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Pleased to Meet You

Local pop-punk band Count the Stars are making friends and influencing people—important people

By Kirsten Ferguson

Lawn seats: Count the Stars are (l-r) Adam Manning, Chris Kasarjian, Dave Shapiro and Clarke Foley. Photo by Mandy Crabtree

‘Don’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle,” was the motto of Elmer Wheeler, who coined the oft-repeated catchphrase back in the 1940s. Thanks to his marketing savvy, Wheeler became one of the best-known American salespeople of his day. His instructional books, including How to Sell Yourself to Others, introduced pop psychology to the realm of marketing, advising would-be salespeople to pay more attention to human nature. People are driven by the need to feel important, Wheeler counseled. Don’t sell to your customers—let them buy from you.

When talking with Count the Stars, a local pop-punk group on the verge of breaking into the national music scene, it’s hard to imagine that anyone in the band—three out of four are still teenagers—has ever heard of Elmer Wheeler or thought consciously about exploiting the sorts of marketing ideas that he propagated. Still, as Count the Stars describe their dogged efforts to spread the word about the band, it’s uncanny how closely their self- promotional strategies reflect lessons taught by a certain 1940s salesman. Elmer Wheeler would be proud.

“When we’re on tour, we eat and sleep the band. If we don’t have a show, we try to make new friends and meet people,” says Dave Shapiro, the band’s cheerful, mop-topped drummer as he sits around the kitchen table at his parents’ home in Glenmont. Wheeler believed that salespeople should build “psychological bridges” with their customers, and Shapiro seems to instinctively understand the value of reaching out to potential fans, winning them over as pals even before exposing them to the band’s music.

Prior to playing shows in cities outside their home turf of Albany, Count the Stars hit up local malls or other places where the kids tend to congregate. There they mingle, convince strangers to buy their CDs and talk up their upcoming shows. It’s the personal touch, and it works. Count the Stars are a bubbly, congenial bunch, and it’s not hard to conceive that impressionable youngsters (a lot of girls, maybe?) are won over by the band’s tattooed, winsome charm—and feel flattered to receive a personal invite to one of their shows. Hawking CDs at the mall may sound a bit cheesy, but when Count the Stars talk about it, it’s clear they’re just kids who enjoy getting to know other kids.

“We may talk to one person, and they’ll end up bringing 10 friends to our show,” says guitarist Adam Manning, attesting to the exponential power of networking with young fans.

Mandy Crabtree

“Sometimes it’s hard to go in to a new place and meet people,” singer-guitarist Chris Kasarjian admits. “But it’s worth it. Every now and then we’ll get a great show. We can play one night in front of four people and the next night in front of 400 people.” The band now have certain hot spots across the country—Seattle, Atlanta and El Paso, Texas, for instance—where they draw hundreds of people to their shows. Even in Albany, where the music scene is notoriously apathetic toward local bands, Count the Stars have a considerable following.

“Our last show in Albany, we presold tickets and sold out [the venue] in 12 days,” Shapiro says, casually describing a feat that probably would be inconceivable for other local rock bands. According to the band, Count the Stars’ first official show at Valentine’s attracted a whopping 400 people. That’s a lot of bodies to pack into a local club, considering many Albany rock bands routinely play in front of 40 people. Although that Valentine’s show two years ago marked the debut of Count the Stars, Kasarjian, Shapiro and bassist Clarke Foley began building a musical fan base while in Visual Reason, a now-defunct band they formed during their first years together at Bethlehem Central High School.

“In sixth grade, we put down our soccer balls and sports stuff and decided to start playing music. We all started to get into Green Day, Weezer and Saves the Day,” Kasarjian says, describing the bands that have informed Count the Stars’ punchy, confessional pop punk. Though the members of Count the Stars, when asked, describe their music simply as “rock & roll,” their manager, Eric Tobin, is careful to point out that the Stars fit more specifically into the “emo” category. An outgrowth of hardcore and indie rock, emo tends to combine introspective, deeply felt lyrics with dramatic melodies and dynamic tempo shifts.

While in Visual Reason, Kasarjian and his high-school bandmates sought out similar, yet considerably older, pop-punk bands in the Albany music scene. “We went to see so many [local] bands when we were kids,” he says. “Bands like Lughead, Dryer, the Wait, the Orange and F-Timmi.” Members of Visual Reason came to know Albany music producer Dominick Campana, who produced their first CD, Another Useless Night.

They also met Manning, a Troy native and College of Saint Rose student who had been playing in local pop-punk outfit Plan 10. As Visual Reason came to an end, Kasarjian, Foley and Shapiro drafted Manning to join them in Count the Stars. The new band took their name from a Visual Reason song (allowing the band members to sport star-related tattoos, as do some of their fans). They tend to not perform songs from the Visual Reason era, though, describing their current songs as considerably more evolved. “Every one of our songs is real—about an actual incident,” explains Kasarjian, who writes the band’s lyrics. “When I was 15, what did I have to worry about—acne? Now I have to worry about so many things—plus acne,” he jokes.

After Kasarjian, Foley and Shapiro graduated from high school a year ago, Count the Stars embarked on a summer tour that led band members to rethink their future plans. “We all had planned on going to college,” Shapiro states. “But the tour went really well.”

Mandy Crabtree

“Dave basically sat us down and said ‘Listen, we’re a full-time band now,’” Kasarjian explains, describing how his plans for college were put on hold. “I had already been to my college orientation and everything. My mom said, ‘If this makes you happy—OK. When the iron’s hot, you should strike.’”

According to the band, their live shows bring out their best. As they try out some new tunes in the Shapiro’s carpeted basement rec room, where they practice in front of a folded-up ping-pong table and a displaced Nautilus machine, they advise me to put on some headphones. “We’re loud,” they warn. They play two catchy, crunchy pop tunes—“Right Behind Me” and “Pick Yourself Up”—and the band members seem surprisingly animated, considering this is only practice.

Afterward, they swap the sort of stories that make me think their live performances are usually far less sedate. “In our live show, we go for a mix between ’80s metal and a hardcore show,” Kasarjian says. From the sounds of it, partial or total nudity may be a frequent onstage occurrence, as are pyrotechnics. The Saturday night previous, Count the Stars played a label showcase at the Elbow Room in New York City. At some point during the set, Shapiro lit his drum cymbals on fire—a common trick of his involving lighter fluid. Something went wrong, and Shapiro’s set list ignited, as did the stage curtains behind him. “I felt this rush of heat behind me,” Kasarjian relates.

As Tobin threw water on the blaze, Foley stomped it out. Needless to say, the club workers weren’t too thrilled. “They’re now putting a sign up that says ‘Absolutely No Pyrotechnics,’” Kasarjian laughs.

Still, the outcome wasn’t all bad. “One of the record label guys said it was the coolest thing he’d ever seen,” Shapiro says.

The record labels currently considering Count the Stars also must be pretty happy with the extent to which the band tirelessly promote themselves. “We’ve taken ideas from other bands and expanded on them,” Shapiro says, explaining in further detail how the band members network with their audience. Through “sales rep” and “street team” programs, for instance, they have enlisted willing fans from all over the country to shill their CDs. In exchange for selling a designated number of discs and then returning the proceeds, fans receive Count the Stars merchandise. This harks back to Elmer Wheeler’s fourth selling point: Make your “customers” part of the act.

The honor system seems to work. “Even if someone sold the CDs but kept the money,” Kasarjian says genuinely, “that would still mean that 10 different people had [been exposed] to our CDs. Fans are everything. We like to give them first dibs on demos and things.”

As true children of the Internet age, Count the Stars also know how to make the Web work for them. “Word of mouth goes a lot faster over the Internet,” says Foley. Band members meet potential fans online—in chat rooms, on message boards and through instant messaging—and direct them to their Web site, which they frequently update with tour diaries and snapshots. They also e-mail gig flyers to fans to hang up in their schools. (Their fan base falls in the 15- to 24-year-old range).

The band’s efforts have been paying off. They recently finished recording a new two-song demo at an Atlanta studio, paid for by Warner Bros. They plan to start recording their next album in the fall. And, as they sit around the Shapiro family house on Memorial Day, Count the Stars are mulling over some serious offers: Five different record labels—major labels as well as smaller indies—have propositioned them with record deals. They aren’t taking the matter lightly, and lawyers are involved.

“We promote ourselves really hard, but it comes down to the music,” Shapiro says.“This decision will change our lives completely.”

Although the members of Count the Stars usually sound preternaturally mature and businesslike when talking about their band, Kasarjian chimes in with a sentiment that, for once, recalls the naïveté of a teenager: “I want to be able to say that I signed to my first record label before I was 19.”

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