Music Branding Evolves, Creates Starving Artists

In the early 2000’s, Bruce Flohr was a senior exec at RCA Records. The industry was booming: the economy was doing well, and bands were selling lots of records. There didn’t seem to be a cloud in the sky.

Then along came Napster, a peer-to-peer file sharing internet service focused on sharing digital audio files. In a very short amount of time, Napster changed the way people felt about paying for music. In their college textbook “Converging Media,” John Pavlick and Shawn McIntosh, write that record sales were slashed in half from 1999 to 2008 and song piracy was the major contributing factor to this decline. Whereas before nobody would have thought about taking a CD from a record store without paying for it, now most people didn’t have a problem with downloading an artist’s songs without compensation. The record industry was left reeling and that was when Bruce decided to leave his job at RCA.   

While the record industry was left paralyzed by the new rules of the industry like a deer in headlights, Flohr realized that there had to be a different way for artists to generate income from their art besides from the sale of recordings. Soon after he left his position at RCA, he joined Dave Matthews of the Dave Matthews Band and Coran Capshaw at their management company Red Light Management. Flohr says,  “I left the record industry and joined the music industry.” Red Light Management came up with the concept that artists and brands could join forces and tell their story, which Flohr explains as, “What are your passions as an artist?  What drives you, what fuels you and how does that align with a brand that wants to support that vision?” 

This example of musicians trying to subsidize their income through avenues like partnerships with businesses is one of many ways modern music artists try to make a living.  Musicians have sold merchandise such as apparel and posters for many years to make money. Today however, merchandise has become an essential part of the modern artist’s portfolio. Artists like Kanye West have launched their own clothing lines and aren’t just selling their wares at venues anymore. According to Hugh McIntyre of Forbes, “The ability for fans to physically experience an artist’s brand is powerful, and forward-thinking musicians are thinking carefully whenever they create a new item, or even when it comes to launching a brick-and-mortar location, such as a pop-up shop.” Mr. West, for example, opened his own series of pop-up shops in conjunction with the release of his Life of Pablo album in February 2016.

And then there is, of course, the importance of social media as both a way for artists to communicate with their fans and to generate income.  These days, fans expect more from their favorite artists than just their music. As an example, Katy Perry generated a lot of attention when she livestreamed herself for four days with the release of her album Witness. This might seem silly, but her popularity on social media got her a contract to be a judge on American Idol for $25 million. Another example is Selena Gomez, who, according to Forbes, is the highest paid influencer on Instagram where she has more than 123 million followers.  For her, this translates into brands paying nearly $550,000 per post to sell their products.

Unfortunately, only artists that already have a substantial following are able to generate money through the power of branding.  Yet beginning artists cannot escape having to think about themselves as a brand these days, and with that comes the enormous investment that is necessary get a name out there.  Although it’s true that, with the advent of the digital revolution of the last 20 years, it is much cheaper for an artist to record an album, it has become much more challenging to be heard with all the noise out there. Aspiring artists have to play live often; whereas in an earlier time you might not get paid for a gig, these days it is sometimes the artist themselves that have to pay to be put on the bill, the so-called “pay to play” concept.  Today, a young artist will have to spend money on their social media presence and even hire a social media manager. Furthermore, with record companies less and less willing to invest in upcoming artists, it is often up to the artists themselves to take care of their imaging.  This means that the artist is now responsible for production of their own music videos, CD printing, artwork, costumes, so on and so forth.  All of this can add up to a substantial investment for any young person, before any return of investment is generated, and for most artists, that return will never happen. While this explosion in artist branding over the last ten years may be a way for well-known artists to boost their income, for budding artists, it has become an extra money drain.

  And that is not the only side effect that the influence of branding in music has had on the industry and the audience.

All of the clever marketing going on in the entertainment industry has left a hunger in the audience for a more sincerity and authenticity.  An example of authenticity in music is Cardi B. Huffington Post’s Teyonna Ridgeway writes,

“[Cardi] is goofy, loud, in your face, honest and has no filter. She’s built her brand off of this authenticity – it’s apparent in her music, interviews, performances and social media posts.”

Her recent #1 hit single Bodak Yelllow  was the first female hip hop solo artist to reach the top spot in nearly two decades, since Lauren Hill’s Doo Wop (That Thing)). Even New York Times’ David Brooks shared his yearning for sincerity in music in his recent op-ed piece on Chance the Rapper “What Sincerity Looks Like.”  He says 

The first thing you notice in comparing the Chance and [Taylor] Swift songs is the difference between a person and a brand. A lot of young people I know talk about “working on their brand,” and sometimes I wish that word had never been invented.

Mr. Brooks aptly puts into words the negative connotations many people might have toward branding.  He considers Ms. Swift a brand and Chance a real person.  What  Mr. Brooks  might not have picked up on, but many of the readers have judging by the comments they left, is that even this image of sincerity is part of Chance’s brand, just like authenticity is part of Cardi B’s branding.

All of this makes one wonder whether and how the emphasis on artist branding affects the quality of the work that is at the center of all of this: the music.  Of course, branding also happened in the 1960’s and 1970’s  which many people might consider a “golden Age” of pop music. Bands like the Rolling Stones were being marketed as the bad boy alternative to the Beatles and, in the 1970’s, Malcolm McLaren manufactured the Sex Pistols, much like the boy bands from today. It is certainly impossible to measure whether pop songs from before were better than they are now.  And though music might have lost its power to affect real social change, it certainly has not lost it’s social importance, with a whopping 93% of the US population spending more than 25 hours per week listening to their favorite tunes, according to the data company Nielsen.

 In the recent special on him by the Future Of Storytelling Bruce Flohr, explains, 

The artists now are getting to a point where they’re seeking brands to work with based on who they already are.  That’s exciting to me. When an artist can come and sit down in our office [and] talk about their music, talk about their tour, talk about their merchandise line, and then talk about the five brands that they really have an affinity for, that’s a great conversation.

The joining together of brands, branding and artists that arose out of a necessity to generate new income after record sales declined in the early 2000’s has become a natural seeming marriage of opposites: the corporate and art world. Also, today’s youth has a natural affinity for certain brands, and doesn’t share the same anti-corporate sentiment the younger generations of previous decades might have felt. Before, a more mistrustful attitude toward the corporate world meant that artists couldn’t be seen cozying up to that world if they wanted to be taken seriously.  That attitude has changed, and the coming together of an artist with a brand might even be considered a positive by many.  Perhaps the quality of the conversations artists and their audiences are having isn’t changing, but only the vessels of their transmission.