The musicians who dream of joining a rock'n'roll brand

Once they would have been called sell-outs, but today's artists are keen to take the corporate dollar, says Elisa Bray
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The Independent Culture

Last week Apple overtook ExxonMobil as the world's most valuable company. Apple is a brand that has, famously, used music – via the iPod – to escape from being just a computer manufacturer. In the digital revolution, companies are looking to music to help sell their products – and now musicians are looking to them for support.

A month ago, trainers company Converse opened Rubber Tracks, a recording studio in Brooklyn where musicians can record original music alongside experienced engineers, for free. You might be thinking that nothing comes for free. But any musician who uses Rubber Tracks, via the Converse website, keeps all rights to their music.

It's an example of the way in which brands are partnering musicians to support bands and offer the services once provided solely by record companies – only the brand doesn't take a cut of the earnings. For the brand, the benefit is more complex. There's the appearing cool by association, there's the quick marketing hit of mainstream acts performing exclusive shows to boost the brand's profile, while, for brands such as Converse, working with acts at a more subtle, seemingly-philanthropic, grassroots level, there's the hope that, eventually, the artists it supports will grow and, one day, remember the brand that helped them out in their early days.

Fashion brands, energy drinks, alcoholic drinks, cars – you name it, if a brand has even a modicum of cool cred, it's going to be partnering with bands.

Armani's New Bond Street store in London opened its doors to music fans and fashion types when it partnered with major record labels for its Summer Garden series of gigs, showcasing rising artists such as Jess Mills and Tribes. Earlier this summer, Land Rover launched its new car, the Evoque, with performances by Mark Ronson, Cee Lo Green and Paolo Nutini, in which the three pop giants played simultaneously across three time zones, watched by fans in New York, Shanghai and Milan.

Range Rover may be currently one of the most name-checked vehicles in music, but this was the first live event it has put on. Richard Agnew, from its global PR team, says: "Working with musicians takes our brand to different audiences," adding that, like other luxury brands, Land Rover are "constantly looking at new and interesting ways to promote their products through popular culture."

Putting on gigs by stars is one way of gaining brands instant attention, but supporting bands in their earliest days, mirroring the job of a record label A&R, can reap the most rewards. Energy drink Red Bull's partnership does just this. Its academy was set up in 1998 as a school dedicated to working with musicians. Each year it has the unenviable task of sifting through applications from 3,000 hopeful musicians to be whittled down to the two 30-person classes. Included among the class of 2008 was then unknown singer-songwriter Jamie Woon, who recorded his earliest tracks with the Red Bull Music Academy. Likewise, Mercury-nominated Katy B's career rocketed after her stint with the drinks label. The other major success story is the experimental California artist Flying Lotus, who was signed to Warp Records off the back of the songs he recorded at the Academy. Not that such success stories were ever the direct intention.

"We haven't been pushing any of these success stories", says founder Many Ameri. "It's not geared towards having commercial success. We're less focused on developing careers and signing record deals; we're more interested in inspiring their paths. We wanted to bring musicians from different musical backgrounds together, finding a place where people can connect and create a platform where they can learn from each other."

Therein lies the magic of the long-term music partnership. By developing and supporting musical talent, the Red Bull brand has come to be synonymous with music, changing the company's image from its earlier sports links. The word-of-mouth success of the academy says it all – 46 festival stages are curated around the world by musicians, as the Red Bull Music Academy.

"It's not an exercise in creating publicity," says Ameri. "It's more about creating the relationship with people where projects can grow from it. The fact that we believe in long-term involvement in music and building networks sets us apart from mere marketing-activated brand partnerships that are built to have a publicity purpose. People are part of it, then spread the word – so we see we're doing something right."

At a time when artists' main revenues are from live performance, more and more musicians are turning to brands for sponsorship deals. Another brand supporting musicians in a more long-term involvement is alcoholic drinks brand Jagermeister. For Charlie Simpson, who began his career in boy band Busted, his partnership with Jagermeister during the past few years has been invaluable. This drinks brand supports several acts (which included Bullet For My Valentine until their commercial success outgrew the need) giving each act an annual budget to spend on what they chose, whether merchandise, visuals for live shows, music videos or advertising. Simpson, whose debut solo album Young Pilgrim was released this week, used this year's budget to fund his merchandise. And music fans would never know it, bar the unobtrusive Jagermeister logo strategically placed on the hoodies and T-shirts.

Tristan Lillingston, who manages Simpson, says: "Merchandise [is] the lifeblood for rock bands, when you're selling it at a gig, you're getting pure profit. A brand paying a band would be perceived as wrong, but this can make you sustainable, you earn an income as a result of it. It's real grassroots help in a survivalist industry. Especially for rock groups where something like 85 per cent of bands are just touring for the love, it is a massive help."

For many, the merchandise income pays for the next tour. For Simpson, who is releasing his album on an independent label, it's financial support he would not otherwise have. Where controversy used to surround acts signing up to corporate tie-ins, such partnerships have fast become the accepted norm as a way for acts to make up for their falling record-sale revenues.

When it comes to sponsorship, it's up to the manager to make the right pairings with their artist. Simpson is happy to discuss his links with the brand, saying: "With bands it very much depends on whether the brand is in keeping and Jagermeister is very musically aligned."

Still, there are some who believe that corporate sponsorship should stay well outside the creative environment of music. Radiohead continue to avoid all corporate association, while plenty of festivals such as Green Man and End of the Road keep themselves entirely free of corporate sponsorship.

Simon Taffe, founder of End of the Road Festival says: "Even independently brewed cider has a brand of some kind, so of course we're not totally branding-free, but we've never gone in for big corporate sponsorship. Even before I started the End of the Road, being sponsorship-free is an approach I'd always admired in other festivals. It gave the feeling somehow that you were there purely for the experience. Having promo material everywhere can kind of break the spell."

But when a brand supports an artist for the long-term, or when Converse saves a venue such as the legendary 100 Club, and offers free recording to bands struggling to get started, what's to complain about?

Ben Bleet, who partners brands with music as Managing Director of Howling Monkey music consultants, says we may as well get used to it.

"In the coming years brands will continue to move closer and closer to the music industry. Brands have the budgets to fund creative communications and the music and its culture has the content to engage the public. It's not impossible that a brand in the future could fund a promotions department of a record label. It's all part of the ongoing change as the culture of brands and music culture merge."