Great ideas in record label marketing: Free Dirt

It must have been fun to work at Warner/Reprise in 1969. There were so many great groups on their roster: Joni Mitchell, Van Dyke Parks, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, the Kinks, the Grateful Dead… They were the cool label. Selling those records to all the hip kids must have been a piece of cake.

Or maybe not.

Because when it came time to come up with a campaign to promote Neil Young’s first album with his new band Crazy Horse, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, they ended up with a novel idea: free dirt. That’s not a euphemism for anything. You could send in a form and they’d mail you a baggie of dirt from Topanga Canyon. No self-addressed stamped envelope or anything!

“Miss Penny in shipping has demanded tranquilizers, overtime, and an Easter bonus for her boys if they have to bag dirt. But what the hell. Nobody understood Galileo either. Read on.”

A little googling tells me this copy was written by Stan Cornyn, who worked for Warner Bros. Records from 1958 to 1991 and is credited for elevating album liner notes to something actually worth reading. He died in 2015.

“This is 100% pure Topanga Canyon dirt, from the famed section of Los Angeles where Neil lives. […] Say ‘Topanga’ to some in L.A., and the first response you’ll get is probably a grim-lipped ‘hippie.’ But Topanga carried Goldwater in 1960, and the American Legion post there is a powerful one.”

This full page ad appeared on page 9 of the August 9, 1969 issue of Rolling Stone magazine. I wonder how many people sent in for it. How many people who saw the ad bought Neil’s album? Do any of the bags of dirt survive? Do they turn up on ebay ever?

“Neil worked hard writing all the songs on his new album. We’re going to be working hard digging and bagging. We’d be pleased if you’d do something, too. Buy the album. If a package of soil turns you on, think of what two sides of Neil Young might do.”

One thought on “Great ideas in record label marketing: Free Dirt”

  1. Stan Cornyn wrote a book about his time at WB Records that’s a fun read. He once described the then-new logo for Warner Communications as “two-and-a-half turds in a punch bowl”. He pissed off Joni Mitchell with the ad he wrote for her. He also wrote the liner notes for Sinatra albums too, if I recall. What a character.

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