What is one expected to do when the economy’s in the tank and it seems harder and harder to make a decent living in your chosen industry? In music, the route to a sustainable existence appears to be written in the ads.
Or, so it seems in the case of the Black Eyed Peas, a band so wrapped up in advertising glut that the Wall Street Journal called them the most corporate band in America. WSJ did so with reason too: Main-man Will.i.am appears to conduct his business relations with the skill of a Fortune 500 company CEO:
If will.i.am wasn’t in music, “He’d be the best ad executive on Madison Avenue,” says Randy Phillips, president and CEO of the concert promoter AEG Live. “I’ve never seen anyone more astute at dealing with sponsors’ and companies’ needs and understanding their brands.” He says he’s planning to have the rapper deliver a seminar to AEG’s global marketing team.
Is that a good thing?
Certainly it’s reasonable for musicians to care about their income. But how much time should one dedicate towards putting together PowerPoint presentations instead of putting together thought provoking songs, which is the very reason a band like Black Eyed Peas should be getting attention. (I realize their songs are hardly thought provoking, but their tunes do get the majority of the attention, not their business practices.)
Still, the focus of the article was distinct: Bands and brands – or bands as brands – and the key to a successful career.
These days, with the divergence of music culture into hundreds upon thousands of subsections, it’s hard for any artist to really break through and find a new audience. It’s even harder when you consider the sparse number of acts played on a majority of radio stations and featured in the pages of the most prominent music magazines. The WSJ hints at the big draw a relationship between advertisers and musicians can really offer:
Not long ago, the band was lending its music for relatively paltry fees in exchange for exposure—a common strategy for emerging acts.
In effect, there’s also the chance to grab some multitude of a population previously unattainable. One can be respected and revered within a particular subsection and scrape by day to day. But put together a jingle for Nintendo and suddenly you can feed your kids. That’s not exactly a bad break.
Whether or not the dollar amount is worth it, the exposure can certainly do a lot to a musician’s career. Take a look at the following Google Trends tracking for a particular artist in 2007 in the U.S. Try and guess the musician and the corresponding ad:
Got it? Not sure? Can’t remember ads that far back?
In September of that year, Apple released an ad for the new iPod Nano. It’s accompanying song was Feist’s “1, 2, 3, 4.”
True, Apple’s ads happen to sell a product that’s as much about the music within it as it is the sleekly-designed player. But it works elsewhere too. Take a peek at the following tracker for a particular band in U.S. online trend ratings circa 2009. Try to take a swing at this one:
Can’t figure it out?
Perhaps taking a peek at one of the best trailers of last year may jump your memory:
The Temper Trap’s “Sweet Disposition” made the teaser for (500) Days of Summer perfect. That delay-pedal infected melody swept me off my feet, only to bring me crashing down when I saw the unfortunate mess of a film. The Australian band was hardly a blip on the radar in America before Fox Searchlight began their marketing campaign for the shallow, “Family Guy”-like take on “indie films.” Now, with one album under their belt, the band has a great spot on the Lollapalooza lineup, a position some more accomplished acts must gaze upon from earlier time slots.
Again, it’s not a bad thing. It’s fantastic to see a group take off purely on the basis of the strength of a song.
However, advertising can move beyond the form of the traditional and new media. Some of the best band advertising, and branding, takes the form of one thing you can’t see on a screen or in a paper or on a billboard: Merch.
Once a heated topic of discussion in the underground, band merchandise is de rigueur. In many ways, it’s the best advertising a band can get. Have a fan pay upwards of $30 for a shirt and that brand name will work its way into classrooms, dining rooms and all types of places “regular” forms of advertisement will never have access to. Plus, all the money goes straight to the band.
Yet, there’s something a little unsettling about the sheer amount of band merch available. It’s a great way to support a struggling act, sure enough. But is there ever too much? On last year’s Warped Tour, I was astonished by the sheer number of t-shirts available for consumption. Every band had a merch tent, and some bands had more t-shirts on sale than songs in their discography, and often an array of better merch than music. I found myself particularly taken by some the 3OH!3 t-shirt designs despite my reservations about that group.
Is there a line somewhere? Is there a point where a musician has to stop and wonder if they’re spending too much time on a t-shirt design instead of on writing or practicing or recording music?
When I interviewed Algernon Cadwallader frontman Peter Helmis about band merch for a project I was working on, he mentioned not wanting to get a lot of money from shirts instead of music. Still, he knew that merch was a great way for his band to be able to get out and tour:
Advertising is, in the changing world of the media, something of a safety net for bands of all walks of life. Saturday night I caught a show featuring Kent, Ohio, emo act Annabel. In the middle of their tour, their van had somehow cracked up. Throughout the night, different bands pleaded with the crowd to buy Annabel’s merch so they could get back on the road.
So yes, in many ways, advertising can be an important cog in the system of a band. It can get the rest of the gears moving. But, too much focus on that one aspect can break the machinery and obscure the main goals of a band. PowerPoint and the like can be great tools to work with, sure. But when the crux of your main focus changes from this:
I see you try to diss our function by stating that we can’t rap
Is it cause we don’t wear Tommy Hilfiger or baseball caps
We don’t use dollars to represent
We just use our inner sense and talent
Let’s do it, let’s do it, let’s do it, let’s do it
And do it and do it
And live it up
And do it and do it
And all during the transformation into a group intensely focused on advertising, well… Better rethink your corporate strategy before the gears rust.