Rock Bands' Hottest Tour Stops: Ad Agencies

Madison Avenue Courted By Musicians Seeking Brand Partnerships

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It's not listed on their official tour T-shirt, but in February rock band O.A.R. played an important venue in Richmond, Va.: the Martin Agency.

Marc Roberge sings at an O.A.R. concert in Maryland last year.
Marc Roberge sings at an O.A.R. concert in Maryland last year.

As free streaming music and video make it tougher than ever for musical artists to earn a living, they are increasingly forging relationships with agencies in hopes of striking a commercial licensing deal. Acts are squeezing into their schedules intimate shows at shops in adland, and making time not just to perform for agency staff but to chat with creatives who may be hunting for music to include in campaigns. That was the motivation for O.A.R. to stop off at Martin before four nights of performances in nearby Washington. Also on the docket was McCann Erickson, New York.

In short, ad agencies -- a group unused to being courted -- now have groupies.

"The idea of doing this is to create a presence in the agency and get the key players to know you as a brand yourself," said Adam Zengel, director-branding and partnerships at Wind-up Records, O.A.R.'s label. Mr. Zengel's position was a first for the label; his job, which he's had since September, is to ensure that musicians are making their way into the Rolodexes of agencies and brands.

"As the music business has gone in an alternative direction, [building agency relationships] helps musicians find better ways to generate income," said John McAdorey, executive producer at Martin Agency. "There's a lot of money and a lot of exposure to be had."

It could mean hearing from throwback bands or unexpected groups, too. Another band that recently stopped in at Martin was '90s sensation Toad the Wet Sprocket.

"Bands see ads as the new MTV -- a great way to market their music and get great exposure," said Paul Greco, JWT's director of music. DJ troupe Swedish House Mafia, for example, worked with TBWA/Chiat/Day and Absolut vodka to create a custom song, "Greyhound," as an ode on the cocktail made of vodka and grapefruit juice. The tune wound up in a TV ad.

Musicians traditionally have been averse to "selling out" -- or licensing music to marketers for money. But declining record sales resulting from online file-sharing has forced artists to turn to other revenue streams.

Robert Valdes, head of production at TBWA/Chiat/Day said the term "sellout" no longer enters the conversation. Music distribution is "so fragmented now, and the bands and artists are savvy," he added. When a group has the opportunity to create a song with an ad or extended video, "they know it's a commercial, but they also know it's a [music] video" that can spread online, Mr. Valdes said.

TBWA recently hosted Kishi Bashi, a project formed by Of Montreal touring member K Ishibashi. And Jonny Greenwood, a member of Radiohead who works with the shop on scoring commercials, is on the roster. The agency also worked with Jay -Z for Absolut.

"The big names are into talking to us because there's budget attached, and the younger bands are really looking for the promotional tool ... they're the ones calling the agency to get their name out there," said Mark Figliulo, chairman-chief creative officer at TBWA. "We're looking for something where everybody wins."

Bands interested in building relationships with agencies will need to be realistic about expectations, though. Chances are slim of nailing a licensing deal out of the gate. For musicians, the opportunity lies in building relationships with decision-makers, who may turn to them for music down the road.

But even a win has a potential downside. JWT's Mr. Greco said the danger is when the same song is chosen to back multiple brands. While it clearly can be an opportunity for a band to increase awareness and drive song sales, it is unclear if the brand benefits as much, because "the same song/band can be used by another brand when the licensing deal is up."

"Hey Soul Sister," anyone?

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