In 2008, musician Dave Caroll was traveling aboard a United Airlines flight from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Omaha, Nebraska to play a show with his band “Sons of Maxwell.”
“When we got to Chicago to deplane and catch our connector, a woman behind our bass player looked out the window and said: ‘Oh my God, they’re [United baggage handlers] throwing guitars outside.’ I asked her what she said again, and she said it the same way and it sounded as bad the second time she said it.”
When Carroll got to Omaha, he opened the case of his $3,500 Taylor guitar he says he scrimped and saved for and found it badly damaged. Carroll says he tried to get help from a United customer service agent at O’Hare, but was brushed off. “She stopped her call long enough to say, ‘but hun, that’s why you signed the waiver.’”
“That was the beginning of a really frustrating customer service maze,” Carroll said.
He was bounced around, hung up on and sometimes flat-out ignored. When he did manage to speak to someone, Carroll was given some wild excuses, like being told he would need to go to O’Hare to file his complaint in person.
Carroll was connected with a woman named Ms. Irlweg via email. By that point he had found someone to repair the guitar for $1,200, and told Ms. Irlweg that if United would give him that amount in flight vouchers, he would be satisfied.
But after nearly a dozen emails back and forth, the final response Carroll got was not satisfying. He was told that because he did not “open a claim” within 24 hours, the airline was not responsible for the damage.
What Caroll did next will shock United.
“I started typing to her in real time and I said, ‘If I were a lawyer, I would sue United Airlines. But I’m not.’ And I looked to the side and saw my guitar sitting next to me and I thought: ‘I’ve got other tools at my disposal.’”
He began strumming, and in just a few hours wrote the song, “United Breaks Guitars.” The lyrics even called out Ms. Irlweg by name.
He then reached out to friends in the music and film industry to help him record the song and make a video.
“What I discovered, early on, is that I wasn’t the only one that had a problem. It turns out that every professional musician who’s ever traveled enough has had an airline damage to their instrument. So there was no shortage of people willing to help out.“
Before posting the video to YouTube, Carroll sent a message out to his 400 Facebook followers that said: “United broke my guitar, please watch this video.” And he went to bed.
Within four days, “United Breaks Guitars” had hit a million views on YouTube. A wave of international press coverage ensued. But Carroll says he was most delighted by nearly 10,000 emails he received from regular people across the globe.
United Breaks Guitars” became the number one music video in the world for a month. The attention helped Carroll land an endorsement deal with a guitar case company. He also got a call from Bob Taylor of guitar manufacturer Taylor Guitars.
“If you like Taylor guitars, that’s like God calling you on the telephone,” Carroll said. He was invited to tour the Taylor factory in California and pick two guitars to take home as gifts.
As Carroll’s public image rose, United Airlines was feeling the pinch of the bad press. The Times of London attributed a 10% drop in United Airlines stock –– some $180 million –– to Carroll’s video.
Dave Carroll’s life was changed by “United Breaks Guitars.” Companies and organization began to reach out to him to tell his story, seeing his tale as a textbook example of the perils of inattentive customer service and the power of one consumer in a digital age.