In the movie Amadeus, there's a scene where a young Mozart debuts a new opera for his patron, Emperor Joseph II. The Emperor, who's been financially supporting Mozart in return for the prestige of having his court associated with the composer, says, "Your work is ingenious! It's quality work!" And then, feeling that he's entitled to some criticism, Joseph continues, "But there are simply too many notes. That's all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect." Mozart, straining for a diplomatic tone, replies, "Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?"
Today's young pop bands may not be asking that question yet, but two centuries on from Mozart, many are being lured into similar patron-artist relationships, with corporations like Nike, Red Bull and Bacardi taking the place of royalty. It's no secret why. With downturns in sales of CD and digital downloads, as well as the steady decline of record labels, bands are seeking other ways to finance their projects and reach fans. What they get from corporations is major financial aid - money for videos, studio time, touring, marketing, and in some cases, even distribution. In short, those services the record labels once provided.
In return, the corporations get something less tangible - coolness by association. Of course, they often get rights to distribution, music for their TV commercials and the band's services at private events. But it's the coolness they crave most.
Recently, Converse announced that they are building a recording studio in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, that hip incubator of bands such as MGMT and Grizzly Bear. The studio will provide free recording time for young bands. Converse will have no say over the music, the artists will retain ownership rights, and the songs won't be used in ads. While Converse says it wants to "give back" (they cite sneaker-wearing bands like The Ramones and The Strokes for unwittingly promoting their product), what they're hoping to do is build good will with a whole new generation of consumers.
Like Converse, Dr. Martens can also claim a cool connection, being footwear favoured by The Who and The Clash. To celebrate their 50th anniversary this year, the shoe manufacturer rolled out a huge digital campaign of videos and free downloads by ten young artists covering classic songs. To access these tracks, you submit contact info and join a Dr. Martens mailing list.
To infiltrate young hearts and minds, companies know they can't rely on outdated advertising methods. The TV commercial with the catchy jingle that once sold Mountain Dew doesn't work on a generation who are cynical and digitally savvy. Mountain Dew's solution was to start Green Label Sound, a singles-only label. The free downloads available from acts as diverse as The Cool Kids and Wavves don't mention the caffeinated drink, but their cover art sports a tag with the colours of Mountain Dew's logo. Other companies who've launched similar download campaigns include Nike, Levi's and Scion.
This trend began in the '90s, when Starbucks bought Hear Music. But where Starbucks got into the music business to sell CDs, today's companies are using music to promote products they already sell. For example, Caress, a body care line, paid Pussycat Dolls singer Nicole Scherzinger to record a version of Duran Duran's Rio, then gave the track away on their website to promote their new Brazilian Body Wash.
In another era, there would have been a huge stigma attached to all of this, but today, it's just another way to promote new music. Does it feel wrong? Yeah, sort of. But bands are pragmatic. They need money, and one corporate sugar daddy is the same as another. And for now at least, the deals are more lucrative, with better royalty rates. And unlike traditional record contracts, which tended to own masters forever, control of copyrights revert to artists after a set period of time.
Still, questions remain. Will corporations' association with hip new bands really translate into increased sales? Aren't consumers savvy enough to realize that the music is only being used as a tool? Will bands subtly alter their songwriting and style to make it more attractive to corporations? And, how long will bands be able to reap these sweetheart deals before a CEO says, "Just cut a few notes and it will be perfect"?
Horrified? Calm down at MOJO4music.com where music still means more than shoes, soft drinks and cosmetics.