Brands, The New Merchants of Cool

What happens when corporations replace major labels as patrons of independent music?

Laurent Fintoni
May 21, 2015 · 9 min read

As the recording industry and its flagship major labels wither on the vine, a new hand has come to tend to independent music scenes. From rock to hip-hop, corporations such as Red Bull, Hyundai and Converse are supporting independent, often niche, artists by providing them with recording studios, bookings and promotion. Often seen as a continuation of the centuries-old practice of patronage, the involvement of corporate brands in music continues to be tainted with negative connotations of selling out. And yet, what could be more natural than the replacement of one capital-driven enterprise with another in support of the arts?

In 1996, the BBC broadcast an episode of its Modern Times documentary series about life in contemporary Britain that focused on the independent label Good Looking Records, which was founded in 1991 by Danny Williamson, the producer and DJ known as LTJ Bukem, and his business partner, Tony Fordham. At the time, Williamson and Good Looking were rising stars within drum & bass, an underground genre born in the early 90s from England’s infatuation with Chicago acid house and the hedonistic musical explosion known as rave that followed it.

Early on in the episode, filmed in 1994, Fordham is shown flying to Japan to meet with representatives of Sony Music Entertainment in order to help make drum & bass “happen over there.” On the way to the airport, he talks of needing to expand around the world in order to sell more records. A few days later, he’s sitting in the Tokyo offices of Sony trying to strike a deal between the small British indie and the giant Japanese conglomerate. The deal eventually goes through and Sony Japan would go on to licence and distribute Good Looking’s releases in the country, funding the label’s creative endeavours while establishing a more visible outpost for a hyper-local music scene on the other side of the world.

The history of modern music is strewn with examples of major labels propping up the commercial needs of smaller, independent enterprises. Where independents had a flair for creativity, as well as the belief to invest in new ideas, the majors had the money and logistics to take those ideas to wider audiences, feeding a very human desire to gain acceptance for creative work. It’s this symbiotic relationship between mainstream and underground that has kept the music industry moving for more than 50 years.

From hip-hop to dance music, many independent success stories were made possible thanks to major label investments, especially licensing or distribution deals. That’s how hip-hop broke into popular consciousness in the 1980s: Major labels flush with money from decades of owning the means of production, distribution and promotion banked on independent labels such as Def Jam and helped them become global cultural forces.

By the turn of the century, another factor came into play: marketing to teens, then the most valuable consumer demographic in America and ultimately the world. In the early 2000s, PBS broadcast an episode of their Frontline series titled “The Merchants Of Cool.” A report on the creators and marketers of popular culture to teenagers, the show demonstrated how corporations’ relentless search for money in the 90s had led to the marketing of counter-cultural movements, the very things that once stood for independence. From Green Day to Eminem, edgy sold because it was made to seem cool.

In the following decade, the music industry lost most of its economic power as its tightly controlled channels of manufacturing and distribution found themselves obliterated by the rise of internet and the birth of a digital culture in which the default setting for the consumption of art was free. Corporate brands, which had already learned to market themselves to cash-flush teens and young adults, moved in to replace the major labels.

It was an obvious shift for a few reasons. Many of the early music labels were themselves born of more traditional manufacturing companies, such as the Wisconsin Chair Company, which produced phonograph cabinets for Edison and went on to found Paramount Records, an early jazz and blues label. Today, the corporations involved in music might have energy drinks or cars as a primary product.

The 2000s also saw the latter part of Generation X come of age. Raised on musical movements based around ideas of independence and DIY, Gen Xers liked to think they were more savvy about traditional advertising than their parents. Yet they were still susceptible, or at least indifferent, to more subtle branding. These new consumers were used to the idea of sharing music and obtaining it for free, ideals that were incompatible with the needs and desires of the traditional music industry, but which had no effect on corporate patrons of the arts.

In a world where everyone can create and distribute, the key today is finding ways to break through the noise and sustain yourself as an artist. In such an environment, it’s corporate brands, not the existing music industry, that have the money to provide new platforms for artists to do just that. Yet there is more to corporate brands replacing major labels than simple financial backing.

A couple of years ago, I was discussing Red Bull’s involvement in underground music with the owner of an independent British dance music label. Having mentioned that the company, through their Red Bull Music Academy (RBMA) project, had helped his label make a tour happen when local promoters came up short, he made the case that RBMA was the modern equivalent to a major label.

The RBMA staff is largely culled from the music industry: Current and former promoters, artists and label owners make up the rank and file. This allows for a level of trust and understanding between the Academy and the artists it seeks to support. Speaking to the New York Times in 2013, Los Angeles artist Flying Lotus, an alumni of the RBMA, said, “The people behind the Academy, they’re not just suits; they are really special people who are passionate about artists. Above them they have some suits to deal with, but I’ve never dealt with any of them.”

While most corporate brands involved in music do not profit directly from the art they help create and foster, the assumption is that an association with artistic movements might bring more people to a brand’s products and boost its profile among key demographics.

The RBMA is an interesting example of how corporate brands support underground music. In the 1990s, while corporations were busy figuring how to market themselves to the affluent youth demographic, Red Bull approached Cologne-based Yadastar about getting involved in the music world. The result was the Red Bull Music Academy, a traveling workshop for a small group of musicians with lectures from established artists and spaces in which to create and perform. Speaking to British magazine The Wire in 2014, Torsten Schmidt, co-founder of the RBMA, explained that its basic principles — a safe haven for creativity and documentation of the culture — are inherently humanist.

RZA salutes at a Red Bull Music Academy event | Photo by Marco Prosch/Getty Images

Since its launch in 1998, RBMA has grown to include monthly festivals and to spur the creation of Red Bull recording studios, a separate but linked entity that can be found in 11 cities across four continents. It has also spun off the Red Bull Music Academy Radio and a growing body of editorial work that resembles the sort of historical archives once expected of national governments.

That last point is often overlooked. RBMA and similar projects like T-Mobile’s Electronic Beats (EB), a self-described lifestyle concept, are both publishers and promoters of the arts. RBMA recently published a tome of conversations between musical pioneers for its 15th anniversary, and EB is preparing to publish a book dedicated to Roland’s classic music machines.

In light of increasing cuts to the arts and culture budgets of many European countries — not to mention the non-existence of the concept in America — the work these corporate brands are undertaking in cataloguing and documenting modern music is essential. To fans, students and journalists alike, something like RBMA’s editorial archives, which include transcripts of many of the lectures given at its annual events, can be a precious source of information. They are a modern-day library of sorts. But what happens to these libraries when bankrolling youth culture is no longer a valid loss leader?

And what happens to objectivity when the supporter of the culture is also its publisher? It’s not corporate sponsorship of the arts that is killing objectivity. The death of traditional publishing and the growth of online culture have done this quite well by themselves. However, increasing sponsorship of the arts by corporate brands does bring back into focus some of the publishing industry’s central issues, such as the dynamic between advertising and editorial. Today there is little in the arts that isn’t tied to corporate money and interests, from artists to journalists.

It’s not just independent publications that suffer from this problem but the corporations themselves. A few months ago, the U.K. branch of the Red Bull Music website, another piece of the Red Bull cultural sponsorship puzzle, commissioned a piece by a freelance writer that was critical of a new album by an international group of artists. Within days of publication the article disappeared, sparking hurried claims of censorship. In reality, the person who had commissioned the piece hadn’t realized that it would clash with the brand’s ongoing support of the band in question through its other channels. There was even a case a few years ago where a major label sued itself because the legal department was unaware that the marketing department had commissioned a promotional viral video using the label’s intellectual property.

Talking to Complex about his involvement with the RBMA, hip-hop producer Just Blaze noted that being able to pass on knowledge, while also acquiring it by being in contact with new talent, is something that he didn’t have access to in his formative years.

Yet the inherent tension between arts and money remains. Questions such as exploitation of the arts or where inspiration comes from in a brand-saturated world are valid, but with corporate brands’ involvement in the arts now in its second decade, mindsets are changing. Young artists are less hung up on exploitation, and more pioneers are warming up to their role as mentors for new generations, a position made possible by corporate support. Today inspiration for new artists is not only coming from what’s around them but increasingly from what came before.

Independent artists rely on support networks for their emergence and growth. Independent labels provide creative direction and distribution, while physical spaces like clubs and record stores provide places for inspiration and interaction. While a large part of corporate brands’ involvement in the arts is focused on the artist, they are also moving in to augment or replace these support networks. Havana Club, the rum product of Corporación Cuba Ron, teamed up in 2009 with British DJ and radio personality Gilles Peterson for the Havana Cultura project. The effort provides a platform for local artists by making use of and further fuelling Peterson’s work with his Brownswood Recordings label, radio shows and events.

What happens to artistic support networks in the future? That may prove the crucial question of corporate involvement in the arts today.

In a world where the creation, distribution and consumption of music has been transformed in the space of a generation, there is nothing paradoxical about corporate brands supporting independent artists. Still, that shouldn’t mean we ignore the effects that corporate money has on the creative process and its roots in human networks of inspiration and support.

As I write this, an artist from Tucson, Arizona, signed to the independent label ANTI Records, tweets that their new album is the Starbucks #pickoftheweek, available at a location near you.

Full disclosure: I have written music related content for various brands, including Red Bull, since 2011 and have worked with many of the artists who have passed through the Academy.

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Follow Laurent Fintoni on Twitter @laurent_fintoni
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