If you were in line for the Fergie show two Sundays ago at the House of Blues, you probably picked up on two things: the excitement of the club-casual crowd and the hum of corporate synergy. None of us had to pay money to get in–a few tickets had been given away to the general public in radio promotions, but the rest had gone to fans who bought Verizon-enabled Motorola phones, downloaded Fergie content through Verizon’s V Cast media marketplace, or won them in contests held by Candie’s and Kohl’s or at brick-and-mortar Verizon outlets.
Inside the venue there was no possible sight line that didn’t intersect a poster, placard, or video screen carrying one or more sponsors’ logos. After the opening band’s set, an immense screen dropped in front of the stage, displaying text messages sent by concertgoers and still more logos. And that was when it wasn’t showing actual commercials. Even before the fashion show by Candie’s and Kohl’s, even before Fergie’s onstage shout-outs to the sponsors, I started to feel exploited. And I thought to myself: I’m watching the concert of the future.
As the music industry struggles to adapt to the changes forced on it by file sharing and the Internet, big labels are becoming inhospitable places for all but the hugest stars. Album sales continue to decline, profits are more or less flat despite increases in single-song downloads and ringtone sales, and blogs that can leak new music with impunity are stealing the promotional thunder from commercial radio. The majors, feeling threatened, are shunting more and more of the financial risk of selling music onto the artists, shrinking advances so that bands run out of money before they see any royalties. Labels are taking fewer chances on up-and-comers, and they’re flat out dropping bands left and right–EMI’s recent merger of Virgin and Capitol, for instance, was followed by a purge of both their rosters.
In this environment, corporate sponsorship–once the domain of geezer megabands like the Rolling Stones and the ultimate sign of artistic bankruptcy–and its close cousin, music placement, are increasingly seen as acceptable ways for young groups to break or for established acts to sustain themselves. For the past couple years Scion, Toyota’s youth-targeted model line, has been sponsoring shows by hip-hop heavyweights like Redman and GZA, and tickets to Mary J. Blige’s date at the House of Blues last November, cosponsored by American Airlines, were only available to Citibank cardholders. In 2003 Detroit garage weirdos the Clone Defects got a nice payday when Mitsubishi bought one of their songs for a TV ad (the company’s also used the Buzzcocks and the Fall), and the Dandy Warhols were able to buy a quarter of a city block in Portland thanks in part to a massive overseas Vodafone campaign in 2001 that used their tune “Bohemian Like You.”
It’s hard to say what counts as “selling out” these days, even for the dedicated punks and hip-hop heads most likely to deploy the phrase. Corporations want the credibility that comes with the music they’re co-opting, so an artist doesn’t have to tidy up to win their patronage. And letting somebody pay you for the use of music you would’ve made anyway is hardly the taboo it once was, in part because such deals have become so ubiquitous. Musicians get exposure and buy real estate, and when companies sponsor shows, fans benefit too, getting free tickets, downloads, and merch, along with other perks. The music industry might end up rescued by corporations that make everything but music.
Indie bands, once firmly enjoined by the DIY ethic of the underground to steer clear of capitalist devils, have been well represented among the beneficiaries of corporate largesse–probably because they’re relatively cheap. When the Shins released Oh, Inverted World on Sub Pop in 2001, they were a typical Sub Pop-size act, making waves on the indie scene but not in the mainstream. They got their big break not from a daring radio programmer who saw their potential or a viral video that made the leap to MTV but from a McDonald’s commercial that used their single “New Slang” in 2002, exposing them to an audience much larger than the one Sub Pop’s promotional efforts could’ve reached. (The Garden State soundtrack didn’t hurt either.) Oh, Inverted World and its follow-up, Chutes Too Narrow, sold about a million copies put together, and the band’s third album, Wincing the Night Away, debuted at number two on the Billboard 200 in late January. It’s sold more than 400,000 copies to date–massive numbers for an indie release. The Shins obviously know they’re getting juice from ad appearances–since the McDonald’s spot aired, they’ve licensed songs to the Gap and, in Ireland, to Guinness.
Even Sonic Youth–the gold standard for indie-rock incorruptibility, their major-label deal notwithstanding–recently let it slip that they’re putting out a celebrity-curated best-of CD available exclusively through Starbucks. Considering that releases from the coffee chain’s imprint, Hear Music, routinely sell well enough to compete with records from the band’s own parent label, Universal Music Group, it’s a savvy business decision, and Sonic Youth have certainly accumu-lated enough cred to weather the dis-approval of their moreorthodox fans.
Bands with older listeners–folks more likely to hold on to their old-timey indie ideals–have to brace themselves for that sort of backlash when they make compromises. Wilco is licensing songs from the new Sky Blue Sky for use in a series of Volkswagen commercials, and an entry on the Wilco fan forum Via Chicago titled “The inevitable sell out post” has provoked 41 pages of debate. The band defended the decision at wilcoworld.net: “This is a subjectwe’ve discussed internally many times over the years regarding movies, TV shows and even the odd advertisement,” they wrote. “With the commercial radio airplay route getting more difficult for many bands (including Wilco); we see this as another way to get the music out there. As with most of the above (with the debatable exception of radio) the band gets paid for this. And we feel okay about VWs. Several of us even drive them.” Corporate-connected acts with predominantly younger audiences, onthe other hand, don’t spend a lot of time apologizing for making money–punk rockers are supposed to beespecially hostile to the Man, but music consumers in the 15-24 demographic grew up watching punk, emo, and metalcore bands on the Vans Warped Tour, Rockstar Energy Drink’s Taste of Chaos tour, and the Honda Civic Tour.
If you remember the days when it was tantamount to treason for an indie rocker to sign to a major label, you might feel like commercialization is eroding a vital but intangible spirit and polluting the noble ideal of art for art’s sake. But people who make music for a living have always needed to support themselves somehow, and they have to change with the industry that pays their bills–if they can’t stay safely in the black by playing gigs or selling records, some of them are bound to choose licensing deals and sponsorships over day jobs or credit-card debt.
And the corporations–what do they get out of the deal? Well, less than a week after Fergie, I saw the Walkmen play Taste of Randolph Street. They’re one of my favorite bands going, and almost every one of their songs is tied in my mind to a certain time and place, the way all my favorite songs are. But when the piano riff that opens “We’ve Been Had” started up, all I could think of was the Saturn commercial I heard it in back in 2003.
For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): The Shins; Sonic Youth.