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Billboards Are Back: How Artists & Their Teams Are Spending Their Marketing Dollars Again on IRL Ads

Thanks in part to social media, music fans are paying attention to "out-of-home" artist campaigns again.

For Swedish House Mafia, posting news about their new single, “Lifetime,” on Instagram and TikTok last summer wasn’t enough. They had to be bigger. If people looked up in Stockholm, Sweden, they saw three white dots on a billboard in the clouds; if fans walked through New York City’s Times Square, their message was as tall as a skyscraper.

“We wanted the fan to have it in their face, everywhere they go, and not be able to escape Swedish House Mafia,” says Salxco’s Dina Sahim, who manages the superstar EDM trio, as well as pop stars Bebe Rexha and French Montana.

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The billboards, in which the three dots morphed into a 7-15-21 release date, were part of an “in real life” marketing campaign from the band’s home country to New York to Toronto. By posting images of the billboards to social-media accounts, Swedish House Mafia employed a type of cross-advertising that has become standard in recent years for the biggest stars, including the Weeknd, Drake, Lil Nas X and Miley Cyrus.

“Sometimes I’m sick of what’s on my phone and I go for a drive,” Sahim says. “You see all these 3-D billboards with lights and on the north and south sides of the streets — it’s dope.”

Once a musty old technology that seemed out of place in the digital age, billboards have resurfaced as “out-of-home advertising.” Some artists, like Swedish House Mafia, use them in the traditional way, just to seem gigantic — when Spotify broadcast singer-songwriter Ylona Garcia’s image on a building in Times Square last October, she posted on Instagram, “IS THIS REALLY ME?!?!! IS THIS FOR REAL??” Others are more focused on targeting communities — Drake’s 2021 billboards in Atlanta alerted fans, using cryptic nicknames like “Slime” and “Pluto,” that hometown artists Young Thug, Future, Lil Baby and Savage appeared on his 2021 album Certified Lover Boy.

“They’re saying, ‘I can get content and take a picture of myself and post it on Instagram,’ and ‘I can hit people in this market to promote myself and my brand,'” says Ian Dallimore, vp digital growth for Lamar Advertising, an out-of-home specialist in Baton Rouge, La. “It’s gone beyond the vanity Times Square/Sunset Boulevard [billboards] and delved into the hyper-local.”

Billboards have been part of rock ‘n’ roll advertising campaigns for decades — the Beatles’ iconic Abbey Road street-crossing appeared larger than life on Sunset Boulevard in 1969, and Bruce Springsteen hated his 1978 Darkness On the Edge of Town billboard so much that he climbed it in the middle of the night with saxman Clarence Clemons and others and enhanced it with spray paint. By the 2000s, though billboards were expensive and not as impactful as they once were, labels often used them to prove to stars that they were sufficiently working their new releases.

Beatles Abbey Road Billboard on Sunset Strip
Beatles Abbey Road Billboard on Sunset Strip Robert Landau/Corbis via GI

In the social-media age, music fans are paying attention again: According to a Harris Poll last year, 67% of Generation Z and millennial consumers remembered seeing these kinds of campaigns posted on social media, and 91% said they would share them. The numbers suggest the campaigns work. SHM’s “Lifetime” single has racked up more than 35 million Spotify plays. Dallimore’s company allows artists to post content to its electronic billboards instantaneously: “We can have you live in five minutes across all 5,000 of our digital [billboards].” he says.

Billboard campaigns’ costs range from $5,000 for low-tech, regional spots to as much as $2 million in high-profile areas with sophisticated digital effects, according to Sam Keywanfar, a veteran music-marketing agency exec who is founder and CEO of MilkMoney, a 5-year-old company specializing in out-of-home artist campaigns. Labels’ marketing budgets sometimes pay for the spots, but artists also frequently partner with Spotify, another streaming service or a brand. One of Sahim’s clients, Bebe Rexha, was on billboards as part of a JBL campaign; billboards for DJ Khaled’s 2019 album Father of Asahd appeared in all 50 states and on Amazon Music trucks.

“By having a billboard in Times Square, they can have an asset to share on social,” Keywanfar says, “and that’s beneficial for both artist and streaming platform.” Adds Rachel Ring, global music marketing manager for Spotify, which frequently takes out Times Square billboard space for both experienced pop stars and newcomers such as singer-songwriter Zack Tabudlo: “Out-of-home has become a more important channel to tell stories we’re trying to communicate. Fans love seeing their artists in real life — it makes them more present in the physical world.”

For a brief period at the beginning of the pandemic, artists and labels cut down their out-of-home advertising budgets, because music fans were stuck at home and not driving down highways or walking through city streets. The lull proved temporary — and had the benefit, at least briefly, of driving down prices for this kind of advertising.

“Rates were at an all-time low, and it was easy and flexible to get,” says Chris Atlas, executive vp urban music and marketing at Warner Records, which has recently paid for billboards for Saweetie, Majid Jordan and many others. “Now that people are back, in mass transportation, in cars, shopping, moving around, the resurgence of billboards and out-of-home is continuing to spike and increase.”

The recent out-of-home resurgence began four or five years ago, Lamar’s Dallimore says, when regional stars like Topeka, Kan., singer-rapper T-Rell took out billboards so he could pose for photos in front of them. The throwback advertising technique caught on, to the point that Miley Cyrus, in 2019, designed and booked an entire campaign from a tour bus, using MilkMoney’s platform on her phone. Cyrus’ “1-800-SHE-IS-MC” concept encouraged fans to call a hotline, leave messages and listen to new music, and it appeared in 378 displays, from boats to buses, including a hot-pink Times Square building festooned with a “SHE IS COMING” tagline above her album release date.

Artists frequently design their own campaigns. Lil Nas X’s provocative billboards last year appeared to advertise a local personal-injury attorney, but it turned out to be a social comment about LGBTQ prejudice: “Do you hate Lil Nas X? You may be entitled to financial compensation!”

MilkMoney’s mobile tools allow artists to design billboards, Cyrus-style, when inspiration strikes: “If somebody’s up in the middle of the night, or on weekends, and they decide they want to buy out-of-home, we’re the only platform that allows them to do that,” Keywanfar says.

Five years ago, Keywanfar recalls, MilkMoney focused mainly on traditional, rectangular billboards. He used to run an agency called House of Hype, then formed MilkMoney because radio ratings were down, and fewer people were watching music videos. “There needed to be another way to get in front of fans and let them know the music was coming,” he says.

Today, MilkMoney has 10 employees and designs spots for more than 40 different formats, including buses, city benches, airports, malls and murals, with options for 3-D tech, flashing lights and video snippets. “The beauty of out-of-home is you can’t fast-forward, you can’t skip it, you can’t turn it off,” Keywanfar says. “It’s inevitable that you will see it.”