Here’s another one of our occasional in-depth articles by Zakia Uddin, looking at various elements of the music industry. This time around, Zakia analyses the phenomenon of brands taking over the duties of record labels. What does this mean for independent music?
“I just want to make music that people want to dance to in their Converse”. It seems like the perfect strapline – even more so for being uttered by musician Beth Corsetino in an interview in 2010 about her collaboration with the shoemaker. The lead singer of former buzzband Best Coast was almost disarming in her honesty and her directness. Its hard to imagine any of her musical precursors such as Sleator-Kinney, or All Girl Summer Fun Band even having sponsors, let alone name-checking them of their free will. However, the music industry has radically changed in the past three years. Record sales are at an all-time low, more acts are dependent on touring, and audiences’ attentions are seriously fragmented. Music labels have been slow to push their acts in innovative ways. With increasingly low margins for marketing, and promotion, bands are having to rethink the classic slow-burn indie trajectory. Arguably, the future of indie music could be dependent on getting rid of the notion of “selling out” and embracing “opting in”.
When Kurt Cobain sang ‘Radio Friendly Unit Shifter’, large corporate record companies were perceived as the enemy (though the band was acknowledging their own signing to a major). Comparatively, brands are coming off well, despite having been a taboo prospect for anyone but the biggest artists. Even Annie Lennox once said: “There are artists that promote Pepsi and there are artists that simply won’t.” This was at a time when there were God-like musicians such as Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston, who conferred their success onto their carefully chosen sponsor, rather than the other way around. The power relations have now reversed between brands and bands, with much recent talk about brands being the new “patrons”. The benign use of the word “patron” may not be completely disingenuous. It’s even possible to ask in some instances: what’s in it for the brand?
More brands are offering services to bands and challenging the roles of record companies in identifying new acts, and nurturing, developing and publicizing bands. Established names such as Converse and Red Bull are becoming involved right from the start, by trying to find new talent. This arguably gives the corporation an edge, while simultaneously breaking down the idea of corporations as primarily self-interested. Two good examples of innovative sponsorship in the form of “services” have been Motel 6’s Rock Yourself to Sleep and Taco Bell’s Feed the Beat. US budget chain Motel 6 provides beds to bands taking part in its nationwide tour, while Taco Bell presents selected bands with $500 worth of Taco Bell Bucks for the road.
Some of the alumni of the Taco Bell deal may surprise followers of indie music. Hyped artists and bands Andrew WK, The Drums, Waaves, and Kreayshawn have all been sponsored by the eatery. Music publishing and talent management company Primary Wave collaborated with Motel 6 to select bands for the annual Rock Yourself to Sleep tour, which was designed to promote emerging talent and reduce the costs of doing the all-important cross-country promotion. Commenting on what brands have to offer bands, Gareth Newman of the Hospital Club said at Internet Week Europe last year: “There are so many services that you can aggregate, and you can offer much better returns, even from content retail. If brands are in it for the long term, they can develop those sorts of relationships and have meaningful growth with those bands as they develop.” In non-marketing talk, meaningful growth means more credibility and an emotional connection with a broader range of potential customers than before. Converse’s Rubber Tracks venture aims to give specially selected acts the chance to record for free in its studio. Most bands – new and hyped – would be foolhardy to resist free food, accommodation and free recording time in a studio which has been patronized by established stars.
Novelist and music critic Nick Hornby wrote in 31 Songs that the younger generation will never know what it is like to hunt out new music or to wait for a specific time in the day to listen to a record. Instead, we can listen to any music any time we want on Spotify or download a new album just before our daily commute, or search out free mixtapes online. Music becomes background, rather than a discrete experience. Some might perceive ubiquity to be death of music as a spiritual experience, but brands may actually be the key to arresting the rot.
One of the biggest changes brought about the increasing presence of corporate names is the change to the musical year. Rather than continuing with the traditional three singles and build-up to the big album schedule, brands are helping push the idea of “a little, more often” by popular artists. Blogging on Universal’s site about singer Ellie Goulding’s “collaboration” with Nike, Polydor’s senior digital campaign manager Aaron Bogucki said that the partnership had given fans a new way of connecting with the rising star. He added that it was “still about the music” as they had remixed an EP by her and made the songs into a running soundtrack. Project-derived releases give artists the chance of repeated exposure outside of the usual press cycle. Also, material on the web remains there indefinitely – meaning that it can always be rediscovered by new sets of fans. Anyone who has looked up a video out of nostalgia on YouTube has had the experience of being startled by comments underneath dating from the same day or hour. The more material, the better for the artist.
Creative marketing campaigns might again bring back the sense of occasion lost by the rock and pop industry when it releases new material by popular artists. Those averse to hearing music described as a “loss-leader” to sell iPods or other bits of technology may be appalled by the idea of it being a “passion-point” (according to one speaker at the Internet Week Europe conference) to sell any kind of product, ranging from running shoes to soft drinks. However, the use of music in collaborations and promotions gives artists the opportunity to find new audiences and more attention in a crowded marketplace, through capitalizing on the relationships already built up by the brand.
Brands may also present a kind of salvation to musicians faced with more oppressive deals from record companies desperate to recoup cash lost from dwindling record sales. The infamous “360 deal” is intended to cover profits from every use of an artist’s music or image, which means companies can claim profits from lucrative ringtone profits and merchandise sales, amongst other ventures. If music is seen primarily as a loss-leader by brands, then bands may paradoxically have more to gain. Artist management agencies are increasingly offering the flexibility and skills artists need to navigate the fragmented and tricky market – especially when it comes to sponsorship.
OK Go, who were mostly known as “the band who did the video on the running machines”, formed their own imprint Paracadute after being dropped from EMI, in order to negotiate sponsorship deals which will allow them to realise some of their creative ambitions. Rather than disappearing from the music scene altogether, the band have found their niche as a partner in creative projects with big brands such as Range Rover. Manager Mike Rosenthal told the Guardian’s Behind the Music last year: “[Ok Go] had a lot of marketing campaigns and support from Capitol Records that helped people focus on them, but now they can pursue whatever projects come into their heads instead of having to think about how you drive it back to the sale of recorded media. I don’t think the band would consider ever signing another record deal – or if that would even be an option. They’re just too interested in other things. Especially now that it doesn’t all have to culminate in the release of a piece of plastic that has their music on it. That model is dead for good.”
Chromeo, who came to prominence as a blog favourite, released their dancefloor filler ‘Night by Night’ on Mountain Dew’s Green Label Sound, but opted for Atlantic to release their debut album. Bands may choose a mix and match approach, utilising the strength of labels, and taking advantage of the willingness of brands to supply money for videos and other publicity tools. Realistically, signing to a brand may give an artist more creative control than signing to a label. Phil Holiday, head of sport and entertainment at OMD’s branded content division, told Marketing Week: “Music acts have effectively become media owners and as a result can offer brands direct access to their audience, particularly through social media and experiential executions.”
So what are the downsides for bands? When will companies start expecting more direct involvement in the creative process and demanding name-checks in songs? Will the diversity in independent guitar-based music drop off as more bands aim for sponsorship in place of record deals? Labels can be assured – a survey by Digital Music and Reverb Nation last year found that 75 per cent of artists and bands still see a deal with a major as their main goal.
A broader criticism of artists that collaborate with brands has been the willingness to ignore dodgy work ethics by the company in question. Chris Kaskie of Pitchfork raised the objection when speaking to the New York Times, only to clarify afterwards that he was not using Nike as an example because of the controversy behind their production. However, it is unlikely that artists will stop making political statements, especially in these troubled times. Last year, even Disney scion Miley Cyrus was moved to sing in support of the Wall Street Occupation.
Another question is whether labels will only support buzzbands in the future. There have always been bands that have fluked their way to success despite not being obviously “cool”, but the spirit of innovation in music and style may dissipate as bands become tactical in gaining sponsorship. However, bands might be able to wield more control over their image than ever before if they use the powerful social media tools already at their disposal. Speaking at Internet Week Europe, Joey Swarbric of Alley Cat Music told the audience about his discovery of the teen duo Rizzle Kicks. He said: “When I started managing them at 17, when I discovered them, they didn’t have very much music. They had a backing tape, where they rapped over Christina Aguilera, the Strokes etc, they had a MySpace. What stood out for me was that they were so savvy online, they started it themselves, they didn’t wait for management or label. That’s what attracted me to them. We didn’t go to a manager, but the visuals and the music were in sync already.”
Swarbric also suggested at the same talk that there are bigger changes in the nature of music itself which brands might be able to handle better than monolithic record labels. He pointed out the music dominating the charts was mainly hip-hop and dance – and it was “no coincidence” that these genres were at the top. Indie artists have a much slower turnaround than dance and hip-hop artists, such as Chris Brown, Lil’Wayne and David Guetta. During that time, fans are likely to lose interest. Artists that willingly collaborate with brands can provide more “points of interest” and keep fans hooked. Rap, which exults in brand names, has not suffered in terms of musical credibility – is the notion of “selling out” holding back indie music and making it less appealing to younger people looking for music that really reflects the pace of their own life?
Arguably, there will always be artists who refuse to be sponsored by Pepsi or any brand, and they will find it increasingly harder to get their music to stand out on social networks. But there is always room for new exciting music and brands and platforms are still in the palm of followers and fans (in the Facebook sense), whose tastes aren’t entirely predictable. What has definitely changed is the way we listen to music and brands may be in the best position to make listening feel special again. People are listening to more music than ever, but on their own terms, as a way of measuring out their day and engaging with their friends and networks. Why not use music as a starting-point to sell them goods that reflect their other passions and aspirations?
When bands and brands get together…
Here are some examples of what’s worked and what has failed dismally.
1. Groove Armanda signed with Bacardi in 2008.
The band already had form with the use of their hit song ‘I see you baby’ by carmaker Renault Megane. Their decision to pair with the drinks brand was prompted by Bacardi’s new focus on live music and sponsored tours, organised through the company’s entertainment arm B-Live. Groove Armanda are also contracted to write songs for promos and adverts, while their singles could be distributed for free by the brand’s music venture ‘B-Live Share’. The video called ‘The Good Virus’, brings together the idea of sharing music online for free, and acknowledging the importance of social networks for disseminating new music. Unlike some of the other acts listed here, Groove Armada have always had songs that sounded like commercial anthems. Are some bands simply more suited to working with brands than others? In the future, will bands tailor themselves to certain brands, in the same way that artists before aspired to be on certain record labels?
2.Ok Go/Paracadute -Range Rover
Ok Go made their mark with the treadmills video, scoring to date ten million hits on YouTube. Subsequent efforts sunk with the band eventually being dropped from EMI. However, Ok Go decided to take a sideways move and form their own imprint focusing primarily on one-off projects and creative brand collaborations. One of its biggest projects so far has been working with Range Rover as one of their ‘City Shapers’ – the band organised a musical parade through Los Angeles which was estimated to be eight miles long. While Ok Go never had much artistic credibility, they may have found their place through doing feelgood quirky commercials.
3. Fiat and Faithless – ‘Feelin’ Good’
This unusual collaboration saw Fiat funding a three minute pop music video called ‘Feelin’ Good’ by Faithless, in which the Punto made a brief appearance. In the video, the interior of the car is shown by reflections in the front mirror, under which hang puppets of Sister Bliss and Maxi Jazz. This does not at all reflect Faithless’s subconscious feelings about collaborating with Fiat, we are informed. The project gave birth to what Fiat called a “prommercial” with the video being aired during a commercial break, potentially baffling viewers with its lack of obvious product placement or branding. Following the premiere-like showing of the prommercial, the song was integrated into a conventional advert form which featured a 30 second snatch of the song. Commenting on the venture and the band’s distribution through Tesco’s music arm, Bliss told The Independent: “You do what you can to get your music out there. People who get up in arms about these things obviously have no idea about how desperately difficult it is to put records out now and make any sort of living out of it, especially in this period of excessive [free] downloading.”
4. Nelly ‘Air Force Ones’
The best example of what can go wrong when brands appear to have some direct involvement in the song-writing process. Amazingly, Nelly’s ‘Air Force Ones’ even features a reference to Foot Locker, as well as verses outlining his opinion on each variant on the trainer. The song is in the lineage of music about favourite footwear. The Pack’s ‘Vans’ was a heartfelt tribute to feeling confident when wearing your sneakers. Run DMC enthusiastically celebrated wearing Adidas in the imaginatively-titled ‘My Adidas’ back in 1985, inspiring fans to lift their trainers in the air like they just don’t care. However, ‘Air Force’ Ones may have not have done the artist and brand any favours. Sample lyrics include: “I’m just a sneaker pro/I love pumas and shell toes/(Big boy) but cant nothing compare to a fresh crispy white pair (big boy)”.
5. Jack White ‘What Goes Around Comes Around’
Made in 2006, one of the earliest collaborations on the list and possibly one of the most surprising. Jack White wrote ‘What Goes Around Comes Around’ for the Nagi Noda-directed Coke ad, commissioned by ad agency Mother. At the time White Stripes were taken as the resurgence of a kind of home-grown DIY rock, with the duo bringing together mystique and style in one neat package. At the time, Noel Gallagher of Oasis accused White of selling out for penning the song. However, White claimed that he had always been a fan of the brand, and had previously written 100-second songs intended to be used for Coca-Cola adverts, even as a teenager. In concord, the brand made use of White’s trademark red outfits to insist that the singer and guitarist’s love of Coca-Cola stretches to wearing its colours. The ad also became an event in its own right. Coca-Cola aired the 100-second long promotional video in an ad break for Channel 4’s The Chart Show.
6. Kid Cudi, Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino and Rostam of Vampire Weekend ‘All Summer’
One of the most notable releases to come out of Converse’s Rubber Tracks studio. The shoemaker brought together three very different and much blogged artists voices to create this strange track, which sounds like when you accidentally layer YouTube tracks by opening several browsers at once. This song got a lot of blogging attention because of its off-kilter feel. ‘All Summer’ utilises Cosentino’s sweet hook against Cudi’s rhymes. Bethany Cosentino told the New York Times that there was no brief from Converse, other than to create a summery vibe with the track. Could there be more collaborations such as this in the future? Rather than the organic relationships we see develop between bands, brands could be instrumental in bringing together buzzbands and artists. Who is to argue that it doesn’t yield creative work? Artists could also find that collaborating is a way of raising their own stock and reaching the ears of music lovers that would be otherwise closed off to different genres. Feeding into audience’s tastes for new material and up-dates, Converse also documented the recording process with some behind-the-scenes footage. The brand’s music projects are a way of capitalising more strategically on their long presence in the history of indie and alternative music.
7. Taco Bell’s Feed the Beat and New Found Glory
New Found Glory rant about the trials of touring in ‘Truck Stop Blues’ – but they don’t have to worry about food with their Taco Bell Bucks. Singer Jordan Pundik gurns into the camera complaining about being in a different state every night, where each truck stop providing the same bland food opportunities. Midway, the Taco Bell Truck appears like manna from heaven, only witnessed by one of the band members, who runs to eat his meal secretly in the bathroom. A giant Taco Bell logo is evident only for a few seconds on the very left of the screen, but it registers. For a second it feels like an advert, but even then the line is drawn by the fact that New Found Glory would probably be too abrasive for regular television audiences (even though the YouTube comments are peppered with debates on the relative authenticity of Blink 182 and Bowling for Soup). It’s not known whether the song was inspired by the Taco Bell Truck or whether the its title provided a handy opportunity for synthesis. Pop-punkers New Found Glory are signed to the legendary independent label Epitaph, and no doubt the label could do with some Taco Bell Bucks. It’s a long way since label founder Brett Gurewitz set up Epitaph as a P.O.Box and a logo in order to distribute his band Bad Religion’s records.