A few years ago I remember walking up Kingsland Road in Shoreditch to see Banksy’s “Turf War” exhibition. This was in the days before the Bristolian graffiti artist’s work changed hands for five-figure sums at Sotheby’s, and he was still regarded as a renegade. Nevertheless, halfway up the road, in foot-high letters, were the words “Banksy is a sell-out”.
Bearing in mind that spraying graffiti can land you in prison, and that police shut down the exhibition (which featured, among other things, graffiti-covered live cows and a smashed-up police van) after two days, this sentiment seemed a bit harsh. Selling out, it seems, is a relative concept.
When Guy Hands announced that EMI would be turning its attention to sponsorship as a potential long-term vehicle for its artists, reactions from both sides of the fence were predictably suspicious. A little like the world of graffiti, artists’ underground credentials are often seen as key to their integrity, and music fans were predicted to be up in arms at the idea of such partnerships. Likewise, for brands, ill-considered dalliances with music could be seen as cynical commercial exercises, doing little to endear them to those they wish to impress. So why should either party seriously consider it?
Twenty-seven years ago, JWT’s Stephen King laid out three fundamental criteria for successful brands that remain relevant today: they should have a coherent totality, conveying a strong identity; they should appeal not only to reason but to the senses and emotions; and they should spring to mind easily. If you consider music as a communications tool, it ticks these boxes with remarkable precision.
Music can communicate a range of attitudinal and demographic information, without images or even words. This means it can make a complex point in an instant, conveying a non-rational proposition and communicating at an emotional rather than logical level. Likewise, physiologically, music directly affects the brain’s arousal systems, making our responses to it involuntary and automatic. People use it to alter moods and emotions, and it can contain an array of associations – people, places and events – that embed themselves in our brains forever. It is easy to see why a brand would benefit from becoming one of those cues.
For artists, especially in today’s music industry, the idea of financial and marketing support from a brand is more compelling. We recently undertook an extensive study into the relationship between bands and brands, which identified fresh attitudes to the idea from artists. As WPP’s worldwide creative director Robin Putter put it: “How many rock bands are there that need promotional money? Thousands.”
The question for both brands and artists is how to make the relationship work, for it has little in common with the concept of event sponsorship. It is one thing to hold an event like T in the Park or the V Festival, but quite another to build a longer-term commitment to artists’ careers.
And yet, historically, this kind of affiliation is not as alien a concept as it might appear. Consider, for example, the relationships between artists and the aristocracy during the Renaissance. Many great works we admire today would almost certainly not have existed without the patronage that was commonplace at the time; and it is this kind of approach that may well mould future activity.
The key to success is a commitment to realising the artist’s vision. Denzyl Feigelson, chief executive of Artists Without A Label, put it like this: “It isn’t about using a song or an artist, it’s about being a genuine patron of the arts and the artists.”
Brands, therefore, must take on a new attitude when embarking on a venture with music – asking not only what works for your brand but also what will work for the artist and for the consumer. The last thing any brand should do is demand that an artist toes some kind of commercial line. This would satisfy neither band nor brand because it is the artist’s output on which the relationship will ultimately be judged.
Far from sounding some kind of death knell for creativity, we could instead be seeing the beginning of a golden era in partnerships between music and brands. And that is not selling out.
Giulio Brunini is chief executive