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From Kellee Maize to Lady Gaga, artists find that brand deals can take the place of a label 

"What's the type of relationship? What's the philosophy behind the collaboration?"

In the wake of the music-industry collapse, some artists walk a fine line promoting brands while pursuing art.

Illustration by Micah Benson

In the wake of the music-industry collapse, some artists walk a fine line promoting brands while pursuing art.

At this year's South By Southwest festival in March, Lady Gaga, the epitome of pop stardom, partnered with Frito-Lay — a deal that didn't endear her to some critics. As the festival began, music writer John Pareles slammed Gaga in a New York Times blog post: "My face, physical presence, and social media accounts are not a snack-food marketing tool," wrote Pareles, who said he'd skip Gaga's performance at SXSW. "Lady Gaga, feel free to scarf down my promotional bag of chips. As if."

But in a keynote speech at the indie-centric fest, Gaga gave critics something more to think about — and spelled out a mindset that a lot of musicians, including some based in Pittsburgh, are echoing.

"[W]hoever is writing or saying all of those things, you don't know fuck about the state of the music industry," Gaga said. "I think it's also about how the artist chooses to engage in these sorts of relationships. What's the type of relationship? What's the philosophy behind the collaboration? Do you have things in common?"

The controversy highlighted an industry-wide trend: While marketing partnerships have drawn a backlash from some musicians and fans, among many others there's been a gradual shift in opinion about partnering with corporations. And festival season, the extended spring-to-summer music-industry holiday, is the most obvious reflection of the change.

From Ultra to Coachella to SXSW, advertisers keen on reaching the coveted millennial audience have capitalized on the festival format. But beyond the branded stages, branded parties and branded dinners, there's been a change of ownership and power — from major labels to big brands. And plenty of artists are cool with that.

"I think 20 to 30 years ago, generally speaking, people were more apt to say, ‘Oh, that person sold out because they licensed a song to a commercial,'" says Kristian Dunn of the band El Ten Eleven. "I think these days, people aren't as critical in that regard because it's just harder to make money as a musician."

El Ten Eleven is comprised of Dunn and drummer Tim Fogarty (a Pittsburgh native). The pair creates a unique blend of post-rock-influenced indie music, with Dunn on a double-neck bass that he loops over Fogarty's electronic drums. While experimental in its approach, the band has gained a lot of experience making original music for film scores and commercials, so it can slip into a pop aesthetic on a whim.

"There's not really CD sales anymore," Dunn explains. "I think the general public is more forgiving of musicians licensing their music to commercials because they know they've got to pay the rent. In one shot, you can sell a song and it's like, ‘OK, cool: I don't have to have a day job for two more months, and in that time I can work on my art.'"

Local rapper Kellee Maize has also found success with a brand partnership. She signed a three-year contract with Toyota to promote the company's hybrid model, Prius. Maize, who's built a career on unconventional marketing techniques, admits that the offer initially blindsided her. But she has nothing but good things to say about working with the brand.

"It's definitely helping me, because I'm really committed to my music being free and continuing to learn and kind of be a guinea pig for this whole new way of copyrighting music to creative commons," she explains. "I'm not heavily distributed in normal channels. [The Toyota deal] pretty much funded my last album. And it continues to give me the opportunity to just make more music, and not be quite as concerned with selling in order to make it."

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