Seven rules of music and brand partnerships

Lady Gaga from #AbsolutGaga campaign.
Lady Gaga from #AbsolutGaga campaign.

Brands and artists can make beautiful music together -- if they work together in harmony

In a world where music artists and bands are making significantly less money from record deals, brands are stepping in to fill in the gaps. The old days of artists not wanting to "sell out" have been replaced by savvy artists and managers who understand how a strategic partnership with the right brand can not only generate revenue but also allow the artists to express themselves in new ways, and help them reach new audiences.

For brands, partnering with the right artist or music property can reap huge dividends. It can help generate more buzz and excitement around the brand and help build equity and "cool" like few other cultural industries can. But creating and executing a partnership with artists and music properties is partly art, partly science.

Having been lucky to work with artists as diverse as Lady Gaga, Little Dragon, Swedish House Mafia, TV on the Radio and Kanye West, as well as creating programs with partners such as Coachella, SXSW, Live Nation and the Bowery Presents, here are a few hard-won lessons I picked up along the way:

1. Understand what your brand strategically needs from music: Does it need a dose of cool? Or does it need large-scale reach to raise awareness? Each of these strategic objectives may require a completely different type of artist – from up-and-coming indie bands and rappers (the cool factor) to global superstars (mass reach). Establishing what you need the partnership for helps establish whom you should be talking to.

One note of warning, though: Don’t let your own personal passions dictate who you should work with. Your favorite band (or your boss' daughter's favorite band) is probably not going to be the right fit. Make sure you cross-reference potential choices with your consumer base. These days it’s easy to find out which artists your consumers follow on social media, and professional managers should be able to give you demographic information (social media communities, ticket sales info) that  help you validate that they are the right fit.

2. Understand what part you want to play in the music ecosystem: Today, brands can pick and choose which part of the ecosystem they want to be involved in. Whether it’s in the upstream world of finding new talent, in helping the artist distribute their content in new ways (see Jay-Z and Samsung) or improving the live experience (either in music festivals like Coachella and Ultra or music venues like the Bowery Presents), the choices are endless.

So pick one area you want to focus on — one that fulfills a strategic brand and business objective — and don’t spread yourself too thin. The area where you want to play will define which gatekeeper you want to start the conversation with first: label, artist manager, agent, publisher or promoter. And keep in mind that at some point you will probably need all of them on your side; a strong coalition of committed partners is a great indication of the success of your project.

3. Start the conversation with the artist/property with these magic words:  "How can we help you do something you've always wanted to do?" It instantly starts the relationship off on the right footing. It acknowledges that you are there to help them continue their creative journey, instead of trying to get them to work within narrow confines. Nine times out of 10, they will come back with something more creative and imaginative (and true to who they are) than anything you (or your agencies) could have imagined.

4. Be partners in delighting the fans: This closely follows Rule No. 3. If you and the artist/property are both focused on delighting a third party (their fanbase/your future consumers), you then become partners in crime. Instead of arguing about how big your logo should be be, you can both think about ways in which to genuinely surprise and excite a community, who can then go on to be the biggest advocates of your joint project.

One caveat: In your enthusiasm, be careful not to overstep the mark and force something onto your fans which creates a backlash (see Exhibit A: Apple and the latest U2 album).

5. It’s not about the logo: Authenticity in music is everything. Unlike sports, where players can wear a corporate logo on their chest with no shame, musicians and bands are acutely aware of how a wrong move can damage their hard-won credibility. Fans are prepared to accept a certain level of corporate involvement if they see the value it brings to the artist, but too much of it can be distasteful. Clumsy brands can end up destroying exactly what brought them to that artist in the first place — those intangible elements, the credibility and the coolness.

6. Be nice, and work with nice people: Relationships are based on trust and mutual respect; so understand that even if you hold the checkbook, you don’t hold all the cards. So be respectful and nice, and you can expect the same in return. The most successful artists/properties work with professionals who are smart, efficient and easy to work with. They understand that brands have deadlines, and lawyers and processes ... and that the only place for rock-and-roll drama should be on-stage.

7. Honor the music: Music can do amazing things, like create deep emotional connections, in ways that few art forms can. So do your homework: Get a Spotify account. Go see live bands. Develop your own cultural antennae. Don't just rely on a PowerPoint recommendation. Always try to find ways to respect and honor the music, and help artists find more ways to let more people experience their work in the most exciting way possible.

Afdhel Aziz is brand director at Absolut Vodka.

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