When The Police announced a comeback, the trio's reunion was heralded with fanfare that included a performance at the Grammys, a televised press conference, and a splashy interview in The New York Times. Result: The trio has just sold out two nights at New York's Madison Square Garden. By contrast, when a little-known trio named Dispatch decided to reunite, it posted a note on its MySpace page. Already, the band has sold out three nights at Madison Square Garden.
Call it a masterstroke of social networking. In January, the band sold out three July concerts – which are expected to raise $2.2 million for charities in Zimbabwe – in a matter of days. The feat was accomplished simply by offering presale tickets to the 50,000-odd fans who count the band as a MySpace "friend." Fast-moving buzz on fan blogs and sites like Facebook took care of the rest.
Dispatch's Internet fan base "continues to blow my mind," says Brad Corrigan, who, like the other two band members, Chad Urmstom and Pete Heimbold, is a multi-instrumentalist. "We're just this little Podunk band that stopped playing five years ago. With the Internet and word of mouth, we just don't understand our leverage in terms of tickets."
But Dispatch, hailed as one of the most surprising grass-roots successes of the past decade, never had much use for tradition. Formed in the mid '90s, Dispatch managed to bypass the major record labels entirely. They cultivated a loyal fan base through file-sharing programs such as Napster, which are usually the bane of successful bands. Their 2000 album, "Who Are We Living For?" reached number 18 on the Billboard Internet sales chart and was named one of the Top 10 albums of the year by Rolling Stone.
The group disbanded in 2002, then reunited two years later for a second farewell concert in Boston that brought in over 110,000 fans – thought to be the largest independent music event ever.
The band claim this reunion isn't permanent, but a response to the dire poverty in the Southern African country.
Before his Dispatch days, bassist/ drummer Chad Urmston briefly lived in Zimbabwe, where he befriended a local fieldworker named Elias. Later, Urmston wrote a song titled "Elias" for Dispatch's 2001 album "Gut the Van."
"It became one of our anthems. Kids were really stoked to hear the song," recounts Corrigan. "This was our way of telling Elias that Chad still cares for him."
Dispatch formed the nonprofit Elias Fund to sponsor community development and education in Zimbabwe, including scholarships for both of Elias's children.
"[These shows] aren't about money. They're about awareness. We want people to ask us 'Why Zimbabwe?' " says Corrigan, who, along with Urmston and Heimbold, plans to visit the country in May.
"We know that we can bring this cause to our fans," says Corrigan. "There's something happening here that's bigger than all of us and we're going to be a part of it."
Giving fans the ability to connect with a band is, of course, what helps drive traffic to sites such as MySpace. Musicians are offered a free space to upload songs and publish concert information; listeners, on the other hand, are able to stay more closely in touch with their favorite artists than ever before.
"It's changed the music landscape," says Josh Brooks, vice president of Content and Publishing for MySpace. "People used to discover bands by flipping through local fliers, but now you can go to MySpace and find a band. And if they have 30,000 fans, you should probably listen to their music."
For newcomers like Colbie Caillat, a Los Angeles-based musician who's currently ranked as the top unsigned MySpace artist, the free exposure can lead to bigger tours and greater media attention.
"Through MySpace, I get 50,000 song plays a day. My music is just now being heard," says Caillat, who chalks up her debut on "Last Call with Carson Daly" and a blurb appearing in Rolling Stone – two promotional vehicles usually only available to artists with heavyweight label backing – to the popularity of the site.