Melissa Etheridge on Her Evolving Relationship With Marketing and Technology

Connecting with fans and amplifying her voice

With almost 30 years of constant creative output and touring, Melissa Etheridge has come to appreciate what technology and thoughtful marketing can do to amplify her voice and connect her to fans. Adweek's sibling, the Clio Awards, will welcome Etheridge at its annual gala this Wednesday at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where she will be introduced by Clio Music juror Jennifer Breithaupt, svp, global head of entertainment marketing of Citi. Etheridge will then introduce live performances by X Ambassadors and Salt-N-Pepa, both on Clio and Billboard's Top Commercials Chart (powered by Shazam). X Ambassadors will perform "Renegades" from the Jeep Renegade "Band" spot—ranked No. 1 on the Collaborative Debut Chart (which follows a yet-to-be released song or track commissioned specifically for an ad whose debut helped propel the song to prominence). Salt-N-Pepa will perform "Push It" from Geico's "Push It: It's What You Do" spot, which tops the Classic Chart (tracking commercial usage of older songs that re-engaged and connected with a former audience while exposing the track to a new audience).

Adweek caught up with Etheridge in Kitchener, Ontario, last week in the middle of her 50-city "This Is M.E." tour to talk about how technology and marketing are creatively informing her personal brand and musical craft.

Adweek: How has your thinking on the relationship between music and marketing evolved?
Melissa Etheridge: Man, in the '80s and early '90s, it was us and them, and if you talked to them, you were selling out. The only one that was worth doing was Pepsi—if you were Michael Jackson or Madonna. There was the cola thing and nothing else. Neil Young wrote a song about it, "This Note's for You," which summed up the notion at the time of selling out to corporate America. Then our world completely changed with the Internet and marketing became much more sophisticated and very personalized—so much so that here we are three decades later and it's a vehicle and it's something you want and want to put thought into. I welcome it and embrace partners who are interested in partnering on creative work. The stigma is completely gone now, so there is a big part of my management that's focused on marketing efforts.

How has technology changed you as an artist?
It has enabled me to not be on a major label anymore. Two years ago I went through a big change of management and looked at where music and technology were going and I wanted to be in front of that change, I didn't want to be dragged by it. So I created my own independent label that works with individual digital producers to make records rather than the more traditional corporate approach where they give you some money and you go away and make a record. But it has changed everything I do. Even on the road, my equipment is getting streamlined and smaller and I'm able to make more sound with less stuff.

Thoughts on social media? A way to amplify your music and brand or a distraction?
Depends on who you're talking to. For my businesspeople it's an awesome tool to connect with fans and get my music out there. But for my family it's a distraction. Before social media, the only feedback on my live shows came from one reviewer three days later and sometimes you wonder if they were at the same show. Now I get instant feedback from my fans, and I can reach back out just as fast. The two-way communication is an astounding way to get feedback. You do have to be careful with it, but it can heighten your brand and reach so many people. Do I spend too much time on it when I'm home? Yeah, I probably do, but I'm interested.

Is there an artist that you admire for how they've authentically lent their music to marketing?
The first time I was struck by a great collaboration between a musical artist and a big brand was in the '90s when Lenny Kravitz's song "Fly Away" was used in a great campaign for the Nissan Xterra. It hit me that the commercial was actually like a video for the song, and you got hooked on it right away. And since then there have been so many great examples from the phone, car and computer brands. It's funny, but I often discover new artists via television ads. In many ways they have become the new radio station and the new MTV. You actually look to these commercials to bring you new music, new artists.

How has digital technology enhanced your performances, and how has it brought you closer to your fans?
It has grown and deepened my relationship with fans, offering them things that they value at shows, driving traffic to my website. It really has been amazing. It's given me much more control over my image and music and enabled me to do things that would have been totally impossible over 20 years ago when I started out.

What advice would you give emerging artists who are being approached by marketers for the first time?
I would say believe in your music and believe in what they [marketers] know. I'd say listen and learn and be open. And I'd say see this as an incredible opportunity—and it's always great when your music can get out in front of people.

Is there a brand that you'd really like to work with?
You know I've been waiting for the water. I have a great song called "Bring Me Some Water"—I'm actually sitting here drinking Fiji Water as we speak; it's my water of choice when I'm on the road. So I'd like to find a way to work with them, or another water company, to bring that song out again. There are so many great things like that out there that could work. I've also been waiting for Windex to come to me about working on something cool with my song "Come to My Window." And of course there's Microsoft and its Windows, but it hasn't called me yet either. But there's still time.

Have an all-time favorite ad?
No, not really one, but I grew up in the '70s, which I think was the golden age of advertising, and I'd go to school and talk with my friends about the ads we'd seen on TV the night before and sing jingles, for things like Alka-Seltzer and the Pillsbury Doughboy, in the halls. I think good commercials have always been an art form for me.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 28 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.