It’s rare that you go to a festival in this day and age that isn’t presented by some corporate sponsor who proudly drapes their brand on every imaginable piece of the festival. That’s not all, you can of course count on there being a number of other sponsors handing out free swag and creating these larger than life experiences for you to be a part of. It’s all become part of the festival experience . But at what cost?
The bigger the festival, the more extravagant the sponsorship partners. After attending Budweiser’s Lollapalooza in 2008 in Chicago and many years of Van’s Warped Tours, Virgin Festivals, Sirius Satellite Radio’s North by Northeast, Molson Canadian’s Canadian Music Weeks etc. etc. I’ve become accustomed (if not a bit obsessed) at watching how these corporate partners continue to out-do one another with their on-site presence and forward thinking campaigns.
I remember at 2008’s Virgin Festival there was a running ticker tag along the bottom of the playback screens where concert-goers could real time text in and see their message scroll across the sky thanks to Motorola. At Lollapalooza there was a Solo Mobile misting tent where sweaty attendees could get a breather and a big blow up Dell tent where music fans could get an Amy Winehouse hair-do on site. And lets not forget the ever important alcohol partners - at Virgin Fest one year they were feeding the media Bacardi Mojito’s by the gallon and at Lollapalooza media had the first try of Bud Light Lime before it was unleashed on the market, while in the backstage Spin Magazine lounge of course. How much is too much? Or is that even a stupid question to ask at this point?
In a world where bands are essentially brands and businesses that must be marketed as such, do the artists even have a leg to stand on beside these money guzzling corporate giants? The sponsors surely have the financial benefit, as they make their money in other industries (beer, food, cell phones) and then funnel it in to expensive marketing campaigns to further instate their power and reach on our turf. Is the music becoming secondary to these powerful brands? Is the value in playing these festivals really there for these artists when there are so many brand names competing for their limelight?
When they had the scrolling text-in ticker at Virgin Festival I personally found it really hard to focus on the bands performing as I was constantly reading the silly messages that popped up and seeing if any of my friends were going to send me quirky shout outs. Not surprisingly, I can’t even remember who played that year. At Lollapalooza, I remember wanting stay out of the shade in the Spin Magazine lounge and drink the free Bud Light Lime rather than trekking across Grant Park for 15 minutes in the sweltering heat to check out a band.
The catch 22 is of course, without these sponsors the talent wouldn’t get taken care of or even be there at all. Music fans get to see amazing bands play at these festivals and the bands get paid handsomely to be there ideally. For the music fan this is just great if they can get past the fact of feeling like a guinea pig from the second they step foot on festival grounds.
Music fans have built up an affinity to these brands intruding on our space. It’s almost as if they see right through them. After all, when you tell your friends after a festival what a great time you had, you aren’t telling them about the crazy walking Telus giraffe you took a picture with or the free TD bank Frisbee you nabbed. You’re telling them about the great bands you saw. The critics are not buzzing about the amazing VIP lounge, they’re talking about the performers. So is it safe to say, the music will always win? Will it always be this way, the music being the ultimate cool and the sponsors being the clinger-ons?
But are we really unaffected by these logos attaching themselves like parasites to our music? It’s weird to think that It’s YOU these brands are fighting to be in front of. It’s YOU these brands are trying to be cool for. They are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to align themselves with something that’s undoubtedly positioned as cool, rock and roll of course. But are these brands getting the return they hoped for? Well they must be.
When you go shopping for your next cell phone will you remember what a killer time you had at VFest and buy a Virgin phone? When you need some new kicks will you remember the band you saw play the Adidas stage at Lollapalooza and head to your local Adidas retailer? Will you subscribe to Sirius Satellite Radio’s programming after you had a raging great time at North by Northeast? You catch my drift…
I personally know that because of my working relationship with Steam Whistle and their support to the artists I work with I’ve been quick to order their beers when I’m at the bar. I own a blackberry but not because they sponsor North by Northeast festival, but because they work well and I’ve had one for years.
Me, like most of my peers, don’t have much disposable income to begin with. I would imagine when it comes to the point of choosing to have something with a brand name that is expensive vs. something that is inexpensive without a brand name - the inexpensive option would always win. But I also know that most of my friends own Converse sneakers, have Fred Perry shoulder bags, IPhones, and Ray Ban sunglasses (all avid festival supporters)… and so do I. Do these hundreds of thousand dollar marketing campaigns sink in to our subconscious and influence where we spend our hard earned cash? Of course.
We are lucky to have these brands that are so eager to sink money in to culture and music but we must be safe to not let them dilute the very reason we are attending and being a part of these festivals, to enjoy live music. And I don’t think they necessarily have the power to do that anyhow, which is a relief. No brand will ever have the power and meaning that a great song and a great live performance has to our lives. No ridiculous amount of money can touch that.
I am no expert on these matters, just thinking out loud. There are many great studies and books you can read that really dive in to this head on and explain the branding phenomenon much more eloquently (like No Logo by Naomi Klein). I’m just a little music fan by night and marketing enthusiast by day trying to make some sense of it all really.
Would love to hear your thoughts on the matter!
Sari Delmar is the founder and general manager of Toronto-based music marketing, publicity, and promotions company Audio Blood Media. She also is an artist manager representing groundbreaking top Canadian talent The Balconies and Sandman Viper Command.