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."
A marketing deal can cover everything from a few months' rent to a few years' salary, depending on the brand — and on the authenticity of the partnership. Maize, whose contract includes commercial face time and driving a Prius as a "brand advocate," says she has a lot of affinity with Toyota.
"For me to promote something that I really believe in, with the environment, there's so many fucking issues," she explains. "If we can't get people to start thinking about it and their everyday choices, then it's all a wash."
Just because some brands and artists are working toward an authentic outcome in a partnership, that doesn't mean they all do. According to one advertising professional, it takes all kinds.
"I've worked with many artists who will do anything for money," says Bonny Dolan, executive producer at Comma Music. "But I've had some pass up a million dollars because they don't believe in the product. My job is to always give them the offer."
Dolan, who moderated a panel discussion titled "The Shifting Brandscape" at SXSW this year, says she's watched brands infiltrate the music industry over the past decade. Having worked at Leo Burnett Chicago for seven years as a music producer, she's seen artists and fans alike take a more forgiving approach to partnerships.
"At Comma, I'll do a showcase when bands come through," she says. "These artist showcases happen with advertising agencies in New York and Chicago. And what we do at Comma is invite all the agencies, so the band can get in front of all the agencies to let them know they're interested in getting their music out there."
Dolan says the roster of bands interested in such partnerships spans the spectrum from indie to mainstream. And while El Ten Eleven, for example, may not be getting sponsorships with American Express a la Jay Z, Dunn and Fogarty have found balance in making art and a living simultaneously. Having toured the festival circuit for years, they've landed spots at North Coast Music Fest and What the Festival, just to name a few, alongside names like Wu Tang Clan and Afrojack.
As for Gaga, her actual performance at SXSW was just about the last thing you'd expect to see in a commercial from the Frito-Lay brand. She spun around on a spit like a pig while singing songs from last year's album Artpop, as her backup dancers completed the tableau of rebellious revelry around her. To finish off her performance, she had fellow performance artist Millie Brown vomit paint on her.
Vomiting in relation to a snack brand? The Internet went crazy.
In her keynote afterward, Gaga praised the experience of "watching the fans have an experience with me and then having Doritos support that to its core, not telling me how to do the show, what it should be like, or putting chains around my neck." Frito-Lay, she added, "just said, ‘We just want to support you in having a great experience [at the festival]. We want to help your foundation. We want to help spread the message. How do we do that?' And they came up with ‘Bold Bravery,' and it all came together."
"The truth is, without sponsorships, without these companies coming together to help us, we won't have any more artists in Austin," she added. "We won't have any festivals, because record labels don't have any fucking money."
(NOTE: An earlier version of this story, and the print version, contained an error in the transcription of Kellee Maize's quote about her relationship with Prius. We apologize for the error. -- Ed.)