By Cory Sklar
By Alee Karim
By Christina Li
By Dave Pehling
By Ian S. Port
By SF Weekly
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
The year was 1984. Bay Area rockers Journey were riding out the success of the multiplatinum Frontiers. Adoring fans pelted the band with 500 letters per day -- a deluge of mail so great that no one at Nightmare Inc., Journey's management company, knew what to do with it. Then came Tim McQuaid.
At the time, McQuaid marketed tennis shoes; rock 'n' roll was only a hobby. But one day a buddy took him to Journey's headquarters in Pacific Heights. There, McQuaid couldn't help noticing the sacks of mail sandbagged against the walls. "I asked [my friend] if he would mind if I read a few," McQuaid says. "I was captivated by the energy in those letters. I got excited about communicating with the fans, channeling their energy into something positive with the band."
Shortly after he thumbed through those first letters, McQuaid, 42, decided to make fan mail his business. Fan Asylum, McQuaid's company, creates and manages fan clubs for an incongruous assembly of tepid monster-rock acts and smarmy pop groups out of an antiseptic SOMA office space. Fan Asylum calls its roster a "virtual Who's Who of popular music": Aerosmith, Boyz II Men, Whitney Houston, Skid Row, Janet Jackson, White Zombie, Megadeth, Pantera, Melissa Etheridge.
For $10 or $20 anyone can join. Simply tear off a perforated card that most of the acts include with their CDs and mail a check to San Francisco. Say you just bought the new White Zombie record and you're titillated enough to join the 5,000-member-strong "Psychoholics Anonymous." For $20, you receive the following fetishes in your starter kit: an electric-yellow bumper sticker that reads "Honk If You're Psychoholic"; a plastic card affirming your status as a club member; a color 8x10 signed by Rob Zombie and crew; a sew-on patch featuring a skull with an X on its forehead; a postcard-size sticker with a '60s babe in a knit bikini; and your first issue of Zombie World News, which unfolds into a wall poster.
Back in 1984, McQuaid would have never forecast a working arrangement with a band like White Zombie. Working for Nightmare Inc. was more "glamorous" than hyping sneakers, and McQuaid devoted himself to keeping the Journey juggernaut rolling with production tasks, merchandising, and management work. Then he found his niche. McQuaid asked to tackle the piles of letters and take the fan club under his wing. By the time Journey went bust in 1986, McQuaid had created a wildly successful fan club, pumping up membership from 800 die-hards to 20,000 Journey nuts. He asked to hold on to the business.
Fortunately for McQuaid, word had spread among Journey's heirs apparent, the MTV-bolstered glamlocks. In one deal, McQuaid's fledgling company inked five bands to its lineup: Aerosmith, Iron Maiden, W.A.S.P., Mstley CrYe, and a then unknown band from New Jersey, Bon Jovi. In the wake of Slippery When Wet, Bon Jovi's club membership huffed up to 40,000 and cemented the success of Fan Asylum. (Remember, in 1986 ironic detachment wasn't an acceptable way to show appreciation for a band; you were better off flashing your tits, or joining a fan club.)
A decade later, Fan Asylum thrives without the hairy heartthrob from Jersey. Now, at Fan Asylum's stateside headquarters (there's one office in Japan, another in London), 12 employees quietly keep the gears of fandom cranking. Two computer pros design newsletters and Fan Asylum's Websites; several employees sort through mail (500 to 1,000 pieces per week, more if an act releases a new record or video); and Mary Owen handles artist relations, a job that entails writing each newsletter and e-mailing folks in, say, the Friends of Janet club.
Owen, a 23-year-old media studies graduate from Southern California, explains how she translates the fan mail back into copy for each newsletter. "It's really a lot of role-playing," she says. While she doesn't exactly give each band a tongue bath, Owen's newsletters are less than critical. Pantera's digest, Stay Hostile, masquerades as a slapdash fanzine, replete with schlocky photocopies and handwritten photo captions. Sandwiched between a Q&A interview with Pantera's photographer and dark pictures from a record release party in Texas is this bit of hyperbole: "Pantera's new album, The Great Southern Trendkill, has the coolest, fuckin' hotter than a branding rod, artwork you've ever seen."
Gratuitous, sure, but Owen says she likes writing about Pantera since she gets to use an obnoxious persona. "I love writing the Pantera stuff," she says. "It's vulgar."
Ask Owen to consider Fan Asylum from a media theory perspective and her analysis turns to a certain trendy Canadian. She says she's tried to see the company through the lens of Marshall McLuhan: "The whole thing of trying to establish a human connection through all of the media extensions," she says. "It's the idea of being able to have contact with something you look up to. It's all about communication."
But even McLuhan would be hard pressed to translate the memorabilia Fan Asylum peddles into direct "contact." Like rock 'n' roll itself, Fan Asylum is about product. Take, for instance, Megadeth's CyberArmy newsletter, Deth Watch. Of its eight pages, four are devoted to either increasing membership or selling Megadeth gear. There's a black denim Megadeth shirt ($34.95); the Megadeth mouse pad ($10.95); and 12 different concert T-shirts ($16.95 each).
Twenty thousand Aerosmith groupies have even more options in the pages of Aero Force One. The "Walk This Way" doormat sells for $25. A hockey jersey (in Boston Bruins colors) goes for $39.95. And for the fashion conscious, the Aerosmith minibackpack retails for a mere $19.95.
Stepping through the storage room in the Fan Asylum office, Owen explains that the entire staff develops products that will appeal to hero-hungry fan-clubbers: a box of condoms wrapped with Scorpions photos for the metal guys; the Boyz II Men throw blanket for the Top 40 crowd. "People associate themselves with what they like, and those things factor into who you are," Owen says. "If you have a Steve Perry beach towel or an Aerosmith item, other people can recognize it and immediately connect."
As the Catholic Church, which once sold letter-printed indulgences, realized long ago, vending tiny totems not only reinforces the faith but fills the church's coffers. McQuaid, however, says the merchandise sales and the membership fees only cover the costs of mailing and providing various services like the Web pages and telephone hot lines.
"We don't try to focus on the money. We focus on the service, and the income is the fruit of the process," McQuaid says. "Neither us nor the artist look at this as a moneymaking commodity. It is not a product that is packaged. The fan club is a service to keep the fans involved and entertained."
Still, as McQuaid points out, Fan Asylum is financially buoyant. "We are in our 12th year. We wouldn't be around if we didn't make money," he says.
McQuaid's moneymaking has brought wrath from a few fans, particularly since the connection to the groups is rather tenuous. "There is a segment that resent the fact that we are not all staunch, born-to-die-for fans of their favorite artist," McQuaid says. Fan Asylum tries to lay low, he says, usually avoiding press and publicity. But McQuaid's main consolation to the naysayers is that all of Fan Asylum's employees are music fans "even if they do not personally love every group we work with."
McQuaid himself may in the near future get a chance to involve Fan Asylum in a project that bears a personal connection. Soon, very soon, a reunited Journey will release a new record and embark on a worldwide tour. McQuaid, who still runs a Steve Perry hot line, says that Fan Asylum will be involved on some level. "It will be a greatest-hits tour, and my instincts tell me that they will do very well," he says. Beats hawking sneakers.