In the 1980s and 1990s, telephone calls were only free within a relatively short distance of your home. Calling outside that area resulted in long distance charges, and most people were leery of making long distance calls because the charges rapidly mounted.
Still, there was one thing that continued to draw calls, starting in 1983. Dial-a-song.
The service wasn’t originally a service. It was a promotional idea born of desperation and lack of money. John Flansburgh and John Linnell had formed a rock band, but two-person bands don’t draw a lot of attention – particularly when one member plays an accordion for most of the songs and the other uses a giant log for percussion. They needed a hook (beyond the fact that one was playing the accordion and the other, when not playing a guitar, was playing a log). More importantly, the venues which were looking for eclectic sounds were scattered. They needed a way to give prospective club owners (or music executives) a chance to hear their music.
One of them bought an answering machine. That was a device which would, when people called in, play a pre-recorded message, like this clip from the opening of The Rockford Files:
The pair recorded a song onto the tape and sent business cards and flyers to prospective clients. The clubs would call, hear the song, and decide if they wanted to book them.
They needed to keep the songs cycling, though, so that if one didn’t catch a club owner’s ear, another might. Then, for the fun of it, the band decided to let some of their fans know about the service. After all, why not? It might help the promotion.
Dial-A-Song quickly became a massive underground hit. The band – They Might Be Giants – realized how often the answering machine was being called, and started putting as-yet-unreleased songs and demo tracks onto the recordings, which were usually changed multiple times per week. They advertised the phone number on radio appearances, on their albums, and even during their appearance on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.
Their most famous songs would be introduced via the phone line, including Particle Man and their biggest hit by far, Birdhouse In Your Soul:
People would call in and get a random song. That was all there was to it, but it was something unexpected, odd, and beloved.
So beloved, in fact, that the phone number was kept alive until 2006.
And it was resumed in 2015, as a website and a direct audio service. They also brought back the phone number, albeit under a new area code: (844) 387-6962.
Apparently bizarre musical choices never die, they just go online.
Speaking of answering machines, what piece of outdated technology do you own?