Of all the genres of music in the world, punk has been the one most associated with anti-consumerist credos.
So if anything proves that irony knows no limits, it is the fact that the most commercialized music tour currently is the one most associated with punk: The Vans Warped Tour.
Lest one think that the Warped Tour sponsorship begins and ends with Vans, a skateboarding company that is any obvious fit for the punk aesthetic, consider some of the other sponsors: Elle Girl, Gold Bond, Cingular, Energizer, and Major League Baseball. For the generations of people who remember antipathy as the only correlation between jocks and punks, this may come as a great shock. But it is, more importantly, an example of how music and youth consumers will soften their stances against the corporate world, as long as they get something in return.
Lizz Kannenberg, director of marketing for music marketing firm Immediate Media, has been to the festival recently and marveled at how commercialized it has become.
"You can't get more overbranded than [that tour]," Kannenberg said. "They've got this tent village where bands and sponsors set up booths... Kids walk out of the tent with Target stickers" next to anti-corporate stickers from bands.
She adds: "But patrons relish that there sponsors are catering to them. It's weird."
Kannenberg realizes the marketing appeal. "You can't overlook that. It's an exclusive opportunity to get in touch with 15,000 kids every day."
Sponsors were also in full force at this year's recent South by Southwest (SXSW) festival, where interactive enthusiasts, bands, and filmmakers convened to hold seminars, concerts, and screenings. Most of the music at the festival was of the indie rock variety, a genre whose lineage can be traced to the slacker/grunge rock movement that also had a decidedly anti-corporate stance.
But rock music is still tethered to corporate America. To have an act described as "independent" conveys more an aesthetic than an actual label designation, as many acts supported by the "indie rock" community are, in fact, signed to major labels. And each year, it seems a counter-culture music act has succumbed to advertising. The Who's music graces many a car commercial, Paul McCartney pitches financial investments, The Rolling Stones seemingly play every major cross-promoted national sporting event halftime show, and Bob Dylan appeared in a Victoria's Secret commercial.
The most visible sponsor at the SXSW festival by far was Toyota, which chose the event to launch its Yaris model. At the time, Nancy Hubbell, national strategic news manager of Toyota, told PRWeek that the event's main constituents represented the demographic it most wished to link to the Yaris. And so Toyota worked with DrillTeam, owned by Insound (which also owns music e-tailer Insound.com), to make sure Yaris was ubiquitous, while not intrusive.
At Yaris-sponsored parties, the Toyota team laid on free food, set up its car outside or inside the events, filmed attendees for a forthcoming video blog, set up a Web site highlighting bands' and artists' work, shuttled attendees around, and called itself "Your SXSW buddy." The Yaris website includes pictures of bands, as well as mp3s and videos.
Successes like Yaris' are due, in part, to the agencies like Immediate Media, Cornerstone Promotion, DrillTeam, and AddVice who serve as band and brand go-betweens. The agencies setting up these relationships are born from the music side of things. AddVice's parent company and Cornerstone both own record labels and magazines: Vice Magazine and Vice Records for the former, Fader Magazine and Fader Label for the latter.
Brands need someone, either in-house or an agency, to help navigate these waters and those in this field stress that relationships have to be the right fit.
Kannenberg gives the example of Wendy's, which she says did not seem like an ideal partner until the company announced it wanted to spend $25 million to reinvent itself as a hip brand. But hip is not something that companies can just throw money at.
"In some small part, we're hired because [clients] are not necessarily built to handle that, but they know they need to do it," says Matt Wishnow, president of Insound.
"What's the point of being there if you're not going to execute in the right way?" asks Jon Cohen, co-president of Cornerstone. "If you're going to sponsor SXSW or [music festival] Coachella and your strategy is to put up a banner, you're not going to get anything from that."
Kannenberg explains why agencies such as hers are valuable
"The impetus is to give them something to take beyond the festival gates," Kannenberg says. "You're not going to remember signage. If you give them a reason to go online and interactive with the brand, that doubles the number of impressions you've got. Expanding the reach beyond that day is why you want."
And bands themselves are wise to the fact that good avenues are there for those who are savvy about marketing. Terrestrial radio has been weakened by iPods, free downloads, streaming radio, and bands' own Web sites. Even Immediate Media plays mp3s on its Web site.
For example, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (CYHSY) placed three songs from its self-produced album on its Web site, which eventually found its way to music bloggers, who enthusiastically approved the band's unique sound. The buzz built and the lore of band members actually boxing up and shipping their CDs to over 50,000 adoring fans cemented the online marketing phenomenon. While the do-it-yourself legend may be a bit overblown (it doesn't hurt to have a manager whose daytime job is publicist at Atlantic Records), the result is still powerful.
A much cited statement from Brian Eno is that while the Velvet Underground may have sold only 1,000 copies of an EP, those 1,000 listeners went out and started bands. In 2005, that statement is altered that, in the beginning, there may have been few CYHSY listeners, but they all went out and wrote blog posts. And by the end of the year, The New York Times and other traditional media outlets got around to writing glowing profiles about the band.
Kannenberg says that bands themselves, born of the MySpace, new-media movement, are more than happy to think about their marketing, which may, in turn, lead to a more comfortable relationship with brands.
"While there are plenty of bands out there, thinking 'My music is good, people will hear it,' there are plenty more that are happy using marketing," Kannenberg says.
And, there are always compromises.
Kannenberg says that My Chemical Romance (MCR), a band currently very popular with the teen set, has a very implicit rider that states the band will not directly associate with any brands and promotional signage cannot be visible on their stages. Yet MCR played in the aforementioned 2005 Warped Tour and this year' SXSW.
At SXSW, fans murmured about how SXSW was threatening to become mainstream. But fans did not complain because Yaris was co-sponsoring the Insound event featuring up-and-coming bands like Love is All and Serena Maneesh. The complaints were along the lines of how long it was taking to get into that Yaris event.
One band at SXSW chose to attack the corporate influence on the event, caustically asking the fans, who had been waiting 20 minutes for the band to start its show, if they had noticed any ads in Austin. Much to the dismay of the provocateur, this elicited little to no response.