Live Music on TV Is Experiencing Something of a Golden Age

Awards shows by the numbers

Despite our fragmented, on-demand media landscape, live televised music events—from the to the Billboard Music Awards to the Super Bowl halftime show—are experiencing something of a golden age. These and other high-profile music broadcasts are enjoying a serious comeback, with socially connected viewers tuning in and sponsors like Pepsi, Chevrolet and Samsung signing on for what have become some of the buzziest moments in all of entertainment.

“These types of shows are really experiencing a renaissance of sorts,” notes Brad Adgate, svp of research at Horizon Media. “If you went back five or six years ago, you felt some of these music awards shows were going the same way as beauty pageants, becoming less and less popular, particularly with young viewers.”

Not anymore. NBC, American Express and YouTube have all launched live music events, muscling their way onto an already crowded platform—and all are driven by the promise of brand exposure, social chatter and massive audience numbers.

Take this year’s Grammy Awards, which on Jan. 26 drew an average 28.5 million viewers, making it one of the venerable broadcast’s best showings in decades. Those eyeballs paid off big for CBS, which charged advertisers as much as $1 million for a 30-second spot. All told, ad revenue for the Grammys—which boasts the second-largest TV audience of any awards show, second only to the Academy Awards—more than doubled between 2010 and 2013, to $67.2 million, per Kantar Media. In fact, the Grammys are closing in on top dog the Oscars, whose ad haul for ABC was an estimated $88.3 million last year.

The Grammys aren’t alone. Last year, a roster of televised awards shows—including the Academy of Country Music Awards, the American Music Awards, the Billboard Music Awards and the Country Music Association Awards—all enjoyed their biggest audiences in years. (The Academy of Country Music Awards, the American Music Awards and the Billboard Music Awards are produced by dick clark productions, which, along with Adweek, is owned by owned by affiliates of Guggenheim Partners.)

The success of this programming is all the more notable given the continued erosion of overall viewership for scripted television. “Live events are popular with advertisers because you’re less likely to time-shift, and [more likely to] see the ads in real time,” points out Adgate. “Marketers are not going to be as shy about putting some of their budget on these types of shows for those reasons.”

What’s more, the popularity of these shows and their standout moments (like Miley’s twerk) on social networks has proved a boon to brands looking to extend their messages beyond the first screen. The Grammys netted 13.8 million Twitter mentions around the broadcast, per Nielsen SocialGuide, with a peak of 143,000 tweets per minute during the Kendrick Lamar-Imagine Dragons performance. (By comparison, the season premiere of AMC’s mega hit The Walking Dead this past February drew 15.8 million viewers and generated 1.24 million tweets, with a peak rate of 41,011 per minute.)


To further drive home the point, four music awards shows—the AMAs, the CMAs, the Grammys and the BET Hip Hop Awards—were among the top 20 programs for Twitter mentions overall in the period between Sept. 23, 2013 and March 10, 2014, per SocialGuide. Music awards shows are “a special type of program, a uniquely social experience for the audience,” says Nielsen vp Deirdre Bannon. “When you look at the size of those Twitter audiences, they’re really big numbers, and they’re meaningful to advertisers. … You can also reach large groups of people who are engaging around the program in social media.” (In general, music is a strongly social topic—the No. 1 most-discussed topic on Twitter in the U.S., to be precise. Meanwhile, music videos are the most-shared videos online, according to Unruly Media.)

Naturally, social has become a big part of the draw for sponsors. For the MTV Video Music Awards last August, parent Viacom teamed up with Twitter to coordinate deals for advertisers such as Pepsi, packaging additional content and sponsorship through Viacom’s Twitter channels and tying in paid promotion through Twitter ads. Thanks in part to the effort, the 2013 telecast claimed record revenue—even though the show ultimately drew fewer viewers (10.1 million) than the record 12.4 million in 2011. (The 2013 installment did break the network’s records for digital views and livestreams.)


(When it comes to packing in audiences, TV may actually be better for Twitter than the other way around. SocialGuide’s minute-by-minute study of Twitter chatter for a cross-section of programming—including sports, comedy, drama, competitive reality series and a handful of live awards shows—found that 29 percent of the time Twitter drove consumers to the telecast while 41 percent of the time TV spurred Twitter activity. As Bannon puts it, “It’s a symbiotic relationship.”)

Twitter buzz around live events might actually be of greatest benefit to those advertisers that are not marquee sponsors of the events or those dropping millions on traditional TV spots.

Spurred by Oreo’s Twitter success during the blackout in the 2013 Super Bowl, marketers of all stripes have been flocking to social networks during major telecast events, hoping to catch lightning in a bottle. Arby’s stole the show at this year’s Grammy Awards with a timely Twitter zinger about the resemblance of Pharrell Williams’ Vivienne Westwood-designed 10-gallon hat to the fast-food chain’s logo. Pharrell and the hat became the story that just wouldn’t end. Both Arby’s and the artist milked the linkup for all it was worth, with Arby’s ultimately shelling out $44,000 to buy the hat to benefit Pharrell’s charity. “Brands that find clever ways to use these moments are looking for an opportunity to break through and connect to both passion and plot,” says Lee Maicon, svp of strategy at digital agency 360i. “It’s about being in the right place at the right time with the right idea.”

While Arby’s also ran local TV spots in more than a dozen markets including Birmingham, Ala., during this year’s Grammys, it didn’t invest in a national ad buy. The company has estimated that it would have required $30 million in paid media to get the attention it earned off just one tweet. In fact, that tweet was so successful at capturing the on-the-fly marketing zeitgeist, it spawned an eyebrow-raising kaleidoscope of meta marketing in the form of retweets from other brands, among them Pepsi.

An Arby’s partner and top-five Grammys advertiser, Pepsi this year bought a two-and-a-half-minute commercial block during the awards show dubbed “The Grammys Halftime Show,” to drive awareness of—and squeeze value from—its sponsorship of the single highest-profile live music moment of the year, the Super Bowl halftime show.

This year’s halftime extravaganza during the big game, starring artist of the moment Bruno Mars (along with the Red Hot Chili Peppers), drew a staggering 115.3 million viewers, the largest audience in the telecast’s history. It also generated more than 2.2 million tweets across 12 minutes, peaking at 229,533 tweets per minute, according to Twitter. (That was fewer than the 268,000 tweets a minute Beyoncé inspired during 2013’s halftime show, though 4.5 million fewer viewers watched Beyoncé.)

Infographic: Carlos Monteiro

“We have the biggest platform that we can even think about—why not start pivoting off that and really getting people excited about halftime?” says Javier Farfan, senior director of beverages culture and music marketing at PepsiCo. “We own it—why just sponsor it? Why not create conversation on what halftime means for everybody? It’s about creating that crescendo to the tent pole and getting people excited about what it means to have that big conversation piece. Why don’t we bring halftime everywhere we can, in every way possible?”

Besides the Super Bowl and the Grammys, Pepsi also has forged relationships with the CMAs, the Billboard Latin Music Awards and the CMT Music Awards. Around last year’s VMAs, it partnered with MTV, Twitter and Katy Perry to build buzz leading up to the release of a new track from the singer—who boasts nearly 52 million Twitter followers, more than any other person.

The strategy—creating messages tailored to their context—is one Farfan says the brand will continue to refine going forward, as it returns to the VMAs this August and to the Super Bowl and Grammys in 2015. As he explains, “We don’t use ads the same way anymore. It’s really about content—relevant content, content people care about when they’re watching that specific stuff. It’s about really having the right voice and tone.”

It’s no wonder brands are eager to play in the live music space—good news for a music business decimated by the rise of digital media.

Sponsorship of music venues, festivals and tours by North American companies (not including ad time bought during televised music events) is estimated to grow this year by 4.4 percent to $1.34 billion, per IEG. Much of that comes from soda marketers, which are nearly 10 times more likely to sponsor music events than companies in other categories—with Coca-Cola particularly active in venues and tours, and Pepsi in festivals.


Undoubtedly more brands will link up with events, as data suggests live music experiences drive better returns for advertisers than other types of events. A survey by IPG event marketing agency Momentum found that attending a branded live event—in person, not via telecasts or streaming—was most likely to drive recommendations (65 percent of respondents) and purchases (59 percent) compared to TV commercials, websites, even recommendations from friends. Respondents were also most likely to appreciate music events, with 51 percent indicating they made them feel positive about brands, versus 45 percent for sports events, 42 percent for charity events and 28 percent for art exhibitions.


There’s clearly no dearth of opportunity for brands to make beautiful music with these events. In February, NBC and Clear Channel announced the debut of the iHeartRadio Music Awards, produced by Ryan Seacrest, on May 1, just before the Billboard Music Awards are set to air on ABC on May 18. Music awards shows have even earned themselves a parody. In March, IFC announced the premiere next year of the Comedy Music Awards, produced with CollegeHumor and featuring live performances—one small network’s offbeat attempt to grab a slice of what’s become a rich pie.

And yet, there’s no sign of saturation. Says Horizon’s Adgate, “If you look at the numbers, there is an appetite for these types of shows.”

Of course, as some have learned the hard way, attracting a sizable live audience can be a challenge, especially when you’re just starting out. Last fall marked the inaugural YouTube Music Awards, which featured performances by the likes of Eminem and Lady Gaga and was sponsored by Kia (also a sponsor of the VMAs). YouTube users cast some 60 million votes to determine winners of the awards, and yet a mere 215,000 concurrent viewers reportedly tuned into the livestream at its peak. YouTube declined to say whether it will reprise the franchise this year. It stresses there were 40 million views for the show’s on-demand content, 30 million of them in the week following the livestream.

“Livestreaming in and of itself is a great way to congregate audience in a particular moment, but it’s equally important when building an audience to think about the consumer desires for the way they watch,” says Vivien Lewit, director of content partnerships at YouTube. “Today, there’s the die-hard music fan … who will watch the livestreaming pieces, but there are many, many more who expect they’ll be able to capture a snippet and more bite-sized and in a more time-managed way via a video-on-demand offering.”

Illustration: Carlos Monteiro


Although plenty of brands—among them, State Farm, T-Mobile, Dell, Motorola, Wrigley and Budweiser—have livestreamed concerts and festivals on YouTube, American Express stands out for building a proprietary series around it. Since 2010, AmEx has presented 15 live musical shows through YouTube and Vevo as part of its “Unstaged” campaign, meant to extend to a broader audience the kind of access to concerts it has historically secured for card members. Agencies Digitas, Momentum and PMK•BNC have been involved in “Unstaged” since it began, came on board last year.



The American Express campaign includes a 2011 Coldplay concert, directed by Anton Corbijn, that continues to hold the record for a livestream of a single artist’s performance on the platform (some 19 million views). Late last year, the brand expanded the franchise—previously focused on musical artists and directors—to pair fashion designers with musical artists, presenting Janelle Monáe live during a Fashion Week show for Rebecca Minkoff, a strategy it reprised earlier this year with a St. Vincent-Diane von Furstenberg mashup.

Social-savvy AmEx doesn’t currently sponsor or buy media during the Grammys, and says it evaluates its role in other such programs on a one-off basis. But its focus seems fixed on live-streaming its own events, even taking the strategy beyond “Unstaged,” particularly in the launch of new products. In 2012, the company sponsored a Jay-Z performance at South by Southwest, streamed on YouTube, to promote its Twitter Sync rewards program. In June, it will livestream a concert featuring Maroon 5 as part of its “Everyday Moments” campaign, supporting a new, no-fee credit card meant to encourage small, frequent purchases. 



What are some of the factors American Express considers before partnering with a musical artist? “Most importantly, it is about the symbiosis and the alignment of our brands together, and the alignment of our objectives,” says Walter Frye, the company’s director of entertainment marketing and sponsorships. “We very much want the artist’s album to succeed, and we recognize that this is a promotion platform for their new music. But we also work with artists who are comfortable partnering with a brand in an authentic way to tell the story. So we definitely look at social, we look at their reach, but there are so many factors around genre diversity—making sure that we’re able to reach as many audiences as possible.”

Despite the allure of streaming, nothing quite delivers like the live televised event, with social providing pitch-perfect harmony.

“The nature of live television and those types of events, it’s the time, it’s the moments that people don’t want to miss,” notes SocialGuide’s Bannon. “That’s the beauty of social … [it] allows you to engage in real time and share that excitement with that larger audience. It’s in the moment, the ability to share in the moment. You know, once the awards are announced, the awards are announced.”

At least, until the next show rolls around.  



@GabrielBeltrone Gabriel Beltrone is a frequent contributor to Adweek.