As anyone who's watched a single crime story on TV or film knows, undercover detective work is dangerous business. There inevitably comes a moment when the crime boss gets suspicious. Scary, sure, but at least police officers have a working knowledge of the rules of the crime game. They’ve trained their whole lives to pull off this deception.
Passing yourself off as a credible music scenester, on the other hand, is an order of magnitude more difficult. Never mind drug lords—no one can identify a poseur more quickly than a hipster; sniffing out fakes is essentially the entire job description. That's what Boston police are finding out as their bungling efforts to infiltrate the underground rock scene online are being exposed.
A recently passed nuisance control ordinance has spurred a citywide crackdown on house shows—concerts played in private homes, rather than in clubs. The police, it appears, are taking a particularly modern approach to address the issue: They're posing as music fans online to ferret out intel on where these DIY shows are going to take place. While police departments have been using social media to investigate for years, its use in such seemingly trivial crimes would be rather chilling, if these efforts didn’t seem so laughably inept. It's a law enforcement technique seemingly cribbed from MTV’s Catfish—but instead of creating a fake persona to ensnare the marks in a romantic internet scam, it's music fandom that's being feigned.
Almost everyone in the DIY scene has had an experience with phony police emails, direct messages on Twitter, and interactions on social media. For some it's become just another part of the promotion business—a game of spot-the-narc in which the loser gets his show shut down. According to one local musician who asked not to be named, the day before a show this past weekend, police showed up at a house in the Allston neighborhood, home of many of these house shows, claiming that they already knew the bands scheduled to play. The cops told the residents of the house that they found out about the show through email, and they bragged about their phony Facebook accounts.
This week the St. Louis band Spelling Bee posted a screencap of emails from an account that they believe was used by the police in a sting before their recent Boston show. It reads like an amazing parody of what you might imagine a cop trying to pose as a young punk would look like.
“Boston Punk Zombie,” reads the crudely-scrawled avatar of a green-mohawked punk with the address email@example.com. That name is apparently a generic-brand knockoff of an infamous Boston hardcore gang. Cred achieved. “What's the point” reads the tagline under the profile pic.
“Too bad you were not here this weekend,” “Joe Sly” wrote. “Patty's day is a mad house I am still pissing green beer. The cops do break balls something wicked here. What's the address for Saturday Night, love DIY concerts.” He might as well have written “Just got an 8 ball of beer and I’m ready to party.”
Is it possible that Joe Sly is a real Boston punk? Sure, though if so he’s the first Boston punk in history to brag about drinking lame St. Patrick’s Day green beer. As one of the many amused music fans who scoffed at the screencap as it was shared around on Tumblr pointed out, “he/she said concerts ... concerts.” Anyone who's ever been to a concert like this knows that it's not called a concert. It’s a show.
The Massachusetts band Do No Harm also tweeted about receiving an email from Joe this month. “whats the 411 for the show saturday?” he asked, apparently using some sort of slang-filter translator from the turn of the century.
Then there’s the case of Donna Giordano, a hip youth who’s recently been reaching out to local show promoters from her Facebook account. “Is the show still going on Friday in JP? If so where. Thnxs,” she wrote in a Facebook message to another local promoter, who also asked to remain anonymous. When he asked her to make him feel comfortable that she wasn't a cop, she replied, “that's a new one. How? Flash a boob Ha Ha Ha how do I know your not some sketchy creep who lures girls to your basement for some Hostel like horror show on the guise of a music show”
That's exactly the point, Donna. No one knows if anyone is real online anymore. Is she an actual 21-year-old herself? Administrators at Regis College told me that the school “has NO current or recent student named Donna Giordano.” Maybe we can ask the people Donna tagged in her casual photo of friends hanging out—the drummer for Slipknot and Bollywood actress Trisha Krishnan.
Details like that are among the typical warning signs you might find when dealing with an online scam—it’s a recently created account with very few friends, almost no interaction with anyone, and generic-looking pictures. Her cover photos include a snapshot of the No. 66 bus in Allston (so you know she's repping Allston hard), and a generic Boston skyline photo, you know, like most twentysomething girls into the punk scene will always post on their walls. In this light, her “I love the pit!” photo of a mosh pit, obviously taken from an Internet thumbnail, looks like one of the saddest feints ever.
Cops have also infiltrated local music message boards. One frequent poster on the popular Lemmingtrail boards who tried to ingratiate himself into the conversation was later discovered to be police. “At that time Lemmingtrail as a community had an unusual sense of self,” Matt Sisto, who runs Lemmingtrail, told me. “It's like that scene in The Matrix when all the Agent Smith characters can tell when there's an intruder by some sort of sixth sense.”
You don’t have to be a local-music Agent Smith, though, to tell that some of these emails smell pretty fishy. “Hey there, local P native here,” wrote one probable imposter to a local band, (who probably meant to type JP, slang for Jamaica Plain). “What is the Address for the local music show tonight?"
The local music show tonight? Who talks like that about a DIY show? Someone not used to talking about music, that’s who. Another message: “Is there any chance I can get the address for this party you are playing tonight? I believe I was once driven to the Drive-In by a friend, (all I know is that it was a JP party space that wasn't Whitehaus), but it's all very foggy.”
Yes, all very foggy indeed. “In this day and age of Catfish,” one scene veteran told me, “you've watched a couple episodes of that show, you know what you're looking for in a fake account.” It's hard to confirm whether these accounts and ones like them are in fact failed traps—the Boston Police did not respond to multiple requests for comment on these investigations. But the fact that the promoters are on such high alert for show-narcs illustrates how paranoid this game of indie-rock cat-and-mouse has become.
Whether or not any of this is a worthwhile use of police resources is open for debate. Using Facebook as a crime-fighting resource has become exceptionally common around the country. A survey last year found that 80 percent of 1,221 law-enforcement agencies asked use social media as part of their investigations, and many admit to creating fake profiles to work their way into a suspect's social circle.
That's typically for more serious crimes than music, however. Still, loud rock shows can, in fact, be a nuisance to neighbors, as many of the people who put the shows on will admit. But are they worth the man-hours the Boston Police have put into them? And are they worth the distrust such tactics create within a community that, loud music aside, are certainly no worse, and in many cases a lot more respectful, than typical twentysomethings partying in any city?
Apparently so, if you base it on the number of venues and shows in Allston alone that have been shut down or raided this past year. The Spelling Bee/Do No Harm Show was forced to reschedule and move on the night in question. Another venue known as the Butcher Shoppe was forced to close when it was contacted ahead of time by police who found reference to the location of a planned show online. Matt Altieri, who ran the popular venue Wacky Kastle out of his home until November, said toward the end police began showing up ahead of time knowing all of the details of the show. He's since stopped throwing shows there— -- the heat got to be too much.
As a result of efforts like this, promoters and houses have become much more cautious when they receive requests out of the blue for information about shows. And this kind of caution may be, in its way, a kind of success for the BPD initiative. It's kind of hard to put on a show when you can't tell anyone ahead of time where it's going to be. In that sense, the cops seem to be succeeding through another tried-and-true Internet tradition. Trolling is almost always transparently obvious, but when it's unflagging and endlessly annoying, it can be extremely discouraging. Troll a group of people hard enough, and they may end up saying, like famed Boston Beat Gang punk Joe Sly, “What's the point?”