100 Days of Pop: Episode 26 Disco Demolition

Being tuned into and aware of ideas as they enter and exit popular culture is a fundamental skill for any Pop-Marketer, as it tends to be these transitional moments in time that pack the most potent cultural punch. 

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the Disco Demolition Night, AKA “The Night Disco Died” and on today’s Pop100 we’ll put a Pop-Marketing lens on the most infamous promotion in baseball history (yes it even beats Cleveland’s 10 cent beer night), but let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater because it’s a  be a pioneering example of a marketer’s ability to tap into a transitional moment in popular culture with explosive results. 

It’s the summer of 1979 

But in 1979 nothing and I mean nothing could hold a candle to the cultural tidal wave that was DISCO.  

Since the 1977 release of John Travolta’s Saturday Night Fever, disco had boogie-oogied into the U.S. mainstream, can you dig it. 

Disco was everywhere. 7 of the 10 top billboard hits that year were disco including artists like the Donna Summers, The Bee Gees, Chic & the Village People and other artists were jumping on the “4 on the floor” bandwagon like Rod Stewart with “If You Want My Body”. 

Disco was so popular, that many rock stations were beginning to switch over to disco format because of the popularity of the genre. 

Enter Steve Dahl, a 24-year-old rock DJ in Chicago Illinois and technically maybe/kinda the first Pop-Marketer, even if by accident.

You see, Steve was mad, he’d just been fired when one of the local rock stations radio stations switched over to Disco. 

He quickly got a new gig at a competing rock station, but his hatred for all things groovy was only growing and soon he was soon working with radio station reps and the Chicago White Sox on a promotional stunt to end all promotions stunts. 

The Whitesox really sucked that year and were averaging about 16,000 tickets a game. They were desperate enough to try about anything to fill seats in Comiskey Park. 

And I mean desperate! Because this stunt wasn’t exactly thought out.

The idea was simple enough. Bring a disco album to the July 12th doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers and get in for 98 cents. 

The albums would be collected in a giant bin and then that bin would be blown to bits with explosives in the time between the 2 games. They’d call it Disco Demolition Night. 

It’s July 12, 1979, the night of the doubleheader and Steve and the Whitesox owners were almost certain that this whole thing was going to be a flop, but as Steve Dahl came out of the bathroom after having a little talk with himself in mirror about what career he’d pursue next, he saw something amazing. 

People were streaming into the park and crowds were wrapped around the block. Soon all 50,000 seats at Comiskey were packed with Disco hating rock fans with another 20,000 outside the park, armed with Disco albums and anti-disco signs. 

The sold-out audience waited patiently through the entire first game for the real show to begin. 

Did I mention that not only were tickets 98 cents but the beer was 75 cents that night? 

So now a crowd of non-baseball fan, disco hating rockers were now 9 innings into a good time and they were about to set off an explosion of pent up disdain of club music, gold chains and all things that groove. 

When Steve gave the signal, the bin of disco albums blew up good and ended up scorching the field with melting plastic divots because the “explosives expert” he’d hired had used way too much gunpowder. But even though it made the baseball field unplayable it did have the effect of sending thousands of stoned fans into a frenzy and onto the field. 

Harry Carey was singing Take me out to the Ballgame to try unsuccessfully to calm the crowd and get them to their seats but the 2nd game was finally called and cops came in to break up the riot, 30 were arrested and the night went down in infamy as The Night Disco Died. 

It was a time without Twitter and it was much harder to take the temperature but just dumb luck or not, Steve Dahl had done it, he’d tapped into something that was right underneath the surface. A transitional moment where Disco was preparing to leave the mainstream as quickly as it had entered it. People had been over-disco’d and the market didn’t know it yet, but Steve Dahl did. Even if it was just gut or dumb luck, he’d spotted and activated on an opportunity. 

I mean, the promotion was an epic failure that had cost the White Sox head of marketing his job and would go down as the worst promotion in history and the last National League game in history to be forfeited. but 40 years later, all that doesn’t take away the power available to those like Steve Dahl that can tap into these transitional moments in popular culture. 

Don’t feel too bad for Disco, it may have fallen out of mainstream, but it went back into the underground club scene and became the foundation for House music and still lives on today. 

In 2019 popular culture is much more fragmented but smart Pop-Marketers have some new superpowers and can use social media listening or search data as a sort of cultural Richter scale, measuring and monitoring constant churn and power struggle of what’s heading in and going out of the mainstream.  

So this week on the 40th anniversary of the “Day Disco Died”, take a lesson from Steve Dahl, our Pop-Marketing Pioneer and make sure you're fully prepared before you take your board out to surf those big waves of cultural transitions. 

That was today in Pop Marketing history and I am Joe Cox, the Pop Marketer, hit me up at Pop-Marketer.com to signup to my email and learn more about the trends and the ideas that lie between marketing and popular culture, so keep on truckin’ ya cheese weasels and I’ll catch you on the flip side, can you dig? 

Joe Cox