Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

Bands and brands

One topic which came up a few times over the weekend at the Hard Working Class Heroes’ discussion panels was the whole notion of bands and brands. Naturally, any panel discussion involve the future of funding was always going to …

Wed, Oct 13, 2010, 09:30


One topic which came up a few times over the weekend at the Hard Working Class Heroes’ discussion panels was the whole notion of bands and brands. Naturally, any panel discussion involve the future of funding was always going to come around to this issue at some stage.

It’s safe to say, though, that brands have gone far, far, far beyond merely sticking their banner up behind a band on a stage, sponsoring a few shows or branding a website (DOI: I contribute a column to Heineken Music’s website). This has been the year when brands have started to pop up in places they’ve never appeared in such force before.

Every week during those trawls around the internet for new music, I come across another bunch of free tracks which have a brand involved somewhere along the line. Antony Hegarty’s version of “Nessun Dorma” with the Roma Sinfonietta Orchestra (courtesy of Italian coffee company Lavazza), a compilation of covers by various bands like Cinematic Orchestra, The Noisettes and Cold War Kids (for Dr Martens) and Green Label providing tunes by acts like Wavves, Holy Ghost, Neon Indian and others (a marketing excercise for Mountain Dew) are just some recent exampkes of brands are taking giant steps into this sector as traditional record labels withdraw.

Such interaction between bands and brands makes sense for both sides, given the financial trials and tribulations which the record industry, the usual source of recording funds, is facing. If labels don’t have the wherewithal to pay for recordings and releases and there’s a savvy brand manager prepared to pick up the band’s tab in return for the association, there are very few acts who are going to say no. The acts get the release to give to their fans and probably some cash, the brand gets the kudos and email addresses and the fans get a free tune or two. It’s not like a brand sponsoring a big show where there’s often no kickback involved – ie reduced ticket prices – for the fans.

But this does lead to a fascinating question and it’s one which the Village Voice blog posed last week: is it possible for a band to sell out in 2010? Zach Baron was writing on the back of a New York Times’ piece (which also asked questions about the issue of what selling out in ’10 meant) about a new recording studio in Brooklyn which will give bands “deemed dedicated and needy enough” the time and space to record for free. The studio is called Converse Rubber Tracks and – yep, you guessed it – Converse are behind it. The studio seems open to all comers and not just the established acts – or hipster acts – most brands go after.

Once upon a time, the notion of a brand getting involved so blatantly with a band at this level was frowned upon, especially by those on the music side. It was seen as selling out, a sullying of the art. Now, it’s a different matter as bands scramble left, right and centre to get the cash to stay in the game. Many fans, especially those who fought the punk and post-punk wars, will be aghast at this cosy relationship between music and the money men, but it’s a sign of the times. The bands seem comfortable with the notion and, after all, they seem to have made up their minds about who is to blame for this situation. As Baron points out in his excellent piece, “someone has to pay artists, and increasingly, we’re (the consumers) not doing it. So who is the enemy in 2010? We are. Not the majors. Not Converse. Us.”

Then, there’s the fact that many brands can talk the talk as well as flash the cash. I had a very interesting conversation last week with Matt Packer, one of the curators at the Glucksman Gallery in Cork, about the issue of music and brands. As he pointed out, there are some very smart people working for the brands who know both the value of the association and what it takes to win a band over. It reminded me of how labels used to send smart, young, enthusiastic talent scouts around to befriend acts before the inevitable label chase would begin. The hope was that your boy or girl scout would become the band’s best mate and the act would sign to his or her label. Sometimes, that policy worked brilliantly – other times, the band just used the scout to pay for a couple of swanky dinners.

It also strikes me that this is part of a cultural, even generational shift. New bands operate in a whole new environment to the ones who went before them. Even acts who started out a decade ago had a very different set of options to the acts working out in garages and sheds today. The manner in which the music business has changed over the last few years has meant bands are dealing with new realities and if these entail hooking up with a soft drinks company or a shoewear company, so be it. As a reminder that there are still some people fighting old school battles, there was much coverage of Steve Albini’s angry man schtick last week in GQ. You can guess what Albini and others of his kin think of the cosy new Venn diagram relationship between bands and brands but then again, do we still want to take the word of a man who worked with Bush as gospel when it comes to punk rock principles?