Crammed in a van loaded with guitars, a drum kit and a couple of Fender amplifiers, and driving from one US gig to the next, the four scruffy musicians in the indie-rock band the Figurines tried mightily to enjoy themselves. They snapped pictures of one another, ate junk food and drank Red Bull, which is barred from sale back home in Denmark.
Sometimes they drink it spiked with vodka. But on a recent trip through Idaho, on a desolate road outside Boise, one band member was drinking it straight from the can.
Catching a glimpse through the van's window, a passing trucker saw the shiny can and mistook it, somehow, for a gun.
Within minutes, the police were ordering the band out of the vehicle. "We had to get down on our knees on the highway," Christian Hjelm, the lead singer and guitarist, said, and they then found themselves handcuffed and sitting in the back of a squad car.
It might be a typical war story for a rumpled rock band on the road. But the Figurines, who played at the recent CMJ Music Marathon in New York, aren't just a rumpled rock band on the road. They're part of an unusual class of cultural ambassadors and trade envoys, hand-picked by their government to represent their nation to the rest of the world.
The Figurines, who received more than US$18,000 in financing through Denmark's export agency this year, are just one of hundreds of bands that occupy this odd dual status: on the one hand, road-weary independent musicians; on the other, appointed emissaries of their homelands.
In a little-understood chapter in the history of cultural exchange, nations from around the world have been choosing musical outfits and sending them to the biggest music markets abroad in hopes of raising their international profile and generating export sales. In a way, it makes perfect sense.
In a global economy that is blurring geographic borders, more and more nations view intellectual property — films, software and the like — as valuable commodities, easily transferred exports that can sell in previously inaccessible markets. That includes intellectual property like pop-punk or death metal. Digitally distributed, music is easier to export than ever. And the artists, many of whom have long dreamed of taking a shot at the Billboard chart, are mostly happy to play along.
But even viewed as a product, rock 'n' roll might not seem ready-made for government promotion. The diplomatic corps and, say, college radio darlings don't have much experience speaking each other's languages. (In the US, where acts like Green Day and Pearl Jam have been racking up radio hits with songs that attack the administration, musicians aren't accustomed to speaking to the government at all.) And the efforts don't lend themselves to easy analysis. What white-paper policy report could quantify the value of an upbeat review in Spin? And how reliable is an export that might have a taste for trashing hotel rooms and wearing perilously tight pants?
Can would-be music stars really be put to this new use?
"It ultimately comes down to what one thinks of activity of the state on behalf of art or commerce," said Brent Grulke, creative director of the annual Austin festival South by Southwest, which along with CMJ has emerged as a bazaar of internationally financed talent. "Clearly one of the more inexpensive things that we can produce that potentially has great financial rewards is our culture. For nations that have any kind of forethought into the future of their economies, it's a no-brainer."