Monday, August 23, 2010

Everything Corporate: How “Selling Out” Has Turned Into Survivalism (Part 1)


Notice all the advertisements at the last show you went to? Maybe you didn’t; they've become so ubiquitous in recent years that it's possible you don’t even realize they’re there. Yet there they are: on the brand-sponsored stages, on the ticket itself, tucked in amid the concession stands and dangling over the stage on imposing banners. To say that this type of corporate sponsorship of punk and indie concerts is a departure from the old way of doing things is an understatement, but perhaps the most interesting part is how little anyone cares about it. In fact, partnering with brand sponsors isn't just a new wrinkle in the music business model—it’s now the entire business model itself. Corporate backing can often make different aspects of a successful career possible for bands. Touring bands wrap their buses and vans in brand logos; clothing and beverage companies bring artists into their own studios to record viral content for their marketing outlets; smaller labels team up with brands to beef up promotional push for an album; and chain restaurants and hotels adopt bands into the fold, offering free meals and places to stay while there are on the road.


Of course, this isn’t an entirely new practice. The granddaddy of all touring festivals, the Vans Warped Tour, has become synonymous with the sneaker company that shares its name, and there's nothing particularly egregious about it either. It’s simply necessary for tours to bring in corporate sponsors to help offset the cost of paying the bands, the booking agencies, the venues and more. In fact, AP has teamed up in the past with Rockstar Energy Drink and Wonka to bring you the AP Tour. It would actually be more difficult to find national tours or bands that
aren’t somehow connected to a brand than those that are. Some of the more notable recent examples include the Denny's Allnighter “Adopt-A-Band” program through which bands like Emery, the Chariot, Set Your Goals and Atreyu eat for free in exchange for hosting after-parties at the dining spot. Taco Bell's “Feed The Beat” series has similar deals with bands like Boys Like Girls, Hey Monday, Haste The Day and VersaEmerge. Clothing companies like Glamour Kills have partnered with tons of bands including All Time Low and Cobra Starship, with whom they've developed clothing lines, while surf and skate clothing company Hurley brings the likes of Saosin and the Maine into their company’s recording studio. New Found Glory recently funded a video through variety of product placements.

DEVIN LASKER 
of music publishing company PRIMARY WAVE MUSIC helped set up a promotion with Motel 6 called “Rock Yourself To Sleep” giving the hotel chain exposure and a much-needed break on costs for touring bands. “Knowing it's expensive for bands to be on the road, we thought it would be a great idea to have a hotel chain offer well-deserving bands a chance to offset costs,” he says. That meant a free place to stay for the likes of This Providence, Sparks The Rescue and Hit The Lights. The promotion, which will start up again this fall, also turned into this past summer’s Rock Yourself To Sleep Tour with Every Avenue, Sing It Loud, There For Tomorrow and Secret Handshake. So what was the catch for the bands? Not much, says Lasker. “We ask that the band put the Motel 6 Rock Yourself To Sleep logo on their social networking pages,” he says. “We don't tell them to tweet or how many times, but we say, 'If you enjoyed your hot shower and bed, please feel free [to post about it].' That's pretty much it. We honestly do it to help these bands out.”

THE CHARIOT 
frontman JOSH SCOGIN says his band were happy to take advantage of the Denny's opportunity. “It was pretty sweet,” he says. “We got free Denny's [food] for a couple of tours, and in return we had a mandatory, 'Invite all the people from the show to Denny's afterwards’ for two of the shows.” Since it was essentially something the band would have done on their own, the deal was hard to pass up. “We loved it because we are just trying to hang with folks anyway, so we ended up just inviting the show to come hang with us every single night of the tour,” says Scogin. “We would have, like, 50-some kids trying to pile into Denny's. It was amazing.” The Chariot also took part in the Taco Bell program on another tour.

CHELSEA COFFEY 
of ROCKSTAR ENERGY DRINK's marketing and music relations program says the expectations on the band and what they receive from the company depends on the circumstance. In addition to the AP Tour, Rockstar has sponsored Taste Of Chaos, Mayhem and Uproar festivals. This past year, the company started working directly with bands, co-branding tour merch. “I go to bands and say, ‘If you're going out on tour or you're doing a video, what do you need from us?’ We've formed kind of a friendship, where they support us on MySpace and their websites, and while they're on tour they can co-brand. We have a presence on anything they do, and in return we do anything we can to help them out in financial ways or just by involving them in our family.”
Rockstar also helped sponsor videos for New Found Glory and A Day To Remember. Branding on a poster is one thing, but using product placement in music videos sponsored by companies seems like a tricky marketing tactic to pull off. Coffey says brands are aware of that, and she says the key is for the product placement to seem natural in the video narrative. “My goal has been to not cheese up a video,” she says. “I always want the bands to be pleased with the placement.” In A Day To Remember’s video for “I’m Made Of Wax, Larry, What Are You Made Of?,” the band are playing kickball against a group of kids.

Rockstar placed banners in the dugouts in the background and used models in Rockstar cheerleading uniforms to cheer them on. Coffey says, “You definitely noticed it, but it wasn't, 'Hey! In your face! This is a Rockstar video!'’”


New Found Glory’s “Truck Stop Blues” clip is set at a gas station—a location where it would be logical to see Rockstar products in the background. “It worked because [the products] were in the scene where you would see them [normally],” she says.


Just a few years ago, bands might have been reluctant to make such accommodations for corporations. But the reasons for the change are threefold: First, the collapse of the music industry as everyone knew it has taken away a lot of once reliable revenue streams like record sales. Secondly, a faltering economy has made music fans even more discretionary with money they don’t have to spend on concerts, albums and merchandise. Third, the fractured media landscape means that bands have to grab as many opportunities to be noticed as they can in an overcrowded and supersaturated deluge of information. “I totally understand [the potential reservations] but at the end of the day, music is a business,” says Coffey. “With the ways the industry has changed, bands need help.” Lasker agrees. “I definitely think there was a shift in the way people think,” he says. “The industry changed as a whole, and the money isn't there like it was even five or 10 years ago. Bands have to be on the road gaining a fan base, and it's very expensive. If there's a way for them to get money to support their touring, I don't see anything wrong with that. I don't think it's being looked at as selling out.”

It's pretty hard to be labeled a sellout when nearly everyone is selling out. “I think it started a few years ago when even the bands with the biggest 'cred' had outside brands attached to them,” says AMY BUCK of GOOD FIGHT ENTERTAINMENT, the management company behind August Burns Red, Chiodos and Blessthefall. “I think it's one of those things where bands feel like they shouldn't be sponsored because it's had a bad rep in the past, but no one is turning down free guitars or products being handed to them. I also think there are a lot more creative opportunities through technology happening now that allows corporations and bands to work together which don't scream ‘sellout.’”
Buck works with her bands to set up endorsements and to partner them with appropriate media and corporate sponsors. The endorsements are typically music gear, merchandise and energy drinks—all of which have become commonplace for bands. Some of the artists even develop signature lines with these companies, like Alexi Laiho from Children Of Bodom, who has a signature guitar with ESP. In addition to that, Buck says she's worked out deals with the likes of nonprofit organization Peta2 and managed deals with EMG, IndieMerch, Facedown Records, Affliction, Hot Topic, Scion and several other companies. “In these deals, the tour or the band received monetary funds which were used to help make ticket prices lower or to cover the expenses the band incur on the road. All of the sponsors we work with make sense for the bands they're branded with. Sponsors help keep bands on the road in a time when ticket and album sales are down.”

It's up to the band, then, to decide which brand they think aligns with their aesthetic. “We definitely think about it,” says 
NICK MILLHISER of Brooklyn, New York-based indie dance group HOLY GHOST!, who recently partnered with Green Label Sound, the music label of Mountain Dew. “I would never say that we would do any corporate sponsored event or deal known to man. We sort of deal with them on a case-by-case basis.” His band were about to release a single on the tastemaking label DFA—primarily a vinyl and digital label—but Holy Ghost! wanted full artwork and to make a video, things that weren't in the label's budget. Green Label Sound approached the band at exactly the right time. “They came onboard and gave us budgets for all these things we wanted to do,” says Millhiser. “They basically allowed us to do this big public relations push for a standalone single that I think we'd be lucky to get on the release of a full record.”

So what does it mean exactly to be on Mountain Dew's record label? Nothing much, according to Millhiser. “They were unintrusive and basically let us do whatever we want,” says Millhiser. “It didn't feel like selling out because they weren't asking us to do anything. They were like, 'We want to help you guys out.' In that situation, I think they really are providing a valuable service to bands like us who are on small labels that don't have these sorts of budgets.”


However, Mountain Dew 
does get something in return. They've aligned themselves with some of the coolest rising bands in the indie/dance genre including Matt And Kim and Chromeo. It's impossible for some of the praise those bands receive not to rub off on the company. RICK GADD, founder of the LAUNCH MUSIC CONFERENCE (sponsored by Coca-Cola and Heineken) says the appeal is there for both the corporations and the artists and event planners. “I think the corporate sponsorship helps to balance that out a little bit,” he says. “In exchange [for their support, the brands] get a target demographic. We need sponsors [for the festival]. If we didn't have that, we couldn't function.” Turning up your nose at sponsorship just isn't a workable model anymore, he says. Besides, old ideas about selling out and punk values just don't mean what they used to. At the club Gadd also runs, he sees this sort of hypocrisy in action all the time. “The same bands that come in and talk about being punk rock and living the lifestyle and not giving into the man and not being corporate also drive away with corporate logos on their trailer. I'm 35, so when I was in a band, [if we had done that] we would have had no one at our shows. They would've crushed us in the punk scene if we had a McDonald’s logo on our trailer.” But he says that’s not the case anymore. “You probably bank at a corporate bank, eat at a corporate fast food chain and fill up at corporate gas station,” he says. “There's no way to escape it.”

IAN HARRISON
, director of marketing for HOPELESS RECORDS, says that along with the inevitability of corporate crossover, most fans don’t seem to mind the way they would have years earlier. “When I first started five-and-a-half years ago, it was still in the era of [sponsorship] is not cool to do,” he says. “But kids don’t seem to care anymore. Some fans, especially fans of our poppier stuff, see a band in a commercial or an ad that features the band and their perception changes for the positive. That’s weird to me because that’s not where I came from.” WE ARE THE IN CROWD vocalist TAY JARDINE says sponsorship is just a given among the new generation. Now when the band are on tours like this past summer’s Warped Tour, they trade industry stories the way bands might formerly have talked about local promoters. “People are always asking, 'Who do you guys work with, who are your sponsors?'” she says. “Every other band is asking every other band. It seems like a natural step in the process of things.”


“Kids don't care anymore. It's weird,” says Harris. “Some fans, especially fans of our poppier stuff, if they see a band on a commercial or an ad of the band, their perception changes for the positive rather than the negative, which is weird to me because thats not where I came from. I remember when they licensed a Dead Kennedy's song for a Doc Marten's ad, and it was the hugest thing in the world. Now it's like congratulations! They're in this commercial, so I better pay attention. When I was a kid, bands wouldn't even allow themselves to be played on KROQ and that was a badge of honor. I think the economy changed quite a bit and the music industry changed where there wasn't funds anymore to do these types of thing.”

“I think the overall principle of corporate sponsors being part of your tour or release, people aren't as suspicious or look negatively at that as much anymore,” says Matt Dufour, co-founder of En Prise Entertainment, a Chicago-based boutique marketing firm and artist management company that works with young upstart acts like Moneypenny and Team Bayside High. “That's a reflection of the music industry in general. Bands aren't getting money for selling music anymore. The vast majority of artists need to expand their revenue streams. Brand sponsorships help artists offset some of those expenses they have, where typically they'd be selling a cd or merchandise at the show, now they have to give their music away and assume everyone is gonna steal it anyway. We just assume going in that no one's going to pay for music, so we need to come up with cool creative ways that they'll make money and survive as an act.”

JB Brubaker of August Burns Red agrees. “Everything, as far as this world of music, is for the most part commercialized already. Bands are doing whatever they need to do to keep growing. I don't think it's terribly “punk rock” anymore and if it is it's because the band has to do punk rock things to have money to stay out on the road. Generally I think most bands that are trying to make it aren't so much concerned with doing things the punk way and will do what they need to do to get the leg up on the competition.” His band has done some minor deals with Red Bull and Aticus Clothing. There was no money exchanged, but Red Bull keeps them supplied with their product and in return the band puts the Red Bull logo on the band Myspace page. With Atticus, in exchange for wearing their clothes and taking photos in their products from time to time they've helped the band out with marketing and magazine ads. They also worked on a t-shirt together with the company.

“I think taking corporate sponsorships is becoming very important for bands, especially with the economy,” he says. “ You have to take all the help you can. But, he adds, “There are varying degrees of what's acceptable before you get termed a sell out. Companies that would go against our morals or values... there are certain companies we would never work with based on what they stand for.”

He declines to give specifics of the cheesier stuff he's seen bands working with, but they do exist. The Chariot's Scogin says the same. “I have definitely done some cringing over certain bands' sponsorship duties though. I won't mention any names but it is a reality for sure.”

For his part, his band has a line they wont cross. “We only do sponsors that benefit our art. Like the Denny's thing for example, free food always helps us out, and in return they just wanted us to invite all the people from the show. That is what we would do anyway. So that worked out easy. We would never agree to anything at the expense of our art.”

“I've seen some pretty silly wraps on trailers and stuff for companies,” Brubaker says. “I can understand stuff like Red Bull and Rockstar and stuff like that, who are always involved with bands and stuff. But maybe that doesn't strike me as strange because I've seen it so much. Everyone is used to that at this point. As more and more companies get involved there might be some stranger things coming out.”

That's just the point though, it isn't strange right now. Red Bull, or whomever, makes sense as a rock and roll sponsor because they are already rock and roll sponsors. Puma and Diesel and Levi's -- which runs it's own Pinoeer Recording series where bands like The Shins and Passion Pit and She & Him record cover versions of classic songs which are then released as singles (something Doc Marten's has done in the past as well) – make sense because kids, the indie audience, already like sneakers and jeans and energy drinks. Isn't part of the reason they like them because they learned about products like these from musicians that are influential in their lives? It's hard to pinpoint exactly where the cycle begins, but as Dufour says, “as long as the brands are aligned with the lifestyle of the target audience,” it's a partnership that works. “Someone like Diesel or Puma, those are cool brands for the target demo that are likely to like these brands and acts.”

Dufour works with brands to connect them with the target demographic they are trying to reach, mostly the young, urban Chicago party crowd. “My business does lots of events marketing for people like Adidas, Diesel... connecting them with cool up and coming artists, or the cool hip kids in Chicago that are into music and fashion.”

With his business model, (he also publishes an online zine called UR Chicago) “the vast majority of our income comes from dealing with corporate sponsors and helping them hit this niche market.” He throws a series of monthly and weekly parties, and when brands contact him to team up, “we'll take a budget for that and be able to book bigger and better talent than we might normally have. As a promoter it allows you to limit your risk. It allows me to spend Diesels' $2000 on bringing in a cool DJ, as opposed to my own.”

He's currently working on a deal with a popular soft drink company known for working with multiple music outlets to send Moneypenny and Team Bayside High on the road. “It's basically trying to take the cool party vibe they've established here in Chicago and spread it [around the country]. It's something that these acts would do anyway, but the way that we're positioning it is, look [brand x] we're gonna do this anyway, provide us with a wrapped vehicle, we'll drive that to the shows, we'll set up drink specials at the venue that have your product in them... just teaming up with local hipster promoters in each of these markets, giving them a bigger and better event where there's no risk for them.”

For the band it allows them to do an all expenses paid tour. For acts in the earlier developing end of things, a thirteen day tour like this would maybe break even if there were lucky, he says, and that's with sleeping on couches. “Whereas if we can provide all this value to a brand, specifically targeting this market, it will allow us to travel in a more leisurely way, have a nice vehicle, hotel rooms, have a photographer along and produce cool web content.”

A lot of the brands are focused on building Facebook pages and Twitter lists, he says. When a tour takes on a sponsor, often one of the requirements is that the artists in question will film or record content for those pages, thereby drawing the bands' fans to look at the brand online.

The clothing company Hurley is an example of this, inviting bands into their studios to record. “We do a lot of creative content for our website,' says Greg Teal of the brand. “And we always have some musicians and bands coming through town. So we have been doing these studio sessions for about almost two years now. They are a lot of fun. And the hurley.com viewers love them. Just another way music is intertwined with our brand.”

Another way to connect a brand with a band is by financing elaborate marketing concepts that the label or band wouldn't be able to afford. When it came time to put out the most recent All Time Low record, Hopeless Records availed themselves of corporate largess to to do just that, says Harrison.

We did a ton of [sponsored] stuff on the last All Time Low record. For our company, it's a potential additional revenue stream, which can be good for us and our bands. Step one is can we use this money to do something cool for the fans and the bands that we couldn't have done otherwise, that we wouldn't have been able to fund from record sales.” For the All Time Low Myspace Triptacular, the band played three shows across the country within 24 hours, one in Chicago, one in Baltimore and one in Los Angeles. “We worked with Ford and Myspace to underwrite the whole thing,” Harris says. “That's the kind of intangible awesome thing that kids love that's so had to put money towards.”

Other sponsorships for his label have included Trojan condoms working with We Are the In Crowd. Trojan paid for a crew to film video content of the band talking about safe sex. “It was funny, tongue and cheek stuff that related to their message, and resonates with kids. It's all still small numbers, and cleared some cash, but for a younger band thats the type of stuff that can get you new guitars or road cases. Plus we get the visibility.”

With no reliable old media channels to lean on for exposure anymore, that sort of visibility can be invaluable, he says. “All the traditional forms of media are becoming so fragmented – there's not that one story or placement on TV that's going to make a band blow up. We're just looking for anything where we can increase the reach.”

Jardine says things like the Trojan deal are beneficial for a band like her's. “It just draws attention to the band. A band our size isn't really that known, being on Warped Tour just trying to get out there. The days that we would would sign [in the Trojan tent on Warped] they would put out a sign saying we'd be there at 3:30. Even kids that didn't know us would be like, 'Oh Trojan, they're gonna hand out free condoms.”

Like most of the other bands and labels who spoke about this, Harris was quick to point out that the partnership simply has to click. It's an ideal situation when the brand is one “kids are already stoked on.” Brands like Etnies, Fox Racing, Hurley and Glamour kills. “Kids already love this stuff. To get our bands involved in those things, well now kids are stoked on two things. It's not these brands that try to crowbar themselves into the scene. Those are tougher to take.”

For a promotion the label did with Glamour Kills in which an exclusive All Time Low t-shirt was bundled in the with the record, it resulted in one of the biggest pre-order's in the label's history, he says, “and it wasn't even through us. It made sense though, the brand resonated with the band.”

There are no media kingmakers anymore, like MTV or a big radio stations, or publications. Brands, instead, have become the next best thing.“Everyone needs to find a way to get paid for this desire to be involved with the artist. These are the people that are paying right now,” says Harris.

They're likely to keep paying well into future as well. Things have definitely changed, but it's hard to say exactly how much further this relationship between bands in sponsors is going to go. It may get to a point, says Gadd, where bands become “no different than a Nascar car driving around the track,” covered from stem to stern in logos. Perhaps instead of underwriting a band's tour, a corporation will decide they want to work their way into the music or the album cover. Instead of listening to the new record from Story of the Year (or whomever,) we'll be listening to the new T-Mobile Presents Story of the Year's 'Burger King'.

Maybe not to that extent, says Jardine, but she understands the worry. “I can see that [sort of thing] happening, only because the excitement of getting sponsored like that is increasing. I hope not, I don't think it's a bad thing, I think being sponsored helps out, but if it gets to a crazy level, I might get little upset.”

It's not that farfetched actually. Weezer recently announced a promotion called “Rocks You Back to School” with Hurley, a collection of limited edition Weezer-inspired clothing available at PacSun stores. The band's new album, titled “Hurley” will be available exclusively at PacSun stores upon its release.

This sort of thing was inevitable says Scogin. “I think as the world we live in,musically speaking, gets more and more mainstream, corporations will search out these bands in hopes to keep their brands relevant and in the publics eye. In the defense of the bands, free is free. I mean we make little money most of the time, doing what we do, so any little bit helps.”

Coffey hopes it won't get too much more intense than it already is, and she's on the brand side. “It's hard to say if that's gonna happen. We're seeing weird things with music with tours going on sale then being pulled down three days later with the numbers not being there, and bands not making money on record sales. It's just a different beast than it was five or ten years ago. I'm hoping it doesn't turn into that, but you never know. Some bands will stick to their roots, but other bands may look for a huge sponsor and brand themselves for the money.”

Whether or not that's a problem to be up in arms about is up to your own personal sense of ethics. “There are some things you want to be aligned with and some you don't,” says Lasker. “The bands have that choice. It's up to them, if they feel comfortable with it, then everyone else should be. And if they're not, that's their problem.”


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