Accidental Adman: Slang Musicgroup Founder Vince Lawrence

How Brands, Bands Can Benefit From Each Other in Tumultuous Time

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NEW YORK -- "I sit on a fence pole between bands and brands," Slang Musicgroup Founder Vince Lawrence likes to say.
Slang Musicgroup founder Vince Lawrence: 'There are plenty of bands who wear and use brand products every day anyway, but they don't have any money to get out there.'
Slang Musicgroup founder Vince Lawrence: 'There are plenty of bands who wear and use brand products every day anyway, but they don't have any money to get out there.' Credit: Steven Koress

Mr. Lawrence was co-founder of Trax Records, a legendary Chicago-based record label that is credited with spawning the house-music genre back in the mid-'80s, a sound that has made its way over the years from clubs to commercials.

But in addition to the club and music scenes, Mr. Lawrence has long been involved in advertising.

"I got into advertising by accident [in 1988]," Mr. Lawrence said. "I went to a studio to pick up a [guitarist] friend who was doing something for an advertisement. The people there asked me my opinion on whether this would connect with the underground culture. I said no, contrary to what everyone else had said, and after explaining my views, they made me a consultant."

Mr. Lawrence's involvement in marketing ranged from licensing and product placement (sometimes in hit records) to consultancy, as he penetrated nightlife culture and referred marketers to bands. He formed Slang Musicgroup in 1995. Aside from producing some of the pre-eminent dance tracks of the past two decades, the collection of eclectic music producers also has worked on radio and TV commercials for brands including Pepsi, Sprite, Dodge and Nintendo.

In an era of tumultuous change and uncertainty for the record industry, Mr. Lawrence said he sees great potential for both brands and bands to change music production's traditional business model.

M&V: Why do artists get involved in commercial projects?

Mr. Lawrence: In this era of digitized content and ad clutter, media dollars need to be more effective. The record world is changing, and opportunities for real exposure amidst the clutter are few and far between, and bands need more and more support to penetrate. Brands have the purchasing power to buy the spots, buy the media time. Artists have a direct connection with the cultures they live in because they contribute to its beauty. Bands need help. ... There are plenty of bands who wear and use brand products every day anyway, but they don't have any money to get out there.

M&V: Why do marketers get involved with music production?

Mr. Lawrence: Some brands want to attach to bands for additional cultural legitimacy. TV shows sponsored by brand X are being undermined by TiVo, subsequently losing their impact. But music remains such a tremendous medium with which to connect to people.

There are many opportunities for brands to interact culturally [through music]. If a band likes a product, I'll go to the brand [to set up a deal]. It's organic; it's legitimate. This is a great opportunity for brands to hit the core demographic that they are looking for, and there are few other opportunities where consumers actually buy the ad. Pepsi can be the next Arista.

M&V: How can brands help bands?

Mr. Lawrence: The brand can support the band by funding a video, help the band make a record or fund a tour. I think what Doritos is doing with the Super Bowl kicks butt! [Frito-Lay is asking consumers to produce songs that best embody the Doritos brand image. The winner of the contest will receive a contract with Interscope Records.] It's cool for emerging acts. Brands are going to adopt a band, expose them. Some brands also have many retail outlets, and those represent new distribution opportunities for bands.

But the connection has to be legitimate. If a band is already "standing near" those Red Bull bottles, things can work out fine, but forced connections rarely work. There are entire industries devoted to tricking consumers via marketing tactics, usually through attempts to borrow equity from some aspect of culture or another. This works, but both parties must be careful not to lose their respective goodies by getting together for the wrong reasons. If the marriage isn't legit, it will usually fail. I often work with stealth marketers [Mirrorball and Noise Marketing], and helping them navigate the "niche and crannies" we find can make all the difference when trying to make a legitimate connection.

M&V: Aren't bands who get involved with brands often seen as selling out?

Mr. Lawrence: We used to avoid branding. In the '80s it was the ultimate sellout. Fistfights would break out if you spoke about a band secretly doing an ad. Today it's different. Hip-hop guys do things that are controversial in that regard. But that's a choice everybody makes. The benefit to the brand is that they get to connect in a relevant way. When things work out, everyone should get to be a little more "relevant."

M&V: Is it better for a band to be dependent on brands rather than record companies?

Mr. Lawrence: As I see it, dependency should never be an issue. If the exposure mechanism does its job for the band, they are independent from that point; vice versa for the brand. If they choose to stay together, it should be to further common goals, not because of some forced need for more exposure. If a band has a good song and is independent, the revenue generated from the ensuing sales of recordings, merchandizing and dates should give them a leg up on their next project. And that works for everyone. I believe Doritos actually gets more cred if the [winning] band goes on to become a huge success.

So in that case, it is better than dependency on a record company for exposure. Record companies in the past have "charged" artists for the marketing, recouping forever and such. This way everyone gets something they need and don't have to pay so much for it.

M&V: What about limitations a brand might impose on a band's freedom of expression?

Mr. Lawrence: Bands are relevant precisely because of what they say or do. Some brands have to protect their equity this way, so some bands that may be very relevant are not a good fit. Some bands can't touch a product a certain way because it may affect their street cred. It goes both ways. But there are ways to work through it.