RIGHT now it is just a shell, the peeling remnant of an old dry cleaner on a graffiti-covered block in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. But soon the 5,200-square-foot space will be transformed into a sleek new recording studio in the heart of the underground-rock capital. And in the latest twist in pop’s relationship with Madison Avenue, the struggling bands making music there will already be encountering corporate America: the studio is being built by Converse, which will let them record free.
A shoe company giving away studio time might seem peculiar. But with its new project, Converse—whose sneakers have been worn by generations of bands, from the Ramones to the Strokes—wants to become a patron of the rock arts. The company is not alone: lifestyle brands are becoming the new record labels.
Looking to infiltrate the lives of their customers on an ever deeper cultural level, they are starting imprints, scouting for talent and writing checks for nearly every line item on a band’s budget. And as the traditional record industry crumbles, plenty of musicians are welcoming these new rock ’n’ roll Medici.
“Artists are finding the only way to achieve any financial safety is to become a lapdog of the great corporations,” said the author and media critic Douglas Rushkoff […].
Not long ago most youth-minded brands’ pop strategies were limited to tour sponsorships and licensing songs for TV commercials. Now they compete to offer bands the kind of services once strictly the province of record companies: money for video shoots, marketing, even distribution. Red Bull and Mountain Dew have record labels with credible rosters. Levi’s, Converse, Dr. Martens, Scion, Nike and Bacardi have all sponsored music by the kind of under-the-radar artists covered in Pitchfork and The Village Voice, and they blitz the blogosphere with promotional budgets fatter than most labels could muster.
For the brands the desired payoff is coolness by association. And while a generation ago these arrangements would have carried a stigma for the artists, branding deals are now as common in rock as guitars. A band’s decision to do business with a soft-drink company is often no different from its decision to sign with a record label.
“Music is everywhere now, and if you have it tied to a brand, there’s nothing wrong with that,” said Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast, a girl-group-meets-grunge band from Los Angeles […].
Ms. Cosentino’s band has existed for barely a year, but she is already a branding vet. Well before she signed a proper record deal, with the small label Mexican Summer, she released a single through a boutique headphone company. And when Converse asked her to collaborate with the rapper Kid Cudi and Rostam Batmanglij of Vampire Weekend on a song that would be given away on its Web site, she didn’t hesitate. “It was an amazing opportunity,” she said by phone recently from a gig in Iowa. “If I said no it would have been stupid.”
Converse’s studio, called Converse Rubber Tracks, is the brainchild of Geoff Cottrill, the company’s chief marketing officer. On a tour of the raw space he wore a pair of ripped jeans, a Rolex watch and a big, I-swear-it’s-true smile as he described the plans for the studio, which is to open by the end of the year. After applying online, bands deemed dedicated and needy enough will be able to record whatever they want there. No need to prepare rhymes for “Chuck Taylor”—Converse says it will have no influence on the music, the artists will keep ownership rights, and, as with many brand-as-patron projects, the songs aren’t intended to be used in ads.
Mr. Cottrill said the company wants to “give back” to its loyal customers, but of course the enterprise is not purely altruistic. The idea is that helping new bands will build good will for the brand (and generate future sales) and also give Converse an advantage over all the other companies out there competing for young eyeballs.
“Think of a cul-de-sac with four garages, and in those garages are four bands,” Mr. Cottrill said. “On the street are all the big brands of the world—Coke, Apple, the car companies—standing there waiting for the garage door to open and the cool band to step out so they can tell them they’re going to make them famous. But I would venture to say that inside those garages those kids are already wearing our shoes.”
To run the studio Converse has hired Cornerstone, a media and marketing company in New York with a history of seeding corporate branding campaigns with hip music. It also operates Mountain Dew’s Green Label Sound imprint, which releases free MP3s by blogger favorites like Neon Indian and Chromeo. Jon Cohen, a founder of Cornerstone—who is also an owner of The Fader magazine and its related record label—said his brand-run projects fill voids in the beleaguered music industry. “A brand now has the ability to really break an artist,” Mr. Cohen said.
Lifestyle brands have been cultivating their roles as music curators for years; Starbucks even started a label after its success with albums like Ray Charles’s “Genius Loves Company.” And the patronage model grows out of the same kind of margin-trolling philosophy that has led big companies like Apple and Nike to license music by rising but still low-profile artists, said Josh Rabinowitz, director of music at the Grey agency.
“Indie-inflected music serves as a kind of Trojan horse,” Mr. Rabinowitz said. “Consumers feel they are discovering something that they believe to be cool and gaining admittance to a more refined social clique.”
An early adopter was Scion, Toyota’s Gen-Y line, which started a giveaway label in 2005 and still puts on dance and metal shows around the country. Red Bull Records began in 2007 with a team of former major-label executives, and other companies offer bands more specific forms of support: Motel 6’s Rock Yourself To Sleep program, for example, gives free rooms to touring groups.
In the short term those services are much appreciated by bands. But what long-term effect the brands’ power will have on musicians’ careers—or on the music itself—remains to be seen.
Artists and talent managers say that the music deals offered by brands can be fairer and more favorable than traditional label contracts. These days major labels want bands to sign so-called 360 or extended-rights agreements, which give the label a piece of nearly every dollar a band makes, from concerts to merchandise. On the other hand, most brands offer short-term deals with few strings.
When the dance-rock band Chromeo released its single “Night by Night” through Green Label Sound last fall, Mountain Dew paid for a video, remixes and a wave of publicity online and off, and the band walked away with full ownership rights; that song is now on its album “Business Casual,” which was released by Atlantic last month. Chromeo faced accusations of selling out, but David Macklovitch, aka Dave 1, its lead singer, questioned that knee-jerk response.
Major labels’ 360 deals, he said, are “way more of a sell-out than doing a collaboration with a brand where you have full creative control and you give free content to your fans.” (Many artists on Atlantic have extended-rights contracts, but a spokeswoman said Chromeo does not.)
But not every branding deal goes smoothly. Two years ago the Island Def Jam Music Group announced Tag Records, a joint label with Procter & Gamble’s Tag Body Spray that promised a “multimillion-dollar marketing effort.” A Brooklyn rapper, Q da Kid, was signed, and the veteran producer and music executive Jermaine Dupri was established at the helm. But in less than a year the new label collapsed, Mr. Dupri left Def Jam, and Q da Kid was stuck in contractual purgatory.
“I was with a company that didn’t understand the music business,” the rapper said in a telephone interview. “They’re used to their brands flying off the shelves like it ain’t nothing, and they thought, ‘If we put enough money behind this, he’ll be big.’ And it wasn’t like that.”
Whether Tag fell apart because of a clash of corporate cultures or a more typical major-label power struggle—Mr. Dupri was known to feud with Def Jam’s chairman, Antonio Reid—is not clear. (In an e-mail Steve Bartels, Island Def Jam’s president, leaned toward the culture-clash explanation. “I think the interaction could have been more focused,” he wrote. “The nuances of developing a new artist can take years.”) But Tag Records’ fate points to the reality that sneaker and soda companies are ultimately in it to sell sneakers and soda, not music.
Mr. Cottrill suggested that the long-term success of Rubber Tracks would depend less on whether the bands that record there go on to fame and fortune than on the extent to which they keep Converse in their heart.
“Let’s say over the next five years we put 1,000 artists through here, and one becomes the next Radiohead,” he said. “They’re going to have all the big brands chasing them to sponsor their tour. But the 999 artists who don’t make it, the ones who tend to get forgotten about, they’ll never forget us.”
Critics have often complained about the influence of licensing and advertising on music. In the mid-2000s, for example, rap started to develop lots of blippy, simple melodies that would sound good in ringtones. It may be too soon to tell whether the patronage of Red Bull, Mountain Dew and Converse will warp the sound of indie rock. But if young bands are developing with their attractiveness to corporate America in mind, will they, say, avoid political content?
Chris Kaskie, the president of the music web site Pitchfork, noted a lack of debate about the implications of bands’ working with brands. When Nike makes a cool mix-tape, he said, there is little comment about the company in the indie-rock world.
“Young bands are growing up in a culture where there’s less off that discussion happening, less of those underlying issues being addressed,” Mr. Kaskie said. “But the experiment that these bands are doing is important to see where it goes.”
Ms. Cosentino of Best Coast said that her decision to work with Converse was not just about the publicity. She’s a fan of the company—“I’ve been wearing Converse since I was a child,” she said—and noted that when she recorded “All Summer,” the Converse-sponsored track with Kid Cudi and Mr. Batmanglij, the company gave no instructions other than that it was looking for a “summer vibe.”
“We just made something that is a fun song,” she said, “that will hopefully make people dance around in their Converse during the summer.”