Artists have always struggled to make ends meet, and more so since the drop in sales of physical product, i.e. CDS, cassettes, vinyl, and VHS music videos. A survey of the Future of Music Coalition claims musicians make, on average, $34K a year. Even if true, this figure does not take into account touring and recording expenses. And the business is not made up of the likes of Rihanna or Kenny Chesney who easily make more than $10M a year.
Still, artists across the board are getting smarter at tapping new sources of revenue. Beyoncé, Adele, and Taylor Swift aren’t making their big earnings just from album sales. For them, like the rest of the industry, albums are becoming as much of a promotional tool as a revenue-generating vehicle. This creates new opportunities for the monetization of talent. When recorded music sales can no longer be taken for granted, artists will look elsewhere to finance their livelihood. Companies, other than record labels, then become new industry players and brand partnerships take root between artists and, usually, consumer product firms.
None of this is entirely new, but the intensity of the artists-brand relationship is much deeper now. Back in the 60’s, artists like Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles, and the Supremes were doing radio commercials for Coca-Cola; the trend, however, was away from tying music to a brand. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the early Led Zeppelin — all would have considered a commercial partnership with a consumer brand anathema to their image and interest.
Today musicians seem to think nothing of agreeing to go long when signing with a brand, in spite of the compromises that this might entail to their own creative output. This is especially troubling because, as the founder and president of Music Dealers, Eric Sheinkop, tells Marketing Week “brands can’t sponsor artists by simply hanging a banner on the artist’s stage, or by printing the brand’s logo on the tickets; that’s not a partnership, it’s a dead-end deal that ultimately won’t increase engagement between consumers and your brand.” In other words, the expectation is that of an active and dynamic relation between the artist and the product being supported.
Current brand partnerships are also based more heavily on the timing of a release, album or otherwise. They link new music with a product being sold. Gwen Stefani’s Hollaback Girl was released in March of 2005, and by May she was signing with Hewlett-Packard, who at the time was designing a custom-made camera for exclusive sale on its HP’s website. The television commercial for HP was created in the image of the music video for Hollaback Girl and even used the same actors and director. This partnership, therefore, may beg questions about the origins of the music itself. In other cases, it does not. In 2011, the Foo Fighters teamed up with Blackberry, a cell phone company, to perform in fans’ garages in eight major cities across the U.S. The so-called Garage Tour was filmed and soon became a documentary in support of their latest album, Wasting Light, which premiered at SXSW that year.
Brand partnerships are not exclusive to artists, of course. Chevrolet, Citi®, and Samsung sponsored the 2014 Billboard Music Awards. Both the Foo Fighters’ and the Billboard Music Awards’ partnerships were created by MAC Presents, a well known New York based company whose purpose is to create sponsorship programs between top artists, fashion labels, and brands. The Universal Music Group & Brands company, part of the music recording and distributing giant, serves pretty much the same purpose, and so does Big Synch, a London based company, geared toward making these types of partnerships happen. None of these companies can be more than ten years old.
Others have taken it a step further and started their own record label, getting inside the heartland of music production. Red Bull and Mountain Dew have their own Red Bull Records and Green Label, respectively. Artists signed under them likely surrender more rights than under a simple partnership deal. In this context, The Red Bull Music Academy, founded in 1998, can be seen as protecting the brand’s image by fostering creativity with workshops, lectures, and the offer of free studio time. It is a sign of the times that music fans may not distinguish between music produced by a consumer brand and other, freer-made, music.
Shoe companies have also become new stakeholders in the industry. Rubber Tracks is Converse’s recording studio with locations across the U.S. and additional studio connections in Argentina, Brazil, Italy, and France. Rubber Tracks allows local musicians to record in Converse’s professional studios for free. On the other hand, since 1995 Vans has been sponsoring the longest running traveling tour in the U.S., the Vans Warp Tour (out of which Vans also pays a full scholarship to a student at Berklee College of Music).
Some brand partnerships do not involve an exchange of cash. Paul McCartney, Bruno Mars, Madonna, and Beyoncé played for free at the halftime show of the Super Bowl. There, the consideration given was the 100 million-strong audiences that almost guaranteed a boost in album sales or song streams. For instance, Bruno Mars’ album sales picked up 66,000 units within a week of his performance.
Other partnerships turn out to be disastrous. Beyoncé teamed up with Michelle Obama on the Let’s Move Campaign back in 2010. The campaign was geared towards ending child obesity, but about a year and a half later Beyoncé signed a $50 million deal with Pepsi: as soda is heavily linked to obesity, the Huffington Post was perhaps justified in calling this an example of “blatant hypocrisy”. And Alicia Keys should have not tweeted her partnership with Blackberry on an iPhone; even if we can excuse her, Blackberry dropped her unceremoniously.
By Zoe Mitchell
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Elliott, Stuart. “Musicians Market Brands to Sell Their Latest Music.” The New York Times. N.p., 24 May 2005. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.
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