Dear music fan: you are being sold
Who's saying what
Contributing writer Ian Keith Rogers likes to take his hobbies to work. A member of Brisbane noise-sludge band No Anchor, Rogers is also a teaching and research academic by day (and the author of excellent blog The Occasional Musician). Here he talks to fellow research scholar Dr Nic Carah, author of Pop Brands: Branding, Popular Music and Young People, about Nic’s work on corporate branding in Australian music, how you're already being sold to and the idea that triple j are part of creating a youth music culture that corporate brands valorise.
TheVine: First off, tell me a little bit about the history of musicians getting into bed with the world of marketing and branding. It's become a lot more culturally accepted in recent years. Is there a consensus opinion on how this has come to be?
As the recorded music business has declined, the businesses that have grown are the ones that have learnt to exploit music not only as a recording for sale, but also as something that attracts attention. [Something that] creates an experience, or can be circulated.
The live music business has grown dramatically. Reality TV formats have appropriated popular musicians and the back catalogues of major labels to make value from the spectacle of producing a pop star. Music streaming businesses like Spotify and Last FM have built a business organized around streaming music based on the collective tastes and listening patterns of multiple niche markets. In each of these new models, a common theme is that the physical sale of the recording isn’t the point at which value is realised. Instead, music has value as something that can be circulated or experienced.
This is where brands come in. As the way value is made and realised from music has changed, new businesses and players have entered the scene, and new consumption practices have emerged. Corporate brands have been able to make themselves part of the action.
One of your specific research interests is how this has all played out in music festivals, right?
Absolutely. The music festival business model is now premised in part on corporate sponsorship. The revenue model isn’t just based on ticket sales, it is also based on selling that audience of hip consumers to brands by having physical installations on the site, presence in festival media, use of the festival in social media campaigns and competitions and so on.
But it’s more widespread than festivals?
It’s everywhere. Another example is the opening created by the decline of major label deals and the falling cost of recording. Brands have set up programs where they offer short term record deals, recording or touring opportunities to bands. Those bands then do promotional work for the brand as part of the deal. Levi’s set up the Levity label, offered bands a short term deal that involved recording and promotion for an EP. The band tours as part of the association, does media and promotional work, and wore Levi’s jeans (if they chose to). Tooheys ran a national Uncharted competition which offered bands recording opportunities and tours on the Big Day Out. The bands get media exposure, opportunities to play in front of audiences and recordings for ‘in-kind’ work for the brand.
Outside of hardcore punk, it’s all pretty accepted as par for the course now.
In this new cultural world, you are authentic not because you stand for any particular ideals, but simply because other people who are hip pay you attention. We’re all paying attention to something. In that context, a musician can do a deal with a brand where the band is going to simultaneously ‘identify’ and ‘distance’ itself from the brand and no one is going to think they’ve sold out. If anyone asks they can just shrug their shoulders and say they got a national tour, or a record, or a free bottle of booze of whatever it was, and state - honestly - that the brand didn’t make them do anything in particular. They didn’t have to say they loved such and such a brand, or anything like that. They can say, ‘Hey, I don’t even like the brand,’ and the brand still makes value regardless of what the musicians or fans think because by being associated with the musician people pay the brand attention.
So bands can never 'win' in these scenarios. They're outflanked from the very beginning: once they're signed on, it all works in the brand's favour.
If brands are making value just because the musician attracts the attention of a hip audience, not because the musician embodies any particular meanings, then it is difficult to disrupt the creation of brand value. While it might be cathartic to be anti-brand, or resist the brand, or do some clever culture-jamming, the brand probably couldn’t care less. In fact, when you do that you are probably helping the brand out, either making it cooler by helping it look like the brand is self-effacing, hip and ironic too. Or, that the brand really does ‘care about the culture’ and isn’t making anyone say or do anything in particular. And, in being a ratbag you might be drawing more attention, which is what the brand is after anyway.
Once a musician participates there is no way it can really go wrong for the brand. For instance, as part of Jack Daniel’s JD Set at the end of his performance, Tim Rogers thanked The Zoo for supporting live music and then thanked Jack Daniel’s for ruining his marriage. While on the surface that might look like bad inflection on the brand, you could equally argue that it articulates the brand with rock mythologies of excess that the brand could never do in its own advertising. Or, at Coca-Cola’s Coke Live tours bands would say things on stage like, “Hey kids, are you all Coked out?” or “We’ve been backstage doing Coke all afternoon!” and the kids would all cheer and the bands would laugh. Again, while you might be imagining some over-zealous corporate manager feeling a bit anxious about associating the brand with drugs, probably what’s happening here is the musician is saying things the brand could never say itself, in this example associating the brand with the cool image of wild party animal musicians.
My proposition is this, think of a way a musician participating in a brand program could ‘disrupt’ it in a way that stops the brand making value from them. I don’t think there is a way. Unless we’re talking some kind of criminal act, and even then…
I remember in Canada about ten years ago Nike tried to open a hip dance club, culture jammers hung a bunch of ‘blood soaked’ sneakers on the door. But that was in a kind of moment where there were plenty of protests against corporate brands, globalization and labour conditions. You don’t see that kind of culture jamming anymore. That’s about the most extreme example of this kind of branding activity going wrong, and even then it didn’t ‘break’ the branding model.
This also extends, in a peripheral way, to musicians who find themselves playing in contexts where they indirectly participate. For instance, say you play a festival on a stage sponsored by a brand, or you play a festival where other bands are there playing as part of a brand program, or there are brand installations near the stage you are playing on. You might not be directly endorsing a brand, but you are creating the sociality of the festival that brands profit from. Don’t think about brands only as ‘discreet endorsements’ but rather how they profit in general from the sociality that surrounds particular musical networks of taste and associated practices.
I want to go back to music festivals more specifically. Why do we tolerate this stuff? We pay X amount of the money to get inside the fence and then be promoted to, at our own expense?
Ten years ago a music festival was largely a ‘direct revenue’ way of valorising music. A promoter booked a bunch of bands and ticket prices covered the cost and profit (bar and food sales would have helped). Today many music festivals work on a direct and indirect model. The business model is built on both ticket prices and selling festival space to corporate brands. Effectively, the audience ‘pays twice’ once for the ticket and again with the attention they pay to the brand while they are at the festival or in social media after the festival, and perhaps again when we buy the Toohey’s beer or the Virgin mobile phone plan of whatever it is. Sometimes you’ll hear people say that the brand deals keep ticket prices down. Over the same period though ticket prices have risen dramatically. Sure, festivals are way tougher to run now in terms of insurance, public liability, security, the cost of international artists, environmental regulations and so on. But still, they remain something of an opaque business model to the general public.
When brands first started arriving at music festivals in Australia, if they bothered you, you would just ‘ignore’ them. You’d think, I go to see the bands, I don’t give a stuff about the brands. Over a period of years they integrated themselves onto the festival sites. And, one of the reasons audiences began to ‘tolerate’ them is because they integrated themselves into the festival experience. They offered phone charging facilities, free sunglasses, bottles of ice tea, exclusive media content, cleaner toilets. They did lots of things that made festivals more ‘enjoyable’. They also learnt how to be part of the festival fun by creating ‘experiential’ spaces like interactive screens where people could text messages and photos, or themed spaces like sailing boats where we could hang out. The audience still choose the festival for the line-ups, and don’t think much about the brands. Then when they are there, the brands are just part of the experience. I think there was a period where the festival audience saw the brands arrive, now though most of the audience have never seen a festival that doesn’t look like a corporate theme park. Brands had established a presence in festivals from about 2005. That’s 7 years ago. If you are under the age of 23, you probably don’t remember a festival being any different. .
Did you see Media Watch a few months back? They spotlighted music sponsorship on triple j? When I was watching that my first reaction was: what's the difference between Converse footing the bill and a major label footing the bill? I actually like Converse shoes. I could care less about a multi-national media company. It seems like such a tenuous line to draw in the sand. While I was thinking that stuff, I also thought: what would Nic make of this?
Yep I saw it, and I kinda thought it had been a long time coming. Eventually someone had to ask this question. triple j are increasingly sandwiched in a commodified culture. As MediaWatch explained product placement or endorsement is OK if there is inherent editorial value. triple j claim that their associations with the major festivals like Big Day Out and Splendour in the Grass have inherent editorial value to their audience. This is a fair call. But increasingly, triple j is a publicly funded broadcaster who on-sell their audience to these major commercial music festivals that then on-sell that audience to a range of corporate brands. I think triple j here is doing real promotional work for these festivals and in an indirect way they are serving the interests of brands by promoting the festival, making it cool and legitimate. That is, triple j help to make the festival into the kind of cultural experience that brands can profit from.
The problem for triple j is that their audience live in this highly commercialised culture, where these cultural commodities do have ‘inherent editorial value’. triple j – and in some cases, the music festivals they partner with – should be justifiably proud of attracting such a large audience, broadening their playlists in recent years, and their tireless support for emerging Australian music. But, I think there is room for a discussion about their role in a music business that is more closely integrated with corporate brands. It would be a mistake to see the Converse endorsement as a ‘one off’ mistake. What it should draw our attention to is how triple j are part of creating a youth music culture that corporate brands valorise.
Nic Carah's book Pop Brands: Branding, Popular Music, and Young People is available in stores.
Nic Carah's book Pop Brands: Branding, Popular Music, and Young People is available in stores.
(Video camera image via Shutterstock)