Immolation, a death-metal band from Yonkers, N.Y., earned roughly $13,000 from the world’s biggest automaker for two tours. All the band had to do, in 2010 and 2011, was display Scion-branded iPod covers, socks and a new-car booklet at merch tables. “They even offered to let us use cars. We were like, ‘Yeah, that’s not practical, but thank you,'” singer Ross Dolan recalls. “I would hope they made some sales, because they really did so much to promote the music. It would be a shame if they didn’t get anything out of it.”
For 13 years, Toyota’s Scion A/V division worked with some 1,500 artists, from rappers Danny Brown and A$AP Rocky to DJ Steve Aoki to the Melvins, and sponsored numerous festivals, tours and music-business seminars. No metal guitarist had to pose inside an IM or tC; no Seattle grunge king had to wear a T-shirt on stage. It was a corporate branding experiment, much like music-funding projects at Red Bull, Converse, Vans, Mountain Dew and Hurley over the past decade — only time ran out in late October, when Toyota closed A/V, a few months after discontinuing the Scion line.
For the past 10 or 15 years, as record labels were cutting staffs and budgets in the post-Napster era, companies that have nothing to do with music arrived at the perfect time, financially, for musicians. Red Bull, Hurley, Converse and YouTube operate recording studios all over the world, working with artists big and small; Mountain Dew, Samsung, Bud Light and many others sponsor tours and festival showcases; and Vans continues to build relationships with Warped Tour artists, distributing thousands of pairs of free sneakers on rehearsal days. Scion A/V ingratiated itself into smaller, more cultish musical cultures.
“We had to have the street-cred factor,” says Jeri Yoshizu, Scion A/V’s sales promotions manager, reached by phone on her final day at Toyota in late October. “My job, for a very, very long time, was never to sell a car. It was to get the brand in front of people who’ve never heard of Scion.”
While Scion often funded projects with severely limited commercial potential, most companies aim higher when it comes to star power. Samsung has spent the last few South by Southwest festivals in Austin, Texas, handing out tickets to Prince, Kanye West–Jay Z and Sia concerts to Galaxy device owners; Red Bull live-streamed a Green Day radio performance last month on its own website channel. Marcie Allen, president of New York agency MAC Presents, which links artists with companies such as Miller, Jeep and Sony, says top brands can spend as much as $250,000 to $1 million for what she calls “in-kind activations,” funding video projects, festival showcases and live simulcasts.
“Brands have gotten a lot smarter over the last 15 years,” Allen says. “When brands like Red Bull say, ‘How do I measure the return on investment on my partnership?,’ I don’t know exactly how they calculate it, but my guess is they say, ‘We’re going exactly where the fans are, and we’re going to market to them’ — and I think it’s brilliant.”
In recent years, many in the music business say, brands have sought more concrete returns on their investments. Since 2014, Kevin Lyman, producer of the Vans-sponsored Warped Tour, companies have demanded more “accountability” when making deals to fund tours and other projects. Journeys, in renewing its Warped contract for three years, encouraged the tour to sell tickets at the company’s physical shoe stores. “It’s very, very numbers-based,” Lyman says. “You have to listen to the brands and come up with a plan to help them solve their problems — vs. ‘hey, I have this rad property I want you to be a part of.'” Greg Teal, former Hurley music and entertainment marketing manager, says the surfwear giant has de-emphasized its studio and other music endeavors in recent years. “The brand is more pointed in a surf direction, instead of a lifestyle direction — that’s where they’re investing their money,” he says, adding that Scion A/V-style branding projects have dwindled in general. “There’s less of it. Brands don’t want to spend the money on it anymore.” (A Hurley spokesperson, however, says the studio is “very much alive and running,” recently working with artists such as Cody Simpson and the Frights.)
“Sometimes you can only have the faith for so long,” says Lori Feldman, Warner Bros. Records executive vp of strategic marketing. “It’s hard [for corporations] to look at the profit-and-loss against these initiatives and say, ‘This makes no sense on the books.'”
Somehow, from the time Scion A/V began in 2003 to last month, Yoshizu and her team avoided the dreaded “how is this selling cars?” conversation from Toyota executives. “They were always 100 percent supportive. They always thought we were doing cool stuff and their kids would say, “Yeah you guys are working with this and that,’ and they’d say, ‘Oh, OK,” she says. “They were never ‘I don’t understand that.'” Of course, it didn’t work in the end — Scion’s sales dropped from 170,000 in 2006 to 50,000 in 2010 and continued to decline afterwards. And Toyota’s overall sales dropped 9.5 percent in May 2016, compared to the previous year.
Early on, many artists were suspicious of Scion A/V’s motives. Subversive underground rappers and metal and punk bands aren’t exactly mining for corporate-branding opportunities. “It was strange, in the beginning, because I couldn’t understand how this would help them, being interested in a band of our nature,” says Buzz Osborne of Seattle’s pointedly non-commercial Melvins, which received Scion funding for an EP and other projects. “Always, the question for me was how this was going to turn into car sales for Scion. I figured the end was coming. I wasn’t wrong.”
Scion A/V grew into a kind of benevolent corporate uncle for strange and cacophonous musicians. For years, Immolation’s Dolan fielded numerous requests from other death-metal bands seeking Scion contacts. “They asked nothing from us at all,” adds Dwid Hellion, frontman for death-metal band Integrity. “It was something like a benefactor.” Beginning in 2004, Scion A/V funded an Integrity album, “Detonate Worlds Plague,” invited the band to perform at small metal festivals and speak at music-business panels and gave out free merchandise. Hellion, who opens a recent album with the song “March of the Damned,” was especially enamored of the Scion socks. “They’re really, really comfortable,” the singer says by phone, rustling through his home not far from Brussels, Belgium, to pull out a pair and meticulously describe them. “I’ve got to tell you, I love to wear these socks, and my friends were like, ‘Can you get me a pair?'”
The socks are emblematic of the personal touch Scion A/V used when dealing with artists. When Yoshizu learned the news earlier this year about Toyota closing the division, one of her first calls was to Steve Aoki and his reps; Scion A/V funded the electronic-dance-music DJ’s 2011 tour and continued to work with his Dim Mak label. “It is a loss,” says Matt Colon, Aoki’s manager. “There is a huge swath of artists, [going] back to 2004 or 2005, that really got put on the map through their activities. The folks that hurt the most are people trying to make ends meet: ‘How do I create this music video? How do I get this show on the road?’ There’s only a handful [of music-funding companies] left standing, and they’re alcohol companies and energy drinks.”