On a crisp February evening in Los Angeles, at a sprawling home in Laurel Canyon, Annie Lennox launches into a passionate version of "The Nearness of You," a classic love song from the 1930s about the undeniable power of physical proximity. The fact that she could, during this performance, reach out and touch the closest fan, sitting on the floor, puts a winking, quite literal twist on the old romantic standard.
This performance, attended by about 250 handpicked guests last month, was part of Creative Artists Agency's Living Room Series, which places music artists center stage before the ultimate creativity-meets-commerce A list—entertainment executives, directors, producers, celebrities and reps from Fortune 100 brands. The Lennox set was crammed to the rafters with ardent fans and Hollywood power players including Fifty Shades of Grey director Sam Taylor-Johnson (Lennox's rendition of "I Put a Spell on You" is featured on the movie's torchy soundtrack), actor Chris Pine, multi-talented musician Reggie Watts and American Idol creator Simon Fuller.
The mini-concerts take place in CAA agent Brian Loucks' artsy, color-blocked Studio City home (he describes the decor as "Frank Lloyd Wright on acid"), where he has grown them from informal beer and pizza parties for a few dozen movers and shakers to carefully orchestrated, brand-supported events that play host to several hundred guests. "I think it's sweet to play in Brian's living room," Lennox says during a break in her seven-song set, all drawn from her latest Grammy-nominated record, Nostalgia. "This isn't being broadcast around the globe. It's just us."
Loucks, a lifelong music lover who represents artists for film, TV and other entertainment properties, launched the shows as a way to curate good, sometimes undiscovered music for his industry friends and colleagues and serve it against a cozy backdrop.
But make no mistake—the shows are designed to reverberate far beyond the home's checkerboard walls. "People in the industry are bombarded with so much material, and this gives them a chance to see an artist up close in a unique, hippie-ish setting," says Loucks, who has hosted John Legend, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Zac Brown Band and Rodrigo y Gabriela, to name just a few. "Not only do they experience the music, but they can engage with the artist. They can start a relationship."
The artists, meantime, get exposure for new projects and interests. Up-and-comers gain an invaluable foothold with Hollywood influencers while better-known musicians get the chance to freshen their image.
One small show can lead to much bigger things, the series has proved.
Filmmaker John Lee Hancock picked country star Tim McGraw to co-star in The Blind Side after seeing him play in Loucks' living room, while brand marketers have begun partnerships with artists through the performances. (Microsoft sponsored the Lennox show.) The Living Room Series represents, in fact, just one in an array of new marketing tactics for musicians, and those with a stake in their success, in a digital download-heavy world. With promotion budgets scarce at traditional record labels, artists are finding alternative ways to launch and sustain their careers, often with an assist from brands.
Some of the most impactful programs, industry executives say, are now happening when artists and brands meld their ideas from the start—creating, for example, soundtracks for commercials, digital short films, live events or music videos. "The way to an artist's heart is to talk about doing something new and creative, rather than asking how much their tour costs," says Dominic Sandifer, president of GreenLight Media & Marketing. "And ultimately, brands want to be partners. They want to move the needle culturally. Anyone can write a check, but you have to be unique to really get in the conversation."
Sandifer's Los Angeles-based company creates such alliances, including an undiscovered-artist search produced with the Grammy Awards for client Hyundai. In its current incarnation, the Grammy Amplifier program pulled in "Uptown Funk" hitmaker Mark Ronson as a mentor to emerging artists and a spokesman featured prominently in the project's ad campaigns. GreenLight has matched Logitech's Ultimate Ears mobile speaker with artists like Skrillex and Lindsey Stirling for social media-based programs, and Under Armour with new bands for sports-themed mini-documentaries.
His competitors, at the same time, have been busy with projects he admires, like the short film from Beats by Dre for last summer's World Cup. The video, called "The Game Before the Game," pulled in an impressive number of global soccer stars, along with cameos from Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj, LeBron James and Serena Williams, against the pounding beat of "Jungle," from X Ambassadors and Jamie N Commons.
The song turned out to be as much a player as any of the boldface names involved.
"That was exceptionally smart," Sandifer says. "It nailed the emotion and it broke those artists in a big way."
High-profile music events like this year's SXSW in Austin, Texas, will once again see brands creating original content with musicians to boost the reach and street cred of both. Luxury retailer Neiman Marcus, for example, will expand its "Make Some Noise" initiative at SXSW, featuring celebrity speakers and performances showcasing women who rock.
Such projects have gathered armloads of ad industry accolades in recent years, and could command their fair share of attention at the upcoming Clio Music Awards, for which Loucks is a juror. Though old-school tactics like radio play are still a critical puzzle piece for musicians, Loucks says, some other rules no longer apply, and the term "selling out" has become arcane.
"Brands are willing to spend significant money to create content with artists, and labels could never monetize that," he explains. "The artists get great backing, and they really need that edge."
The Living Room Series began around a decade ago, somewhat on a lark, with Keith Urban as the first guest. There were no sponsors then, and Urban played an acoustic set with a guitarist, surrounded by candlelight, "bags of chips, M&M's, wine and six-packs," Loucks recalls.
Urban, long before his judging stint on American Idol, was in town at the time to play The Tonight Show and wanted to meet music supervisors from TV series and films. The concert went over so well that Loucks decided to make it a semi-standing gig that grew as he remodeled his house, adding such features as permanent outdoor lighting (in primary colors, of course) that would shine through his living room window, directly behind the artists as they performed. Attendance crept up to 50, then 75, then exploded with The Roots and Florence and the Machine.
The series has since layered in brands including Microsoft, General Motors and Best Buy to add more sophisticated sound, lighting, gourmet food and other amenities.
On-site branding is, by design, subtle—a discreet logo here, an art piece there. General Motors has parked its cars in Loucks' driveway—Cadillac's ELR electric luxury ride for the Sarah McLachlan concert, a Corvette Stingray for Australian rockers The Preatures—while it has staged car-themed decor that adds ambiance, notes Kristen Rubi, GM's manager of grassroots and lifestyle communications. The automaker typically releases bits of the live performances through its social media channels and continues working with the featured artists.
"It's a really lovely way for us to tap into Southern California culture," says Rubi, who also oversees the brand's activity at well-trafficked events like the upcoming Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif. "It's so authentic and so L.A."
Microsoft has been so pleased with its four-year sponsorship of the Living Room Series that it has spun off its own small performance space, the Microsoft Lounge, in nearby Venice Beach, for buzzworthy young bands. The company embeds its latest technology in and around the shows, allowing the artists and tastemakers to see and experiment with it. Even the mention of the brand's name in connection with an artist on the level of Lennox makes it a worthwhile venture, explains Shawn Sanford, the brand's senior director of lifestyle marketing, because "this is an experience you can't possibly get anywhere else. It's always hit above its weight class as far as ROI."
Calling Loucks a "musical cultural soothsayer," Sanford credits the talent agent with introducing the brand to U.K. singer-songwriter Kindness and songstress Laura Mvula for the Microsoft Lounge series, "so we can say we knew them when—we were supporting them before they broke into the mainstream."
The Living Room Series is just one of Microsoft's music-based programs, with the brand staging in-store performances and providing young artists with tools like Windows and Xbox. In April, a project called Evolution of an Artist, produced with GreenLight, will recreate Allen Stone's rise in the Seattle scene, hopping from 300-capacity clubs to the city's most hallowed music halls.
"Because music is such an evocative tool, how you experience it is really important," Sanford says. "We're working to create those cool experiences."
No stranger to stadiums and massive stages during her celebrated career, both solo and with longtime partner Dave Stewart in '80s chart-toppers Eurythmics, Lennox performed during the Living Room show with a simple piano, drums and bass accompaniment. Dressed in a trim, black suit, she let out the full force of her famously soulful voice, which had the power to fill any spot not already taken up by a warm body. She left the captivated crowd wanting more, which, she says she's learned, is "a good philosophy."
She wanted to do the concert because it allows "like-minded creative people to meet each other in a really inspiring and relaxed context." The size of the venue isn't important, she adds, because "it's all about communicating with people in a way that connects the room and makes everybody feel something."
Because it's at his own home, Loucks still caps shows at just a handful each year. Next up: rapper, actor and recent Academy Award winner Common.
While his Living Room Series has a distinct L.A. vibe, Loucks plans to expand it to San Francisco, putting musicians under the same roof with Silicon Valley denizens, "a whole new creative group of people working on the frontier of everything," as he puts it.
"I just had to find the right house," Loucks reports. "And I finally did. It has a real edgy, rock 'n' roll feel."