Behind the Music

Call it borrowed authenticity or just plain good marketing, but brands are reaching out to indie bands, and both are coming out ahead

While stodgier brands make their way to the indie party, more classically cool marketers are pushing the envelope of how bands and brands relate. In July, Converse opened Rubber Tracks, a state-of-the-art studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, that gives away recording time to low-profile bands, no strings attached. So far, about 150 bands have passed through and cut about 400 recordings, estimates Cornerstone founder and co-CEO Rob Stone. Artists can also avail themselves of Converse’s reach as a marketer by letting the brand promote to its 23 million Facebook fans their Rubber Tracks-created recordings, of which each band maintains full ownership. “[Converse] can really push a band’s music out wide and far on their behalf,” says Cornerstone’s Cohen.

None of this is to say indie bands aren’t particular about what types of marketers they’d sell their music to. The creative execution of a specific campaign, for one, can be a sticking point. “They want to know that their music and their likeness isn’t going to be used in a campaign that’s kind of cheesy at the end of the day,” says Michael Paoletta, an executive producer at Chicago-based music house Comma.

When Lowe’s approached Wigmore, a five-time platinum artist in the New Zealand market, but more or less unknown in the U.S., she needed the exposure however she could get it, according to Dana Collins, Wigmore’s manager. A lesser creative approach wouldn’t necessarily have ruled out letting a brand use her music, Collins notes, but they were thrilled that Lowe’s ad went what they felt was above and beyond the usual fare in its category.

“We would have been happy with any spot, being blunt about it,” says Collins. “But we were over the moon when we saw this spot. You didn’t have some guy in a smock [saying], ‘These are our specials for this week.’”

Plus, it worked. U.S. sales of “Don’t Stop,” Collins adds, jumped from about zero to more than 2,000 in the first week of the campaign, and continued to rise while the ad was airing.

For indie artists, more usual roadblocks are categories deemed unhealthy or controversial. “Some don’t want to be involved in alcohol. Some don’t want to be involved in fast food,” says Bonny Dolan, a managing director and executive producer at Comma. “Most of them don’t want tobacco, even though there is tobacco advertising overseas.”

But when it comes to how selective bands can be about brands, they are, in general, “loosening the reins,” adds Paoletta.

That may have something to do with the fact it’s increasingly competitive for bands that want songs placed in commercials. “It’s harder [now] for bands to get their songs in the hands of music producers and supervisors and creatives” because the supply of music is growing at a faster rate than the demand, says BBDO executive music and radio producer Loren Parkins, who dug up Wigmore’s track for Lowe’s through a publisher in his network of music industry contacts. In addition to his Rolodex, he says, he generally uses resources like music blogs and public radio playlists to help him cut through the clutter when trying to find the right music for a spot.

GS&P’s Porter also found fun.’s “We Are Young” through his network of industry contacts. But he says he’s found himself increasingly using shoe leather scouting to keep a pulse on new music and connect with artists. “I went from being the sort of secretive record geek to the guy who kind of actively seeks out bands at South by Southwest or any concert,” he says.

Some agencies, like Leo Burnett, also host showcases that feature up-and-coming bands. So does Comma, which specializes in original music for commercials, but also offers licensing services. Indie folk darlings The Head and the Heart, for example, performed two weeks ago at the company’s Chicago offices, where creatives and supervisors from agencies including Leo Burnett, DraftFCB, DDB, mcgarrybowen and BBDO came to hear them play. While Comma doesn’t pay visiting acts for their performances, the opportunity to connect with creatives who have the power to put them on TV is enough of a draw, even though deals aren’t necessarily generated.

The payouts from licensing agreements vary greatly depending on the specific terms, including where an ad will appear and how long it will run. But an indie track would probably run from four to five figures, whereas a well-established act would likely charge at least six figures for a brand to use a hit song for a national TV commercial.

Despite the exposure that major marketers’ advertising can provide lesser-known artists, a great TV commercial or music-driven campaign, in most cases, won’t be a silver bullet for a band looking to build its own brand. The timing, for one, has to be right—as in the case of fun., which started gaining mainstream buzz after Glee covered “We Are Young” in December, and had a post-Super Bowl album release with a promotional push smartly designed to seize on the attention around the big game. A band also has to have its own image established and be poised to capitalize on the exposure.

“A brand can really expedite someone’s career,” says Cornerstone’s Cohen. “But it’s a Catch-22. A band’s got to develop on their own. They’ve got to be able to play live. They’ve got to build their own audience, their own community, their own following, before they let a brand do that for them.”

And more robust deals that take into account an artist’s long-term objectives increase the odds a partnership is a success for bands as well as brands, adds Stone. “It’s really key that the campaigns are platforms and not just kind of one-offs,” he says. “There are a lot of scenarios where you see artists get involved in the wrong campaigns.”

The wrong campaign might be one that tarnishes an artist’s own image—maybe, say, an underwear ad. Brands and their agencies, understanding the potential pitfalls for artists, can be savvy about drawing a band in, and vice versa. Strange Talk, for one, was originally wary of working with Cheer, concerned fans might think it had sold out, says lead singer Stephen Docker. But that it wasn’t just a traditional ad helped convince them, as did the people directing it (duo Radical Friend, who had done previous work for indie rock band Yeasayer). In the band’s view, the campaign netted more positives than negatives. Strange Talk ended up with a great video, according to Docker, and an international test market for its sound as it prepared to return to the studio.

Plus, it turns out Cheer’s targeting ploy cut both ways. “It opened up a bit of a bigger demographic for us,” says Docker. “During the time of the campaign, we had a lot of people adding us on Facebook and commenting on our page. They were mums and people sort of in their 30s and 40s.”

As for whether this means Strange Talk will be forever known as “That Cheer Band,” Docker brushes off the notion. “I’m a big believer that you’re only as good as your last song,” he says. “At the end of the day, we’re artists, and we’re out to write music. If you continue to write music people like, I think you have nothing to worry about.”

fun. photo by Alfred Maskeroni's iPhone