Art & Commerce: In Perfect Harmony

As I wax nostalgic for ’07, it’s clear that the profile of music in marketing has ascended to new heights in the press, the branding equation and even in the awareness of a once-oblivious consumer. Let’s check out some events that tickled the collective consciousness:

At the Grammy Awards in February, a telling moment occurred, when Tony Bennett, alongside Stevie Wonder, picked up the trophy for Best Pop Collaboration With Vocals for “For Once in My Life.” When Bennett thanked his “wonderful” sponsor, Target, I couldn’t help but notice—yes, I was there— the floor-seated VIPs snickering. Isn’t it ironic that these 30-, 40- and 50-year-old players don’t even realize how ahead of the curve Mr. B, at the mere age of 80, actually is? Couldn’t one argue that the music from Target’s advertising hits as many eardrums as the music from radio?

Given Disney’s off-the-charts successes with the Jonas Brothers, Hannah Montana and High School Musical 2, sealed by 360-degree, all-encompassing deals, as well as a TV channel dedicated totally (with no outside advertisers) to that which is Disney, the major labels are attempting to follow suit. The “Disneyfication” of recording contracts has led record industry moguls to call their music companies “media companies.” Are they delusional? Now only if MTV played music videos again! Why would an artist give shares of the merchandise, touring money and other income streams to a flailing recording label when they might be able to secure a nice deal with a brand or another “player” in the shifting music business?

Ask Madonna, who left her longtime contract with Warner Music Group for a 10-year, $120 million deal with the concert masters Live Nation. The agreement includes merchandise, touring and the distribution of music for the 14th most popular artist of all time. As has been her want, Madonna seems to have once again waxed futuristic.

The Eagles released their first album in nearly 30 years exclusively through Wal-Mart. It sold 710,000 units in its first week, trumping even Britney Spears’ new release. Billboard reversed its rule forbidding albums exclusively sold at one retail outlet from hitting the Billboard 200, and decided, right before the Eagles went to market, to allow such releases to appear on its chart system. Billboard’s brand-name charts, regarded as the industry’s gold standard, were in danger of appearing out of sync with the business, and they made a laudable change to their system. Additional evidence that the premiere music industry magazine is in tune: Billboard also has a column called “Making the Brand.” [Billboard, like Adweek, is a unit of the Nielsen Co.]

The innovative Radiohead price plan whereby the band offered its latest release via digital download on a pay-what-you-wish scale was the talk of the town this fall. At last count the average price was 77 cents per song. Perhaps in the future, consumers interested in a song from an ad they’ve just heard or seen will be able to download it for whatever they wish on the brand’s Web site. If you consider that most artists are “selling in” to increase sales, then this may be a very sound move.

Our living version of Mozart, Paul McCartney, signed a special deal with Starbucks, in which the company’s Hear Music imprint, in an alliance with Concord Records (owned by Norman Lear), released his latest album, entitled Memory Almost Full. The album debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard charts, aided by one track’s use in an Apple iPod spot. Other artists, such as Sonic Youth, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and Sia, have sipped the Starbucks Kool-Aid as well. Some have argued that the captive listeners lined up to spend mucho dinero on warm caffeinated drinks are part of a shrinking demographic that still buys CDs, as opposed to younger people who download. Starbucks countered in October with 50 million free download cards for a “song of the day” with the purchase of a double latte. Only time will tell which scheme will prevail.

Some have called Rihanna’s Cover Girl deal the branding event of the year. Not only is she a Cover Girl spokeswoman, but the cosmetics maker used her summer hit “Umbrella,” as well as footage from the music video in her broadcast TV ad. She plugged her new album in the spot as well. Additionally, her video was released on a proprietary Cover Girl Web site, bookended by the ad and a few words from the artist about the brand. Industry insiders want to know if this really accelerated a known-to-be-a-hit song’s status.

Recently Bob Dylan appeared in a TV ad for Cadillac, where his very presence seems to dwarf the car: Can you say disconnect? A few years back, he did he same thing in two very “interesting” TV ads for Victoria’s Secret. Big-name artists, like Dylan, are themselves established, high-level brands that need to be protected. When they’re associating themselves with another brand, you don’t want a collision, and Dylan is guilty three times over.

The artist known as Feist had huge Billboard and iTunes chart successes with the song “1-2-3-4” that busted into public notice through an iPod ad, kind of like the way Dirty Vegas’s song “Days Go By” had a big sales spike due to continued exposure on Mitsubishi ads a few years ago. Staten Islander Ingrid Michaelson saw some chart success from the use of her song “Keep Breathing” on Grey’s Anatomy, followed by Old Navy’s use of “The Way I Am.” Last week a manager told me that his artist had a fine year because she had a Grey’s usage, two other TV placements, one decent ad placement and an inside track into Starbucks. Is that what an artist needs to make it these days? Taken a step further, shouldn’t the advertiser of such impactful TV commercials and programs demand that artists whose songs are used in their domain pay for the privilege?

Let’s just change the fee structure—who’s game?