Vernon, recently nominated for four Grammy Awards, had been quoted days earlier on a New York Times blog, which published a June interview in which he called the Grammys "unimportant," claiming that "98% of [musicians'] art is compromised by the fact that they're hoping to get that award." The Avalanches retorted, "A musician's 'art is compromised' if he/she desires a Grammy. But endor$ing a product with proven devastating health risks is OK?"
Bushmills-produced video, Bon Iver afterparty
The band was referring to this year's much-buzzed-about Bushmills campaign, in which Vernon and his managers, Kyle Frenette and brother Nate Vernon, appear. Acts Chromeo and Theophilus London have also appeared in the whiskey ads, on billboards and in print. Though Vernon responded to the jab and launched a friendly conversation about "selling out," the whole event seems anachronistic in the wake of the events that have transpired during the past few years. Since indie songstress Feist appeared in an Apple iPod commercial in 2007, branding and licensing deals have grown increasingly common, and this year the trend is more widespread -- and beneficial -- than ever.
2011 has been a big year for independent artists in general; naturally, brands have caught on. This year, Converse opened its state-of-the-art, free-to-use Rubber Tracks recording studio in Brooklyn. Mountain Dew, still going strong with its Green Label Sound, provided thousands of dollars in tour support to independent acts like Mac Miller, Holy Ghost! and Wavves. The House of Vans, which opened in October 2010 (also in Brooklyn), hosted a free concert series this summer that featured acts like Superchunk and Cults.
These indie artists used to be the last acts one would expect to partner with a brand. But now that they have, few (the Avalanches among them) seem to mind. Perhaps it's because now, more than ever, brands are putting the reins in artists' hands. As a result, those independent artists, along with their teams and fans, have embraced campaigns and deals as integral career-builders, something that adds increased visibility and much-needed revenue while allowing the artist to maintain an ever-growing level of creative control.
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Was 2011 the beginning of the end of "selling out"?
Daron Hollowell is executive producer and co-founder of Black Iris, a Brooklyn-based collective of working indie musicians who create original content for film, TV and advertising. He and Andy McGrath, who heads Black Iris' label arm, White Iris, have acted as moderators between bands and brands since 2005. Hollowell says that in the past year, demand from brands for original content -- rather than traditional product endorsement or licensing -- has had a major boost.
"It's becoming more common now that when [brands] approach us or these bands, they want to create something that is really great in its own right, while also having it help promote a product," Hollowell says. "These collaborations between artists and brands, oftentimes done through an ad agency, seem to be on the rise."
Indie fans used to bristle at the faintest scent of compromised integrity. So why aren't they doing that now?
"People recently are pretty OK with it if it's made clear that a brand is involved," Hollowell says. "That's a by-product of the understanding that once people started downloading music for free so frequently, bands weren't left with that many options for making this sort of life work, especially if you're a baby band trying to scratch it out. These are real opportunities and [fans] recognize that."
Still, fans haven't changed their minds about "selling out" overnight. What's changed is that term's definition: Where artists in the past have exchanged their image for a lump sum, the typical branding deal of 2011 acts in the best interest of the artists, creating both revenue and content. The tables have turned -- now brands simply want the name association, while artists take center stage -- and "selling out," through the conspicuous, lifeless product endorsement of yesterday, is desirable for neither party.
Partisan Records co-founder Ian Wheeler doesn't lose sleep over the arrangements. His label's alt-folk act Deer Tick, whom he also manages, brokered a deal this fall with Stella Artois for a series of online video promotions that featured original treatments proposed by band and label. Partisan artists have also teamed up with brands like Patagonia, Danner and Stumptown Roasters.
"You can buy advertising for a record, or you can set up a branding partnership where both parties tweet about each other," Wheeler says. "With the second one, you save a lot of money and get great visibility for the band. I don't think it's as dirty a business as it used to be. There are always going to be people who feel like they've been betrayed [by the bands they love], but it's something that is lessening now, as brands become smarter in terms of how they work with artists."
The members of Chromeo aren't batting an eye, either. The duo partnered with Bushmills after another deal earlier this year with Mountain Dew's Green Label Sound. David "Dave 1" Macklovitch says he and partner P-Thugg have made concerted efforts to self-fund things like tour support and video budgets, separate from Atlantic, in order to maintain a level of artistic independence. Brands, he says, provide more of that freedom than anything else. What's more, he's confident the model can stick.
"It's easier for us to deal with brands, because all we have to do is take pictures and create content," Macklovitch says. "It's all creative, and we maintain control. When you get that much freedom and you can preserve that much integrity, you can call it a successful partnership."