The Biz: Music labels court brands

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With marketing budgets slashed and Internet file-sharing still a major threat, music labels feeling the crunch are saying, "Hello, Corporate America."

Labels are hiring "strategic marketing" executives and working aggressively to persuade corporate brand managers to use both well-known and little-known musicians for their marketing efforts. The arrangements can benefit both sides: Marketers get bands that could help jazz up their product images and sales; music labels can piggyback on the marketers' ad budgets.

"Music labels are finally waking up," says Rob Souriall, VP-marketing for Walt Disney Co.'s Hollywood Records. "Now every record label-if it doesn't already have one-is searching for a strategic marketing person to reach out to corporate America as a way to extend marketing budgets."

Evidence of the trend will be on display at the L.A. Office RoadShow 2002, a Los Angeles entertainment-marketing event where a dozen bands will play for corporate product-brand managers Sept. 25 during the music portion of the conference.

Of the 12 acts, 10 are virtually unknown to all but hard-core fans, such as Howie Day from Sony's Epic Records, Simple Plan from Atlantic Records and Little Big Town from Sony Music's Columbia Nashville label. The acts will take the stage to try and make an impact.

More well-known acts have less of a challenge there. Scheduled to appear are Michelle Branch and the venerable Chicago, both from Warner Bros. labels.

"The record labels for the last 20 years have been very egotistical," Souriall says. "They might say, `We have Sheryl Crow or Bruce Springsteen. What are you doing for me?' ... The only way to cut through the clutter is do things in non-traditional venues. We have to start doing things that film and TV has been doing for some time."

Traditional music marketing has focused on getting releases airplay on radio stations, and/or getting music videos on MTV. But few concerted efforts have been made to actively reach out to corporations to help drive sales by tying acts and their tunes to the marketing of products such as automobiles, cellphones or soft drinks (Pepsi recently has used Britney Spears).

Now artists from Sheryl Crow to Sting to the Goo Goo Dolls regularly license new songs to become part of marketing campaigns as releases come out. Goo Goo Dolls has deals with Nokia and Anheuser-Busch for its new songs, according to Warner Bros. Records executives.

`fine line'

Still, corporate America may be viewed as the anti-rock `n' roll, so marketing links must be done carefully. "You don't want it to appear like you are selling out," says Richard Ellis, president of 12 to 20, a Los Angeles-based teen marketing communications firm. "There's a fine line."

Auto marketers appear particularly smitten with music acts. Warner Bros. licensed the song "The Only Way Is the Wrong Way" from the band Filter for a TV spot for the Hummer H2 model. Mitsubishi has used relatively unknown artists to get young adults interested in its cars. Spots feature young people tooling around in a number of Mitsubishi models singing or dancing. The car company has licensed the dance tunes "Start the Commotion" by Wise Guys and "Days Go By" by Dirty Vegas from Capitol Records. The hip woman gyrating to the music in the Dirty Vegas ad drew a cult following.

Of course, linking with music acts runs the risk of a backlash, such as Pepsi's recently dropping artist Ludacris because Fox News' Bill O'Reilly encouraged a protest due to the rapper's lyrics.

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