Devo 2.0, the Internet start-up--take it seriously

Devo's presentation at SXSWi was a no-doubt-about it business pitch, yet it was so silly that people were nearly falling out of their seats.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
6 min read
Devo members Mark Mothersbaugh (left) and Gerald Casale announce Devo Inc., a full-scale Internet start-up. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

AUSTIN, Texas--I've sat through a lot of business presentations in my time as a tech journalist, and I can say with confidence that until Tuesday I'd never seen one that was a fully serious pitch and completely tongue-in-cheek.

And it killed.

The occasion of this ground-breaking proposal was a session at the South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) festival here called "Devo, the Internet and You." Yes, that Devo. The '80s new wave band with the funny hats.

Well, Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale, the band's two leading members, are back, and they're toting a business plan: marrying all the pieces of an Internet start-up--a social-media strategy, a CEO with a slick smile and good hair, a big marketing partner, buzzwords, and Venn diagrams--with the release of a new pop record.

I'd heard whispers about this strategy before going into the session, which put Mothersbaugh and Casale in front of a packed room heavily weighted with fanboys and fangirls, along with business partners Jeremy Welt, senior vice president for new media at Warner Bros. Records, Bill Moulton of media agency Mother Los Angeles, and Jacob--just Jacob--apparently a researcher from Mother Los Angeles.

I'd thought they were serious about the project for launching the new record.

But just minutes into the talk, it was clear that this was all a joke.

Befitting any good Internet start-up pitch, Devo Inc.'s had a persuasive Venn diagram. Devo Inc.

"From the beginning, Devo was always doing things differently," said Casale. "Sometimes we were misunderstood and sometimes we were understood perfectly....We thought there was nothing stranger that we could do at this point in time to re-brand ourselves than use the modern tools of business practices."

Cue the Venn diagram.

Casale didn't quit, though. He referred to the world Devo had inhabited in its heyday as weird and whacked and hermetically sealed and said, "We just delivered it. The only thing we never did was just play ball."

See? Devo was just having a good ole time at our expense. But wait. Were they setting things up for explaining their value add?

In the past, Mothersbaugh said, "we would talk about de-evolution and they would look at us like we were crazy. Now, when we talk about de-evolution, they clap along with us."

And this, of course, is where they rolled out the elevator pitch: Devo's brand of worldview--which back in the '80s was the pop music equivalent of the weird high school kids with mussed-up hair who hang out in the pit and may or may not want to walk away when security rolls through--is now the dominant paradigm with the cool kids.

And that meant, naturally, that it was time to bring up the topic of the CEO of Devo Inc., a former "real corporate executive from NBC" named Greg Scholl, and explain the marketing plan and the strategic relationship with Warner Bros. Records.

The mysterious Jacob, apparently a researcher from ad agency Mother Los Angeles, who facilitated an ad hoc focus group during the Devo panel at the SXSWi festival Tuesday.

"Why can't you market a band like you would market Miller Lite," Casale said.

"Or Charmin tissue," Mothersbaugh added.

And there it was. This wasn't a joke or a company presentation. It was both at once. Working on multiple tracks. Hand-in-hand. The one wouldn't work without the other. No one would take Devo seriously if the band members weren't being weird. No one would think they were being genuine if they wore business suits and talked in gray corporate monotones. It had to be both.

Why not, Casale argued, use traditional business tools and apply them to a band's work product? Why not let thousands of Devo fans take the collective form of a huge focus group and weigh in what the band's members should wear, on what color their iconic "dome" hats should be, and on what songs end up on their next album? And why not try to make a bundle in the process?

"It's a comment and a satire," said Casale. "And at the same time, it's real."

"We're in a room where a high percentage believe in de-evolution," Mothersbaugh pointed out.

"It's a cable channel where it's the church of de-evolution," Casale added.

Designing the strategy
By now, most of the audience members were losing their composure. People around me were laughing so loud they were drowning out the speakers, and I was imagining that it must be hard for Mothersbaugh, Casale, and their cohorts to keep straight faces.

But that's when Moulton started speaking.

"Earth, people, technology, babies, sex, flavor explosion, money," Moulon began. "These are just some of the topics that ad executives wrestle with every day. How do we leverage these concepts to drive a brand to the next level How do we convince [customers] to spend more money on the things our clients are selling? "When [Devo Inc. CEO] Greg Scholl approached Mother LA, he had the same question: 'How?' Our answer to him was 'Yes. We totally agree.' And he responded, 'What?' And we said, 'The Internet, that's what.' I'm not an Internet expert...but I know people, and I know how to sell to them, and there's just a ton of people on the Internet."

Cue some stats. In the early 1990s, Moulton said helpfully, there weren't that many people using the Internet. But now, a whole lot are online. "And in 2020, there's going to be even more." Or how about this one: Since a human can produce 1.2 horsepower, and the Internet has 1.37 billion users, the Internet community produces roughly 2.10 billion horsepower. And now imagine that as a car! That impressive car is people, Moulton continued, people using Internet tools like e-mail and chat, "tweetering, Facebooking and YouTubing."

Scholl wasn't able to make it to SXSWi apparently, so Devo Inc. played a slick corporate video that allowed the CEO to calmly and with all the right buzzwords, make the case for Devo Inc.

"Synergy," the video touted, "allows us to put the Inc. back in Devo Inc. With an arsenal of new songs, videos, fashions, apps, toys, games, live performances and more, we will reach out to create something for everybody. Devo will, together with our corporate partners, keep fighting the good fight to spread the devolutionary message across the globe. We said it long ago and now we must repeat. Duty now for the future. It's now or never, because later is now."

Moulton then took the audience through the focus group process that led Devo Inc. to give away 2,000 blue domes at last month's winter Olympics. He was also "proud to announce today" that Devo would be launching the beta of a song study next week in which the band's fans will help winnow down a selection of 16 songs to the 12 that will end up on the new album.

Excuse our mess
The last part of the presentation was an on-the-spot focus group. This is where Mother LA's Jacob, a man with a suspiciously badly-chosen suit, a fake-looking mustache, and an oddly scientific European accent, stood up to survey the crowd on its preferences for the new album's title.

The choices for those who fit his selection criteria--it's too complicated to explain, other than to point out that those whose favorite Devo song is "Whip it" were disqualified first--were simple: "Fresh," named after a new song Devo has made available online for free, "Something for Everybody," "Devolution," and "Excuse Our Mess."

After their presentation, Devo members Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale signed autographs on items such as laptops and, in this case, an inflatable dinosaur. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

The votes came in overwhelmingly for the latter. I would have left in shame if the crowd had gone in any other direction.

Then it was time for questions from the audience. By now, I'm pretty sure most people in the room were in on the joke. Even those for whom culture jamming isn't a familiar language had to know fun was being had here. Yet we all knew that from this room in Austin, Devo Inc. would shortly be off to make the business plan a reality.

Later, after Mothersbaugh and Casale had finished answering questions and autographing and drawing cartoons on the fanboys' and fangirls' laptop computers and inflatable dinosaurs, I got a chance to sit down with them for a private interview.

They told me that the Internet may not save us from human nature because human beings will always exploit new tools for both good and bad. And bad often wins.

Yet here they were, I pointed out, turning to the Internet as the driving force behind their new initiative: why put your fate in the hands of a media that could be so easily used for evil?

"Well, because we can't afford broadcast," Casale deadpanned.