Branding

Sponsorships Are Helping Homebound Artists Replace Lost Revenue, But 'Their Leverage Has Diminished'

Jessie Reyez Before Love Came To Kill Us
Courtesy Photo

Jessie Reyez performs a live acoustic version of "Before Love Came To Kill Us"

With the coronavirus pandemic keeping artists off the touring circuit, sponsored digital content is looking more appealing -- but it's not paying like it used to.

Aside from her Pulp Fiction T-shirt and a hairbrush standing in for a microphone, the most conspicuous detail in Jessie Reyez' April 1 sing-from-home performance was the green bottle on her dresser. After Reyez' tour with Billie Eilish abruptly canceled last month, forcing her to send home 10 musicians and crew, her co-manager Byron Wilson reached out to Jameson Irish Whiskey to sponsor a 40-minute livestream of her album Before Love Came to Kill Us. "It moved quick," Wilson says. "There's a lot of people losing jobs right now and they were willing to help."

That green Jameson bottle represents the kind of sponsorship that "has kept some people afloat and given a bit more breathing room to look into the future and figure things out." The Jameson sponsorship paid for most of the crew’s lost wages for the Eilish tour.

Tour sponsorship and advertising accounted for $590 million of concert giant Live Nation’s budget last year, and all that money is shut down for the foreseeable future -- but brands have spent the last month providing crucial capital for artists. In addition to Jameson, Jack Daniel’s, Chipotle, Bud Light, the Baton Rouge chicken-fingers chain Raising Cane’s, Levi’s and Verizon, among others, have sponsored livestreams, donated to music-related charities and made direct deals for product placement and social-media marketing. Marcie Allen, president of MAC Presents, a New York agency that connects artists with corporations, says beer, insurance, tech and streaming companies are still “keeping the pedal down in their marketing and advertising.”

Brands are especially willing to donate money and resources to charitable music causes. “I’ve never seen more hunger than right now for brands and platforms to step up,” says Hugh Evans, co-founder and CEO of Global Citizen, which convinced Cisco, Citi, Pepsi and others to sponsor Saturday’s “One World: Together at Home” benefit starring Lady Gaga, Billie Eilish and others.

But deals are less robust than they are in a typical concert season. Despite her optimism, Allen has seen offers drop from roughly $1 million-$3 million to $50,000-$250,000. "There is not a doubt in my mind there was a massive pullback in the money they've spent," says Nathan Hanks, founder and CEO of Music Audience Exchange, which puts artists and brands together for online events. "You're not seeing those huge deals being consummated right now. There's lots of micro-deals that are going on, but everybody's pie has temporarily shrunk." Adds Rick Faigin, executive vp of Los Angeles marketing company Acceleration Advisory: "Maybe six figures if you're an artist, but I don't think there's multiple seven-figure deals right now."

"There's a limited amount of financials that we want to commit now," explains Shana Barry, Anheuser-Busch's director of experiential for Bud Light, "because we also need to look to the future and focus on the happiness when we can all get back together."

Still, branding and sponsorship are easy ways for artists to recover a portion of their lost tour revenue these days. In late March, Bud Light's Dive Bar Tour pivoted to a "home edition," then sponsored eight events, including performances by Dierks Bentley, Brad Paisley, Jake Owen and Thomas Rhett. “It was a no-brainer: ‘Let’s take this into the home, let’s provide 60 minutes of levity with a beer,’” Barry says. Through its own donations and viewer contributions, Jack Daniel’s raised $27,000 from Ashley McBryde and Chase Rice benefits for the Sweet Relief Musicians Covid-19 Fund. Within Jack Daniel's, the script has flipped: Its digital-media team is "the busiest group we have right now," says Greg Luehrs, the company's sponsorship director, while its typically jet-setting activation team is reduced to "helping out when we can."

Raising Cane's has sponsored several livestreams, including Facebook Live concerts by Better Than Ezra’s Kevin Griffin, reggae singer Bankie Banx and American Idol season 17 winner Laine Hardy, and is looking into other opportunities with top artists. "We're pursuing it like crazy," says Todd Graves, the company's founder and chairman, who is forgoing his salary during the pandemic and hoping to maintain 75% sales to avoid layoffs. "I never wanted to ask people, 'Hey, say you like Cane's and I'll pay you to do that.' It seemed kind of cheesy to me. But now people's incomes have stopped and things need to be done."

Because brands are reluctant to scream too loudly about products on TV, they're using music as a way of being subtle and empathetic. Walmart set the tone with a spot starring employees singing the late Bill Withers' "Lean On Me" into phone cameras. Chipotle's "Together" campaign sponsored livestreams by Luke Bryan, Portugal. The Man and Lauv to illustrate its "connect, have some fun and make some new friends" tagline. (Sources say big music names, who usually make $1 million or $2 million from brands for private shows, are now taking 75 to 80% pay cuts for livestreams, and the total includes money donated to charity.) "Music's really important right now," says Tressie Liberman, Chipotle's vp digital marketing and off-premise. "You can't help but settle into the magic that is happening by connecting with these artists."

Brands are also emphasizing social-media influencers and low-key celebrity endorsements, like Bryan, who made an off-the-cuff remark during his livestream about Chipotle's safe food delivery. "Subtlety is key," says Alex Dermer, a partner with Get Engaged Media, a music-marketing firm that emphasizes social media. "It's not something you'll probably recognize. People are going to be like, 'Celebrities are really showing what types of drinks they drink and what their favorite foods are,' and the end-user isn't going to realize there might have been a transaction that happens there." (The Federal Trade Commission requires that anyone who gets paid to endorse a product on social media must disclose the connection, via tags like #ad or #sponsored. Not all artists do this: A snippet of Bryan’s Chipotle performance on his Instagram contains no hashtag, while Reyez’ stay-at-home YouTube mentions her sponsor.)

Adds Ben Hiott, another Get Engaged partner: "All the companies and brands that are a little bit behind the curve on digital marketing and influencer marketing are playing catchup right now."

But while artists are crucial to certain kinds of marketing campaigns in the COVID-19 era, their leverage has diminished without the big concert dollars, at least for now. “Something you’ve done for $500,000, you might do for $200,000,” says Matt Ferrigno, owner of marketing agency MTW. "Everybody's not so tough anymore. I've already seen the narrative change. It's crazy.

“It’s a good time for brands,” Ferrigno adds. “It’s like, ‘I might be able to be more collaborative with an artist than ever before. Oh, he’s going to get on the phone. He’s home.’”

Another advantage for brands is declining production costs, as artists sitting at home in T-shirts and hair buns, like Jessie Reyez, are just as powerful as those in full costumes surrounded by pyrotechnics. And while some in the music business are concerned livestreams may soon oversaturate the internet, Joe Killian, CEO of Killian and Company, which produces music events for brands, says they have the rare advantage of not competing with sports. "That has certainly freed up money," he says. "Brands are still celebrating music. I love sports, but because the leagues are all suspended for the time being, it's allowed everyone to focus on music."

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