Music and the Media, Part 3: This is an Advertisement

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 appears to conduct his business relations with the skill of a Fortune 500 company CEO:

If 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.”

[youtubevid id=”8qP79rRzzh4″]

Though Feist’s 2007 album, The Reminder, came out in April and debuted at No. 16 on Billboard, the real buzz came months later. So did the sales. So did the award nominations.

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:

[youtubevid id=”ILCB_f0IIyI”]

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:

[vimeovid id=”9274148″]

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

To this:

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.

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8 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. 1

    I don’t see a problem with a band on the road trying to move merch. Especially since most people arent buying CD’s anymore, and vinyl, despite the reported “revival” remains a boutique niche market. Whats left to sell? Alot of times merch sales are what keeps a smaller band on the road.

    As for the commercials. Theres no “sellout” stigma anymore. Its kind of an outdated notion. Who cares if a band is getting noticed that way? I’ve got no problem with it.
    To paraphrase another blog on the subject: Real life is not Fugazi.

  2. Leor Galil #

    I don’t see a problem with any of that either… which is what I said in this post. But bands on tour do still move CDs and vinyl, even if the later is a niche market… I’m inclined to pick up a CD if I’m wowed by a band, and I notice that happening at many a show after a band’s set when attendees flock to a merch table and walk away with a CD or vinyl.

    But I am slightly inclined to disagree wit the sentiment that “real life is not Fugazi.” Though a lot of what they spoke about seems rather outdated in relation to the way the music world has transformed (speaking in terms of “Merchandise”), there’s still something palpable at the heart of their aesthetic: Keep shows cheap, keep them all-ages and keep the people dancing. So what if cheap now means $10 instead of $5? The issue of baring people from shows because of price and age is still relevant, as is plenty of things Fugazi spoke about. I’m more tempted to go see a show if the prices are low and it’s open to people of all ages than a $50+, 21+ show. But that’s just me.

    But yeah, I’ve got no problem with bands using adverts to find an audience… My only concern is when marketing becomes the focus above all else. Then what’s the point of the music?

  3. jcalton #

    “In the middle of their tour, their fan had somehow cracked up.”
    Their one fan went insane?

  4. 4

    The thing about the Fugazi model of doing business as a band is that it is an un-workable model for bands who aren’t Fugazi.
    You have to remember, Fugazi was able to keep door prices low/play only all-ages gigs/pick and choose their venues because promoters that booked them knew that they were going to pull huge audience numbers, both with pre-how tickets and walk-ups..They were a “known quantity”. For most of their existence, Fugazi played exclusively to packed halls.

    Now, take your modern-day, unproven band on their first or second tour with NONE of the indie groundswell/perfect storm of support from the underground/zines/word of mouth/DC hardcore pedigree that Fugazi benifitted from, and you’ll see how the “Fugazi ethic” falls apart…Clubs/Promoters hold all the cards..Going The DIY, all-ages church basement/VFW Hall Route? Don’t kid yourself. The same caste system/popularity contest applies there, too. Venues have to get paid,bands have to get fed, the van has to have gas,people need to do laundry, have a place to sleep (theres not always the promoter’s couch, y’know)and those records and t-shirts didn’t press themselves..In short: MONEY MAKES MONKEY DANCE. I’m more apt to go see an inexpensive club club gig too, but I also understand that ‘next-level’ bands (larger venues, more exposure)that want to actually reach your town have to, more often than not, work within a system that requires a constant, reliable cash influx (ie.upfront guarantees/booking agency backing/corporate sponsorship)
    I don’t think many bands on the road today, with or without label/corporate support, are getting rich from those hefty ticket prices..More likely that they’ve “bought-on” to a tour with a bigger act and are actually losing money in the hopes of gaining a wider audience. Perhaps its the wrong way to go about it, but the DIY route is not open to every band.
    Theres usually many strings (and probably a trust fund or two) attached to the ‘Fugazi way’ of doing things.

  5. Leor Galil #

    Wow, thanks for catching that typo… Sometimes this stuff slips past… Fixed and online…

  6. Leor Galil #

    And you have to remember that Fugazi weren’t always “Fugazi.” In fact, when they started out, they actively discouraged anyone in mentioning the band’s pedigree when advertising a Fugazi show, and they weren’t originally always the popular choice in town in punk circles because of their stance on moshing. Yet, they kept doing their thing and built an audience.

    I’m not saying what made Fugazi will work for everyone. In fact, that’s one of the many things that made that band unique. They could do it.

    What I am saying is there are concepts that can be applied to today’s music touring route… and yes, even the all-ages church basement/VFW Hall Route. It’s always been a caste system/popularity contest. Who said it wasn’t? It’s the same way on a larger level, and it usually takes constant touring to build up a following on your own terms.

    Yes, the way music is seen has changed, but certain ideals can change with it. Look at Dan Deacon. The guy spent years playing little basement shows for zero pay and is now able to do practically whatever he wants. A large tour featuring 24 of his favorite Baltimore bands playing all-ages shows for $7 a pop? Sure thing. Getting clubs to rescind their no-all-ages shows options so they can be guaranteed to pack the house for a Dan Deacon show? Done and done.

    Obviously, it doesn’t work for everyone. It takes a tremendous amount of focus, years of determination and constant work. If you’ve got a family and are balancing other jobs, of course it won’t work… But being in a band full-time may not either. And that’s the same as it was when Fugazi was doing their thing…

    Sure, this can seem impossible if you continually think of it as so. It’s the type of thing that’s only open if you deem it so. Close off the options, and yeah, the DIY circuit can be closed off to you. But if you’re willing to put in the time and effort, it can work. Maybe that’s not “life” for some, but in many industries (journalism included… think of people working away on blogs for free or doing freelance work for little pay so they can eventually do it full tim), it’s the unfortunate reality.

  7. 7

    Your support of a non-corporate ‘Fugazi’ ethos seems to indicate to me that you feel the output of artists that take a more altruistic, or non-corporate, DIY career route is automatically more “authentic” or of greater merit than artists who go through ‘corporate’ channels to reach an audience.
    Having heard Dan Deacon, I can assure you that his artistic worth remains a highly subjective matter.

    If ‘concentrating on the music’ is truly what you’d like your favorite artists to focus on, shouldn’t their ways and means of creative production be a complete non-issue for you?

  8. Leor Galil #

    “Your support of a non-corporate ‘Fugazi’ ethos seems to indicate to me that you feel the output of artists that take a more altruistic, or non-corporate, DIY career route is automatically more “authentic” or of greater merit than artists who go through ‘corporate’ channels to reach an audience.”

    Hardly. Quite an assumption off a few back-and-forth comments without appearing to have read anything else I’ve read. The “authenticity” argument in music is a bit of a bullshit-o-meter that anyone can pretty much use in their own way against others.

    I do certainly find it appealing when a band does the DIY route and all-ages thing because I appreciate access. I can understand the frustration of getting shut out of shows for one reason or another, be it age or even the type of clothing one wears (the later is more for access to general clubs.) It sucks. But I hardly just listen to DIY-branded music… Hell one of my favorite bands is TV On The Radio, who have put out great music since signing with Interscope.

    “Having heard Dan Deacon, I can assure you that his artistic worth remains a highly subjective matter.”

    All opinion on music is highly subjective… but I will defend Dan Deacon like none other. His ability to combine disparate movements and genres of music such as Javanese gamelan music and electronica is riveting. Still, your statement obscures the fact that he manages to do things on his own, which was what the original argument you brought up was all about. And it also sounds like you haven’t seen Dan Deacon live, an experience unto its own that I’ve seen convert many a critic. But, I won’t assume that, just merely guess it…

    “If ‘concentrating on the music’ is truly what you’d like your favorite artists to focus on, shouldn’t their ways and means of creative production be a complete non-issue for you?

    I’m sorry, did you not even read this post? The very nexus of this post concerns the realities of the music industry: That it’s harder and harder for artists to simply focus on making music. While I’d prefer for musicians to simply focus on their craft, that becomes less and less a possibility.

    Music isn’t made in a vacuum, nor is it made without the constraints of our society. To completely discount those outside forces is a bit naive, but to want a musician to focus on their original craft isn’t a bad thing to wish for. The abilities of musicians to become a Foo Fighters and have a label give a band whatever they please is hardly a reality any longer. “Real life isn’t Foo Fighters” is more like it.

    I happen to write about music and music creation today. Ways and means isn’t a non-issue because it’s more and more a thing for bands to fret over today. And I enjoy talking about that, not outright ignoring it because of a wish I want for musicians.

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