Behind the Music

Call it borrowed authenticity or just plain good marketing, but brands are reaching out to indie bands, and both are coming out ahead

This is going to be big,” Todd Porter recalls thinking last September, when the music supervisor at Goodby Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco first heard “We Are Young” by indie pop outfit Fun. “It just had the quality of something that will cut through and grab people’s attention.”

Fast-forward six months, and the track is the band’s first breakout hit. In mid-February it landed at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, where it leapt from No. 63 after it was featured during the Super Bowl as the soundtrack for Chevy Sonic’s “Stunt Anthem” ad—a spot that’s almost as much a music video as it is a car commercial. As of last week, it spent its second week at No. 1, the first rock band in more than a decade with a Hot 100 debut to top the chart.

While musicians and brands have long had a symbiotic relationship, the use of indie groups in advertising seems to be fast on the rise. Call it a marriage of convenience. Marketers in search of millennial currency, their growing need for digital content and a music industry still in chaos have helped create a scenario in which two once polar opposites are now happily attracted. And it’s not just for flashier categories like auto and fashion. Indie artists (read: obscure bands connected or not to major labels) are now peddling life’s less-sexy products, like hardware, detergent and health insurance.

Mega corporations using under-the-radar acts in TV spots is not a new phenomenon. During the 2000s, Apple, for one, cultivated a countercultural image when it became practically synonymous with breaking new artists, such as Feist with her “1234.” But that was the exception, not the rule.

“It used to be pretty rare to hear an indie band on an ad,” says Gabe McDonough, vp, music director at Leo Burnett in Chicago. “It’s not that rare anymore. Somebody’s got to pay the bills.…In 2012, brands are one of the few entities in human culture that are willing to pony up.”

“Artists now have a mentality where they want to put their music in front of the broadest, biggest audience possible,” adds Jon Cohen, co-CEO of music marketing house Cornerstone, whose clients include Converse and Mountain Dew. “Advertising [is now] about how to ingrain your brand into the culture of your target consumer.”

Music can speak to any number of audiences. But 18-34s have long been a branding sweet spot, and today’s youth seem to have a special affinity for song. Eighty percent of millennials regularly search, download and listen to music over the Internet, according to a 2009 Deloitte survey , versus 60 percent of all consumers. Millennials also associate more strongly with the value of “discovery” than Gen X and earlier, according to 2010 research from consumer research firm Iconoculture. In other words, introducing this demo to new bands can seem like a particularly good way for brands to endear themselves.

So, when Lowe’s looked to BBDO to recast the retail giant as younger and more innovative, the agency launched a campaign this past fall featuring commercials crafted like music videos around songs from indie artists. As boomers age out, “the whole gold mine in [the home-improvement] category is the millennials,” says Wil Boudreau, the BBDO ecd for the campaign.

The first spot, which introduced Lowe’s new tagline, “Never Stop Improving,” featured a young couple dancing around as they remodel their home to “Don’t Stop” by Kiwi chanteuse Gin Wigmore. Three more ads have played up thematically matched tracks from other indie artists, and three more are slated for this spring. With text at the end of each spot identifying the song and performer, the brand is going further than most in helping its audience find new music.

“It’s like when your friend recommends a good album,” says Boudreau.

Even brands associated with household drudgery are attempting hipster-like makeovers by association. Among them is Procter & Gamble-owned laundry detergent Cheer, which through Leo Burnett Toronto created a brightly hued YouTube music video last summer for Australian dance band Strange Talk’s catchy single, “Climbing Walls.” The detergent’s redesigned logo, a pixilated rainbow teardrop, was included in the video and, during a promotional campaign, doubled as one of numerous “Easter eggs” that, when clicked, led to Cheer’s Facebook page. There, people could redeem soap samples and enter raffles for items like the dancer’s iridescent clothing.

“We were going after a generation of color-loving people and [knew] that fashion and music were at the forefront of everything they do,” says Sam Cerullo, a group creative director at Leo Burnett Toronto.

In 2010, Rumblefish, a music licensing and technology company that specializes in indie music, built a special website for Kaiser’s marketing team featuring a selection of tracks that can be included in videos created for the healthcare organization’s messaging.

“The challenge for bigger brands is that they have more people than ever making these videos and communications, and it’s much harder to keep everything consistent and to make sure people aren’t going out and using the Beatles,” says Paul Anthony, founder of Rumblefish. The company also partnered this January with crowd-sourcing site Zooppa to provide easy access to licensed songs for user-generated ads.

Rumblefish’s model, which offers tracks precleared for commercial use, can also spare bigger brands the headaches of prolonged negotiations. “They can license an indie band for one of these videos really quickly,” notes Anthony. “It doesn’t take them months of negotiations.”

Health insurer Cigna and Hill Holiday also went the indie route last fall, licensing Joy Zipper’s song “1” for an ad. “You want to drop a Rihanna song on your spot, you’re talking god knows how much money,” says Lance Jensen, CCO at Hill Holiday. “You want to drop a great indie song on it, it’s affordable. … That’s not to be underestimated.”

While stodgier brands make their way to the indie party, more classically cool marketers are pushing the envelope of how bands and brands relate. In July, Converse opened Rubber Tracks, a state-of-the-art studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, that gives away recording time to low-profile bands, no strings attached. So far, about 150 bands have passed through and cut about 400 recordings, estimates Cornerstone founder and co-CEO Rob Stone. Artists can also avail themselves of Converse’s reach as a marketer by letting the brand promote to its 23 million Facebook fans their Rubber Tracks-created recordings, of which each band maintains full ownership. “[Converse] can really push a band’s music out wide and far on their behalf,” says Cornerstone’s Cohen.

None of this is to say indie bands aren’t particular about what types of marketers they’d sell their music to. The creative execution of a specific campaign, for one, can be a sticking point. “They want to know that their music and their likeness isn’t going to be used in a campaign that’s kind of cheesy at the end of the day,” says Michael Paoletta, an executive producer at Chicago-based music house Comma.

When Lowe’s approached Wigmore, a five-time platinum artist in the New Zealand market, but more or less unknown in the U.S., she needed the exposure however she could get it, according to Dana Collins, Wigmore’s manager. A lesser creative approach wouldn’t necessarily have ruled out letting a brand use her music, Collins notes, but they were thrilled that Lowe’s ad went what they felt was above and beyond the usual fare in its category.

“We would have been happy with any spot, being blunt about it,” says Collins. “But we were over the moon when we saw this spot. You didn’t have some guy in a smock [saying], ‘These are our specials for this week.’”

Plus, it worked. U.S. sales of “Don’t Stop,” Collins adds, jumped from about zero to more than 2,000 in the first week of the campaign, and continued to rise while the ad was airing.

For indie artists, more usual roadblocks are categories deemed unhealthy or controversial. “Some don’t want to be involved in alcohol. Some don’t want to be involved in fast food,” says Bonny Dolan, a managing director and executive producer at Comma. “Most of them don’t want tobacco, even though there is tobacco advertising overseas.”

But when it comes to how selective bands can be about brands, they are, in general, “loosening the reins,” adds Paoletta.

That may have something to do with the fact it’s increasingly competitive for bands that want songs placed in commercials. “It’s harder [now] for bands to get their songs in the hands of music producers and supervisors and creatives” because the supply of music is growing at a faster rate than the demand, says BBDO executive music and radio producer Loren Parkins, who dug up Wigmore’s track for Lowe’s through a publisher in his network of music industry contacts. In addition to his Rolodex, he says, he generally uses resources like music blogs and public radio playlists to help him cut through the clutter when trying to find the right music for a spot.

GS&P’s Porter also found fun.’s “We Are Young” through his network of industry contacts. But he says he’s found himself increasingly using shoe leather scouting to keep a pulse on new music and connect with artists. “I went from being the sort of secretive record geek to the guy who kind of actively seeks out bands at South by Southwest or any concert,” he says.

Some agencies, like Leo Burnett, also host showcases that feature up-and-coming bands. So does Comma, which specializes in original music for commercials, but also offers licensing services. Indie folk darlings The Head and the Heart, for example, performed two weeks ago at the company’s Chicago offices, where creatives and supervisors from agencies including Leo Burnett, DraftFCB, DDB, mcgarrybowen and BBDO came to hear them play. While Comma doesn’t pay visiting acts for their performances, the opportunity to connect with creatives who have the power to put them on TV is enough of a draw, even though deals aren’t necessarily generated.

The payouts from licensing agreements vary greatly depending on the specific terms, including where an ad will appear and how long it will run. But an indie track would probably run from four to five figures, whereas a well-established act would likely charge at least six figures for a brand to use a hit song for a national TV commercial.

Despite the exposure that major marketers’ advertising can provide lesser-known artists, a great TV commercial or music-driven campaign, in most cases, won’t be a silver bullet for a band looking to build its own brand. The timing, for one, has to be right—as in the case of fun., which started gaining mainstream buzz after Glee covered “We Are Young” in December, and had a post-Super Bowl album release with a promotional push smartly designed to seize on the attention around the big game. A band also has to have its own image established and be poised to capitalize on the exposure.

“A brand can really expedite someone’s career,” says Cornerstone’s Cohen. “But it’s a Catch-22. A band’s got to develop on their own. They’ve got to be able to play live. They’ve got to build their own audience, their own community, their own following, before they let a brand do that for them.”

And more robust deals that take into account an artist’s long-term objectives increase the odds a partnership is a success for bands as well as brands, adds Stone. “It’s really key that the campaigns are platforms and not just kind of one-offs,” he says. “There are a lot of scenarios where you see artists get involved in the wrong campaigns.”

The wrong campaign might be one that tarnishes an artist’s own image—maybe, say, an underwear ad. Brands and their agencies, understanding the potential pitfalls for artists, can be savvy about drawing a band in, and vice versa. Strange Talk, for one, was originally wary of working with Cheer, concerned fans might think it had sold out, says lead singer Stephen Docker. But that it wasn’t just a traditional ad helped convince them, as did the people directing it (duo Radical Friend, who had done previous work for indie rock band Yeasayer). In the band’s view, the campaign netted more positives than negatives. Strange Talk ended up with a great video, according to Docker, and an international test market for its sound as it prepared to return to the studio.

Plus, it turns out Cheer’s targeting ploy cut both ways. “It opened up a bit of a bigger demographic for us,” says Docker. “During the time of the campaign, we had a lot of people adding us on Facebook and commenting on our page. They were mums and people sort of in their 30s and 40s.”

As for whether this means Strange Talk will be forever known as “That Cheer Band,” Docker brushes off the notion. “I’m a big believer that you’re only as good as your last song,” he says. “At the end of the day, we’re artists, and we’re out to write music. If you continue to write music people like, I think you have nothing to worry about.”

fun. photo by Alfred Maskeroni's iPhone

@GabrielBeltrone Gabriel Beltrone is a frequent contributor to Adweek.
Publish date: March 19, 2012 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT