Paying the bills; music and corporate sponsorship

As the industry reboots, corporate endorsements are fast overtaking record contracts as the golden ticket. Is it time you bought into selling out?

Corporate. Even the word makes some musicians queasy. Corporate equals suits, ties, bottom-lines, pie-charts and the grasping pursuit of profit over art, truth and beauty, right? Corporate is everything that rock ‘n’ roll set out to smash, man. That’s easy to say if you’re a retired punk legend, bobbing blissfully around a dollar-shaped infinity pool, paid for by royalties from the pre-Internet golden age. For everyone else, ironically, embracing the corporate world might just be the move that lets you stay creative – not to mention staying alive – as the music industry twists itself out of recognition.

Sales are down. Labels are out. Once-omnipotent high street CD giants are on their knees, while illegal filesharers are filling their pockets. You don’t need to be an economist to recognise that the money – for guitars, drumsticks, studio bills, smashed hotel suites, strippers’ garter-belts – still has to come from somewhere. And these days, it’s coming increasingly via the chequebooks of major international firms, ranging from the logical (Jägermeister, let’s say, or Rockstar) to the unlikely (Range Rover and US restaurant chain Denny’s).

Endorsements as a revenue stream

At all levels of the rock ‘n’ roll food chain, you’d be amazed how many bands are adopting endorsements as a revenue stream. All Time Low teamed up with the Glamour Kills fashion label. Atreyu eat for free at Denny’s. Pause the video for New Found Glory’s Truck Stop Blues single and you’ll clock the Rockstar energy drinks and strategically placed Taco Bell lorry that funded it.

Selling out? The bands involved argue it’s a reciprocal arrangement that suits both parties without compromising anyone’s art (unlike the worst of the old-school labels, who stick their oar into an artist’s sound and image). The company enjoys the rub-off cool of its association with an up-and-coming band, and gets to introduce its brand to a fresh generation of future customers via logos on MySpace pages, kind words on Twitter, maybe even a shout-out from the stage. The band gets free hotel rooms, a functioning tourbus, food, instruments, clothing, or, if they really hit the jackpot, studio time, financial renumeration and prime-time TV appearances (consider the Californian alt-duo Pomplamoose, whose profile was transformed after they performed their take on Jingle Bells in a 2010 Hyundai ad).

Is a record deal still the prize?

A few years ago, a survey by Digital Music News suggested that three in four unsigned acts still prize a record deal above all else. Maybe so, but if the same question were floated now, you suspect the result would look very different. With easy money – or at least payment in kind – on the table, it’s no wonder that for many new bands, winning the backing of a brand like Pepsi or Red Bull is replacing a contract as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

The post-modern music biz

For a good example, take OK Go. When the LA indie-rock band split with EMI after their third album, it seemed like a death-knell – but ultimately proved the start of a thoroughly post-modern career path in which they hand-pick projects dangled by assorted companies. In an excellent piece by Helienne Lindvall for The Guardian website, the group’s manager Mike Rosenthal noted: “I don’t think the band would consider ever signing another record deal – or if that would even be an option. They’re just too interested in other things. Especially now that it doesn’t all have to culminate in the release of a piece of plastic that has their music on it. That model is dead for good.”

It could easily go too far, of course. Today, corporate endorsements are relatively discrete and rarely impact on the band’s work. A decade from now, with the old industry gone, will rock bands be so deeply in the pocket of big-business that they’re forced to write songs endorsing pile cream, or appear in videos wearing jumpsuits embossed with the logo of a pharmaceutical giant? Will our anarchic punk frontmen be little more than the puppet mouthpieces of CEOs, trotting out ‘on-message’ propaganda between songs to earn their payday backstage? It’s certainly a danger. All signs suggest the culture of endorsements is only going to get more and more prevalent. Ultimately, it’s up to the bands who shake hands with The Man to decide how far is too far.