T-Mobile is poised to kick off the second year of its Street Gigs initiative; O2 last week began a talent search called Undiscovered (PRWeek, 10 March); and at the beginning of the month Vodafone announced a series of secret location gigs and a live music awards ceremony called 'TBA' (PRWeek, 3 March).
The networks get involved in music events to highlight their burgeoning range of music services, such as downloads and ringtones. Events also help to build brand loyalty and encourage other operators' customers to switch.
'Music is a good way to connect emotionally with customers,' says T-Mobile marketing manager, music Richard Warmsley. 'Focus groups and telephone surveys with people who attended our events showed an overwhelming increase in positive brand perception.'
The BPI, the British record industry's trade association, believes the music-mobiles synthesis is good for the music industry too and has publicly backed Vodafone's initiative.
'We are providing Vodafone with a route into the industry, because mobile phones are a key area of development for our members,' explains BPI comms manager Matt Phillips. 'We have been actively engaged in a long campaign against piracy, particularly in digital music. We want to support legal digital downloading, and downloading to mobiles is an important area.'
More than sponsorship
The mobile network tie-ups, of course, transcend mere sponsorship – they are actually creating the events. O2, for example, used to sponsor Capital Radio's Party In The Park, but has now launched its own music scheme. 'If you just put your name to something cool it might work for a while, but eventually you'll look like a big company trying to become cool by association,' says O2 UK comms director Glen Manoff. 'You need to be really involved in the music.'
On the whole, live music initiatives target young people, who are likelier to follow contemporary music and be open to trying new technology. But to target the young, the gigs must seem credible, not corporate, and PR has a huge part to play in creating this buzz.
Virgin Mobile's V festival, now in its 11th year, attracts 250,000 revellers and reaches many more through TV and radio. It receives ample media coverage, not least because hundreds of journalists and celebrities are invited, creating stories for the gossip columns, music reviewers and fashion magazines alike.
Virgin Mobile director of corporate affairs Steven Day says Virgin is well placed to run a festival because of its music heritage. For big international telecoms firms, the fit could be more of a challenge.
Indeed, the trend towards smaller mobile music schemes involving emerging acts requires a smarter, sometimes low-key approach to PR.
T-Mobile's Warmsley explains: 'We are interested in telling a unique story to the right people about what we are doing. Last year for instance, we talked to Xfm and ensured that its DJs were talking about Street Gigs, because they and their listeners would have an interest in the bands that took part, such as Kasabian and The Editors.' The brand had hitherto been associated with global tour sponsorships for acts like Robbie Williams and the Rolling Stones.
Vodafone consumer PR manager Ben Taylor says of its fresh undertaking: 'This is really about PR rather than just media relations.
We're talking to opinion formers, such as the chair of the Government's Live Music Forum.'
Creating buzz online can also generate interest. Brazen PR account director Peter Burling worked on last summer's launch of T-Mobile's Street Gigs. 'We leaked information about the gigs to fan websites, and talked about them in blogs and online forums.'
At some events, customers receive special treats, and mobile-related activities abound. At V for example, huge screens display texted jokes and messages in the lull between sets.
Orange uses Cake to maximise its position as one of the four Glastonbury sponsors in a 'pragmatic' manner, with masts providing mobile phone signals and a tent where phones can be charged. CEO Mike Mathieson explains: 'Because it is a service people need, it isn't perceived as a brand "slap-on". And we have created quirky stories such as the Text-me-home-dome – a system where you can send a text to your tent and make it glow so you can find it.'
As the networks expand their involvement in live music, the question remains of how they can create and communicate the differences that would encourage customers to choose them over another. Mathieson suggests that innovation will be critical: 'There is much more to be done with mobiles and music – downloadable set lists could be available at festivals, for example.'
According to Tim Lusher, editor of The Guardian's Guide, a major Glastonbury sponsor: 'It depends on the line-up and perhaps on the venue. If the brand behind it becomes trusted as a source of quality music content over the course of time, it will work.'
But can corporate involvement in music ever be really credible? Gavin Grundy, deputy editor of music monthly Q, believes it is possible: 'Some sections of the music press sneer at any corporate involvement, but it is a fact of life. It is pretty much accepted that V has the biggest corporate presence of all the festivals, but it also has arguably the best line-up of any of the festivals this year. Even Radiohead – the most anti-corporate of bands – is heading it this year.'