To corporate America: A love Note.
Re: rebranding strategy.
At the beginning of last summer I found myself standing backstage at one of the largest music festivals in the US deeply regretting my decision to wear black skinny jeans. I was sweatier than cheddar in a green room and so was the band I’d been hired to tour manage, and they were about to walk onstage in front of 6,000 equally sweaty festival goers. Despite the heat, it was an exciting moment. After years of half-empty venues, overnight drives, eating off dollar menus, sleeping in shitty motels, missing rent payments, destroying relationships, and generally living in squalor, the band was about to play a potentially game changing show. I needed to get to work.
Before a show, I’m supposed to line check the bands gear, make sure everyone’s on-stage rider is taken care of, communicate with festival staff and do anything else that ensures the band will give their best possible performance. But I wasn’t doing any of those things. I was on the phone talking about sweet shaved ice. You see, a few weeks prior to this moment the band was approached about a branding opportunity with none other than 7–11’s patented brand of forgettable cold sugary beverages, Slurpee. After almost a decade of tour managing I’ve become appropriately suspicious of the word “opportunity,” especially when used by a large corporation. In my experience, the brands are usually trying to increase their presence on social media and get free publicity through bands that have loyal followers. 7–11 proved to be no different. Initially we were offered some free Slurpees in exchange for a few social media posts. Nobody cared about Slurpee, but whatever, sure. But then the Slurpee bigwigs figured out we were playing a festival they had a “presence” at and suddenly the requests changed. On the day of our performance, we were presented with the following list of Slurpee requests.
- Allow a Slurpee employee to come backstage and snap photos for Slurpees’ Snapchat.
- For the band, while onstage, to give a shout out to the Slurpee truck and let everyone know they would be at the Slurpee truck after their performance. They wanted the band to Tweet this announcement as well but would settle for one or the other.
- Walk to the Slurpee truck and hang out after performance.
- Go to the press tent after that and get interviewed by Slurpees’ partner, Complex Magazine
And what did the band get in return? What was the sweet carrot dangled at the end of the corporate stick as compensation for humiliating themselves on stage, compromising their integrity and spending the immediate aftermath of one of the biggest shows of their careers to date being interviewed about Slurpees at the Slurpee truck? An app on their phones giving them some free Slurpees. Unfortunately the head of branding at our label had already agreed to most of this so it fell to me to call up the Slurpee rep on the ground and break the bad news; Slurpee would get no backstage passes to our performance. The band would not shout out the Slurpee truck onstage, nor would the band rock on over to the Slurpee truck and get interviewed about Slurpee after the show.
I tried to break it to him gently. The Slurpee representative took a moment to compose himself. I could practically taste the sense of entitlement and lack of understanding.
Why? Why on earth would the band not like to participate in all things Slurpee before and after one of the most important performances of their career? I could have told him that we didn’t have time, which was true, but that wasn’t the real reason we would not be heading to the icy sugar truck. I could have told him we had a previous engagement. We did, but that was beside the point.
A list of plausible excuses cycled through my head, but while I was calmly explaining that none of this was going to happen, he got angry and demanded an answer. Reaching some subconscious breaking point, I simply told him the truth. I told him that the band would not be participating in Slurpees’ activities because they didn’t want to. They don’t drink Slurpees, nor do they have any particular connection to Slurpees, and so there is no valid or compelling reason for them to participate in any promotion for Slurpee, especially if the only payment rendered would be in the inflation-prone currency of Slurpees.
The rep practically leapt through the phone. The desperation of answering to a higher up that had been sold on this boondoggle of a marketing plan with unsatisfactory results was too much for him to bear. He broke out the big guns; he threatened to cancel our free Slurpee vouchers. Ah the ole Slurpee and switch, a classic technique in hardball negotiation. I carefully weighed the pros and cons of my response. “We don’t care.” And then I hung up.
I didn’t want to be rude, but I’d had enough. It was irrelevant that this individual had to answer to a furious Mr. Slurpee. What they were asking for was excessive and inappropriate, but they’re unfortunately accustomed to getting away with it. I went back to our record label, individuals that should have the bands best interest at heart, and expressed that the band, the people who actually make the songs and drive back and forth across the country playing them, do not want to be a part of 7–11’s campaign. The label fought back. They made it clear that we still had to complete the interview with Slurpees’ affiliate Complex magazine. We were told that this was a regular interview and that despite some small affiliation with Slurpee, the interview would be about the music. The band relented, and after slogging through a gaggle of media while forsaking food in the punishing heat, the sweaty, exhausted and hungry boys sat down to do the
interview. Few questions in, “what is your favorite Slurpee?”
Whether it’s Quiznos’ #toastyontour campaign, Taco Bells’ #Feedthebeat, Pennzoil’s #Backseatpass, Sour Patch Candies’ #sourpatchhouse, American Eagle AEO Concert series or, Mcdonalds’ SXSW showcase (perfectly summed up by Ex Cops) etc. corporate America perceives broke midlevel bands with large social media followings as easy prey to help rebrand themselves and grow their own “online presence” and “authenticity”. While this can be a beneficial and symbiotic relationship it has all too often become a way for companies to get a variety of niche celebrity endorsements without actually paying for them. This is unethical and it needs to stop.
Exposure on the multitude of online platforms has become one of the most important tools of attracting audiences to live shows, but touring, at least initially, is still an incredibly difficult lifestyle to sustain from both a physical and financial perspective. Bands need any help they can get. A band grossing upwards 100k could still lose 20–50k each tour from arguably inescapable costs. I understand if you find many of the costs around touring unnecessary but I assure you most of them are not the whims of a precious artist. At a bare minimum the artist must have instruments to play, a vehicle to transport them from gig to gig, and hotels to sleep in; all of which cost money. And unless you like to spend your hard earned dollars on a concert that starts late, sounds like shit, and features the artist setting up their own gear in an exhausted state of frustration; They need a crew to get them to the venue on time, mix their sound, and set up their instruments.
There are notable exceptions to this like Mac Demarco or Deerhoof, larger artists that tour on the cheap, but I assure you this is unsustainable for many of your favorite bands and their crews. I’m expecting criticism here from proponents of very DIY touring. I support DIY touring but not all tours are meant to be DIY tours.
Contrary to the perceived wisdom imparted through VH1 documentaries the majority of touring bands are not spending their money on piles of coke and flying in beluga caviar. I’m touring with a band now that is grossing 2–3k USD a night on tour and getting eaten alive by bed bugs in sweaty post show motel rooms, only to wake up to find out they are being evicted/kicked out of their apartments back home. Bands drive 6–10 hours a day, load in, sound check, try to find food (with any luck, they’ll have a Quiznos voucher), play the show, meet’n’greet fans, load out and drive to the night’s accommodation, and then do it all over again the next day. They do this because it’s the only way to stand any chance of achieving some level of success. Any opportunity to make or save money starts to look desirable, if not irresistible. At the crucial moment when their labor is beginning to pay off in a real fan base, but the harsh economic realities of touring 9 months out of the year are becoming unbearable, Taco Bell shows up.
Glimmering like a knight in grade F(uck) taco meat and Dorito armor, TB offers a deal. In return for butthole ruining tacos and POW level dysentery they want “a few”, just a few, social media posts. AND THEY GET IT. Bands accept this shitty deal because they’re hungry. Literally, they are hungry.
This same band that was involved in the Slurpee debacle was recently asked to participate in Quiznos’ comically titled #toastyontour campaign. It started out a lot like the Slurpee partnership. In exchange for a few social media posts the band would get $500 in free sandwich vouchers. Quiznos isn’t terrible so it seemed harmless. Wrong. After a little while, Quiznos determined that the social media posts were insufficient return for their precious vouchers, so they requested that the band do a live performance at a Quiznos in Denver. We were asked if getting the band in a photo behind the fucking sandwich counter was possible. Come on now. The label, again, was wondering why a band that was selling out major venues across the US didn’t want to play a free show in a sandwich shop? “It’s harmless and could offer fans an unforgettable experience to engage with the band,” they said. Do you know what is also a great way for fans to have an unforgettable experience with a band? By going to their concerts, and buying merchandise and participating in any of the actual events where the band makes money and can therefore continue to exist.
Corporate sponsorships are not always a bad thing. If a company like Fender wants to sponsor a band and supply them with quality amplifiers it makes complete sense. The real issue is that companies who have nothing of worth to offer bands are getting thrown in the mix and look to milk these relationships for all they’re worth, even when the bands don’t give a shit about or even like the product in question.
We live in an age where the general public is sufficiently aware of the economic/financial challenges, due to a decline in music sales, facing any band trying to “make it” that the previously unforgivable sin of selling out has become permissible…. to an extent. When I was working with a band called Neon Indian, he was offered a branding deal with Mountain Dew that was quite good. He was given more money than we’d ever seen to record a song with a producer of his choice. Prior to this, Neon Indian had made all his music in a bedroom studio scrapped together with loans from friends and money saved from odd jobs. Mountain Dew was giving him the chance to enter a real studio and work with a real producer. He did it. It backfired. Alan was pictured on the blog Pitchfork with a mountain dew in front of his face. He was humiliated, mortified. But what were his options? He needed the money, and they were the only ones opening their wallet.
So what can we do?
If you are the artist? If you work for the artist?
If you are able and willing to sell the brand you created and your artistic integrity, whatever that means to you, do it, but do it for money. Fuck free cheeseburgers. Fuck free sandwiches. Fuck playing for free unless it’s a good show you really want to do. We need art, and sometimes artists need patrons, I accept that. Throughout history, great artists have had to compromise on occasion in order to create their art. If you find yourself in this position, just make sure you are actually getting something you want or need in return for the use of your name and image. If you are in a band and employ management make them hop on the phone with these companies and negotiate for money not food. Asking these rich and powerful corporations to do the right thing by paying artists for access to their fan bases is worth a try but I wouldn’t hold my breath, change must come from the artist side. If you manage a band, work for a label or are in a band, take the major chain gift cards that are unhealthy or unhelpful to you throw them out the window of that van and never look back. Work with brands either willing to pay you what you deserve, or that can offer you something that is of actual value to you. If they are unwilling to do either of these things just say, “NO!”
If you work for a company that seek band endorsements?
I don’t care how many lounges you set up at festivals with phone charging booths or how many limited-time-only food vouchers you may provide. You have the money, so why not do the one thing that will actually help the bands you want to work with? PAY THEM. You are asking hard working and talented individuals for access to something they built and nurtured — dedicated fan bases — so you can use it for your own marketing purposes. You would pay an advertising agency to make you a new campaign that probably wouldn’t be half as good or seen by a fraction of the people that would see one Instagram or a tweet from a popular band. Stop regarding these bands as unpaid interns. They might not have a normal 9–5 job, and they may not get up and put on a suit every morning, but they work incredibly hard and deserve compensation, monetary and otherwise, for letting you share in the fruits of their labor.
So if you ever find yourself getting a phone call from a tour manager, their manager, or someone in a band, and they say they no longer want to participate in your promotion and it has put you in a tough spot, let me give you some advice: offer them more money.