Musicians, Marketers on the Record, if Not the Same Track

CMJ Panel Highlights Benefits, Continued Perils of Band-Brand Partnerships

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Photo: Charlie Moran
"Sponsorship: A Futuristic Music Industry Strategy" panel: (From l.) Marcie Cardwell, Maurice Bernstein, Jay B. Ziskrout, Andre Gaccetta and Dave Santaniello.
With CD sales still in free-fall and the role of a record label in question, the DIY culture of indie bands is no longer a means to an end: For most, it's the beginning, middle and end. Marketing and licensing one's music is more important than ever, and this year's CMJ Music Marathon, held on New York University's campus, struck up conversations with the publishing and advertising worlds that would have been unimaginable when the fest began 28 years ago.

"Clearly, in the past year or two, there's been a major change not only in regard to bands being willing to take on sponsorships, but also sponsors being the new consumers of music," said Robert Haber, founder and CEO of CMJ Network. "It's fascinating because they're just as enthusiastic about emerging acts as fans are."

This sentiment was hardly more evident than during Wednesday morning's panel, "Sponsorship: A Futuristic Music Industry Strategy," but the gathering also demonstrated that Rob Walmart and Wal-Mart aren't always on the same frequency.

"The most important strategy is knowing who you are and communicating that philosophy to the brand," Maurice Bernstein, president-CEO, Giant Step, said during the panel. "Treat yourself like a CEO of a company who's building relationships with partners."

Later, during an abbreviated question-and-answer session with the audience, Mr. Bernstein further stressed the importance for still-burgeoning musicians of building their own brands before working with others. "Authenticity is crucial," he offered. "You need to make them want you. Create your own buzz through MySpace and your web page. Get those in order first."

Using marketing lingo like "branded entertainment," "metrics" and "ROI" might not cast a table full of industry vets as corporate stiffs like it used to, but apprehension from some of the musicians in the room was palpable.

Moderator Marcie Cardwell, president, MAC Presents, cited a change in musicians' attitudes with pop star John Mayer, who had resisted brand campaigns for years until he struck a tour sponsorship deal with Blackberry. Ms. Cardwell played a promotional video for the deal wherein Mr. Mayer spoke about his love for the Curve device, which prompted a few attendees to murmur the familiar epithet "sell-out." Afterward, Ms. Cardwell acknowledged the sentiment, shrugged it off briskly and moved on.

The mistrust and wariness can cut both ways, said Mr. Bernstein. "Brands have to understand they're getting in bed with the rock n' roll business. There's a possibility thsoe brands could get burned by behavior of people in the rock n' roll business. Artists also need to understand they're getting involved with corporate America, and it's a very tentative marriage."

Unlike many panels of this type that we've attended, this one was thankfully not a vehicle for a large partnership or ad campaign, which allowed for a more open-ended discussion. And that participants in the panel were open about the perils of band-brand partnerships was refreshing to hear, especially coming from execs who pay their mortgages with these deals. Those involved with tour sponsorships also acknowledged that the current recession is a threat to their business.

Andre Gaccetta, executive director-entertainment marketing, George P. Johnson, told attendees, "We're seeing an economic downturn. Our clients are cutting back, and ... we're finding ways to be nimble. We try to provide clients with data, metrics on the ROI for event marketing vs. other avenues, but it's a real battle."

Mr. Santaniello echoed the same diagnosis, with a hint of optimism: "Touring is recession-proof like the record business was in the 1990s. If brands see people still going to shows, they'll still invest, though it may be less. ... Music isn't going away. [Marketers] will just have to find cheaper ways, like online instead of touring. We're seeing big budgets changing."

Despite tightened belts and pockets of resistance from artists, the overriding theme of the panel was that advertisers are in an enviable position. Not only can they outspend labels' marketing budgets by a wide margin for relationships that consumers seem to be responding favorably to, but they've also got a glut of options at their disposal. Panelists told prospective bands to hit up music conferences to hawk their records to music supervisors and marketers, but also acknowledged that there were thousands upon thousands of bands looking for deals with just a handful of marketers.
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