Monday, December 29, 2008

Bands and Brands

In a recent article I recommended reading Jon Pareles excellent article published a few days ago in the New York Times ['Songs From the Heart of a Marketing Plan' (12/24/08)].

Briefly, Pareles notes, laments, and finally accepts the increasing (and seemingly unreversible) trend of bands aligning with brands.

I don't share Pareles' pain, except in my own dreamy romantic notion of 1979, which now seems a long, long time ago.

Otherwise, Pareles' recent article gives me no reason to think that we aren't continuing a shift in this direction, so if you're not comfortable with the way things are going now, the ride is going to be a rocky one indeed. For better or for worse, such ideas are perhaps more valid than ever, because before they were only concepts. Today, it seems like I bear witness to their evolving manifestation every time I hear about a new co-branding agreement between an artist and a product, service or experience.

What is so interesting to persons my age (anyone north of 18) about these relationships is that only ten years ago they would be framed as a story about an artist selling out. Now, they are presented as a Band and Brand aligning in strategic partnership for mutual benefit, to the surprise of just about nobody.

Maybe that's because what makes these agreements so uniquely post millennial, is that they are indeed constructed as co-branding agreements, and not merely conceived as another traditional sponsorship or endorsement deal. Those kinds of brand/band relationships are so yesteryear.

Pareles laments that artists can no longer be independent without record companies to support them. But perhaps the reality is that now, more than ever, artists are free to remain independent, for no longer beholden to record companies, they can still make a pretty good living –if they can find another source of funding to serve as a music industry surrogate.

Of course, you don't even need the construct of an 'Industry' to make it happen. You just need revenue and a means to enable distribution.

But speaking of surrogates, the co-branding paradigm isn't just for indie artists, either. The model is finally being put to test by some of today's biggest pop stars.

The Eagles not only inked a deal with Wal-Mart, the retailer is featuring them in a $40 million ad campaign. Think about it. This isn't your typical endorsement deal, and in fact it's the polar opposite of a 360 deal. It's co-branding: There are no masters or servants here, and no one is endorsing anything. Rather, separate parties share an agreement towards a common goal, or to reach parallel but individual goals.

Along these same lines, earlier this year Jay Z left "his longtime record label, Def Jam, for a roughly $150 million package with the concert giant Live Nation that includes financing for his own entertainment venture, in addition to recordings and tours for the next decade" (The New York Times).

It's also old news by now, but in 2007 Live Nation struck multi million dollar pacts with both U2 and Madonna. At the time Madonna told the Associated Press, “The paradigm in the music business has shifted and as an artist and a business woman, I have to move with that shift” (MSNBC).

Pundits may argue the relative merits of such deals, but whatever you do, stop thinking of recorded music as a primary revenue source. The music simply gives access to a lifestyle and an Experience. It may or may not convey a deeper message, but it certainly is the songwriter's (and performer's) own sonic branding.

So, the Dance Diva's albums might not sell like they used to, but she continues to deliver a premium experience for which fans are willing to pay a collective 200 million per tour. The value of the actual songs on the free market? Who knows –at this point all the merchandise –including the albums– are souvenirs of an experience. Is this good or bad?

It depends what's more important to you: The so called integrity of a given song, or the experience delivered by the music. Hey, guess what –you can actually have it both ways:

Art is flexible that way!

Don't believe me? Listen, Music can save your soul on Sunday; score a sound track on Monday; pitch products on Tuesday; create venue ambience on Wednesday; act as a study aid Thursday; accompany you to the gym on Friday; rock the house on Saturday; –and come back Sunday morning and save your soul all over again!

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