Will.i.am, Pharrell, Arcade Fire, David Lynch & The Future Of Brands + Music

image from www.google.com (UPDATED) That the Black Eyed Peas leader – hardly averse to product placement – the luxury brands fan Pharrell Williams and many more creative stars turned out for Cannes Lions, a major meeting of advertising minds last week, wasn’t the event’s most suprising aspect.

That honour went to Laura Lang, head of major ad agency Digitas, who claimed “half of (the music industry’s) revenue in a few years time could come from brands.” A prediction which Pharrell — onstage with Lang, Vevo boss Rio Caraeff and Universal Music Group’s president of global digital business, Rob Wells – barely contested (full panel report).

Naturally, this promised revenue will not come solely from “putting music on a 30-second spot,” as Lang put it. It could, for example, come from Will.i.am’s many and varied product placement deals, the most advanced version of which is his ‘role’ as Intel’s “director of creative innovation.” Whilst what he will bring to the role remains vague, his insight at Cannes Lions was simple yet astute.

“I’ve been with Intel even before I’ve been with Intel,” said the BEPs’ frontman, as the company’s processors control most computers. “Now, the thing I create the music on is what I send it out on, and what people enjoy it on. That wasn’t the case in 2000 (…) Yesterday, you made something and then sent it. You collaborated in the studio. Now, you can make it and collaborate on it on the internet, and people experience the music on the internet. 

MIT music researcher and Will.i.am’s co-panelist Tod Machover, for his part, proved brand+music association can also happen by accident. “We didn’t invent Guitar Hero by trying to create it,” said Machover. “We (at the MIT) were working with Yo-Yo Ma; we wanted give him a tool to turn his cello into a whole orchestra, but measurements were all wrong. Through trial and error, we established you could measure gesture, so thought we could use that to make anyone a musician” (more from Machover and Will.i.am in our full panel report).

Although Guitar Hero no longer holds any promise for artists — publisher Activision Blizzard having just killed off the no-longer blockbusting franchise — plenty of other brands do. American Express is perhaps one of the most unlikely, but has been one of the most generous of late. The “Unstaged” series of concerts, which notably saw Terry Gilliam direct Arcade Fire and David Lynch work with Duran Duran, was one of the star projects of Cannes Lions.

 The Canadian band agreed to get involved when they saw other bands taking part in the project “weren’t wearing (Amex) t-shirts,” said the band’s manager, Scott Rodger, at an impromptu conference (full report on MIDEMBlog soon). The result was 3 million views via Vevo for the band, with the entire project notching up 44 million streams; and greater customer loyalty for Amex, said the show’s organiser, Momentum.

Even the typically iconoclastic Gilliam, flown in for the same conference (further proof of brands’ influence on artists) said “maybe the best way of approaching clients is working with artists they like. Like patrons of art back in the 19th century. There’s a whole new world developing.”

A world in which Pharrell and co. won’t feel out of place. On his panel with Digitas, Vevo and UMG, the producer was more clement with brands than with record labels. When asked if musicians still considered brand partnerships as “evil,” he replied that, au contraire, “brands are necessary for today’s acts.” Indeed, said Williams, “brands have gravitated towards the internet’s accessibility much quicker than the recording industry has. So it makes sense for me to work with Louis Vuitton or Revlon and then go make chairs. But what about the artist that hasn’t been encouraged, who has only one shot on American Idol ? It’s got to be about being honest.”

Two days later at the same event, Cathy Guetta, wife and business partner of superstar DJ David, announced she was launching an ad agency, called “My Love Affair”, specifically for helping artists optimise their work with brands. Or, in her language, “making brands fall in love with music.” Watch this space… (full report on MIDEMBlog soon)

So could this increasingly frantic activity really add up to 50% or music revenues, thereby — gasp — saving the industry? UMG’s Wells wouldn’t be drawn into the predictions game, but he did offer this:

“The future is about brand association. Those partnerships will be worth a significant amount of cash for us and for our artists moving forwards.”

And thus spoke the world’s largest record company. Leaving us with the warm and fuzzy feeing that musicians may no longer have to “wear the t-shirt” for a brand to pick up their touring tab. But will all brands agree to take such a backseat role moving forwards? Can the future of music & brands be as rosy for everyone as it seems for Will.i.am? Time will tell…

This guest post comes from James Martin, the editor of MIDEMBlog, a top source for music industry news, music + brands reports and video interviews (incl. with Vevo’s Rio Caraeff). And expect more brand focus at MIDEM next January.

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