Are Brands and Agencies The New A&Rs?

Mixtapes
Much has been written about the music industry’s historic decline over the greater part of the last decade.

As the primary distribution mechanism has shifted from discs to digital, consumers’ discovery process has followed suit, evolving from the “new release” rack of their local record store to the link collection at their favorite music blog.

What many accounts of the struggling music industry fail to mention, however, is that the music industry’s ultra-fragmented, content-overloaded state has created an opportunity for brands to become involved as never before. The record label’s and record store’s historical position as middlemen between consumers and content is dwindling, leaving a vacuum that is rapidly being filled by blogs, publications and the savviest of brands.

Demand is at an all-time high, but the “means to consumption” have changed, says Roger Faxon, head of EMI Publishing, in his recent interview with The Economist. There are new free-and-subscription-based streaming services setting up shop every day, sustained and fueled by the rabid demands of consumers for more and better content.  The result has been the disintermediation of content – consumers no longer care where good content comes from, as long as it’s both convenient and good.

Do marketers and brands need to become A&Rs?

According to a recent Forrester survey, 65% of brands and product companies interviewed will spend more on their digital music strategies in 2010 than they did in 2009. The increased spending is part of brands’ greater commitment to strengthening their emotional connections to consumers as well as developing cultural relevance for their products.  For brands to truly deliver on these objectives it’s safe to say that yes, we do.

Delving into content creation/curation has never been more important.  Brands that succeed become part of the cultural vanguard, occupying the gatekeeper role that once fueled the success of publications like Vibe, Foot Locker and Tower Records. It begins with being sensitive to consumer lifestyle and culture barometers, developing discerning tastes, and having a keen intuition for which emerging trends will pay dividends for the brand and which are fads that are better avoided.

And though it may come as a shock to those of us who grew up during the 90’s (sell-out!), artists, for the most part, are willing to welcome brands into their world.

“There are lots more people who are competing out there, and they have the ability to enter the marketplace. That’s what the Internet allows you to do…enter the marketplace. Now you have to break through. You have to have extraordinary talent, or high level of recognition…focus, huge number of people, in a relatively short period of time….”

-Roger Faxon, head of EMI Publishing

Here’s a great example: New York City-based urban clothing line 10xDeep has excelled at commissioning original content, so much in fact, that they’ve begun to be recognized as a valuable conduit for propelling the careers of burgeoning fashion-forward artists. Their last three forays into music have been (free) digital mixtape projects for eclectic hip-hop artists Wale, Kid Cudi, and most recently, Donnis, all of whom have since been signed to major label contracts.  All have since achieved national acclaim, including, in Kid Cudi’s case, Grammy Award nominations.

Normally, the brand will release a limited-edition, commemorative t-shirt in conjunction with the project’s release, most of which sell out instantly. But, t-shirt sales are second fiddle to the other forms of ROI realized: lead generation and consumer insights attained by downloads, cultural relevance, and a substantial volume of ”buzz” that generates a healthy amount of earned media and attention amongst influential blogs and content publishers online. The equity they attain as a result of their investment and genuine alignment in their consumers’ culture is nothing less than a paradigm for success.

A Double Edged Sword…

One thing to keep in mind is that “music” shouldn’t be perceived as a standalone strategy, but as one of many brand touchpoints that should support and enhance all other forms of brand communication. Forrester’s Mark Mulligan astutely notes that, “music represents massive opportunity for brands, but the current momentum easily becomes a retrograde move if mistakes are made and fans feel alienated by intrusive marketing messages. If brands are to shake off the ‘suit in the mosh pit dancing like a dad’ image, they must seek to add to the artist-fan relationship and differentiate in an increasingly crowded marketplace.

The brand/consumer transparency that is allowed by digital channels is a delicate privilege that needs to be respected.  Marketers have a habit of preaching about the perils of being inauthentic, but the reality is, without an equally firm grasp on both the brand’s voice and the consumer landscape, one runs the risk of shooting themselves in the foot with hackneyed content plays that don’t ring true.

Stepping into New Roles

Aligning with music to connect emotionally with consumers is hardly a new concept, but the shifting music landscape has opened the door for brands to take a greater role in the discovery and propagation process.  Just as brands have become comfortable in the role of venture capitalists, bankrolling ideas to further the greater good, brands can now take on the role of A&R reps, cultivating and curating music to fill the void that has been left by disintermediation.

The question is, how drastically will the historical role of the brands change once being a content curator becomes standard practice?

“We change as culture has changed…it’s about connecting our brand with people where they are.”

-Andrew Katz, sr. marketing mgr., PepsiCo