Sunday, December 16, 2007

Brand meets band: now they're in business

Having a song featured in an ad can be a vital leg-up for newcomers, writes Julian Lee.

Remember when rock'n'roll was all about rebellion and showing the world the proverbial finger? When the very thought of working with big business would have provoked a splenetic bout of self-righteousness among band members and fans?

As much as some of us like to reminisce about the good old days, it seems the music industry has forsaken them. Up-and-coming bands are likely to seek out business deals that can give them a leg-up and cut short the long and often painful climb to the top.

Apple's use of Are You Going To Be My Girl in iPod ads transformed Jet from a workaday rock band into a global name. A similar deal was cut with Vodafone in Britain, ensuring Jet's musical footprint was extended.

Call it smart marketing or a sell-out, but Jet's album Get Born has sold 3.5 million copies. Had Apple not made the call, Jet might still have been performing at low-rent venues in the US, says Heath Johns of Jet's label, Universal Music Publishing.

"The exposure definitely sped up the process," Johns says. "But they followed up the ad with a killer [album]." Without the exposure, the album might have sold just 100,000 copies.

Although artists are never pressured into commercial deals, they are one of the first things talked about when artists, managers and publishers sit down to draw up a contract.

"There's no glory in the starving artist stereotype any more. These guys don't have a weekly pay packet, they have bills to pay," Johns says.

In his six years in the job, he says, no artist has refused the chance to get their song in an ad or on TV. "It's really rare in this day and age to get a new band who are not keen on striking any kind of deal."

That willingness to work with big brands has paved the way for groundbreaking deals. This year the Levi's jeans company started its own record label, Levity, to foster Australian and New Zealand music. Levi's pays the recording, distribution and marketing costs, and the acts agree to appear in the company's marketing.

The Sydney band Mercy Arms and the New Zealand group Cut Off Your Hands were the first to sign. They have released EPs and are to go on tour in the next few weeks, significant steps for two relatively unknown acts.

The brand director for Levi's, Steve Williams, says the company gets the kudos from backing music while connecting with a younger, hipper audience in a way it could not have done with conventional marketing.

For brands like Levi's it's about grassroots marketing. "If you take a mainstream track and use it then all you are going to be hitting is a mainstream audience," Williams says.

He says all the bands Levi's is talking to are happy to appear in its marketing, and puts the change in attitude down to the rise of bling: "Just look at the US hip-hop artists that flaunt their association with big-name brands. I think that's changed the perception of brands working with artists."

Older acts - or their executors - are also cashing in: Led Zeppelin for Cadillac and Elvis Costello for Lexus.

Of course, it helps if you are Levi's, with its history of using music in its ads, from Marvin Gaye and Madonna to Stiltskin and even the Clash.

But some companies are beyond the pale, says Rebekah Campbell, who represents Operator Please and Evermore, among others. "We wouldn't do it for McDonalds," she says. But she did cut a deal with Virgin Blue for Operator Please. Their single Get What You Want features in an ad targeting younger travellers. Why Virgin Blue? "Because it's a cool campaign and a cool ad."

Since the ad has been on air, sales of the single have shot up, the song has been picked up on radio and it was played live on Rove.

But as much as we would like to think that business is showing a more altruistic side by fostering music, it comes down to money. Or, rather, the lack of it, on both sides. Shrinking production budgets for ads, the cost of licensing a big-name artist - about $100,000 for a three-month deal in Australia alone - and the wider availability of acts have played into the hands of marketers looking for street cred on the cheap.

With the sale of digital downloads yet to make up the shortfall in declining CD sales, the music industry has been forced to look for other sources of revenue, namely ads, TV shows, films, ringtones and even games. There is more supply out there and the distribution channels that the industry used to rely on - radio stations - are mostly unwilling to stray from a conservative playlist.

Advertisers are also getting smarter in their targeting, publishers say. For example, Mercedes-Benz was until recently using Janis Joplin's Mercedes Benz track of 1970 to promote its luxury cars, which is ironic, given it was written as a satire on the trappings of material success. For baby boomers who could forgive Mercedes's chutzpah, it would have struck a chord. Now Mercedes is using a rocky track, I Only Want You, by a little known American band, Eagles Of Death Metal, in an ad for its M-Class four-wheel-drive aimed at younger drivers.

The general manager of Mushroom Music Publishing, Adrian Murray, says: "They [advertisers] are all getting a lot more savvy about what music they use for their brand. Rather than choosing it because it is a hit, they are looking at the music and how it fits their brand."

But Murray says that not all ad-pop deals lead to chart-topping success. "Nothing's guaranteed," he says. "There's still a lot of discussion about how you go about these deals."

That doesn't bother Kris Schroeder, bassist and singer with the Basics, a Melbourne three-piece whose single Rattle My Chain features in a Volvo ad. The ad has been on air for only a month, but Schroeder is realistic about what it means.

The deal is not big enough to allow band members to give up their day jobs - Schroeder is a customer service representative for a publisher - but it is enough to give their confidence a boost. It has opened up horizons and who knows where it might lead, he says.

After five years of hard work, Schroeder feels that, with one of his songs chosen for an ad, the band is on the cusp of making it. "I guess it gives us and our fans a sense of affirmation that we are on the right track. It also sticks it to the doubters."

When asked if he feels he is selling out, he replies: "We don't have anything to sell out. We are only minor players so there's no risk there."

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