The new link between music and fashion

With the decline of music stores, artists are looking for more inventive ways of selling their albums – and many have found a fresh outlet on the high street. Elisa Bray reports
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The Independent Culture

Inside Claire's Accessories, nestled between sparkly hairgrips, shiny handbags and the groups of teenagers trying on primary-coloured heart-shaped plastic sunglasses, is a poster of a pretty blonde girl. She looks like she's modelling, but on closer inspection you see the accompanying words: "Win! the chance to meet Alex and see her perform live in one of our stores". The poster is of Alex Roots, a rising pop star. Later this year, sitting alongside Claire's merchandise, will be stacks of Roots' debut album, Adrenaline Rush.

Roots is just one of several newcomers on independent labels who, without the advertising campaign of a major label behind them, are selling their music via a more creative route – in branded high-street cafés and fashion shops. Paul McCartney raised eyebrows across the music industry when he signed up with Starbucks' label to release his 21st studio album in 2007. He was the first to take the risk, leaving EMI for Starbucks' Hear Music, and paved the way for other stars, including Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon. Smaller artists were also signed up – the label's first newcomer, Hilary McRae, and Zero 7's singer Sia. Until the chain shut down 600 shops last year, it was a failsafe move: that the coffee shop would sell artists' albums across their 13,500 outlets gained them a ready-made audience of millions. Starbucks set the trend that fashion stores are now following.

Gone are the days when pop musicians and their record labels could rely on selling their albums via traditional record stores. The windows of Zavvi and Woolworths may lie empty, W H Smith may no longer stock CDs, and 25 per cent of independent record shops may be lost, but if people have fallen out of the habit of visiting record shops, a new outlet for CDs is now opening up. Urban Outfitters, another American chain, have been selling CDs in-store for years, allowing customers to buy what they hear playing in the store as they browse through the high fashion and vintage clothes racks. And upmarket retailer Agnès B has also sold records by French and African artists. By playing hip new bands, customers can discover new music as they shop, with the music on sale including albums from the indie band The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Ida Maria and TV on the Radio's debut Dear Science.

If it's taken us a while to catch up with America's selling of CDs via retail outlets and coffee shops, that's because the snag to selling CDs in non traditional music shops in the UK – and where a CD purchase comes with a promotional gift – is that the sales are rendered non chart-eligible. In America all sales count. But now that artists are realising that sales and a large fanbase are just as – if not more – important than chart listings, the trend is spreading to UK stores, too.

Anyone who has walked into Topshop's flagship store in Oxford Circus, London, will be aware of their propensity for playing indie music (the fashion chain has been criticised for their indie-music favouritism). Now Topman is joining forces with the largest independent music stores, Rough Trade, which currently reside in East (Brick Lane) and West London (Portobello Road) to sell CDs in store. October should see the first Rough Trade connection within the Oxford Circus Topman, including an edited selection of the same albums of the month for sale at Rough Trade stores, allowing customers to spend less time having to look for recommended new music, and find it before it hits the mainstream. It seems strange this should be limited to their male customers (girls buy music, too), but that will surely follow.

As well as pointing customers towards buying artists' CDs, major fashion brands can raise awareness of music. And it's beneficial to both sides. Last year Scottish pop singer Paolo Nutini backed sportswear label Puma in their campaign, when he appeared in their television, mobile, and radio advertisements singing "New Shoes" from his multi-platinum debut album, These Streets. Nutini was paid for his advertisement appearances and featured in Puma stores world-wide; the collaboration was his label Warner's first push to drive alternative streams of revenue in the face of declining CD sales. "Because we're a lifestyle brand," says Lisa Lindahl, head of European entertainment marketing at Puma, "any sporting event we do, there's a music element to it".

At their recent Jamaican-themed party in Berlin, the south London rapper Roots Manuva, who has long worked alongside the label, performed live. "We look at how the artist fits in with our brand. And we're big fans of Roots Manuva's music," says Lindahl. Puma are also big supporters of African music, alongside many of the African national football teams. At the time of the 2006 World Cup, they put together a mix of African artists for sale at their world-wide stores. More recently, they have launched a collaboration with the Africa Express project, which provides a shared platform for African and Western artists. A compilation album, Africa Express Presents... , with stars such as Björk, Damon Albarn, Franz Ferdinand and V V Brown nominating favourite African songs, is going on sale in Puma stores across Europe. "Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers chose a Femi Kuti track, for example, so we are hoping that Flea's fans will bring more people to Femi Kuti's music," explains Lindahl. "We look at where we feel we can help, that's why we started work with Africa Express."

For brand new artists signed to independent labels that don't have the finances, teaming up with a fashion brand that already has thousands, or millions of followers, could be crucial. Gary Davies, managing director of Good Groove, an independent label distributed by Universal, to which Alex Roots is signed, explains: "You've got to think about everything. Gone are the days where your song goes on the radio and you say, 'yippee, I've sold loads of albums'. For an independent label such as ours, traditional forms of advertising are very expensive – you've got to look for other forms of marketing. We can do things with Claire's you can't do with traditional music outlets, like selling sunglasses with the CDs. With an artist like Alex, she'll have a wide-ranging appeal with a wide-ranging demographic. For months Claire's have played Alex's music across the stores – every hour a song of hers is being played.

"People are still buying CDs, but not in the quantities they bought them before. It's important to look at non-traditional outlets for selling CDs. Hopefully the publicity it's generated, by the time the album comes out, she's not just going to be on a cluttered shelf competing with the other artists."

As for others also partnering with fashion brands, Gary Go has joined with city workers' favourite Thomas Pink, while London band Kish Mauve are with denim brand Lee Cooper, who like to remember their rock'n'roll heritage. The 19-year-old newcomer Anna Leddra Chapman has partnered with the surf label Quiksilver to help launch their first ever range for women. The fashion brand will soon be offering a free track from Chapman plus an album sampler via a code on every Quiksilver garment tag across Europe in the build up to the album release, as well as in-store performances across Europe. The debut album will be sold in-store two weeks ahead of its actual release date in October.

Chapman's manager, Simon Hargreaves, says: "As an independent artist releasing through her own label and without the huge marketing and promotions budgets of the majors, partnering your act with the right brand can be the most essential part of any development or fanbase-building strategy. In Anna's case, what this particular relationship brings to the project is something that most record labels can't provide – immediate promotion and creative support for her career that is purely based on development with no contracts or huge pressure involved. Anna is a totally independent artist with her own label, so it's not about a major record label "hooking up" the brand tie-in to help promote their artist. It's purely about a brand nurturing an artist and helping her – not financially, but creatively – achieve what she set out to do."