8 November 2012
Articles | Interviews | News | Prime Cuts

Feature: Bands & Brands

Music is being brought to you in association with car manufacturing corporations. Do you care? What is selling out in 2013 and does it even matter? We investigate

Words Ben Cardew

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IN the mid- to late-nineties, the price for an EP from Detroit house legend Moodymann was typically around £6, if you could find one in the shops.

In 2012, however, the producer’s latest release — an eight-track download-only collection of late-night house that goes under the name of ‘Picture This’ — costs precisely zero thanks to the benevolence of Scion AV, which describes itself as “a platform for passionate artists to focus on developing their art and exploring the endless possibilities”.

Such apparent largesse is typical of Scion, which has also given away downloads by everyone from The Melvins to New Jersey garage don Todd Edwards on its website.

This is all very altruistic, you might think, but what is Scion AV? And why are they feeling so charitable to underground musicians and their fans?

The answer will tell you a great deal about the music industry in 2012: Scion AV is a brand of Toyota Motor Sales, which was developed “with a new generation of youthful buyers in mind”. The Scion brand, the website continues, “pushes the creativity envelope with non-traditional advertising and marketing to engage young consumers”, a claim that — unless Coca-Cola, BT and British Gas have all stepped into the deep house download market by time of publication — you’d have to agree is pretty true.

Of course, artists hooking up with brands is nothing new — Michael Jackson and Madonna were among those to take the Pepsi dollar back in the eighties, while the Spice Girls were ready to lend their names to all types of nonsense, from deodorants to crisps, in their nineties pomp.

The differences now are three-fold.

Firstly, brands used to concentrate on superstar names to plug their products; nowadays underground, Stool Pigeon-friendly acts are making brand deals. Red Bull even managed to entice French deep house producer Pepe Bradock — a man so obscure you can’t even buy his music on iTunes — to appear as a guest lecturer at its São Paolo Music Academy in 2002.

Secondly, few fans these days appear to object to these sponsorship deals. There was, it is true, widespread praise for late Beastie Boy MCA, whose will banned use of the band’s music in advertising. But the once-familiar accusation of ‘selling out’ — levelled at any artist who would even think of taking advertising money in the nineties — seems to have quietly fizzled out as sponsorship becomes ever more prevalent.

This is not to say that all fans are happy with their idols endorsing brands. When Perry Farrell announced on his Facebook page that Jane’s Addiction would be giving away downloads of their new album thanks to a deal with Maestro Dobel Tequila, one Chareth Cutestory complained: “Fuck you and your shitty tequila. I didn’t become a fan of your band to help with their market penetration.” But this was far outweighed by positive comments from fans, including those who had already bought the album and therefore had nothing to gain from the deal.

Indeed, when fans, seemingly of their own free will, are giving “special thanks to Dobel Tequila” on Perry Farrell’s Facebook page, Bill Hicks’s famous rant — “If you do an advert then you are off the artistic register forever” — suddenly seems rather archaic.

And well it might do: in 2012, a Hicks-inspired cull of the artistic register would mean the decimation of any forward-thinking music collection leaving a couple of Minor Threat 12”s and one Radiohead CD. Iggy Pop’s doing insurance ads; Thom Yorke isn’t. You decide who’s worthier of the artistic register.

The final important shift is that bands’ relationships with brands have become ever more complex. It used to be that an advertising deal was fairly straightforward: a band would appear in a couple of adverts or farm out their music for commercials. That does still happen, of course. But nowadays brands are doing everything from forming record labels — Mountain Dew’s Green Label Sound has released music by MNDR and Neon Indian — to setting up recording studios (Converse Rubber Tracks in New York) and festivals themselves (V Festival).

Like it or not, this is an area that is growing steadily. In 2011, music sponsorship spend in the US alone was worth a staggering $1.17 billion, according to the 2011 IEG Sponsorship Report — up from $1.09 billion in 2010 and more than double the $575 million spent in 2003. US advertising spend as a whole increased 0.8 per cent from 2010 to 2011, according to Kantar, which means music sponsorship is grabbing an ever-bigger share of the spoils.

You may wonder what brands get out of this. The promotional worth of a TV ad, for example, is pretty straightforward: millions of consumers will see your message. But does Toyota really gain anything from consumers downloading a Moodymann EP alone in their bedrooms?

The key to answering this lies in current marketing trends. Advertising these days relies less on straight-up argument and more on creating positive feelings that will influence consumer behaviour over a period of time, according to Nigel Hollis, author of The Global Brand.

We enter here into engagement marketing — a shadowy world where the passive consumer is replaced by active customer participation and “meaningful brand experiences”. TV ads, the thinking goes, can be easily forwarded through or otherwise ignored. But get the consumer actively involved in a branded “experience”, and they will be putty in your hands.

This is one reason why brands are so keen on gig and festival sponsorship: the Advertising Research Foundation has defined engagement as “turning on a prospect to a brand idea enhanced by the surrounding context”. And live music — a one-off experience that will never be exactly repeated — is all about context.

In the case of the Moodymannn EP, by visiting the Scion website and downloading the music, fans are engaging with the brand of their own free will and meeting the company on their own carefully-laid ground.

“They [sponsors] get their brand associated with acts they think their audience is going to like and it is presented in a sympathetic way,” says Alex Robinson, European label manager for Stones Throw and manager of Paul White and Mo Kolours. “Doing that — presenting yourself in a sympathetic way — can be quite expensive for brands without these partnerships.”

“It’s about people’s perception of the brand,” says Adam Boita, UK marketing manager for Absolut vodka, which has worked with Swedish House Mafia and Little Dragon. “They see this [Absolut] as a brand that fits in with their lifestyle. It is in tune with their likes and passions.”

Whether this approach actually generates sales for said brands is another matter. Companies often have their own data tracking the response to sponsorship deals but they aren’t very likely to share it. “It’s about brand affinity,” Boita continues, “and you can measure that. We do as part of our yearly brand tracker. But this is impacted by marketing campaigns, not just music.”

Whatever the case, the fact that music sponsorship continues to grow suggests that something, at least, is working out for brands.

Perversely, though, this growth makes it ever harder for brands to stand out and gives each individual deal less chance of success. This is one reason why music sponsorship deals are becoming ever odder and more involved. Brands will do anything to avoid “clutter”, and if this means launching a record label (Mountain Dew, Bacardi, etc.) or shoving bands inside a 56-feet-tall vending machine at enormous cost (Doritos), then so be it. And if a free track won’t cut the ice anymore, how about a free album?

You may wonder why bands go along with this. No one ever picked up a guitar with the aim of one day providing meaningful brand experiences, so what the hell is in it for them?

Money, to put it frankly. A brand sponsorship can bring increased exposure for your music, but the overwhelming benefit is cold, hard cash. Fees range from zero — for, say, a young band desperate for the exposure of a global ad campaign — to millions of dollars, in the case of superstar acts.

“It totally varies per project,” says Robinson. “In the underground world, with Stool Pigeon-type artists, you would be talking five figures rather than six. And often four. I have done stuff for three.”

But before you turn up your noses, consider this: global record sales have plummeted since the turn of the millennium, down from $38.6 billion in 1999 to $16.2 billion in 2011, according to figures from global music industry body the IFPI. And in the UK, at least, they continue to fall.

Meanwhile, bands at any level lower than selling out the Brixton Academy are unlikely to make any money from touring, which is a horribly expensive business when transport, accommodation and crew are taken into account. In days gone by, record companies would pay for all this. But they’re hardly in the best of health themselves, and are signing fewer bands than ever in 2012.

This is where brands — and their money — fit in. Artists who do brand deals are rarely flying around in gold helicopters — the Musician’s Union reported that in 2010, only 13 per cent of full-time musicians earned above £16,000 a year, compared to an average British salary of £25,500 — so for artists, this brand cash can help them to put on a tour, hire a string section or record an album without record company execs sticking their noses in.

What’s more, while record labels may have more experience of selling albums, an unrelated brand will be far more likely to let a band keep the rights to their music — as was the case when Groove Armada signed to Bacardi in 2008.

“I think we recognise that record sales aren’t funding anything,, so there is going to have to be a new model and this is part of it,” says London singer-songwriter Emmy The Great. “If a mobile phone company wanted to sponsor my video and all I had to do was flash their phone then maybe I would do it. I’d have to decide on a case-by-case basis. I wouldn’t go for Vodafone.”

“[Brand deals] can give you the financial freedom to make a start on a project, or improve on something you had planned already,” says Robinson. “Or they mean you can afford better packaging and other things that you wouldn’t normally dream of.” There may be, Robinson adds, a “slight trade-off” involved with doing these deals, but if bands find the right, sympathetic partners it is unlikely to be a problem.

Fans, meanwhile, will largely accept the trade-off, so long as the sponsorship deal is not too obviously ill-fitting, influenced by cash or generally cringe-inducing (such as Duffy’s career-ending Diet Coke ad). And, the argument goes, so they should: it’s pretty brazen to criticise an artist for taking the corporate loot if you’ve downloaded their entire back catalogue gratis from The Pirate Bay.

“You can generally tell when an artist has done something simply for cash or when an artist has done something that fits in with the way they are working anyway,” says Robinson. “The one thing that fans are great at is sniffing out what is cheesy and what isn’t.”

“If I walked out of the 100 Club [which is sponsored by Converse] wearing Converse from top to toe then people would get pissed off,” says Emmy. “But if it is happening in the background they probably don’t mind.”

This is not to say that artists like Radiohead who shun advertising should be derided for doing so. It is refreshing to know that some things still remain out of the grasp of the voracious advertising world in 2012 (although the band has headlined the walking sponsorship party that is V Festival).

But don’t forget that Radiohead can afford to shun brands — much as they could afford to sell their album on a pay-what-you-want basis. Many musicians don’t have that luxury. Would things be different for Radiohead, then, if they were starting out today, self-releasing records without enough money for hotel rooms? We will never know.

In any case, to get too hung up about where the cash comes from is to ignore the realities of the music business. In a world full of anything other than hobby musicians, bands need money to live, and the days when surviving on the dole was a viable option are long gone.

As such, does it really matter if this money comes from a major record company — with all its other unrelated interests in everything from sewage (Universal parent company Vivendi) to chemicals (Warner Music owner Access Industries) — or from a sympathetic clothing brand? Yes, you could sign to an indie label, but with the exception of the big indie companies (Beggars or Domino, say) you’re still going to have to stack shelves at Tesco or live with your mum, even as you become an NME and Xfm regular.

Seeing your favourite band play a gig sponsored by a mobile phone company may not be to everyone’s tastes, but it is infinitely preferable to seeing them on the street, as Robinson concludes: “I feel like most people in the artistic community and the music industry would possibly be happier if [brand deals] weren’t necessary at all, because the more people from outside music who are involved, with a different set of criteria, then potentially the more that artist’s process will be corrupted. But labels don’t have a great record of not corrupting the artistic process any more. It is not like we are moving from a pure artistic idyll into a den of capitalists.

“If you are a fan who wants to support an artist, then seeing that artist able to make a decent living in what could possibly be a fairly short window shouldn’t be something you resent.”

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