Dial-A-Song is a telephone service operated by John Linnell and John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants that originally ran from 1983 to 2006. It has been updated and brought back for 2015, alongside the Dial-A-Song Direct online service.
The service was originally available as "a regular phone call to Brooklyn", at the number (718) 387-6962. Dial-A-Song consisted of an answering machine, which would pick up calls and play back a song in the place of an outgoing message. The model of answering machine employed changed throughout Dial-A-Song's tenure, but most machines played back the message via a cassette tape. This system made it easy for the Johns to record demos, jingles, or even previews of studio tracks, often with a spoken message by John Flansburgh at the end, onto cassettes and then queue them into the machine. Dial-A-Song was updated often, although many tracks stayed in rotation among other contemporary tracks for a while after their initial appearances.
Although it is not clear whether the band intended from the beginning for Dial-A-Song to run as long as it did, it eventually helped them secure a general audience and a loyal following. The novelty of Dial-A-Song also attracted some minor media attention for the band. The service has become a staple of the culture surrounding TMBG, even after its discontinuation.
As of 2015, the band has restarted Dial-A-Song, now focusing on distributing new music on a weekly basis with 52 songs planned for the year. New songs are available through various online mediums and a toll-free phone number, (844) 387-6962, as the band was unable to secure the original Dial-A-Song number.
Dial-A-Song, or, as it was called in some early promotional materials, Dial-A-Machine, began in late 1983 when the Johns were forced to take an unexpected break from live performances. John Flansburgh's apartment had been burgled, and John Linnell had broken his wrist in a bicycle accident. In order to avoid losing momentum, they began distributing music through Dial-A-Song, which was apparently just Flansburgh's home phone line. The service's name is based on Dial-A-Prayer, a Christian phone service that similarly played back inspirational messages through an answering machine.
According to John Flansburgh, Dial-A-Song made TMBG's music more accessible to fans who were not interested in the punk rock scene of 1980s New York City performance arts spaces. However, at the start, the band was apprehensive about associating their name with the service. In order to save money, Flansburgh would advertise Dial-A-Song in the "personal" section of New York's Village Voice, because it was cheaper than placing a "commercial" advertisement. However, fearing that he would be penalized for doing so, he did not include the name of the band in early advertisements, and the outgoing messages of early tracks made no mention of the band. Once the band began to release music commercially, they also advertised the number on the back covers and liner notes of their releases. The 1985 Demo Tape and Wiggle Diskette both carry the number, in addition to many earlier demo tapes that had the number written on the cassette labels.
Flansburgh has also recounted that in the early years, he would seek feedback from the messages left on the answering machine. The infamous "Untitled" is a recording of a message left by a very confused woman and her friend on a third line. Another message, "Fat Danny Akroyd", compares John Flansburgh to comedian Dan Akroyd. Despite such mishaps, the opportunity for fans to interact with Dial-A-Song also yielded some pleasant results. For instance, the backwards speech at the start of "I'll Sink Manhattan" is an appreciative message from the New York Police Department.
As the band gained a following and secured a record deal with Bar/None, they continued to share music through Dial-A-Song. It was often considered to be a somewhat intimate experience, as the answering machine could only take one caller at a time. Some tracks were demos of songs that would go on to appear on studio albums. Other tracks were exclusive to Dial-A-Song, and have not appeared outside the service. In the mid-1990s, fans collected recordings of known Dial-A-Song tracks into bootlegs. Two of these bootlegs, Power Of Dial-A-Song and Power Of Dial-A-Song II, are still well known among fans, despite their relatively low fidelity (having been recorded from a cassette broadcast over a telephone line). In 1992, John Linnell discussed the service's low-maintenance nature in an interview with Arthur Durkee:
Dial-A-Song will never die. In fact, I'm sure long after we've broken up, stopped making records, done all that stuff, that we could still do Dial-A-Song. It's so easy. It's just a phone machine. Doesn't require any work. I guess the work is doing the demo for the songs that we'd be making anyway. They don't have to sound okay, they just have to be audible: 'cause they don't sound okay once they go over the phone line anyway.
Many TMBG releases—up to the early 2000s—bear some mention of Dial-A-Song, often with little information besides the service's name and an occasional slogan or phrase. For international releases, the number included the country code for America, 0101 or 01. The band also occasionally referenced the phone line elsewhere, such as in the name of the compilation album, Dial-A-Song: 20 Years Of They Might Be Giants. Flansburgh is shown recording an early demo of "I Can't Hide From My Mind" in Gigantic.
To supplement Dial-A-Song, the band began dialasong.com, a Flash site that let visitors listen to various TMBG demos and other songs.
In the mid-2000s, due to technical failures, the band started having difficulty maintaining Dial-A-Song. The answering machines used were generally unreliable, and had to be replaced frequently. Despite the band's acquisition of a new vintage machine in April 2006, the stress placed upon the answering machine in addition to its age caused excessive wear, and the machine broke down soon after. The final song that appeared on Dial-A-Song was a demo of "We Live In A Dump". On November 15, 2008, the Dial-A-Song number was officially disconnected.
Because the band had started taking advantage of the Internet to share demos and one-off tracks, they grew less invested in sustaining Dial-A-Song. In addition to dialasong.com, Free Tunes and the They Might Be Giants Podcast achieved essentially the same goals as Dial-A-Song, both featuring new songs and other rarities for fans to hear. In January 2013, the band also introduced a mobile app, which was expected to take over where Dial-A-Song and the podcast had left off. However, the app has not featured any new material, and instead behaves more similarly to the TMBG Clock Radio.
Some fans of the band have attempted to continue the "spirit" of Dial-A-Song by purchasing the number and releasing their own demos through the phone line. However, these attempts have generally been unsuccessful and short-lived. This Might Be A Wiki made an attempt to revive Dial-A-Song through Dial-A-Wiki, which used Google Voice to play old TMBG demos. Due to technical difficulties, Dial-A-Wiki only ran for a brief period in 2010.
In October 2014, They Might Be Giants posted a teaser video for the triumphant return of the Dial-A-Song website in January 2015. The description of the video reads, "For 2015 They Might Be Giants will be posting a new song online every week at dialasong.com. Yep. Exactly." When asked if the content on the new Dial-A-Song site would be demos, new material, or old rarities, John Flansburgh enigmatically reported that "It will be all those things". The band plans to update the new Dial-A-Song every Tuesday. Although they have already begun to record some of the future Dial-A-Song tracks, they acknowledge that many of the forthcoming songs will be completed on short notice within their respective weeks. At the end of the year, the songs that were not culled for Glean or their upcoming children's album will be released as a compilation album, which will include a vinyl release.
All of the new Dial-A-Song tracks are available for Internet streaming. The option to receive high-quality lossless or MP3 copies of each song was made available as Dial-A-Song Direct, a "budget" alternative to the 2015 Instant Fan Club.
The new Dial-A-Song also includes a new toll-free phone number, (844) 387-6962. Due to the nature of this phone line, multiple callers will be able to hear each song at once. Calls are free from anywhere inside the US. Outside the US, the country code (1) and the calling nation's exit code (listed here) must be appended before the number, and an international calling charge may apply.
Due to the temperamental nature of tape-based answering machines, the band went through a few different makes and models throughout Dial-A-Song's lifetime. From 1983 to 1998, the band used cassette answering machines. In 1998, they made the switch to a digital unit. Due to frequent crashes, TMBG returned to their traditional systems in 1999.
In the summer of 2002, both the Dial-A-Song answering machine and its backup apparently melted in Flansburgh's apartment. Fans responded by sending new models to the band, and in April 2003, Dial-A-Song returned via a Record-A-Call 675, which the Johns purchased after a fan found it on eBay. TechTV provided TMBG with a new computer system for Dial-A-Song in the following year, but technical difficulties brought the system to an end by 2005. The original iteration of Dial-A-Song breathed its final breaths in 2006, when the band reported their acquisition of a Record-A-Call 690 in a newsletter in April. Of course, that unit soon met the same end as its predecessors, and became the final answering machine till Dial-A-Song's revival in 2015.
Throughout its history, Dial-A-Song has had various slogans attached to it. These include:
These had some variations, including "Still free, often busy", and the more honest "24 hours a day". Listings of the number on releases sometimes also included gentle encouragements, such as "Don't be afraid" and "Dial-A-Song awaits you"—"At no extra charge".
Some new phrases were introduced for 2015 and the Dial-A-Song Direct service:
Over 100 songs and other recordings are known to have been featured on Dial-A-Song during its original 23-year run from 1983 to 2006. These included demos or early sketches of songs that would be featured on albums, one-off tunes, "theme songs" for Dial-A-Song itself, and messages to the caller, among other things. The band has indicated that all of the tracks on their early albums were "filtered" through Dial-A-Song at some point. Because the band often shared unfinished or half-imaged material through Dial-A-Song, it is possible to observe how some songs, such as "Rat Patrol", evolved before they were released—the demo of that song, which was sung by Flansburgh and not Linnell, has a vastly different melody than the album version.
In 2015, a new song will be added to Dial-A-Song every week, meaning the project will feature 52 new songs.