The Cowbell of Communications
The Cowbell of Communications
The Cowbell of Communications

We all want to be rockstars, right?

(wait, I didn’t say that correctly…)


Well, there’s a little something you need to know about music before you break into the music industry. For instance, there’s a difference between being in the band and being with the band. There’s also a difference between the actual music and the accent percussion.

You don’t want to be Gene Frenkle, do you? You want to be this guy?

I didn’t think so. That’s why I want to warn you about the true nature of Social Media, which thanks to the endless beat of a thousand drummers has become the Cowbell of Communications.

It can be part of a great song.

It can be a great part of a song.

It can be memorable and inspirational.

But it’s not the song, people!

It is VERY hard to carry a melody.

You hit the cowbell, and the vibrations emit a tone at a frequency that is determined by the size and shape of the cowbell, as well as the materials from which it is made. (Temperature and humidity can also affect the tone.) However, once you hit a cowbell, you can be reasonably sure what is going to come out of it. You can hold it in a different way to muffle the effect, but it’s still a one-note wonder.

Now, if you want, you can get a row of cowbells and pretend they are a glockenspiel. But the cowbell in and of itself cannot carry the tune. Much in the same way that Social Media efforts can only carry you so far.

It’s a great “entry-level” instrument

Want to know why that Gene Frenkle SNL sketch was so popular? (Besides Will Ferrell’s shirt-that-was-too-short?) Because we’ve all been there – in our bedrooms and behind the wheel – air drumming away. And heck, the cowbell is a great instrument for air drumming because you don’t even have to pretend you’re moving to hit other drums.

The cowbell is the perfect instrument for people to pretend like they are in the band, because they ultimately have so little to do with the outcome of the song or its effectiveness on the audience. It’s a great place to stick your little brother, when your mom tells you that you can’t practice in the garage unless he’s “in the band” too. (See also: Brady or Partridge kids who play tambourines in unrealistic musical numbers.)

What can go wrong with an instrument that everyone thinks they can play?

Knowing when NOT to play is just as important

See those things between the Notes that you play? They are called Rests. They tell you when not to play anything. Which is important, if you want to have any semblance of order, and want to rise above cacophony. Heck, there might be entire verses or solos within the song where the cowbell needs to hang gloriously in the air, NOT being struck.

Just like there are times in any marketing or public relations effort where the subject matter or the audience or the timing or something is just not quite right – and you need to just not play.

There ARE no famous Cowbell artists

How many famous violinists are there in Rock? Well, there is that guy in the Dave Matthews Band. And the flute? Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull has that one nailed (and even he knows that he can’t play it while he’s singing.)

The Cowbell? Well, we have Gene Frenkle. Who, oddly enough, is a completely fictional character made up for the SNL sketch (which also got the name of the producer wrong). The cowbell in “Don’t Fear the Reaper” was even added in through dubbing and mixing. It was an afterthought!

The reason there are no renowned Cowbell artists is related to the same reason there are no famous painters who only work in yellow. It takes more than a rhythm to carry a song – it takes more than a single color to carry useful information – and it takes more than a tool (Social Media) to make your marketing program successful.

The people who are telling you that you can gain fans and groupie love through the employ of just a Cowbell just happen to be the same people who have a Cowbell they’d like to sell you. (Or maybe, just maybe, they’ll offer to play the Cowbell for you, for a price!) When shopping for a musician or a band, you want someone who brings more than a one-note wonder. If you’re hiring a band or a DJ for a party, you want someone who can take requests, who can go with the flow, and who knows how and when to wake up the audience from wallflower doldrums.

They might even have a Cowbell. But more than likely they will bring an array of instruments, and will be able to answer with clarity their familiarity with each of them. They ought to be able to show you a sample set list, or a directory of all they songs at their disposal.

And if they show up with just a Cowbell, they’re no Heroes. They are pretenders. (and not even the really-awesome-at-a-party Chrissie Hynde Pretenders.) Don’t get me wrong.

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About the Author

Ike Pigott
In his previous life, Ike Pigott was an Emmy-winning TV reporter, who turned his insider's knowledge of the news cycle into a crisis communications consultancy. At the American Red Cross, serving as Communication and Government Relations Director for five southeastern states, Ike pioneered the use of social media in disaster. Now -- by day -- he is a communications strategist for Alabama Power and a Social Media Apologist; by night, he lurks at Occam's RazR, where he writes about the overlaps and absurdities in communications, technology, journalism and society. Find out how you can connect with Ike or follow him on Twitter at @ikepigott. He also recently won the coveted "Social Media Explorer contributing writer with the longest Bio" award.
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  • Any post that gives me more cowbell is tops in my book. Add to that the fact that a glockenspiel was mentioned and you have the makings of one bad ..shut your mouth…Im just talking about cowbell. All right.

    Also, great job on double timing that beat.You must be quite an arteest with the cowbell. And one more time. Cowbell.

    • Thanks, Dino.

      I also was quite the impresario on the Recorder in the 5th grade, and a verifiable prodigy on the ukulele in 7th grade.

      Seriously… my friends Paul and James and I used to triple strum, and do all sorts of syncopated stuff on the Uke. Think “Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley,” as played by Yngwie Malmsteen.

      Cowbells are child's play.

      • Thumbs up for what is likely the only Yngwie Malmsteen reference on the web for today.

        • lol…oh Ike through that in there cuz he knows Yngwie is my Achilles heel lol

          P.S. This may be the only Achilles reference on the web today lol

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  • thanks for the post Ike… I am a music lover but never tried to learn it.. as i can't learn those symbols for too long.. so confusing for me.. God knows how people learn them and execute them on music instruments… Ike.. Is there any easy way to learn them???

  • Spam is also a Cowbell.

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  • I believe I have. My hubby has a version that fits that description–I can never remember who sings it.

    I make my own cowbell at home.

  • Thank you for not only good advice but also a big smile. Of course I played the flute in the marching & concert band (only got to shine in “Stars & Stripes Forever” and Holst's 2nd Suite).

    • Nancy, you're quite welcome. (band nerd!)

  • Hello, Ike. Fancy meeting you here.

    I can't add much that you haven't already covered, but I will say one thing: any client looking to work with me gets the same small print disclaimer. “This is an exploratory process – an experience in learning from both sides. And I'll tell you up front: I begin from the assumption that you shouldn't be involved in social media. That is, unless what I find during my research provides compelling evidence otherwise.” And then I swear, just so they know it's really me.

    Just because you buy an expensive bike doesn't mean you know how to ride it. It just means you own an expensive bike. Hat tip, Ike.

    • Red, I am right there with you.

      I never approach communication challenges with the idea that Social Media must fit somehow. You always start with your desired outcome, and work your way back.

      Unfortunately, there is a deafening roar from the self-deployed Cowbell Heroes, and as a result we now have to prove our bona fides as skeptics before potential clients will listen.

      (Jason has been letting me slum here for a few months)

  • I love that song too.

    Have you ever heard the cover done by “Gus” for the soundtrack to “Scream?” Stripped down, slowed down, and VERY haunting.

    (and no cowbell.)

  • Great post Ike–terrific analogy.

    And now I have “Don't Fear the Reaper” stuck in my head…glad I am a BOC fan. :-)

    Jen Z.

    • I love that song too.

      Have you ever heard the cover done by “Gus” for the soundtrack to “Scream?” Stripped down, slowed down, and VERY haunting.

      (and no cowbell.)

      • I believe I have. My hubby has a version that fits that description–I can never remember who sings it.

        I make my own cowbell at home.

  • Any post that brings up the Cowbell sketch gets a giant thumbs up from me, Ike. A point that's been made a lot, made interesting again is also a nice thing. Pop culture FTW.

    Still, there's something vaguely familiar about the beginning of this post… can't quite put my finger on it…

    • I'm glad to see that great minds think alike, Kat.

      But I hope you're not accusing me of plagiarism, because everyone knows that I don't read Social Media Explorer. ;)

      • LOL… nah, nearly everyone in social media has done the obligatory “rock star” reference post at some point. I just can't resist the temptation to say I did it first here… ;-)

        Neener, neener.

        • Ahhh… but can you do THIS?

          • Only in LOTRO… This is way OT, but if you play a bard on Lord of the Rings Online, cowbell is an option for your “musical instrument.”

            My husband thought it was hilarious to see a troll drop dead because my character kept banging away on a magical cowbell …

  • LuciteBrian

    Can't wait

    • Neither can *I*!

      (what are we waiting for?)

  • So, like, where can I buy Cowbell Hero? And when is Triangle Hero coming out?

    Point well taken, as it should be, Ike.

    • Triangle Hero? Now you're just being silly.


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