Sponsors Take Over

In the 1960s and 1970s, the consensus among major artists was to avoid corporate sponsors. The only true sponsor was an artist’s record label. Musicians with recording contracts were proud to keep their music separate from the world of commerce and corporations. This changed in the 1980s, and especially in the 1990s.  The appearance of multimedia led to larger recording contracts and exposure on TV, computers, CD-ROMs and later DVDs. Society itself aspired to greater individual wealth. Consumption became conspicuous and music and money were touted together more than ever. Commercial sponsorships became acceptable for many artists, unlike earlier times when artists would not “sell out”. Later, as the industry suffered the onslaught of free online music, musicians sought commercial sponsors avidly as a matter of survival.

The past decade has seen a dramatic upsurge in earlier trends. Former self-proclaimed rebel Bob Dylan can now be seen promoting Cadillac Escalades, not to mention Victoria Secrets lingerie. Furthermore, we now live in an era where beverage companies such as Mountain Dew and Red Bull have established their own record labels and artist promotion platforms, providing their rosters with valuable resources and possessing as much clout as large record companies. Needless to say, the 21st century has brought about an important shift in the artistic community’s attitude towards its association with business.

Corporations, naturally, have ulterior motives when they use music, for it is not their immediate concern. Potentially even more unsettling is the fact that a majority of music enthusiasts now demonstrate few if any objections to seeing their favorite bands partnering commercially. If sponsorship relationships have evolved to become accepted in today’s society it is also because brands have adopted increasingly subtle approaches to imprinting their messages on customers. For instance, an artist no longer has to take a drink  from a soda and emote satisfaction. Corporations have adopted subtler marketing tactics such as distributing free samples, coupons, and merchandise. Most brands are now going to extreme lengths to look authentic.

Nevertheless, there are many exceptions. A group like Weezer, for instance, used insurance giant State Farm to sponsor its 2010 Memories tour; money was the incentive. But it is most likely that in securing a sponsorship from State Farm, Weezer was able to avoid soliciting funding from labels who would have asked them to sign a 360 deal against multiple sources of revenue ( Weezer’s Raditude, released in 2009, was the last album they owed to their long time label Geffen and at the time they were shopping for a new recording contract). As State Farm had very little interest in the music business, it allowed Weezer a maximum amount of financial freedom so long as they fulfilled their contract–including plastering the insurance company’s logo all around Weezer’s name!   In short, Weezer may have sold out, but it did so willingly to save its livelihood.

Another interesting trend in the music industry has been the upsurge of corporate sponsored record labels such as Converse, Mountain Dew, and Red Bull. Interestingly, most of their roster of  artists have not been famous superstars, but rather promising young artists who might not have been given a chance elsewhere. Examples here are Holy Ghost! on Green Label Sound and Awolnation with Red Bull Records.

As the recording industry’s revenues have slumped, it must be remembered that there are more casualties for musicians than the recording contract.  Artist development funds are lost too. In an attempt to create a grassroots movement and further entrench themselves in popular culture, many of these multinational corporations have been supporting artists who they believe may someday captivate crowds across the globe. This has opened up an entirely new avenue for upcoming bands.

Corporations may always be driven by the profit motive. But today more than ever, in a slow and unstable economy, musicians are looking for alternate routes to get their music out there.  It is a fact too that  that public opinion  is to an extent neutral about artists’ corporate affiliations. Sports teams across the board dress their players up with more than their name and field positions, and musicians have come to reluctantly accept this fate. Finance is important in business, whatever the source. Musicians cannot be accused of looking elsewhere and beyond the existing industry to fund their projects. But the quality of their music, and their talent, may be less important in the long-term for a big corporation than it was for a record label.

by Frederic Choquette



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