Brands and bands

The relationship between bands and brands used to be simple. The company paid some money, the popstars wore the clothes or applied the lipstick and everyone was happy. But with global music sales dropping 8% this year, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, artists now need to look beyond album sales to make their living.

A classical band called Elysium III think they have found a way forward: they are hoping to capitalise on the recession’s trend for “swapping” services by creating a series of brand partnerships to fund 100% of their career, rather than receive backing from a traditional record company.

Corporate sponsorships of musicians are nothing new in themselves. Back in the 1960s, John Lennon claimed he’d been offered $3m to open a range of Beatles-themed hotels by a Texan millionaire; in the 1990s, the Spice Girls are estimated to have grossed $500-$800m in just two years of corporate deals.

But these deals are normally the icing on the financial cake for most popstars. They come along after the artists become famous on the back of a traditional recording contract and performance schedule. Classical group Elysium III, however, who have yet to hit the big time, are not signing deals to earn a few extra pounds. They are hoping to fund all their activities from touring to recording albums without any money exchanging hands.

Ian Brown, who represents Elysium III as a consultant at Bright Artist Management, reveals: “Because we’re not asking for money but exchanging services, it appeals to people in the current climate. We’ve got all these sponsors from cars to hotels who are exchanging their services in return for certain things from the group.”

This is not just your normal situation where bands get sent free products in the hope of some nice PR, claims Brown, who previously helped mastermind the series of “guerilla” webcasts that propelled Scottish singer Sandi Thom to the top of the UK charts in 2006.

At first glance, Elysium III concept appears to follow in the footsteps of a scheme developed in 2006 by Saatchi & Saatchi’s youth entertainment division Gum (now defunct), which touted the idea of a girl group that was to be entirely brand sponsored. However, despite the initial headlines, it never took off.

Brown claims the scheme is no stunt but a carefully managed barter network of partners, including Land Rover and Aftershock London, which allows Elysium III to avoid signing a record deal and profit heavily from their touring proceeds without a record company taking a cut.

The scheme taps into the wider trend of “swapping” that has come of age in the credit crunch. The International Reciprocal Trade Association body reports its membership is up 35% in the past year, with those involved reporting a staggering 80% growth in swapping activities. Examples from the high street include supermarket Asda starting in-store barter boards where consumers can swap items or services; online, people can exchange clothes or books on websites such as Whatsmineisyours and Readitswapit.

“Even the American TV shows are now doing syncs with unknown artists and unpublished songs because it’s so fast. There is little or no money changing hands but the new act benefits from the publicity,” claims Brown.

Just because no money is changing hands for Elysium III’s brand partnerships does not mean the band will end up out of pocket, Brown claims. He insists that Elysium III have already garnered the same financial proceeds from their gigs (the most lucrative part of the music industry) annually – with no record company promotional backing – as other artists with platinum selling albums. 

But while it might be obvious what the group can get out of having every element of their career funded, what’s in it for the brands? Land Rover UK marketing director Anthony Bradbury explains that it’s all about moving into new sponsorship territory.

“We were looking to establish some selective partnerships in the arts sector, to broaden our footprint, as our traditional – and highly successful – heartland is more sports oriented,” he explains. At a time when car companies are looking for ways to market themselves and keep costs down, the idea of bartering with Elysium III offered him an “intriguing alternative approach”.

The exact nature of the partnership is still in evolution but both Brown and Bradbury say it will not simply involve Elysium III driving the car company’s vehicles in exchange for publicity. They plan to develop the partnership. Brown says he has raised ideas such as Elysium III tracks being available for Land Rover buyers to download or even putting music in the car pre-purchase.

Gareth Currie, founder of Gulp Marketing, a music marketing specialist agency, says that complex partnerships characterise what bands and brands need to do together in this day and age. He points to a recent deal between emerging artist Frankmusic and companies MySpace and Blackberry. The singer was dropped in a field and had to get around the UK gigging with a video and social media blog charting his progress using the two technology brands.

Currie says that what Elysium III are attempting is “very cutting edge and should be applauded” but he admits to being cynical about whether this is ultimately going to be a “great PR story” for the band, rather than a new industry business model with further applications.

Trendy clothing label Aftershock London, an Elysium III brand partner, claims that while the band are certainly publicity-focused “brand ambassadors”, it is about more than just PR. The company’s creative director, Dheeraj Harjani, says that he sees the relationship between band and brand having many elements.

While at the most basic level, the band are wearing the clothing label on tour and at photo shoots, the group may also play free performances for the clothing company’s events, model the outfits for photographs to be sent to the firm’s clients, and Elysium III’s tracks may play in Aftershock stores.

Harjani says that while he already has arrangements with a number of pop singers and other celebrities, the tie-up with Elysium III differs because it offers a route into the classical market. The band appeared at last week’s Classical Brits nominations wearing the label.

“We need more genuine partnerships to communicate the brand within the music industry, especially the classical industry where people can hopefully relate fine music with the luxury and quality of our pieces,” he explains.

For all the band’s partners, the personal relationship with the band appears to be a key element of the brands’ involvement. Bright Management’s Brown claims this is another difference from other music industry relationships, which often involve talking to multiple parties, from the label to the publisher.

Many deals between companies and musicians hit a stumbling block due to the complexity of who owns what. Depending on the activities involved, different fees need to be paid to various businesses, including the label, publisher, performing rights organisation and other parties. Getting a band to play a corporate event and then hosting a video of that event on a website along with music tracks might require multiple sets of lawyers.

Jack Horner, creative director of music marketing agency FRUKT, agrees that music can sometimes be a tricky fit for companies. Brands tend to work with long-term goals and deadlines, while musicians have to be more reactive and spontaneous. “Would Land Rover really want a five to ten-year relationship with this band? Musicians can rarely fit their activities and careers to brands’ schedules; that’s why so many sponsorships involve sports teams rather than music artists,” he says.

But shoe brand Strutt Couture’s founder, Ian O’Connor, says the lack of red tape is one reason he was happy to partner with Elysium III. He can even call up the band directly to help keep him “involved”. He enthuses: “I recognised instantly an opportunity as I knew one day they were going to be big news. It’s great to be involved with fledgling careers, as they remember you better when they’ve made it.”

O’Connor says that while his shoes have appeared in photo shoots for girl bands such as The Saturdays and The Pussycat Dolls, the partner­ship with Elysium III is a new type of project as the brand has never previously worked with a classical group. “The relationship we have with them is direct, which makes it extra special,” he adds.

Although having a direct line to the band might help make sponsors feel special, this all sounds like hard work for Elysium III, who must now juggle brand relationships alongside recording music, touring and publicity engagements. Bright Management’s Brown claims that the band members are unfazed by “selling out” to the corporate world.

“They are happy with the particular brands they’ve got. Bands sell out when they sign up with the record company. It’s a corporate machine. Why would you not sign up with brands? It’s quite pure to sign up with companies merely to exchange services and not money,” he says.

He also hopes that due to the more personal relationships between Elysium III and their sponsors, the group will be able to specify that they be involved particularly with ethical businesses. For example, the band are keen to support Land Rover’s greener models, and clothing brand Aftershock’s “strict ethical standards” were important to striking the deal, according to Harjani.

While Elysium III add the personal touch and ethics to the deals, it is up to Brown to keep the companies happy behind the scenes. He describes the management team as the “social workers” keeping everyone happy.

“As with any brand partnership, the company you keep is important, since, inevitably, your brands are likely to appear together and that association should be positive,” notes Land Rover’s Bradbury.

Strutt Couture’s O’Connor agrees: “Brand alignment is a key factor for us. As an example, we do not supply stores that may carry another brand which we feel isn’t the correct fit or price point. The same principle applies to the Elysium III deal.”

Gulp Marketing’s Currie notes that artists dabbling in multiple brand partnerships also need to ask themselves if, ultimately, what they are doing is good for the fans. He says that if the artists are not “striking the right balance between art and commerce”, it could backfire. He also warns that a 100% barter model could lead to negative media coverage in which the band are portrayed as mere clothes horses for brands rather than talented artists.

Elysium III seem unconcerned. Future deals in discussion include a perfume and more tour merchandise. Brown is already in discussions with a hotel chain to cover all the band’s stays during their forthcoming tours. He is working out whether this deal should encompass performances only or further elements.

“Bits of this story have already happened but it’s interesting to see it all come together for one act,” says FRUKT’s Horner. “However, I don’t think it is a new model for the music industry, and it doesn’t feel sustainable for the brands.”

Brown, meanwhile, is taking what he has learned from working with Elysium III onto his other acts. He recently signed up one of his pop acts with a well-known gift and card website, where the musician will provide video content to be incorporated into digital greetings cards.

Despite everything coming together, Brown acknowledges that he is at an early stage with Elysium III’s brand partnership network. If he wants to prove this to be more than a one-off publicity stunt, he will need to make the model sustainable. He claims: “We’re 75% of the way there. We’re going at a million miles an hour. But I’m always open to offers.”

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