It doesn’t take much to annoy Noel Gallagher, but one particular incident in 2005 drew an especially withering response. “Jack White has just written a song for Coca-Cola. End of. He ceases to be in the club. I don’t believe in adverts. He’s meant to be the posterboy for the alternative way of thinking, but Coca-Cola man. Fucking hell. I’m just not having it.”
Back then, the idea of being associated with brands and taking their cash was anathema in an industry where being “indie” was more than just an empty epithet; it remained something to strive for. The frontman of The White Stripes – one of the most critically lauded acts of the early aughts – doing jingles for global corporations seemed like a desecration of all that rock ‘n’ roll stood for, and Gallagher was far from the only dissenting voice. His image as a puritanical artist who closely guarded the integrity of his music – not to mention his alleged $20 million fortune – made the decision even more baffling.
When Brand involvement becomes the norm
But fast-forward thirteen years and the music industry landscape is barely recognizable. Sales of physical albums, even for some of the most acclaimed artists, are a fraction of what they were, and streaming services have yet to make up the shortfall. For many bands, long, punishing tour schedules remain one of the few ways to make ends meet, with merch sales a key component of their income. So it’s no surprise that brand involvement – whether in the form of sponsorship or partnerships – has become not just accepted but the norm.
For the biggest stars, corporate tie-ins have long been commonplace – Google how many different products Kiss have licensed, or that feature The Rolling Stones’ famous lips logo – and today is no different; look at Burberry sponsoring Adele, or Calvin Klein partnering with Justin Bieber. The real change has come from brands keen to support independent and alternative artists, lending their financial muscle to niche scenes that might otherwise struggle to survive. Apple arguably started this trend with their famous iPod adverts, which made overnight stars of hitherto unknown acts such as Chairlift and The Ting Tings, and today brands are practically falling over themselves to be associated with artists considered “cool” or that engage with “the youth”.
“NOT SIMPLY A BADGING SPONSORSHIP”
Outside companies that are intrinsically linked to music, such as headphone and audio equipment manufacturers, clothing, soft drink, and alcohol brands are the main benefactors. Adidas and Converse have done much to support urban music and indie rock respectively, while Red Bull have a radio station, a Music Academy – founded in 1998 – and a long history supporting the Boiler Room series. Ballantine’s Whisky is another brand that’s been working with Boiler Room, a partnership their Head of Music, Tom Elton, describes as symbiotic. “It’s a natural fit for us to operate in the nightlife space,” he says. “And with nightlife comes music, which we know is a huge passion point with our audience of outgoing, sociable millennials.”
The True Music Series came about, he says, because they were looking for a “credible, knowledgeable partner to help connect us with music fans around the world.” Futhermore, they wanted to do more than simply lend their name to a popular event. “We always knew we were looking for something long term and collaborative, and not simply a badging sponsorship,” adds Elton. “For this reason we work closely together on everything, from the artist line-ups to the documentaries, promotional content and everything in between.”
“AUTHENTIC MUSIC EXPERIENCES”
Firestone are another company deeply involved in music. A tyre brand might seem an unlikely ally for upcoming artists, but such support is deeply rooted in the brand’s DNA. Back in 1928, Founder, Harvey Firestone, brought together musicians and music-lovers on the ‘Voice of Firestone’, which gave known and unknown musicians a platform to perform on and an audience to perform for. This radio programme quickly became the most successful entertainment broadcast of its time and in the same way, Firestone wants to “continues to offer authentic music experiences, to all music-lovers across Europe, by supporting emerging talent.”
” This is why we launched ‘Firestone Live’; to connect with music-lovers from across Europe via authentic music experiences.” As well as a dedicated stage at several popular music festivals, they also have listening booths to help fans discover new music, organise year-round concerts and talent shows across Europe to support emerging talent, and host an annual Battle of the Bands competition in the UK – now in its fourth year – to further support the stars of tomorrow.
Talk to brands and the word “authentic” comes up a lot; they want to be seen as doing more than simply scoring cool points in the eyes of the most valuable demographics. To the naysayers, this simply masks every company’s true goal – improving the bottom line. But Ballantine’s Elton stresses this is not the case. “For us, brand advocacy and awareness are as important as the more easily quantifiably results. We hope that through our partnership we can create credible campaigns that enable us to genuinely engage with our consumers, and The True Music collaboration has authenticity at its heart.”
Such trust – and engagement – is one of the core reasons behind their ethos. As Elton explains: “This has a trickle effect to consumers who believe in our brand and respect what we do, which ultimately results in brand love and advocacy for Ballantine’s. And the beauty of a brand partnership, when done right, is it allows us to actually connect and communicate directly with our fans, rather than just ‘at’ them.” He also thinks that such partnerships “go hand in hand” with more traditional advertising, particularly when trying to reach a global audience, and that “everything that we’ve done and plan to do with True Music is to create a bigger impact, not only on artists but on fans and the music industry itself.”
A NECESSARY EVIL
And what of the artists themselves? How do they feel about such corporate patronage? The general consensus seems to be that at worst, it’s a necessary evil, and at best, it’s one of the few ways that genuinely independent artists can survive in today’s industry. Providing brands don’t over-reach themselves and start interfering with the actual art – or express uneasiness with aspects which might not chime with their corporate shareholders – many musicians are happy to have financial support. “At our recent show in Russia, one of our headliners told me in conversation how much they appreciate that the brand doesn’t impose any limits on them or constantly push messaging upon them,” Elton says, highlighting the need for the brand to trust the artist and vice versa.
GENUiNE ETHUSIASM FOR MUSIC AND CULTURE
It would seem that for some companies, such financial support goes beyond mere patronage; it becomes a type of music philanthropy. Ballantine’s have recently launched True Music Africa, which shines a spotlight on the local scenes in South Africa, Cameroon, and Kenya, while last year, The Bushmills Tour sought to bring headline acts to local, independent community venues across the UK. Such projects suggest a genuine enthusiasm for music and culture, and a desire to give something back to those who need help the most. Given the state of the industry, everyone – fans, artists, and labels – has accepted such relationships as not just financially necessary, but helpful. Music – and the arts in general – has to be funded somehow, and if fans are unable or unwilling to do so, we should be grateful that some brands have filled that particular void.