy just the year before playing with just a guitar and singing songs, and I came from Timmins, Ontario, where it was like '80s rock, full-band, full-power all the time, and I saw this guy with just his guitar and his voice entertaining people, and I thought, that'd be fun to be able to do.
So I bought a $125 Sonata guitar, which I still have; it's indestructible. It's made of plywood, but I've never seen one since. And it's still hanging on my wall. But I learned how to sing for fun, and when I went into residence my third year, and my brother joined me at Carleton, and we used to sing with our friends in our room, until someone who didn't appreciate our talent would call security on us and we'd get kicked out of our room and have to go down to the tunnels.
Carleton's connected by tunnels, and the reverb's amazing. You could be the best singer ever in a tunnel at 2 a.m.
So we ended up entering a talent contest and tying for first place with another band that was actually good; we had all of our friends voting for us, which is why we tied. The prize was to come back and share the night. That was my first gig, and I've never looked back.
Were you into the singer-songwriter genre at all before you picked up a guitar?
Yeah. I remember being inspired by Tracy Chapman. She had a huge hit that was acoustic-based and she was singing political songs, songs that mattered. And I grew up being a fan of The Beatles as well. So really strong melodies by people who are singing about things they knew. Guys like Paul McCartney were writing about what they knew, and were making the songs so good that everyone wanted to learn about them.
And that can be tough to do with just an acoustic guitar and a voice, but it's a formula that seems to work.
There's something about a song that if you can strip it down to just the voice and guitar, and it still carries some weight, then you can build it up and make it anything you want. But I always write songs based around whether or not they can stand alone, then I build the production from there.
With your main Taylor out of commission now, what are your main guitars?
I got two new Taylors. I actually had that guitar fixed. The guitar that got broken I got fixed for $1,200. That's actually what I asked United for was $1,200 in flight vouchers, and that's what they said they'd never offer. So I still have that guitar and I play it quite a bit and sometimes take it on the road for short driving trips.
You just put out a new album, Raincoat in Vegas, and it sounds like there's a pedal steel on the opening track. What's the story behind that?
That whole steel thing's on there because after "United Breaks Guitars" went viral, we were asked to go to the American Federation of Musicians/AGM in Vegas, so we went there. We played a gig, and this guy named Bruce Bouton came up, and he's an A-list steel player from Nashville. He's played with all the big country people, Garth Brooks and all that. He said he's recording now, and you could email him files and for $150-a-tune he'll do a song for you and do overdubs if you need them. When I wrote that song, "All Manner of Crazy," which talks about Patsy Cline, I got a hold of him and I really liked how it ended up changing the tune.
You branch out quite a bit with styles in your music. Is there anywhere left that you'd really like to go as a songwriter?
I have a pretty broad range. There are limits to where my music lies, but I really like I'm not in one focused thing. And that's the benefit of not being super successful, too; then you get married to your success and you're afraid to change. I've been sufficiently unsuccessful to own the rights to all the music I've ever recorded. That's been one of the criticisms though, "You're too broad!" But why would I want to write 10 songs that sound alike, and then make another record like that?
Has there been any frustration after the success of "United Breaks Guitars" with people not realizing you had recorded so much other music? Did you ever feel in danger of it being seen as just a novelty song?
I founds this a lot with "United Breaks Guitars: As a standalone musician, my music is appreciated by the fans that know it, but when I got to a social media conference I forget sometimes that people know that story, and it's amazing everybody there knows it and knows it very well. But I can go to a music conference and it wouldn't be treated with the same respect. It would almost be treated almost like a joke, in a sense. It's not treated a legitimate musical offering. But at social media conventions, no one ever questions that validity of what the song's about. It's appreciated as an artistic voice.
The bio on your book jacket now calls you a "social media innovator." Is there any advice you have for the average band that might help them reach a bigger audience?
The first thing is, don't let anyone tell you the value of your music. Don't buy into anyone else's opinion of who you are and what your limits are. I never did, and I had a limited audience compared to other people, but I believed that my content was strong and that I did certain things well, that there was an audience there, I just had to find them.
The beauty of social media is that it allows you to share your message with everybody and let the cream of your message rise to the top to the people who want to hear it and are ready for it. And the beauty is, I couldn't go around the world and sell out cities anywhere, but there are people in cities everywhere that support what I do. There could be 50 people in New York and 100 in London and three in Johannesburg, but with social media you have a way to reach all of those people. You can have a meaningful music career without having to go on the road. You can play music today, you can reach people — that's all you're really doing with music, trying to reach people with your message. It just so happens that in the past we've had to get in the van and travel long distances to do it.
It's refreshing in a way that you don't have to jump on whatever wave is happening. If you want to be in a goth-rock band that sings about Henry VIII, you can use Facebook to just target people who like both The Cure and Tudors, and there's your audience.
And the way we consume music now is completely different, too. I put some thought into the way the songs were ordered [on Raincoat in Vegas], but ultimately it doesn't matter because people will probably listen to it as singles in a mix, or they'll put it in their own playlist.
I don't think you're being crucified anymore for stepping outside of your genre. It allows so many more creative opportunities for everyone who is creating music. The handcuffs are off. Labels used to determine who was successful, and they wanted to make things easy for themselves by asking you to write one or two hits then eight more like 'em. And there's bands that hate their own material because of that.
Unfortunately, the mainstream market has become all the more competitive, and in some ways homogenized.
It's becoming so competitive in the radio market that there's no room to take chances in anyway. Just because I know a little bit more about country than the other genres, it's kind of sad to see country music where everyone's got a cowboy hat, or the tougher, newer guys are wearing ball caps. It's just so pre-packaged and so unimaginative. It's sad that there's so many great writers in Nashville who are maybe dumbing down their skills when they could be writing songs that maybe mean a little more. But it's all kind of vanilla right now.
You have to have a certain level of twang to be acceptable. If you want to do a song with fiddle and pedal steel but not the accent, good luck.
I couldn't be a country artist because I don't have the name for it. You have to have the made-up country name. There's a test I developed for it to see if you have a good country name where you have to sort of say the person's name as if they're stealing your peaches. So you'd say, [in Southern-by-way-of-Canada accent] "Garth Brooks, you get out of that peach tree or I'm gonna slap you!"
And Dave Carroll doesn't work that way. "Dave Carroll, stop stealing peaches!" Doesn't have the ring to it. Apply the test and then you'll know.
How did you find the process of writing a book? Is that something you'd like to continue doing?
I didn't have any idea that I would ever write a book, but I loved the process. It was a nice way to express myself, and that's kind of how I see myself, as maybe a messenger. I think there's still more I can say, and I'd like to try maybe writing a book of fiction. I'm always thinking of different stories and I've got a few kernels that I'm going to throw around. The self-publishing world is getting pretty interesting. Even if my publisher didn't want to publish my next book, there's nothing stopping me.
Dave Carroll's new book, United Breaks Guitars, is available in bookstores everywhere. For more on his latest album, Raincoat in Vegas, head to DaveCarrollMusic.com.