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Marketers Must Embrace the Cultural Currency Music Can Deliver, Not Co-opt It

Finding that perfect pitch for brands is challenging

Illustration: Edmon De Haro

No 9-year-old should be memorizing the lyrics to "Fuck tha Police." I see that now.

But that's what I got growing up in the late '80s with older brothers who bought every rap tape ever slapped with a Parental Advisory sticker. I loved all the dirty, dangerous content, sure. But what I loved far more was the cultural currency it gave me (which became actual monetary currency when I rented NWA tapes to classmates for $1 a pop).

Just as with any currency, how we accrue cultural currency matters. We love our favorite artists, and every great love story needs a romantic introduction. The fuzzy AM dial where you first heard Led Zeppelin, the morose kid in your carpool who introduced you to Nirvana, the cousin who stumbled upon an early Eminem freestyle on LimeWire and burned it onto your mix CD, the homemade music video by Odd Future that became a trending topic on Twitter, the first time Sia popped up in your Facebook feed.

Technology and social media are expanding the sources of credible curators in our lives. And more than ever before, brands want to be among those sources—to broker relationships between artists and fans that produce a deeper intimacy between the brand and consumers.

In the age of access to more music than we could ever listen to in 10 lifetimes, credible curators give us a better shot at turning our investment of time spent on new music into a satisfying yield of cultural currency. For many brands, that means placing calculated bets on winners.

No brand today has placed its bets more shrewdly than Beats by Dre. In part thanks to the clairvoyant ear of co-founder Jimmy Iovine, seven of the last 10 songs used by Beats in its advertising went on to earn a top three spot on iTunes. The proof is in the playlists—after Beats' epic World Cup ad, even the crustiest curmudgeons of all things new couldn't not add "Jungle (Remix)" to their workout mixes.

Beats is now cemented as not just a seller of headphones, but also as a dealer of valuable cultural currency between artists and fans. And because success begets success, some artists now bring their music to Beats before their labels. Makes you wonder what kind of world domination might ensue if Beats follows suit with Red Bull Records or Mountain Dew's Green Label Sound? That's not to suggest success relies solely on having at least one full-time staffer who specializes in knowing who will be on the cover of Rolling Stone nine months from now. But boy, it sure does help when you're trying to find Aloe Blacc in a sea of Aloe Whack.

Chipotle has navigated this sea through the creation of conceptually pitch-perfect remixes—first with Coldplay's "The Scientist" performed by Willie Nelson and again with "Pure Imagination" from the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory hauntingly re-envisioned by Fiona Apple. Both forced their way from video soundtracks to iTunes playlists by allowing audiences to simultaneously scratch their contradicting itches for discovery and familiarity. And in doing so, they minted the same class of cultural currency that makes Girl Talk appealing.

Where Beats unearths cool and Chipotle creates cool, many others fail by chasing cool. With the recent announcement of the next Kanye West album, expect to see brands trip over each other to reappropriate Ye's heat for commercial use. That was the case last year when about a half-dozen commercials and movie trailers all seemed to be using "Black Skinhead (Instrumental)" at the same time. "Kanye is cool, we want to be cool, we should get us some Kanye!" Whose brand suffers from this simplistic math?

Not West's. As the stigma of selling out recedes, audiences increasingly sympathize with artists' desire to be heard and get paid. Good news for West, bad news for brands attempting to co-opt the very same cultural currency audiences already discovered on their own organically.

Through the decades, many have tried but none have truly succeeded at composing an original song built on an explicit product message that transcends advertising and competes with pop music at large (with all due respect to the fine folks at Kars4Kids). It's difficult to envision, though I have on occasion wished to bump the audio from Honda's "Grrr" or Melbourne Metro Trains' "Dumb Ways to Die" on my train ride home.

As long as youth culture uses music to explore and define its fluid sense of identity, brands will see the value in the figurative fist bump they receive from consumers for making the introduction. It's the same fist bump I give my big brothers every time I hear "Fuck tha Police," still to this day, and I love them for it. Not unlike brothers, brands love to be loved.

Omid Farhang is chief creative officer of Momentum Worldwide. Follow him on Twitter at @OmidFarhang.

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