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Sharp Darts: Selling Out: The Next Level

Advertisers go from licensing songs to releasing them.

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Kidz in the Hall's new single—a synthy, effervescent reinvention of Special Ed's 1989 semi-hit "I Got It Made"—earned the Chicago hip-hop duo a bit of buzz when it hit the Internet in mid-March, thanks in part to the recent crossover success of their second full-length, The In Crowd (Duck Down). If you're listening closely to Naledge's rhymes, you might catch references to "Pumps" and "Dee Browns," and in the video—a professional-looking piece of work for a group that's still mostly a blog darling, but not suspiciously slick—you might notice that the camera occasionally lingers for a split second on somebody's Reeboks. But sneaker fetishism is so endemic in hip-hop that you could be forgiven for thinking little of it here.

If you try to buy a copy of "I Got It Made," though, the pieces fall into place: Record stores don't stock it. Neither do digital retailers like iTunes. If you want to get the song legally, you have to go to Foot Locker, buy a pair of nouveau-vintage shoes from Reebok's Classic Remix collection, and use the code that comes with them to download it from footlockerunlocked.com. On the site Naledge and Double-0 are rocking SK 7000s that cost $70. The song's exclusive to this campaign, as are new tracks by Kid Sister and up-and-coming Atlanta MC B.o.B.

About two years ago I wrote a column headlined "In Praise of Selling Out," where I argued that the poor health of the music business makes it excusable, if not necessary, for indie bands to license their music or accept sponsorships. It's a way to get corporations working for them, to get the kind of exposure that normally takes a major-label promotional push without major-label creative interference: companies that license music just pick from songs that already exist.

Since then, the synergy of marketing and indie music has evolved so swiftly that selling a tune for use in a commercial or video game seems almost quaint. Marketers aren't just horning in on the territory of record labels' promo departments—they're starting to act like labels.

Because "I Got It Made" was commissioned by Reebok and Kidz in the Hall appear on the Classic Remix site, their personality, image, and credibility are a part of the marketing scheme to a much greater extent than if they'd just licensed a song. And Reebok isn't the only company doing this. Mountain Dew was one of the first brands to take the idea seriously, debuting its Green Label Sound last August with an exclusive Cool Kids song, "Delivery Man," accompanied by an MTV-worthy video, a remix by respected producer 9th Wonder, and publicity push befitting a viable major-label single.

The Cool Kids being the Cool Kids, the Internet lit up when "Delivery Man" dropped, and though some of the talk was about the novelty of Mountain Dew releasing a hip-hop single, most bloggers treated the song like any regular release. The unspoken consensus seemed to be that artists are entitled to do whatever it takes to make a living now that the industry that's supposed to pay their bills is collapsing.

Every Green Label Sound release—its hipster-bait roster also includes Matt & Kim, Kuroma, and Flosstradamus—is available to stream or download free from the GLS site. Users don't have to give up any personal info, submit to an end-user license agreement, or even endure much advertising—Mountain Dew's only conspicuous presence is a logo at the top of the page.

Because ventures like Green Label Sound and Reebok's Classic Remix project don't have to profit directly from the music they release, they could change the game. Numbers for these deals aren't public, and neither Mountain Dew nor Reebok had responded to inquiries by press time. But even assuming they paid on the high side of what halfway-famous indie artists usually get for a license in a commercial or video game—let's say $40,000—these deals would still cost a small fraction of the price of a typical national TV commercial. The Cool Kids and Kidz in the Hall are way cheaper than Kanye, and their fan bases, which the companies are very much buying access to, consider themselves too savvy to be swayed by conventional mass marketing—they're the prized "tastemaker demographic." Mountain Dew would apparently rather be associated with the Cool Kids than with basement-dwelling Halo addicts.

There are benefits for the artists as well. Exclusive original material is more valuable than permission to use an existing song, and they know it. If by selling that exclusivity they're able to get a chunk of the ad budget for a successful brand, it can mean more money than foundering traditional labels can promise to anybody but the biggest stars these days. Companies like Reebok and Mountain Dew enjoy a great deal of freedom when it comes to deciding which of the expenses and reponsibilities of a record label to take on: Green Label Sound had a South by Southwest showcase, for instance, but neither has to deal with tour support, manufacturing, distribution, or even selling music—their sole responsibility is to get their artists exposure, and they can do it however they want. A well-funded boutique operation like GLS can devote its full attention to each release like a small indie label but wield the promotional heft of a major. Given that there hasn't been a single platinum album so far in 2009, it's not hard to imagine business getting so bad for real record labels that GLS could represent actual competition.

Anyone even slightly familiar with capitalism knows that companies getting into indie music this way expect a return on their investment. Reebok doesn't think you'll buy those SK 7000s because you want "I Got It Made," which takes about two seconds of Googling to find hosted elsewhere. It thinks you'll buy them because you associate them with Kidz in the Hall. Mountain Dew is happy to give you a Cool Kids song, provided it reminds you of Mountain Dew when it comes up in your iTunes. They want to buy everything your favorite artists stand for in your mind. For people who take music seriously, that's a painful prospect—but anyone who wants the artists he loves to turn down "dirty" money first ought to delete any illegally downloaded music on his hard drive.

The patronage model does offer listeners some benefits too. In late 2006 Nike released 45:33, a long-form composition by LCD Soundsystem mastermind James Murphy, marketing it as a workout soundtrack to accompany the new Nike+iPod Sport Kit; it turned out to be good enough for cynical indie bloggers to review. Nike didn't even give the song away—it was sold for $9.99 through iTunes—and the company has continued the series with works by A-Trak, Aesop Rock, and the Crystal Method. If subsidizing respected artists (and the Crystal Method) to make sprawling, occasionally challenging works that look completely unmarketable on paper isn't the best way for Nike to spend its money, it's near the top of the list.

Soda companies and sportswear makers are still a small part of the music picture—but journalists aren't writing story after story about the death of the soda and sportswear industries. Musicians who don't want to go the DIY route may start to see being part of a corporate marketing campaign as a palatable alternative to dealing with whatever remains of the record business. Don't be surprised if one of these days you discover a favorite new band through Adidas.

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