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American Express UNSTAGED Launches Artists in Residence Program, Highlighting Emerging Acts

Mary Lambert, Rixton and Betty Who are featured in AmEx's AIR program

American Express has worked with some of music’s biggest stars in the past year, from Pharrell Williams to Tim McGraw to Maroon 5. But for its latest music program, the financial-services company has created American Express UNSTAGED: Artists In Residence, a bid to give a boost to three emerging acts – Australian pop singer Betty Who, poetic singer-songwriter Mary Lambert and British pop-rock quartet Rixton.

“We love to help people grow, it’s our DNA,” says Deborah Curtis, AmEx’s VP-entertainment marketing and sponsorships. “And programs like MADE Fashion, Tribeca Film and now AIR represent that. We’ve always established relationships early to support artists and their work as they continue to grow. We have these three incredible artists that represent different kinds of music and fanbases, and we want to support them in reaching as many fans as possible.”

As part of the AIR program -- which launched today (Nov. 4) in partnership with Billboard, YouTube, Twitter and VEVO -- AmEx will roll out custom content at AmExUnstaged.com/AIR and Billboard.com/AmexAIR, including interviews with each artist telling the stories behind their musical journeys, and online premieres of intimate 30-minute concerts (filmed Oct. 20 at Brooklyn’s Music Hall Of Williamsburg).

Meet the Artists: Betty Who | Mary Lambert | Rixton

The concerts will premiere the week of November 17 and the videos will live on AmEx’s Unstaged YouTube channel as well as Billboard.com, Vevo and AmEx NOW (the company’s 24-hour video network.) Additionally, Billboard and Vevo will take part in an unlock program for social media using the hashtag #AmexAIR, with opportunities for fans to help artists take over Vevo’s Instagram and participate in exclusive Q&As via the Billboard Twitter account.

All three participating acts were thrilled to get involved with AIR for different reasons. “There’s not anyone who doesn’t know what AmEx is, so to be affiliated with them is an absolute honor and a privilege,” says Jake Roche, lead singer of Rixton, whose debut album Let The Road streets January 6. “Every artist has big dreams to one day be playing stadiums and arenas, and if AmEx can assist with that, and we can assist them, that’s a great thing for everyone.”

Lambert, whose debut Heart on My Sleeve debuted at No. 29 on this week’s Billboard 200, liked the idea of being able to “make money ethically” through music, having gained a top 10 hit last year as a featured performer on “Same Love” alongside D.I.Y. poster boys Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. “For me, the real goal is positive intention and social change through music. It doesn’t mean that it can’t turn a profit,” she says.

And Betty Who, whose debut Take Me When You Go recently debuted at No. 68 on the Billboard 200, is already fielding requests about the program from her father. “He was like, ‘Can they send me a Black card?’” she says with a laugh, in reference to AmEx’s invite-only Centurion Card. “But having my name associated with something as big and well-respected as AmEx, not to mention working these other artists, makes me feel like I have clout. Honestly, if all I got out of this partnership was standing on that stage with this incredible artists, I’d be OK with that.”

Learn more about the Unstaged: Artist in Residence program

Though there won’t be any Black cards handed out, AmEx did provide special services to all three of the participating artists, including an emerging-artist workshop held Oct. 20 at Brooklyn’s Wythe Hotel, and access to a representative from Open, which provides support for small businesses. But AIR artists aren’t required to endorse AmEx products, specifically. “It’s really up to them as far as what card they choose,” Curtis says. “We’re just providing consultation. Really it’s about helping our cardmembers discover them and get more engaged with them as artists.”

Though all three AIR artists are signed to major labels -- Betty Who to RCA, Lambert to Capitol and Rixton to Interscope -- the need for additional marketing support from brands and other third-party partners is crucial for bands big and small these days, with total album and track sales down 13.1% year-to-date compared to 2013. Even U2 needed a $100 million ad boost from Apple to get the word out about their latest album Songs of Innocence. And AmEx has considerable marketing power: According to WPP’s Kantar Media, AmEx spent over $646 million on measured U.S. ad expenditures in 2013 alone.

Still, despite the company’s huge investment in the music space, Curtis says AmEx has no desire to officially become a label. “We try to tap into opportunities where we can offer help,” he said. “We’ve been involved in the music industry for over 20 years, and our [concert] pre-sale program is pretty well-developed. We’re not looking to replace anybody, but we think there’s a lot of places where we can add value.”