NOTE: Sorry - I started this post last week and just had the time to get it out today.
A discussion I've heard far too often, both among music industry personnel and those in the media and in the corporate marketing world, is that of trying to define what "selling out" is in terms of a musical act's relationship with a corporate brand. On the one hand, it is an accepted fact that many acts need some kind of corporate involvement at certain times during their careers to help them financially or with major exposure boosts. On the other hand, the artists themselves are rightfully wary of aligning themselves with brands in ways which leave them open to criticism from fans and press alike. An article by Charles Moran in this week's Advertising Age explores this topic again. Charles also co-writes the great Songs for Soap blog for AdAge.com with Mike Tunnicliffe, which explores the many different brand/artist interactions taking place these days.
One thing rarely discussed is this: artists - ALL artists - need to "sell out" to corporate interests at some stage in their career, and often this involves the corporations they align with the closest and with the highest stakes for their longevity - namely their own record labels and the radio stations/video outlets (and the conglomerates which own them). Even in this digital, DIY age the large majority of artists seek to be signed by a record label so the label can provide marketing, PR, radio promotion, and distribution of their recordings. Once the act has music to be released, then they need to go out and promote their single across the radio stations and video channels/outlets which they depend upon to drive their music up the charts, thereby driving album sales and the revenue they might receive based on that airplay. Yet the major labels (and those indies which are divisions of major corporations) and the big radio conglomerates use music to their own ends just as any corporate brand seeking to license the content from those acts.
How many artists feel their careers were mismanaged by their labels, both when they were current artists, and with their catalogs after leaving a particular label? Too many to count. Those corporations keep cutting staff and roster acts as the industry's physical sales woes increase. They also have lousy reputations for being dishonest in their accounting to the artists they rely on to develop the content the companies are based on. But those labels are still the key engines for allowing artists to create and distribute their art as efficiently as possible across a wide range of media. Even the band Birdmonster, once touted as a completely DIY outfit in Chris Anderson's classic business book "The Long Tail," has signed to a label.
How many artists decry how radio airplay decisions have been centralized by corporate behemoths, leaving virtually no local station autonomy and relying almost solely on audience research to make programming decisions? How many fans hate when radio conglomerates change station formats in their local markets, thereby leaving music fans deprived of easy access to certain kinds of music? Radio conglomerates especially just use music to sell advertising time and advertising programs to marketers. So, in essence, while artists use radio to air their songs, the stations use the music to draw in audiences attractive to advertisers, and the artists have ZERO SAY in what advertising those stations play around their music.
Even the venue owners, ticket sellers, and concert promoters are large corporate entities which must be dealt with: Live Nation, AEG, Ticketmaster, etc... and these companies all have divisions which deal with artist fan clubs, merchandising, and other key parts of the artist's live performance and ancillary revenue streams.
Many artists who would refuse any proactive alignment with a particular brand nevertheless do not complain when particular retailers, hotels, restaurants, banks, health clubs, etc... have in-store music systems which include playlists featuring their own music.
So, let me use a rather crude analogy. Much as Mademoiselle Rimbaud, the busty French girl pleading to Mel Brooks's King Louis in "History of the World, Part I" pleads she simply does not "do it," I reply to those artists who think they aren't already neck deep in corporate involvement with the King's blunt response: "Come on. You know you do it. We all do it. We love to do it." There is always a price to pay for releasing one's art and striving to have it make an impact on as mass a scale as possible. There is always a beast which needs to be fed. And if you want to achieve mass success, then there is always a game to be played to fire up the engine of that success and keep it running smoothly... which doesn't mean there aren't conscious choices artists shouldn't exercise, just that any claims of artistic purity are proven false on prima facie evidence alone.
Noted music supervisor Josh Rabinowitz of The Grey Group writes a bi-weekly column for Billboard magazine entitled "With the Brand." In last week's column (no link available through all my search efforts) he espoused the virtues of artists "selling in" to the world of music licensing and doing music promotions with brands. Why? The answers are obvious. In an interconnected world where one is more likely to hear about a video via YouTube than MTV, or hear a new band or song on MySpace or "Grey's Anatomy" than on commercial radio, then the choice to be anything but completely channel agnostic is short-sighted thinking. Yael Naim and her song "New Soul" are part of the cultural zeitgeist due to an Apple TV ad. And both the artist and the brand can measure their success together. Since her song was featured in the ad her download sales have been significant, and Apple can actually, in some fashion, track how much consumers are paying attention to its advertising by watching that immediate reaction. Similarly, the company can also check out how many YouTube views of its commercial have been seen by consumers, and, as Yael Naim's record is released, how many albums she sells and her success in the digital and mobile arenas - in great part to her association with the brand.
Haven't those been the great questions marketers consistently seek to answer: "How can I quantify the effectiveness of the advertising my company and/or marketing agencies is producing? How can I tell, in this TIVO/DVR world, if people are just skipping through my company's ads and ignoring them?" The measurements above are imperfect to be sure, but they are still measurements one can gauge effectiveness by. Was there any shot "New Soul" would have received any consumer attention in today's oversaturated media marketplace without a major ad or television licensing opportunity such as the Apple ad? Did she stand any chance at garnering radio airplay of any significance? No way.
The quotient may be different for some older tracks or artists whose music is used in such a way, but not by much. 90s dance star Haddaway had his once-ubiquitous hit "What is Love?" licensed for a diet Pepsi Max ad aired on this year's Super Bowl. He had a tremendous increase in download sales after the ad was aired. Was it an increase the Diet Pepsi Max brand manager thought was significant given his multi-million dollar media buy for the Super Bowl? Who knows? But it at least gave him some quantifiable evidence to suggest the ad was the sole reason for that sales increase.
Production music companies are more than happy to be to taking corporations' easy money and leaving the moralizing to the artists with egos who find these opportunities to be analogous to selling one's soul. There is a market to be served and they are glad to serve it as efficiently and cheaply as possible.
So every artist needs to take a step back and truly ask themselves this: if they are willing to give up their masters to one company - the record label, or if they are willing to go and provide programming to radio conglomerates who don't have any vested interest in music per se, then why are other types of brand partnerships taboo? They shouldn't be, and if you don't think fans realize this, then you're selling yourself... short.