Tuesday, 20 January 2015


Dial-a-Song was an answer-phone song-service set up by John Flansburgh and John Linnell in New York in 1983. They had a scratchy lo-fi college band called They Might Be Giants and at the time, it was faltering. Flansburgh had his apartment burgled and a bunch of his kit lifted; Linnell broke his wrist in a bike accident. They wouldn’t be touring anytime soon, but needed to stay current and present. This was their solution.

Basically, if you called a Brooklyn number; (718) 387-6962 to be exact, an answering machine played back a song in the place of an outgoing message, via a cassette tape. Flansburgh and Linnell recorded demos, jingles, experiments and rough cuts of studio tracks onto cassettes and then queued them into the machine so they’d rotate. Then they’d drop fliers, place magazine and newspaper adverts, and wait for the calls to come in.

Only one person could call at a time (one of the Dial-a-Song slogans was, “Always busy, often broken”) and this made the experience curiously personal.

From where I’m sitting, there’s a lot to be gleaned from the whole Dial-a-Song idea.

First, as Ira Glass says, “Put yourself on a deadline.” These guys excelled at keeping busy. I’m writing this now partly because They Might Be Giants have recently announced the service is to re-open. The details are here. Every Tuesday in 2015, there’ll be a new song.

Second; a joyous, rough-around-the-edges prototype that’s shared with others and reaps the rewards of feedback beats a polished to near-perfection masterpiece that stays in a drawer any day of the week. Get your stuff out there.

Third, there’s the discipline of restriction at work here. The medium closes down creative possibilities. Flansburgh has talked recently here about how the band width was so tiny, and the audio so poor, that Dial-a-Song compositions could only have a voice – always weirdly high in the mix – and a couple of instruments, max. Nothing else. Counter-intuitively, shutting down your options helps.

And fourth? Flansburgh used to sit in his apartment listening to the calls come in. Some people would give whatever new song was on there fifteen seconds, then hang up. “That,” says Flansburgh, “was the cruelest thing about Dial-a-Song. This is a very cruel business,” he goes on. “It takes a lot to hold people’s interest.” Learning that lesson day after day in the most bruising way must have been hard. As a schoolkid I used to call the service from my mate’s house – my Mum wouldn’t let me call a New York number – and listen in. I remember once I had to hang up half way through a tune cause my pal’s mum came home from work unexpectedly early. Odd to think Flansburgh might have been on the other end of that call, fretting.

Forged as it was back then in trying circumstances and against the odds, the story of the Dial-a-Song service is a fascinating one, not least for its triumph-in-adversity narrative.
I for one will be tuning in on coming Tuesdays.  

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