Robert Levine had an article in yesterday’s New York Times about corporations moving to fill the role once performed by record labels.
At a time when online file-sharing is rampant, record stores are closing and consumers are buying singles instead of albums, getting into the music business might seem like running into a burning building. But as record labels struggle to adjust to a harsh new digital reality, other companies are stepping up their involvement in music, going far beyond standard endorsement contracts and the use of songs in commercials.
These companies — like Procter & Gamble, Red Bull and Nike — are stepping outside of their core businesses to promote, finance and even distribute music themselves.
A few months ago, Bacardi announced that it would help the English electronic music duo Groove Armada pay for and promote its next release. Caress, the body-care line owned by Unilever, commissioned the Pussycat Dolls singer Nicole Scherzinger to record a version of Duran Duran’s “Rio” that it gave away on its Web site to promote its “Brazilian body wash” product. The energy drink company Red Bull is starting a label that is expected to release music before the end of the year.
This brings a whole new level of meaning to the epithet corporate rock. In some ways, this development seems almost inevitable: If recorded music is no longer profitable as a product in and of itself, its primary value is to serve as an adjunct to some form of advertising. Records are in the same position in the market as “free” TV shows once were. So it makes sense for corporations to buy bands the same way they would buy time on a network show back in broadcast TV’s heyday. And it’s not like songs and ads are of utterly different substances: all recorded commercial music can be regarded if necessary as an advertisement for something, even if it is just for the recording artists themselves. That may, in fact, how we will come to understand them instinctually, as jingles.
But on the other hand, it is hard not to be nauseated by this: “Two weeks ago, Converse released a single by a combination of artists that The Times of London called ‘a three-headed Frankenstein’s monster of coolness’: the Strokes singer Julian Casablancas, the producer Pharrell Williams and the R&B performer Santogold.” If the pop music we listen to is in large part an attempt to project our identity in a form our peers will immediately apprehend, think of the self-image the people listening to this song are communicating to the world. It’s not just the musicians who become inextricably associated with their corporate masters; it is potentially all of their fans as well.