“Sellout.” An insult, a pejorative, a nail in the coffin, a death sentence for a band. The worst possible outcome for a band or artist. Why? Music, in the eyes of the record-buying public, is about being “real.” Money isn’t real. Money destroys the real, destroys the integrity, destroys the art.
At least, that’s what consumers think—or what popular culture says consumers think. Yet the reality for bands and their fans is that “selling out” is a spectrum; artists can both succeed financially and stay true to their music and their audience. If the record-buying public is going to buy fewer albums (sales are at an all-time low, again), we all have to accept that bands need to find alternate ways to fund their ventures.
For some, Kickstarter is a good option. But, believe it or not, brands—the seeming enemy of bands and their “realness”—are another option, and often the right one, for making great music and creating an enjoyable, useful product for consumers. If brand–band partnerships are done well and honestly, both parties can come out of the recording studio with an amazing new product.
The key phrase to consider is “what couldn’t be done otherwise.” Brands can help bands (or solo artists, or collectives, or ensembles) create something that, without the backing of a company as producer, simply would not have come into existence.
Take, for example, Beck’s reimagining of “Sound and Vision” by David Bowie. Lincoln began a series called “Hello, Again” for which they recruited musicians to reinterpret familiar songs. It’s not an unknown concept—covers and cover albums are already in the toolbox for nonprofits like RED looking to raise money. Beck had quite the backing band: over 160 musicians, from electric guitarists and a gospel choir to African drummers, from harpists and yodelers to a full symphony.
This project—shot with a 360-degree high definition camera—is the epitome of “what couldn’t be done otherwise.” It’s immersive and sounds beautiful, almost overwhelming in its largeness. There’s no way Beck could have done that on his own. And Lincoln has our eternal gratitude for making it happen.
Another shining example of a brand that has successfully partnered with brands is OK Go. The alt-rock goofballs have a finely tuned brand of their own, one renowned for clever, high-energy songs accompanied by inventive, off-the-wall music videos. They practically invented the viral video by dancing on treadmills while their tune “Here It Goes Again” played in the background. I’m sure you’ve seen it. Everyone‘s seen it.
Since then, they’ve been trying hard to top that success by going bigger and better and weirder. And you know what? They’ve consistently hit the nail on the head. For their 2010 video for “This Too Shall Pass,” the catchy first single from their 2010 album Of the Blue Colour of the Sky, the group constructed a giant Rube Goldberg machine, taking up an entire warehouse with LEGO cars, swinging tires, dropping pianos, and numerous other safety hazards. It currently has 44 million views on YouTube, because who else in the world but OK Go would ever be able to build such a thing?
The answer: State Farm.
The insurance super-firm paid an undisclosed amount of money to OK Go and their label, EMI, to take part in the video’s creative development. They got a few fleeting plugs—the tiny red car that kicks off the chain reaction has a State Farm sticker on its side, and there’s a quick thank-you at the tail end of the video—but besides that, there’s minimal branding or visible brand influence on the chaos that goes down.
This video has almost no connection to what State Farm actually does—insure folks for all sorts of things—but it sure does connect to what the company loves—people (and music). People love OK Go, and they love these videos, and State Farm gets in on some of the love as well.
For their follow-up video, “Needing/Getting,” OK Go lead singer and guitarist Damian Kulash Jr. envisioned a car racing through a course where instruments sticking out of the car would strike objects outside and actually play the song, instead of the song playing in the background. As Car and Driver reported, Chevrolet thought this was a brilliant idea. They wanted to be the car in that video, and for somewhere between $500,000 and $1 million, they were: Donating a handful of Chevy Sonics to the shoot, Chevy helped create both a music video for OK Go and an advertisement for themselves.
The branding in this video is a little more explicit, but you know what? They were going to have to drive some sort of car, and it turns out the Sonic was perfectly equipped to strap a bunch of objects to its roof and tear through a closed rally course. And the result—after more than a few takes, I’m sure—is a large-scale exhibit of good music made in a bizarre way. This accomplishes another goal close to Chevy’s (and State Farm’s) heart: appealing to young people. And because the brand integrations are so natural, it doesn’t feel like OK Go is selling out. It feels like the brands are buying in.